Interview with Food Blogger and Photographer Nicole Branan

Nicole Branan

Nicole Branan is the cook, stylist, and photographer behind the food blog The Spice Train. She started her blog in 2013 to learn how to cook with spices. Up until then, ninety percent of her spice pantry was sitting around unused. Not any more! Spices are now the workhorses in her kitchen. On the blog she shares the results of her experiments with different flavors. 

Hi Nicole, How did you get into blogging and food photography? Tell us your story.
I actually come from a completely different direction.

I have a background in chemistry and was working as a science journalist back in the 2000s. Toward the end of the decade the publishing industry began to change and print journalists were expected to expand their skill sets and become proficient photographers as well. I wasn't thrilled about that at all at first but I eventually picked up a camera and started to learn how to use it. I figured I could practice on food because that's a subject that's always around. To my surprise, I absolutely loved it and knew right then and there that I wanted to become a food photographer. Six years later I still love it and find it endlessly interesting, engaging and enjoyable.

I started my blog, TheSpiceTrain.com, more or less on a whim; my main objective with it was to create something pretty on the internet, a body of work that I could be proud of having created. Blogging has been a very enjoyable journey so far and it has pushed me to take better and better photos.

It's one thing to add images to a portfolio but it is quite another to put your work out there and ask for comments on it from the internet. I've also enjoyed connecting with many wonderful people through the blog, it's a very friendly and welcoming community.

You have developed a unique visual language on your blog. How did you come to your "bright food, dark shadows" style?
What I love most about food photography is the ability to create a specific mood and atmosphere that evokes an emotional response in the viewer.

I love to look at a food photo that makes me react emotionally and after experimenting a lot with my lighting I found that photographing bright food in very dark surroundings does that best.

Where do you find inspiration? What is your process when you get ready for a shoot.
I'm a big fan of Pinterest and I keep a board there with the best food photography I see. I also love to look through the food portfolios on workbook.com, pretty much every food photo I see on there is stunning.
When I get ready for a shoot I usually have the whole thing thought through in great detail, to the point where I have the photo I want to create fully visualized in my head. It's possible that that's more of a psychological reassurance than anything else, it makes me think "all I have to do now is put that image in my head onto the sensor, that’s all." It keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. Then I start by setting up the scene and the lighting, take lots of test shots and won't start to cook the hero food until I am perfectly happy with every little detail of the set.

The final photos don't always look exactly like the ones I had in my head but as long as I'm happy with them, that's okay.

What can a beginning food blogger do to improve their food photography? Could you share a few simple tips that have helped you?
Always build a photo on a story, regardless of how simple it may be. Even if you just have a bowl of mashed potatoes, ask yourself who is eating them, at what time of day, in what setting, etc. Answering questions like these before the shoot helps me greatly because it provides me with guidance throughout the shoot. On a more practical note I really recommend long focal length lenses, I love using my 105mm lens.

What's in your camera bag?
Very little! In my bag I only have one camera body (a Nikon D600) and one lens (a 105mm 2.8 macro lens). I used to have other (shorter focal length) lenses but have sold them all because I just liked the look that the 105mm gave me so much better. I also have a strobe and a large, rectangular softbox and I occasionally use a remote to trigger my shutter.

Any food photography pet peeves?
The only one I can think of is extreme close-ups that are so close that I can't tell what the food is!

You can see more of Nicole's work on her website,  Instagram feed and check out her Pinterest boards.