Several weeks ago, upon dining at Local Three Kitchen & Bar in Atlanta, GA, where I live, I watched table after table posing their food to catch the perfect Instagram shot. And I’ve definitely caught ladies in stores arranging prospective outfit choices to snap a few fashion photos for their blogs. Because now you don’t need to work at a magazine or a digital publication (hey, that’s me) to want to create the most stylized, stylish photo setup.

Nabbing the most compelling, competitive photo in our image-based, swipe-right culture can be tough. Much of my job revolves around creating and editing attractive visuals to go along with engaging articles, and other than the one photojournalism class I took in college and on-the-job training, I need just as much guidance as everyone else. That’s why I decided it was time to up my styling game (and yours) with the experts and share their advice with StyleBlueprint readers.

I attended famed photo stylist/producer/entertaining expert Annette Joseph’s Style + Photo Workshop, a class she holds sporadically in Atlanta (mine was at the lovely steve mckenzie’s in West Midtown Atlanta). If you’re lucky enough to have the means to travel abroad, she also holds more intensive, destination workshops in exotic places like Marrakech, the Italian Riviera and Berlin. Besides being a well-respected stylist, Annette is an all-around fabulous woman who knows just about everyone, including professional photographer Christina Wedge, who helped teach the photography side of our workshop.

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Annette (left) makes this stuff look easy, but remember, it takes time to see beyond what’s right in front of you. Practice shooting in and around your house to find the right composition. Image: Nicole Letts

Note: I don’t have the word count nor brain power to go into the details of how photography works and the intricacies of when to use the proper aperture, shutter speed and ISO. I definitely recommend taking a basic photography class to increase your knowledge and improve your content.

So put down that iPhone (I know it’s scary, but we’re going old school and taking this story all the way back to digital camera times) and find your light … it’s time to style the perfect photo!

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Christina Wedge helped lead the photography side of the workshop, allowing us all to pick up some much-needed shooting tips.

Set Styling Tip #1: Think Like a Camera

“When you look out into a room, your eye can register only a few things,” says Annette. “But a camera catches everything.”

The first thing to do is edit, edit, edit. Whether you’re styling food, furniture, clothes or something in between, take a look at the setup and ask yourself, “What is my photo saying? What is the story?” By creating a focal point in a dynamic shot, you instantly have a great photo.

Annette says for the look of the photo, you have two choices: fill the frame or embrace the void. Perhaps you’ve noticed your favorite photographers or Instagrammers always publish the shot a certain way — sleek and minimalist? Wild and colorful? Somewhere in between? After styling for a while, you will probably develop your own distinct style.

While you’re thinking like a camera, try using a camera. Today’s smartphones take some AH-mazing photos, but if you have the resources (and this workshop definitely converted me), get yourself a decent digital camera (I used a Nikon D800; everyone fell in love with Annette’s Olympus.) and, of course, lessons on how to use it, and you will be able to do so much more with your shot. As well, travel with a tripod (tabletop or standard) to avoid shaky, blurry shots. A great resource to find the products that work best for your needs, and again, lessons on how to use them, is Atlanta’s own Showcase Photo & Video.

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We, as a group, offered our insight into styling the top of this gorgeous chest of drawers from Grange Furniture inside steve mckenzie’s lovely store. If some of these images look dark, remember: Photograph with overhead lights OFF to avoid annoying shadows and harsh lighting (and figure out how to properly use your camera, which I was still learning as you can see).

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Annette helps us edit, edit, edit. And besides all the styling tips, I also focused on changing my camera settings. See, how after a few tweaks, the image is clearer and crisper than above?

Set Styling Tip #2: Compose a Masterpiece

Styling is all about honing in on the right composition and seeing in terms of frames. Annette shares a few tips for creating the ideal composition that draws your audience’s eyes in:

  • The triangle of color: Break up a space, like a white kitchen, with points of color that create a compelling place for your eyes to connect with.
  • Play with the horizon: Offer a dynamic effect on the composition by dropping the horizon. For example, an exterior beach shot could look really cool by dropping the horizon so the sand only fills a small part of the frame, with the ocean and sky taking up the rest.
  • Think in thirds: This rule brought me back to my high school art class where we learned about dividing a frame into thirds (vertically and horizontally). The eyes naturally follow these imaginary lines, so by styling with the rule of thirds in mind, you will create a more balanced, meaningful shot.
  • Experiment with the camera angle: Think outside the box and try moving your camera around when it comes to finding a cool angle. Sure, food shots look great with overhead, bird’s eye-view angles, but there is no rule that says you can’t play and try something new.
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There is a lot going on in this frame so make sure to hone in on the focus of your shot. For the story I was telling in my head, I was going for “Let the Mediterranean inspire you for your spring tabletop,” and therefore, wanted to focus on the vibrant blues and greens. All of us students worked together to create meaningful shots.

Set Styling Tip #3: What The F-stop?!

Absorbing all these styling tips takes time and practice. And when it comes to photography, the first tip I recommend is get used to your own camera. Our photographer/lens leader Christina told a funny story about how one of her professors once recommended she learn to use every lever, dial, switch, etc. in a dark room so she would know her camera like the back of her hand. And it worked. While I don’t recommend you find a dark room to identify every button on your camera, it really is important to know how your individual device works.

Christina recommends setting your digital camera to fully automated mode, generally designated as P (for Program). For the most part, go with auto focus (unless you have lots of low lighting that may call for manual focus).

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Christina uses a tripod to create a stable shot but some photographers prefer the handheld method. It all depends on your experience, comfort level and how shaky your hands are.

Other ways to experiment with your camera, and thus your shot:

  • ISO speed: This measures your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light — a lower number is less sensitive, and a higher one is more.
  • Aperture: A smaller aperture (which means a larger F-stop) lets in more light, creating a wider opening with less in focus; the larger aperture (which means a smaller F-stop) lets in less light, with a narrower opening and more in focus. For example, an f/4 might create a more romantic, diffused look while an f/16 keeps things more in focus and crisp. The larger the aperture, the smaller the area in focus (depth of field). Confused yet?
  • Shutter speed: How fast the shutter opens is another fun way to play with your camera. Since photos with a fast shutter speed will be darker (the shutter opens and closes faster, thus letting in less light), use a slower shutter speed (the shutter stays open longer, thus letting in more light) in really dark conditions. Changes in shutter speed can also cause motion blur, so just keep experimenting.

And now that I have you thoroughly bewildered with my super rudimentary explanation of some photography basics, again I recommend taking a class to get you more comfortable with the terminology, your camera, helpful shooting accessories and what the heck an F-stop actually is.

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Drumroll please … this was my best shot of the day! All of us shared our setups, but we each found our own angles and camera settings to complete the final shot. I love the mix of colors, rule of thirds and overall composition of this photo. I have NO idea what settings I used on my camera to get this one (minor fail), but I think with a little experimentation, I will be able to capture the magic again.

Besides all the technical jargon, just focus on using your eye as a camera, practice styling with “props” inside your own house and, most importantly, tell a story.

“Stylists are storytellers,” explains Annette. “In the end, you’re always a storyteller if you’re an artist.”

If you’d like to attend one of Annette Joseph’s Style + Photo Workshops, visit her site and check out the upcoming schedule and locations.

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