A wonderful, creative day learning all about how to improve my food photography and styling with Emily Quinton and Catherine Frawley at a Makelight Food Photography Workshop.
Blogging is such a journey. I started my blog a little over 18 months ago and in that time I have learnt and grown so much in every aspect of blogging: writing, social media, design, the technical side…but especially my photography.
Photography has been a huge learning curve for me. When I started blogging I thought all I had to do was take a few quick snaps of my dinner and that was enough. The recipes were good, so surely no one would mind if the photos weren’t great? Um, yes well, actually they do. Or rather, the problem is that it’s tricky convincing anyone the recipe is good, unless the photos convey that too.
I often describe my photos as the advertising for my blog. If someone sees a great photo of my food on social media – a photo which makes them hungry, or which makes them think – ‘Yes, that is what I want to have for lunch’, then they will pop over to my blog and take the time to read my recipe and then maybe make my food. But if the photos are rubbish they will just move on, even if the recipe is amazing. To give you an example, this vegetarian moussaka is really, really delicious (honest!), but I am never going to convince anyone that is true with this picture, now am I?
Whereas these waffles are the regular shop bought kind – ok, but nothing amazing, but the photography and styling makes you think they must taste wonderful…
Knowing this, I have worked really hard on my photography, trying my best to make it the best it can possibly be. And so, in the course of one year my photography went from this…
If you want to know how I did it, check out this post: 10 things I’ve learnt about food photography from my first year of blogging.
But up to this point I was entirely self-taught. I had learnt everything from a mix of useful websites and books. And yes, my photography had dramatically improved, but I knew it could be so much better, I began to look out for a course that might help me take my photography to the next level…I wanted to see how real photographers did it and so I enrolled on a Makelight Food Photography Workshop.
Makelight Workshops are run by the fabulous Emily Quinton, who started as a fine art photographer, before moving into weddings and then food photography and teaching. These days, together with her husband Stef, she runs Makelight, a business dedicated to teaching photography skills to bloggers and creatives who want to improve their blog and social media images. She runs one day workshops at her beautiful studio in West Dulwich (South London) and also lots of online courses which typically run for two weeks at a time and can be taken anywhere in the world.
I chose to attend a course in West Dulwich as I wanted to see for myself exactly how it was done. I also knew if I booked a whole day off for myself I could really focus, whereas I worried with an online course, I might get distracted and end up not finishing it!
So last Friday was another day when I got up at the crack of dawn, but this time instead of driving through the almost deserted lanes of East Dorset (you can find out all about my food writing adventures in Dorset here), I was driving through the somewhat busier streets of South London to Emily’s West Dulwich studio. Her studio is in an old converted factory in the middle of an otherwise quiet residential street.
After a quick coffee in the fabulous Volcano café, situated on the ground floor of the building (I recommend getting there early so you can indulge), we were taken up to Emily’s amazing studio on the third floor, where we met the other participants (there were 12 of us) and our other teacher, Catherine Frawley of Borrowed Light, who is a successful food photographer, specialising in photography for magazines and cookery books and who Emily works with to teach all the food photography workshops.
After introductions, our day began with Catherine and Emily teaching us some of the basics of food photography. One of the key things they were keen to impress upon us was the importance of using natural light. All of their photographs are taken in daylight with no artificial light at all. I had come to the workshop hoping that they might have a few lighting tricks up their sleeves that I could learn from, now we are entering the dark winter months. But no, no tricks, just natural light. Frustrating on the one hand, as that does rather limit when I can take photos now it’s getting darker, but on the other hand it is great to know I don’t need to shell out on expensive kit!
Catherine and Emily were also keen to stress the importance of really thinking about our styling before we start making the food we are going to photograph: what colours will we use, what background, what props, what is the story we are trying to convey? For example an apple pie might be best photographed on a rustic farmhouse-style table, with apples as props and thick linens, giving a homely rustic freshly made feel.
For me this is an area I definitely need to improve on – all too often I am guilty of not really thinking about my styling until I have a dish of cooked food ready and waiting to be photographed and then it is a quick scramble to find some suitable plates and cutlery. As a result my photos are often just a plate of food plonked on a table and sprinkled with some herbs.
To illustrate how they do it, Catherine then went on to show us how she would set up a simple scene involving macarons. Rather than plonking them on a table and snapping away, Catherine took care to choose an appropriate background: grey to make the colours pop, arranged the macarons carefully and added pretty flowers for added interest. She took lots of photographs as she went to see how it looked on camera – often a scene can look great in real life, but not so great through the lens of a camera – by taking photos and checking them, she was able to make sure that the finished photo would look as good as possible.
Once Catherine had shown us her photographs of the scene, it was our turn to have a go. We all queued up to take photos of the setup Catherine had created for us, with Catherine and Emily on hand to help us and answer any questions. I was amazed to see how good my photos could be and it really did impress on me the importance of food styling. In fact with Catherine’s amazing styling it was difficult to take bad photographs.
Catherine went on to style a further two setups for us to snap away at. These amazing cinnamon buns, which she showed us how to improve on by brushing them with melted butter and sprinkling with sugar crystals…
And these gorgeous waffles – which are actually just ordinary shop bought ones, but how amazing do they look piled on top of this vintage waffle maker and sprinkled with berries, chocolate and maple syrup?
It made me realise that, with just a little thought about the styling, even the most ordinary of food can look incredible.
After a simple, but delicious lunch of paninis and salad, we were let loose in Emily’s studio to style and photograph to our hearts’ content. It was so much fun to play in Emily’s amazing studio full of beautiful backgrounds, linens, cutlery and interesting props. Here are a few photos I took in our free time…
As before, Emily and Catherine were there to help and advise us and answer any questions we had.
The session closed with a Q&A and a chance, in particular, to ask questions about social media. Emily is something of a social media phenomenon…she has an amazing following on Instagram (not surprising, given how beautiful her images are), so her tips were really valuable.
Emily’s advice was to only share your best images on Instagram, thinking of it as a gallery or a portfolio, rather than individual photographs. She also recommends judicious use of hashtags – she usually goes for between 8 and 10 per image. And only posting 1 or 2 images a day, or else it starts to feel spammy. But her key piece of advice was to engage with your community and not just dump your images and run. To take time to like, comment and reply to comments, follow new people and look at relevant hashtags. But she also advises not getting too hung up about it all, to do what you do and enjoy it rather than worrying about algorithms!
For amazing images and inspiration, you can follow Emily @emilyquinton and Catherine @catherine_frawley. For some slightly less amazing images (!), but some great recipes and foodie inspiration you can follow me @easypeasyfoodie. 🙂
Much as with the food writing course a couple of weeks ago, the day was over all too soon and before I knew it I was back out on the A23 heading home to Sussex, with a head full of ideas and back into real life and the same overenthusiastic reception from my children!
I absolutely loved the workshop and I have learnt so much. I would really recommend it, if you can get yourself to West Dulwich. Emily and Catherine are so friendly and knowledgeable, and there is plenty of opportunity to ask questions and practice as well as more theoretical input. If you can’t get to London for a workshop at Emily’s studio, she also runs online courses which can be studied from anywhere in the world and typically last for two weeks. You can find the full list of Makelight Courses here.
If there was one frustrating thing about the day it would be that I don’t have a studio full of amazing props and backgrounds and working out how to achieve great results with my more limited kit is the challenge for me going forward. But one which I am also rather excited by. I think next time (and there will almost certainly be a next time), I will do one of Emily and Catherine’s online courses, so I can practice in my own ‘studio’ (AKA the room which is also our dining room, conservatory and playroom) with all the limitations I usually work under. I don’t regret for a second attending the London version of the course – seeing Emily and Catherine style and take photos of food was invaluable, as was being able to ask them all my awkward questions – but I really do think that what I now need is to go at a slower pace and in my own home to really develop further – I just need to make sure I don’t get distracted!!