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Interview: Food Photographer and Writer Alexandra Shytsman

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Pro tips and wise reflection from a talented food writer and photographer.

head shot alex shytsman food photographer
Photo by Svitlana Pimenov

Nothing says “perspective” during a time of toilet paper shortages and mass anxiety like having parents who can personally reminisce about Soviet bread lines. This is just one interesting piece of Alex Shytsman’s background. Alex is the lovely food photographer and writer behind sunny food blog The New Baguette, where she develops, photographs, and publishes healthy, plant-centered recipes.

I met Alex last year when I took her food photography class at The Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, NYC. She gamely answered all of our beginner questions like “What’s an F-stop?” and taught us how to get our cameras off auto mode, use light and shadows, frame a shot, and keep up with current food photography trends. (Do not judge her teaching talents by my photography; I am still a beginner.)

I wanted to talk to her for lots of reasons: She’s a great person. She’s a talented photographer. Her recipes are thoughtful and tasty. And she is a woman of great depth. Below is our chat on everything from photography pro tips to recipe development to life in New York City right now.

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sushi burrito vegetables food photographer
Photo by Alexandra Shytsman/The New Baguette

Interview: Food Photographer and Writer Alexandra Shytsman

This interview took place on April 15, 2020. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space. 

Lisa Ruland [LR]: You live in New York, the epicenter of the entire nation’s coronavirus cases. Can you paint a picture of what it is like going for a walk right now? Food shopping now? Living in a NYC-sized apartment right now? How are you managing?

Alexandra Shytsman [AS]: We technically live in Ridgewood, Queens which is a block from Bushwick [Brooklyn]. Thankfully, our apartment is pretty big for a New York City apartment, and the kitchen is pretty big. I’m comfortable cooking here and I usually cook all the time.

Laundry is weird. Our laundromat is closed, so we didn’t do laundry for about four weeks. And of course, going to the grocery store is different. We go only once every two or three weeks and try to be diligent about making a list because I don’t want to make any unnecessary trips. We’ve been going to the Wegman’s at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We show up at 6:30 in the morning. They open at 7:00. One time we came at 7:30 and there was a line around the building because they only allow a certain number of people in at a time.

Different days are different in terms of what they have in the store. Last time we went they had not restocked any of the vegetables, so we had to grab odds and ends. but today they had things like flour, so that was good.

LR: What is the emotional experience of grocery shopping and waiting in lines?

AS: It’s very surreal. I just keep catching myself in the rare moments when we are with other people. I just keep catching myself on the thought like, “If me from a year ago saw me right now in a face mask with gloves on, I would think that I was seeing a dream. It would just not have seemed plausible whatsoever. it is just an interesting period to live in, and in a strange way making us more resilient.

I’m Ukrainian and my parents grew up in Soviet times. My parents still talk all the time about growing up with bread lines and shortages, I am finally starting to understand what it is like to see empty shelves. Last time when we went to Wegman’s and I saw flour and yeast, and I just had the instinct that “I have to tell people that they have flour here,” like I have this secret. Who ever thought that getting flour would be a problem?

LR: How has that affected your work process? Like what if you had planned to shoot a certain recipe, and then you can’t buy the ingredients?

AS: I have to be very flexible about the things I am trying to develop or photograph for my blog.  I have to be very cognizant of the fact that I may not be able to find the thing that I am looking for and change things. I am doing one big bulk shop, so I have to be ready to change my plan.

LR: I remember when my husband Erik died. I was working full-time as a food editor at the time, but when that happened, I just stopped caring about food and writing about it for a while. And I think that’s a natural position when things are upsetting in real life. The hierarchy of what is important changes. On the other hand, people derive great comfort and care from food and eating. So what role is food playing in your life right now? Has the role shifted since the lockdown? Does food have more meaning? Less meaning?

AS: Food definitely is everything right now. It is the only thing we really have to look forward to every day, so my food rituals have special importance now. Like making coffee in the morning is something I really look forward to. Taking a lunch break is a big deal. Because there isn’t the same rush, we have been cooking a lot more than usual and baking a lot and trying things that I usually don’t have time to try. So I am glad I have that to keep me going because it keeps me busy and gives me a goal when we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Food means more than ever.

LR: You have been pretty open about struggling with anxiety and depression. First of all, I think that is an incredibly amazing thing because there is still a stigma about mental health. I’ve tried to be open about grief. Talk about why it is important for you to be open about your struggles. 

AS: Something that I have lived with for my adult life is anxiety, and I think that it sort-of runs in my family. It’s something that is also influenced by my culture; anxiety is almost mandated as a form of self-preservation. Having parents who grew up in that [Soviet] world, it is a part of my family for sure. Anxiousness is just how I thought things were. And it wasn’t until a friend pointed out that I color my world with a certain perspective and talk about things in a certain way that I realized that maybe it’s not ok, and maybe should work on it.

The decision to be more open about it came from seeing that other people are open about it. It was very helpful to hear how other people live with anxiety and move forward, so I figured, why not talk about my personal experience? You never know who is going to be inspired or learn something new.

LR: You emigrated from Odessa when you were 9. Food seems to really be a part of that story. 

AS: When I was nine, my family immigrated from Ukraine to America, where I quickly discovered the Food Network, and Rachael, Giada, and Ina became my best friends. Watching the Food Network not only fed my obsession with food, but also helped me understand American culture and learn the English language.

When I was a child and a young person, I was always just very fascinated by food, but it’s not something I would tout as a part of who I was. As a child, I was a picky eater, but the things I liked, I really liked. I was very particular about how food would be put on my plate and each thing not touching. And then when I discovered the Food Network, I was at that age when I was able to start cooking on my own and realized it was something I really loved doing.

As a teenager, my relationship with food became more complicated: I loved food, but often felt guilty about eating. Like many teenage girls, I was obsessed with body image – counting calories, excessively working out, and diligently obeying every piece of weight-loss advice I came across in women’s magazines and on TV.

When the time came to start thinking about going to college, my first thought was culinary school, but my parents are very traditional, so my parents felt I should go to a “real” school and get a “real” job. They thought it was inappropriate for women to go to culinary school, working with hot, sweaty men. And they wondered, if I was working in a kitchen, how would I get married and start a family? And at the time, there wasn’t the idea of a larger scope of things to do in food other than working in restaurants.

Looking back, it made me a little angry and sad at the feedback get a “good girl job” like accounting or teaching or nursing, so I could still be a mom. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it is what was laid out for me as a 17-year-old. Very gendered roles are common to this day in traditional Russian families.

So I got an English degree and thought I would work in a publishing house or something, but that did not work out because it was a strange time in the media world and everything was transferring to digital. I am sort-of glad the way things turned out, though, because college was really transformative for me and I loved getting my English degree and that part of my life. I am a big reader and love writing, but I guess I will never forget how I was also influenced away from a kitchen by my family.

asian noodle soup in bowls
Photo by Alexandra Shytsman/The New Baguette

Talking Food Writing

LR: As a food writer and blogger, has coronavirus upended what you would have otherwise been covering? Or have you pretty much stuck to the regular game plan?

AS: Normally I plan things and think about what I want to exist on my blog. But now I have reverted to a more old-school way of blogging, like just documenting what’s going on, as opposed to curating things according to a plan in advance. So yeah, it’s been more not that I have wanted to be more current and serve my readers and my community with what I knew they needed right now. And in a way, it’s easier to blog than ever because we are all going through the same thing, so whatever kind of recipes or inspiration I need, is also what everyone else needs. So I must try to come at it at an angle of how can I be helpful in this situation.

Talking Food Photography

LR: How did you get into teaching food photography?

AS: I started blogging in college. At the time, blogs were what Instagram is today. Compared to today, everyone’s photos were horrendous. I kept going with the blog until today. Eventually I got a lot better and was asked to teach a food photography class. So I put together a curriculum, and it worked out! I never studied photography besides a few classes when I first started out. Cooking always came first, but photography is a big part of that, and I really enjoy the whole process.

LR: Everyone is home doing a lot of home cooking right now. Maybe more than ever before. What are some photography tips for cooks at home to take better pictures of their food?

AS: Oh, I have so many.

  • The first is obviously to use as natural light as possible. Photographing next to a window is always the best option. Turn off all the other lights in the room so you don’t have two different qualities of light competing. You want very natural, even looking light
  • Make sure that you get the entire dish in the photo, and don’t zoom in too closely. That is a big mistake that a lot of less experienced food photographers make
  • Watch your angles. Pay a lot of attention to the angle you want to photograph with and stick to it, whether overhead (the most common). Shoot everything overhead because it is the most common and everything generally looks good.
  • Make sure you’re directly parallel to the surface so the lines are even and the camera is not tilted in any way. That will make your photos look more professional
  • Pay attention to the surface you’re shooting on. A lot of us do not have a custom food photography surface that will instantly elevate the photo. But if you don’t have that, shoot on something neutral like a marble pastry slab or a large wooden board, or maybe a beat-up baking sheet or even a white foam-core board Textured surfaces or printed tablecloths can be a distraction.
  • Use dishes that are neutral as well. Avoid loud, bold, printed plates or primary colors. They are very distracting for food. White, beige, or low-saturated pastel is good. If you’re going to use patterned dishes, make it small and not too saturated, so that the food is always the star of the show and the props are secondary.
  • I like things to look unfussy and minimal. I don’t like too many things going on at once. I want things to look like they happened that way, not too many garnishes.

Thanks, Alex, for your perspective, honestly, and expertise.

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