Jed Alder: Q&A with the award-winning food photographer

Jed Alder headshot

Jed Alder headshot

As chef Antonio Carluccio, a judge for the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year 2013 competition, puts it: “food photography is so important; after all, we do eat with our eyes.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves! If you read The Simple Things, you’ll know we really love great food photography, which is why we use great people like Mowie Kay, Chantelle Grady and Luisa Brimble.

But how do you even get started as a food photographer, and which comes first, the egg (as it were) or the picture? To find out, we decided to talk to Jed Alder, who was named winner in the Cream of the Crop category of the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year 2012. You’ll also see some of the other fabulous winning pictures in this post…

We hope you find Jed’s story inspiring, and to encourage you to take some photos of your own Christmas dishes, he was kind enough to share his top tips… why not have a go and consider entering next year’s Pink Lady competition? At the very least, do share your festive food snaps with us via our Facebook page!

Pink Lady Young Category winner Sylvia Ware's Lemon and Vanilla Cupcake

Which came first – your passion for food or photography?

Probably food. I was born into a family of ‘arty foodies’ with my father a sculptor and my mum having trained as a chef, and a happy career in the restaurant and catering trade. When it came to picking my GCSE options at school, it seemed only natural to follow in her footsteps by choosing to study Home Economics.

Things changed when my mum was accepted on to a university course in Dietetics and the family moved from Somerset to Penarth in South Wales. My new school didn’t offer Home Economics and so I was forced to switch to something else – Photography GCSE was the only option available that interested me and it didn’t take long before I was hooked.

Why not a career in photography?

Having become hooked on photography at school, I went on to study the subject at A-Level which led me on to a degree course in Electronic Imaging & Media Communications at Bradford University. My early ambition was to become a cinematographer – I loved the creative process – but in reality the course ended up being heavily focused on the computing-side and so when it came to finding work as a graduate, website development was a natural fit.

I never stopped taking photos though, and shortly after moving to Bristol one of my first purchases was my Canon Digital SLR, which is the same camera I use today, though an upgrade is hopefully not far away.

Pink Lady winner Food in its Place Tim Clinch Jerez Fishmarket

When and how did food and photography come together?

My wife, Sarah, was – and still is – an important influence. Both she and I are food obsessives – since meeting at University, we’ve spent an inordinate amount of our free time thinking, talking about and of course, cooking and eating food.

As well as being a passionate home cook, Sarah also harbors an addiction to cookery books – we have a collection of over 300 at home now, and it’s still growing! I’ve always been fascinated by the variance in the quality of the images, and the changing styles over the years. Seeing what was out there inspired me to have a go myself – and of course the subject matter was there on my plate every day.

In 2010 Sarah started a blog, www.kitchentitbits.co.uk, documenting her exploits with food, her recipes and reviews of cook books and places to eat. It became my job to contribute the accompanying photography. This helped to give me real focus and hone my skills.

What is it about food photography that you particularly enjoy?

In the UK there is a movement towards ‘real’ food photography. Gone are the days in which food is primped and styled to an unnatural level of perfection, the focus is now on making real food look good. I love to take a dish which looks and smells great on the plate in front of me and translate this into an appetising image.

All photography is about evoking an emotional response – from the joy of the bride and groom of their wedding day, to the horrors of war. What I love about food photography is that it is universal – it brings people together and can be shared across the world. My work is all about capturing and communicating my own love of food.

I enjoy the scope of the work. Beyond photographing food on a plate, I like to tell the ‘story’ of where ingredients come from. Sarah and I grow a lot of our own produce in our back garden at home, and so I have plenty of rich material to work with quite literally on my doorstep.

Pink Lady winner Cream of the Crop Jed Alder Homegrown Garlic

Tell me about your involvement in the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition.

‘Home Grown Garlic’ was one of a series of photographs taken in my back garden. It was a very natural image – we’d just pulled the bulbs out of the ground and laid them out on the garden bench to dry. The afternoon light hit them the right way and at the right time.

I couldn’t have been more surprised to have won my category at the competition. The quality was incredibly high and included entrants from around the world, so just to have been shortlisted alongside professionals was an honour. To win was beyond my expectations.

What is your favourite food?

My favourite food would have to be a curry – my wife and I tend to eat curry at least once a week. Ironically, it’s also one of the hardest dishes to photograph and so I tend to focus on the eating!

Pink Lady Food in the Field Jean Cazals Black Pigs

Jed’s top tips for aspiring food photographers

  • The right lighting is fundamental. I work a lot with natural light, and avoid using an on-camera flash, it’s just too strong and direct.
  • It sounds obvious, but focusing is so important, and checking a shot, photos always look great when checked on a small screen on the back of a camera, but zoom in and check the focus, nothing is more disappointing than bringing it up to process at home and finding it slightly out.
  • Getting the angle right is important, especially for plated food. Always try different angles on your set-up, sometimes the best shot is in a completely different direction to where you started.
  • Mobile technology advances mean that everyone can be a photographer – social media is awash with ‘tweet what you eat’ photographers. I don’t see it as a bad thing but it’s easy to forget about composition when you’re snapping away on your mobile camera.
  • Put yourself out there. The Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition allowed me to showcase my work to a wide audience, including industry experts – you can’t get a better opportunity to have your work seen.

Get snapping your festive food!

The International Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year 2013 is now calling for entries. One of the categories you can enter is Food for Celebration, which means that you can practice your artistry when entertaining over Christmas!

The judging panel for this year’s competition features such renowned names as chef Antonio Carluccio, Saturday Kitchen’s James Martin, Bill Granger, Prue Leith and The One Show’s Jay Rayner. Lending their vast professional expertise to the mix is Ellen Silverman, who’s food photographer for Gwyneth Paltrow, and David Loftus, Jamie Oliver’s lensman

You’ve got until January 31st to enter the 2013 competition, the shortlisted entries will be announced on March 20th and the award ceremony is set tot take place at London’s prestigious Mall Galleries on April 23rd. For information on how to enter and all of the categories, please visit the competition’s website.

Pink Lady Philip Harben Award for Food in Action John Arandhara Blackwell Bedouin Fishermen

Don’t forget, you can buy the print version of The Simple Things at good retailers around the globe, individually online or buy a subscription. For your iPad/iPhone, visit the Apple Newsstand. A digital version to read on a PC, Mac or Android device can be found on Zinio. And for Android phones and tablets, we’re also now on Google Play.

Christmas gift idea: save up to 40% on a subscription to The Simple Things, or one of seven other brilliant Future magazines – we’ll even send a free personalised gift card! It’s quick and easy to order online or by calling 0844 848 2852 (quote code ZC09 – Mon-Fri 8am-9.30pm & Sat 8am-4pm). Offer ends 31/01/2013.