Picture perfect

Ever wondered what goes into the photos in magazines, recipe books, and ready meal packaging? Dean Bailey goes behind the scenes with food photographer Nicky Rogerson

No two days are the same when we’re out and about with photographer Nicky Rogerson. One day you’ll be cooking lunch with a Geordie drag queen, the next you’ll be sharing shoes because one of you has turned up in high heels and a dress to photograph pigs on a farm. That same day, one of you will also get worryingly close to an electric fence while trying to photograph said pigs.

With every shot of Nicky’s there is a hell of a lot going on behind the scenes. There’s always a car boot full of kit being lumped around the North East featuring everything from tweezers, paint brushes and nail scissors to gaffa tape, Blu Tack and a set of step ladders (she’s only 5ft 3ins).

“It’s all about the last shot, no-one sees all the fiddling, prodding, stuffing and jiggling that goes on,” says Nicky.

Though she’s always worked with food, starting out in London as a photographer’s assistant on jobs for M&S and Sainsbury’s as well as James Martin’s first book, Nicky’s near-20-year career has been an eclectic, often hectic, experience.

“I’ve been all over since I left Newcastle College in 2000,” says Nicky. “I met my husband Kev Gibson (also a photographer) on the first day of college. I remember him flying through the doors late on our first day; we’ve worked together our whole careers, and he’s still always late!

“It’s not all been glamorous though,” Nicky adds, recalling the hours spent in London phone boxes with stacks of 10ps calling photographers asking for work as an assistant, and having to speak with an Irish accent while working in an Irish bar.

“We did all sorts of things just to get by, including lying under a table for four days with a pressure cooker to make steam come out behind a dish. We’ve also had to transfer 25p between bank accounts just so we don’t go overdrawn. You learn a hell of a lot doing that – though I’m happy we’re not doing it any more.”

There are plenty of lessons from those early days in London which Nicky still uses today. Most of them are on the art of photography – lighting, perspective, backgrounds and so on, though some are a bit more left-field.

“I can spot ugly peas and sexy peas at a glance,” she adds out of the blue. “While photographing M&S ready meals we had to work out the average number of peas in the box then sift through the ugly ones and the sexy ones – they don’t teach you that at college!”

Spend an hour or two with Nicky and you’ll pick up hundreds of tricks, like the only way to get a shot of Marco Pierre White smiling (wait until the end of the photo call and take him outside for an espresso and a cigarette), or the many hundreds of uses for Blu Tack, cardboard and tin foil (both for positioning food and bouncing light around corners).

“You’ve got to be able to adapt. When you’ve been doing it this long you’ve used loads of tricks to make food look as appetising as possible,” adds Nicky.

“There’s a wealth of stupidity as well,” Nicky laughs, recalling everything from loading film into a camera backwards (an expensive mistake), to wondering whether being splashed across the pages of The Sun was worth it to collect a piece of equipment from underneath a table occupied by Newcastle United footballers (it wasn’t, in case you were wondering).

While many of us pile filters on top of our Instagram pictures these days, Nicky’s pictures are more natural. “It’s more from growing up watching Blue Peter,” she says.

“I grew up when Keith Floyd was on the telly and when we shot everything on 10×8 Polaroids. It was expensive so we had to make each shot as perfect as possible. You get more chances to change things now but you still have to take the best shot you can.”

So what’s the best advice for amateurs looking to up their game on social media? “Slow everything down. Take a second to think about where you are and what’s happening around you – try and bring some of that into what you’re photographing. And don’t whack loads of filters on top!”

With nearly 20 years of travelling around the UK, working over 12-hour days with sometimes busy chefs, demanding editors and art directors, would she change any of it?

“Not a chance,” says Nicky emphatically. “I’ve always loved food – from watching Keith Floyd on the telly to baking as a child with my gran and making curries with my mum. A teacher once told me that I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body – part of me is still proving them wrong!

“It’s been hard work and you’ve always got to be willing to take on another challenge but I’m getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and how many people can say that?”

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