Nicole Morrison brings a bright new perspective to product, food, and lifestyle photographs and GIFs
Nicole Morrison creates bold product, food and lifestyle photos and GIFs for clients ranging from The New York Times to Pepsi, Walmart, and organic baby food company Raised Real.
Beyond her eye for punch and color is a mission to influence brands to think more deeply about the planet. Her 2020 compost still lifes series, for example, uses a commercial aesthetic to draw attention to the importance of composting.
There’s a delicious playfulness to her process. Bright light, hard shadows, and minimal angular backdrops make her images informative, accessible, and inviting.
Morrison’s brand storytelling approach has surprising roots in her days studying photojournalism at San Francisco State University. The spontaneous power of body language and composition shines throughout her work. Whether it’s photographing an immaculately lit still life, a flowing GIF, or polished, yet uninhibited lifestyle portraits, her vision is consistent, yet unique.
We spoke with Nicole to learn more about her mission, influences and signature style.
The Luupe: It’s interesting to see how your background in photojournalism influences your super-polished commercial work.
Nicole Morrison: My background in photojournalism taught me how to make great photos when you have limited control of the situation you’re photographing. Aside from portraits, you are not supposed to affect your surroundings. Maybe you’re waiting for a moment, or for someone or something to enter the composition you have in mind, and then you take the photo.
And if it doesn’t happen the way you thought it would, you don’t get it and you have to think of another way. I learned so much about body language, observation and anticipation in addition to all the technical skills you need to make strong photos.
The Luupe: Body language applied to still life…
Morrison: Now, I have so much control and I’m often creating an environment out of nothing, often with no regard to reality, which is so much fun! I didn’t identify the lack of control as a pain point for awhile, I just grew more and more frustrated with the lack of color in my portfolio.
So everything I’ve done since that realization has been to overtly use as much color as possible. Funnily enough, the work I’ve made since then has resonated with more people and brands than ever.
The Luupe: Color is such a big part of your vision. Your work is consistently described as “bright,” “playful” and our favorite: “like a sunny day.” Such a wonderfully optimistic way to address the challenges to environmental justice and climate change. Why is this way of seeing is so important?
Morrison: I struggled with this a bit actually, wondering if I was hypocritical for these opposing forces in my work and life. I do like to make bright, sunny and fun images because that’s what makes my eyes happy and I like to make people smile.
On the other hand, climate change is so scary and literally keeps me up at night sometimes. I know fear can be a great motivator, but I don’t think it’s the best one.
No one feels great after they’ve made a decision out of fear. My vision is to create images that can increase awareness and/or communicate ideas related to climate change that people actually enjoy looking at–with the hope that they’ll be more receptive, engaged and, therefore, more likely to take in information.
I think of photography as a communication tool, whether the image itself is communicating something, or facilitating the communication of a message or idea.
The Luupe: How does your use of color help to reflect or shape the ideas behind your work?
Morrison: It’s hard for me to separate my use of color from my ideas, they’re very much bound. Colors communicate as well, so whatever the idea is and however I’m trying to communicate it is directly tied to color in my mind.
I’ve always been really interested in the psychology of how we perceive colors. How yellow can make you feel happy and blue can make you feel calm. Color is one of my favorite communication tools. Colors can shout or whisper, unify or separate. It just depends on what you’re going for.
The Luupe: Going back a bit, what are some early photojournalism learnings that you continue to bring to your commercial process?
Morrison: Especially when I’m photographing humans, there are a lot of the things I learned in photojournalism that I keep in mind to bring some kind of “realness” or moment to the images. Where I would have waited for someone to smile or laugh as a photojournalist, I keep up a conversation with the person I’m photographing that keeps them smiling and laughing so that there’s good body language and I can make pictures that feel easy and natural.
The Luupe: On that note, can you talk a bit more about your process when collaborating with brands?
Morrison: My process of collaborating with clients varies. I’ve worked with a lot of small businesses and those projects are much more hands-on since they may not have strong brand aesthetics in place yet. You get to put in a lot of your own ideas and they’re open to your expertise. As my experience continues and I work on bigger projects, the clients are more established and I may be contacted through an agency, which is often in charge of coming up with the creative for the project.
In that case, my job becomes taking the agency’s creative and putting my spin on it, as well as problem solving for how to make those ideas happen in a practical sense. Let’s say the creative calls for a product to float in the air. I would think about how I want it to float–is it somewhat realistic (think mid-throw) or is it completely unrealistic and untethered to reality?
The Luupe: How does this play off of – or differ from how you work on personal projects?
Morrison: The creative process varies as well. I used to do all my personal work alone because I was timid about reaching out to stylists, but I highly recommend just putting yourself out there. Sometimes I have a specific idea in mind and I reach out to stylists because of their specific style or skillset.
If I’m testing in order to work with someone new and build a relationship, I’ll link them to a Pinterest board where I keep ideas for potential shoots broken out into different sections and ask what resonates with them, and that’s how we get started.
Sometimes a stylist wants to ideate and be super hands-on, and sometimes they just want to work with you and they’re happy to carry out your ideas and give input where it makes sense. It totally depends!
The Luupe: Speaking of personal projects, your composting series was our intro into your work. It prompted us to bring you into The Luupe, and shows your ability to colorfully visualize environmental concerns.
How do you bring your values to the brands you collaborate with?
Morrison: This is something I’m trying to figure out, actually. I get inquiries from brands that are built on sustainability and brands that are doing a sustainability-related campaign. I’m anticipating that this will only increase as the conversation about climate change becomes more mainstream and brands have to take climate in mind in order to stay relevant and profitable.
I haven’t quite figured out how to bring climate change into the conversation on my own terms. One resource I know of is Green The Bid, which gives lots of practical ideas for all the different roles in a shoot to consider.
The Luupe: In an APA interview last year, you talked about branching out to work with stylists vs styling on your own. What does this collaboration process look like in the context of COVID?
Morrison: COVID has definitely been a consideration as well. Since I did a lot of tabletop over the last year, most of my tests have been with one or two other people. Either a food or prop stylist or both. You can do a lot with a small crew and cool ideas that everyone is excited about, especially because you don’t have to take client approval into consideration. If everyone likes it, you can just move on!
That said, I’d really like to do some tests with talent this year, so we’ll need more crew including a model, wardrobe stylist and HMUA. At this point everyone is accustomed to working with safety measures in place. As long as I’m following the guidelines and working with others who are doing the same, I feel pretty good when I’m working.
The Luupe: If there was a single methodology on brand storytelling, what would it be?
Morrison: Be open-minded! Listen to what the brand or creatives are telling you about the brand in general and the project in particular. Look at what they’ve already done. Think about how you can give them something that’s a unique combination of their brand and your style. The work should resonate with their already-established brand and audience, but should be different enough that the client and the audience are intrigued.
The Luupe: We LOVE your GIFS and the additional layer of fun they bring to your work. What stories can GIFs tell that still photos (and maybe videos) might not?
Morrison: Thank you! I think GIFs are striking because they’re moving and still at the same time. They move between frames, but the moments are frozen. It’s not something you can see with your eyes. That quality is something that’s always visually interesting. I think that’s why slow motion and time lapses are so pleasing.
The Luupe: Thanks so much for your time and insights into your work. Wrapping this up, what are you most excited, optimistic, etc about so far this year?
Morrison: New experiences! I’ve worked with so many new people in the last year and a half and I’m excited to keep it up. I’m also more and more interested in motion and started directing last year, so I’ll definitely be diving into that more this year. The technical side of video is such a can of worms, but I’d like to know enough to be able to conceptualize and direct.