It will not come as a surprise to you that I am a very visual person. I need to be able to visualize the details, the colors, the mood and the atmosphere to really be able to attach myself to the idea or the vision. About a year ago I stumbled across Stuart's blog Appledrane and instantly devoured the images I saw there. I loved the way he plays with light and the way he executes the finer details in the images creating a fascinating story. As we connected, I just had to ask him to come over to the Plate to Page website and share some of his valuable expertise. I was thrilled he said yes! Hope you enjoy our guest feature with the talented Stuart Ovenden.
For me it's all about the details. The length of a shadow, the way a spoon rests against a glass, a gentle fold of a napkin, a soft dapple of sunlight - these subtleties might only crackle quietly in the subconscious of the viewer, but if judged well, they can engage, excite and trigger a genuine emotional response. This is what I look for when I'm reading a food magazine, website or cookery book; as a result I try to make this a considered aspect of my own work.
The way that I shoot my own recipe pictures for my blog has changed completely in the past year. It's become quicker, more spontaneous and less fussy. This way of working is intended as a deliberate response to my day-to-day work, which is predominantly studio based and is altogether a lengthier process. I like the idea that I can just grab some bits from my prop cupboard, create a little set and get the shot done and dusted in minutes.
When one is taking photographs in the studio, light is easier to manipulate; there is usually only a single source. Shadows can be filled or darkened easily; the same goes for the diffusion of light. Shooting outside presents its own unique challenges - but there is still a strong aspect of light manipulation involved. If one sets up in an open space during the middle of the day, light will invariably be top-heavy, hitting the subject from every possible angle and flattening a shot in the process. Sometimes I find it's simply a case of setting up next to a huddle of trees or a wall; often that’s enough to block off a bit of light and nudge in a touch of side-shadow.
Your choice of props underpins the success of a shot – I’m always on the hunt for new surfaces, plates and anything that has a quirky edge about it. If you’ve only a small prop collection it’s a good idea to work backwards; make the recipe fit with the lush chopping board that you’ve just found at a Boot Fair rather than the other way around. I often hold back some recipe ideas for months until the final piece of the prop jigsaw has presented itself.
My advice to aspiring food photographers is not to bogged down with kit envy – learn to master the camera that you have. I honestly think that clever, thought-through ideas can transcend the restrictions of technology. I've seen dull, uninspiring shots produced by photographers using £20K + Medium Format cameras, in contrast to blogger's shots taken on entry-level DSLRs that fizz with imagination and flair. Before I got my MK2 a few years ago, I was shooting blog posts on a cheap Canon 1000D (see the fruit salad shot as an example). I'd still happily have some of those early shots in my portfolio today.
I asked Stuart to answer a few quick fire questions to get a better insight of the talented man behind the camera. Hope you enjoy finding out more about Stuart.
Which camera do you use the majority of the time?
A Canon 5D MK2
You can only have one lens for the rest of your life, what is it?
It’d have to be the Canon EF 50mm f1.2.
Which photo are you currently most proud of?
I took a still-life of a cup of Walnuts on location in France during the summer - I'm still really proud of it. Often food ID shots take a fair bit of work to get right, but this was very much a case of everything coming together in an instant. Lovely props bought from a Brocante that morning, soft evening light and shot in a couple of frames.
Prime or zoom?
Prime. It’s easy to become a bit “Zoom happy” when out in the field shooting; I’d rather crop in later rather than wish I hadn’t come in quite so tight when the shot was taken.
You could have anyone in the world take your portrait, who is it?
Probably Terry Richardson. I’d be less interested in the shot itself, more intrigued to find out if he’s quite as insane as he appears to be.
What was your proudest moment in your photography career so far?
Shooting the cover of BBC Good Food was a very proud moment for me; it’s the biggest food magazine in the UK and gave me some great exposure.
If you could tell yourself anything when you first started out, what would you say?
As frustrating as it is, you can’t win them all. Often on a shoot, the recipe, prop styling, food styling and composition all click together in an instant; it’s a joy when it happens that way and should never be taken for granted. There will always be the flipside to these moments though. Do the best job you can, but don’t dwell on things that are out of your control.
Where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Kent but now live in Hampshire with my family. It’s a beautiful part of the country and a constant source of inspiration for me.
Favorite photography website?
It’s a common answer I know, but Katie Quinn Davies has a great eye for a photo.
Who have you learned the most from?
As an Art Director I’ve been very lucky to work with some of most respected food photographers in the UK - I’d like to think that I’ve learnt a little bit from all of them. When I look back I’ll always be especially grateful to Gareth Morgans, Myles New and David Loftus for helping me when I started out; they were extremely generous with their advice, encouragement and letting me borrow kit.
How old are you?
About Stuart Ovenden
London based food photographer Stuart Ovenden has spent over half a decade working with some of the biggest names in the UK food industry. He is a passionate Forager and Cook, regularly writing and photographing recipes for his popular blog, Appledrane. Stuart's recent clients include BBC Good Food, Olive, BBC America, Leith's Cookery School and Book Guild Publishing.Website: Appledrane