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Food Styling & Photography Weekend (Part 2)

Food styling: Thai Red Curry

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.

Food styling: Pasta

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.

Food Styling & Photography Weekend

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.

Food Styling: Pasta

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:

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Neel - This is another amazing post on the same topic. I also read Gaby’s post on her blog What’s Gaby Cooking? I bet it would have been an awesome experience.

I badly wished I could be there. Well.. may be next time.

Judy - wow, how awesome. Beautiful pictures!

matt - It was so great having you! Thank you so much for your contribution and for inspiring ME!

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite - So much fun!!! Would so love to be at that level of photography… Someday…

Hana - Looks like a great course and fun too. Generous of you to share what you learned :)

El - What an interesting, informative post. I really enjoyed reading this. Your pictures came out great too (as did the cilantro). Thanks!

Tweets that mention Food Styling & Photography Weekend (Part 2) « Bon Vivant -- Topsy.com - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Glen Kadelbach, Cathy . Cathy said: Loved @istelleinad 's 2nd part post about our class w/ @MattArmendariz and @FoodFanatics . Gr8 hints for others, too. http://bit.ly/KInvE [...]

Stacy - This is so helpful! Great post!

Danielle - Neel: Denise and Cindie run these workshops fairly regularly, in fact Denise will be teaching at Camp Blogaway in May 2010, along with other blogging and photography experts. More details here if you’re interested: http://campblogaway.com/2009/08/27/growing-list-of-presenters/

Matt: You are so sweet!! Hope to see you again soon :)

El: Thank you – the cilantro does make for a good story I suppose ;)

Thanks everyone!

The Purple Foodie - I am exactly like you on two counts – I don’t start with clear vision – which I think isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because you might just end up getting a perspective that is totally unexpected. Ditto for not using the tripod. I like moving around freely and trying out random angles. Great post!

Mrs. L - Great post. I wish I could have gone to the class (or that they could move it up to the bay area!). Love the photo of the curry, looks really good.

Danielle - The Purple Foodie: Thanks! A tripod is great for composing shots, it’s just a radically different way of working from what I’m used to.

Mrs L: Denise and Cindie will actually be conducting a Master Food Styling class in San Francisco next year (January 16 & 17). More details here: http://www.culinaryentrepreneurship.com/master_class.htm

Felicia - Wow. I’m glad to say that I do see your styling getting better & better! Love your blog :)

amelia - thanks for sharing the aerial shots: it helps to understand the compositions. I HAVE to start using a tripod!

Cristie - Amazing information. Beautiful blog.

Let’s Lunch! – Thai Green Curry « Bon Vivant - [...] The dish gets its name from the tiny, green chilies used in the paste and you could just as well substitute them with their red cousins, to make a red version. [...]

Kumquat Coconut Cupcakes And A Giveaway « Bon Vivant - [...] And let’s not forget that crazy month of 30 desserts, or that weekend of food styling and photography heaven in Long Beach, and that trigger-happy Sunday in San Francisco spent looking through the [...]

susanehitchcock - Do you have the recipe for the thai red curry? It looks amazing!

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