When beauty is the brief – filming Nigella Lawson's TV series

On celebrity chef Nigella's TV shows, the images are as rich as the food. DoP Robin Fox reveals how Canon's Cine Prime lenses and EOS R5 helped him get the look he wanted.
Nigella Lawson standing in a kitchen, looking down at two dishes of food on the counter in front of her.

Nigella Lawson photographed on the Cook, Eat, Repeat kitchen set in a publicity still taken by Robin Fox on the Canon EOS R5. "Because I was taking all the publicity stills as well as filming, it was really handy that we had such a great full frame sensor camera that we could take stills on," he says. "For me, this image embodied the look of the show." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2 and ISO800. © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

From the sumptuous food to the celebrity host, rich colours to beautiful bokeh, Nigella Lawson's television cookery programmes are a feast for the eyes. Her most recent six-part series Cook, Eat, Repeat – based on a cookbook combining personal essays and recipes – covered lockdown classics like banana puddings and no-knead bread through to caramel custard and indulgent crab mac-and-cheese.

Behind the camera is director of photography Robin Fox, who filmed Simply Nigella in 2015, At My Table in 2017 and Cook, Eat, Repeat in 2020. His diverse experience also spans documentary, commercials and drama, and he has recently filmed in the West Bank for Netflix series Captive and shot skincare commercials for cosmetics company Estée Lauder, taking him "from the gritty to the glossy". But filming Nigella's programmes is something of a dream gig.

"I've been a fan of her shows forever, partly because they've always been beautifully shot," he says. "They've always looked gorgeous, and if there was one food show I'd want to shoot, it'd be that one."

Nigella's programmes have become synonymous with beauty, with images as rich as the food. Here, Robin shares how Canon's range of Cine Primes and a considered filming approach create this cinematic aesthetic, and how the Canon EOS R5 added a new dimension to the latest series.

Nigella Lawson stands at a kitchen worktop facing the camera while crew members adjust a lighting rig in the background.

Behind the scenes while filming At My Table. Nigella's series are filmed on set but painstakingly shot very shallow, with plenty of lens flare, to create the feel of a sunny day in an ordinary domestic kitchen. © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

A sumptuous cheesecake topped with chopped nuts sits on a pale pink plate.

"Nowadays, with large sensors and prime lenses, things are more filmic and cinematic," says Robin. Plus, as viewers become accustomed to "these bigger budget shows on Netflix and Amazon, people expect TV to look more like what you see in a feature film or commercial." Canon Cine Primes captured beautiful bokeh behind a delicately-lit cheesecake filmed for Nigella's At My Table series. © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

Food as art

"From cake to curry, there are certain things that you look for in each dish – colour, texture, contrast, sheen and form," says Robin. "The lighting has to be adapted for each one of those things to get the most out of it.

"I'm always looking for the best way to backlight something to give it shape and contrast whilst using enough 'fill' so you can see detail in the densely dark areas. Reflecting the light in food is often better than lighting directly."

In order to make sure each shot has bespoke lighting, director Dominic Cyriax prefers to shoot with a single camera. "Shooting multi-camera, you don't give attention to each shot," says Robin. "We shoot each pass five times on a single camera with prime lenses, which I think is a big part of the aesthetic."

It's a very different approach to the daytime TV look of traditional cookery shows, shot with zoom lenses and multiple cameras. "A lot of shows use three cameras – one on the presenter, one on the food and one looking straight down," says Robin. "We reshoot five times. It's time-consuming, but there's real attention to detail that you get as a result.

"As a DoP, it's an absolute dream for that reason – everything's extremely considered. We're there to make everything look as beautiful as we can – the food and Nigella. We spend the time and make it look right."

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Robin Fox and Nigella Lawson look at the viewscreen of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II on set, next to a large low light fitting.

Robin showing Nigella the publicity stills he's taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. "This was for Simply Nigella," explains Robin. "We constructed a rig using festoon lights to get multiple eye lights." © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

A publicity still by Robin Fox of Nigella Lawson with multiple eye lights.

A publicity still by Robin Fox of Nigella Lawson with multiple eye lights. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOD 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/1.2 and ISO800. © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

Cinematic footage with Cine Primes

At the heart of the series' cinematic look sits a set of Canon Cine Prime lenses. "I've always thought that as an owner-operator, the affordability and the results you get from them are just extraordinary," says Robin. "They easily compare to lenses at least twice their price, and the results are gorgeous. They're very fast, and they're sharp, but not to the point where they look video-like. Footage always looks cinematic and skin tones look beautiful. You can't really ask for more than that."

With the series shot on a soundstage, careful camerawork is required to create the aesthetic of being at home with Nigella in a cosy kitchen. "To try to make it look as believable as possible, we shoot very shallow," he says. "We also try to flare the lens whenever we can, to give it that sunny-day, real sunshine feel. Those two elements help gel things."

Four lenses each have very specific jobs on set. "The Canon CN-E35mm T1.5 L F is for a long, wide shot," explains Robin. "The Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 L F does our up-and-down, when Nigella's talking to the camera. The Canon CN-E85mm T1.3 L F is her close-up lens, when she's talking to camera and pretending to cook. The Canon CN-E135mm T2.2 L F is our countertop shot, which gets the nice shallow depth of field, long lens stuff down the counter."

And, thanks to Nigella, a crystal unicorn also helps create some of the beautiful bokeh seen on the show. "A little trick we do when using the Canon CN-E135mm T2.2 L F is to stick random glass objects on the counter, in front of the lens, to make the circles of confusion go crazy and the bokeh show up," he says. "Nigella saw us doing that when we first started working with her, and thought it was very amusing. So, she bought us a crystal unicorn to stick in front of the camera. We named him Gary, and he has been with us on all three series and comes out on nearly every one of those shots."

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DoP Robin Fox with a camera on his right shoulder.

"When we're actually filming, I couldn't tell you what Nigella had just made – I wouldn't have a first clue what the ingredients were," says Robin. "But we cook each dish five times to film it. By the end of the day, we've all got the recipe down." © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

A rich chocolate cake covered in a glossy chocolate sauce and topped with blackcurrants.

Nigella's programmes are known for their rich, sumptuous desserts, like this chocolate cake filmed on Canon Cine Primes during Simply Nigella. Bringing the right equipment on set was important to director Dominic Cyriax, says Robin. "Cameras and lenses were one of the first conversations we had. He fully understands how technology ties into the aesthetic. I think they previously shot Nigellissima on a Canon EOS C300 with L-series prime lenses, so he was very keen to carry on using Canon." © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

A full-frame powerhouse – the Canon EOS R5

For the latest series, Robin added a new B-camera to his rig – the Canon EOS R5, which was released as he was preparing for Cook, Eat, Repeat. The full-frame mirrorless camera was used to capture 4K gimbal-mounted footage for on-location shots where Nigella is speaking to camera, as well as publicity stills. "I was absolutely blown away by it," Robin says. "It's the closest stills camera I've seen to replicate the look that we get on our main camera. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, whether it's the gamma curve, but the results are so accurate for what we shoot. It's fantastic."

The crew had a week of shooting pieces to camera out of the studio, filming Nigella walking and talking to camera in the streets of London. "We reviewed all the rushes at the end of the first day, and the footage from the Canon EOS R5 was just gorgeous," says Robin. "We couldn't fault it at all in terms of sharpness or quality. So, we stood down our main camera for the EOS R5 – when we saw the results, we didn't look back!"

A Canon EOS R5 attached to a filming rig on set.

Robin shot pieces to camera on location for Cook, Eat, Repeat using a Canon EOS R5 mounted on a rig. "It was mainly Nigella walking towards the camera," he says. "We'd go to Hyde Park and she'd be walking and talking." He was impressed by the Dual Pixel CMOS AF, which covers 5,940 AF areas, and the way the footage matched their in-studio camera. © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

Six lenses sit within a shaped box, each labelled with its size ready to pick up and use.

"The Canon CN-E35mm T1.5 L F, CN-E50mm T1.3 L F, CN-E85mm T1.3 L F and CN-E135mm T2.2 L F lenses all come out on Nigella's series," says Robin of his selection of Canon Cine Primes. "Each has a specific job, and they've all got nicknames." © Robin Fox / BBC Studios

When following Nigella at work in the studio on the Cine Primes, Robin relies on focus puller Ollie Lockett to keep time with her constant movements. "We shoot everything at pretty much T2. Nigella is backwards and forwards at the counter, so keeping her in focus is down to being in tune with her and the way she moves. It's a bit of a dance they do, but Ollie is exceptional – people have stepped in to replace him and found it very difficult."

But on the Canon EOS R5, after conducting tests, they found that the camera's powerful EOS ITR AF X autofocus system, which harnesses deep-learning AI first introduced in Canon's flagship action camera the EOS-1D X Mark III, was more than up to the job itself. "Once it locks on, it's locked on," Robin says. "The EOS R5 was absolutely bulletproof for what we needed it to do."

As well as creating some of the most visually arresting food videography, filming Nigella's programmes comes with some serious perks. "Because we cook each dish five times to film it, that means there's five dishes normally knocking around that go straight to the crew," laughs Robin. "We've all got a fork resting in our back pockets. By the end of the day, we've all got the recipe down and we'll be trying it at home throughout the weekend.

"Nigella's an absolute joy to work with," Robin adds. "The way she comes across on screen is how she is in real life. She's upbeat and positive and she carries our crew along."

Lucy Fulford

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