Protecting California’s Grapes with Raptors

Hanging grapes

We got up early Saturday morning to get Tom on the road before the morning fog burned off.  He’s leaving for 2 months to work on a vineyard with his falcons.  Yea, read that again.  Vineyard, falcons…  Pretty amazing right?

Harris Hawk on Farm

A few months ago our plans were just an idea.  A risk.  A leap we could take which may push us further along our list of goals, or throw us down a well of debt and unemployment.  We have normal average goals like buy a house, take a trip to Europe, build a savings, live life the way we want.  In our current situation those were never going to happen, so we decided to take a very planned and scheduled leap into fate.

Tom flying Hermes

What was the plan?  For Tom to transfer from one contract to another.  This means that we will have to move wherever the company puts us this winter.  Right now, I don’t know where that will be yet.  For now, he is living on vineyard somewhere in California scaring away all the little birds that feast on the grapes.  He absolutely loves to do vineyard work.  In Tom’s opinion its a falconer’s dream 8 week vacation and you get paid well too.

Grapevine in the sunRow of Grapes in the sun

So what is he doing exactly?

The company Tom works for is Airstrike Bird Control.  They offer bird abatement services to orchards, vineyards, farms, landfills, airports, schools and office buildings.  Pretty much anywhere you have too many pest birds like seagulls, pigeons or starlings.

GrapesTom Flying Gloria on vineyard

The sugar content in grapes begins to skyrocket during the last 6-8 weeks before the September harvest attracting all kinds of birds.  I have heard that more than half a vineyard can be eaten in a weekend.  Usually vineyard owners hire 5 guys on quads to shoot pyrotechnics all day, to the dismay of his non-vineyard owning neighbors.  Some companies even shoot them out of the air with shotguns full of bird shot!

The problem with these tactics is that pyrotechnics can cause fires and its late summer in California, the wildfire state.  Many agricultural towns in CA have outlawed the use of pyro to avoid burning the town and its thriving agriculture to the ground.  Not to mention the strict rules the ATF instituted this year.  Now you must have a special license through the ATF to buy and use pyro.  This pretty much eliminates pyro as an option for most companies as the license is expensive and time-consuming to obtain.  As for shooting the birds out of the air, that is barely legal and in my opinion irresponsible and immoral.

Tom flying Shirly on vineyard

To protect the grapes, and other crops/landfills/airports sustainably we use trained falcons and hawks, which hunt the birds and chase them away.  A flock of starlings, or any bird, will not understand what happened when a gunshot or noisemaker goes off.  They fly away because of the scary noise, but they don’t associate the noise with the location or understand what happened and why.  This means the same birds will keep coming back everyday to feed.

Harris on Hunting Perch

If you fly hawks and falcons on a vineyard or anywhere else, suddenly the little birds understand that bigger hungrier predators have moved into the territory and they had best move out before they become dinner.  Being chased off a vineyard by a hawk sticks in their minds.  It’s an ancient fear, to be eaten by a hawk, its natural for a prey species to avoid areas that are hunted by their predators.  In effect, they avoid the vineyards with hawks and gorge on those vineyards that don’t.

Vineyard row

As much as I will miss Tom I am excited for him.  He has worked so hard over the last 2 years that he totally deserves this.

If you would like more information about falconry-based bird abatement or Airstrike Bird Control you can visit their website at

And be sure to tell them Tom and Melissa sent you!


Penny De Los Santos Food & Culture Photography Workshop

Macaroon Tart From SuperNatural Everyday

After a month of very impatient waiting, the Food & Culture Photography workshop taught by Penny De Los Santos on began today.  I sat down, pen and notebook in hand, to learn from one of the best.  Penny has this amazing ability to bring people and food together in a photograph, weaving a story while also teaching us about our connections to one another.  Her photographs are incredible.

I took pages and pages of notes during today’s lecture.  In case you missed it I want to share my favorite tips from today’s lesson.

Food & Culture Photography

  • Capturing something horrible or devastating is easy, capturing hope and joy in uncertain times is the challenge.
  • Self assign personal projects.  You will probably never be paid to do your dream assignment so just do it yourself as a personal project.  Follow your passion.
  • Tell the stories around the food.  Give a sense of place & purpose.
  • Get to know the people you want to photograph.  Spend days or weeks with them.  Then they will be comfortable with you photographing them.  It’s a process of developing a relationship.  You are there to tell their story.  Explain your process so they know what to expect.
  • Focus on the people.  It’s about capturing the connection between the people and the food.
  • For every story try to capture an establishing shot, the details, portraits, major themes, the food, and the space/location.
  • When out taking photos of people ask first.  Dont pay for photos but maybe buy something they are selling.  Support this person you want to photograph.  Operate from an honest place.  You want to tell their story.  About why they are there doing what they are doing.  Most people want to tell their story.  Dont photograph someone who doesn’t want to be photographed.

Interview with SAVEUR editor James Oseland

  • Saveur shoots real food and stories from an anthropological perspective (being an anthro major in college I love this!)
  • Get to know what is going on in an environment.  Respect and love your environment.  Become part of it.  Get to know people and the story will show itself.  Honor the subject.
  • Leave your ego at the door.
  • Process of meeting editors.  1.  Take lots of pictures. 2. Look over your photos and see if one looks like a Saveur photo or a Bon Appetite photo, ect.  Gather 5-6 Saveur-esque photos and email them to James or to Penny and ask them for their opinion.  Ask to take them out to coffee and show them prints of your best work, work that would fit their magazine.  This works with editors at lots of magazines.
  • Always study other magazines.  What is it about the photos that draws you to them?  What emotional reaction do you have when you see the photo and why?  What about the picture elicits that reaction?  Try to emulate those qualities you admire in your own photographs.

Foundations of Food Photography – Penny De Los Santos

  • use natural light, real food, beautiful ingredients, best light you can find, and props that have character.
  • What makes a great photo?  Light, color, composition, beautiful subjects, appetizing food.
  • Food is very graphic.  You want to accentuate the graphicness.
  • A lot of food looks great when shot from overhead.  Also a vertical orientation rather than horizontal works best in food photographs.
  • Dont get too close to the food or use too shallow DOF.  We want to know what the whole thing looks like, not just one crumb of it.
  • Change up your angles, shoot the subject from all sides & angles.
  • Use color and composition to bring life into the photograph.
  • Go for color, composition, graphic elements, and light in your photographs.  Try to use 2-3 of those words in every photo.
  • diffused side light is great light to photograph food.
  • make your food look like a human has interacted with it in some way.  Make it real.  Change how its plated if you need to.
  • Try to shoot the whole cooking process.
  • Ways to photograph a dish: Change camera angle, change lighting, edit the food, show the food being prepped, or the meal being eaten.
  • Practice all the time.  Its the only way to master this.
  • Make photographs, don’t take them.  Be an artist.

Notes from the interview with Larry Nighswander- Director of Photography at Saveur Magazine

  • Look at magazines & movies and study how a story is put together.  How visuals are used to introduce a storyline.  How they introduce place and people.
  • Often editors will want to see all of your RAW unedited shots.  Even the crappy blurry ones.  This helps them to understand your photographing process.
  • The eye will always go to the brightest spot in the photo.  Make sure that is not in the background.
  • Think about composition and how you can enhance the natural beauty of the subject.  Also use color in the same way.
  • Attention to detail is the difference between a professional and an amateur.
  • Less is more, is there anything extra in the photo that doesn’t add to the story?
  • Every photograph needs to be technically excellent, have compositional creativity and be useful editorially.
  • Make sure your foreground, mid-ground and background all add to your story.

Business Practices – Penny De Los Santos

  • to succeed you must be able to adapt
  • do what feeds your soul.
  • Twitter and Blogging are very powerful tools in the food photography world.  Use twitter to make contact with people you want to get to know.  People you want to work with or for eventually.
  • Be a good person, be workable/ cooperative, be able to listen and follow through.
  • Dont let $$ dictate your business.  Do projects because you are passionate about them not because they will or will not make you money.
  • When you go looking for editors be ready to take an assignment.  Have a strong set of pictures.  Send the editor an email.  Buy them coffee.  Always buy the coffee.  Show them your portfolio.  Ask opinions.  Be open to learning.  Meeting in person is always best.
  • Continue pounding the pavement and reintroducing yourself to editors.  Develop relationships with them.  One day one of them will hire you.
  • Only put your absolute favorite photos in your portfolio.

Well those are my notes.  There is lots of useful information there but that’s not everything.  Penny will be continuing her workshop tomorrow with live photo shoots and critiques.  Hope to see you there!

What I Learned From Zack Arias about Photography

A couple weeks ago I sat down to watch Zack Arias’s workshop called The Foundations of a Working Photographer held by  CreativeLIVE makes amazing photography workshops with some incredible photographers, and if you watch them live, its free, or for a fairly low price you can download the whole thing.  It’s like TV, only on the internet.

Anyway his workshop was amazing.  I even stayed up half the night on Days 1 & 2 to see the rewatch because I missed the first half those mornings.  I wanted to give you a quick rundown of what I got from that weekend.  This is in no way an overview of the whole workshop.  Just some of what made it into my notes.  There is so much information I am leaving out.

The Camera

Know your camera, inside, outside, and upside down.  Know how to use every function effectively and create good pictures before you upgrade to a new one.  Because we all know it’s not the camera that takes the pictures it’s the photographer.

I have mastered the whole ISO, F-stop, Shutter Speed trinity long ago.  As a young teen my dad gifted me my grandfathers Film Roloflex SLR.  My dad set it on manual (he insisted) and taught me to use a handheld light meter.  At the time I thought he was a little crazy, now I think he was a genius.

What I didn’t fully understand until this weekend was the effect of Focal Length on the final image.  I mean I understood that a wide angle lens, like a 20mm or 35mm would be good for landscapes because you can see more of the frame, but it can have some distortion on the edges.  Zack explained that it also makes things in the background seem farther away.  A wide angle lens expands your horizons making everything look larger and gives the illusion of more space.

I also knew that 50mm is similar to how we see with our eyes and is good for most things.  70mm+ is telephoto range and is great for portraits & pictures where you are trying to see something far away.  Like an eagle on a mountaintop.  What Zack showed me is that a telephoto lens compresses the subject and the background.  He had great pictures to explain this.  I will try to describe it the best I can.

When you take a picture with a telephoto lens, something that is far away in the distance will suddenly be very close and very large in your photo.  So if you posed a plate of food and was taking the photo looking across at it with an 100mm lens, something that was way across the room, like a poster on a wall will get very large and feel like it is right behind the table you are photographing.  If you used a 50mm lens, standing in the same place, the poster would look like it does when you look at it with your own eyes and you would see a little more of the wall.  If you used a 20 mm lens the poster and the whole wall would appear farther away and you would see way more of the wall.  I hope that makes sense.  If you have questions please ask and I will try to explain more.

So Wide Angle

  • expands the subject and background
  • gives a wide depth of field (DOF)
  • makes things appear farther away then they are
  • pushes things outward
  • It’s great for landscapes, wide open spaces, or when you need to photograph a large setting in a small amount of space
  • Beware of distortion, especially in portraits with a wide angle lens!

And Telephoto

  • compresses the subject and the background making it seem like there is only a little space between the two
  • you get a more shallow depth of field
  • things in the background appear closer and larger than they actually are
  • 70-105mm is the best focal length range for portrait photography

Camera to subject distance, focal length, and aperture all affect your Depth of Field. It’s the DOF trinity!

  • To get a shallow DOF (only a small part in focus, everything else blurry) use a longer focal length like 70mm+, a wide open aperture (low #) and get close to your subject.
  • To get a deep DOF (lots in focus) use a shorter focal length like 35mm or less, closed aperture (high #), and get farther from your subject.

Notes on Composition

  • learn the rule of thirds, then learn how to break it and still make a great photo.
  • Look for a frame within a frame.  All examples are from Zack’s Flickr Stream Example One, Example Two.  Find “frames” for your subjects.  It helps bring the focus to them.
  • Look for repeating shape and form.  Example one. Example Two.
  • Head in a clean spot.  Zack really drilled this into us.  Example.
  • Look for leading lines that lead the viewer’s eye around the photo.
  • Look at the details.  Make sure everything is perfect in camera.  Zack would probably critique this photo he took a few years back and say that she should have been slightly more centered in between the buildings.  So that her arm is not overlapping the building at all and she should have equal space on the sides of her head.  Those are the details.

The Business

To set up a portfolio Zack recommends printing out 8x10s of your favorite shots and putting them up on a blank wall so you can study them every day.  What do you like about them and why?  After you have 20-30 or more portfolio worthy photos up on the wall start to look for a pattern in style.  Do your photos tend to be very colorful or monochromatic?  Are they moody and dark or light and happy?  Look at them as a body of work.  Slowly eliminate photos that don’t mesh with the rest of the group.  Your style should start to show itself.  Remember your portfolio needs to flow.  Match photos together to see which ones look best together.  Match by color, mood, texture, subject, ect.  Just make sure one picture flows into the next.

When starting up your business Zack recommends

  • keeping expenses low.  Don’t use credit cards.  Don’t take out a loan to buy a $3000 camera you really don’t need.
  • tell everyone about your business, about what your goals are.  The more people who know who you are the more potential clients you have.  Set a goal to give your business card to 30 new people a week.
  • Shoot anything that will pay.  Hey you gotta pay the bills right?  Zack did cheap Craigslist portraits in the park with CD when he started.  There is nothing wrong with that.  You are not stealing other photographer’s business or bringing down the market price.  People who are paying for $150 for Craigslist portraits do not have the money to spend $1000 at that other photographer’s studio.  Only someone who can afford $1000 portraits is going to buy $1000 portraits.  Many people cannot afford that.  Myself included.  Beginner photographers should have no issues catering to a lower income crowd.  They deserve pictures of their family too.
  • Pick one subject to become an expert in.  Think of it this way.  You can be good at a lot of things or a master at one thing.  If you like two subjects, like food and portraits, do both and focus on whichever takes off first.  Or find some way to combine the two genres.
  • Research your genre.  Know who is who, what is what.  Know who your clients are and what they need from you.  Develop relationships with people.
  • Take baby steps.  Zack said something like.  If you want to photograph bands for Rolling Stone then start by photographing your neighbors garage band for $100.  That’s pretty much where he started.  Start low and move up.  Be patient, but also diligent and ambitious.
  • Get comfortable with the fact that one day you may not be able to afford your own services.  What I mean is if you were a customer you may not be able to afford to get pictures taken by you.  Start getting used to that, you may never.
  • If your business starts booming don’t double your workload, increase your prices.

That is what I have in my notes.  I hope some of this information helps.  I know that my outlook of my photography has been inspired, updated, and nourished by watching his workshop.  Its well worth seeing the whole thing.

If you missed his workshop you can still buy it from for $149.  Over 20 hours of incredible information.  Zack said it was basically his usual weekend workshop for a tenth of the cost.

Also Penny De Los Santos will be teaching Food and Culture Photography on CreativeLive starting tomorrow, Friday May 13 at 10am Pacific time until Sunday May 15th.  To watch live is free.  You can also preorder the class for $99 or buy it later at a higher price.  For those people in other time zones or at work, there will be a rewatch that starts about an hour after each class finishes for the day.

I have a degree in Cultural Anthropology as well as a love of food & photography so when you use Food, Culture & Photography all in the same sentence you have my undivided attention as long as you want it.  Hope to see you there!