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Pro Secrets: Heidi Swanson on Food Photography

Maggie Borden

April 20, 2017

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With nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram, over 150,000 on Twitter, and the 2016 Beard Award for photography (for her cookbook Near and Far), it’s safe to say that Heidi Swanson knows a thing or two about putting food on film in the Internet age. We spoke with her about the philosophical and practical differences of shooting for digital and print media, how to keep your audience engaged, and how we can all up our ’gram game.

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JBF: What do you see as the main differences between photography for print and photography for social media?

Heidi Swanson: When shooting for print, I always imagine having more space. There’s the physical space—like a two-page spread in a printed, tangible object, but there’s also the mental space of someone sitting down with your book or magazine. The environment is more focused and aesthetically controlled because your work isn’t threaded through the dynamically generated stream of a social network.

On social media, you can have an immediate, direct, ongoing conversation. The opportunity is there to really connect, but you’re publishing into streams that you don’t have much control over. You’re mixed in with a lot of different content, all driven by algorithms that are specific to the behavior and preferences of the reader. Additionally, you can never really know what percentage of your followers will see your posts. So you’re publishing into incredibly complex environments.

JBF: Does being a professional photographer guarantee a good Instagram feed?

HS: No. And I’ll argue that a good Instagram feed is only partially about the photographs. If you think of your Instagram feed simply as an extension of your portfolio, you’re missing the point.

JBF: What kind of photos do people respond most strongly to on social media?

HS: It really depends on your followers. If I post an electric-orange carrot soup topped with vibrant microgreens and bee pollen to my Instagram account, chances are, my people are going to be excited about that. But if you’re super into barbecue, and that’s what people love about your feed, my carrot soup might not be such a hit. Know your people, know your focus, and explore deep in that realm.

JBF: Can you share any tricks of the trade for smartphone photographers who want to improve their feeds?

HS: Shoot a lot. Establish a focus and style. Put photos (or videos) out there, a lot, and regularly. Do this for days, months, and years. Make sure you’re genuinely responsive, not because you have to be but because you want to be. In short, practice. And I’m a fan of practicing publicly. I’m pretty confident that the videos I make a year from now will be better technically and conceptually than the ones I’m making now. But that’s not actually the point: it’s about the process. Set up a challenge that works within the context of your life (important!), commit to it, and do the marathon.

JBF: You just started making videos about a month ago. What inspired you to start doing so?

HS: It’s really amazing—you can shoot, edit, and distribute video, all from your cellphone. I thought it would be fun to play around with the video format this year, with no real expectations other than to explore and have fun in a realm that is an extension of what I already do.

JBF: How do you keep people’s attention? Do you see more engagement with your shorter videos on Instagram, or the longer ones on YouTube?

HS: It’s about knowing your audience. Build the subject and story from there. If you’re producing content that isn’t a fit, there isn’t going to be the level of engagement you’re hoping for. Also, audiences are different across platforms, so being sensitive to the nuances of each network’s ecosystem is important. The videos that get the most views on Facebook might not be the same ones that pop on YouTube or Instagram.

JBF: Who are some of your favorite other photographers and/or chefs to follow on social media?

HS: There are so many! It’s hard to choose just a few. I love:

Camille Becerra (@camillebecerra)—De Maria, NYC

Sara Forte (@sproutedkitchen)—Blogger, Sprouted Kitchen

Andrea Gentl (@andreagentl)—Photographer

Nikole Herriott (@nikoleherriott)—Herriot Grace, Toronto

Alaina Sullivan (@alasully)—Design & Recipes at Bon Appétit

Love Heidi's digital food feed? Get a taste of her cooking with her recipe for alkalizing green soup.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.