Au Naturel

by Ethan G. Salwen

Nicholas Eveleigh

May 01, 2011 — “I try to keep my food photography as clean and natural as possible,” say Nicholas Eveleigh, a New York-based editorial and commercial still life photographer. Indeed, the hallmark of Eveleigh’s images is uncluttered compositions that are graphically engaging, bringing out the best in the inherent colors and forms of his subject matter. Eveleigh’s fresh visual approach is particularly flattering to foods, which he captures in a way that entices the senses without overwhelming them. “We eat food three times a day,” Eveleigh points out. “And they say you eat with your eyes. We know what looks fresh in 
a photograph.”

Eveleigh says that he works methodically but that he tries to give his images an edge. He calls his method of working “ordered chaos.” Looking closely, one does discover a soft edge of disorder, if not chaos, in Eveleigh’s images. There is definitely a solid, controlled order, but the images feel spontaneous, even when they have clearly been highly orchestrated. In one of his food stills Eveleigh captures three bright, perfect white eggs lined up to the left of a single leaf of deep green spinach [see below]. To the right, Eveleigh has arranged six bright, glistening raspberries in two columns of three, balancing the visual weight of the eggs. The composition—popping forward off a black background—with the eggs, leaf and raspberries are each just slightly off kilter, creating a compositional energy that is soft and rich and lingers in our visual memory.

In a time when hyperreal photographic aesthetics can overwhelm us like excessive junk food, Eveleigh dishes up images that taste like fresh, delicious home-cooked meals. His ordered chaos seems to be similar to what master chefs employ when cooking up delicious foods accented with a light, perfect touch of fresh spices.

Still Successful
“I have done editorial work for everyone from American Baby to AARP,” Eveleigh says. Just a few of his regular editorial food clients include Best Life, Men’s Health, Maxim, Newsweek and Penthouse. Although Eveleigh is a master at creating food and beverage images, he makes it clear that food is not his sole specialty. He records all manner of still life for clients as well as for stock images.

“One reason I have been able to survive in this business for 20 years is because I’m flexible and adaptable,” Eveleigh explains in a positive, mellow manner. Since graduating from the University of Delaware in 1989, he has grown and maintained his business success by taking every job he is offered, always renting equipment when possible and always “delivering more than what’s asked for on time or ahead 
of schedule.”

Hooked on photography since high school, Eveleigh details that his college education in commercial photography was excellent, especially since the program included advertising and graphic design training. He was unsure of his exact direction when he headed to New York after school. “I learned how to do it all as I assisted fashion, corporate and still life photographers,” Eveleigh recalls. “Eventually, I realized I simply felt most at peace with the still life process.”

Noting the constant shifts in the marketplace, Eveleigh comments that eight years ago he was doing very little food photography. Today, roughly 30 percent of his 80-plus yearly assignments involve food. In the 90s, commercial assignments comprised the bulk of his workload, but now they account for about only 10 percent, which translates to roughly one-third of his income. Inversely, editorial assignments now represent approximately 60 percent of his work, but translate into only one-third of his income. This is okay with Eveleigh. “I especially like the editorial assignments,” he explains. “Editorial has to be done a lot quicker, and this allows for happy accidents. These accidents are good. They keep the work fresh. They keep it fun.” Editorial assignments also lead directly to the majority of his stock images, which bring in the final third of his income.

The Mystery of the Salmon
One of Eveleigh’s images [above] features a three-and-half foot salmon frozen inside a block of ice. The image, which was featured in a Best Life article, speaks to the fact that Eveleigh’s food photography looks deceptively simple to create. (Often the food is not actually food. Eveleigh points out, “White glue makes the best milk.”) “We had four freezers filled with giant blocks of ice. And we had to get something good out of it,” Eveleigh recalls. He says that this is where the real fun of editorial food photography comes into play—figuring out a visual challenge using specific criteria with limited involvement from editors in a limited amount of time. “I’ve been lucky to have worked with many of the same publications for many years,” he says, explaining that most clients trust his vision. However, as is standard in the specialty, all clients insist on signing off on Eveleigh’s vision before he proceeds to final captures. He relies heavily on emailing JPEGs to clients for approval during the shoot.

“I try to do things au naturel,” Eveleigh explained when I asked him if the salmon was actually frozen inside the ice. “I try not to have postproduction be the first default of style. We tried cutting up an ice block by chainsaw, then put a fish in, then refroze the block.” Two-and-a-half days later Eveleigh realized this approach wouldn’t work. “You learn something new on every job, and what I learned on this one is that organic things, things with muscle and blood, don’t freeze very well. The fish started to leak. It bled. It looked frozen but didn’t look clean. It didn’t seem readable.”

To get the salmon inside the ice block Eveleigh photographed them separately and composited them together in Photoshop with an emphasis on creating an image that still looked natural. Au naturel is a term Eveleigh uses often to describe both his aesthetic and how he achieves it. “One single element is definitely my style,” Eveleigh says, explaining that limiting the number of elements is critical because “you never know how big the picture is going to be on the page.

“There aren’t too many perfect things out there,” Eveleigh says. “Over manipulating images in postproduction will actually make food less attractive to the viewer. I want to step lightly in Photoshop.” Eveleigh’s light touches include “adding a little bit of paunchiness using saturation and levels,” performing standard spotting and fixing food “acne.” He does use selective sharpening and blurring more liberally, both to direct the viewer’s eye and to make crispy foods, such as lettuce, look crisper.

Dishing Up Tasty Images
Eveleigh’s food shoots take up to three days to prep. Food stylists are a critical ingredient in Eveleigh’s small freelance teams. Not only do stylists arrange, cook and bake his food subjects (or their non-edible stand-ins), but they also secure the most photogenic ingredients available. Eveleigh says they also help him understand the behavior of a given food, noting that one of the most demanding aspects of food photography is the need to work fast enough to capture food before it starts to wilt, crumble, melt, collapse, lose carbonation or change color. “Spending a lot of time talking with the food stylists is key,” says Eveleigh.

“I like wide,” Eveleigh says of his lens choice. “It can be a bit of a pain for backgrounds—using a 9-foot seamless to photograph a 4-inch object—but wide-angles make the uninteresting more interesting.” His favorite lenses for his Nikon D2X are his 17–35mm Nikon ED AF-S Nikkor f/2.8D and his 55mm Nikon Micro-Nikkor-P f/3.5. Occasionally, Eveleigh will still use a medium format camera for the commercial jobs that demand it. However, he raves about the pleasure and advantages of working with a DSLR. “My preference is to work handheld because it’s more playful,” says Eveleigh. He notes that, in some ways, he works with food the way fashion photographers work with human models using “stand-in food” to test lighting and angles, then working fast when the model finishes in makeup—or in the oven.

“An arugula salad is not going to have a meltdown like a model,” Eveleigh points out. “No matter what you do, an arugula salad is still going to be an arugula salad. But, as a photographer, you have to take it in another direction.” Eveleigh says that, for him, this direction is a process of continual discovery in which his careful, methodic preparations allow him to encounter the happy accidents that lead to his delicious images of food.

To see more of Nicholas Eveleigh’s work, visit www.eveleigh.com.


Ethan G. Salwen is an independent photographer and writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He specializes in Latin American cultures, and also covers a wide variety of topics for professional photographers including digital technology, marketing techniques and industry trends. Salwen received his training in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. Visit his blog at www.aftercapture.com.

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