The invitation came just as I arrived in Paris in late June. “Join us at the table at Camont for le 14 juillet.” As an amateur food photographer, an invitation from Kate Hill to come and work in her kitchen with Tim Clinch is like winning the lottery. Kate runs Camont, a culinary retreat in Gascony in southwest France. On her site, she asks “Want to change the way you cook? Reboot your own style? Or get inspired by an up close and personal relationship with the people who grow our food?” Tim is an award-winning photographer (whose credits include Conde Nast Traveller) who runs photography workshops at Camont, amongst other locations. He shoots using only available natural light and claims that his workshops “offer you a chance to explore a different approach to food photography and styling…a natural one.”
To be honest, at first glance, some of these descriptions sound a little, well, airy fairy. Changing the way I cook, changing my outlook on photography? But hey, I was ready for a change. I’ve been to a few food blogging conferences where I have attended photography sessions that were of little to no use to me in practical terms. Hearing from someone who is a professional that you just need to “find your style, shoot what you love, and be passionate about it”, well it may be inspiring (the first time) but it’s not too helpful. Of course, such sessions don’t promise to fix your photography or give you much technical insight (they cannot possibly in such a short amount of time) so it’s not fair to compare a three-day workshop with a 40-minute (or less) session. But I was definitely ready. Ready for more. Ready to challenge myself. Ready to take my photography and technical knowledge to the next level. But was I ready for the world of Kate and Tim?
I shouldn’t have worried. About anything actually. The moment I arrived in Agen late one Thursday night to be greeted by Kate and the lovely Bacon (her dog), I knew it was going to be ok. Driving through the dark back lanes en route to Camont, Kate and I fell into easy conversation. We have common friends and a common love (charcuterie).
Arriving at Camont, we were greeted by Tim and Monica – the only other student that weekend – sharing Armagnac and apricots at the kitchen table. And immediately, I knew I had hit the jackpot. Far from being self-important and arrogant, Tim is humble and, well, hilarious. And kind and generous. Monica (and her sweet dog, Rocky) and I also hit it off straight away. An American living in England, Monica was also stuck in the “same old same old” photography rut so it felt good to not be the only one Tim had to help. Initially I was concerned that the other student might be a way better photographer than me so I didn’t even look at Monica’s blog or work until after I had met her. I didn’t want to be more intimidated than I already was. Turns out, we all got on famously. Kind of like, the Famous Five. Except we were only four. (I guess you had to be there, right?)
Truly, and I can’t stress it enough, watching Kate (and this is going to sound silly) interacting with her food as she shops for and prepares it is both calming and invigorating all at the same time. Using only seasonal, local produce, Kate is inspired by the day’s offerings either at the market or in her own garden. It’s the way we should all be eating and cooking. And it’s what we all know, right? But seeing it in action, truly in action, makes it hit home more. It’s “right”. And it makes me want to emulate that, as much as possible now I am home (though we don’t exactly have the giant market close to our house, I can shop local at the vendors on my high street or at my tiny farmers’ market once a week at the end of my street). I might not be able to have Kate’s life (yet) but I can take what I have learned from her home.
And in terms of photography? Monica and I watched Tim, tentatively, that first morning. Shooting the apricots that would be come the tart. He shot a few pictures, showed them to us, gave a few suggestions and then went to work photographing Kate in the kitchen. Close by, but not hovering. Close enough to shout a few suggestions but not telling us what to do. This is scary. I am a Taurus. I like to know what I am supposed to be doing. Monica, it seemed, felt the same way. We kind of flailed about with our cameras at first but soon got the hang of it. Find something you like the look of. Find a place you think it might look even better. Find an angle that works (preferably something different from the dreaded “top down” shot syndrome from which Monica and I seemed/seem (?) to suffer) and shoot away.
Now you might think that this type of instruction sounds about as useful as being told that if you are passionate your photos will be amazing. And I guess it depends on how you approach the workshop. If you truly DO want to find your style, there’s no point having someone style each shot for you, right?
Even though it was hard for me to be left on my own like that feeling at some points that I had no idea what I was doing, I was determined to “go with the flow” that weekend and the biggest thing I probably learned was to slow down. Yes, that’s right, slow. down. When a workshop has a siesta scheduled in every afternoon, you know it means business. I have to say neither Monica or I took a nap on any day but we did take a while to sit and ponder. Something it seems neither of us take the time to do too often. Though now we know how important it is. Slowing down that weekend helped me take what I consider to be some of my best pictures to date.
And as for the photos?
Well, the pictures in this post are not perfect shots, technically or maybe even in terms of composition. But for a learning weekend, I’m pretty happy with the results. I’m hoping that those of you who read my blog regularly will take a look at these pictures and realise that they are different. They’re not “not Mardi” but they’re not my regular “look” either. They are very different from the types of pictures I normally take. They don’t so much have a “style” – let’s just say I am experimenting for now. I’m also hoping that in the past month, you might have noticed a change in the photos on my blog, even though it might still be subtle. Though Tim would tell me to go for it in my search for a style, I am still a Taurus at heart. So I go forth with caution.
A huge component of the weekend was learning how to use Lightroom. I have had this on my computer for an embarrassingly long time. I’ve been scared to use it. Too many tutorials I have read made it sound way too complicated and I am a hands-on learner so a book or an online tutorial isn’t the best way for me to learn. But watching Tim work magic in Lightroom with literally a few clicks – he doesn’t spend very long editing pictures – as he says, “you can’t make a bad photo good in post-processing”, so it makes sense to work hard to get the best shot you can in your camera and then just make it better in post-processing – resulted in a huge WOW factor for both Monica and me. And, to be fair, I probably don’t use 95% of what Lightroom has to offer (yet) but I learned a few tips with Tim that have really (well, I think) helped me spend less time for better results in post-processing. I am spending way less time processing my pictures there days – I find Lightroom so much easier than Photoshop Elements, more intuitive. But it’s personal preference, right?
In any case, the most important lesson from Tim was about getting the good shot in the camera. That can’t be stressed enough.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Instagram might recall much merriment that weekend in Camont. Rosé in the garden. Heading to the night market in Vianne and spending a good long while there. Observing. Being. And being so taken with the moment that someone Tim nearly lost his cash in his oyster shells.
It was truly a weekend of friendship. Fun. Learning. And taking the time. Slowing down. I cannot recommend this experience highly enough. If the opportunity presents itself, run, don’t walk to The Kitchen at Camont. It WILL change the way you cook, photograph and more.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Kate Hill and Tim Clinch at Camont for their Natural Light Natural Food Photography workshop. I was not required to post about this workshop and am not being compensated for doing so. All opinions (and photos, believe it or not!!!) are 100% my own.
You can read Monica’s Food Story from Gascony here.
Mardi Michels is a full-time French teacher and part-time food blogger based in Toronto. Her blog, eat.live.travel.write, focuses on culinary adventures both near and far because she travels as often as she can!