I promised last time that I would be sharing more about Paul Lowe and Colin Cooke’s food styling and photography class, and here I am to deliver. The class was my primary reason for attending the Makerie and it didn’t disappoint. A lot of the other students were in the class because photography is in some way important to them financially – either because they want to monetize their blogs and need better shots to do it, or because photography serves as a secondary function of their businesses. I was there purely as an aesthete. I want the shots I share in this space to be the best possible representation of the moment or milieu I’m trying to capture and food photography is one area where I feel very challenged. Paul and Colin really helped me to see and begin to understand the many puzzle pieces I was missing in the process.
Paul’s food styling is impeccable, and take a look at Colin’s portfolio – the man is a pro, no question about it. Looking through his shots before the Makerie weekend, I felt a lot like I did the first time I saw the LSO performing; sometimes when you’re witnessing the work of someone whose expertise comes from countless years of practice, you can just feel that mastery in your bones. Throughout class I repeatedly felt humbled by the gap in skill and experience between myself and our two teachers, and I was reminded again and again of the importance of putting in the time to refine your own aesthetic and approach. As adults we so frequently want mastery to emerge right away – but you’ve got to earn it through hard work. There is simply no other way.
It was actually very strange shooting photos that had been styled and arranged by someone else. I like cherry and other natural woods; I prefer the way stained wood looks as a backdrop and I use it a lot, and shooting on a painted colored background was so deeply weird for me. It taught me in a way I never could have learned on my own that branching out is sometimes necessary to create a diversity of mood and experience in my shots.
I also usually shoot my still life photos from pretty high up, and while there was a stepladder, I just felt selfish climbing up there with so many other people vying to use it – and there were so many of us working with differing ideas about how we needed to move the props around that there were always going to be bodies or hands in the shot anyway. It was more important to me to watch and absorb everything that was happening than it was to shoot close up on the food, so I wasn’t particularly aggressive about getting in there. The one thing I was aggressive about was photographing Paul work, like I was a paparazzi stalker, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember everything he had done without copious photographs of the process. If I posted them all here this post would be heavy with images, heavier than I like, so I’m sharing them as a complete photo set over on Flickr, annotated for your convenience.
The single most valuable thing I learned from watching Colin work is to use my freaking tripod. I have one, but I don’t love setting it up, and I follow a lot of food bloggers who seem to just climb up on ladders and shoot, so that’s what I’ve done for both still life and food. Colin shoots with a remote and a tripod – or at least, he did it that way for every shot he took with us – and I can see how it would be huge in eliminating the camera shake I tend to get with my normal lens. I shoot most of the shots on this blog with a fixed focal length lens with macro capability, a 40mm – it’s not the best lens for the photography I share on this site, but it hit the sweet spot between quality and price when I bought it. The one thing about using it that has challenged me is that its focus is much more specific than the kit lens I initially shot with when I moved to digital, so if I move even a little my whole shot is thrown immediately. Using a tripod and remote instead should allow me a bit of a speed gain – fewer shots needed to get the right one, and also I can be down by my composition with the preview screen angled down at me, allowing me to move things around without having to disengage from my camera. Not only will I be able to recompose my scenes more easily, but I won’t have to relocate the camera when I’m ready to shoot again. Just rearrange, step out of the frame of the shot and hit the remote. I love this idea – it’s going to be huge for me.
I don’t think I could ever begin to sum up everything I learned from watching Paul work. He talked as he styled the sets, and every other minute he was saying something new and fascinating. For instance, that cold and slightly undercooked pasta is easiest to style, and that we could wrap strands around our fingers to form pasta birds’ nests, then rub in pesto with our fingertips for even distribution. The pasta set was possibly the most instructive from a technical standpoint, in that we did more to the food in that set to make it photogenic than in any other.
Paul also taught us that if we want to shoot our food on a bed of ice, that can be done by filling a clear plastic bin with the ice and then setting it down on top of bright blue paper; the blue comes through the ice and makes it look vibrant and cold in the photograph. In general, he stressed balance and composition in assembling the dishes, which I also found interesting as a cook. Those of you who have been following this blog know that a year ago, I could not cook at all, and in the course of my self-education I hadn’t yet begun to think about food this way. Watching Paul work changed something in my brain and taught me at a fundamental level to consider how my dish looks on its plate as I’m preparing it.
The class as a whole was one of those experiences where you’re very aware that the real lessons will continue to emerge as you practice what you’ve been shown and work to deepen your own skill. I’m looking forward to seeing how my photography practice grows and changes as a result of this workshop.