Food Photography with Jennifer Olson at Euclid Hall

I’ve been posting photographs of food on my blog for two years now, but I’ve noticed the results are hit-or-miss, to put it charitably. When I heard about a food photography class being taught by Jennifer Olson (author of Colorado Organic and a member of Boulder Media Women), I signed up.

The 14 members of the class met at Euclid Hall to try to capture the beauty of that new Denver restaurant’s food (but, sadly, not to eat it). We met Beth Gruitch, one of the owners of Euclid Hall, Rioja, and Bistro Vendôme. I learned that Olson helped Gruitch open Rioja but hadn’t thought of being a food photographer until she got out of the restaurant business. We also met Chris, the sous-chef at Euclid Hall, and Chris Caldes, a food stylist.

I’d say I was one of the least-experienced people in the class. For example, the woman on my left (also named Beth) was a product photographer. The man on my right had a cool gadget called an L bracket that allows you to move the camera from horizontal to vertical without changing your stance.

After a talk about the basics of photography, Olson got us up and moving around and messing with our food. Here’s a typical shot by me, respectful of the food. And, oooh, look at those beautiful patterns of light on the dish and on the chair!

Beth Partin's photos, Euclid Hall, Jennifer OlsonNice red and orange sprinkles, too. But what flavor is it, exactly?Beth Partin's photos, Jennifer Olson, Colorado Organic, Euclid HallOh, I see, it’s red velvet. (Too bad the only thing in this picture that’s sharp at all is the reflection on the fork.) I like both these photos for different reasons, but this class made me realize that paying too much attention to shape or pattern may obscure the best qualities of the dish. Also, Olson pointed out that a lens around 50 mm is best suited for food photography. But because I saw other students climbing up on chairs and shooting with long lenses, I used my 70-200 mm lens for this shot (1/200, f4.5).

I fell into this trap again with the bone marrow. I was thinking so hard about making it interesting that I forgot to highlight the food itself: the marrow. Beth Partin's photos, Euclid Hall, bone marrow, food photography, Denver restaurantsHow did those onions get up there? Did they teleport? Look how they’re hanging there so casually, as if they belong. So I tried to fix it (keep in mind, I’m still using the long lens here, f4.5, but a slow shutter speed).Denver restaurants, food photography, Jennifer Olson, Denver photosThat’s better, but the marrow isn’t really in focus; the onions are. And the pretty lemons in back also distract from the subject. Time to simplify.Denver restaurants, Denver photos, Beth Partin's photosWhen I showed Jennifer Olson this photograph, she complimented me on the composition but said she wanted the foreground to be sharp. She also pointed out that she was seeing more bone than marrow. When I told her what lens I was using, she suggested I switch to my kit lens (18–55 mm).Denver photos, Denver restaurants, Beth Partin's photos, Beth Partin photosI tried to recapture the composition above (I love that gray background—maybe it’s another student’s jeans?), but I couldn’t. I think this one is nicely composed, but next time I’ll turn the bone so the marrow is more prominent and shoot at f8 so the marrow is in focus.

I took a couple of photographs in class I thought were successes. Here’s one of my favorites as far as sharpness goes, though the subject is relentlessly brown.Beth Partin photos, Beth Partin's photos, Denver restaurantsRemember that pretty half-lemon from one of the bone marrow shots? I also took one with that, but then the photo was about the lemon, not the fish and chips. This next photo is brighter.Beth Partin photos, Beth Partin's photos, Jennifer Olson, Denver restaurantsNice variety of colors; someone else moved the green bean to the front. I think next time I would put the fork somewhere else. In fact, I wonder if using silverware as a prop is a cliché.

At the end, Olson critiqued our photos. She was far more generous with praise of my photos than I am here, which made me happy. I’d like to take a private class with her sometime.

What I learned:

  • First of all, it’s OK to play with your food. It’s OK to stand up in the aisle to take a better photo, as long as you’re not blocking the servers or patrons.
  • Second, those glistening brown turkeys you see in magazines? Raw. Really, even when they look so crispy? So the photo designed to make you eat the food is of food you can’t eat.
  • Third, the trend right now in food photography is to focus on the foreground while leaving your aperture wide open. Only the front of the dish will be sharp. (Most of the time, I prefer more depth of field.)
  • Fourth, use natural light. If you must use flash, improvise a diffuser to avoid harsh shadows.
  • Fifth, consider buying an assistant on a stick (that is, a pole to which you can clip a diffuser or reflector).
  • Sixth, a good food styling kit includes tweezers (to move stuff around), scissors, sponges to wipe away messes and prop up food, syringes and spray bottles to apply water, a set of baking rounds to hold food, and perhaps some cheesecloth to cover the flash if you don’t have a diffuser.