Image Critique: Tuscan Chef Environmental Portrait

Portrait of a Tuscan Chef

Image Format

This image is at, or near, its original full frame 35mm format. While a case can be made for less elongated “Medium Format” proportions for portraits, and for portrait orientation in portraits, here the environment is a main factor, and the landscape format is what includes it in the image.


As with any portrait, the main theme here is the subject of the portrait. He is positioned at the 2/3 point in the width of the image, with his eyes at the 1/3 point in the height of the image, which provides emphasis, while sharing the canvas with the other elements. The extreme detail, dramatic lighting, and high contrast framing against the dark door provide further accent to ensure that the subject dominates the overall image, without overwhelming it.

The secondary theme here are the restaurant articles in the center and left of the image. These consist of the high key, dramatically lit stemware, and the lower key items below, including the cook’s knifes at the center, which have a lighter background and increased impact above the other items to their left. These knifes, both through their central placement, their powerful outlines, and their human interest, become a very strong secondary element in the composition, and a major selling point for the image; every purchase of this image has been by a cook, and the knives may be the element that attracts them most strongly to this image.

The background element here is the nicely textured wall, and the doorway, with the very deep shadow tones of the door. The former provides a very light but textured backdrop to the main image, while the latter forms a very dark, but textured backdrop to the subject.


The key decision for this image was the choice to convert to black and white. The most common justification of converting an image is a lack of meaningful color, or the lack of a unified palette, such that B & W offers a more integrated composition. Both of those factors were at play here, but the opportunity to work with the dramatic lighting of this image in black and white was the greatest justification. Blacks are restricted largely to the door behind the subject, the knife handles, and the other hand-sized items beyond the knives to the left. This helps consolidate the story of the image. Spectral highlights are restricted to the cook’s face, and the stemware to the left, which helps to form another strong relationship in the image. Midtones are largely restricted to shadows in the lower half of the image, and the cook’s darker side. This helps to consolidate the image at large, and give it a stable base.


Black and white images offer a greater emphasis on tonal range, and the opportunity to use that range to its fullest extent. The two natural light sources for this image are both limited size, high brightness sources, one from the upper left, the other from the right. This provides a degree of secondary lighting to avoid unreasonably dark shadows on the subject’s face, since we expect a certain range of densities in a portrait, and would find an image without some secondary light from the opposing side unacceptably harsh. The overall lighting allows for the much admired type of Dutch portrait and still life lighting, without going all the way to a Chiaroscuro effect, where the subject emerges from total darkness.

The second key factor to the lighting is the dramatic lighting of the stemware on the left. This caught my eye even before I noticed the second light source, and realized it might be possible to shoot a portrait in this restricted space, with this challenging lighting. The specular highlights on the stemware, and the gradated effect of the lower light levels on the second shelf below creates a study in light in this corner of the image.

Eye Movement

Eye movement in a portrait tends to be quite simple; an environmental portrait offers a bit more complexity. Here the eye is assured to begin with the subject, with its high contrast silhouetting and dramatic lighting. The eye moves around the high contrast edges of the figure, absorbing the face and the figure. It is next drawn to the knives, by the weight and contrast of their handles, and down to the repeating shape and sharp outlines of their blades. From there it glances across the lowest shelf’s contents (whose highlights were darkened during processing to reduce the clutter and smooth out this section of the image), and up to the light, and the specular highlights of the stemware above. The eye finally passes over the even texture of the wall, back to the subject. There was originally the lower portion of a poster, possibly a legal document about the restaurant, on the wall above the door. Through discussion with others, it was decided that this offered little to the image, and interrupted the eye’s flow, so the final version has an uninterrupted wall, and the flow back to the subject is much smoother. For many viewers, despite their high contrast, the eyeglasses hanging on the cook’s chest are not noticed until the second lap around the image is begun.


The story here is clear and unambiguous. Without the larger context this would be a dramatically lit image of a man. It is through the environmental context that the story of a cook in his kitchen arises. The order in which this story is told is very effective, with the natural eye movement telling us first about the man, then about the knives, then the other kitchen paraphernalia, so that by the time the eye returns to the subject, he has become a cook. It may be this innate relationship between the elements and the satisfactory way in which it tells the story that endears this image to cooks; along with their appreciation of the knives.

Process Notes

Shot with a Canon 5D. Shutter speed 1/60 sec, f/4, Focal length 47mm, Lens 24-105 f/4 IS USM.

Shot freehand, in low light, as a single shot, since my limited Italian gained me permission for a photo, not a portrait session.

Processed from the original RAW file in Adobe Lightroom 3, exported as a high bit AdobeRGB TIFF, to Photoshop CS5 for local editing. File info added in Photoshop, down sampled to sRGB web rez JPG in Photoshop. NIK SilverEffects Pro might have been a better choice for B&W conversion, but was not on my laptop during this trip.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012.   Website:   Return to Blog’s Main Page


5 responses to “Image Critique: Tuscan Chef Environmental Portrait

  1. Hi David,

    Environmental portraits are some of my favorite images. In this case though, I wanted more in the frame: perhaps pans or an apron that he may wear when on the job.

    Lastly, I would’ve also have loved to have seen food in his hands to tell me more about him. Perhaps he could be holding his favorite dish to make?

    I totally agree with you on where the eyes go in this image. But I still didn’t necessarily get at first that he was a chef. Perhaps the colors would have worked better and messing with specific color channels would have too.

    I very much digg the lighting though. Overall good job.

    • Reading your suggestions about what he should wear and hold, I realize I should have mentioned that this is not a staged portrait, its much more of a documentary photo. No control of lighting, clothing, props; what you see is what you get. So calling it an environmental portrait is a bit misleading; its more of a photo journalistic portrait.

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Highest Rated Photography Articles | CDTobie's Photo Blog

    • Interesting; I’m an architect, and yet this never bothered me. I’ll have to try rotating it until the door frame appears vertical, and see if that improves the composition to my eye. The tight framing in the door is indeed tight, but still effective to me. I would agree that it puts a lot of emphasis on the top of the head, like Adam and God’s fingers in the Sistine… if you feel that emphasis is undue, than you would be right that it weakens the composition. I find the tight fit on all sides fitting, and part of the tight squeeze of the kitchen itself.

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