Blog

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.


MichaelFornataro_FoodPhotography_2.jpg
MichaelFornataro_FoodPhotography_3.jpg
MichaelFornataro_FoodPhotography_1.jpg

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.

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 7.15.26 PM.png

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