Insights and ideas from Caren Alpert, Adobe® Photoshop® user
Commercial and fine art photographerVisit this innovator's website
From lab to luscious art
Caren Alpert has always loved science. But as someone who's more drawn to the emotional and visual aspects of all life around her, she knew that science wouldn't be her ultimate profession. She double majored in photography and graphic design at the University of Arizona and has taken a unique path to becoming a successful commercial and fine art photographer. Photoshop.com sat down with Alpert to learn more about her career—including her scientific twist on food photography.
Photoshop.com: Tell us about your path to becoming a professional photographer.
Caren Alpert: I studied photography in college and then worked for about 10 years at Time Inc.—first as photo editor, and then as director of photography where I commissioned photography assignments. They were mostly lifestyle in nature, but sometimes portraits and still lifes, too. There was one assignment, where the photographer’s images seemed all wrong, based on the directive given. I reshot the photos myself over a weekend, and they were approved and included in the magazine. That experience gave me the confidence to start shooting more on my own. Shortly after, I decided to leave my desk job and focus on commercial photography.
Photoshop.com: From Time Inc. photo editor to photographing food—that’s quite a leap. What prompted your interest in food photography?
Caren Alpert: Food fascinates me! I didn't originally start out to be a food photographer, but being based in San Francisco, those types of assignments were coming to me. Then I saw how much happens in the world when people connect over a meal. No one can live without food. The undercurrents of food transcend all borders; it can be hard to get or easy to get; it can be a commodity or a piece of art. Most of my clients really love food, too, so I began to see a pattern emerging in my work. Food is now involved in both my commercial and fine art photographs in some way.
Photoshop.com: What ignited your interest in using an electron microscope to photograph food?
Caren Alpert: After many years in commercial photography, I wanted to start creating some fine art photographs around food, but I hadn’t fully formed an idea. I attended a presentation by a photographer who had used an electron microscope for images related to a story on honey bees. The images were so captivating. My immediate thought was: "What would happen if I could use an electron microscope to capture images of food?" My personal interest in science and love of food became a professional pursuit in photography and, ultimately, this spark became the impetus for my terra cibus series of images.
Photoshop.com: Can you tell us about your process for creating the terra cibus images?
Caren Alpert: It’s a three-stage process. I decide what I am interested in shooting and why. In my San Francisco studio, I take photographs of the food in its natural state. Next, I freezer-ship the food to one of the labs I work with in Arizona or Boston, where they put the food through a dehydration and metal-coating process. When the food is ready to shoot with the microscope, I travel to the lab where the scanning electron microscope with a built-in camera is located. During the session, I am actually photographing electrons bouncing off the surface of the specimen. Looking at a monitor, I use a joystick and roller ball to slowly scan my subject and take the images I want. I store the resulting images on a flash drive or DVD.
Photoshop.com: In general, during a session, how many pictures would you say you take to find the "right one"?
Caren Alpert: There are major differences between my commercial work and my terra cibus and other fine art images. With my commercial work, I can take a ton of pictures and move an inch here and there for different vantage points. If I am taking an image of a salad, I can add croutons, take them away, adjust lighting, and so on. But with the terra cibus images, if I take two or four pictures of one specimen, that’s enough. For instance, if I am capturing the electrons bouncing off of a radish, then I will move slowly, searching the surface of the radish for maybe 30 minutes just on the X and Y axes. Then I start zooming in from top to bottom. Overall, I can examine the radish for one to two hours under the microscope before deciding what to shoot.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe Photoshop software play in your artistic process?
Caren Alpert: The scanning electron micrographs are captured in black and white, and they feel very clinical and scientific. Once I have them, I head back to San Francisco to start post production, colorizing them in Photoshop—that’s where approximately 30% of my time is spent. I apply color in layers and then make adjustments using levels, curves, and so on. I apply color, usually corresponding to the original food, but I never alter what is inherent in the images. The resulting images are arresting and eye-catching; they come to life in a totally different way when color is applied. For my commercial work, I use Photoshop to add contrast and saturation to give the images more depth and richness in order to draw the viewer in.
I recently started using Adobe Creative Cloud and I’m thrilled that my Photoshop CC updates will occur practically in real time. What I’m really excited about with Creative Cloud is the integration with Behance for online portfolios. Personally, I’m striving for my business to have a larger presence in social networking, so any new ways to share work are welcomed! In this age where sharing work is a large part of the Internet culture, I can see its relevance for many Photoshop users.
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite image you’ve created and what grabs you about it.
Caren Alpert: The hot air balloon image is from a recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania, so you can imagine I was expecting the trip of a lifetime! In addition to many majestic animals traveling across the land, I found the earth and sky to be inspiring. On any given day, it seemed like the land, sky, and weather changed dramatically—and quickly. On this particular early morning in the Serengeti, the wind was very calm. So calm, in fact, that when our large balloon carrying 18 people tried to go up, we couldn't make it into a wind path. Breathtaking skies and clouds surrounded us, but we couldn’t move anywhere. It was surreal hovering in our balloon at around 100 feet off the ground, observing the partner balloon in the short distance. I knew that I had the rare opportunity to capture an image that would juxtapose our large balloon in the foreground with the vast landscape beyond.
In Photoshop, I started by darkening the photo overall, then adding drama, contrast, and density to the sky. I made some curve adjustments, and then added a highlight to wrap light and shape around the balloon where it was a little flat. Because the balloon ride was at sunrise, I wanted to show how the sun was just peeking up over the plains and skimming the tops of the grass, so I further added highlights coming from the direction of the sun. At different points, I made adjustments with saturation and vignetting on the edges.
Photoshop.com: What are your plans for future fine art projects?
Caren Alpert: For starters, I would like to find an electron microscope that is a bit closer to my home in San Francisco! That way, I won’t be traveling on an airplane to obtain files. I’m not certain quite yet what my muse is drawing me toward, but I know it will involve food and scientific exploration of the exotic, lush, microscopic worlds I love to explore: cake sprinkles, a pineapple leaf, or a pile of table salt. I want to display common foods at an intimate level and reveal the up-close beauty of what nourishes us.
Caren Alpert’s Res-ing Up Action