2009 International Conference on Food Styling & Photography Master Class

Before I start to talk about the International Conference on Food Styling & Photography’s Monday “Master” workshop with Francine Zaslow & Deborah Jones, let me first put this thought in your head. What kind of a saint would you be to let 30 people with cameras in tow crowd around you and watch you work all day? And on top of that, be willing to talk through, step-by-step, what you are doing?


These two women (as well as their fantastic assistants and stylists) are some kind of angels for not only sharing their time and knowledge but doing it in such an elegant, patient and down right entertaining way. The folks that were able to attend this session were incredibly lucky to be hosted by such a wonderful team (and I’m pretty sure everyone felt that way).

Secondly, Francine & Deborah were throwing out so many ideas and tips and tricks during the day that it’s impossible to remember them all. This post will probably be more photos than anything because I had a camera clicking away in my hands “taking notes” rather than pen & paper. The ideas will probably come to me now and then over the next month or so, and I’ll post them as they come. Just realize that any tips listed here are really the tip of the iceberg and that next time, get yourself to the conference so you don’t miss them!


So with that, the day. After a quick bus ride across town to Francine’s studio that is located down by the shipping docks (I’m sure there is some name for this section of Boston, but I’m not that familiar with it). About 30 of us from the conference wandered into the studio really not knowing exactly what to expect. We were a motley crew of photographers, stylists, graphic designers, art directors with quite a lot of “oh, I do this and that and a little something else” thrown in. Photographers, of course, immediately grabbed cameras to capture all the incredible props.


Francine started out with a walk through of some of her work and client requirement docs (after taking a while to figure out how the projector worked… which seemed to be a bit of a running theme throughout the conference… very few of the presenters really knew how to use their computers for things other than Photoshop, but all of them handled it with such humbleness and good spirits it was never really a problem) and then Deborah showed a quick slideshow of behind the scenes of a few of her cookbook shoots, pointing out the great length that she & her assistants go to get the light bounced back on the subject in just the right way (including precariously standing on the railing of a balcony). Then, the day began in earnest. There were two sets, one daylight and the other with strobe. Deborah would be shooting all day on the daylight set (according to her assistant, she shoots about 80% daylight) and Francine was on the strobe set (she shoots almost exclusively strobe). They’d each be shooting to a fictitious client project, a brochure for olive oil, which required 5 photos. There were 3 (I think) stylists helping out and 3 or 4 assistants (sorry… there were so many people running around it was, at times, hard to tell who was an attendee versus an assistant versus a stylist). We were welcome to watch whatever was going on, to ask questions, to take photos, to look through the cameras, and to help out where needed.


Francine was shooting with a Hasselblad back on a very cool Rollei bellows system tethered to FlexColor and her set included 3 strobes. One was positioned behind a diffusing sheet on a wooden frame. The benefit of this setup is that the strobe could be adjusted to achieve just about any effect… moving it closer to the diffusion screen or further away for more intense or diffuse light, or positioning it lower or higher on the frame for more direction or top light. I think it might have been my favorite thing out of the whole experience… I loved the crafty nature of this big wooden structure with all of the high-end tech. Two other lamps placed below the diffusion screen were used to add highlights and fills. I’m quite intrigued by her tiny dedolight spotlight which she used to illuminate the prawns in her first shot… it had the effect of making the food glow, but somehow without looking fake or unnatural. In fact, this is a running theme throughout Francine’s work. She is a master at using strobes look as though she were shooting in the most perfect, beautiful daylight.


Although I think I should have probably spent more time with Francine to learn more about strobes, I did tend to gravitate to Deborah’s set (she was shooting with a Phase One medium format tethered to Capture One) and working with natural light which I love. It was an overcast day in Boston, so Deborah couldn’t show us many of her tricks for dealing with harsh light but she still managed to fill my head with more than I can remember. Mainly she emphasized that it is still important to control the light, even when using daylight. She has all kinds of tricks, which mostly amount to grabbing whatever is close at hand (my kind of shooter!) to use to modify the light. Plastic bags, bottles, small mirrors, black pieces of poster board, plexiglass and perhaps my favorite, post its! A post-it note, which comes with it’s own adhesive, can be stuck just about anywhere to soften or reduce a highlight. And, different colors of post its can make for some interesting effects. Brilliant! As soon as I got home, I ordered some of the little plastic blocks I had seen on her set. These are incredibly handy if you need a little bit of light modification, or you just need something to hold something in place.


A few other great ideas & reminders from the day:


Level the set! This is particularly important if you are shooting liquids such as cocktails or soups. But it is good practice for anything you shoot and will save you time later. Little pieces of stick-tack work great for making small corrections.


If you can, buy any herbs or greens as plants. They’ll stay fresh longer and often it’s cheaper than buying the little clamshell packages. Plus, they can act as potted plants for a background in a pinch.


For backdrops, be creative! Deborah shot one or two of her shots with a gold bounce (it’s silver on one side, gold on the other) as the backdrop which ended up looking like a wonderfully, light filled, warm wall.

Try Deborah’s 15 minute photography exercise. Take a subject on a set and shoot it, just for practice, for 15 minutes. Then STOP! Now, do something else with the same subject. But shoot it from a new angle, in a new set, on a new plate… do something different. Rinse & repeat. This is a great way to really push yourself to think about your shots creatively and get you out of a rut.


And finally, Deborah shared with us some of her favorite quotes about photography and art, and I’ll close by sharing one of them with you.

“Never try to be an artist. Just do your work and if the work is true, it will become art.” – Duane Michaels, Photographer

Thank you Deborah & Francine for sharing yourselves with us for the day!

  • Fernando

    Woa! Thank you very much, but how I hate you! Sorry, that was my little devil, I’m green with envy.
    Congratulations!(that is my good angel).

  • http://theportfoliopro.org ThePortfolioPro

    This looks like an awesome program! I’m really jealous.

  • http://www.cannelle-vanille.blogspot.com Aran

    This was amazing Lara! I can’t even remember half of those things by now and you captured the day magnificently. It was such a dream…

  • http://www.fooddforfilm.com foodforfilm

    Glad you’re up and running after hardware problems.
    I was one of the “TrailBlazer” Food Stylist speakers at the Conference. Your blog site is stunning and worth all the hard work you put into it. Bravo!

    Best wishes,
    Alice Hart
    Food For Film Stylists®
    Los Angeles, California

  • http://www.seattletallpoppy.blogspot.com Traca | Seattle Tall Poppy

    Fantastic post Lara. I loved the way you took “notes”. Can’t wait to hear more about your experience.

  • http://chicagophotostylist.com Paula

    I have read nothing but favorable comments on this conference! We learn so much from sharing talents in this wonderful business. I can’t wait to get back into the studio tomorrow!

  • http://thephotographerblog.com Mandy

    What a great opportunity and experience, thanks for sharing this. It’s a nice insight into the day.

  • http://blog.staceycramp.com Stacey

    Really wish I had stuck around for this, but this is the second best possibility–seeing how it was through your eyes. Thanks so much for taking the time to share all these great tidbits. Particularly love the post-it note and using the reflector as backdrop ideas!

  • http://makeroomforliving.blogspot.com ROOM design studio

    Lara you cant imagine how I needed this. I’m new to the subject and searching everywhere to get info about styling and photography. reading your notes and seeing your photographs helped me alot in taking my own notes on this matter!

    thanks alot for sharing!

  • http://www.sense-serendipity.blogspot.com divinape

    Wow, I hope I can take great photos like that on this site. So clear and vibrant. I’m not into photography until I don’t have anything to take photos for my blog. So, I borrowed a camera and took my own photos instead. I have no idea how to work the correct light onto the photo. I’m very very amateur when it comes to food photography. Hopefully someday, I could take really great photos.


  • http://www.moronics.net Nics

    I stumbled upon your blog and thought I would drop a note to say thank you and I appreciate you sharing your experience. I’ve learned a lot just from the pictures you shared!

  • http://www.ztastylife.com/ amelia

    thanks for the background images…it really helps to see what happened behind the scenes!!!