So on Thursday I ventured down to the county of Northamptonshire to spend the day improving my food photography skills. The course I chose was hosted by the lovely Vanessa Kimbell, at the Juniper and Rose cookery school. Vanessa was warm and welcoming and our class size was small (only eight) and included the Daily Telegraph writer Xanthe Clay. (I spent most of the day a little in awe of these two women – both very successful food writers.) Other participants included the owners of a secret tearoom, a caterer, a children’s cookery instructor, and a photography student.
The day started with slightly technical instructions on photography, given by photographer Boyd Gilmour. Boyd explained about the importance of light, how it changes, and how to overcome various issues, like shooting into the light and how to avoid grey looking white plates. We then moved out into the garden and started to use our cameras. Boyd and Vanessa explained the importance of not shooting food in direct sunlight and we spent the morning under the dappled shade of a tree. Vanessa whipped up some blueberry muffins and jars of Eton mess for us to photograph, as well as a bowlful of strawberries and some asparagus. Boyd was on hand to give specific help with camera settings and the more technical aspects of photography whilst Vanessa did some translating techniques into layman’s terms and highlighted some simple styling ideas and tricks.
We played around with aperture settings, learning about blowing out the background, how to utilise the light and how to organise arrangements of things. In the picture below you can see Vanessa styling the muffins. I learnt about the importance of echoing ingredients, so blueberries scattered around the blueberry muffins and then blue flowers to echo this.
We got to eat some of the scrumptious blueberry muffins as a snack and there was time to wander around Vanessa’s beautiful gardens, meet her dogs and chickens, and generally absorb the wonderfulness of the place. Then we wandered back inside where Vanessa was preparing lunch, a lovage and lime soup served with cranberry and hazelnut sourdough. She showed us how to build a shot, adding ingredients and using lines that echo – so the round bowl on the round rack, on the round table. She emphasised the importance of fresh ingredients (herbs, flowers) in photo shoots, how they can lift the picture.
We then got to eat the soup, which was delicious, and to photograph the scene. Vanessa’s dad, Bill, popped over – he runs the FleurFields vineyard, which is only a mile away from the school and we got to sample some of the wines. My favourite was the Fleurfields rose.
Over lunch Xanthe talked to us about The Grenada Chocolate Company which she and Vanessa visited in Grenada. It’s a very inspirational story about ethical chocolate and what can be done even when people say it’s impossible. The company make chocolate in small batches (the expiry dates on the labels are hand written), and produce it right where it is grown, something the larger companies have been arguing for years is unachievable. There was a sadness to the story though because the company’s founder, Mott Green, recently passed away and no one is sure what will now happen to the company. (You can read the article Xanthe wrote about the company and Mott here.) Despite the tragedy in the tale, it was an inspiring lesson, particularly about the power of the consumer and the importance of supporting farmers/producers/people whom you think are doing the right thing. For dessert Vanessa had been sent brownies by Rachel Lucas, made with chocolate from The Grenada Chocolate Company. The brownies were really good, dark and dense – a bittersweet dessert in the realest sense.
Vanessa also talked about the importance of finding your own style. Her style is very vintage, and quite rustic. My style is much more simplistic – she showed us various cookery books with different styles. I discovered mine is quite like the photography in Dan Lepard’s book Short and Sweet. I tend not to fuss with trimmings and I shoot the stages of a recipe quite starkly. The shot below is typical of something I might do.
Knowing this is very helpful in terms of creating an identity of sorts on the blog. After lunch Vanessa showed us how to refresh and style a salad, with ingredients picked directly from her rather beautiful kitchen garden. Her garden was inspirational, not least because it is fairly new (they’ve only been in their house 22 months) and I got all excited about prospects for our allotment.
The day was long and tiring but so much fun. I learnt loads, met new like-minded people and took away many tips and ideas. I’m thinking about signing up for a sourdough course now too.