Photo by Marc Matsumoto
You may have noticed I am trying to take better photos of my food. In the past I did my best but the lighting was so poor I resorted to buying stock photos from photo stock houses, but that is all changing. After reading how professional food photographer Marc Matsumoto lights his food with a few simple items, I’m on my way to better food photography.
Just like when I started this web site to learn how to cook, I’m hoping to teach myself how to be a decent photographer. I’ll be a Reluctant Photographer now. I’ll start slowly by trying to learn more of the functions on my Nikon D80 and believe me there are a lot of them. My college chemistry text book didn’t appear this complicated. I’ll then work on lighting and plating.
I’ll also be eliciting the help from professional photographers like Marc and hopefully some home hobbyists who might want to share some tips. I guess I should build a page for food photography tips from pros and amateurs. Marc mentions a new book that just out from his friend, Helene DuJardin, called Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling that I will have to pick up. And maybe I can even get Helene to share a few of her tips.
This interview with Marc is a great start to my education. He is self taught and now shooting photos for cookbooks and writing about cooking on his fabulous blog at No Recipes. A friend of mine told me about his blog and once I read his story and checked out his food photography, I reached out to him. I hope you enjoy his comments as much as I did.
Interview with Food Photographer Marc Matsumoto
Marc, how did you begin cooking? Did you attend culinary school or are you self-taught?
When I was very young, my mom taught cooking classes out of the house, so I started cooking from around 4 or 5. I’ve never attended any formal training and have never been too reliant on recipes.
What did you study at UC Davis?
Communications, it was the fastest route to graduation.
How did you transition from “tech geek” working in California to food
blogger in NYC?
Having spent most of my life in California I was ready for a change. When the opportunity to move to New York came up, I sold most of my worldly possessions, took a two week vacation in Portugal, and came home to New York City. The food blogging came a little later as place to put recipes of things I’d cooked for friends.
Has photography always been a hobby?
I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that Japanese people are born with a camera around their necks. In my case, it’s not so far from the truth. I’ve had some kind of camera for as long as I can remember.
Where do you learn your photography skills?
For me, photography is a lot like cooking. I’ve never taken any formal training, but I learn through inspiration and experimentation. The fist part is fairly simple. When I see a photo I really like I figure out what it is that I like about the photo.
Is it the lighting? The composition? The use of color? The angle?
By being very analytical when viewing other photographer’s shots, I’m able to better understand what it is that I like in a photo and then incorporate those techniques into my own photography. Shooting digital is great because unlike shooting film or cooking a $100 standing rib roast, there’s very little to lose by failing, and a lot to gain by learning from your mistakes.
I guess I’m asking which came first – cooking or photography?
Photo by Marc Matsumoto
How did you decide that food photography/food blogging was something you were interested in? (For me, I wanted to learn how to cook and build a web site back in 1996)
I’ve always loved cooking, writing and photography so starting a food blog seemed like a natural fit. I started the blog for my friends, but what got me hooked was the day someone I didn’t know commented on my
I’ve read you live in a tiny NYC apartment. So how do you manage to make such complex looking meals?
No one cooks in NYC. While some people admit they’re too lazy or don’t have time, many people blame it on the size of their kitchens. While I won’t lie, serving a dinner for 8 in a 550 sq/ft apartment requires some creative use of space, it’s doable. The other thing is that my meals aren’t that complex. When I cook something I want to be able to enjoy it too, and if it takes too long to prepare, I’m already sick of the dish by the time it’s done. I leave the complicated stuff for
restaurants to make for me!
What do you find most challenging and what solutions have you come up with to deal with these problems?
Counter space and storage are the two biggest problems. For the counter space, I have a 5 foot stainless steel chef’s table that I use as extra prep space and with some bar stools, it doubles as a dining room table. For storage, I end up using the broom closet as a pantry, which means the broom and vacuum cleaner end up living in the middle of the living room. In a small space, it’s all about trade-offs.
Do you do a lot of entertaining?
I used to, but these days I just don’t have time anymore. Still, I like to have one or two friends over for drinks and dinner because it saves money and avoids the hassles of going out in NYC. They have to be willing to put up with a broom and vacuum cleaner decorating the living room though!
I take pictures of everything I cook now. My kids are always saying, Dad, can you stop taking pictures and come to the table. Are most of your food shots of what you are serving that night or do you prepare and style food just for the photography?
I take photos of a dish I cooked just before I eat. Since I hate cold food, I have a photo area setup with lighting and reflectors, so all I have to do is bring a finished plate over, snap a few shots and sit down and eat. It really only adds about 30 seconds to the trip to the table. It’s about being prepared and knowing your setup well enough that you don’t have to fiddle with things too much to pull off a few good shots.
Do you need professional photography equipment to take great food photos? For example, I saw on one professional food photographer’s web site that he uses a Color Checker Passport for accurate color readings. Is this something we all need?
It’s funny that you should ask that. I just bought a Color Checker Passport. I probably won’t use it for everyday shots when I’m only taking a handful of photos, but when I do cookbook shoots it should shave a considerable amount off the time I spend processing the RAW files. That said I absolutely don’t think most people need pro photography gear.
I use a $10 ikea lamp with a $10 40 watt Satco 5000k CFL and a $5 sheet of white foam core board as a bounce. As for the camera, I use a mid-level Sony DSLR with a very high end lens. If you’re shooting with a DSLR (it doesn’t matter how cheap), the lens makes a huge difference. That said, I know so many people who bought a DSLR before they figured out how to take good photos with a point and shoot. If you haven’t learned to take a good photo with a point and shoot, buying a DSLR won’t help.
What are some of the necessary equipment every home food photographer must own? (Camera, lenses, lighting, etc).
This really varies on what you’re trying to accomplish and what your situation is. If you have some good daylight coming into your workspace and you’re just starting out. A good point and shoot and a piece of white foam core board might be all you need.
Personally, I live in a dark NYC apartment with almost no natural light and shoot at night mostly anyway, so I use the lighting setup I mentioned above. When I’m doing a photo shoot for a client I add more of the same inexpensive lights to simulate daylight, but it’s all just variations on the number and placement of lights and white foam core bounces.
I don’t like using a tripod because it adds time to the process and limits your movement around the subject, but many photographers will tell you this is a must. As for the camera, I don’t do a lot of print work, so I use a 14 megapixel Sony A550 with a Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f2.8 lens. For zoom range, brightness, and clarity I can’t think of a better lens for food photography.
I have learned from your web site how important lighting is. What lighting is best for shooting food? Do you have a personal preference (natural light, indoor bulbs)?
Lighting is huge. You can take a great photo with a modern cellphone camera given the proper lighting. Natural daylight is ideal, but if your situation doesn’t allow you to shoot in natural light, you can get almost the same results using some clever artificial lighting. The first thing is having enough light (i.e. a bright lightbulb with proper diffuser), the second is the color temperature of the lightbulb (5000k-6000k is closest to daylight), and the third thing is how you position the lights relative to the subject you are shooting.
What about plating? How important is the plating aspect of your food? Where did you learn to style food to look so good?
Honestly I don’t put a lot of thought into styling my plates. I respect the artistry that goes into food styling, but for me I just try to keep my plates from looking ugly. This includes wiping down any smudges and splashes, balancing color so it’s not all just one color, and giving the dish a point to focus your attention (as well as the camera) on.
What are some of your top plating tips for amateur food photographers?
Keep it clean! I think the biggest mistake people make when they are first starting out is that they put too much stuff on or around the plate. This distracts people from what they really want to see which is the food. You’re using the frame to tell a story about your dish, so anything that you add to it should help tell that story. Like rests in music, or pauses during a speech, knowing how to use white space is vital to taking good photographs.
What are some of the biggest mistakes a food photographer can make? What are the absolute no-no’s?
I think the biggest one I see is when people use flashes. You get harsh reflections and shadows, a blue cast, and frontal lighting makes the subject look very flat and unappetizing. Having someone holding a table lamp over your food is preferable to using the flash, or just go and buy the $25 lighting setup I described above and it will make a world of difference.
I also find that a lot of people like to center the subject in the frame. Having too much symmetry is boring. In photography there’s a “rule of thirds” which says that if you divide the frame up into thirds, your subject should always be either be at the 1/3rds or 2/3rds position.
What are the most important skills a food photographer must possess?
It’s important to know how you want your photo to look before you take it. It’s a similar process to creating a recipe. If you have no idea what you’re trying to make, and just keep throwing random ingredients in without giving it much thought, your dish isn’t going to turn out great unless you happen to get lucky.
Photo by Marc Matsumoto
Are there any photography books you would recommend a starting out photographer purchase?
My friend Helene DuJardin from Tartelette just came out with a terrific book called Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling. It’s a fantastic guide to taking great photos. I even learned a few things after reading it!
I find myself shooting food and it comes out looking OK. How does one achieve that look of great quality food shots that almost look like you can reach out and touch them?
In the same way it’s important to be able to look at others photos and figure out why you like them, it’s equally important to be able to look at your own photos and figure out why you don’t like them? Is it the composition? The lighting? The colors? Or maybe the clarity of the shot? Ask yourself these questions and once you figure out what it is you don’t like, think about how you can make it better the next time.
How much does software like Photoshop &Aperture come into play when you edit your photos?
I use Adobe Lightroom to process all my photos. It saves a lot of time when you’re processing a bunch of photos, and if you’re shooting your photos in a RAW format, you’ll have a ton of control that will allow you fix most on-camera mistakes after-the-fact. Some might call this cheating, but it’s just another tool in a photographers arsenal to create mouthwatering photos. Photoshop really isn’t necessary unless you plan on editing the photos after you process them in Lightroom.
Have you found any good food presets for Aperture or action sets for Photoshop?
This depends entirely on your lighting setup, so it’s not really possible to make a generic preset that works for everyone. I don’t even use presets because even with the same lights, how I position them, and the settings on the camera change how the settings needed to “fix” them.
Do you ever use any of the pre-set settings on your camera or do you always shoot manually?
I shoot aperture priority because it gives me control over depth of field and I can let the camera figure out the shutter speed to get a proper exposure. If there’s a very challenging lighting situation I will sometimes shoot fully manual, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
What about depth of field? How do you achieve those amazing shots where the food is in focus in the front and a little soft in the back.
The best way to get this effect is by adjusting your aperture. The wider the aperture (small the f number), the narrower the depth of field. Since I tend to shoot without a ton of light, I usually shoot around f2.8 to allow the maximum amount of light into the camera. This also has the desirable side effect of limiting the depth of field, blurring out much of the background. There are lenses that will open up to 1.4 or bigger, but for most food shots, this is a little too narrow and you will end up with a photo that just looks blurry.
Marc, I have tons more questions and I hope we can continue this conversation with my readers who I’m sure will have their own food photography questions.
Thanks again for participating in this interview.