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the vortex of awesome

Last year after Food and Light 2010 ended, my exact words were, “I’m never doing this again.”

Less than six months later, I was emailing with Diane about schedules and who our fourth team member should be. Perhaps I’m addicted to running events, but I don’t think that’s the case. What I am addicted to is running events with a great team. That’s really important to me because if I’m putting everything I’ve got into a workshop, it makes all the difference when the rest of the team is doing the same. It’s exhilarating to work with people who have great attention to detail, have deep and broad knowledge and the skills to communicate it, care most about the students and their education, are wholly without ego, and are genuinely kind and caring individuals. This year’s Food and Light workshop was exhausting, but gratifyingly so because my team was pretty much the best you could ever hope for and then some.

dream team at frasca for dream dinner: todd, diane, and matt

Maybe I feel strongly about teaching because of my experiences in academia. The most popular professors were the ones who “entertained” students, but those were rarely the professors from whom we learned much. Jeremy (a professor himself, and a damn fine teacher) calls the entertainers “candy” because they make you feel good about yourself without actually having taught anything. We’re not about candy here, we’re about something heartier and healthier: true learning. True learning requires hard work, but hard work can be fun and more importantly it can be rewarding in a way that candy can never be. True learning is empowering and it gives a person the confidence to continue to learn and improve beyond the classroom or workshop.

A good instructor is a gift (as are good friends). Just look at these gifts!

matt presents on lighting

todd works one-on-one with an attendee

diane shows what she captured to a group

There’s the other half of the equation, and that is the student. The student cannot be a passive blob hoping to absorb knowledge and skills through sound and light alone. Regurgitation is not learning. Merely being present is not learning. We engaged our participants. We tried to make concepts accessible through tangible examples they could relate to. We crammed SO MUCH information into two days and yet most of our attendees drank it up and eagerly asked for more. This group was incredible. They asked questions when they didn’t understand. They opened themselves up in front of complete strangers to expose what they didn’t know and committed to growing as photographers, as artists, as people. That takes courage, dedication. Several have said they felt vulnerable and yet they were all so encouraging to one another. They worked hard, really hard. But they still found time to laugh, make friends, and enjoy themselves.

Most of all they were delightful, fun, and genuinely warm people.

everyone is paying attention to matt’s presentation

gathering around diane’s styling demo

manisha and diane tackle indian lentils and beans

Our first day started at the Rembrandt Yard Art Gallery in downtown Boulder with presentations on fundamentals, lighting, composition, and styling. But we also scheduled a lot of hands-on shooting time which allowed the instructors to work one-on-one to address the specific needs of individual participants. They were let loose on Pearl Street to find and photograph lunch and then returned for styling, demos, and more hands-on time.

empty gallery: the instructors devour their takeout from the kitchen

matt sets up his demo

The next day we held the workshop at The Kitchen Upstairs which provided a different environment for the students to work their photography skills. Breaking down into smaller groups, each group rotated through our three stations: dynamic shooting (Diane), artificial lighting (Todd), and post-processing in Lightroom (Matt) and Photoshop (me).

matt reviews post processing in lightroom

todd teaches artificial lighting with portraits

diane is the subject for candid and dynamic shooting

Instead of letting everyone break out for lunch, we held a fabulous family style four course meal at The Kitchen Upstairs – a nice way for the entire group to sit down together and bond. Also – no one was out of place milling about photographing the food! We then wrapped up the afternoon with one-on-one time while most attendees processed and submitted their best photo for judging.

i love their smiling faces

with food photographers, you need never worry that someone is going to dig in right away

enjoying the company and the conversations

Judging was tough, but we were finally able to narrow it down to our five awards. Before we announced the winners we thanked all of these wonderful people for spending two days of intense learning and growing with us. I thanked my phenomenal team including Jason (our tech guru). Todd asked everyone to share what they had learned with others. Then it was on to the prizes generously donated by some of our sponsors: KitchenAid (stand mixer), Pro Photo Rental (2 gift certificates), Savory Spice Shop in Boulder (spice set), and Think Tank Photo (lens bag).

Best Photo: Shari
Originality: Karen
Mood: Kim
Styling: Manisha
Lighting: Cathy

For some, it was an emotional journey of self-discovery. There was more than one eureka! moment over the course of the workshop. Based on all of the hugs and good-byes, many of those who walked into the workshop as strangers the first day left that second day as friends. I’m incredibly proud of this group.

An enormous thank you to all of our sponsors from Atlas Purveyors who provided coffee, tea, and snacks for our workshop participants to Whole Foods Market Boulder on Pearl Street for the lovely food props (produce and pastries). Savory Spice Shop in Boulder included several spice props and Pro Photo Rental (also of Boulder) for loaning us their generous collection of pro Nikon and Canon lenses! We really love our local businesses and two of the sweetest (literally and figuratively) are Helliemae’s Salt Caramels and Robin Chocolates, both of whom provided participant swag bags with samples from their kitchens as well as extras for shooting. Have a gander at these:

completely addictive

you must try these (amazing)

As a reward for those of you who have read this far (I know a large fraction of readers don’t actually read the post), Think Tank Photo has a promotional deal for our workshop attendees which they have allowed me to extend to my readers. Think Tank makes THE BEST photo gear bags. It’s the only brand I use AND trust. So click on over to the promo page and enter the code: WS-462 to receive some free gear with every order over $50.

I must also thank Jeremy for his quiet, yet critical support – logistical and otherwise.

And that’s a wrap!

Other posts about Food and Light 2011:

Arctic Garden Studio
Burried Carrots
Cooking with Michele
Dash of East
Kimberly Murray Photography
Kitchen Gadget Girl
Love Veggies and Yoga
Mummy Bites
photos (my photo blog)
White On Rice Couple (instructors)
Wrightfood (instructor)

29 nibbles at “the vortex of awesome”

  1. Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga says:

    I am going to link drop and this will probably go into moderation but I posted these posts too.

    My readers thanked me for sharing them and I want to thank you, Jen (and Matt, Tood & Diane) for sharing YOUR knowledge and paying it foward


  2. Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga says:

    Jen, it was an absolute honor and pleasure being at Food & Light with you, Todd & Diane, and Matt. Truly, such a life changing and photography changing experience.

    Yes, we crammed SO MUCH into 2 days…it felt like I was gone 5 or 7 days rather than 2 b/c we covered so much ground! And I loved it all!

    Thank you for making F & L so wonderful and for being so attentive to details and making the machine, i.e. 30 people and a tight action packed schedule, all hum along beautifully and seamlessly.


    p.s. left another comment with my other posts I wrote about F & L but included 3 links so it went into comment moderation

  3. Caitlin says:

    One day, I won’t be so busy with grad school and I’ll actually get to come to Food & Light – don’t stop organizing it anytime soon! It sounds simply wonderful, although I would expect no less from you, Todd, Diane, and Matt.

  4. Cooking with Michele says:

    Jen is so gracious about thanking everyone else, but she deserves as big of a thank you for her warm and welcoming style and her fabulous contributions to our learning. For me personally ( and for my daughter with whom I have now shared all this), the individual help on post processing along with the advice on lenses has revolutionized my photography! Many thanks again!

  5. TheKitchenWitch says:

    Hooray for you guys and for sweet Manisha! Wish I could have been there.

  6. Chris Reynolds says:

    Is it possible to get on a list to be notified if you do this again next year? I would love to attend something like this.

  7. Bev Weidner says:


    I wish I could have “i dream of jeannie’d” myself there!

  8. Kimberly says:

    I always read the whole post! Your writing is fantastic, thanks for the post!

  9. Penny in Co says:

    Hey Jen
    Question…I read your whole post… :) and looking at the Think Tank website…do you have any advice on what would be a good set up for hiking with your camera on your chest? Now I carry it in my camelback which is a huge hassle. Didn’t know if you might have a set up that you like when you are hiking with your camera? Just thought I’d ask…..
    Thanks for th great info!

  10. Jakub says:


    what about video courses for foreigner? Maybe some app for smart phones … like Jamie’s Recipes app.

    Thank you

  11. Taylor says:

    I had a blast at Food and Light 2010 last year. Looks like this year was another great event! Great job!

  12. merry jennifer says:

    I understand and can relate to everything you said about being a good teacher. I’m an academic also, and I so know what you mean about the “candy” professors. I’m not one of those.

    This course sounds amazing – it sounded amazing last year, and I’m just so sad that I couldn’t swing it this year. I’d love to sit with you and learn from you. What an honor that would be.

  13. Andrea Meyers says:

    Wish I could have been there, last year’s F&L meant so much to me. You all know how to rock a workshop!

  14. Kristin says:

    People don’t READ the post?! What do they do? Just look at the photos?! Sure, they’re stunning, but to miss your writing….sheesh! Hey, we’re in Williamsburg for vaca & college tour. Can’t wait to try the Cheese Shop!

  15. Kimberly Murray says:

    Jen, I’ve never been so happy to have somebody go back on their word; I hope you decide to have it again next year. Food and Light was such a positive experience; it was so much more than a workshop about food photography! Thanks for all of your hard work and energy putting it together, securing fabulous sponsors, and ensuring that each and every participant felt special and well taken care of. Kudos!

  16. Ruth Ann says:

    Looks like a great time. Would love to join you all in a future workshop.

  17. Nicola says:

    For what it’s worth, since I found your blog a year or so ago, I read every word. I don’t even do that for National Geographics! LOL

  18. Chris @nestlefoodie says:

    Jen – I am just so amazed by you! Such a bundle of energy and so willing to help others. It was obvious how much care and heart you put into planning this workshop – THANK YOU! The fact that I left the workshop feeling ok about shooting in manual says a lot (that was my biggest hurdle). You assembled a fantastic team – the opportunity to learn hands-on with you, Diane, Todd & Matt was priceless to me. It worked well having four instructors given the vast content and number of attendees.

    Thank you to your sponsors too. We were so well taken care of! You are the best!

  19. Carol says:

    Wow! I wish I could have been there. People DO read every word, btw. Please don’t stop organizing workshops before I can get to one! Great job!

  20. Nicole says:

    I can’t say thank you enough for this workshop. My schedule this summer had been crazy and I nearly cancelled twice due to everything going on in my life. I know now that it would have been a huge mistake. The beauty of putting together such a flawless event is that it creates a great bond between the participants. The instructor/participant ratio was perfect. I felt like there was always someone there if I needed them, yet at the same time I didn’t feel hovered over and had my space to create. There were so many beautiful props, plenty to go around. Every detail was thought of and I know we all appreciated it. I spent the last two years of my life as an event planner, so I know all of the things that looked like they came together so easily actually took a lot of time and hard work. I would seriously consider taking this workshop again. There is always more to learn.
    Final note: I would take it as a compliment if people aren’t reading your posts. I often find myself totally taken in by your photos, especially your nature shots. I still go back and look at your crane posts. Sometimes I do look through all the photos first, but I always go back and actually read the post. :)
    If you ever find yourself wanting to shoot the crane migration in Fairbanks, Alaksa (up to 300,000) just let me know. I’d be happy to hook you up with all the best that Fairbanks has to offer.

  21. Sil says:

    Congrats Jen and team! Wish I could have been there!

  22. Kate @ Savour Fare says:

    I really hope to make this happen if you do another one. It looks like a true learning experience.

    On a side note, is that your rug? I love it.

  23. lisa says:

    I had privilege to view (not taste) Robin’s chacolates before they were transported to the workshop for shoots. They are beautiful and they definitley will be in some of my Holiday gift packages this year so my gift receivers will have happy holidays. Of course, I will have some for myself too.

  24. farmerpam says:

    Some people don’t read the whole post? Call me OCD, but I HAVE to read from beginning to end. I really like that you added your student’s web sites, it’s been fun to visit them and see what they came up with.

  25. Burnt Carrots says:

    Hi Jen!

    Thank you so much for hosting the event again this year. I cannot tell you how much I learned or how grateful I am that everyone was so willing to share their knowledge. I cannot wait to attend again next year!

    :) Julie

  26. Shu Han says:

    looks like a great event. i wish i could have been there!

  27. jenyu says:

    Thank you all for the sweet comments – especially our students!! You guys were a delight and it was great to meet each and every one of you. So proud of this crew and how sweet everyone was. Keep. On. Shooting!!! xoxo

    Chris – yes! If you email me, I can add you to the mailing list.

    Penny in Co – I hike with it in my pack. I have tried hiking with it elsewhere, but it really messes up my cadence. If it’s an easy trail and doesn’t involve potential falls, I will put the camera directly in the backpack. If I’m doing more dicey things and could fall and kill my camera, I put it in the Think Tank holster (without the harness) in my pack. Hope that helps some. The whole backpacking thing is a real conundrum bringing camera gear…

    Jakub – Uh, I can barely put on a single workshop a year let alone video. Not to mention, we (the instructors) discussed video streaming and decided it wasn’t worthwhile. The greatest learning in this class comes from the one-to-one instruction, talking with other participants, and the hands on experience. You cannot get any of that from video. We’re pretty dedicated to the learning experience, not a one-way “talk at you” workshop – that’s not our style. But you know, we had a lovely student fly in from Costa Rica to take the workshop!

    Taylor – thanks! We missed you!! :)

    MJ – girl, you can always come to Boulder and hang out. You don’t have to wait for a workshop xo

    Andrea Meyers – the first workshop will always hold a special place in my heart. Really glad you were a part of that!

    Kristin – I hope you got to the Cheese Shop! *drool*

    Nicola – ha ha ha! You are so sweet.

    Nicole – awww, thanks! I’ll let you know if I’m up that way. Alaska is big on my agenda :) xoxo

    Kate – hi cutie ;) Nope, not my rug. It belongs to the art gallery :)

  28. Kristin says:

    We ate at the Cheese Shop twice, and it would’ve been three times if I’d had my way! Deeee-licious!!! I even got my cat sitter foodie friend a make your own fresh mozzarella kit there. It’s not a sandwich with house dressing, but it’ll be fun.

  29. jenny says:

    I’m so gutted I missed this again that I almost didnt want to read this post! I’m also gutted that tartlette is supposed to be coming to town and I’ll miss that workshop too. I guess I just have to satisfy myself that when the universe aligns then I’ll get to one of these! I did buy plate to pixel and it does have lots of very useful information, so I’ll start to teach myself.

    My schedule has changed so I’ve stopped reading blogs at work, so I’mm so behind with them, finally integrating them back into my day!

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