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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.



Lucy said...

what an amazing cup and saucer

Lisa said...

One of your best posts--and you have many from which to choose. And I'm still coveting that cup & saucer.

Tassiegal said...

TOTALLY off topic BUT I may have some Haighs speckles for you - depends if my mate remembers to pick them up b4 his flight tomorrow. IF that is the case, how shall I get them to you?

mellie from said...

It was great to finally meet you! I really enjoyed the photography discussions at #EatDrinkBlog as everyone came from a sightly different angle (no pun intended). It doesn't always have to be about the technical stuff (ie ISO, lens size etc.), but about heart and willingness to tell a story through pictures.

Tassiegal said...

Hi Maggie,
I have Haighs Speckles if you want em! drop me an email at Zeldad at gmail etc.

jeroxie said...

It is a great day. And thanks for holding my hand!