I received a pleasant surprise in the middle of last week when I discovered the winners for September’s Does My Blog Look Good in This had been announced by Katherine of ToastPoint- and I was sharing the top spot with the lovely Bea of La Tartine Gourmande! Of course, Bea is one of the standard-setters for gorgeous (not to mention prolific) food photography in the blogosphere, so I have to say I’m quite humbled to be mentioned alongside her!
And, just to round out the weekend, I came home to find that Emma of Laughing Gastronome had put up the winners for the October round of DMBLGIT – and I had been chosen for Most Originality in a Photo! That setup was a stroke of luck – I had just purchased the polka-dotted placemat the weekend before, and when I made the meringues, they fit perfectly with the dotty scheme! Another secret – the sorbets started melting as I was shooting and when I removed the meringues, there were red and orange drips all over the placemat! Thank goodness it washed out!
Be sure to check out the other winners on Katherine’s and Emma’s sites! Many thanks again to them for hosting these rounds of DMBLGIT and for organizing the judging- I’m immensely flattered to have been chosen out of somanybeautiful and drool-inducing entries!
Although I have not succeeded in reducing my pile of recipes to try – on the contrary, it seems to grow longer all the time – sometimes it’s nice to revisit an old recipe and remember what you loved so much about it (Not to mention all the times my friends and family get fixated on one of my desserts and insist on it over and over again, despite all attempts to entice them with new creations). This vanilla bean lemon cake is from a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa and is one of my favorites – I’ve made and devoured it happily many a time. It is a gorgeous example of pound cake: a moist, velvety crumb under a soft golden crust, with a rich, tangy-sweet lemon flavor (it smells so fabulous straight out of the oven). I added some raspberries this time to celebrate summer – not only do they add some pretty color, they make the cake even moister, and the raspberries pair quite well with the lemon. A perfect bite for tea-time.
In trying to shoot pictures of the cake, I was inspired by a talk I attended the night before at the Apple Store – a very fortuitous last-minute discovery of a presentation on food photography! As the Apple Store is but a short walk from where I live, and I had no plans for that hour, it was perfect timing all around.
The store was packed – although I should not be surprised that San Francisco would have an abundance of photography enthusiasts, foodies, and/or both! I was lucky enough to sit near the front and watch a food photography session with food photography Caren Alpert and food stylist Basil Friedman. They had a basic setup with a Canon EOS 30D, a backdrop and a light with diffuser, and proceeded to take a picture of a bowl of pasta. Of course the camera was hooked up to an Apple laptop so all the shots could be instantly projected onto a screen for the audience to see:)
A shot of the setup. You can tell from the poor quality that the lighting really wasn’t that good in that part of the store! Unfortunately, I could not get a copy of the final shot, but go to Alpert’s and Friedman’s websites for some beautiful, mouthwatering examples of their work.
It was fascinating to watch the progress of the shoot, as Alpert and Friedman discussed props, angle, and placement. While Alpert has the photographer’s background and Friedman the chef’s training, the shoot was clearly a collaborative effort as they discussed whether the colors of the napkins went with the food or how the pasta should be arranged.
It was also interesting to hear their insights into professional food photography – for example, how Alpert will often shoot photos for with deliberate blank areas, so that text can be placed there. She stated how she always shoots "full-page", because if she shoots a picture that can be shrunken and put on a corner of the page, that’s what will happen many times! Alpert also said that many magazines have not gone to digital photos yet, which was a surprise to me. Responding to a question from the audience about depth of field, Alpert indicated that many magazines are moving away from the shallower DOF that is so popular now and towards shots with more of the background/surroundings in focus. She did note that she still prefers the shallower DOF, but will shoot both ways for clients for them to choose.
Friedman shared some funny stories and tricks about how to make food look good – when asked about the dilemma of shooting steam, he replied that a classic trick was to have someone smoking a cigarette on set who would blow smoke into the shot! He also remembered a shoot involving coffee where they made the room as cold as possible and brought in a very hot cup of coffee- which created visible steam for about 30 seconds. Perhaps not the most comfortable of shoots!
In attending the talk, I actually came away impressed with the quality of photography to be found on blogs these days. Professional food photography shoots have oodles of technical equipment and gadgets, a warehouse worth of props, and team of artists – the photographer, the food stylist, the prop stylist, and all the assistants – to create those gorgeous pictures you see on magazine covers. But I look at what Bea, Nicky, J, and so many others I don’t have room to list have done all on their own and I think those shots are just as wonderful. In the end, if you have a passion for what you do, it will show through!
Vanilla Bean Lemon Cake with Raspberries
adapted from the Barefoot Contessa
1 3/4 sticks butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
Zest from 4 lemons
4 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1-2 cups raspberries, depending on how many you want
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the butter and sugar together in a mixer until light colored and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time. Add in the lemon zest.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Combine the lemon juice, buttermilk, and vanilla in a small bowl.
Add the dry and liquid mixtures to the mixing bowl alternately, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Mix just until everything is combined.
Pour batter into pans. This batter with fill two 8 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 2 1/2 loaf pans, or about (24) 3 1/2 x 2 x 1/2 mini loaves, or about (16) 3 1/2 diameter mini bundt pans as pictured – it’s a lot of batter!
Place raspberries on top of the batter, and using a spoon or spatula, gently swirl them into the batter. I’ve found that if I fold them into the batter sooner, they tend to sink to the bottom of the cake. This method allows for a more even distribution.
Bake until a tester comes out clean -about 45 minutes for a large loaf, 25-30 minutes for minis. Let cool on wire rack.
Last weekend I went up to Sonoma, not for the wine but for a food photography workshop being held at VIVA, the Culinary Institute of Florence and Italian Cultural Center in Sebastopol. Surprised that such a place was out in wine country? So was I, but it is a beautiful little building designed in that sleek, cool, modern aesthetic Italy is so good at, offering an intriguing array of classes in Italian culture, from language to food to wine.
The two-afternoon workshop was taught by Cosimo Bargellini, an experienced photographer whose work has appeared in many publications, including cookbooks, and who teaches food photography in Florence. He was funny, charming, eager to share his knowledge but also just as eager to have us students find our own vision. While he imparted some basic technical and compositional concepts about photographing food, he emphasized that the most important thing was for us to not be afraid to experiment and learn what looks good and what does not.
Because of the limited time and small class size, he kept the class quite informal and more of a workshop than a class. The first afternoon consisted of critique and analysis of slides showing his former students’ work, and some discussion on what makes a good picture. But the second day he basically let us loose in front of his setup and had us just start taking pictures. Although we were all rather nervous at first, probably hoping he would give us some more instruction, he told us with a smile that if he set everything up for us "we would just be taking his pictures."
And after we overcame our stage fright and started taking pictures (although some people with fancier equipment used their own cameras, Cosimo let us use his camera – what a chance to use some high-end equipment!) he would step in making observations, giving us pointers on where to focus, what type of lighting would bring out the texture of the food, how using reflectors would improve the lighting, etc.
The teacher at work. The setup is not that elaborate, mostly because he was traveling from Italy to Montreal for a conference and therefore did not bring much of his equipment. Normally his camera (a Fuji Finepix, I think) would be hooked up to a computer so the picture could be viewed more easily; here we had to rely on the viewfinder. There are two standing lights, one with a diffuser, off the side, and also a third light being used for strong side lighting of the subject. There is also a gold reflector being used to give a warmer cast to the food.
Is it surprising that we were still able to achieve quite good pictures with the simple, impromptu setup? Cosimo believed that while better cameras will produce better pictures in general, it is not necessary to get the most expensive camera or tons of equipment. With a couple of lights and reflectors, and interesting papers from the art store for backdrops, you can get some nice results! Here are some of my favorites from my shooting session:
A chocolate mousse dessert (another student brought the food, but I did the plating!:) ) I liked how the red plate and green background matched elements of the dish. Also notice the off-center placement and cropping. Cosimo is a big proponent of "not centered", as he calls it, because having the subject smack dab in the center of the picture is usually much less exciting and dynamic. At one point I jokingly asked him if there were any straight lines in his house:)
French onion soup. We used a wood board to enhance the rustic feel, and strong side lighting to show off the texture of the cheese. Of course now I also notice the wet spot on the board; these pictures have not been finetuned in Photoshop!
A simple pasta dish. The point of this exercise is that the wonderful golden color of the pasta is from putting some saffron in the boiling water; without it, the cooked pasta looks rather anemic and unappealing. Do the experiment yourself – it’s amazing! This was just one of the little tricks that Cosimo showed us. In the world of food photography, there are many techniques used to help make food look more appealing for shooting, but which usually render the food inedible. While Cosimo admitted that sometimes it is unavoidable, he prefers to work with the actual food as much as possible and not use fake ice cream or chemical sprays because afterwards no one can eat the food – he is a true gourmand!
Brown sugar pecan cheesecakes and a study in depth of field. I am very fond of the "endless rows of food" shots. The gold reflector was used here to make the cheesecakes look even more golden and luscious.
Crème brûlée. I liked the reflection of the ramekin on the black dish. See the picture above of Cosimo for what the whole dish looked like. This was actually part of a set brought in by another student; I have to say one of the best parts was having so many fun props to work with. I need to hit the markets more and build up my collection!
Another cheesecake shot. I really like the colors here, plus they did such a beautiful job with the fruit!
A word on all the food in the shots: with the exception of the pasta, all of it was brought in by students on their own initiative! We were told that all the food would be provided, yet some students decided to contribute their own creations – I am only sorry I didn’t bring anything of mine to see how it could look when photographed professionally! We were very lucky to have Susan, who has been making and selling cheesecakes for 20 years, and Roger, chef/owner of La Gare, a beautiful French restaurant voted "Most Romantic" in Sonoma Country, bringing in so many of their creations for us to play with!
In all, I was very impressed with VIVA and the class. I wish the workshop could have been a longer-running class so we could have had more time to learn about technique and refine our photographers’ eyes, but those two days were wonderful creative sessions that opened my mind to how we can capture the beautiful food we make, to remember long after it has been consumed.
7160 Keating Ave
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Note: There do not appear to be any photography courses in the near future, but I was told Cosimo does fly in from time to time to teach. There are also many food and wine classes being offered on their calendar. The VIVA staff is exceptionally friendly and gracious and will happily answer all your questions.