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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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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.