One of the most challenging types of photography out there, food photography is a delicate series of decisions by the photographer to compose the perfect piece. If that wasn’t enough, food photographer, Donna Crous, is in control of everything in her work: the composition, the styling, the food, the photography and the post-processing.
Each element of the finished image is a balance between the visually appealing and the real.
Getting started in food photography
Donna’s love of food and photography was born from creating recipes for her family who follow a Paleo diet: sugar-free, low carb and wheat-free. Moving to the UK from South Africa 5 years ago, Donna started a blog: Eighty 20 Nutrition. “I started the blog to keep myself busy and focused,” Donna explains. “I wanted a centralised platform to share my recipes with friends and family back home in South Africa.”
“I very quickly realised that I did not enjoy writing, but preferred photography,” she admits. “It was in 2017 in a moment of random craziness that I decided to enter Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year. I was placed third in my category, Blogging, and from there many doors opened for me in the UK photography industry.”
Since then, food photography has become Donna’s full-time job based out of her home in Surrey where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
From page to plate
Being a food photographer for Donna, means she is not only a photographer but a chef too, and working from a home studio has meant Donna has even more to take into consideration. “I not only need a full photography studio but also access to a fully functioning kitchen in close proximity to each other,” Donna says. “Luckily being in the country I have more space in my home so I’ve been able to convert the TV room into my studio.”
“The downside to having my studio at home is that it is still a home for the rest of my family,” Donna continues. “As well as all the usual photographic gear and lights, there’s also a large selection of props and backgrounds. Space becomes a big challenge, and I’ve learned to become selective when acquiring new gear and props to minimise how much my work takes over our home.”
Donna’s clients include publishers based in Boston, USA, who specialise in recipe books; sending Donna the manuscript to take accompanying pictures. Working overseas from her clients presents its own challenges, least of all the geographical distance between them.
“When I initially receive the manuscripts I have to go through the ingredients with a fine tooth comb to establish if I can even get the ingredients here in the UK,” Donna says. “I had a problem with a recipe for spaghetti squash for Dr Karen S Lee’s book. After being told that they are not only seasonal to a few weeks in autumn, but they are only grown by a really small number of farmers in the UK. Karen ended up having to courier me two separate squashes from New York, so you can imagine the pressure I was under to ace the recipe and shots!”
Ingredients for success
Describing her shooting style, Donna says: “Highlighting the hero in the picture is what is the most important to me, along with telling a story. I want a viewer to get lost, even for a nanosecond, to just stop, look and take it all in whilst feeling part of the picture.”
The creative process starts right from the point of shopping for the ingredients. They’re all hand-selected for freshness, colour, shape and size. Often, these ingredients are sourced from Donna’s local greengrocer and farm stall where she can get beautiful, fresh, seasonal produce.
“If I’m creating my own recipe, I’ll have an idea of exactly how the finished dish will look. Whereas if the recipe is from an author I may need to look it up to have an idea of the finished item,” Donna explains. “On some occasions I’ve never heard of the dish before.”
“Other times, I’ll create a recipe based on the image that I want to shoot,” she continues. “My red poached pears was one of those images that I created based on the season and the colour scheme.”
While you have full control over the subject, the composition and the styling, food can prove to be a challenging subject if not shot correctly. Donna says that she battles with brownies, biscuits and cookies in the studio. “I think they can end up looking very generic because of their shapes and colours,” she explains. “Brownies are particularly difficult to create separation so they don’t end up looking like a big brown lump, whilst still being able to show the texture.”
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“Lighting is critical”
For Donna, lighting is critical, and can be the difference between an appealing, flattering shot and something that looks unnatural and unappetizing. Originally shooting exclusively with natural light, the overcast climate of the UK can pose a challenge; chasing the sun to find lighting that will complement her subject.
The benefit of using artificial lighting in food photography is that it can be manipulated to suit the desired look of the image and highlight important aspects of the dish. As Donna explains: “Without strong natural light it is very difficult to capture highlights in motion shots, so positioning my light either behind or to the side helps to add beautiful contrast and clarity. For instance in this honey shot, it was used to draw attention to the droplets falling through the fingers, which otherwise would not have been possible on an overcast day.”
For her lighting, Donna uses the Rotolight NEO 2; a compact continuous LED and High Speed Sync flash all-in-one. “I first learned about Rotolights during one of the workshops that I was running for Nikon School of Photography in London. It was a particularly overcast day and we were struggling with natural light when thankfully the school had their selection of Rotolights on hand” Donna says. “It was a revelation to be able to work with natural light using an artificial fill.”
“Being so small, the NEO 2 can be targeted directly onto the part of the image that I want highlighted or to stand out. I like to use the barn doors to really channel the light into a specific area, like with the honey,” she says. Getting the white balance setting correct is crucial, so I also like that with my NEO 2 I’m able to choose my own colour temperature, which is usually between 4800 – 5400 kelvin.”
For those looking to grow their own portfolio, Donna recommends nothing more than putting yourself out there and starting your own blog. “Even today, I suggest that people start a blog if they are looking at branching off into something new, I have seen so many bloggers grow into big names in their fields by learning to put themselves on a virtual platform.”