Photographer Petrina Tinslay talks about working with Nigella

Food photographer Petrina Tinslay will be running a masterclass in Bali.
Food photographer Petrina Tinslay will be running a masterclass in Bali. Photo: James Brickwood

Australian photographer Petrina Tinslay has been shooting food and lifestyle photography for more than 20 years.

Cookbooks are Tinslay's passion. She lives, breathes and shoots them and is a long-time collaborator with Bill Granger, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson.

"Almost every person I've ever shot a cookbook with has become a best friend for life, because it's almost like you've gone on this adventure together," says Tinslay.

Petrina Tinslay's camera captures every crumb of a sweet treat.
Petrina Tinslay's camera captures every crumb of a sweet treat. Photo: Petrina Tinslay

"It's day after relentless day and it feels like you've had this really intense experience. I love it."

She first worked with Nigella Lawson on How to be a Domestic Goddess, a project, at the time, she wasn't even sure about before starting. So she rang friend and former Vogue Living editor Neale Whitaker (currently a judge on Nine's The Block).

His advice? "God, yeah!" he said, without a second's hesitation. "And so, of course I did it and had a great time doing it and got asked to do Forever Summer, which was her next [cookbook], and then Nigellissima."

"She's a phenomenon", says Tinslay of working with Lawson. "She's formidable. She's larger than life with an amazing presence and a real strong personality.

"You only have to spend time with her to see she's articulate and passionate about food in a way that you cannot help but be dragged along with. Even if you weren't completely into food, after spending time with her, she kind of has this enthusiasm you just can't ignore."

As popular as Nigella cookbooks remain, things are changing rapidly in the land of publishing. Even a straight recipe book now has to have a certain amount of Insta-sparkle.

It was London-based blogger/Insta-sensation Keiko Oikawa​, with 11.2K followers and 16 books under her belt, who shot current cookbook Simply Nigella. But Tinslay says Lawson has always utilised a broad talent pool and the move towards something with a little more social-savvy is probably a smart one.

"I pitched a cookbook idea to Murdoch books maybe eight years ago, says Tinslay. "And I remember them saying to me, 'Well, how many followers do you have on social media?' I was just reeling, saying, 'I'm sorry, what has that got to do with anything?' and they say, 'It has to do with everything. Because if you come to us with 20,000 followers, you've just sold 20,000 books off the bat without even blinking.' 

"I actually walked out being really shocked. People have more sway on their Instagram page than any magazine can ever hope to have.  

"I didn't do Instagram for a long time, but you can't pretend it doesn't exist," says Tinslay, who says people are more visually aware than ever before, and consume imagery at an enormous rate.

"I think this is a wonderful thing. The average person has a much more sophisticated sense of imagery. And so now they want to know how to raise their game."

To that end, Tinslay will be teaching the tricks of the trade at Bali's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (ubudwritersfestival.com), which runs in October and November next year. "Social media is a positive thing for photographers. It gives you the opportunity to be in somebody's face every morning when they wake up," Tinslay says. "It's a reminder that you're there and you still do what you do."

Tinslay says 80 per cent of  her work is commissioned from overseas. 

"Sometimes I can't believe I get paid to do what I do," she says, "I love it so much. I feel very lucky and blessed I've had such incredible opportunities in my career. I've seen and done things that are amazing. Even if my career ended today, I'd be like, 'That's the best time ever'."