Mark Benham, winner of the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition 2016, explains why you don’t need perfect light to win big

I was flabbergasted to be named the overall winner of the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition 2016. I had actually entered the competition for the first time in 2015. I’d previously seen the exhibition of past winners in Bath in 2014, and thought there was an interesting mix of work. The competition seemed very approachable, not too highbrow, so I vowed to enter. Much to my delight, I won my category, Food for Celebration, in 2015, despite entering only one image. That inspired me to enter again this year – and it looks like it paid off!

I worked as a graphic designer in Bath until 1999. Then, for the next 10 years, I was self-employed as a design consultant. I took a year out in 1994 to travel, armed with a Minolta compact camera and several sketch books. I took something like 1,000 shots on 35mm slide film.

Over the years, I got myself a better camera and immersed myself into photography. I had experience working with studio-based photographers, art directing and sometimes styling shoots. I’ve dedicated myself to photography since 1999, shooting documentary, travel portraits and events. Although much of my work is self-initiated, I’ve had many photographic commissions for overseas clients, UK charities and museums, PR companies and magazines.

Thoughtful bread

My 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year winning image (right)  is of Duncan Glendinning, an artisan eco-friendly baker who runs The Thoughtful Bread Company in Bath. I took this shot while Duncan was doing a double shift. I spent the whole day with him and two other bakers in the basement of their shop. People buying the bread and cakes don’t realise what these guys have to go through to make them.

By around 4pm I was hot and tired, and it was time to pack up. But before leaving, I asked Duncan if we could do some fun shots – something more animated. He’d been rolling dough, when I asked him to throw in loads of flour – and that’s how this winning shot came about.

The conditions in the basement were less than ideal, but on one side of the room was an area with a clean background and stainless-steel front to the ovens. I used entirely natural light down there. I’d originally planned to use flash, but my new flashgun was sticking so I just gave up.

I hiked the ISO on my trusty EOS 5D Mark II to 2,000 to cope. I used the best lens in the world, in my opinion, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. It’s sharp and as light as a feather, and you can get it for under £100. I don’t have a lot of money to throw around these days, so I like to get the most from my existing kit. You could say this shot was taken in less than perfect conditions and light, with an inexpensive lens. Maybe that’s a lesson for photographers who get sucked into the hype of buying the latest expensive kit.

The shutter speed was 1/640sec at f/4.5, using single-point AF. I shot in aperture-priority mode as I needed a degree of automation owing to the speed at which I was working. The fact that this shot has done so well sums up the beauty of photography for me. I took 25-30 shots from this session, but this was the strongest. I entered 10 other images into the contest, two of which were shortlisted and one highly commended.

Post-processing

Like most photographers, I am very careful about how I post-process. I like to keep all the original features. I guess I’m a bit of a purist. I edited the image in Adobe Camera Raw, first adjusting the lens profile and boosting the clarity, vibrance and contrast. Owing to the light, or lack of it, I needed to up the whites in this image. Then I took it as a TIFF into Photoshop, and used simple adjustment layers. I played with the curves and the brightness, edited selective colours, dodged and burned, and did some sharpening.

Future plans

I’ll probably enter the competition again. I’ve noticed that the past three winners have all been of food in action. I wonder if it will go a different way next year, but I guess food in action draws you in. It’s hard to second-guess the judges, but I think they look for something that really stands out.

Take David Griffen’s slightly politically incorrect street cook smoking, which won the competition last year. As well as action, there needs to be that stand-out factor to get your image noticed.

I’m now trying to work out how best to use my win to promote my other work. I love travel photography and a lot of it is quite instinctive. I’ll shoot anything that appeals to me, and I am led in certain directions for a reason – I need to find out what this reason is.

I also do a lot of work with a charity called People Against Poverty, and I have been with them to Nepal and Romania. I don’t get paid, but I see it as helping them, which might lead to other projects that are, hopefully, paid!

Mark Benham

Mark Bentham

Mark is a Bath-based photographer who specialises in travel, documentary and food photography. His clients have included the Royal Óbidos Spa and Golf Resort in Portugal, the Holburne Museum in Bath, People Against Poverty, Impact PR and The Bath Magazine. For full details visit www.markbenham.co.uk. For details of Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition, visit www.pinkladyfoodphotographeroftheyear.com.