Eat Drink Blog – The Food Bloggers Conference

Negronis at The Black Pearl

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 .

Ed gets things rollingEm and MaddyJess & EllieNeil - taken during my talkThe lovely LindaJackie shows how boozing is done right.JulesJackie - master of the wry smileYou can take the girl out of Thomastown...SBS Photography ExhibitionSBS RepresentMy Rorschach cocktail testGlowing ReemPolaroid man knows no boundsGin something sorbetBoozeskiPisco Control ReservadoLiquid nitrogen cocktail prepSt Ali dinnerSt Ali dinnerEllie & Anh at St AliSuzanneNeilBrianLisaCindyMagnum SteveSteve CumperNathan of Somage Fine FoodsFood Bloggers Banquet menuZoeGillHenry chimpingSoon to be bride AnnaTammiPenny's favourite poseKat & AprilJess contemplates #momofukurageNolaA rather excitable TammiOxtail won ton soup.Fear my rosey cheeks.Jules et moi.Tresna the waif saysTresnaMellieAngelic glowing waitress at St AliPrentice 'Ramato' Pinot GrisEmmaPatKateEm gets seriousEllie, Tammi, Claire, ZoeJackieCeriRoasted Kingfish headsLamb... somethingPim !Jackie gets all silver service on usMatt Cumper ?Radiant KateEd the gypsy kingMellie mid thank youFruit platterPim mid chokeReem looking deviousJo wondering about her second helpingThis photo looks how Michael probably feltChef Ben chats to EllieLittle did he know...Claire in the secret gardenPhil Lees, lone man on lounge, 3am, Fitzroy.NegroniNegronis at The Black Pearl

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.

The Pour @ Coda Post roast : Market Lane

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.

20 thoughts on “Eat Drink Blog – The Food Bloggers Conference”

  1. You are scary!! Just when it is quiet down, here’s your post!

    Thanks for the presentation on photography. It’s really helpful!

  2. This is great, Matt! As you know, I struggle with food photography and the inflexibility of my little point-and-shoot especially in low light. You’ve managed to explain in terms even I can undersrand(!) some of the things you do to achieve your great photos. Thanks!

  3. Thanks Matt! I read this whilst half way cooking a meal that I am also planning to blog and despite thinking I remembered many of your pearls of wisdom from Eat.Drink.Blog, I think I will now head back to the kitchen and take the photos again. Serves me right for getting distracted in the first place.

    Lovely to meet you too btw.

  4. great pics. it’s good to read about your thought process on photos. i’m in the process of providing some photographic tips as well in a post to come soon. i only have a compact camera but i try and push it to it’s limits. i’d love to have a DSRL but at the moment it’s a wish list. so for now i’ll be sharing what knowledge i have on how to achieve the best that one has. :-)

  5. A friend has just told me that Lightroom 3 is available in beta free until June 30, which I’ve just downloaded, now I’m just wasting time playing with controls, hopefully learning something. Saving up for DSLR cos I know it’s way better than point shoot. Thanks for the class, made me feel more at ease. Love 1.4 and depth of field.

  6. Matt, I’m so glad we got to meet face to face, and I very much wish we didn’t live on opposite sides of the country, though it’s probably for the best. I reckon we could get into HEAPS of trouble! ;-)

  7. Anh: “When you least expect it” is my current posting schedule :) Glad I haven’t disappointed.

    Vicki: Good to know it sounds mostly understandable outside of my own head. I wouldn’t say you struggle too much though, your food always looks great.

    Jo: Sorry to make you have to redo any shots :) Hopefully the end results are worth the effort ! And lovely to meet you too :)

    Simon: Good to know you’re pushing the P&S to it’s limits. I’ll be the first to admit that you can indeed take amazing photos with a P&S camera. Look forward to seeing some of your tips.

    Neil: Yes indeed, i’d encourage anyone to download the beta/trial versions of Lightroom and check out the features. Definitely makes my life much easier.

    Reem: Trouble ?? I have no idea what you’re on about… How much trouble can you get into drinking eat and eating scones ? ;) Lovely to meet you too and will be checking in next time I’m in Sydney.

    April: Lovely to meet you too, thanks for your organising and I hope the tips come in handy.

    Looking forward to seeing everyones photos in the coming months !

  8. I need to remember #5 more :) I’m still a long ways away from even your (dated?) gear, with my P&S and all. Your photos are something I aspire to when I grow up :) I love that even at a high ISO, your shots still come out with a great quality. I can barely tell there’s *any* noise on them.

  9. Mark: Your photos are fantastic mate, so whatever you’re doing to that P&S can only get better when you do eventually grow up :) I don’t actually mind if there is a bit of noise in some shots actually, I like a little faux grunge in my food.

    Alex: Cheers bro, Steve Cumper is officially the man, mine was a pale imitation.

  10. I’m jealous – I had no hope whatsoever of participating in any way this year. I hope another conference follows. Its not like I didn’t have plenty of notice but my cash earning job took over this year and blogging treats took a back seat. I am very glad you went Matt and I’d love to hear more about how it all went.

    1. Hey Grendel,

      Would have been great to have you there, as I know you’d give a lot of thoughtful input. I’d suggest taking a look at the conference site and other peoples write ups and presentations to see what they had to say.

      I’m sure there’ll be another one next year as this was a great success. Next year could conceivably be in Sydney… So prepare yourself :)

  11. Thanks Matt, very informative, I have a couple of questions though:

    a) I’ve got a Nikon D300 and would, for these kind of shots, probably utilise my Nikkor 50mm 1.4D. However my focal distance using your settings is about a foot. Does that sound right?

    b) Are the majority of your pics hand held? I ask because at F1.4 and 1600 I quite often get blur (could be my alcohol habit there mind).

    Cheers Matey!

  12. Davy,

    I’m new to DSLR photography as well, but fortunately Matt came around the day I got my Canon 450D and showed me how to turn it on, amongst other things.

    Until he gets out of bed (could be a while), please allow me to have a stab at answering your questions.

    a)The closest focal point for your lens is .45m (Matt’s lens is .4m), which as I understand it means that you can focus on something 45cm away to infinity. So if you have a glass for instance that you want to photograph, as long as it’s 45cm or more away, you can take the shot. This is my very basic understanding and doesn’t take into account full frame versus APS-C camera differences.

    b) Are you talking about blur, or graininess? At f1.4 and ISO 1600, this should equate to a pretty quick shutter speed (assuming the light isn’t totally abysmal). The faster the shutter speed means there is less chance of blur. Higher ISOs can sometimes introduce ‘graininess’, so maybe put it at a lower setting and see how you go.

    Hopefully someone more knowledgeable (i.e. Matt) will come along soon.



  13. Hi Brad, much appreciated :-)

    After a little practice it’s seems it’s not the ISO that’s the issue, more the focal settings, I fiddled about a bit more and it’s working a treat now. In fact I can’t see much in the way of graininess at all really at 1600, just a ‘warmth’ more than anything. I’ll try 800 ISO to see if it sharpens things up a little. Thanks for the input though, very helpful. It’s a lot of practice and even more fiddling to find the right settings for the conditions and therein lies the challenge!

  14. Hey Davy,

    Sorry for the slow reply, but thankfully my eager apprentice Brad stepped up in my absence.

    I would say Brad is right about your focal distance. Normally that information is specified in the documentation of the lens. My lens, the Sigma 30mm f1.4 has a focal distance of roughly 40cm. Which is normally enough for me to get the shots I want.

    Also at 30mm it’s wide enough to photograph the table in front of me without being up too close. I think you’d find the 50mm will be too close to fit in a whole plate if you’re talking about taking photos while seated and dining.

    You have to remember that on most SLR cameras (besides the Canon 5D series and Nikon D3) the size of the sensor means that any lens you put on it has it’s focal length multiplied by a factor. On Canon it’s 1.6, and on Nikon it’s 1.5 So the true focal length of your 50mm lens is 75mm, and on my 30mm it’s 48mm.

    Also I do take most of my shots hand held at f1.4 and 1600. I’d suggest learning to hold your breath for a long time and taking as many shots as you can before you get drunk :)

    Hope that helps / confuses you a bit.


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