Workshop Atlanta: A Story In Photos

Ask any self-taught food bloggers — including Dave and I — how they learned the basics of food photography, and they’re likely to say the book Plate to Pixel by photographer Helen Dujardin. Last weekend, Dave and I took off to Atlanta, Georgia for an intensive food photography weekend with Helene and two of her colleagues. Our instructors were Mindi Shapiro (prop styling),  Tami Hardeman (food styling), and Helene.

With Dave heading to grad school in September, we realized it was time for me to up my food photography game. Usually, when I have a new recipe for the blog, I grab Dave and he uses what I call his “fancy camera” to snap the photos. When he’s not around, I usually put the food on a white plate, use my iPhone, and hope for the best with a simple filter. This is officially the end of that slap-dash approach. I’ve still got a ton to learn, but the photos below are my first attempts with my own “fancy camera” — a hand-me-down from Dave. (It’s the camera he used to shoot Well Fed, when he was a newbie food photographer, too.)

So, once I’m settled in Vermont — just 21 days ’til the big move! — I’ll be sharing new recipes and new photos, taken by me. All by myself. Like a big girl.

For the photos below, Dave and I collaborated on the props (as we always do), then I handled the food styling, and we both took photos. The pics you see here are the ones I took with my camera.

My First Photo

I arrived in Atlanta for the first day of the workshop having held my fancy camera, but having never turned it on. Seriously. Dave gave me a tutorial on photography basics and showed me some stuff on the camera, but the battery was dead, the back-up battery was dead, and the cable we needed to charge the battery was accidentally thrown into the trash during our “purge everything we own to prepare the house for a showing so we can sell it and move to Vermont.” We had a replacement cable sent overnight from Amazon and got the batteries charged, but not in time for me to do any practice shots before the workshop. So…

… this is the first photo I took with the camera, on Saturday morning, just before we started our first food photography assignment at the workshop.


The Pasta Assignment

Our first assignment was pasta. On a buffet table, we had our choice of ingredients: penne, spaghetti, fettucine, tomatoes, green peas, asparagus, shrimp, salmon, chicken, an assortment of fresh herbs, parmesan, marinara sauce, alfredo sauce, and pesto. It was surprisingly difficult for me to select the food because I’m so accustomed to our styling and photography being driven by a recipe with which I’m intimately familiar. Choosing somewhat random ingredients felt very strange. In hindsight, I wished I’d picked fettucine because some of the noodle-y photos the other students made were very beautiful.

But I went for colorful and “healthy” (if you ignore the pasta, of course). I think these shots are OK. Kind of boring, but it was hard to sort out using a new camera, and I felt pretty uninspired by pasta because PASTA.


Feedback on my photos wasn’t too bad. The general consensus — and I agreed — was that the tomatoes were drawing too much attention to themselves. If I were to do this shot again, I think I would move them to the far margin of the photo, so we could just see a hint of them in the background. Also, I could have styled the shrimp a little more carefully.


The Hot Dog Assignment

Our second assignment was hot dogs, and I had an idea that I thought would either be brilliant or a failure.

The story of the photo, in my imagination, was that someone was at a Fourth of July party, and was so caught up in the fun, they put their half-eaten hot dog down on the picnic table to run and catch a Frisbee. I saw a sun-drenched, weathered table with the dog in the lower, right-hand third of the shot. My skills can’t keep pace with my ideas yet, so it didn’t really work. Also, I think the story would be conveyed better if I’d had some used sparklers or firecrackers to drop in the far background. As it is, it just looks like an ugly, lonely hot dog.


This next photo is the aftermath of taking the photo above. Dave was courageous and took two giant bites of the cold hot dog on a dry bun — held together with pins — and immediately and dramatically spit the soggy bites into this pan. Pretty!


The Oil Cloth Assignment

I’ve been wanting to use brightly-colored, flowery oil cloth in a food photo for years, so I was excited for this challenge. Tami, the food stylist, had taken this photo:oilclothex

Our assignment was to choose an oil cloth from a big pile of possibilities, then make a photo of our own using not-so-pretty luncheon salads: tuna, ham, egg, etc.. By the time Dave and I got to the pile of oil cloth, all that was left were two patterns I didn’t like, and purple polka dots, which I thought were charming. (It’s worth mentioning that I was wearing a black-and-white polka dot dress with red-and-white polka dot Keds that day.)

We decided to do everything in threes and to imitate the dots as much as possible. We also wanted to try a geometrical, overhead shot because we so rarely shoot our food that way. Here’s how they came out:




I like the playfulness of these, but I wish I’d figured out how to get the colors a little more saturated in the camera. We played with them a lot on the computer, but it’s still not where I wanted it. But cute, right?

The Canned Soup Assignment: Rustic

For our final assignment, we chose a can of soup from about 10 possibilities — I selected gumbo, mostly because I knew it would include some chunky things I could arrange to alleviate the boredom of endless, liquidy broth in the bowl. Then we randomly drew a style from a hat. I got “rustic.”

I think some of the other students were overwhelmed by the idea of soup, but Dave and I have lots of practice making “ugly” food look tasty, so we were excited. I was also pretty enthusiastic about shooting in a style so different from ours. We like to infuse lots of warm light into our food photos because I think it looks inviting, but it was fun to go darker and moodier for a while.


rusticsoup2The vertical version was more popular with the instructors than the horizontal, but I like them both… even though they do kind of look like the caption should be “Monk who loves making soup dines alone.”

Takeaways and What’s Next

I picked up a ton of helpful tips at the workshop, and one of the most surprising was that we should set up and style for a vertical shot, then use that styling to make horizontals, too. All along, I’ve been styling for horizontal because that’s my personal preference and the layout I need for my blog.

I also learned this weekend that I should play with my shots more. This was a surprise to exactly no none. That could be the theme of my life: “Have more fun, Mel, and don’t worry about getting it right the first time. Slow down and try lots of options.”

Our new house in Vermont has a huge window in just the right place for food photos, and it’s adjacent to the kitchen and the cabinet where I can store all of my props. I’m so looking forward to sharing the new recipes that are in my kitchen notebook and taking the photos that I hope will entice you to make them.

Which do you find tastier: horizontal or vertical photos? Light-infused or moody?


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  • hannah says:

    Love this post! I take the (amateur) photos for our occasional food blog and while I prefer the look of vertical, we, too, format horizontally since it looks better on the web.

    I like your oilcloth one quite a bit, I love the sets of three, and the pops of color in the vertical one. I think the hotdog one would have been nice with a glass of icy lemonade in the background, and maybe a little closer on the dog so the bun wasn’t so dominant.

    How fun, I’m jealous! 😀

  • valerie s. says:

    Rustic definitely gets my vote as best, I feel the warmth of the food, the cozy flavors, the crunch of the bread. Least favorite, the oil cloth, too busy, not sure what to focus on, all the components get lost in the print, dots of the cloth. Horizontal gets a thumbs up.

  • Lydia says:

    Oh my god ALL THAT BREAD/PASTA/UGH. You are SO BRAVE having to deal with using that stuff as subjects. Gold star for Dave for being brave and biting the hot dog.

    As for the photo types, I much prefer horizontal and moody. Which…pretty much describes my own self…so that’s not terribly surprising?

  • Linda Sand says:

    I was surprised to learn I liked the vertical shots better since I have both my Mac and my iPad set up for horizontal viewing. Maybe because you styled for vertical even when shooting horizontal?

    I always though I preferred light infused but I liked the texture of the rustic and the oilcloth ones made me squint indicating too much light for me.

  • Noblepower says:

    I think your rustic shots are terrific. Your lonely monk will be happy with his beautiful, mindful meal. 🙂

  • Love the soup shots. Moodier and darker always seems to make food look inviting.