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.