When one of my work colleagues asked if I’d heard about the School of Artisan Food, as he’d just completed a four day artisanal bread baking course and would highly recommend it, I could hardly wait to get home and do some Googling. I was sold with a quick browse on their website and as fortune had it, my birthday was coming up and Hungry Hubby offered to pay for the one day Food Photography course taught by Joan Ransley as my gift this year. I was over the moon. A chance to learn some new skills, spend the day with a bunch of fellow eager foodies in the most beautiful surroundings was an opportunity I was not about to pass up.
Based in the grounds of the privately owned Welbeck Estate in the Sherwood Forest, the drive to the school building is simply breathtaking. If you pass the entrance on the main road you’d not know that 15,000 acres of country estate unfolds as you traverse the lanes and navigate through beautifully maintained buildings, many of pale, muted yellow and grey stone with plenty of open forest space in between them. I arrived early and spent some time drinking in the beautiful, peaceful scenes before me. I met Joan herself as we crossed the courtyard to of the school building (the Welbeck Bakehouse) – she was immediately drawn to a stunning Hungarian butcher’s block in the lobby, such is her love of all things wood and indeed, it was a thing of beauty, as was so much of the school. I only regret not being confident enough to take some shots of the surroundings. Next time I will be bolder.
Being the first of my group to arrive, I sat and indulged in an almond croissant with more layers than any puff pastry I’d ever seen and the perfect amount of sweet almond flavour as the other students arrived. Half of them were there for a historic pie course by food historian Ivan Day whom you may recall from episodes of the Great British Bake Off in the historical segments on Nigel Slater’s TV shows about cakes and biscuits. The food photography students got to know each other as we munched our pastries and drink our tea and it was fun to hear about their own foodie aspirations, professional and enthusiastic amateur alike. There were a few fellow food bloggers, a professional photographer who wanted to branch out into food, a chap trying to break into the world of chocolate by creating stunning hand made chocolates in his free time, a couple who ran a farm and wanted to learn how to publicise it better through social media etc, graphic designers, even an owner of a cookery school looking to take beautiful images of her food to promote her work plus several more. We were the first group that had ever experienced this particular course but a moment of apprehension over hearing this fact during the welcome chat quickly dispersed as Joan talked us through the day ahead.
Quietly spoken but confident and an extremely experienced food photographer, Joan talked us through the interesting story of her career. We introduced ourselves and established what we were each hoping to get from the course. A basic level of knowledge and competence in using a DLSR was assumed but the atmosphere was relaxed and interactive so asking seemingly stupid questions for clarification was not a problem. It can be a solitary occupation photography and especially if like me you’re a blogger working out of your own home kitchen so I didn’t waste the chance to have some uncertainties talked through for me. This sort of setting is the way I learn best – small group teaching with didactic sessions interspersed with practical exercises to solidify the principles just taught.
As an aside, as a schoolchild I was under the impression that there was only one way to do something, one correct way of arriving at any given answer. As I’ve progressed through higher and further education to a stage referred to as lifelong learning in my field of work it’s become abundantly clear that is absolutely not the case and actually, some of the most beautiful, innovative thinking comes from stepping sideways and finding your own path. I’ve read enough about photography so far to know there are different schools of thought about how to use your camera to the best affect but proponents of one method over another can be a bit blinkered when giving their advice. I was intrigued at using the live view mode rather than the view finder/eye piece for instance – and I know some foodie photographers who will be appalled at this, shunning it as the activity of non-serious camera users. We all know how even your choice of camera can be a deal breaker for some. I speak Canon, you speak Nikon, for instance, is the first hurdle you may stumble upon in some courses or in reading about photography to the extent that some excellent resources will be disregarded by the easily confused beginner (aka me – I do not find photography easy nor does it come naturally to me, I have to work hard to produce what I do). With Joan though, this did not matter. She had a wonderful manner to her and that ability of a great teacher to strip back the superfluous detail to the absolute basics to allow the student to build a solid foundation from which the confidence to try more difficult techniques stems. It did not matter that she shoots with a Canon EOS 5D and I shoot with a Nikon D5300. It just mattered that we loved food and wanted to capture our work on screen with a camera.
Having the night to reflect on the course now and what I took away from it, I’ve learnt heaps. I’ve done a basic DSLR course at the camera shop Jessops before now which I must say, didn’t help me much more than using Pinterest does to inform me on basic techniques – it certainly didn’t help me with my specific objective to photograph food, not weddings nor rolling fields and hills. Yesterday, however, Joan clarified the most basics for me. It beggars belief that I wasn’t absolutely concrete on this before now but I was a little unsure about the most basic foundation of photography – aperture. I now know how to vary it on my camera (my camera and lens have a peculiar way of varying it which meant I’d never fully got to grips with what it all meant despite being able to shoot in manual). Food styling was a part of the advertised course at the School that I was very eager to hear about. We talked about where to find props and how to use them to the best effect (less is definitely more) and how to make your own backgrounds which was a great help. Joan has a real love of wood, as I do and she has collected odds and sods over the years which she’s customised herself and I am slightly annoyed that I haven’t tapped my dear old Daddums, (the carpenter!) for off cuts to nail together to make myself some similar ones before! That was a doh! moment for sure! Joan’s own work is beautifully presented – it’s remarkable to me who struggles with the styling more than the technique that she can strew a few crumbs, add an antique pastry cutter and a fabric off cut with seemingly no effort and yet her images are so well balanced and the food is so beautifully framed. Sigh, such beauty…I did have a go but this is something I need to practice a lot more.
After an exemplary lunch of freshly baked quiche (three sorts), salads, sourdough bread and even a whole Stichelton cheese and chutney all made at the school, the afternoon was spent putting the new knowledge we’d accumulated to use. We were split into smaller groups each with a “brief” to fulfil on location somewhere in the grounds of the school. I was in the bread group and we chose the courtyard to do our shoot. It was exciting but hard work to style a shoot as if we were professional photographers employed to showcase the wares of a local artisan bakery but that’s the point – at the outset Joan said she hoped wherever we where when we came to the course, she hoped that we’d each be gently pushed onto the next level for us as individuals. Being brave enough to experiment is were creativity succeeds. It was odd using bread and props to tell someone else’s story for me – my blog is a very personal space for me despite it’s position in view of anyone who cares to click on my site and each recipe I create tells a personal story for me. It is either a story borne out of a particular recipe and it’s place in my life or the story of a particular ingredient, and how I make it work in my hands. Telling someone else’s tale was challenging. I took a lot of images, trying to only make one change at a time to understand how it varied the result. Most have been discarded but I did walk away with a few images I am proud of and feel show some sort of success in each of them. Making mistakes is an excellent way to learn too – if you never make an error, you’ll never know how to fix it which usually pushes you to learn new techniques. The brilliant thing about digital photography is being able to delete and format a memory card without any waste or even anyone else having to see the evidence!
I’ve always shot in RAW since getting my first DSLR not quite 18 months ago to ensure I can do effective tweaking in the post processing of my images but my second doh! moment was when Joan showed us how to easily tether your camera to your computer via Lightroom which served as a cable release (remote trigger rather than risking camera shake by using the shutter button at slow shutter speeds) and also meant your images were transferred immediately for fast review and editing as you shoot, if you want to. I did try Lightroom when I got my first DSLR but found it’s language impenetrable (I’m easily confused if we’re not talking cake) so abandoned it in favour for iPhoto on my MacBook. Not any more! I’m resurrecting that programme this afternoon when I’ve shot my next blog post in the softer afternoon light. One of my bugbears was over what you see on the camera display not being what you see in the final (unprocessed) image. It meant I ended up all too often having to compromise and publish images I was unhappy with as it was too distracting to stop and download my images as I shot them and the vision of what I wanted my food to look like was not realised. Knowing how straight forward this is now, I’ll get real time feedback allowing me to modify the subject and/or camera settings as I go, even with my love of process shots so important to the vision I hold dear of my blog. My style is to be rather spontaneous and natural in my own home rather than to have absolutely every single shot perfectly placed and worthy of the cover of a glossy food magazine (although isn’t that a wonderful thought?). I want you to see how each story unfolds rather than each shot always being technically perfect every time. I’ve a fiercely independent and individualistic side to my personality so I do love a spot of rule breaking although the perfectionist in me is very open to taking a step back and refining my enthusiastic beginner level of skill. After all, this is food – no one wants to visit the blog where the images are an unappetising mess. Just don’t read my earliest posts immediately after this one and that mantra will hold true…
This final image is my favourite of the day. I love the colours and textures of the weathered wooden table against the cobbles of the courtyard floor and stone walls. It says “artisan bread producer setting up stall at a local farmer’s market” to me. I definitely need to build a collection of fabrics to use as props for myself. These intricate and beautiful breads were baked by students of one of the many bakery courses at the school which was really rather lovely as it emphasised the ethos of making for yourself locally sourced and skilfully crafted food which is the premise on which the school was created. And practice is such an important factor in all this, whether we are talking baking or photography. There is potential to learn from each and every photograph we take and as Joan touched upon in her talks, the 10,000 hour principle of Malcolm Gladwell’s has a point. The more you shoot, the more you learn, the better you become. I’m not sure I will ever become a photography expert but I am quite sure I will learn how to communicate what I create in my kitchen via a lens with more fidelity and continue to develop my own style.
Thank you to those at The School of Artisan Food and of course Joan Ransley herself for your inspiration, education and thoroughly wonderful way to spend my belated birthday treat from Hungry Hubby.