Which came first, a love of food or photography, and how did they eventually collide into one?
Certainly a love of food. Well, a love of food mixed with design. I started as a graphic designer. In the food industry, and I loved that I was able to incorporate great food with a world of design. After many years of corporate life which led to art and creative direction, I took the leap to full-time photographer a few years ago. Since I was art directing photo shoots I felt like I was ready to take the next step so I taught myself how to use a camera. I’ve been having a blast ever since!
What methods did you use to educate yourself about photography? Did being surrounding by beautiful food photography prior to your pursuing that field help develop your eye?
It certainly did, but also it was the bigger picture of design that helped educate me. Photography, art, and design all employ the same basic practices: color theory, proportion, shape, positive and negative space, story telling, etc. It was those things that gave me a base to pursue photography. Of course, actually hiring photographers and working in their studios as an art director also helped, it was the best classroom I could have imagined!
But when it came to the nitty gritty of it, I kept a camera with me every day for about 3 years. I never set it down. I photographed daily, anything and everything, so that the camera became an extension of my eye. I learned how the camera sees things (which isn’t always the same as we do), and I learned to control the camera to create an image the way I was seeing it in my head. I annoyed everyone around me who didn’t want their photo taken, and I apologized profusely 🙂
Let’s talk lighting. Do you prefer natural or artificial light? Would you share with us a typical lighting setup?
I prefer light that has the qualities I seek. That can be natural or artificial, it makes no difference to me whatsoever. For some time I always felt natural light was easiest, but now that I’ve worked with it for a few years it’s actually challenging and requires you to think fast on your feet. It’s ever changing: color temperature, intensity, shape.
I’m happy with strobes as well, but they require some modification to achieve what I like in light. I go for a blend of diffused and slightly direct, sometimes it’s modified and softened a few times before it hits the food. But no matter if it’s natural or artificial, I treat it the same: large source, diffused through fabric or a scrim or silk, carefully monitoring my highlights and shadows as well as color temperature.
For a set up, I put a table near my light source, and depending on the light intensity, move the table closer or further away. That’s how I start, and from there I’ll use foamcore or flags to get the light where I need it. It’s remarkably simple!
Does your lighting approach with food differ from your lighting approach with people?
Not really, other than I need more light to photograph people. The key difference is that food generally stays still, people move, so I need much more light to photograph people. Of course, that opens up a whole can of worms…how can I keep the light the same style? The same softness? The same quality? So while I approach it the same way, it’s usually not the same formula as I have for shooting food.
Styling is very important in food photography. Can you offer any advice to someone who would be working on their own to both style and photograph a plate or meal?
I say practice often and start easy. Don’t try to set out a giant buffet and do it all yourself, work on shooting a still life of fruits and vegetables first to understand how to see things on a set and through the lens. Build on that experience and work on things that allow you to be a food stylist and food photographer separately: think baked goods that are done before and can sit on the set for a while to allow you to put on the photographer’s hat. Once you feel comfortable with all this you’ll understand how much time you need to give yourself to style or how much time you’ll need to give yourself to photograph. Some foods require attention of both simultaneously, that’s where it gets tricky. Think soufflé.
Your partner, Adam Pearson, is a talented food stylist and you often find yourself working jobs together. Do the two of you prefer to work together and do you find it difficult to keep work (and any occurring disagreements) at work and not bring it home?
We love working together when it’s appropriate for the job. Our styles are well suited together and we have a great creative process together, I absolutely love it. That changes when it’s something like ice cream (he prefers to leave that to the specialists) so of course there are times when we’re not doing stuff together. But our aesthetic matches, our styles are in sync, we like similar styles, it works out fantastically.
There’s not much (if any) of a separation between work and home life; I think any self-employed freelancer or business owner knows what I’m talking about here 🙂 Having said that, it’s not difficult to keep disagreements at bay because we actually don’t disagree that often. When we do there’s quick resolution and I think we both realize it’s only work, no need to let that discolor our home life. I have friends who say they could never ever ever work with their wife/husband/spouse/partner/significant other, but for us it’s remarkably easy. We’re lucky.
Congratulations on the purchase of your new house! As you find yourself decorating do you visualize how an item or color will translate to camera prior to making your final purchasing decision?
Thank you! It’s such a sweet little house, we’re so blessed to live in it. I haven’t really thought about how well things will photograph before it goes into the room as I usually leave those things to the moment when I’m actually photographing, which I plan on doing once the interior design is complete. One can do great things with light and shadows to make the most simple look compelling, so I don’t really go into it thinking if it’ll shoot well. If anything I go into my house thinking of colors and shapes and how they make me feel. For years I refused to have color in my house as my brain was filled with too much clutter from work. These days I think I’ve learned to handle that and I welcome colors and textures in a way I hadn’t before. But so much is dependent on the house, it also tells you how to dress it if you listen closely!
I saw your prop tour on your blog and you’ve got quite the stash! What are a few things you look for in an item when shopping for new props?
It all depends, really. Sometimes I might be shopping for an upcoming shoot and I know the story is rustic or extremely modern and I’ll need pieces to supplement what we have. Other times I’m moved by something so unique and interesting that I’ll actually build a story around it!
Other times we’ll come across things we’ve never seen before or hard-to-find items and know that even though we might not have a use for them now we’ll need them in the future. But we’ve amassed a large enough collection so that we can now be a bit more selective in what we’re looking for. We also have things made for shoots which is great to have unique pieces.
Recently you’ve published a new book on food photography. Why did you choose this method to share your wisdom and how does it differ from your blog?
I joke that I hate writing, but this is my second book so I have to wonder why I’d torture myself, ya know? Kidding! I suppose I really enjoy the writing process, and I love books, so it was a great partnership with my publisher and it was great to go back to the beginning and write a book on the topic of food photography that started from the ground up. I think it differs from the blog in that it’s all in one place, in a book you can keep with you and enjoy offline, with much more visual examples that might get cluttered in a blog post. It’s much more in-depth.
Speaking of books, you love recipe books. What are a few of your favorites?
Oh, the world’s most difficult question! Since I’m a photographer I have a few favorites just based on design and photo. As a cook there are a few others I have as favorites because I love the recipes. NOMA, Super Natural Every Day, The Zuni Cookbook, Plenty, Rick Bayless, anything from David Lebovitz, The Homesick Texan Cookbook, Back In The Day Bakery Cookbook, every book from each of my friends, I could go on and on…
Even if we offered you a million dollars, what is one food that you would not eat?
There’s nothing I won’t eat. I mean, there’s nothing I won’t try, I should say. Although I’d probably need that million dollars to motivate me to eat balut.
Do you feel that one should be located in California or New York to have a successful career with food photography? Would it be possible for someone located in say the midwest to succeed?
I don’t think it’s absolutely imperative, but it helps when meeting photo editors, publishers, art buyers, etc. It really just depends on what type of food photography one wants to do: advertising, editorial, etc.
And I’m typing this as I’m working in Minneapolis, so one cannot forget that many great advertising food photographers live here and in Chicago!
What advice would you offer someone interested in working as a food photographer?
You must master two things: cooking and being a people person. It’s really imperative. When I talk about cooking, it helps immensely if you know and understand your subject. Many great food photographers I know understand food and its properties. I cannot imagine photographing something like food and not knowing how it will react or behave on set.
Also, being a professional photographer isn’t always just about snapping a photo; it’s so much more. You must enjoy people, you must enjoy the collaboration and the team environment, as you’ll be working with so many different types of personalities, not only on the client end but also on set as part of your team. I’m not saying you have to have a giant, loud personality, but you cannot be shy and timid when it comes to working with groups of people.
We’re in the midst of the Holidays. Do you have any tips you could share on photographing that fresh baked pie sitting on the counter or perhaps the beautifully decorated dinner table filled with food right before everyone dives in to fill their bellies?
Well, if you do plan on photographing that pie or that table with food before people sit down and eat then you absolutely positively must tell your guests your intention! Give them snacks (and drinks) to nibble on while you take a few minutes at the table. If you don’t you’ll suffer from incessant eye rolls for daysssssss. Letting your guests see the food and smell the delicious aromas means dinnertime, not “let-me-take-a-photo-keep-your-hands-off” time. It’s all about managing expectations! And if you let guests know this then you might even find yourself with an extra set of hands to hold a reflector or a dish (free hand model!) or even pose for the photo! Just let your guests know that you’ll be taking photos so you don’t annoy them.
And if you do have time, do all this ahead of time! Granted, you probably aren’t going to prepare a giant ham or additional turkey for the sake of photography, you’ll need to shoot that in action, for real. But pies and desserts? Wake up early, bake them early, move them next to a window, and get all your photography out of the way so you can shoot undisturbed. I’ve even been known to set a little bit aside so that I can shoot it later or the next day.
How do you incorporate the feeling of the Holidays with your food photography?
Sometimes it’s nothing more than photographing buche de noel or a gingerbread house as those foods scream holidays. Other times it’s an everyday food that needs to read holiday which we achieve by adding appropriate props and holiday cues: reds and golds, a few holly leaves, warmer and deeper light, you name it. And then there’s geography, too: are we talking a Southern California Christmas? A 4th of July cookout on the East Coast? It helps to frame the image within a story, or at least create a narrative before we take the photo so that it falls in line with something real and it’s not only just a gold napkin ring telling the viewer it’s holiday time.
You’ve cooked with Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, your photography is on display at Targets across the country, you’ve been published in numerous magazines and books, and you’ve authored a few books – what other business dreams do you have yet to accomplish?
It sounds hokey– mighty hokey–but I’m living one big giant dream right this second! I wake up and pinch myself most days, doing what you love with people you love in a field you love… well, it’s all extremely surreal! As long as I apply myself as much as possible in every creative endeavor then I’m fine with where my path takes me. But as far as concrete business dreams I do think about building our dream studio to work in, though that’s a few years away. There are also a few clients I’d love to shoot for, so the second I finish this interview I might have to send a few emails and make some phone calls and send plenty of candy and flowers 🙂
Thank you Matt for spending some time with us today and sharing your insights with us!
Would you like to see even more of Matt’s beautiful photography? Make sure you visit his website, blog, and facebook to view his images. Don’t forget to also follow him on twitter, pinterest, and instagram. Make sure to grab a copy of his book too (I have this book in my hands right now and it’s awesome! No, nobody paid me to say that.)!