‘You need more than talent to be good at what you do.’

Before digital cameras, before Photoshop and before stock photo sites, there were creatives who specialized in the art of advertising at its very core. They took photos on actual film that actually had to be developed. They had to capture effects when they took the photo, not in post-production. They were talented, they were creative and they still are — and a few of the very best happened to be related to me. My Uncle Jim Carlson and Aunt Ame Albright are one dynamic duo in the world of advertising. My Aunt’s the writer, my uncle’s the art director and together they are a great example of what can happen when talent and ambition merge. While Jim and Ame were made in the era before advertising went digital, the change didn’t stop them. They worked through the transition and embraced the changes while keeping some of the old fires alive. They are incredibly talented and just plain incredible people. They took some time to chat about their craft with me so that I could share it with you!

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Emjoyable: Can you tell me about your career time line and the places you’ve worked at and how you progressed to each one?

Jim: I studied painting at the School of the Art Institute. I was drafted, so I was gone in the Army for a few years. Before the Army though, I had a job at an industrial ad agency, which was really quite boring. When I came back from the Army, I met a guy at the train station. He was a graphics guy, and he said he knew someone looking for an art director. So I went in and got a job. I was there for 4 -5 years when I started to get restless. Leo Burnett tried to get me, and I had declined a few times, but I was eventually offered a good job as Art Director on Virginia Slims cigarettes. It was fun! It was the “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” campaign, and I shot old time photographs of women in modern fashion stuff. I was in New York with a lot of high-fashion people, and it was just an exciting thing!

After that, at Leo Burnett, more of my accounts were food related. I was the art director for KFC, Nestea, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and cereals and Pillsbury Dough Boy ads. Most my stuff at Leo Burnett was TV ads, but those still had still shoots and photography to go with the TV campaign. After 11 years at Leo Burnett, I decided I wanted to work for myself. I got a lot of different clients (you want anything you can get), but I was still doing a lot of food things, a lot of storyboards and concepts for companies like Coors, Coca-Cola, Squirt and Salerno butter cookies on our own. I did a lot of new products for Kraft cheeses, a lot of labels and photography of the cheese.

Emjoyable: At Leo Burnett, did you choose to focus on food or did they choose for you?

Jim: We were kind of able to choose somewhat. At the time, the agency creative department was divided into groups. Each group was evenly divided between writers and art directors. When we would get an assignment, the writer would write and the art director would work on the art. We all had a shot at working on stuff, and then the team that ended up getting it more exclusively was the team that had the idea that was sold to the client. If we had a client we didn’t care to work on, we could go to the creative director and could usually get moved around. So we had some ability to pick and choose, but the sky wasn’t the limit. If one group had United Airlines, unless we changed groups, you couldn’t just work on anything you wanted. I was happy with what my group had. We had 7-Up, SC Johnson and RCA to name a few.

Emjoyable: Can you elaborate more on the food photography you worked on?

Jim: Most of the food photography I worked on at an agency level was done with some of the heavy-hitter food photographers in the country. Leo Burnett didn’t care where you went or how much it cost as long as you got the best quality photo you could. One ad had a recipe for a pizza, so we had a custom oven built that opened in the back so you could take pictures as the pizza cooked. Companies would always send a food stylist and then there was the photographer and the art director. I would basically light it and make it look appetizing. If I had an idea, I could guide the food stylist. For example, for the pizza, the stylist wanted to chop up all the toppings, and I suggested that we use bigger chunks to make it look more appetizing. I Learned a lot working with professional food stylists about how to make something look really good.

Emjoyable: What’s an example of something that you made look really good?

Jim: One client I had was a hot dog company called Big City Reds. They’re not available in the grocery store, they’re a commercial hot dog, but they still need advertising and that was a client we had gotten on our own. They sent us a bunch of these hot dogs to photograph. I tried to cook it, and it’s edible then, but it doesn’t look good. I tried using Kitchen Bouquet, and I wiped down the hot dog and then it looked cooked. Then I used a bent coat hanger and a torch and got it nice and hot, and I burned lines for grill marks. Natural casing on a hot dog makes it curve when it’s cooked, so I bent a wire and stuck it through the hot dog until it curved. I wanted it to be a Chicago style hot dog, but in Galena, I couldn’t find a lot of the ingredients, like a poppy seed bun. So I sprayed a plain bun with glue and glued on poppy seeds exactly how I wanted them. Then I went through several jars of relish with tweezers and picked out the perfectly cubed chunks of relish. I set up a sweep — a paper background — that was a medium-light grey and curved. Then I designed a jig, stuck it into the back of the paper and into the hot dog. And now this fancy hot dog looked like it was floating. I didn’t have Photoshop then, and it took 4 – 5 hours to get ready. It’s all the prep that takes all the time, and that’s what I learned from the food stylist. You have to be creative and find ways to make stuff look really good. That’s what I think is fun. It’s a challenge, and I think it’s fun making food look really, really good.

Emjoyable: What are the standards for good food photography? What makes a “good” photo?

Jim: First is the lighting. I don’t like lighting that looks flat, and by flat I mean that the food item doesn’t have shape, dimension, shadow, light and dark. When things are hot, I like to see steam and really look hot. It’s hard to make things look hot. I shot some steaks for a restaurant client, and we waited until dark and fired up the Weber Kettle. We had these gorgeous bone-in ribeye steaks. We set up a camera on a tripod and Ame had a spritzer bottle full of olive oil. She’d spritz down into the fire and the fire would blast the steak and I’d snap the picture. If not for the flame and the moisture on the meat, it doesn’t look hot. And when it doesn’t look hot, it really just lays there and is a huge negative. In a lot of food magazines now, the current trend is to stand over a plate of food and just take a picture of it. To me, it looks very unappetizing, clinical and even messy. It just looks sloppy to me. That is not appetizing food photography in my opinion. The things that sell are the things that make you say, “Wow! That looks really good!” You want people to say, “Wow! I want that!”

Emjoyable: What obligation do you have to truth when it comes to making food look really good?

Jim & Ame: You have to be careful about how you do some of that. You can represent it to look its very best, but you can’t enhance it to things that aren’t really there. Campbell’s soup was sued and lost over something like that. They had a bowl of vegetable soup, and they filled the bowl with marbles first so the vegetables all came to the top. It looked like there were more vegetables than there really were, and if the potatoes were soggy, they would put in fresh potatoes instead of the ones in the can. They created a law saying you can’t do that. For example, one of the tricks is to use cold mashed potatoes and scoop them into a cone and it looks like vanilla ice cream. That way, you can use a toothpick to make the potatoes look exactly how you want them too. If you put real ice cream under the light, it will just melt. You literally have seconds to shoot ice cream. We wanted to shoot an ice cream bar with a bite taken out of it, and before your very eyes it would start to melt. It’s really very difficult to shoot ice cream. But in the case of the mashed potatoes, if you want a photo to illustrate a story, you could use it, but if you were shooting for Haagen Dazs or the ice cream people and just doctored up the mashed potatoes, that’s totally illegal and you can face serious fines.

Emjoyable: How has technology changed photography and advertising over the years?

Jim & Ame: The biggest thing that digital photography did to the business was that it made everything happen immediately. We had a client that was a flavor house. In their display at a trade show, they had huge graphics of food shots. So when I shot them, I would set up my camera, I’d load up all my film and I’d get my shots done. Then I would load the film into the boxes in a dark room, tape them up and Fed Ex them to a lab in Chicago. I’d pay for rush processing, Fed Ex them back and get high-resolution scans made on a disk. I would then work with the scans and put them in to our graphic designers. All those stages are gone now. It’s good that you can get it faster but bad that clients want to see everything right now. You don’t have the time you used to have to finish things and get them the same way we want them. That’s a pretty big change. The speed is remarkable. Digital photography has come a long way. We avoided it at first because the quality wasn’t there, but really quickly it turned around.

One of the other major differences that the digital industry has influenced is the growth of stock photography houses. It used to be all the ad people would look for individual photographers to do their food photography, but now with dozens of stock photos, why pay a big-name photographer thousands of dollars when you can go on iStock and buy a photo starting at $50 (and ranging through $1,500 or more, but still much cheaper than a photographer with a day rate of $10,000). When a client knows they can pay 5% of what a professional would cost, it really hurt professional photographers. It has changed the industry and not necessarily for the better. If you want a closeup of grass, you can go to a stock house, have several to choose from immediately. That hit the photography industry hard. One advantage, though, is that you can see the photo before you spend the money. Once you shoot and spend that much money, you have to work with what you did. You have more freedom w/ stock photography. For the speed and the cost, more people are going that direction.

Emjoyable: When it comes to being successful in advertising and photography, how much of that can be taught and how much do you have to be born with?

Jim: From an art standpoint, I think that talent is something that helps you an awful lot, but it’s more on-the-job training that hones your skills, rather than your talent. For example, Ame’s a fantastic writer, and she was a fantastic writer since she was in 5th grade. Being in the business and having the pressure of meeting deadlines and juggling projects, talent doesn’t have anything to do with it. You need to have more than talent to be good at what you do. You need to have a tough skin, so that when someone says ‘That sucks,’ you can say, ‘What can we do to fix this?’ That’s not talent; that’s experience. They’re different.

It’s hard because most people start off in advertising because they have a talent in something. They start off their careers because they have a talent in an area and it guides them. I think it starts with talent and passion and quickly changes and you quickly learn that you have to be creative now; it’s creativity on demand.  

Say, cheese!

In case you haven’t noticed, I really, really like baking. My love for baking is unquestionably rooted in my love for dessert and my lack of a substantial income to purchase already-made fancy treats.

When I was really little, I remember getting ridiculously excited about Christmas Cookie Baking Day. When I was kind of little, I remember sifting through my mom’s recipe file and watching the Food Network and requesting to make all the new treats that I stumbled upon. When I wasn’t very little anymore, I remember constantly finding treats online and my parents coming home to me making chocolate crepes with chocolate moose filling.

Through my constant combing of food blogs, recipe-driven Google searches and my recent obsession with Pinterest, I’ve developed an appreciation for food photography, as well. There’s something to be said about how a photo can transform a dinner into a work of art. More than that, I’ve become interested in how the use of photography plays into whether or not I actually make any given recipe.

For example, as my coworker (from the Dave Barnes concert) pointed out, showing photos of every step of the process is one of the most appealing elements of a good recipe post — and I promise that’s not just me being bias since I do that. The step-by-step photo illustration is so much more appealing than a video demonstration, which, let’s be honest, no one watches. (Do they?!) Plus, I’m so much more likely to make a recipe that is pictured looking adorable than if it’s just slopped on a plate. Like someone probably said once, it’s all about the presentation!

I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t know any more about food photography than I do about regular photography, which is not very much. Recently, however, I have been much more aware of the impact of photography on my chosen recipes. So today, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite food blogs and how photography has added to their appeal.


The whole Sugar suite of sites is pretty great, but Yum Sugar in particular appeals to me. What I love about YumSugar is how it presents the photos with its recipes. They’re not included in the body of the recipe, so if you just want to see the directions, nothing gets in your way. The photos are then displayed at the bottom, so if you need to see something, you can pull it right up. Plus, all their finished products are just perfectly presented! I’ve found a ton of recipes I want to try, but some of the most tempting are the Chocolate Caramel Corn, Sweet Potato Fries and these adorable Turkey Cupcakes! Plus, YumSugar features the Week’s 10 Best Photos from the Yum Community

Our Best Bites

This blog is much intimate than YumSugar. It’s the endeavor of two lovely women who you really feel like you know after reading just a few posts. Their blog is much like mine in the sense that the ladies share stories alongside every recipe, which I think is great. The recipes feature photos with every step as well as tips and suggestions along the way. It’s like having your own personal chef right on your lap top! Some of my favorite recipes include these adorable Candy Corn CookiesEasy Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins and this awesome post on Halloween party recipes. A friend of mine introduced me to this site, and it was a really great find.

Pillsbury Baking

I don’t even remember ever actually starting to follow Pillsbury Baking on Facebook, but at some point I apparently did and all these delicious-looking photos started filling up my news feed. What I love about Pillsbury Baking is that the recipes are so creative! It’s all these really original recipes that are incredibly easy because they primarily use already-made Pillsbury products. It sounds really commercial, but I never cease to be impressed. Some of my favorites are the Salted Caramel Thumbprint Cookies, Country Blueberry Coffee Cake and the “Be Mine” Brownie.

All three of these blogs share one thing in common, and that is that they use photography to show recipes as more than just food. They use photography to show how food can can be a gift, it can be art and it can bring families and friends together. And it’s just plain yummy!

So while I’ve got you all thinking about food as art, I want to stick in a little teaser for next week’s post, which I am super excited about! Next week, I will be featuring a famous food photographer, who happens to be my uncle. Former Art Director at Leo Burnett, Jim Carlson, will take some time to chat about the art of Food Photography. So get excited!

Genuine Smiles – Photography Q&A

In my mission to learn a little something about photography, I decided to go straight to the source: a photographer. So I called up one of the best ones I know, Kirsten Carlson, founder/owner of KCarlson Photography and also my fabulous sister-in-law. She took some time to chat and share a few tips of her trade. Check it out!

Emjoyable: When it comes to taking a “good” picture, what are some of the most important basics to keep in mind?

KCarlson: The first thing is lighting — make sure it’s appropriate for the setting. Knowing your camera really well is really important. You can take a class, go to where you bought your camera or look online, all of which can give you the down and dirty on the functions of your camera and how it works. Another thing to consider is distance. The closer you are to the person, the more distorted the picture will be. It’s better to stand back, especially with portraits, which prevents distortions, like making a nose stand out.

Emjoyable: Generally speaking, how much of the quality of a photo comes from the actual photo and how much comes from editing?

KCarlson: The goal is to take a good a photo so you don’t have to edit so much, but it’s not always that simple, especially with children. Sometimes you just have to rapid fire and then it comes to editing after. Also, it’s better to take a wide shot (not huge, because that can make for a pixilated picture when you blow it up). It’s better to include more than less. You can always crop a photo after the fact, but you can’t add to it.

Emjoyable: What’s the difference between shooting in black and white (or other shades) and adjusting it after the fact?

KCarlson: It depends on the editing software. I prefer to shoot in color and raw vs jpeg. With the jpeg setting, it pixelates the photo and puts it into a color scheme, so it limits it a little. If you shoot raw, it takes all the colors just as though you’re looking through the lens, not pixilating it at all, but you’ll usually need photoshop to covert. It just gives you more control with the photo.

Emjoyable: Is an eye for judging a good photo something you’re born with, or is it something that you can learn?

KCarlson: It can help to be born with it, but you can learn as you go. Also, you can Google portait photographers in the area, we all look at what others have done, the angle of shots and lighting. We all borrow from each other. There are lots of blogs that talk about lighting, and there are also presets for Photoshop that other photographers have come up with to get a certain effect.

Emjoyable: Are there any technical differences to consider when photographing people versus objects?

KCarlson: Yes. Lighting is always critical, and lighting people is different than objects. When shooting objects, you can shoot several angles, positions and they don’t wear out. You can change the light on objects, but people know what they like and don’t like. You can’t get too artsy; people (for the most part) want people to look like people and to be recognizable. With a building, you can be more artsy and it doesn’t run away. With objects, you can shoot several times a day, while people aren’t like that.

Emjoyable: Can you explain a few “vocab” words?


KCarlson: It’s mainly the level of film to be using at a certain condition — the optimal speed that your shutter would snap at. Aperture is the amount that you’re letting the lens open, which usually has a range. Aperture is how much the lens opens, some are fixed and others you can adjust. Shutter speed is how fast it takes. The bigger the aperture, the quicker you can make the shutter close. The faster the shutter, the better to get motion. You want to capture the motion before it moves. If it’s a more closed aperture, you have to have the shutter open longer. But the longer the shutter is open, the less the subject can move.

White Balance  

KCarlson: If you set your camera to auto white balance, your camera will adjust to what it thinks pure what looks like, based on the conditions. This can change by flash, time of day (morning light is more blue versus evening light which is more pink) and other things that can all effect what “white” looks like. Auto white balance would auto adjust to white, but that can change from picture to picture, so it might look different for each photo. Or you can set the white balance. If you know what your flash fires at, you can set your camera to know that is what white looks like. You can also show it something white and can set that as the white balance.


KCarlson: Macro is for taking close-up pictures of small objects. If you want a picture of a bumble bee on a flower and want crisp details or anything that is really small that you want to be really zoomed in for, you want to turn Macro on.

Emjoyable: What are the benefits of getting a “real” camera versus a point-and-shoot digital camera? (And what exactly is a “real” camera called?)

KCarlson: A “real” camera would be a SLR camera, which stands for single-lens reflex. A SLR camera has a wide range of functions, you can control a lot more than with a point-and-shoot camera, which has limited control. A point-and-shoot camera might have a sport function for example, with which the camera would adjust to what it thinks it needs to catch motion. But on a SLR, you can adjust those settings more accurately. You can set a wider range of options and have more control over the photo.

Emjoyable: How much should someone know about a SLR camera before buying one?

KCarlson: You can get one at any time, even if you’re not a pro. When I first got mine, I didn’t know everything. You can take classes, which are really helpful. You can purchase classes separately at many camera stores, there is a ton of information online and cameras today usually come with CDs with tutorials that can teach you a lot. You don’t have to know much when you first get it, plus all the SLRs do have auto functions to use as you learn to do things manually. 

Emjoyable: Can you take a “good” photo with a bad camera?

KCarlson: Yes. You see people with 1930’s cameras producing great photos. Part of it is the eye, you have to have a good eye, and now, with digital photography, a lot is post production anyway.

As far as capturing moments, do you have any suggestions on freezing those moments on film?

KCarlson: You have to get people to ignore the camera. It sounds ridiculous, but you have to get them laughing and interacting with each other. Posing is all well and good, especially in large groups, but if you can get them to start to be a little goofy, get them distracted, that’s what brings it out. You can tell the families that are great together because it’s just easy; they’re comfortable with each other. You have to talk to them before hand, get to know them. I sometimes tell them that I’m testing lighting, just to get them distracted. I had this family last weekend, and I did that to get them to do something other than posing. You just have to get them to ignore the camera and interact, and that’s how you get genuine smiles and those are the best ones to capture. 

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Thanks, Kirsten!!!

The Power of Photos

It’s obvious that photos posses a certain appeal unmatched by words alone (which is particularly unfortunate given that this blog is primarily text). Photos take fractions of seconds to digest compared to their written counter-parts. 

Photos pull people in. Every newspaper worth reading has a dominant photo (at least twice as big as the next biggest photo, at least as big as the next biggest story package and more than half of which is above the fold), every magazine features the best photo in the mag on the cover and no Facebook profile is complete with a very consciously selected Prof Pic. 

I read a really interesting article on Tech Crunch the other day, which kind of planted this idea in my head. The story was about Pinterest and how it is contributing to the “shift from search to discovery.” Basically, Pinterest is an inverted version of Google. With Google, you go in looking for “X,” Google will provide a list of best sources for “X,” you sift through them and come out with what you were looking for. Pinterest does the opposite and presents a wide array of ideas which can be used to figure out just what “X” is to Google. Got it? This is why I don’t write for Tech Crunch, but I hope you at least got the gist of it. 

So basically, what’s leading to this trend of sites like Pinterest is the fact that they’re producing ideas, not just results. They’re presenting ideas in the form of photos that are not only ascetically appealing, but are driving creativity and the organization of ideas online. It’s really quite fascinating. The photos feature finished products and link them directly to how to make them or where to buy them. What’s most fascinating is that the site capitalizes on the appeal of photos! Relatively small photos splatter the website with a variety of sizes and colors, which combined with a bottomless scroll that make for an addicting visitor experience.

Photos show instead of tell, which is very hard to do with words. So enough from me, go see for yourself! See what photos can do for you.

Behold the power of power of photos!


Pumpkin Cam

So I know that my goal was to learn something about photography by this Tuesday, but I’m not going to lie … I forgot. Kind of. Although I did forget to actually learn something, I did put some serious thought into the whole idea of photography. 

At a journalism conference in high school, I learned that photography is all about moments and lighting. I will have to come back to lighting next week (or some time in the future), but I’ve been really thinking about moments. Photography freezes a moment in time, and if you pick that exact frame, that perfect frame, you can tell a whole story through one photo. You can capture the motion and emotion through a still frame. 

I’ve only taken one arguably “good” photo — at least by photojournalism standards. I took this picture as my final for the photojournalism unit in my Graphics and Design class. I got an A+, which was pretty darn hard to get in that class. This photo did one thing right: capture raw, pure emotion. 

Some pictures don’t quite capture that kind of emotion, but they can still tell stories. And sometimes, that’s okay. So here’s my story of Halloween. 




The end! Happy All Saints Day!


First of all, how funny is this headline!? I mean, it totally would have earned me a big, fat “F” from my journalism editing professor during the Headlines unit, but I thought it was pretty funny. It describes my photography skills perfectly, in that they are very much fake. I know nothing about photography, which is unfortunate considering the fact that Tuesdays are supposed to be the day that I share photos on my blog (as you might have noticed, I have skirted around it for the past few weeks). I might have to work on changing the theme for Tuesdays, but until then, we’ll use this as a learning opportunity. 

I tend to use the same angles for just about every photo I take and act like turning on the black-and-white filter somehow makes it more artsy. I know nothing about any photography terms, and I sometimes have a hard enough time figuring out how to turn off the flash on my point-and-shoot digital camera. I know about the Rule of Thirds from the photojournalism unit in my graphics and design class, but I am terrible at visualizing where each third actually is and often don’t even know what the subject is anyway. I do know that no photo will do the sunrise over the lake justice and that sometimes turning the camera around and snapping your own pic of you and your best friend in the middle of the mall is actually the best photo possible. 

I have had a few moments where I think I might actually be decent at taking pictures, like the picture I took for my tights post, but those moments are few and far between.

Then there was a three-day trip to Lindenwood University to visit one of my best friends, when I thought I was really on fire with the artsy photos …

… but then I just realized that changing them to black and white didn’t always make them “artsy.”

I have friends that are really good at photography. I can always tell that it’s better than mine, but I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why. This one is one of my favorites from my friend Alex, Owner-Operator of AC Photography, which looks like it belongs in a silver frame in a holiday Macy’s window. 

Other than the obvious fact that his camera is substantially better than mine, there’s just something about photography done by a person who knows about photography that really makes it pop. 

I just now decided what my Tuesday Photo Post should be. Instead of showcasing my crappy photography, I’m going to make a legitimate attempt to learn a little something about photography every week. Then I will share a photo demonstrating my progress every Tuesday. Let’s see how this goes…