Eva Kosmas Flores

And if a far-flung food photography workshop isn't for you, check out the tips below.

Rachel Tepper
March 20, 2018

In the lush, forested foothills of Mount Aso in the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, a small cadre of travelers will soon descend on the hot springs-rich town of Kurokawa. They will come in search of deeper meaning: They're after the Japanese concept of mono-no-aware, or “the pathos of things,” which centers on the awareness of life’s ephemeral nature. They're seeking the serene aesthetic of wabi sabi, a worldview grounded in the acceptance of transience and imperfection. And then, of course, they come to Instagram. 

In previous eras, food bloggers and photographers often learned to navigate their emerging field on their own, stumbling into it by way of adjacent professions or passions. Many food writers learned to photograph their dishes through trial and error. Fine art and portrait photographers snapped food for magazines, but weren’t necessarily specialists. Now, with a generation of food bloggers and photographers maturing—and experiential tourism rising in popularity—a new niche has emerged in the high-end travel space: Retreats centered around the production and monetization of food and travel photography.

“We’re all existing in this digital space, and we all want to leap into the pictures,” says Beth Kirby, co-founder of Local Milk Retreats, an enterprise that’s part-luxury vacation and part-food blogger boot camp. An outgrowth of Kirby’s food, travel, and lifestyle blog, Local Milk, the events promise to help would-be food bloggers find their voice and, hopefully, their audience.

Kirby says people are clamoring sign up, and why not? There’s seemingly no better shortcut to becoming a food blogger than by learning from someone who’s done it already. For the aforementioned Kurokawa retreat, which is helmed by Kirby, spots for the five-day, eight-person trip sold out just 24 hours after becoming available online.

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The people attracted to these events are often beginners, sometimes having never so much as touched a camera. “We do not tend to get professionals, we get aspiring professionals,” Kirby explains. As one might expect, Local Milk Retreats offers hands-on instructional sessions on snapping beautiful, Instagram-ready photos—“we talk conceptually about styling, leading lines, visual storytelling”—and some help with styling. Also on the menu: A deep dive into the business side of the equation, as seen through the rosy lens of lifestyle. “We teach the art of sharing, which is essentially a guide to content marketing, but with integrity,” Kirby says.

The clientele is more mixed at First We Eat, a three-year-old workshop and retreat company from Eva Kosmas Flores, the blogger and photographer behind Adventures in Cooking. The events attract both aspiring food bloggers with little behind-the-camera experience, Flores says, as well as seasoned professional photographers looking to boost their skills in the food realm. Across the board, people are eager to become social media savvy. “We teach stuff that we’ve learned as we’ve gained followers,” Flores says. “Basically how to grow your following with hashtags, posting consistently, learning how to use apps that let you preview things before you upload. That kind of thing.”

Many trips don’t want for luxury. Consider Kirby’s upcoming Kurokawa event: Guests will sleep on fine tatami mats in traditional Japanese inns called ryokan; bask in steaming natural springs set in magnificent, moss-covered forest; and sip on elegantly-styled regional fare, including hyper-local mountain vegetables. Kirby’s past trips to Copenhagen, Paris, and Santorini have been similarly unique and upscale. “Our main consideration [with venues] is if it’s photogenic, because that’s why we’re here,” Kirby says. “We’re never going to skimp on beautiful accommodations.”

Such extravagance comes with a price tag: All-inclusive Local Milk trips, which can vary between five and seven days, range between $3,000 and $8,000, not including airfare. (Day-long workshops and a soon-to-launch e-course are more moderately priced.) First We Eat’s trips are slightly more affordable, coming in around $3,200. Some accommodations, Flores said, “are definitely luxe, and then some of them are definitely rustic luxe”: Destinations have included Bordeaux, Croatia, Iceland, and Sweden, with stays in an 18th-century chateau, restored farmhouse, and a lake house equipped with a Nordic sauna. All “have a good feel and [are] good for photography,” she said.

If these trips aren’t your cup of tea, more options seem to pop up every day: Holland-based Box of Spice blogger Rakhee Yadav offers five-day workshops in India, priced around $2,000; for $4,000 and up, Milly’s Kitchen blogger Olaiya Land hosts events from Portugal to Paris; and Twiggs Studios blogger Aimee Twigger offers workshops around the British Isles and beyond for roughly $1,500 and up.

The question is, however, if these retreats actually work. Anecdotally, Kirby says the answer is yes. She points to several former students who’ve gone on to author successful food blogs and social media presences, including From My Dining Table blogger Skye McAlpine, who boasts a staggering 137K followers on Instagram, and Australia-based Annabelle Hickson of The Dailys, who’s gone on to host workshops of her own. Flores, too, has her own success stories. She’s particularly proud of Vegetarian Ventures blogger Shelly Westerhausen, who is about to release her second cookbook.

“It’s definitely a niche market, but there seem to be a lot of people out there who are interested,” Kirby says, adding that many of her guests are repeat customers. She hopes other food bloggers and photographers get into the retreat game. “It’s a big world, there’s certainly room for more of us. We certainly welcome it.”

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Still debating if a far-flung food photography workshop is for you? The best way to find out is to begin shooting photos at home. Here are a couple tips to get you started.

1. Only shoot with natural light.

“Make sure ALL indoor light is off!” stressed Kirby. It’ll prevent harsh glares on your subject and make for an overall prettier picture. Diffused natural light is the best choice: “Think about how the light looks on a cloudy day, that's the kind of light you want to use for food photography,” Flores said. “It's soft and makes the food looks really appetizing!”

2. Don't use the lens that comes with your camera.

Many DSLR (that’s digital single-lens reflex) cameras—like, say, a Canon Rebel—come with a standard 18-55mm zoom lens. That’s fine for all-purpose shooting, but the best lens for food photography, Kirby said, is a “fast, fixed lens like a 35mm or a 50mm.”

3. Shoot RAW files.

RAW is a file format on DSLR cameras that capture all image data recorded by its sensor. More available data means more data that can be edited in post, which is a lot like having more crayons to color with.

Eva Kosmas Flores

4. Put on your editor’s hat.

Don’t be overly obsessed with getting everything picture-perfect on the first snap. Everyone edits in post! But it’s time to break up with basic Instagram filters. Spring for an Adobe Lightroom account, or download the mobile editing software VSCO.

5. Professional presets are your friend.

Unlike some cheesy-looking filters, professional presets are quick editing filters you can throw on top of images when you're editing it in Adobe Lightroom. “They save you a ton of time editing, and give your work a consistent look throughout different shoots and dishes,” Flores said. Both Kirby and Flores offer custom filters through their websites.

6. Don’t over-style.

A few props here and there can enhance an image, but be careful not to go overboard. “The food should always be the star of the show,” said Flores. “If you're using a bright red plate, chances are that's what the viewer is going to look at first, not the food.”

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