Exploding pizzas, high-end restaurants, challenging ambient light. Professional food photography goes far beyond filters and flat lays. Just ask Nadine Shaw, Nikon ambassador and principal photographer of Feast Photography.
With a career spanning two decades, Nadine has shot for countless clients ranging from Gourmet Traveller magazine to local farmers and leading restaurants. And as her work shows, she’s as passionate about food as she is adept with light and lens.
Find out more in our Q&A with Nadine below, and discover the food flat lay ‘recipe’ for Nadine’s shot (pictured right) workshopped at our last festival.
Professional food photographer Nadine Shaw | Image courtesy ofFeast Photography
How did you get into food photography?
I was born in South Africa into an artist’s family and naturally studied fine art. I switched to focusing on photography whilst living in London and working in a photography lab, meeting and learning from the pros. I returned to my early roots and formally studied photography before I committed to a move to Australia.
Here, I was lucky to assist many talented and highly skilled advertising photographers in the peak of their careers. I did this for several years before branching out on my own. I relished commercial, advertising photography and held my own, particularly in a male dominated industry.
As I grew personally, I also became interested in permaculture, sustainability and our connection to what we eat. Naturally this unearthed my passion for food in all its tastes and forms along with an interest in recording it via photography.
In this way, my specialisation in photographing food was born out of heartfelt purpose – way before food photography itself became a burning trend. I’m proud to be at the forefront of this amazing niche.
I have had the pleasure of shooting a wide variety of food and related photography—from the farmer and manufacturer to the plate. That’s where my tagline—Pollen • Plate • Pixel—came from.
These days the majority of my time is booked shooting for the foodservice and hospitality industries, along with major food chains. The mix of clients ranges from manufacturers and farmers direct to editorial for magazines like Gourmet Traveller and Brisbane News.
I also have had the pleasure of photographing at gorgeous high-end restaurants like Donna Chang’s, Detour, and Matt Moran’s Riverbar & Kitchen, along with big players like Taco Bell, Sizzler, Pizza Capers, Michel’s Patisserie, Donut King, Domino’s, and many more.
How collaborative is your process?
It depends what is being photographed and the needs this dictates. Generally there is a client, agency/marketing team, me, and the food stylist.
While the agency often comes up with a general concept, I find that the best outcomes happen when I can facilitate development of these ideas. Doing this allows the group as a whole to lean on each other’s experience and deliver some delightfully original results.
What photography equipment, props, etc. do you use on a typical shoot?
I used to have Hasselblad gear; now I use Nikon cameras and Nikon lenses (see below), along with flash gear and a selection of C-stands, mirrors, reflectors, scrims, etc. – whatever I need to tell the story.
Each scenario is so particular, therefore the range of gear that is selected is carefully tailored to each shoot. That’s why I love shooting in my own studio; everything is available at arm’s reach.
Food stories can be told in so many ways and are affected by trends, so I invest heavily in a constantly updating catalogue of props and surfaces. I also always have my procurement team working on it to source quirky, one-off finds. You can tell when a photographer or stylist has a limited range, so I work hard not to be pigeonholed like that.
What would be your recommended ‘recipe’ for lighting, composition and camera settings?
It would all be easy if the answer was as simple as a cake recipe!
Amateur-grammers will aggrandise the use of natural light and while this is of course useful, a professional needs to be able to cope with shooting under less than optimal lighting conditions (say a factory lineup or test kitchen) as well as be able to consistently repeat the lighting and story design for subsequent shoots.
Again, each client has different needs, so it really comes down to knowing how to visually illustrate the personalities and mood of each brand.
Tell us about your favourite/most memorable shoot to date.
One of my favourite shoots (for many varied reasons) was the blazing pizza for Pizza Capers. The theme was ‘inferno’ and the brief was to create an exploding pizza, on fire and exploding into pieces, but still have it looking delicious and edible.
Needless to say the studio looked like something out of a scene from (TV show) Dexter, and clean-up was a nightmare – I think I found pizza sauce in my gear for days. But the shoot was so creatively rewarding and so much fun.
What, in your opinion, makes a fantastic food shot?
When the client trusts the team to translate their thoughts into visuals it opens the door to delivering fresh, original content every time.
There’s a magical moment with creative freedom when everyone is on the same page working hard to build a shot. These end up being the images that take their customers’ breath away and make them salivate.
What career or photography tips/advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of your career?
While I never stop learning or trying new things, here’s some advice I recently gave my assistant:
Take time to work on your business, not in it. Being creative is great but you shouldn’t be a starving artist.
Budget, budget, budget. I have had moments of ignoring this advice to my own peril. It may be daunting facing up to reality but the benefit of knowing what’s coming in and what’s going out helps you to make better decisions – which prevent you from throwing it in when times are tougher.
Photographically, I would say the devil is in the detail and correct lighting tells no lies. Because food photography is so macro and the differences between real life and the lens are acute, every minute detail makes a difference to making or breaking a shot.
Have a talent and appreciation for styling but avoid practising it yourself. On commercial shoots there is so much to do just in terms of designing the lighting rig and checking composition, that you don’t need the distraction and pressure of getting food to sit right. Food can be temperamental under lights and there’s only a brief window in which to get things perfect. You don’t need to be prodding and massaging the subject at the same time as hitting the shutter.
While gear is important, if you don’t have composition or technique deeply refined it’s like the difference between making a peanut butter sandwich and being a professional chef.
We don’t shoot food; we shoot stories. Become a visual storyteller.
Nadine used artificial light sources to mimic natural light – a method that allows the effect to be replicated anywhere. For the main light Nadine used a studio strobe (flash) inside a large soft box diffused by a scrim (held in place on a stand) to replicate soft window light.
Positioned at an angle to the main light, a second strobe ‘skimmed’ light across the subject to add highlights in specific areas.
A third, bare strobe was aimed at the (white) ceiling to cast soft fill light over the entire subject.
To get a secure overhead perspective for this flat lay, Nadine mounted a Nikon D850 with Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G prime lens on the arm of a C-stand so the camera was directly over the subject. An aperture of f/16 was used to create maximum depth of field, keeping every element in focus from foreground to background.
Many thanks to Nadine Shaw for her contribution to this blog. See more of Nadine’s amazing work on her website and Instagram.
Please note: All images shown are the intellectual property of Feast Photography, paid for by clients and strictly copyrighted.
Want more food photography tips?
Feel free to ask one of our staff photographers in store, online or over the phone.