Serving up stylish food stories with Christall Lowe

Meet your Mentor Christall Lowe

Joining us this week with the mentoring duties is one of our favourites, Christall Lowe. I have long admired Christall’s talent as a creative and stylist, and I have closely followed her journey. I now consider Christall the queen of mood amazingly talented food stylist and photographer. I must warn you, do not scroll her feed when hungry. Who am I kidding, one scroll of her feed will certainly put you in the mood for some food regardless. And I’m sure Christall will inspire you to be creative with your food rituals and serve it up to us this week.


Q&A with Christall


Hey Christall! Thanks for joining us as a mentor for our creative community. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi! It’s such a pleasure to be mentoring this week! I’m a freelance food stylist and food photographer living in rural New Zealand, mostly working out of my home (except when shooting on location) which doubles as my studio, and that I share with my ever patient husband, three children and two cats. I have a 20 year career in a variety of creative endeavours - I’m officially an interior architect, and have run a plethora of businesses from online retail homewares to the production of a natural fibre product, and interior design. I found my calling a few years ago after many years of dreaming about creating and capturing gorgeous food, and now I spend my days developing recipes, cooking, styling and shooting incredible food and products for a huge variety of clients - from large food companies, to small artisan businesses, chefs and for publications. I love what I do! 

Now I’m building on that dream by teaching others how to harness their creative genius and become crazy amazing at food styling and photography. And that’s the ultimate. I love seeing students work flourish once they’ve unlocked the simple secrets - it’s absolute magic. I hold workshops, in person and online, offer one-on-one coaching sessions, and am currently prepping the first of my online courses - coming very soon!

Can you tell us about your creative process, how do you come up with ideas for what to share next on your Instagram account?
Part of the way I work is planned, and the other part is spontaneous. When it comes to client work I’m well planned with “flexibility for spontaneous magic” (sometimes the best work is created in the moment!). Client shoots will always be planned as far as recipes/dishes, ingredients, look and feel, and the essential shot list specific to the brief. I’ll create a moodboard of images (Pinterest, Instagram) for the client, and also for myself as a guide. I always keep my mind open as I’m styling and shooting however, as I very much work intuitively, and I go with that flow thinking about ways to make optimal use of the light on the day, and how I can shoot the same thing in a different way - changing camera angle, point of view, or the overall setting.

As far as coming up with ideas for what to share on my Instagram account - it’s mostly spontaneous, but well considered. I’m not a huge planner as far as Instagram is concerned (I’m extremely impatient, I’m very much “in the moment!”), and I tend to decide on the day which image I’m going to share. There is one thing that dictates which image I will share, and that is grid cohesion - I use a grid planner, and I like to make sure my grid “feels comfortable”, usually by ensuring that I don’t have two similar images touching each other, that there is some contrast between each image, and that the colour and mood of each image ties in with at least one other in the 3x4 screen view. Phew! Okay, so a little obsessed with grid cohesion! But overall it depends on my mood, and what my story for the day is. There’s almost always a story.

In general, what I share on Instagram is about 40% client work, 40% personal projects, and 20% lifestyle images - the things I get up to with my family, the things that inspire me outside of the foodie-verse. Mostly nature.  

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This challenge is all about tabletop styling. You are so talented at food styling and creating mouth watering scenes. What are your three top tips for capturing these moments with food.
Oh thank you! I’m all about telling a good visual story - and storytelling is a huge part of creative food photography. The truth is we eat with our eyes first. We need to be able to activate all the senses solely with the eyes, and my job as a food photographer is to make sure this happens.

I don’t have three tips as such, but three things which I ultimately believe that if you nail, will change up your food photography forever. Understanding COMPOSITION, LIGHT and COLOUR. These are the fundamentals I teach in my workshops and coaching sessions, alongside learning to drive your camera SPECIFICALLY for food photography. You can have the fanciest camera, the most amazing props, and even the most incredible, mouth watering dishes to be shot, but without an understanding of these three things, along with the right camera settings, your styling and photography will often fall short of your expectations. 

Three quick tips based on these crucial components:

  • COMPOSITION - Rule of thirds, and negative space. 
    Not always, but often, I apply the rule of thirds to my photos. The rule of thirds is when you divide your image into an invisible 3 x 3 grid, and place your main subject at one of the points where the grid lines intersect. This creates a more naturally balanced and interesting composition, and also creates “negative space” (empty space) around the scene. Negative space draws the eye into the main subject, creating drama and a more dynamic image, and also allows the dish to breathe.

  • LIGHT - Use natural light from windows or glass doors.
    If shooting outside, shoot in a shaded area that’s close to light. If indoors, make sure all of your artificial lights are turned off otherwise they can cast an awful colour through your photo which is hard to correct in editing. If you need more light, and you’re using your camera in manual or aperture mode, increase the ISO (you can reduce any noise created by doing this in editing), and use white bounce cards (or white fabric) to bounce light around your scene. And really important - have your scenes lit from the side or top - not the bottom. You want your shadows to fall the right way. If shadows are falling above the dishes, your photo will actually look upside down. It’s a brain thing!

  • COLOUR - Cool it down! And use the colour wheel. 
    Complementary colours, which are colours on the opposite sides of the colour wheel to each other, enhance the story and give your image more depth. There’s a reason they work well together - they pair cool and warm tones together, eg. blue and orange.

    Having a “cooler” blue hued background will make your food look and feel fresh. This doesn’t mean your background should be blue, but in a cooler tone. So never use timber that is really orange toned - it will make your food look unappetising. A cooler toned timber is one that is worn, or has more grey-brown tones to it. You can also cool down the temperature in editing if need be. 

Together, complementary colours create a sense of movement. Warm colours come forward (most dishes are warm tones), and cool colours recede. So a cooler toned background will make an “orange” dish pop.

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Any tricks which aid in using food in your captures?
I have what I call a “Food Stylist Survival Kit” that I always have on hand. A container which houses: scissors, spray oil, olive oil, water spray bottle, duct tape, clamps, blu tack, toothpicks, wet and dry cloths (wet inside a ziplock bag if on location), lens cleaner, small paint brush and diffusers and reflectors (obviously these don’t fit into my box!). 

Every bit of food is so different to work with, and you often have to work fast otherwise it will spoil, melt, solidify, lose lustre, go limp, dry out, lose its form….it’s constantly a challenge to keep the food looking good without resorting to fakery like hairspray, shaving cream and shoe polish (!!!) which I am absolutely against. I don’t like food waste! So usually what happens is that I’ll set the scene, and get the lighting and camera settings right, and use a “stunt double” in place of the real dish. I’ll get the shots I need and then swap out the stunt double for the real thing at the last minute, so that the dish is fresh and looking its best. 

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What equipment do you use?
I have a Canon 6D Mark II and my go-to lenses for food photography are my 50mm f1.4 and 100mm macro f2.8. I also have a small mirrorless Panasonic Lumix GX7 with a 25mm f1.4 lens (equivalent to full frame 50mm lens) which I usually pop into my handbag when out and about. Like I said above though, it doesn’t really matter what camera you have, it’s knowing how to use it specifically for food photography, and understanding those three fundamentals - composition, light and colour. 

I don’t use flash often, I’m very much a natural light photographer, but I do use reflectors to my advantage - and these don’t have to be expensive either - just a simple large white card or silver object like a tinfoil tray will suffice! I use a tripod with a ball head attachment for ease of use and for different camera angles, and I have a boom that attaches to the tripod if I want to shoot overhead with a tripod (handy for when you want your hands free, or a steady shot). I use my phone as a remote using the Canon or Lumix app which is handy when I’m by myself and need to move things around the scene, or, be part of the shot too! 

My primary editing software is Lightroom Classic on my desktop, and if editing on my iPhone when I’m on the go, Lightroom mobile (the mobile version is free, I HIGHLY recommend). Transferring images from my camera to iPhone is easy using the camera app.

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Who eats all the food once you have finished styling up a storm? Your family must be very well fed...lucky them!
As well as myself (I can’t resist eating some of the delicious food that I shoot - zero self control!) it gets eaten by my family, extended family, husband’s work colleagues and friends! My husband is a primary school teacher at our children’s school, and often I will send him to work with big snack platters or cakes for his class. Sometimes there’s just TOO much food though, especially when I’m shooting multiple campaigns, and so some items go into the freezer for future shoots (apple pies, bread, and cakes especially). This is super handy for when I suddenly need a chocolate cake for an ice cream shoot or something.

As I mentioned above, I really don’t like food waste, and where possible everything that comes out of my kitchen is edible and not spoiled by anything fake. You do get some spoilage though, especially if something has been out in the studio all day, or has been reheated four times! In this case the spoiled food that really can’t be used again, or can’t be eaten or frozen, goes to feed the animals on our friends little farm, along with all of our household food scraps.  

Christall is the guest mentor for our July 1-7 creative challenge ‘Styled and Served’ and will be featuring her favourite entries and feedback on the @creativelysquared Instagram account. You can find Christall at @christall.lowe on Instagram. We invite you to join Christall and the rest of the Creatively Squared community for a delicious week of culinary creations. Hit the button below for entry information and full resources.