Earlier this year, during the darkest of winter months I attended a 7 week food styling course at Leiths School of Food & Wine. Months later I’m still at odds as to whether I would recommend this course… here’s why.
By any measure £485 is quite the investment; that’s a round trip flight to far flung destinations, a used medium-format camera that I’ve been eyeing or a really good 20 course lunch at Noma. But I forked over that hefty sum not because I have intentions to be a professional stylist but because I knew that it would help up my game in food photography by tying all the various visual elements together.
It’s occurred to me that I could study Dolores Custer’s tome or rely on the ever growing number of online resources on food styling but I wanted a hands on approach in a classroom atmosphere with real people and work with real food.
There were about 20 of us who for 7 weeks (every Tuesday night for 2 hours with the last session held on a weekend as the final project day) made the trek in – some traveled from as far away as Oxford and Brighton – to learn tricks of the trade from experienced and long time stylists, Jennifer Joyce and Katy Greenwood (who substituted for Sarah Cook). Both were good teachers in different ways. Katy entertained with food-tastrophies she regaled but also offered honest advice on the industry and dispelled common myths (no they don’t use glue as milk, everything they use to style the food is edible). Jennifer was great at demonstrating different dishes and made styling look deceptively easy.
Out of the 6 learning sessions 3 were spent on actual hands on styling assignments, 2 were allocated to discussions about the profession (how to invoice, the process, where to shop etc) and a chat with Stuart Ovendon on how food photographers work with stylists, and 1 (the one I found most helpful) was dedicated to tips & demonstrations on different types of foods/cuisines.
During the demonstration class, Jennifer covered helpful tips for salads (never dress a salad until after it’s plated or the leaves will wilt), kebabs (consider different colorful garnishes that gives it a lift), soup (do not fill to the rim), cream (always use double cream and only whip to just 90% of the way for the perfect dollop), and noodles/pasta (run under cold water to declump). Hands-on experience for the class included styling Greek salads, cakes and trifles before we put what we learned to the test with our individual final projects.
We covered a lot of ground over 7 weeks and but I feel that some of the time could have been a bit more productive. For example, 1 hour (out of a 2 hour class) was spent on each student presenting their favourite food photograph & discussing why. A whole class was devoted to constructing a trifle (all the ingredients were included except for the trifle class, we were asked to split ourselves into teams with each member responsible for a specific ingredient – you would think our £485 fee should cover this cost!). Maybe it’s because I don’t really care for trifles but it just seems such a random food to dedicate our limited time to; styling a wrap, burger or even one specific ingredient seems more helpful for real world application.
It has been 4 months since I completed the Leiths food styling course and I consistently apply the tips that I picked up for my current work & projects. I have a better eye in picking out the details and consider color a lot more when styling a simple dish. Recipes are easier to decode and work with – as Katy taught us to let go of following recipes to the letter, it will most likely not make for a pretty picture.
I benefited from the course on a professional level and met some really lovely people, that was worth the cost of entry for me but I hesitate to uniformly recommend it to everyone due to the hefty price tag particularly for hobbyists/bloggers. But hey, maybe I’m just a scrooge! It’s a personal decision but I hope at the very least this post could be helpful in setting expectations for the course.
Here’s some of my recent work where I applied what I learned from Leiths School of Food & Wine food styling course: