Interview with Food Photography Author, Matt Armendariz

Matt Armendariz is one of my favorite people and my biggest regret it that we live about 6000 miles apart. We’ve had fun trips to Provence and Mexico together, and he even invented a cocktail after me. Although I have to clarify that I invented it, but he gave it wings – and a name. But no one can take credit for the beautiful photography on his site except him. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to spend a few vacations with him, and we’ve also pulled up at the same table more times that I can count (and I’m not complaining!)

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Matt is a self-taught photographer who made a name for himself by shooting light-filled photos of food, amazing portraits, and working with national magazines, major retail stores, and cookbook authors. He’s also been really helpful giving advice to a number of non-professionals (like me) about photography, and his advice is always spot-on and he’s especially good at explaining things that even I can understand. So I’m thrilled that he’s finally written it all up for everyone to benefit from in his book,Food Photography for Bloggers.

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In addition to gorgeous photography (and a few not-so-gorgeous ones to help you see that you see how a subtle change can turn a mediocre photo into something sensational), there are tips about how to shoot food – and chefs – in restaurants, how you can get the best shot by moving the food you’re shooting to find the right light (which isn’t necessarily where we think it is, I learned from teh book), and a chapter on equipment subtitled “Using What Ya Got!” focusing on how to get better shots without buying any additional equipment. I loved reading and seeing in action how just by changing an angle or your perspective, you can dramatically improve the shot, and make the food look extra-enticing.

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I wanted to ask Matt a few questions to share with you. So here we go…

David: Hi Matt. So, first up – what’s a good food photograph, to you?

Matt Armendariz: A good food photograph accomplishes its key goal, depending on whatever that goal is. Is it supposed to make you buy something? Does it inspire you to put the cookbook down and make that recipe on the page? Does it whet your appetite? Does it transport you to the place it was taken and tell part of the story? If so, that’s a good food photograph in my opinion. And of course, if I’m talking technical aspects, a good food photograph is in focus (or deliberately out of focus, as the case may be), visually interesting, strikes a mood or spirit, and makes you hungry.

DL: What makes an unappealing food photograph, to you?

MA: The opposite of above! Ok, seriously though, not really. What makes it unappealing is when there’s no story or no spirit within that frame, when it doesn’t help the subject, when it’s brown gloopy gloppy mess photographed without finesse or intent. And flash.

DL: Unfortunately I have the hardest time shooting melted chocolate. It never looks right (or as good as yours!) What is the hardest thing for you to shoot?

MA: Don’t be too hard on yourself, David! You’re trying to shoot something EXTREMELY reflective, picking up every single light and highlight in your kitchen and it doesn’t help to think that it doesn’t have a shape – it’s molten! But when you get it right, it’s one of the most beautiful things to photograph, ain’t it?

These days I’ve just about shot it all so there’s nothing that sticks out as the hardest thing to shoot. It’s usually unreal conditions and requests that make food difficult to shoot. (“Will you photograph this soufflé in the middle of a lavender field in July with 12 people standing around while a vintage jet with our corporate logo flies overhead?” that kind of thing).

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DL: I had a pretty funny experience food styling a soufflé for one of my books. A friend who is a profession food stylist suggested I add a little yeast, to help keep it up. Unfortunately he didn’t say how much and when I opened the oven door about ten minutes later, my soufflé had risen so high, then curved up and over, then fallen down, that it looked like a caramel Slinky! How many shots does it take you, on the average, to get the one perfect shot that you’re looking for?

MA: It depends. You have to remember that I’m now entering my 5th year as a professional food photographer so I’m able to take fewer photos to get where I need to get when it comes to that perfect food photograph. I understand light, the food’s inherent properties, color theory, style, and the technical aspects of the camera so at this point it really only takes me 3,872 tries to get that perfect shot.

DL: Well, I now I feel better because it takes me 3,873 tries. What trend is food photography should be curbed immediately?

MA: We all used to joke about ribbons tied around cookies and washed out sets, and from that grew this very dark, grey, somber style that’s trickled down from professional stylists and photographers to bloggers. It’s beautiful when done right, but when someone jumps on the bandwagon stylistically it looks drab, sad, and as if you’ve prepared lunch in the metalsmith’s shed.

DL: Someone asked me what kind of camera I used in my Twitterstream, because they liked my photos so much. Another person piped in and said “Why do people assume it’s the camera, and not the photographer?” I normally just send people to my equipment page, but I thought that’s true, that people often think it’s the equipment and don’t consider other factors. What percentage do you think is the equipment, and what percentage do you think is the person behind the camera?

MA: 100% Person. 0% Camera.

I’ll repeat: 100% Person. 0% Camera.

Let me backtrack: Having a great camera and wonderful lenses will get you that much closer to where you want to be, but equipment doesn’t determine what a great photo is. It’s the vision, the intention, the time you spent making that dish in your kitchen, the expertise of the chef, the love and experience that makes the photo.

It’s very easy to get mesmerized by a shallow depth of field with an expensive lens, or the weight of a very hefty camera, but that’s never what makes a great photo. Again, it’s the vision of the person behind the camera. That’s what it’s all about.

Matt Armendariz Holiday Meal with Dani and Adam

DL: What’s the one piece of equipment, other than your camera, that you insist on having with you on a photo shoot?

MA: My Passport Color Checker. It’s a small little portable “book” with color swatches inside that give you a neutral color point when you photograph it next to your subject for post-processing. For example, say I’m photographing aïoli in Southern France that you made for dinner, and the light is changing in intensity and color. I simply take a photo after I’m done of the color swatches next to the dish so that later I can get the proper, real-world color in Photoshop.

I photograph with many different cameras (Sigma, Canon, Hasselblad) in many different lighting conditions (strobe, natural light, studio, outdoors) so color accuracy is crucial for me and for what I do.

DL: Yes, I remember seeing you with that color card and telling me that I should get one. But you didn’t offer to give me yours, so you must like it more than me. I’ll get over it soon, but in the meantime, what’s the one object that has nothing to do with photography that you insist on having with you on a photo shoot? (And don’t mention the thong, please.)

MA: Great question! Can I give you a few? Thanks David.

1) Music. (Sometimes very quiet, other times it’s blasting bad 80’s or lots and lots and lots of R&B.)

2) A great notebook and my trusty Pilot Hi-Tec-C .04 Millimeter Pen. (I take tons of notes during photo shoots!)

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DL: You must get a gazillion questions about food photography, which is probably the reason you wrote this book, to share that knowledge with others. What tips in the book are the most important ones that you wanted to share?

MA: I wanted to stress that anyone and everyone can make photography a part of their lives. If I had a dollar for every “Oh I really suck at photography!” I’d be rich. In no point in history has photography been more accessible than it is today, so I want people to know that with practice it can be accomplished and that you can create beautiful photos for yourself. Oh, and that natural light is your friend. Use it. Use it often.

DL: I like that your “voice” is so present in the book, as well as on MattBites. It’s just like having you right there, telling me what to do. Speaking of wishing you were here, teaching me how to take better pictures, in Paris, the winter light can be flat and gray. And even harder, by late afternoon, it’s nearly dark. What can someone do in my situation, where natural light isn’t ideal or present, to get a good shot?

MA: For starters, I want to apologize that you must deal with Paris. How utterly terrible that must be, all that history and style and culture and amazing architecture and cheese. But if you’re in Paris in the wintertime – or Alaska or even Seattle – a tripod and color card (or 18% grey card or White Balance device, whatever) will be your best friend for two reasons. One, it’ll allow you to use longer exposures to take advantage of what little light you have; you can’t hold a camera in your hand for too long without it being blurry and a tripod solves that! Second, if you use a desk lamp since it’s dark (it’s totally possible!) you’ll want to be able to balance the color temperature properly so that it doesn’t look like harsh bright yellow light on your food.

DL: Okay, I’m going to ask for one of those color cards for my next birthday (hint, hint.) However I do sometimes resort to using a Speedlight flash, and find the results are pas mal, as we say in Paris. You often write on your blog that you eat most of the things that have been in front of your camera. I know from being on set of food photo shoots there are sometimes things that aren’t supposed to be consumed. Have you ever goofed and eaten something you shouldn’t have?

MA: Yes, I have eaten things that the stylist told me not to eat because they were using it for another shot or needed to hold every dish until the very end when we wrapped for the day (it’s very normal to do that just in case). I just apologize profusely, pretend I didn’t know, and move on. But for the most part I always ask just in case the ingredients were bad (ancient oil used for frying or reeeeallllly old past-dated condiments, etc).

I did make the mistake of jumping into a beautiful avocado salad once, only to find halfway through that the avocados had been soaked in vodka to stop them from oxidizing for the photo. No, you don’t get that Bloody Mary thing at all but a really terrible, disgusting taste. I don’t recommend it.

DL: I’ll take you word for it on those vodka-soaked avocados, and keep them separate from now on. I love the section of your book on “What are you trying to say?” I see so many photos that are perfect and lovely, but there’s something missing. Pretty is nice, but I like seeing how people actually cook and bake, and the process, in addition to just a beautiful shot. Do you strive to “tell a story” (which I suppose is similar to “what are you trying to say?”) with a picture? If so, how do you achieve that?

MA: I always strive to say something, even if the message is blank and just for aesthetics. Photography is just another form of communication and sharing, like writing or painting. And sometimes I’m just relaying the message from the subject to the viewer. But it always starts with an internal question: “What am I trying to say?”

Most of the time the discussions on set are actually about this, as I’ll say “sure the food looks fantastic and the set is amazing, but is it saying what it needs to say?” This drives what I do over and over again. That’s the communicator in me.

DL: Speaking of blogs, what attracts you to a food blog? (In addition to a “hot” profile pic – okay, just kidding!) Is it the photos, the personality of the author, the recipes, or something else?

MA: It’s a combination of everything, but mostly the personality of the author. All the beautiful photos in the world don’t matter if the author isn’t enjoyable to me. And I know how to cook so I can forgive unbuttoned up recipes for the most part. Blogs ask us as readers to invest a significant amount of time in reading them, so I have to like the person putting it together.

DL: I know a lot of people who think being a photographer is sexy. Have you ever had a sexy experience on the set of a food shoot?

MA: I run a photography studio, not a restaurant, David! But I did have a woman flash her boobies at me at a culinary conference once. And just last week a hooker tried to solicit me in Las Vegas. Seriously. Does that count?

DL: Not sure if that counts or not. But I do remember the boobie incident, although you must have had too many cocktails that night at the conference…because – um, that was me. Speaking of which, what’s your favorite cocktail?

MA:The Lebovitz Isle.

Followed by anything with citrus.

DL: When can I have one with you?

MA: Not soon enough. How about Paris in the fall? Or maybe somewhere on a tropical beach? I’ll bring the Champagne, you bring the thong.


Thanks Matt for taking the time to chat, and sharing your secrets of great food photography, as well as a few of my secrets (including my preferred choice of swimwear!)

Check out Matt’s book, Food Photography for Bloggers and visit him at MattBites, and follow him on Twitter @mattarmendariz.

(All photos on this post courtesy and copyright of Matt Armendariz, except for the picture of us in New York, eating – of course.)

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