Ah, the perks of being a blogger. Never in my life I’d have thought I’d visit Google’s headquarters – and yet, that’s exactly where Great British Chef’s Social Media Week Food Photography Workshop took place on 26 September. Unlike many of the inspiring events I find myself coveting every month (sad face), its timing suited my after-work commute from the depths of South West London, meaning I had absolutely no excuses for missing out.
I had always imagined Google’s HQ as a den of creativity for a chosen few, where a shabby-looking-industrial-zone-office dweller such as yours truly would never be admitted (and yes, this is how sorry for myself I feel when the thorny subject of not working in Central London comes up). This irrational inferiority complex got me as far as fearing that, while I made my way to the ninth floor, someone would ask for a secret password I had no knowledge of, and show me back out. But of course, that’s not what happened; in the end, I got so busy taking in all the details, I hardly remembered to shoot any pictures. My most vivid memories involve a futuristic lift system that counts the number of people climbing to each floor, and a spectacular view over the City’s skyscrapers and Saint Paul’s cathedral, glowing from afar in a surprisingly clear night.
On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that location is not an issue, as long as you enjoy what you’re doing. The workshop could have taken place in the removals warehouse next to my office, for all I cared: the perfect setup was already in place. I spent the evening with fellow food bloggers, met award-winning chef Marcus Wareing, and enjoyed a food photography class by David Griffen. Finally, the bit we were all – pretty much literally – hungry for: a 1-hour practice session in Google’s canteen, in which we could try photographing a selection of dishes prepared by Marcus’s team at The Gilbert Scott – and obviously feast on them afterwards.
At the beginning, being presented with a selection of food to experiment with felt a bit intimidating: although I left the workshop with plenty of useful notes, I had the impression that finding out how best to fit David’s advice to my equipment would take some time. The canteen’s unfamiliar setting and artificial lighting weren’t the easiest conditions to adapt to, but who said I don’t enjoy a challenge? Even though mastering all of David’s tips will require much more practice, some of them stuck with me right from the start.
1.Shoot before serving (or after tucking in!)
While certain pictures of perfectly composed plates are enough to make the most confident photographers second-guess their props and styling skills, some of the best shots happen before food even makes it to the table. Think a bunch of biscuits on a hot and sticky baking tray, or a side of potatoes fresh from the oven. The natural look of worn-out kitchen utensils is a winner, giving the viewer the impression that they’re standing right in your kitchen, watching you go through every step of the recipe, witnessing all the trials and errors it entails.
Same goes for asymmetric composition. There’s no harm in planning your picture around a slightly messy plate, or photographing a tray with a few nibbles missing from their spots: after all, if you knew that someone has already tasted and liked the food, you’d take it as a guarantee that it’s worth a bite. When planned well, these are among my favourite shots, and the ones I had the most fun creating at the workshop, with the help of a superb rabbit and prawn pie.
2. Tell stories in black and white
I love black and white photography, and the way it brings out contrasts that colour sometimes fails to highlight. Applying it to food, however, seems like a stretch: shades of gray hardly inspire the same awe and craving that an accurate, full-colour portrayal of ingredients and textures does. But who said food photography is all about the edible stuff? In the story that lies behind each inspiring recipe and flavoursome dish, people are just as important. They create the story, for no food at all would exist without their hard work and flair for flavour; and us bloggers, us photographers, are here to tell that tale in the most compelling way we can.
This reminded me of the advice Penny De Los Santos gave at Food Blogger Connect 5. Taking it one step further, David Griffen spoke about the power of food tales told in black and white. It was a matter of minutes before I discovered he was right: as I flicked through my pictures on the tube back home, I could only marvel at how sharp and expressive my “behind the scenes” shots looked.
3. Make the most of your phone
Every time I leave my DSLR at home, my smartphone becomes a huge liability. Equipped with a camera that lacks the focus function, it’s just about decent for photography, provided I don’t try pointing at very close objects. That’s not a problem I’ll solve without buying a new phone or praying for divine intervention, but luckily, David Griffen’s advice opened my eyes on photo editing apps: a whole new way of enhancing the images I previously dismissed as hopeless. I’m sold on Snapseed’s colour and light correction functions, applicable to the whole picture, or to as big or small a section as you wish. ProCamera, which David uses to take his pictures in the first place, promises to control focus in an effective way. It’s the next item on my to-download list, and hopefully the miracle I’ve long been waiting for.
This is my starter for ten, but as always, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know if you’ve been to the workshop, and how you found it. And regardless of this, feel free to share any food photography techniques you find particularly useful!