Photographer Joe Atlas visited Sanford’s Middle School in October to share his experience with students in Nina Silverman-Weeks' Smartphone Photography class. The goal was to explore Joe’s process, from meeting a client to the end product, during a Zoom session from his studio in California.
Working in photography requires a strong visual sense. While Atlas talked about his techniques, he also spent time on the business end of his art. During COVID, for example, clients were not requesting in-person photo shoots.
“Like most industries, the pandemic had a huge impact on the marketing and advertising business. Joe had to pivot with the times and began to shift his focus from mostly product photography to working with the food and restaurant industry,” says Silverman-Weeks.
Joe Atlas has been taking pictures for 35+ years with clients such as Neutrogena, Disney, Burger King, Sony, and Mattel Toys plus many others. His food, portrait and architectural images are regularly used by major brands for advertising, corporate, and editorial projects. His website
notes, “He has a passion for solving problems and a willingness to deliver exceptional quality and build a loyal clientele.”
In sharing his work, Atlas explained the process of creating a storyboard to help visualize and plan out the end product. He talked about the importance of asking the right questions of the client, “because time is money, and the client is paying high dollars for a successful shoot. It is imperative that all aspects of the session are planned: from rental of studio space, to assistants, to the food and product stylists, rental of specialized equipment, and a backup plan if technology or equipment fails.”
Another goal of the Smartphone Photography class is to develop good picture taking techniques and habits without digitally manipulating images afterwards. Students have been exploring composition and practicing taking photos. Atlas says “the rule of thirds” for good composition becomes second nature and he no longer needs “the grid” to see the shot.
Atlas also shared his techniques, “My basic approach remains consistent: I zero in on the message we want to convey and then remove everything that doesn’t support that message until only the essential elements remain. The best photographs are usually the simplest and most iconic.”
“Joe emphasized the importance of lighting—whether ambient, natural, or from a directed light source—it should convey the right mood or emotion,” notes Silverman-Weeks. “My students are exploring different genres, comparing documentary and marketing genres, and understanding the appropriate mood & emotional quality for each.”
During their session, Atlas also explored the use of film/analog techniques vs. the latest forms of digital photography. Sanford’s students are learning the difference between in-camera editing and using apps to manipulate their images. Atlas emphasized lighting and composition, regardless of the format.
“Working efficiently with less editing also impacts time and money,” explained Atlas. “The client has a budget and working within the budget is important. Digital photography has become far more cost efficient than film. Learning to use editing programs like Photoshop and the Adobe suite are important skills. “Don’t ‘overwork’ the image. Learn when to stop and say this is good or good enough,” says Atlas.
Joe’s interest in photography began in elementary school in Wynnewood, PA. His father loved taking pictures and built a darkroom in the basement of their house. He studied film in college and graduated from the University of Arizona.
While planning and understanding the capabilities of the equipment, Atlas says it’s important to set aside time to play. He will give himself an assignment and then seeks solutions. He also continues educating himself, including learning new technologies.
“Art touches all aspects of our lives,” reflects Silverman-Weeks. “Making informed decisions and learning what pleases us in terms of aesthetics adds another layer to who we are as humans.”
Students in her Photography I class explored taking photos of an assortment of products the week before the session with Atlas. “After hearing how important lighting was and having an intended message to communicate about the product,” says Silverman-Weeks, “They went back and rephotographed their products with much success!”
“Our young photographers continue to elevate their skills each time they enter the studio. Often practicing beyond school hours, many have sent me images to give feedback on a 24/7 basis,” she adds. “The images they are producing are sophisticated, thoughtful, and beautiful! I am so proud of their efforts and willingness to improve. I know several have been bitten by the shutterbug, as Joe and I were at their age.” (Atlas and Silverman-Weeks have been lifelong friends since childhood.)
“At the end of their class, the students were excited to share some of their photos,” recalls Silverman-Weeks. “Joe was able to quickly identify the prompt using vocabulary relating to the visual elements of art and principles of design. It was a great moment for my students.”