"A good photo is not confined to its frame"

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Interview with Vera Dondelinger, food blogger from Heidelberg, Germany

"A good photo is not confined to its frame"

You don't just see really good photos in magazines and exhibitions. Many food bloggers have now become real professionals. One of these is Vera Dondelinger, whose blog is called "Nicest Things" (www.nicestthings.com). The 30-year-old from Heidelberg, Germany, describes herself as a "perfectionist and aesthetics fanatic" and is happiest when writing about food, interior design and DIY. During the interview, she reveals some of the secrets behind her photography.

First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself. How did you come to be a blogger and photographer?

Vera: I have always loved nice things and have been a visual person ever since I can remember – whether in the attention to detail when preparing a meal or a harmonious interior design. I was given my first camera when I was five. Initially, I was somewhat sceptical about making a career out of photography, which is why I made the purely rational decision to study medicine. I very much missed having visual stimulus around me, yet it was ultimately this fact-based course of study that led to an act of spontaneity one night when I started to write my blog. I simply needed to strike a balance by doing something creative and, as writing is my second greatest passion after aesthetics, I had found the perfect outlet for this.

What are you doing at the moment? Where are you?

I am sitting at my desk in our apartment in one of Heidelberg's old historical buildings. I have just brought a cup of freshly brewed tea from the kitchen and am cleaning my notebook with the monitor cloth while considering how to answer these questions.

What do you most like to blog about?

Obviously, I am particularly fond of photographing food. I could spend hours experimenting to find the most beautiful lighting, the best backdrop for a photo and the most suitable props. Food is alive, yet it doesn't move – apart from ice cream perhaps. This allows me to give free rein to my perfectionism in long photo shoots. I like to blog about interior design nearly as much as food, as you can really have a ball with styling, arranging and playing with colours and shapes.

Is blogging just a hobby for you or can you make a living from it?

I couldn't earn a living from the blog marketing itself. Over time, however, I have made a great deal of contacts through my blog, which has enabled me to become self-employed as an online service provider in the broadest sense. I take product photos for online shops, do styling for e-mags and magazines, implement concepts for customers from the living, design and food sector, do a bit of marketing and have gained some initial experience as an author and curator.... The blog is therefore my digital business card that brings me new and exciting work, which I can now live off quite comfortably.

Do you have a favourite blog at the moment?

Hmm...that's a difficult question. There are so many blogs I like to read. My current favourites are blogs like "Tartelette" by Helene Dujardin and "La Tartine Gourmande" by Béatrice Peltre.

Where do you get your inspiration?

From the blogs I just mentioned, for example, which I admire for their style and creativity. There's nothing really that cannot be a source of inspiration. Whether it's in a back street gift shop, the fresh food on display at our weekly market, a great online magazine, an especially lovely discovery on Pinterest, a walk in the rain, a French cookery magazine, the colours of a new tea towel, or a conversation with my favourite baker ... Inspiration is everywhere!

You take all your beautiful photos yourself. Where did you learn to do that?

Quite simply through learning by doing. I have never attended a photography course. I took the first photos for my blog with a small compact camera – and even though I have to smile to myself a bit when I look back at my earlier photos, it was good. I wouldn't have missed those days for the world. Technical limits were my best teacher.

I focused intensely on imagery and composition and tried to get the best out of the camera. I later started using a DSLR camera with a full frame sensor and different lenses. With so much information available on the Internet, you can learn all the technical skills you need. And whenever I have come across a photo I really like in a magazine or on the Internet, I have always tried to analyse exactly what is it that makes that image so special. I have then attempted to apply this to my photos in my own way. I often have to take 200 photos to end up with just one good one. Sometimes I end up with nothing.

I think that anyone who wants to learn about photography needs to take lots and lots of photos – and even take many bad ones. You always have to ask yourself: What works and what doesn't work? You only find out the answer if you do a lot of experimenting and gradually get a feel for light, colour, shape and composition.

What does photography mean to you?

For me, photography means sharing my personal definition of visual aesthetics with others. I don't just want to portray beauty, but also convey moods and tell stories. This is why things that do not appear in the photo or are only blurred are just as important what is actually portrayed and in focus. A piece of blackcurrant cake can, at best, conjure up whole scenes in the mind of the beholder: A summer's day in the countryside, flowering meadows and shady spots under ancient trees, a cosy country kitchen and maybe even summer drawing to a close as autumn approaches. If you can see all that in a photo of a cake, then it's a good picture.

How long do you work on a photo?

All in all, I spend about two days working on one photo. Let's take a food photo as an example: First of all, I search for a recipe or make up my own. As I do this, I try to form a mental picture of the ingredients and imagine the textures and colours. Next, I plan the setting: What backdrop best suits the dish and what cutlery and textiles should I use? How does all that fit together with the colours and shapes of the food? I arrange the whole setting to test it out.

Then, while preparing the dish, I start thinking about the photo. For example, I always undercook pasta for photos so that it looks appetizing, or if I'm making a dessert, I put the nicest berries to one side so that I can use them later as a natural prop.

I usually do the photo shoot itself in a studio-like environment: I have a fixed place where I take the photo on which I place the backdrop. There's a window to the left with voile curtains that create a natural soft box and I place a large foldable reflector to the right. I always take food photos using a tripod and manual focus. I always photograph in manual mode, keep the ISO sensitivity as low as possible, and happily open the aperture a little more depending on the perspective to create a nice depth of field. In poor lighting conditions with correspondingly slow shutter speeds I use a remote shutter release.

I always keep a pair of tweezers, a cloth and a water spray bottle next to me to coax and keep the food in the desired shape. At the same time, I consciously add a little chaos to the setting, for example, by scattering breadcrumbs, so that the images appear more vibrant. During the photo shoot, I constantly move my objects around and always alter the perspectives and so a shoot may take anything up to two hours. I take around 150 photos in RAW format. I then edit my photos using Adobe Lightroom.

What equipment do you use?

I use a full frame DSLR camera. When taking food photos, I just use a single lens 90% of the time, the Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di VC USD MACRO 1:1. For interior photography I also use a 17-40mm f/4.0 wide-angle zoom lens. I also use a battery grip, a tripod, various remote shutter releases and a range of reflectors. On top of that, I have two external flashes, light tents and soft boxes. Generally, however, I prefer to shoot in natural daylight.

What advice would you give to anyone who feels inspired by your style of photography?

My photos are styled down to the very last detail and I would advise anyone who feels inspired by this to be a bit of perfectionist and pay attention to every single detail. There are so many ways of expressing what you want to say using light, colours, textures, props and setting. Either let all these factors speak the same language to create an atmospherically dense photo – or deliberately create contrasts. Always think to yourself: Why am I doing it like this and not another way?

If the pasta you want to photograph is fluted, pick up on this detail by using a fluted dish for the pesto. Or let the colour of peaches really pop by placing them in a blue basket (complementary contrast!). The person looking at the image will probably not be aware of this, but it's these subtleties that make all the difference to the aesthetics of an image.

When does a photo become a good picture?

In my opinion, a photo is good when it affects you on a level other than the level that is portrayed and described. It should tell a story, set your imagination free, trigger feelings and thoughts and it should not be confined to its frame. It should be bigger than its physical dimensions.

The reflection of the sun in a lemonade glass tells you a lot about the summer's day that's happening all around it without the sun actually appearing in the picture. As a photographer, you yourself should be fascinated by the object you are photographing and feel an emotional connection with it. If you are bored by an object, your photo may be technically perfect, but it will probably also be boring.

Many thanks for the interview Vera.

About the author: Vera Wohlleben

In her blog called "Nicest Things", Vera Wohlleben, who lives in Heidelberg, does not just blog about tasty recipes and attractive decor for your own home. She also regularly offers a glimpse behind the scenes and explains in detail how she creates her stunning photos. Suggested reading: http://www.nicestthings.com/2014/03/blogging-tips-and-tricks-behind-scenes.html

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