Guest Interview with Denise Brady-Food Photographer

Apr 26, 2024 | Photographer Guest

“Show Notes”

Denise Brady has been a food photographer for two and a half years. She is based on the East coast of the UK in Suffolk. Before this she was doing weddings and family photography, but Covid meant Denise had to pivot her business and moved to food photography. Denise’s photography journey began on her wedding day. When she got the images back from her wedding day she didn’t like them, and said she could have done better herself, which her husband laughed at. Denise had done photography in her youth but stopped. The next Christmas her husband bought her a Nikon digital camera. Later that year she was asked to photograph a wedding for a friend of her daughter. Denise tried to turn it down but her husband said no, this is your chance to show you can do better. So, Denise shot the wedding for free. The couple were pleased with the photos and paid Denise for them. It then built from there until Covid.

Marcus says in fashion the photographers are often not that interested in fashion. So he wondered if she liked food. Denise loves food and was as up with great home cooked food as a child. Marcus asks if Denise has read the book ⁠Toast by Nigel Slater⁠. Denise says her cook book shelf is about a meter and a half long. She says if a food photo doesn’t make your mouth water and invoke a memory then it’s not doing it’s job.

Denise loves to use natural light. She can use lighting but uses natural light for all her photos. She will use bounce boards to get light into a shot and blackboards to take light out of a shot. She will use foils and scrims to block out and filter bright direct light on sunny days. On a flat light day her works becomes easier. The hardest days to work on are ones with sunshine and showers so the sun is constantly coming in and out. Denise likes to get the white balance right in shot rather than afterwards. There is a show all about lighting, ⁠the ten principles of flash photography.⁠

Denise’s preference is to take dark and moody shots. Some clients need light and airy shots and she is. Sam asks how she found it finding clients with the move to food. This was very challenging at the start as Covid hit the entertainment industry so hard. Denise has found that she has to be flexible in her approach and work within a clients budget, which can be limited. Denise’s son in law is a chef. He has been very helpful to her and means she has someone to go to, to ask questions when she doesn’t understand things within the industry. Denise says plating is important and changing all the time. Denise has a particular style. She tried other things like the floating burgers and stop motion, but she prefers to work in her style. Marcus refers back to the recent ⁠Joe Giacomet⁠ show  as he has been making the gif style stop motion food animations. Marcus asks about working with food stylists. Denise often does the styling herself but she has worked with food stylists. Sam asks what food stylists do. The summary is that they move the peas around the plate and arrange the knife and fork tastefully and things like that. Denise also takes props with her for shoots. They also discuss planning and hot food. When hot food comes out it needs to be photographed very quickly. That means there needs to be lots of planning in place so that when the food comes out the photos are able to be done very quickly.

Denise’s influences include: ⁠Jonie – The Bite Shot⁠

⁠Sarah – Broma bakery⁠

Her influences also comes from going to restaurants and looking at their photography. Her ambitions include working on a cook book and getting into a major food magazine. She has been published with other shots, but not food. Her ideal chef to make a cook book with would be⁠ Gordon Ramsey⁠ or a local chef ⁠Galston at Morston Hall.⁠

“Show Transcription”

Sam:Hello Marcus, how are you doing today?

Marcus:  Oh yeah I’m all right thank you Sam, very good thank you, how are you?

Sam: Very good thank you and I hope all the listeners are good too and today we have got another amazing guest lined up. So we’ve got a photographer with us this week, and a specialist food photographer at that. So as usual I will let our guests introduce themselves, so Denise Brady, welcome to the show, it is amazing to have you with us.

Denise:  Thank you very much for the nice warm welcome.

Sam: No problem, would you like to introduce yourself Denise?

Denise:  Yeah of course, so my name is Denise Brady, I’m a food photographer based on the east coast of the UK in sunny Suffolk and it is very sunny here today, it’s beautiful, and I shoot food.

Sam: Excellent, and how long have you been shooting food?

Denise: Really only about two and a half years, prior to that I was doing weddings and family photography and some events, but with the dreaded Covid lockdown and everything we couldn’t do weddings, I had to pivot my business, so I pivoted it into food photography which has been lovely.

Sam:  Cool, amazing, do you want to kind of take us through your story of where you started from as a photographer and that sort of thing?

Denise:  Of course, so it goes back to the day I married my husband, so we’ve been married, oh I’ve got to get this right.

Sam: You’ll be in trouble now.

Denise:  14 years in May, and we did the whole thing of picking our photographer and meeting a number of others, chose who we wanted, and when we got our wedding photos back I was quite disappointed in them, I didn’t really like them, and I actually turned to my husband and said, you know what, I could have done better than that, and he laughed and he was like, yeah right, and I said yeah you know honestly I could, I used to play around with photography years ago and stopped it. So that Christmas he bought me a digital camera, just a little Nikon 3200, and I started playing around with that and obviously learning digital when I’d been used to film was a bit different, and then a friend of his daughter’s was getting married and asked me to shoot their wedding. So I turned it down, said no, obviously, and he said no, you can’t say no, because you said you could do better than our photographer did. So I shot that wedding for free, because it was the first one I’d ever done, she got some lovely results, some of them weren’t great, so I got rid of those and delivered the album, but they were over the moon with it, and two days later an envelope was popped through my door with the payment for the wedding. Which was quite a shock, and it kind of then built from there for weddings and everything, and so I did that up until Covid. I’ve done a couple, two or three, after which it obviously carried on from Covid, and I have one wedding to do this year, and then that’s the last of my weddings, but started to play around with some food during Covid, which was good fun.

Marcus:  Great, so may I ask, I mean in my world, the world of fashion, you know, the photographers don’t necessarily need to be interested in fashion, you know, in fact I was, but it wasn’t the norm, a lot of photographers weren’t interested in clothes design or anything like that, how does that work in the food business, in the food photography, do you have an interest in food, is that your passion?

Denise:  I absolutely love food, my mum was an amazing cook, as was my grandma, and my great-grandma, so I grew up with very strong women that could all cook really well, and they had different strengths, my gran was a great baker, not so good at gravy, my mum could cook anything that you threw at her, and the same with my gran. So those memories of cooking in a kitchen growing up, and all of those smells, and food evokes memories, and that for me is so important in anything that I do. If your picture doesn’t tell a story, and it’s been the same with your fashion, with weddings, anything like that, if the picture doesn’t tell a story, it’s not going to evoke a memory that then means you want to eat food, so it’s a combination, really, but I cook.

Marcus: Yeah, that’s interesting, just to talk about that idea of memory, and food, and how evocative it is, have you read the book Toast, by who’s the, by that chef, I can’t remember the name now, God I should know, it’s one of the most read chefs, okay, I can’t remember, do you know the book I’m reading Denise?

Denise:  I do know the book, but I can’t remember the chef either, but I haven’t read it yet, I have so many books around, I’m a very bit of a book person, so if you could see my shelves behind me, it’s all books.

Marcus: I think Sam might be looking it up for us.

Sam: Yes, and how many of those are cookbooks Denise, are you like me, where I’m constantly in trouble for the amount of space all those cookbooks are taking up?

Denise:  My cookbooks are kept separately from every other book, so my cookbooks are all in the kitchen, and I would say there’s a whole probably metre and a half space. That is just jam-packed of various ones, simple ones, you know vegetarian, vegan, and there’s the Ritz cookbook there, which I keep looking at and going it’s a bit posh isn’t it, but yeah, so yeah, I do love a cookbook.

Sam: Nigel Slater, Toast, the story of a boy’s hunger.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Denise:  That’s it.

Marcus:  Yeah, and the reason I mentioned that is because there’s lots of amazing stories that when he tells them about the Western meals he had, and the Arctic roll, and I just, I’m of that era, it just brings back so many memories, and I think that’s the great thing about food photography isn’t it, it’s all about bringing back sensations, or giving you sensations.

Denise: I think any food photograph, if it’s the first thing you look at, and if it doesn’t make your mouth water and spark a memory, it’s not a great photo. It has to do the job, you know, my clients want people to book tables at their restaurants, well if there’s an awful photograph, and believe me I’ve seen some, and it’s falling up, set it up properly, and then they’ll want to eat it, and then they’ll book.

Marcus:  Did you have to retrain yourself from this transition from doing weddings and portraits over to doing food photography, Denise?

Denise:  It was a lot of practice, and a lot of, I mean, I’ve always shot natural light, I much prefer that, obviously I have lighting, and I have done some fashion as well, I have to say. But so yes, I can use artificial light, but I much prefer natural light, and manipulating that as opposed to creating, so all of my shots are natural light.

Marcus: Right, maybe could you unpack that a little bit more for me, Denise, how you go about, you say you alter the natural light, how do you do that?

Denise: So I’ll use bounce boards, so I can bounce light into another place, or I’ll use blackboards to take the light out of a place, I’ll use different props that will block out light, or reflect the light, so to get the image that I want, so if I want a shadow in, and let’s say, you’ve seen the cocktail shots which have the nice leaf shadow in, then I’ll use the natural light and a plant to do that, so everything that I use is done naturally and I’ll just move things around to bend the light as such as to where I need it to be.

Sam: Does that mean you can do food shots on a certain day?

Marcus:  Well, I was going to ask the same question,

Denise: Yeah. So if it’s a really bright day, like today here, we have a beautiful blue sky, and it’s very, very bright, so I shoot, I’m very lucky to live in a house with big Victorian windows, so I will use foils, or scrims, or whatever you need to use to block out and filter that light, so it doesn’t make it as harsh, so there’s loads of tips and tricks that you can use to change that light, so if it’s too bright, then I’ll foil it, and if that’s still too bright, then I’ll put another foil, so it’s just layers to diffuse the light, in the same way as you would diffuse soft boxes, and build those.

Marcus:  Yeah, it’s exactly the same principles.

Denise: Yeah, I mean, obviously, if it’s a flat light day, that’s easier, because it’s consistent, and there isn’t the changes. If we have a cloudy, sunny day, and the sun goes behind a cloud, obviously you need to be aware of what that’s going to do to your image, so you might need to take something away to get that light back, so it’s constantly working and looking at the lighting.

Marcus:  Interesting, and colour temperature as well, do you have any fluctuations within the colour temperature when you’re doing multiple products during the day?

Denise: Yeah, obviously, so where I shoot is, I have a studio within my house, so if I’m doing product and things that can be shot at home, the front of my house faces east, the back of my house faces west, my studio is at the back, so the morning light to the afternoon light is completely different, because obviously we rise at the east, we set in the west. So it is understanding your setting, your white balance on your camera, and that changes, and you have to continually check that you’ve got the right white balance. I mean, yes, we can change it in post-editing, but that’s not always the best way for me to do that. I’d much prefer to get it right in camera first time.

Sam: Nice, interesting. Now, we do have a show on this, don’t we, Mark? So, if people want to look back, we’ve also got a show, Ten Principles of Lighting, yeah, so if people are listening to Denise and going flat light and whatever else, it goes through all those terms and explains them all, so it can unpack all of that stuff.

Marcus: Indeed, it does, indeed. Yeah, I mean, looking at your portfolio, there’s certainly your approach works, in that all the images do fit in, you know, if I was to book Denise Brady for a photo shoot to my restaurant, I know what kind of photography I get. I mean, you’ve got your style is in there, so it’s obviously working for you.

Denise: Yeah, I mean, it’s I have a preference, a personal preference, to darker, moody.

Marcus: Yes.

Denise: It’s what I like to do, so when you look through my portfolio, you will see a lot of darker, moody. Of course, I can shoot light and airy, not my preference, but if that’s what the client calls for, then that’s what we’ll shoot, but if I’m shooting at a restaurant, obviously, we need to use the available and we need to brand it, so there’s differences in the types of shoots and the way things are shot to meet the client’s needs, really.

Sam: Okay, interesting, and then I’m thinking, so you’ve moved from having quite a wide business with all sorts of different photography and kind of niched it right down. How have you found that’s worked in terms of getting clients and stuff? Have you found that easier, more tricky?

Denise:  To start off with, it was a lot trickier. Obviously, that the hospitality industry had a massive hit as well, and it is starting to come out of that, but there are still a lot of hospitality places that are still struggling, so whilst they understand that they need the photography, sometimes the budget’s not always there, so it has to be adaptable, which I tend to do, so whenever I’m talking to a client, we’ll work within their budget, so if they’ve got a budget of £400, then we’ll work within a £400 budget. If they’ve got a budget of £1,500, we work within a £1,500 budget. So it varies, and I’ve found that I’ve had to be really, really flexible in my approach with that, and I think they appreciate that and they understand, and if that means that we’ve only got a very small budget, so we can only do two or three dishes, at least that starts them off, and then as things build, we can then add on to that, so my clients tend to be repeat clients, which is fabulous, so when they do their menu changes, seasonal menu changes, then that’s when I’ll go back in.

Sam: Okay, that makes sense, and do you think that helps now because you’re like an expert in that industry, so if you were still doing all the other things and somebody come along wanting food, you maybe wouldn’t know that they needed so much flexibility, you wouldn’t know so much about the industry, so do you feel now you’re a much better place to get those food jobs because you know the industry so well?

Denise: Yeah, I mean, one thing that does help me, and I do pick his brain a lot, is my son-in-law is a chef. So if I don’t understand something within the industry, I can go to him and say, well, why do we do, why do you do this, why is, so what I’ve done, I’ve actually worked within the industry as well, in hotels and things in previous lives and jobs, but it’s great to then have that flexibility, especially when there are so many differences and plating is changing. One chef will plate in a particular way and maybe might be stuck in a little bit of rut because that’s how he was trained, whereas another chef is continually changing and modernizing the plating to suit the trends at the time. So again, that has to be reflected in their photograph, so if I’m going to a retro diner to shoot, then I’m going to shoot as a retro diner as opposed to a Michelin star plated, you know, it’s different.

Sam: Yeah, makes sense. I know we’re moving back to completely random question, Marcus, are we moving back to plates away from random bits of driftwood, slates and the like, have you found that, or are we still on the random stuff?

Denise:  There is still some random stuff out there, but plates, it’s definitely plates, and there are some stunningly beautiful plates, there’s a place in London that you can actually go and hire plates from and they’re just gorgeous, I mean, yeah, there’s lots of, yeah, plates is plates.

Marcus: Yeah, and what I was going to talk about is on a similar vein, Sam, in that I’ve noticed with food photography, there’s definite changes or definite fashions in style, you know, I look back to the 80s and 90s, and it’s that very much shallow depth of field, soft lighting, very Jamie Oliver, matte paper with his cookbooks, and then more recently, I’ve noticed more hard lighting going on, more of a retro feel, you mentioned that, like a 90s style, and so I can definitely, and then you’ve got also within that, you know, you’ve got splashes are very popular, and then you’ve got that cutout thing where things are suspended burgers or whatever, gosh, there’s lots of different styles I’ve noticed, Denise. Do you tend to look at that? I think, oh, I would like to try that myself, would you just try and follow your own path?

Denise:  No, obviously, I look at what’s going on and what other people are doing, and there are some incredibly creative people out there that have completely different styles to me and the work that they do. I mean, that I have done like floating burgers and floating doughnuts, and that, and I can do it. And, and it’s fun to do, but it’s not where I sit. There are people much better versed than I to do that kind of that kind of photography. Stop motions are great. I can do I can do those two. Yeah, so it really depends. And I like my style and people that use me like my style. So of course, I experiment and occasionally you’ll get something that will appear on my socials going, I had a little bit of a play today. And what do you think and that we can get some interaction going and people will tell me whether they don’t like it. And that’s always helpful.

Marcus: We had on the show. I think it’s I always get mixed up. It’s Joe. So it has come out.

Joe show has been out. And I really recommend I don’t know if you listened to that one Denise, but he’s a very high end advertiser we talk about and he does food. He works with McDonald’s and Sainsbury’s. And he’s got and he uses those stop motion gif ideas that you talk about to great effect.

Denise:  Yeah, I mean, I have seen those and they are they are great and to attract attention and kind of those the moving pictures and are great for TV advertising and that kind of thing. And yeah, I mean, at the moment, there seems to be an awful lot of really, really bright colors. So backgrounds are really bright orange or yellow, or like that, that bit like my nails, bright pinks and all really strong colors are very popular at the moment. And I recently did a shot of a paella dish, but its set on bright yellow, bright red. So to reflect the Spanish flag. And yes, of course, I’ll look at those trends and create I can create to match those trends. But yeah, but I still for me, personally, it’s still I still go to dark and moody.

Marcus: Dark and moody. Definitely get that from your vibe from your website. What about working with a food stylist? I recently worked with a food stylist myself, and I found it was really fantastic to somebody who really could bring in the products and bring in the styling elements to it.

Denise: Yeah, I do a lot of my own. But I have food stylists that I can call on. So yes, if the project warrants using a food stylist, then yes, I’ll work with a food stylist. And obviously, we build that into the costings. And, you know, but the budget has to be there for that. Its two people to pay rather than just one.

Sam: And then for those photographers who maybe haven’t worked with a food stylist, can you kind of sort of briefly explain what a food stylist will do? I mean, are they moving peas around a plate?

Denise:  Yeah. So really, they are there to, like you say, move peas around the plate, if you like, to put the right props in and make sure the forks in the right place and  really make the food look its best before I photograph it. And the photograph brings all that together.

Sam: Okay. And then they also bring in.

Marcus: They also say they also bring in elements as well. You’re talking about plates. A good food stylist will have a selection.

Denise: Yeah, I mean, I have I have an amazing array of, I don’t know if you saw it on my socials, I put a little reel on of just some of the props that I was sorting out the other day.

And they covered a whole table. And that’s not it. So I have those you collect things on that and that might come in handy. My husband goes mad because I’ve got things everywhere. But yeah, you do you end up collecting stuff. But a food stylist will also have that and they’ll bring a kit bag with them that will have things like blue dots in and glycerin spray. So the cocktail sticks so that we can make things sit still and exactly where we want them to. So yeah, blue dots are great.

Sam: So a combination of first of all props. So I don’t there’s a candlestick in the background or whatnot, but also things to help keep the food looking how you want and in the right place. And that sort of thing. Yeah. Cool. And then I was gonna ask about speed. So do you when the food comes, it’s a restaurant, they’ve given you a hot Do you need to work really fast while the food’s hot? Or do you kind of not worry too much? And you’ve got ways of keeping that going? Because obviously, the look will change, right? As it kind of things, some things will cool and sad.

Denise: Yeah, you need you need it to be as fresh as possible. So you do have to work quite quickly. But that’s where all the planning comes in before you do this. So when, when I’m talking to a client, we decide which dishes we are going to shoot and sit with the chef. So I know how they are going to look, how he would eat them. Because the way he plates them might not be the best way for a photograph of the food. So we might need to make some slight adjustments to that they won’t be many adjustments, but that there might be so we’ve got and I sit them out a little sketch. So we know exactly what we’ve got, we can then plan the order that those come out in and the time scale that they come out in so that we have it at his freshest because there’s no point him cooking seven dishes all at once, because I can’t shoot she’s all at once if they want them individually shot, because the last won’t be as fresh as the first one.

Sam: So it’s all about the planning.

Denise:  There’s so much planning. So a day’s shoot, say at a restaurant isn’t just a day shoot as you’ll know, shooting yourselves, it’s you, you need to have your meat, you need to do your planning, you need and there’s so much that goes into everything before you get to actually shoot. And that has that has to be done so that you know that they are going to be the freshest.

Sam:  Amazing. Okay, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. So you’re kind of you’re not just going, they’re going to bung it all out. You’re going, right, I know what’s coming next. I know what lighting I need. I know what props I need. So it’s all ready. So when the chef pops that down, you know exactly what you’re doing with it. Quick adjustment, bang, bang, put that prop there, bang and you’re good to go because it’s all planned and you know what’s arriving and you know what you need.

Denise: Well, we’ll set up all the props before the food goes in and then just make quick adjustments as to where those props whether they need moving or not before we shoot. So everything is set without the food first.

Marcus: So Denise, may I ask you a couple of questions in one here. First of all, where do you draw your influences from other photographers or whatever? And where do you see yourself moving towards for the future?

Denise: So influences is quite hard. There are so many people out there that I’ll look at. There’s Joanie at the Bite Shot. She’s great. And Sarah, who has Broma Bakery, she’s great. And they’re where I started kind of looking. There’s a lady in Kent who’s actually become a very, very good friend. Her and I have a very similar style. So her name is Eula. And so we’ll sit and chat and plan stuff because we’ll work on things. And so, yes, the influences come from all over the place. But a lot of it is coming from me. I like to eat out. So I’ll go on to people’s websites as to where I want to eat and have a look at how they’ve presented their food and how that looks and then decide whether or not I’m going. So if that’s what I’m doing, so is everybody else. I have some ambitions, obviously. I would love to work on a major cookbook and I would love to work with a major food magazine in the future. Mike English is somebody that works a lot with the Good Housekeeping. So I look at his. So, yeah, because he’s kind of more on trend with what the magazines are like. I mean, I’ve been published with other things, not with food, but my weddings have been published and some of my fashion has been published and some of my theatre work has been published all over the world. So I’m not adverse to being published. And it’s lovely. And so, yeah, I’d like I’d like the opportunity to create a cookbook.

Marcus: What chef would it be? Which would be the dream chef for you to work with?

Denise: That’s hard. So I absolutely love Gordon Ramsay. He’s great. I’d love to work with him, but there’s a local chef that I’d like to work with, Galton. He’s at Moreston Hall, but he’s not doing a cookbook at the moment. I mean, where do you go with that? Jamie Oliver would be great. James Martin would be great. Adam, who was on the year. So he I’d like to work with him. There’s a hundred. I could give you a list of hundreds, but the first one would be Gordon Ramsay. Yeah, Gordon Ramsay.

Marcus:  Excellent. Excellent.

Sam: You just have to put up with the swearing. Right. It has been. You can give as good as you get. It has been amazing to speak to you, Denise, but we are kind of starting to run out of time. So again, thank you, Denise. It’s been amazing having you with us.

Denise: Thank you.

Sam:  And Marcus. Yeah, I’ll have to put up with you next week again.

Marcus: I’ll see you next week. See you next week. Thanks very much, Denise.