Thursday 15 May 2014

Guardian Masterclass - Food Writing and Photography

How do you take better photographs of your food? How do you make sure your blog posts are engaging and that your writing makes people want to revisit your site?

These were the main questions I was hoping to have answered when I attended a Food Writing and Photography Masterclass at the Guardian. The media group – it’s not just a newspaper these days – has recently started running a series of Masterclasses, taught by their staff, freelancers and other industry experts, covering topics from researching your family tree to creative writing to launching a food start up. I spotted one on food writing and photography, with journalist Felicity Cloake and photographer Jill Mead, and signed up immediately.

The classes take place at the Guardian building near London’s King’s Cross which is very impressive if you have never set foot inside a newspaper, though I worked in newsrooms of national newspapers for many years so the impact was rather lessened for me. It was nice to hear the awestruck reactions of some of the other attendees though – this really is an insight into a world most people will never have.

Of course, the sessions take place in an auditorium rather than the newsroom. On the plus side, there was free wine and the chance to mingle with other attendees. The woman sitting on my left said she was interested in food writing and thinking of starting a blog, so wanted to get some tips. And on my right was… Kate from What Kate Baked. I’ve followed Kate ever since I began blogging and regularly take part in Tea Time Treats, the blog challenge she used to co-host before taking a break. I had no idea what Kate looked like so when she introduced herself and I did the same, there was a mutual “Oh my goodness! I know you! How nice to meet you at last!”
The evening class lasted three hours and was split into two; the first session was taken by Jill Mead, who showed several examples of photos she had taken for various cookery books and magazines as well as some examples of less successful food photography.

I also learnt that at photo shoots food stylists (who are also known as home economists) usually cook all the food – it’s quite rare that the cookbook author or celebrity chef makes all the food themselves. Also, there will most likely be a prop stylist on the photo shoot, who is separate to the food stylist. Jill explained how you can go to a prop warehouse to hire props but that it is also a good idea to visit car boot sales and charity shops and stock up on different tablecloths and vintage or unusual plates. Even having different cutlery makes a notable difference.

I’ve distilled some of Jill’s most important tips based on the notes I took during the session:

-       Location is very important. Try out different locations around the house and garden.
-       In terms of lighting it is far better to shoot outside than inside, or at least by a window if indoors with natural light. [Though this won’t be easy for food bloggers who have day jobs like me and do most of their food preparation and photography in the evening!]
-       Don’t repeat props or photo styles too often. While you will want to develop a distinctive style, it gets tired if you use the same plate and fork in every photo.
-       Consider both complementary and clashing colours
-       Look for unusual crops and angles
-       Deconstructed images work well, such as a half eaten piece of cake, crumbs. A deliberate spillage can also make a good photo.
-       Overhead shots work really well but are not always easy to achieve, you need a tripod and an extender.
-       Don’t use glossy backgrounds as the light reflects off them.
-       Avoid shooting from the height/angle of where you are eating – either be higher or lower than the food or side-on.
-       Ideally shoot in RAW.
-       Don’t use flash and do use reflectors.

After a short break (and more wine) Felicity Cloake took over. Felicity is a young freelance journalist who has a regular food column in the Guardian and New Statesman. She was talking about all forms of food writing, be it blogging or campaigning journalism e.g. if you want to get into writing features about sustainable fish farming. However, whatever kind of food writer you want to be, Felicity recommends starting a blog for the practice and exposure, even if your ambitions extend beyond being a blogger. Not that being a blogger necessarily means you will be small-fry. One interesting snippet that stuck with me is that the blogger Ree Drummond, whose website I was familiar with – Pioneer Woman Cooks – apparently makes $1 million a year from advertising and income related to her blog!

Some of Felicity’s tips were:
-       You need passion for food, to be really interested in it and want to share that interest
-       Work out what your writing style is [I’m conscious that my style is more about just sticking up a recipe… maybe I should write more about why I cooked it and liked it]
-       Read as many food writers as possible; she recommends Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher, and if you can get hold of the anthologies published every year as part of the James Beard food writing award
-       Ruthlessly edit yourself or ask someone else to read your work and edit it
-       Always pause before pressing publish
-       Make sure each paragraph leads on to the next – reading aloud is a good way to do this
-       You have to develop a thick skin as a blogger
-       Nobody will read your writing if your photos are rubbish
-       Always declare if you have accepted freebies or people won’t trust your reviews
-       Be wary of people who ask you to write for free. Do it once, for the exposure, but after that if they like your writing, they should pay
-       Don’t be afraid to be personal in your food writing; add some context such as why you like a recipe. Why should someone searching for a particular recipe online read your version rather than someone else’s?
-       Write from the heart, and put passion into everything you do

The masterclass cost £49 which I thought was very good value; the sessions were pitched at all levels, so some of the more basic advice on writing was old hat to me (as a professional writer in my day job) but it was good to apply this to blogging and think about food writing in general. The photography part of the session focused more on location, styling, props and so on – which was extremely valuable, but it did leave me a little in the dark still about the more technical side. Luckily, my boyfriend gave me a voucher for a food photography course for my birthday last month; it’s a full day and will focus more on the technical side (I’m expected to bring my camera and know about focus and exposure already). This course was a great starting point and the two presenters were engaging and entertaining; I’m glad I was able to attend and would highly recommend it if this course is run again.


  1. This is the sort of thing I would have really liked to have gone to but sadly as a Yorkshire lass I don't live close enough to go so thank you for writing such a thorough overview. The only thing I'm inclined to disagree with is the thing about writing style but then I'm not an expert so maybe I'm talking rubbish. If your blog is primarily for your own enjoyment then as long as you are personally happy with it then surely that is what counts? Like I say I'm not an expert, just an enthusiastic baker =)

  2. Sounds like a great course and I'm sorry I missed it. It's great that you got to meet Kate. I really need to get better photos but the lighting is very poor here which hopefully won't be an issue for long!


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