Donna Crous

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

NPhoto - - THE N-PHOTO INTERVIEW -

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.

www.dig­i­tal­cam­er­a­world.com

Pre­vi­ous page: Bon­fire night ap­ple cake with caramel run­ning off. Slightly messy food makes the viewer feel more com­fort­able and con­nected. Cam­era: Nikon D750 Lens: 105mm f/2.8 Ex­po­sure: 1/8 sec, f/5, ISO200 Below: Tak­ing a break with tea, us­ing harsher sun­light to play with more de­fined shad­ows. Cam­era: Nikon D850 Lens: 24-70mm f/2.8 Ex­po­sure: 1/100 sec, f/8, ISO200 Right: Heir­loom to­ma­toes ar­ranged to show the vari­a­tion of size, colour and shapes. Cam­era: Nikon D750 Lens: 50mm f/1.8 Ex­po­sure: 1/10 sec, f/5.6, ISO200

Above left: Stack of pan­cakes. Donna likes to show the sea­sons in her im­ages, with cherry blos­soms on Pan­cake Tues­day. Cam­era: Nikon D750 Lens: 105mm f/2.8 Ex­po­sure: 1/250 sec, f/3.5, ISO800 Above right: Birth­day car­rot cake. Sea­sonal blos­soms off­set the white from the ic­ing and cur­tain. Cam­era: Nikon D850 Lens: 105mm f/2.8 Ex­po­sure: 1/60 sec, f/3.5, ISO200 Right: Ap­ple tartlets taken in re­ally low light at the end of the day. Cam­era: Nikon D750 Lens: 50mm f/1.8 Ex­po­sure: 1/13 sec, f/5.6, ISO200

Above: Cit­rus slices, an ex­er­cise in play­ing with ver­ti­cal lines, cir­cles and con­trast­ing colours.

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