There’s no shortage of food at the house of Donna Crous. The award-winning food photographer and blogger tells Keith Wilson how she works as a ‘one-stop shop,’ supplying mouth-watering images for publishers
It’s been a month of birthdays for food photographer Donna Crous – special ones at that. “I’ve got my daughter’s 18th birthday tomorrow,” she says, “so between trying to work and trying to get birthday celebrations organized, I’ve had a busy few days.” The previous week was her eldest daughter’s 21st birthday, and if that’s not enough for one month, Donna had her own birthday candles to blow out too, but politeness prevails and I refrain from asking how many were on the cake. After this interview, she will be making her daughter a lemon and poppy seed birthday cake. It’s a specific request because medical and health reasons mean Donna and her family stick to a wheat-free and grain-free diet. In addition to that, her youngest daughter is dairy-free, so choosing a birthday cake is not a straightforward affair. But, as Donna explains, it was these dietary restrictions that led her into the astoundingly deep world of food blogging and photography…
What are the dietary requirements that you and your family follow? We follow a Paleo diet, it’s a high-fat, low-carb diet, so we are totally wheatfree. That’s how my whole business started. My youngest daughter is dairy-free as well and had to go on a diet for medical reasons. This was about nine years ago when we were in South Africa. We moved to the UK five years ago and I was being inundated with requests for recipes. It was always the same recipe, and because I’d just moved here and I had the time, I thought, ‘let me start a blog so there’s one central place where everyone can go and get their recipe’. From there, the whole thing just mushroomed to what it is today.
How big is your audience now?
I get between 8000 and 10,000 hits a month, but I don’t do that much anymore because the photography has taken over as a full-time business. Plus, I have a book deal with a local publisher, so a lot of my newer recipes that I’m writing are going into the book and not straight into the blog.
You started by taking snaps on your iphone. How did your interest in photography develop? I’d done paintings and art for 10 or 15 years, so the principles of composition and the rule of thirds all applies whether you’re painting a picture or photograph. That gave me a good background for photography. Then, eight years ago, my husband booked me into a course at the Cape Town School of Photography as a birthday present.
What did it teach you?
It was just a six-week course to learn the basics, but it was enough to teach me to not rely on Auto. If you can get yourself off Auto and onto Manual it opens up a whole new world of opportunities. I don’t think I’m a very good writer, so when I started the blog I realized very quickly that, for my blog to be noticed and standout, I needed exceptional photography. I think with my husband working with me and the two of us bumbling our way through
If you can get yourself off Auto and onto Manual it opens up a whole new world of opportunities for you
it, I really started to grow the photography side.
Talking about your photography, what are the necessary ingredients for a really good food photograph? For me, it’s about telling a story in your picture that your reader connects with; something that your reader actually feels that they could sit down at that table and be part of. Food is about welcoming people. I love having guests over; I love entertaining; I love putting on a spread for people. It’s about drawing people into the picture so they feel like they can walk in and be part of it without having to ask. In terms of composition it’s also about keeping it as natural as possible. Yes, it’s
composed and yes, it’s a set, but at the same time it’s about keeping it as natural as possible – with some crumbs on the table or a dropped down napkin, or a fork lying upside down, something that’s a bit more normal and authentic.
That makes it look like an proper table setting in anyone’s home? Exactly. Everybody’s drawn to that. Everybody is drawn to a table of food that’s welcoming. I love a table where people feel they can just pull up a chair and sit down. I hope I get that feeling across in my pictures – that it’s just a feeling of ‘help yourself’.
Wanting everything as natural as possible, does that extend to your lighting? I’m guessing you use window light a lot.
Yes, yes. I converted my dining room, snug and kitchen area into a studio. I have to be based as close to the kitchen as possible because there’s lots of running backwards and forwards.
Oh yes, I can imagine…
I have two sources of window light that I use at different times of day. One is in the dining room for the morning and one is the snug for the afternoon. In my dining room, there are actually three sets of windows, so I will close the curtains on two sets of windows to have a one directional light source from one window and, depending on the light and the weather for the day, which window is my best window. It’s nothing complicated, it’s just a matter of closing the other curtains! I like a dark, moody style of photography, but I will do it naturally by just closing my curtains. I’ll then create more of the moody image through Lightroom editing at a later stage.
Do you use any supplementary lighting, like a softbox?
Nope. I’ve got artificial lights that I have used for one book cover and that was it. It was for my American publishers and it was a day that I had to get them a white book cover. That’s the only time I’ve ever used an artificial light.
So, there’s no flash at all in your pictures? It’s all daylight?
It’s all daylight. And the strength of the light source determines how close to the window I’ll place my set. If it’s a really bright day, I’ll diffuse it with a large diffuser and move my set a little further away from the light, just to soften the shadows. If it’s an overcast day, it will be a little bit closer to the window. For me, it’s all about the shadow and the negative and positive light on the subject.
Do you do your own styling?
Yes. I’m a one-stop shop. US publishers are my main clients, so I’ll be sent a manuscript of the book and in my home in Surrey I’ll shop, cook, style, photograph, edit the images and then, finally, send them back to the clients. At the same time, I’ll be doing some recipe testing because I also give them feedback on what they’ve got so far.
At the same time, I’ll be doing some recipe testing because I also give them feedback on what they’ve got so far
Do you get photographic inspiration from other cookbooks? Not really. I think my inspiration comes more from Pinterest and Instagram. I use them quite a lot. Sometimes, I will have a picture in mind and do the whole set and get everything setup. For instance, my original image of poached pears is without anyone in it, that’s a pear in a dish on its own. With the blog, I like to have different angles and different positions, and once I’ve got my actual picture I’ll just play around
– so there’s pouring shots of the pear, then it’s cutting shots and sometimes my best pictures will come from that, just having fun.
There seems to be two main types of images: looking from above and from the sides. Is there a specific reason for this? The top-down shots are very popular for food photography. They are not my favourite form of styling. I prefer a shallow depth of field to my pictures – for a top-down photograph you need to have the whole image in focus. It is a different styling technique. I will use that a lot for the recipe books I shoot for my US publishers, because that’s a style they like. It’s also a preferred style on Instagram. It’s easier to look at because it’s quicker to look at a picture that’s taken from above. I prefer to do more straight-on work, because I like how the shallow depth of field looks.
Are there other angles you try to include in a shoot?
I like to have people in the picture as well. You get a warmer approach and more welcoming feel from that. Another popular angle is the threequarter angle, so imagine you’re walking towards a table and you’re looking down as if you’re about to sit down. It’s a very natural approach when looking at a picture. That’s really nice for dishes that have a lot of interest at the top and on the side of the dish as well.
Which lenses do you prefer to work with mostly?
To be able to take criticism is important; you need to be able to accept criticism and use it wisely
I work with fixed lenses. I have a 50mm, 85mm and a 105mm, and I recently got the 24-70mm VR lens, mainly for travelling. I mostly use the 105mm macro – that’s my go-to lens. I love the way it compresses the picture and pulls everything in, but I do need quite a bit of space because I shoot from quite far. It’s not really macro photography, but using a macro lens from a further distance.
It’s virtually distortion free, which I guess is important too? Yes, it is. Sometimes my sets are not massively big and I have to get the whole picture in on the lens. The 50mm I use more for the overhead shots and the 85mm if I’m doing more of a pull-back, straight-on image. I use the 105mm if I want to get that compression with the particular dish being the main focal point of the photograph.
Which cameras do you use?
I have a D850 and a D750. The D850 is new, I got it in March and just started playing around with it. I’m very impressed, it’s a beautiful camera. The D750 I’ve used for about a year and a half and before that I was using the D7000 – It was a big change from the D7000 to the D750. I’m not a technical photographer, I’m more creative. For me, the camera is important but the lenses are very important. I’m obsessive about my lenses, they get cleaned and tidied up all the time.
How do you shoot? Do you tend to use a tripod a lot of the time?
I don’t shoot tethered, I shoot natural. I like to work as disconnected as possible, because I like to have movement while I’m photographing. I do a lot of handheld, that is my first choice. I only really use a tripod in overcast weather, particularly for recipe books.
What about the overhead shots? Yeah, that’s definitely tripod. Although now that I’ve been fiddling around with the 24-70mm VR, because it’s got that stabilization I do prefer overhead with handheld, then adjusting the monitor screen so that I can get my position correct. That’s been great because the image quality is beautiful, so that lens might end up being my preferred way of
shooting overheads in future. The tilt screen makes a big difference as I’m not exactly the tallest person, so when I need the height I must be able to see the screen properly!
Do you have a kick stool then?
I do! I have a set of ladders and some stools. When I’m faffing around a set I don’t look for technical things, I might end up using a cat scratcher to hold a backboard up!
But surely that’s the beauty of being able to have everything self-contained at home…
Exactly. And that’s what I try to teach in my workshops, because everybody I’m teaching works from home. Nobody has access to a studio in London, very few people do. The people coming onto my workshops are wanting to learn how to photograph from home. So, what I try to teach is to just use what you can. Use a stack of books to prop up something, or use your bread tin – anything that’s going to help you. People feel that if they’re a photographer they’ve got to have all the bells and whistles – like all the proper lighting stands and other stuff they go to huge expense to purchase. But at the end of the day you, as a viewer, don’t know that my backboard has been propped up precariously with a cat scratcher. It’s about the picture, it’s not about what’s gone into it to create it.
How much time do you spend editing in Lightroom?
I try not to spend too much time. I don’t do any manipulation. For me, it’s just about enhancements. I try to get my original image as close to the final picture as possible because to be sitting and taking out dots of crumbs on 20 or 30 images is time consuming… Ideally, what I like to do is get my final picture and then copy the settings and paste them across to the different pictures within that shoot, so it creates a similar style in terms of the look. It saves me a huge amount of time on the editing side. It also means that I’m not individually editing each picture.
You do a lot of workshops, what is the one best piece of advice that you would hand down to everyone? The first one is to practise. That’s obvious, but shoot every single day. For me, one of the things that has been a big game changer for my photography is that I’m a member of a local camera club. I think it’s really important to become a member of one of these clubs, because we have monthly competitions where we have external judges who come in and judge our work. If I show my work to family and friends they’re all going to tell me it’s fantastic, but when I’ve got an unbiased opinion and they’re giving me good quality critique, that’s something I can take away and learn from. To be able to take criticism of your pictures is very important; you need to be able to accept criticism and use it wisely while not taking it personally. The skill in our camera club is phenomenal. We just learn from each other. I say that to everyone in photography, and it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting with an iphone or shooting with grandpa’s old camera – go and join a photography club because you need to immerse yourself in proper photography where you are receiving criticism.