My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The how and why of blog photography - Eat. Drink. Blog.

Great facial expressions and coordinating your outfit 
with the venue are essential for good conference presentations

In late March I went to Melbourne for the first Australian food bloggers conference, Eat. Drink. Blog. where I gave a very nervous talk on blog photography along with Matt from Abstract Gourmet (who talked about more professional techniques than me!) and Ellie from Kitchen Wench (who poignantly demonstrated the pros of reading you camera manual - do it).

I was in great company with a lot of very talented photographers, cooks and writers both presenting and attending so therefore I was completely terrified. It didn't take long to realise that I wasn't the only nervous one, and a few coffees and a few cigarettes later (and some hand-holding with Jeroxie) it all went swimmingly.

Of course since I got back to Hobart I have not only lost my notes, but I have also deleted the Powerpoint presentation I used on the day. So bear with me while I try and remember exactly what it is that I said, as I have promised a few people who couldn't come on the day that I would put my words of wisdom up (ha ha) on this blog.

Long before I started Once a Waitress, in my former life, I studied commercial photography at RMIT in Melbourne. It was, as I said before, a largely soul destroying experience but amongst it all I did learn a thing or two about being a better photographer. These days I don't shoot for money (although drop me a line if you'd like to pay me to do so) I just shoot for myself. I don't even own a DSLR at the moment, I take most of the shots for this blog on a little Canon IXUS 8015 which is perfect for what I need at the moment.

As it says on the slide above, there are three elements to a great food blog, and great photography certainly can be one of them. This isn't to say that there aren't great food blogs out there that don't use images, Steve Cumper is one such blogger who's story telling ability surpasses the need for imagery. But if you have the time and the inclination, photography is a great story-telling tool.

You won't need a $10,000 camera or expensive props, just an eye for detail

Great photography involves time and thought. In a digital age, it's easy to keep shooting mindlessly without consideration as each shot costs you nothing. When I started uni we took pictures of a tennis ball for four weeks. Every time we pressed the shutter it cost about $5 for the sheet of 5x4 film, and about $7 for processing. So that's $12 for EACH photo. This processing took two days, so we had to wait to see our results. Expensive, and no instant gratification. But if you fork out $12 every time you push the shutter, you tend to think a bit more about it a bit more.

Pretend this arancini is a tennis ball

This photo was taken in a restaurant, where I had very little control over the light. This shot was just like my tennis ball endeavor, but with out the studio lighting and expensive transparency film. I couldn't move my light source, so I moved the food. Natural light is key here. Professional photographers will spend hours using studio lights to create the effect of natural light - and it's rarely ever as good. So use the light you have at your disposal wisely. Think about where the highlights are, where the shadows are and move the plate accordingly. Never use on camera flash. Pump up your camera's ISO as high as the lighting conditions will allow without losing too much quality, but never, ever use a flash in a restaurant. It looks nasty, and it's rude to the other diners. 

It helps to have understanding friends who let you run off with their lunch, and the waiters will give you funny looks, but it works. I try and book a table near the window if I plan on taking photos, and in winter I tend to go out for more lunches to utilise the daylight.

Sometimes words are not enough

When we describe what we see with words, we often impart opinion in our descriptions. I could describe this cup as "twee," "ridiculous," "ugly," or "beautiful." With a photo, your audience will have a chance to come to their own conclusions. 

There is an old and very well known saying: "a picture tells a thousand words." The picture above tells one. RAW. This would be a boring photo (in my opinion) without the RAW, but with it, it tells the viewer what kind of cheese this is, leaving my words free for other observations.

Thinking about what to shoot is just as important as more technical aspects like ISO, shutter speed or aperture. Look around you to see what tells a story. Is it what's on your plate, the colour of the walls, the cakes in a cabinet or a stack of unusual plates on a sideboard? 

I've seen a lot of brilliant photos that aren't technically perfect, but they illustrate a scene perfectly. Sometimes this is enough. It's easy to become obsessed with expensive props, lenses and filters, but they aren't going to make you a better photographer. Keeping an open mind and being aware of your surroundings will make you a better photographer.  

In the original version of this shot the line of the counter was on an angle, but straightening it up and cropping in a bit changed the dynamics considerably

I advise making Photoshop (or similar editing software) your friend. Tiny changes like colour balance, exposure adjustments and making sure straight lines are actually straight can make a lot of difference. Photoshop can seem like a daunting program, and it is, but it's worthwhile learning a few tricks to tidy up your shots. If you're serious about having better photos on your blog, take a quick class through adult education or online, you'll quickly notice the difference. That said, Photoshop will not save a bad shot, it helps to have something decent to work with in the first place. 

I really, really like orange

All that said, photography is about passion. If you aren't a visual person, or you don't enjoy taking photos, don't. Food blogs don't NEED photos, they are just another tool in your story telling box. Some of my favorite blogs, Eating Asia for example, are a team effort with a writer and a photographer. And like I said earlier, some of my favourite food blogs have no images at all. 

You might think differently, and that's the beauty of blogging. There is something out there for everyone, so just do what you do, and do it to the best of your ability. Or take a photography class, they're fun and educational. My favourite combo.

Eat. Drink. Blog. was made possible by the hard work of many bloggers (thank you to Tomatom, Reem, Jess Ho, April, Melli, Michael and Tammi) and our lovely sponsors including the Essential Ingredient, St Ali, Der Raum and SBS Food. It was a brilliant day, and I feel honored to be included. Here's looking forward to Eat. Drink. Blog in 2011!

A full round up of presentations and a list of related blog coverage can be found here.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

My secret shame

Just like Tomatom, I also have a secret chocolate shame. Well, probably not such a secret now because I've just told everyone. But I've a reason for coming clean: I need your help.

These ugly little suckers are nothing like the chocolate speckles I used to buy from the corner shop, circa 1987, for 50c a bag as big as my chubby, sticky hand. They consisted of the worst compound chocolate money could buy and positively repelled saliva. They came second only to milk bottles and red skins, fabulously teeth rotting stuff.

Amazingly, I still have all my pearly whites in tact (thank goodness baby teeth fall out anyway) but possible not for long as I have recently re-discovered an adult version of this childhood favourite.

No longer 50c a bag these puppies will set you back about $7 for 200g at Haigh's Chocolates. Fortunately for my waistline there isn't a Haigh's outlet in Tasmania but I'd like someone to bring me back some from Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide the next time they visit Tasmania (which they should, it's rather lovely here).

So, if you're headed down this way I'll take you out for coffee in exchange for a bag of these. Just one bag at a time though please - I've curbed my sweet tooth somewhat in my old age.

Although, if you happen to be the CEO of Haighs Chocolates and you are reading this, feel free to send me a freebie or two, I won't mind at all.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Coffee at The Cupping Room, Hobart

There is a new café in Hobart and it has a $20,000 coffee machine. I wasn't sure the rumours were true, so this morning I went down to see for myself.

As a photographer, I always believed that given the worst camera in the world, a great photographer would still take a great photograph. And given the best camera in the world, a bad photographer would still take a bad photograph. I also apply this theory to baristas (no matter how many awards they have won). I don't care how impressive their CV is, I care about the cup of coffee I have just ordered, and nothing else, regardless of how much the coffee machine cost.

The machine in question is The Slayer, which is a proper noun. With the "third wave" of coffee well and truly underway in other, more mainstream cities, Hobart is a bit behind the times when it comes to impressive coffee making machinery. Although thanks to relative newcomer Chado, we're right up there when it comes to tea.

The Slayer lives at spanking new venue The Cupping Room, another brainchild of impressive Hobart based coffee chain Oomph. Open for three weeks now it fills an old warehouse space on Murray Street, a section of town many would think too out of the way to get to, but in reality only a stones throw from Hobart's other home of decent coffee, Criterion Street.

At 11am on a Saturday The Cupping Room was full to the brim (pardon the pun) of curious locals keen to see the new kid in town (pardon the cliché). The table set up is curious, with 30 or so seats crammed into a relatively small area of an enormous space, and one sweet little sofa area in the front window that could do well to be expanded through half the venue for lazing around with a latte or two.

There are three single origin blends available at all times that change on a weekly basis. Next to my new Slayer friend are five or so Mazzer grinders, standard (and blissfully silent) fare for a café with any sense. Another, and obviously lesser quality, coffee machine stands almost as dejected as the ugly step sister before the ball. It's for take-away only, as apparently the potential merits of an expensive coffee machine are wasted on paper cups – I wholeheartedly agree.

First up I have a latte, the beans of which were selected as I randomly pointed to a name I couldn't pronounce on the blackboard. At this stage, I am more concerned about other elements of my coffee. It was above average, but that's all. Perhaps slightly too warm, the milk a little bubbly. 

A second flat white was more impressive, and I do like the sexy black cups.

There was plenty of time on hand to ponder my surroundings, and read through the menu, as there wasn't a newspaper in sight (more newspapers, please).

The breakfast fare looked promising (although someone might want to run a spell check over tricky words like "Gruyere")*. Eggs are, of course, available ($8.50) with an arsenal of traditional sides ($2-3), and a brioche bun topped with Neufchatel and served with a side of jam ($6.5) caught my eye. A promise of "Cupping Room hollandaise" brings hope that it is made from scratch, on-site, but I shall have to wait until my next visit to find out.

The lunch menu on the other hand did not appeal to me. Safe options like Caesar or Greek salad sit with some very dull sounding wrap sandwiches and pizzas, backed up by a few hopelessly basic main meals.

I would hope that, even in a small town like Hobart, we have moved on from chicken, cheese and sweet chilli mayonnaise wraps (McDonalds made them so uncool). In the very least, many Tasmanian cheese options are far superior to King Island brie.

I watched the next table's mains come out. Like me, they had been puzzled by the lack of table service, and consequently spent their entire meal debating who should go to the counter to order this or that. His meal was a glorified lamb salad ($16.50), hers, a mammoth plate of fettuccini in a cream sauce with chicken and mushrooms ($17, and may I say…it's not 1982 anymore). A Cape Grim beef burger with chips ($18) would do well if it could stand up to the quality of the Alley Cat's $10 burger, or even Café Vue's $12 burger and fries (although this requires a trip to Melbourne). And so, we shall see.

I did not eat these meals, and so pass no judgement on how good they may (or may not) have been. Although I would like to see a more adventurous menu on offer, something to rival Melbourne's St Ali, or Proud Mary, who mix the best coffee in Melbourne with an inventive, excellent and yet affordable menu. I will, for the sake of a fair and accurate reviewing process, return shortly to sample the lunch fare, although under ordinary circumstances I wouldn’t eat there based on the menu being similar to every other café in town. I will report back at a later date.

So, it was the coffee I came for, and the coffee I had was good. There are monthly cupping classes on offer, although I would like to see fun latte art demonstrations and the like, and I hear on the grapevine that there is a three group Synesso and a syphon brewing set on the way.

The Cupping Room is new, and consequently will require a period of adjustment to truly find its groove. There is promise in the air here, and it is the promise of Hobart catching up to the hospitality standards of the mainland. Baby steps perhaps, but The Cupping Room may just be the beginning of a new era in coffee for Hobart. Maybe.

*Obviously, I did proof read this document, but Murphy's Law for food writers dictates that any mention of spelling errors on a menu will ensure that the review in question will be riddled with them.