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And so it was that a flutter of a butterflies wings in Sydney, turned into a ripple in a pond in Melbourne, a wave swept across Bass Strait to Tasmania, and abnormal convection currents limped their way over the bite to Perth, til very shakily the word spread across the country and the seeds of the first ever Australian Food Bloggers Conference were sown.
I’ve just returned from Melbourne after what was a resounding success for a conference. It ticked all the right boxes for conference junkets (food, wine, abuse of taxi charges, dubious morality), but also managed to be extremely personal and very relevant to the majority of people who attended. Namely, the hard working and dedicated food bloggers of Australia, who day after day present you with alternative sources for information about where and what to eat and drink.
The event was championed by Ed and Reem, and ably assisted by a team of helpers including Mellie, April, Jess, and Tammi. They organised people together, contacted potential sponsors (Essential Ingredient, Prentice Wines, SBS Food, St Ali, Der Raum, Daylesford and Hepburn Springs Mineral Springs Co, Red Hill Brewery) and generally got the cogs turning that so often come unstuck when bloggers are left to their own devices.
So a time and date was set, a provisional list of topics to talk about drawn up, and the bloggers of Australia enlisted to share their knowledge with us all.
Presenting on the day and providing great insights into topics such as how and why we blog, how to deal with legal issues/defamation, How to handle public relations, search engine optimization, and perhaps how to make some money along the line were Reem, Gill, Zoe, Ellie, Nola, Claire, Ed, Penny, Michael, Brian, Jules and Phil
All the speakers did a great job, and I think we all got a lot out of it. I personally picked up some new techi tips I plan to implement soon on the blog, as well as a good deal of insight into how others approach things like advertising and promotions, which often throws me into an ethical quandary (for the record I rarely accept freebies or promotions, will disclose anything I’ve been given, and won’t pass opinion on anything when I feel I can’t be objective).
You can find a bunch of information about the conference, and slides from some of the other presenters on the conference blog .
So at some point in the organisational process, I was asked if I’d like to speak about photography and bring some of my “wisdom” to the discussion in the guise of practical steps to improve your photos. Always happy to be given a platform to espouse my view on how things should be (and keen to do more Melbourne dining), I gladly accepted the offer.
I didn’t want to prepare too much content because I think basically anything that I could put together you could find on the web. Flickr, Google, camera review websites, and photography forums are where I found most of what I know in the first place. So my talk was mostly an off the cuff discussion about how I take the photos I do and why.
So to make this post useful, and not just another “what I did on my holiday” gloatfest, I’ll hopefully encapsulate for you here what I had to say at the conference. I’m recollecting it as best I can because sadly the few notes I did manage to scrawl down onto paper were lost along with my SBS goodie bag, somewhere in a bar in Melbourne between 11pm and 4am. If you found them, please make sure my Gabriel Gate DVD doesn’t go to waste. I love that man.
What Matt thinks about how to take nice photos: A list
1) Light is your friend. If the lighting conditions inside a restaurant or house simply aren’t good, your shots will always struggle. I’ve taken photos in terrible restaurants that make the food look amazing because there’s a nice lamp overhead, and have horrible shots taken in the near darkness of some of the best. You can try and improve the lighting by rearranging candles or using the light from a mobile phone to provide a focus point, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle.
2) Gear matters (a little bit). Whilst it’d be nice to detach yourself from technology, the creative process I employ is based fairly closely around the camera and lens I use and what they offer me. Surprisingly perhaps, I’m still using a rather old dSLR, the Canon 350D. This has been my stalwart shot maker for a few years now, and as many times as I think about upgrading I always come back to the idea that if I just improved my technique my existing camera would be fine. The lens I use primarily plays a big part in that too. It’s a Sigma 30mm f1.4. This lens on my camera lets me take photos of tables in front of me at a nice range that suits my style, and the f1.4 part of the name means it lets a lot of light in with each shutter flip. Meaning low light situations can still be captured well. This doesn’t mean that these are what you *need* to buy or use. But it’s a combination that works for me, and the more comfortable you get with your equipment, the less you need to think about it when taking your shots. Buying an expensive camera and lenses will not make every shot you take look awesome, but eventually it’ll help.
3) Do what you need to get the shot. This is mostly about shooting in restaurants where you don’t have the luxury of changing lighting, rearranging things on a plate, or really messing too much with what’s there. I set my camera to aperture priority because I know there is little available light, and I choose the lowest f-stop (1.4). I then bump my ISO up to it’s maximum (1600), which is a cardinal sin to a lot of photographers. The reason I do this is because if I didn’t I wouldn’t get the shot, period. I could try messing with tripods and remote triggers, but really, if you’re trying to capture any kind of dynamic process or action, you just don’t have time to mess around. The only rules you should have are making sure you do what you need to take photos you’re happy with. This combination of low aperture and high ISO (reactivity to light) means that I can obtain faster shutter speeds, in turn leads to the shallow depth of friend blurry goodness that you see above you.
4) Post Process. This doesn’t mean spending 3 hours in Photoshop trying to remove smudges from plates or superimposing the best elements of one photo into another. Of course if you’re good at that kind of thing, go for it. But for me post processing is basically bringing the photo back to how I saw the scene when I pushed the button. Sure if my white balance and exposure levels had all been calibrated at the time, I likely wouldn’t need to do much, but they never are. If you think post processing is cheating somehow then consider this: If you’re shooting in JPG mode on your camera, the moment you take a shot your camera has already applied it’s own processing settings to the shot, and compressed the image down from it’s original, losing quality and resolution. Why let your camera decide how things should be ? Take charge of your photographic destiny by shooting in RAW and using a program like Lightroom (my tool of choice), Aperture, or even Picasa to process your shots the way you want them. I generally adjust exposure levels, fill light, black levels, and colour balance, and apply a healthy dose of noise reduction to get the style I like.
5) Don’t be scared to take photos. Yes it can be intimidating sitting in a fancy restaurant surrounded by people and waiters with a camera in your hand, but if you’re respectful to your dining companions (or have trained them well), and to the rest of the restaurant (turn off the flash!) then you shouldn’t be scared about taking out the camera. I take my same setup with me mostly everywhere, and will leave it up to anyone who’s had the pleasure (?) of dining with me to tell you if it’s annoying or not. If I were a chef / restaurateur, I’d be a lot happier about someone with an SLR taking shots of my food than someone with an iphone…
That’s basically all I have to say for now. Hopefully you’ll take something general out of it, rather than anything prescriptive.
All the shots in the gallery above were composed, shot, and processed using the methods I just described. Photography is a creative art, and as such ultimately a personal thing. I guarantee 8 out 10 people reading this will completely disagree with most of what I have to say :) But choose your tools wisely and apply your skills as best you can.
So to the food bloggers of Australia (esp those lucky enough to be at the conference) it was great to meet you and I hope I didn’t managed to offend too many of you over the course of the day / night. To the organisers, fantastic job, and congratulations. I’m already looking forward to next years event, which I’m sure will be bigger and better.