“Slow everything down when you are taking portraits” were the words that ran through my mind as I tried to keep my nerve during the first few minutes of photographing artisan baker Jez Belsten, in the tight confines his Edward Street Bakery, a converted two up two down terraced house in the heart of Saltaire village, a World Heritage Site, on the outskirts of Bradford.
Like most photographers I have my comfort zone. I specialise in taking photographs of delicious food sitting quietly and beautifully on a plate under natural light. Natural light flatters the myriad of colours and textures which make observing and documenting food so fascinating to me.
Food photography is a branch of still life photography and apart from sporadic movement such as cream being poured from a jug, steam rising from a bowl of soup or icing sugar drifting like fine snow on the surface of a cake it stays pretty still while it is being shot.
Sometimes my work takes me out of my comfort zone and calls on me to take portraits of the people who grow, make and rear the food we eat. Photographing people at work is very different to shooting food and it requires a unique set of skills.
People at work talk, they get stressed by the sight of a camera, they are easily distracted and they often have jobs to do while you are photographing them. This needs careful management to get the best out of the photoshoot.
The environments in which you find people working in the food industry also throws up challenges such as how to photograph people in low or artificial light, tight spaces and with unsightly backgrounds. I have little experience of this type of photography and felt I needed some mentoring by an experienced professional.
I first heard of Carolyn Mendelssohn from a photographer friend who mentioned her compelling portrait photography. I looked up Carolyn’s website and I was stunned by how composed her models looked, how confidently they peered into the lens and the skill with which Carolyn presented her finished portraits. Since we first met Carolyn has gone from strength to strength and has recently been awarded a Gold Award in this year's Royal Photographic Society International Print competition.
Carolyn offers one to one mentoring to photographers which involves several stages depending on the needs of her client. In my case the mentoring consisted of three meetings.
During our first meeting in Carolyn’s studio we spent quite a lot of time exploring what I thought needed help with. Carolyn’s responses to my concerns and worries about portrait photography were thoughtful and insightful. I was reassured that even experienced portrait photographers can feel the frisson of fear before a shoot.
I was given a neatly presented folder containing notes on planning a shoot, choosing a location, managing time and creativity. There was a checklist of what needs to be done to set the scene for a shoot, guidance on lighting, camera settings and how to direct models or clients.
Everything detailed in my printed notes was explained by Carolyn with ample opportunities to ask questions and to air any doubts or uncertainties I had. Carolyn is a good listener and delivers easy to remember guidance which came in handy later on our shoot. Carolyn also stressed the importance of staying calm and establishing a connection with the person being photographed. She demonstrated how she prepares a person for the shoot by taking some test shots of me.
After our first session Carolyn made arrangements for a portrait shoot in the micro Edward Street Bakery, Saltaire with artisan baker Jez Belsten. The micro bakery has a wonderful back story of an enterprising local couple who have converted the first floor of their tiny, characterful, traditional 19th century terraced house into a busy bakery with customers calling at the door to collect their orders.
One particular issue for this shoot was how to photograph Jes in the tight, artificially lit, low light conditions of the bakery. Carolyn came up with a neat solution. An off camera flash set up to fire through a white umbrella positioned on a lighting stand.
Our second mentoring session, which lasted a couple of hours, was devoted to learning how to erect and use this simple but neat lighting system. Carolyn was very hands on and gave me lots of practise using the off camera flash to take photographs of her in the dark recesses of my own terraced house. The stairwell leading down to the cellar was a good spot!
We arrived at 6 Edward Street at daybreak on a mid November morning as the work at the bakery was in full swing.
Nothing distinguishes the house as a bakery until you stand in front of its navy blue front door and see a very small label with the name of the bakery printed in tiny letters. As the door opened the smell of baking greeted us and Jes was busy kneading and shaping bread. A timer kept sounding to remind him another batch of loaves was ready to come out of the oven in the tiny scullery cum kitchen next door. It was a busy scene. I felt confident Jes and his bakery were going to be great to photograph. His classic dark features, quirky cap and mop of tousled hair made him an interesting subject. The bakery contained beautiful, traditional features such as a richly coloured exposed brickwork wall, a cast iron wood burning stove, original sash windows and a large marble slab.
Setting up the off camera flash was a bit fiddly and I needed quite a lot of help. Carolyn took the major role in making sure this lighting rig worked. Small adjustments were require to the manual settings on the flash as the ambient lighting in the room changed and Jes took up different working positions around the small room.
Carolyn offered reassurance and technical guidance throughout our shoot but at the same time she gave me the space to make and learn from my mistakes without being critical.
We were at the bakery for about two and half hours during which time I took nearly 300 photographs. When I reviewed them I could see as the morning progressed Jes and I became more confident and relaxed and the photographs got better. We had formed a connection which is really important in portrait photography. The result was a great collection of portraits that showed a real person, beautifully portrayed in his interesting working environment. The off camera flash was effective and lit Jes and the room with a gentle natural looking light.
I still have a lot to learn with regard to taking compelling portraits of people but I now know how to go about getting more of the experience I need to progress my learning.
Being mentored by Carolyn helped me to think more carefully about what I was doing as a photographer. It taught me how to work more effectively with clients, the importance of slowing things down, some useful photographic techniques and most of all it was great having her by my side as a gentle, wise companion as I reached for the next rung on the ladder of my photographic journey.
Carolyn is based in the historic and beautiful Saltaire, village in West Yorkshire. For more information about Carolyn’s mentoring sessions see her website here.