Have a Vision and Get a Tripod.
If I had to summarize the key lessons from the weekend in Long Beach with Matt Armendariz and the Food Fanatics, these two would be in that list. After familiarizing ourselves with the ins and outs of styling food for the camera on Saturday, we put theory into practice on Sunday with our individual projects, shot under Matt’s watchful eye with Denise and Cindie on-hand for styling consultations.
Right off the bat, Matt talked about the importance of having a vision before commencing a shoot, which, needless to say, makes for a smoother workflow. It’s something I’m still working on – I don’t usually begin with a clear vision in mind (except for the occasional ingredient that really inspires me), instead I often have vague ideas of potential colors, textures and looks that are gradually refined as I start plating the food and combining different props on the table.
With the curry, I had spent the better part of the previous evening tossing up different ways to present it, but I wasn’t willing to settle on any one of them till I got to the studio. I had in mind a rustic yet clean look for the final image, but it wasn’t until I found a beautifully-woven placemat in Matt’s linen closet that the image started to come together. A bunch of sexy, delicate bowls from Mud Australia provided just the simplicity that I was looking for, while Cindie showed how fluffing the tops of the rice introduced a textural element to an otherwise bland canvas and the best way to highlight the ingredients in the curry. All that was left was to arrange the bunch of raw ingredients on the set for a visually interesting image, which actually sounds easier than it was, because there was the tripod to figure out.
I’ve never been much of a tripod person, preferring instead the flexibility and mobility of a handheld approach over the rigidity and stability of a three-legged structure. I’ve grown accustomed to switching perspectives in the blink of an eye, leaving the set fairly static while moving around, trying to capture different angles. It’s a slightly more “organic” approach to shooting, if you will.
With a tripod, however, image composition was a methodic process, where I was constantly viewing the set through the lens to piece together the final picture. This process requires a clearer vision of the type of image you want to achieve (hence Matt’s advice), which would include thinking about the perspective you plan on shooting from. Besides navigating the tripod’s controls, it took me a while to realize that I could move the set to fit into the frame, instead of trying to wrestle with the tripod, an insight that made life a little easier.
After creating the set and prepping the camera, there was the garnish to think about, without which the curry looked like a sorry, flat mass of grey and orange. I knew that all I needed was a slender, perky stalk of cilantro, but the question was, which one? And after identifying the Chosen Few, there was the million-dollar question of Where do you place it?
Like the hint of mascara to “open up” the eyes, the right amount of garnish helps to complete the look of the dish you’re shooting. But it has to be placed just so, conveying a sense of carefree abandon instead of perfect composure.
58 wilted cilantro stalks and 20 minutes later, I finally found the ‘perfect’ strand that stayed afloat and alive long enough to smile for the camera before sinking, like its predecessors, into the thick liquid. There was no small amount of tweezing, shaping and hovering over the bowl, searching for the right spot on this orange pond for a humble herb. I guess my caffeinated hands didn’t help much in the delicate task of shifting and poking the curry’s ingredients to ‘support’ the leaf, but the stars finally aligned and I got it done. The curry was dressed up, gilded with a herbaceous flash and all was right with the world.
The day’s schedule was pretty fluid. When we weren’t shooting or chopping up ingredients for our dishes, we were helping each other create sets, observing the shoots taking place and picking up tips and tricks from Cindie, Denise and Matt. And playing with Peanut, Cindie’s adorable chihuahua that won everyone over.
Before we knew it, the last shoot was complete and it was time to pack up the studio and watch a slideshow of stellar images from the morning’s shoot. I was blown away by the quality of the images; frozen pizza looked like an artisan’s masterpiece, a BLT that was too tempting to eat, a simple spring salad transformed into sophisticated hors d’oeuvres, just to name a few. We left that day completely inspired and excited about shooting and styling our next dish. I was so motivated and had learnt so much that I promptly got myself a tripod and a ball head, after trying to compose a shot through the camera’s lens with limited success.
A big, huge and awesome thanks again to Matt, Cindie and Denise for spending their weekend with us and inspiring a whole new bunch of food bloggers and writers to dress up food for the camera. It’s been two weeks since the class, but I can remember the details like it happened yesterday.
Looking for more? Check out these recaps from other food bloggers who attended the workshop: