Blog

A Tour Around the City

This little project has been something that I've been wanting to do for some time now. As always, shooting for Whirl and Edible takes up about 98% of my time, and most days after work I don't want to even see my camera for the rest of the day. A day doesn't go by where I don't have my camera in my hand. I'm constantly shooting, for work although. I'm so fortunate to make a living with my camera, I just needed a change of pace from the work world.

I'm an avid instagram user. I love everything about it. I follow a lot of photographers from NYC who capture the city in ways I never thought possible. Looking at these pictures day in and day out inspired me to get off the couch and go out to capture the city I live in. Of course Pittsburgh is no where near the size of New York. In fact I'm pretty sure the entire city could fit in Central park. Regardless of the fact, Pittsburgh is still an incredible city to look at and be apart of.

I'm also debating of whether or not to sell prints of a few of these. If anyone is interested, shoot me an email and we can discuss what you're looking for!

michaelfornataro@gmail.com

Click the images to view full size.

Thanks for looking!





Monthly Recap

I've been finding it increasingly difficult to balance work while updating my site weekly, if it all. Since I've been gone for so long, I figured I would share a monthly recap of everything I've shot for Whirl and Edible. These months' issues are some of my favorite yet. I shot a feature with Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers, explored rooftop bars downtown, shot my second cover, and had numerous other shoots ranging from cocktails to rooftop fashion. This is gonna be a long one, so grab a beer and buckle up baby. (still can't believe we lost game 7)

To begin, I'm finally the proud owner of the lens I've dreamed of owning since day one. . .a 50mm f1.2L. I'm so in love with this lens that I haven't mounted another lens on my camera since I got it at the beginning of April. Since the special thing about the lens is the ability to shoot at f1.2, I also found myself rarely ever leaving that aperture, which is incredibly risky, yet so rewarding. I now own my personal version of the "Holy Trinity." A 50L mounted on a 5Dmk3 triggering strobes through a handful of Pocketwizard Plus IIIs.

With that being said, one of my first shoots was to shoot a group of alcohol-less cocktails aka mocktails. Working here at Whirl and Edible, I've become quite accustomed to shooting beverages. Lighting and styling them is something I'm very comfortable with, so I knew shooting these would be just another stroll though the park. The first mocktails were shot next to a huge window at 2pm on a cloudless sunny day. I let the sun do it's job, and simply used my strobe as a fill light camera right. The final results proved to be very pleasing. Excuse the poor BTS. (You can click on the images to make them larger.)

Overall I had to shoot three different sets of mocktails from three different restaurants, making nine total. The group to the right and below were shot using something I haven't used in a solid four months, natural light, or how we call it at the office, Natty Light (I started it by the way). I live and die by using strobes, but I'm realizing that natural light can produce amazing light quality. The images from this set came out so well that we used one of the drinks as the cover.

As per usual, I also shot plenty of awesome dishes from all over Pittsburgh.

Now this is the part that I'm really excited about. Every month for Whirl, we do a "Style Feature" and "Style File." Normally every month features very stylish individuals that have no idea what to do in front of a camera. This month was completely different, minus the stylish part. Our style feature this month was Hines Ward. This was my first time shooting someone of his caliber, so I wanted everything to be absolutely perfect for the shoot. Needless to say, nothing went right.

He was scheduled to show up at our studio at noon. Earlier in the morning, Sam, our graphic designer, Jason, our Art Director, and I began to take some test shots to make sure that everything looked perfect for when Hines showed up. After a few hours, we were able to show our Editor-in-Chief Christine what we had. We were already cutting it close (11:30) when we showed Christine. To make a long and stressful story short, we had to completely redesign and re conceptualize the shoot in 15 minutes. Christine was looking for a raw, yet polished look. She showed us some tear sheets that she wanted us to model our shoot after. We soon realized we were unable to fill her request. The concept I came up with, which is nothing new in the industry, was to show Hines on the backdrop, with the lights and surroundings still in the photo. She loved the one test shot we were able to take before Hines showed up. After a pack-of-cigarettes inducing 15 minutes, we had a concept nailed. The shoot then went as smooth as could be.

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 Absolutely love the look of f/1.2

Absolutely love the look of f/1.2

Our style file shoot, although much smoother going, was still just as awesome. We shot on top of a salon's roof that had a view of the skyline between two buildings. It was an awesome location, so I knew I had to do something really cool to make the most of the location. One of my absolute favorite things to do is to shoot with strobes during high-noon. This time of day is completely avoided by most photographers because it's considered the hardest light to shoot in. I embrace it, because I know I can manipulate it into anything I want.

When I strobe outdoors, I essentially emulate the sun. I balance the daylight with my strobes so that it seems like the image was shot without any hint of there being a flash. If I had some more time, I would have really been able to dial everything in so that I didn't lose the sky. But of course I was on a deadline, so I made it work as best as I could with the time given.

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Plenty of food and drink shoots, two awesome fashion pieces, and getting to explore and meet new people all over Pittsburgh. Overall another typical, yet rewarding month of work.

 

For your viewing pleasure. Some extra images that I shot this month as well. Click to enlarge.










My Foray into Food Photography

Growing up I always tried to be the best at everything I did. One day I could drive a golf ball 300 yards and the next day jump 60 feet through the air on a dirtbike. I approach my photography in the same manner. Over the years I've shot, researched, and got frustrated in just about every genre there is. Over my career, I've become well versed in shooting just about anything you could throw at me. I know that no matter what, there is and will always be someone better than me, but hey, I get a paycheck every two weeks for my work so I must be doing something right.

 In my quest of learning and shooting a wide range of subject matter, food always eluded my technical knowledge. No matter what I did, I couldn't achieve a photo of food that looked, well, professional. Granted I really didn't research food photography all that much, if at all. I thought all I had to do was get some appetizing food, shoot at f/1.4-2, and I would be yielded with "a professional food photograph." HA.

 A prime example of my first failed attempt of shooting food. A huge steak on top of a pile of weirdly colored corn on a red plate. Yikes!

A prime example of my first failed attempt of shooting food. A huge steak on top of a pile of weirdly colored corn on a red plate. Yikes!

The above image was shot with a T2i and 50mm 1.8 with a white beauty dish camera right at a 45 degree angle. Food + shallow dof + lighting equaled instant success in my book. At the time, I thought that this was a decent image because it met my criteria for a "good" food photograph. I continued to shoot food in the same manner, and I got the same result for every plate of food I shot. It also didn't help that I had absolutely ZERO idea how to style food as well.

After this shot, I just gave up shooting food. The cheese was blown out, the bread looked rock hard and no matter I did, nothing met my expectations. I guess you could say the food looked somewhat appetizing, but what bowl of past fagioli doesn't look good? Stylistically and aesthetically, they were extremely amateur.

During my internship for Whirl, the current staff photographer, Cayla, was an awesome food stylist and even better food photographer. During one of the first food shoots I assisted on, I noticed that she had her light placed behind the food, and filled the shadows in from the front/sides. In my head I thought "this looks all wrong" but every frame she shot looked better than the last. Another strange thing was how picky she was with the styling. The direction of a fork could ruin the entire image, or the way the fold of a napkin was rendering could draw your eye away from the plate of food. In my food career, I took a handful of shots and used photoshop as a crutch. Cayla would take hundreds of photos of a single plate of food. This all seemed asinine in my head, but it was how a real food photographer worked. Fueled with inspiration, I tried to give food another chance. I paid close attention to my lighting and even more attention to the props within the image. I shot a ton of frames, tried all different angles, styling, and surfaces, and to my surprise, a halfway decent image emerged, regardless of how much retouching I had to do.

Once Cayla left and I was put in charge, I knew I really had to step my game up so I could retain the reputation our magazines have and more importantly, make the staff position. I would be shooting the absolute best dishes the city of Pittsburgh had to offer, and it was my responsibility to not only please the chefs, but show the editor-in-chief that I was a capable food photographer.

Since I work in the editorial industry, a run and gun setup is more than desired. We need to get in,make sure we have the shot in less than 15 minutes, and get out. Studio food photographers will often take hours upon hours to shoot a single dish of food. They have control of every element, and often have a team of stylists making sure the food looks as appetizing and appealing as possible. Since I'm often shooting prepared dishes served by high-end restaurants, the food is plated beautifully and it makes my job just that much easier.

 My run and gun setup. 47" octabox behind the food and a silver/gold/ or white reflector depending on the scene and food.

My run and gun setup. 47" octabox behind the food and a silver/gold/ or white reflector depending on the scene and food.

These are some of my newest images that I've shot for Whirl and Edible Allegheny. I am very happy with how my style and skill has progressed with shooting food. I don't consider myself a professional food photographer, as I still have a lot to learn plate/prop styling wise, but I can say that I am finally happy with my food photographs. I went from almost giving up entirely to shooting the cover of a magazine. The team at Whirl is second to none. I'd like to thank Sam Casale and Sam May for helping me style all of these shoots and land my first ever cover.


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13 photoshoots in 4 days

Just wrapped on one of the busiest weeks of my 23 years of life. 13 photoshoots, 4 days, 70 hours of work on top of going to school. How did I accomplish this? A strict diet of frozen pizzas and energy drinks. Six months ago today, I would have been sitting on the couch probably playing Xbox and still eating frozen pizzas. The way my life has changed in such a short amount of time is certainly mind boggling, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Working in the editorial industry is no joke. I'm sure many outsiders imagine my job as simply taking pictures and then having copious amounts of free time to play Xbox and eat frozen pizzas. In reality, that scenario couldn't be farther from the truth.

Starting on Monday, I had 3 shoots and had to try to squeeze in class in between one of the shoots. Fortunately, I'm graduating in 15 short days. I'm well ahead of all of my school work so class has definitely been on the back burner this week (actually for the past couple weeks, sorry dad). The end of the day came with a solid 8 hours of shooting and traveling all over Pittsburgh. The joke was on me because when I got home I heated up a frozen pizza and started editing through the hundreds of photos I took previously in the day. I made the selects and began my post-processing. Let me also add that last Friday I shot a 7 page men's fashion feature that will also be featured this month of Whirl. With a mixture of editing Monday's shoots and dabbling in the men's feature, I found myself looking up and finding it to be 2am. Total amount of work for the day? 15 hours, and it was only Monday.

To save you from boredom, I'll skip ahead to Thursday; which I had the most memorable shoot of my career to date. Like Monday, Thursday was another day of balancing multiple shoots and school. My first shoot, the one that I'll cherish forever, was shooting the CEO of a multi-BILLION dollar pharmaceutical company. No amount of Monster Energy could prepare me for that shoot. Forewarning, I'm gonna get real preachy here so you may want to skip ahead.

The call time was 11am. I arrived at work at 10am and met with the art director who would be driving us to the shoot. The previous night I did my research on the company to see just how big they were. To put it into perspective, they are in the top 100 of the Fortune 500. Nothing like psyching yourself out the day before the biggest shoot of your career. We arrived at the headquarters exactly at 11 and met with our contact. This company is so serious that we had to get personalized guest passes with our pictures on them. Another perfect was to make me even more nervous for the shoot. The contact told us that we would have roughly 5-10 minutes with the CEO before she had to be whisked away to probably make some stock-altering decision. I had about 5 minutes to scout a location and set up my gear. Luckily for me, I've become a machine at setting up my gear. To add to the luck, the building we were in was nothing short of an architectural feat. Marble staircases, hundred foot windows, sprawling glass enclosed offices. Awe-inspiring.

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I chose to shoot her (yes she was the most intimidating woman I've ever met) on top of the third floor staircase. This is where knowing your gear inside and out and inside again is such an important aspect of your work. On high-pressure shoots like these, you have NO time to fiddle around with settings and where to place your lights. I knew that shooting at f/2.8, 1/100th, 1/2 power on my strobe through my octabox, while at the minimum mark of my ND filter would yield me a correct exposure. I was right on the mark.

 Raw image of Andrea, a senior Editor at Whir who is writing the story.

Raw image of Andrea, a senior Editor at Whir who is writing the story.

I got to shoot maybe 5 test shots before the CEO came in. Luckily she was very comfortable in front of the camera, and I fired off close to 100 shots before we had to call it quits. Unfortunately I can't share the finished results as the article isn't published yet, but hopefully this post will make you want to go pick up a copy of the April issue of Whirl Magazine (shameless plug). The rest of the day went as planned. A couple more small shoots, about an hour of class, and then home to edit the day's lot of images.

Overall I've shot more in 4 days than most photographers shoot in a couple months. I shot dishes served by some of the most exclusive restaurants in Pittsburgh, wallet-demolishing cocktails, yoga instructors, a holistic dentist, an insanely powerful CEO, and about eight other things I can't remember at the time. Just think, this is my first month on the job.

 

 

-Michael

 

 

Does Gear Really Matter?

Yes...well..not really...maybe sometimes. This question has plagued the photo industry for years. Many photographers, myself included, suffer from GAS syndrome..and no, Gas-X is not the cure. GAS stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. In other words, this is a "symptom" where photographers feel like they need the absolute best gear on the market today to do their job. I consider myself an acute GAS sufferer, as I just recently upgraded from a Canon T2i to 5dmk3

 

Now to the question. Does gear really have that big of an impact on the final image? Yes and no. I've created awesome images from my iPhone 4s as well as awesome images from my $3500 camera body. It all relies on the work the photographer is creating and his or her needs. For example, the photographers you see gracing the sidelines of every NFL game are using sub $10,000 camera bodies. This may seem absolutely insane to the average user, however, what these photographers need is not more megapixels or flip out screens. They need a camera that can fire off 100 pictures in less than 8 seconds with perfect focus on 90 of those 100 pictures. Do I need a camera that can do this? Absolutely not, but I can still dream.

 

As an advertising and editorial photographer, I'm shooting in controlled studio environments or on-location somewhere remotely exotic and beautiful. I don't need the ability to fire off 14 frames a second. Instead, I need a camera that has an impressive dynamic range (the range between shadows and highlights) and performs well in low-light. Hell, my T2i still did the job pretty well. Can you tell which camera was used in these two images?

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I'm going to assume you can't. I wouldn't be able to either. Don't worry though, I'm not going to tell you which camera shot which. As you can see, both of these images look like they were created with the same camera. The only difference? A price of $2700. As I so often like to point out though, both of these images went through extensive, and I mean gigabyte per file extensive, retouching. My strength lies in all the work that goes into the picture after the shutter is pressed. Retouching aside, both camera's produced very similar results. This can be expected coming from a studio environment. Now one thing that my 5D does better is it's ability to shoot extremely clean images in dark environments. For example, you know when you're at a concert and snap a selfie and the picture looks spotty and downright uninstagram worthy? Well those weird spotty colors filling your screen is called noise, and most consumer grade DSLRs are just as bad as your iPhone when it comes to shooting in very dark environments. This is where gear matters, and I hate to even use the word "matter" because it's possible to take great low-light photos as well with cheap gear. Certain environments and situations sometimes call for a higher end grade of equipment.

 

I get a lot of questions about which lens I used for a certain shot and so forth. Many amateur photographers think that the lens and camera are everything. Just like the example I used earlier about professional sports photographer's cameras, lenses are equally as subjective. Before I go any further, quality lenses do make a world of difference. I've always put my money towards good glass before anything else, and I feel every photographer should do the same. Those gigantic lenses you see on the sidelines? Easily $12,000 and above. What I'm trying to stress through this post is that it's not about having the absolute best gear money can buy. Instead, it's about tailoring your photographic setup to the work you do.

 One of my favorite images of mine was shot with a T2i and $100 50mm lens.

One of my favorite images of mine was shot with a T2i and $100 50mm lens.

So get out there and start shooting away. Only have an iPhone? Download an app called Snapseed. A powerful little photo editor for your phone. You'll be amazed what you can create with the camera that's sitting in your pocket. When you feel, and I mean truly feel, that your camera body is hindering your work, then it may be time for an upgrade. Don't feel bad about not having the latest and greatest camera and lens. The camera is only one pixel of the bigger picture.

 

Boy that was cheesy.

 

 



The Beginning

At the age of 23, still in school, I have been extremely lucky for the opportunity to land a job at an editorial magazine here in Pittsburgh, www.whirlmagazine.com. Since I go to school for Photography, I found that Whirl was looking for interns for school credit. Up until I saw that posting, my photo "career" was almost nonexistent. I knew that to survive in this industry, I needed this position. An overwhelming sense of determination swept over me, and I began the application process. A complete overhaul to my resume and a few meetings later, I was sitting at Whirl as their new photo intern.

 

On the second day of my internship, I was given a responsibility that I thought at the time was a big deal; cut products out of a white background and edit them. Not to brag, but I strongly pride myself on my retouching abilities ( work shown on www.phlearn.com). I flew through the process and soon found myself looking for more work to do. I began browsing the work server, just looking for something else I could edit. I stumbled upon a fitness photo story the staff photographer at the time shot. I saw that there were some mistakes in the editing, so I took all of the photos, made copies, and re-edited them from scratch. I showed my finish edits to the art director. Needless to say, I was put in charge of retouching every photo from there on out.

 

Months down the road, the staff photographer Cayla (www.caylazahoran.com) told me that there was a chance that she would be moving to New York to freelance. My brain went haywire. This was my chance to be the staff photographer. I knew that I was more than capable of delivering, as earlier in my internship, I shot two large features that the staff was very impressed with.

 I shot Cayla for a feature on short hair on women. Seen at http://www.whirlmagazine.com/short-hair-trends-make-the-cut-with-this-expert-advice/

I shot Cayla for a feature on short hair on women. Seen at http://www.whirlmagazine.com/short-hair-trends-make-the-cut-with-this-expert-advice/

 A feature on the best bars in Pittsburgh. Seen at  http://www.whirlmagazine.com/behind-the-bar-with-3-pittsburgh-bartenders/

A feature on the best bars in Pittsburgh. Seen at http://www.whirlmagazine.com/behind-the-bar-with-3-pittsburgh-bartenders/

February 1st came and Cayla packed up her bags. I was left in charge, of everything. At first it was one of the most daunting experiences of my life. I was solely responsible for the content of four magazines as Whirl has three other sister publications on top of the main magazine. 17 days have passed. I've shot more than 4000 frames, almost 10 features, and need to recharge my gripped 5Dmk3 daily. I couldn't be a happier person.