BlogHer Food ’10: Sessions

by Wendy Copley on October 21, 2010

I wrote about my overall experience at BlogHer Food last week, but now I want to get down to the nitty gritty of the conference: the sessions. I enjoyed BlogHer Food as a whole, but the sessions were definitely the best part of the experience for me. Some of them were instructive and I found myself taking page after page of notes and others were more inspirational and thought provoking. I’ve never been to any other professional conference where I got something useful out of all the sessions I attended, so I think that speaks very well for the quality of the content at this conference.

When I was planning out my time at the conference, I had planned to attend sessions from all of the different tracks, but I ended up only going to sessions in the Visual and Food Ethics tracks. Most time slots featured more than one topic I was interested in, but when push came to shove I ended up going with the topics that best match my passions: photography and food quality.

OK — let’s get into it! I’ve linked over to the live-blog summaries for each of the sessions. Some are much easier to follow than others, so be forewarned. Also, this is a wordy post! Not my usual thing, but I got a lot out of these sessions.

Food Photography for Food Bloggers

The first session I attended was presented by Diane Cu and Todd Porter, the writers and photographers behind the very beautiful blog White on Rice Couple. This was one of the sessions where I scribbled notes as fast as I could and I think that my food photography will improve based on what I learned. Here were some of the best tips I picked up:

  • Be deliberate when taking photographs of food. If you follow a planned workflow, you’ll usually get a good shot. Don’t hope for the best!
  • If at all possible, use natural light when photographing food. If you can’t use natural light, invest in some good quality lighting (Todd and Diane recommended Ego lights and I’m thinking of getting some when I’m no longer totally broke). Use your camera’s built in flash as a last resort.
  • Pay attention to the quality of your light. If it’s too bright, diffuse it. If it’s too dim, use something to bounce it.
  • Think of your light source as a position on a clock. (You are always at 6:00 as the photographer. When the light is at:
    • 12:00 — the light will fill the whole frame and give the image a bright and airy feel.
    • 3:00 or 9:00 — this light will be more subtle and will cast interesting shadows.
    • 6:00 — this light will be coming over your shoulder and will light everything the camera sees. This often results in a flatter photo.
  • Don’t just take the shot where it is — MOVE! Stand on a chair and take it from straight down. Crouch down and take it at eye level. Rotate the plate and move around the surface it’s on. Every time you move your photo will look different from the shot you took before.
  • An easy and cheap bouncer is a piece of foam core and some basic hardware clamps that you clip to the bottom of the foam core to stand it up. If you get multiples of this set up you can make a light box. Now I won’t have to ask Wyatt to hold that big piece of paper when I’m taking pictures of his lunches!
  • Move to different areas of your house to get the best light at different times of the day. The light at my kitchen table is great in the morning, but in the afternoon, I get better light from our living room window.
  • If you want to eat the food you’re photographing while it’s still hot, be prepared! Stage the entire shot while your meal is cooking and even go so far as to take test photos. Then when your food comes off the stove, you can put it in the dish, take the pictures and sit down to eat.

There was lots more and there were a million beautiful photos to illustrate all of this, but those were the points I will immediately be incorporating into my own photography. Seriously — this session was so good that it was worth the entire cost of the conference ticket for me.

Our Food Future: Kids, Cooking and Health

Elaine Wu moderated this discussion with Diana Johnson (who teaches families how to cook nutritious but inexpensive meals), Laura Sampson (who lives on a micro-farm in Alaska and produces much of the food she cooks with) and Mrs. Q (who is eating and blogging about lunch at the school where she teaches every day for a year). The discussion focused on kids, food, poverty and school lunch. This was not a session where I took a lot of notes because it was more of a free-flowing discussion than an educational presentation but it was exciting and inspiring to listen to these four women talk.

OK, first off, I was really curious to see how they were going to protect the anonymity of Mrs. Q. Would she be wearing a mask? Sunglasses and a scarf? Would she be behind a screen or something? Nope! Nothing that dramatic. They just asked that no one take pictures of her. It was slightly disappointing because I was hoping for something more cloak and dagger, but that probably would have been too distracting.

There was a lot of discussion about the state of school lunches in America and how low it has sunk in the past few decades. When I was a kid I ate school lunch every single day — bag lunches were a special occasion — but I don’t remember them as being that bad. Sure, we would joke about the cafeteria food being yucky and I truly hated the grey-green canned peas we were served, but my lunch tray was empty more days than it was full. Lunches were fresh and hot and cooked on site and some of the food — like the hand-made pizza and delectable home-made peanut butter cups — was truly delicious.

Now it’s often (though not always) a different story. Meals are rarely prepared on-site and many schools don’t even have a kitchen. Foods are often individually packaged. Kids have a short amount of time to get through the line, eat their food and clear their stuff (20 minutes is normal). And in some places conversation is discouraged. Laura even told us that at her local school, the kids watch TV while they eat!

Now add this layer to all of that — the school lunch program is one of the biggest hunger-fighting programs in our country. Because many children receive school lunches for free or at a reduced rate, this meal might be the best — or only — meal they eat in a day.  Don’t we owe it to these kids to feed them high quality food and make meal time a social and educational experience? And then let’s take that a step further — don’t we owe it to children — all children — to teach them how to nourish their bodies? Kids need to know how to choose healthy foods, how to prepare them, how to stretch a dollar to feed themselves nutritiously. As Diana said, “Being poor doesn’t mean you have to eat poorly.”

Lots of food for thought in this session. (Er…sorry about the pun.)

Food Styling

Delores Custer, Adam Pearson and Tami Hardeman — all professional food stylists packed this session with tons of tips on how to style your food to look both attractive and appetizing. Here are some of the tips I gleaned:

  • White makes food look wonderful. You can almost never go wrong by putting your food on a white dish.
  • Look to magazines for specific styling ideas.
  • Take shots at every step when you’re styling your food. Put the food on the plate and take a shot. Rearrange it a bit and take a shot. Sprinkle some herbs and take a shot. Sprinkle more herbs and take a shot. At some point you’ll take the styling too far and you’ll wish you had a photo of the food just a little bit earlier!
  • Once you dress a salad, you’re on the clock! It will immediately start to wilt and it won’t be long before it’s no longer very appetizing to look at. Your best bet is to frame the shot and wait to put anything liquid on the food until the very end. Even then, don’t just dump it on — use a squeeze bottle or even an eye dropper and add the liquid judiciously.
  • Some inexpensive but nice looking backdrops to consider buying are linen drop cloths from a hardware store, thrifted linens, and waxed paper (put it over linens to change their look).
  • Get spots of glass dishes with cotton gloves or coffee filters.
  • Other tips for picking props:
    • buy dishes in the clearance section of department stores — you can often find single dishes for very little money
    • get matte finished plates when you can find them
    • look for small plates, bowls, etc. as the food photographs better in them.
  • Some techniques for making brown, gloppy foods look good:
    • pull some vegetables out before they are done cooking and then add them back to the food before photographing it.
    • swirl the brown gloppy liquids to add visual interest.
    • use attractive props.

The Old-School Arts: Canning, Preserving, Foraging

Sean Timberlake moderated this panel featuring Audra Wolfe, Marisa McClellan and Hank Shaw. This was a lightly attended session compared to some of the others I went to, but I actually liked that a lot because it made for a more casual and conversational tone. I loved sitting and geeking out on canning minutia for an hour and a half and it was awesome to hear it right out of the mouths of these three expert canners. Some of the things that really stuck out for me:

  • The idea of foraging for food! I’ve…ahem…secretly harvested fruit from neglected neighborhood trees before, but the idea of going out looking for food on public land had never really occurred to me before. It’s perfectly legal and there are some things that grow like weeds around here that are expensive to buy in stores — blackberries and fennel, for example.
  • I never knew before that you should store your canned goods with the rings off because it’s actually safer than keeping the rings on. (I would have guessed it was the other way around.) The reason for this is that it’s easier to see if your seal goes bad, plus your rings aren’t as likely to rust.
  • Some recommendations for preserving books from our panel of experts:
  • I asked a question about how people find their go to canning recipes. This is a big question for me, because in my canning experiments this past year I’ve made some recipes that were awesome (blood orange and lemon ginger marmalades) and I’ve made a few that were just kind of…meh. It’s a rare treat for me when I get to spend a day canning because it’s almost impossible to can when a two year old is running around. So my husband has to take the kids out of the house and we have to pre-plan and it’s a big production. It’s pretty disappointing to go through all of that and then end up with ten cans of something I’m not so into eating. Here were some suggestions from the panel:
    • Look at what we’re already eating and then replicate those recipes. Look for things that are hard or expensive to buy in particular.
    • Make half or even quarter batches — that way you won’t get stuck with a bunch of stuff you don’t love. (I didn’t know you could do that!)
    • Tweak recipes you’re not thrilled with by adding flavorings or spices. One person in the audience suggested making regular jams for the kids, canning a few jars of that and then adding booze to the rest to suit an adult palate. Cool idea!

Phwew! OK — that was long! Hopefully it was useful too. I guess I just sort of brain-dumped there.

There were several other sessions I didn’t attend that I would have liked to have checked out: Penny DelosSantos photography session, Urban Farming and pretty much the entire Writing track. I’m thinking about purchasing a virtual pass so I can watch the videos of the sessions. Has anyone tried that? Are they videos well-produced? I’d hate to pay for the pass and then not get much out of the sessions because I can see or hear what’s happening.

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