OFFICIAL LIVE BLOG – Session #3 (2:30-3:45 pm), Visuals Track: "Advanced Photography"

Session Description:

Joining Matt Armendariz will be Lara Ferroni, a BlogHer returnee after rocking BlogHer '07 as part of that event's Food Photography session. These professional food photographers...both of whom use home studios and are happy to eat the food they photograph!...will be at your service to take your photography to a new level.

Session liveblog:

Matt: Even though this session is advanced, it's for everyone. It won't be too technical.


He shoots for restaurants, advertising, magazines (like Culture, a new cheese magazine).


I blog at Cook & Eat and Still Life With. When I started I thought it was going to be about the writing but it quickly turned into being about the photography. When I started there wasn't much out there for what I wanted, so I started Still Life With to create a community about more natural styling and how you learn to do this at home. I became a pro photog out of all this; I wasn't pro when I started blogging. Now I shoot cookbooks, mags, websites, doing some authoring (writing a doughnut cookbook!). I'm also developing software and was at Microsoft for 9 years. Just shot a taco cookbook ("Tacos") that had really great recipes, by Sasquatch, coming out in October.

Matt: She makes the food, art directs, styles,
and then eats everything. Awesome!

Lara: My style is kind of "that moody look: these days. I shot at The Art of The Pie in Seattle, a workshop by a gluten and dairy intolerant woman who know her pie but can't eat any! Tragic!


Lara: I shoot with a Canon 5 MkII. My "desert island lens" would be the 100mm 2.8 macro; I love that lens!
iMac INtel Core 2 Duo 2.4 Ghz running Tiger
ColorVision Spyder
100mm 2.8 macro, 90mm 2.8 tilt/shift, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8, 24-105mm L
Canon eyepiece extender will save you with depth of field - called an "angle finder"
Manfrotto legs, RRS ballhead w/quick release
Strobist Pro 2 Light Set (
Adobe Lightroom (Or Capture One)
Adobe Photoshop CS4
FileChute ( for filesharing
Crappy Canon inkjet printer

Q: Is Lightroom 2 a lot better?

Lara: Yes, I recommend upgrading; there aren't too many more features but feels more stable. I also use Bridge, which is just a part of Photoshop.

Matt: I use FileChute too. It's shareware.


Mac Laptop
Canon 5D MkII or 1DS Mark II
100 mm 2.8 macro, 50mm 1.4, 24-105mm L
Profoto 600W Strobe, PocketWizards (though I prefer natural light)
Flex Color
Digital Photo Pro
Adobe Photoshop CS4

Matt: I don't use Photoshop a lot because Digital Photo Pro or other camera software will let you use basic editing now and often that's all I need. Sometimes I'll rent a monster Hasselblad camera for certain gigs but it makes me nervous.


* Preproduction meeting with publisher to review recipes and look for issues. Get basic look and feel ("Like Martha" or whatever.

- Lara will call out things like: Are the dishes too similar? Are dishes ugly? Can we find ingredients? Are there alternates? Are they the best recipes? Most people won't cook it if it lacks a photo so the recipes should be the best, the easiest to find ingredients for.

* Plan out the shooting schedule (~ 1 week to style and shoot 20 finished dish shots; between 3 and 5 shots per day)

- Group recipes by similar ingredients for efficient shopping
- Note the time each recipe takes. Each day has a mix of long/short recipes.
- Hard stuff goes in the middle (easy shots at beginning and end to start positively and finish easy)
- Create shopping list for groceries and props

* Shop

- Special props come first
- Groceries the morning of the first day (and usually a trip every other day)

* Cook

- No tricks, just follow the recipe
- Make notes for the author on what worked/didn't (sometimes the recipes haven't been tested yet)

Lara: I don't think about plating until I start cooking. That's my workflow; I don't recommend it. I try to have my batteries and stuff ready to go, but I do wing it as I go based on what the food tells me. Sometimes I WILL go into it with a plan and the food does not want to do that. You have to think on your feet and problem-solve.

* Prop & Style

- Think about the styling as the dish is being cooked; rarealy before unless it requires special propping
- Get garnishes from the garden at the last possible minute

* Shoot

- Tether my camera to my desktop (or laptop) so I can see the shots I'm getting -- ALWAYS
- Get one good shot before I take alts
- Shoot from a few different angles and then start to tear into the food for a different look or just start eating it
- Flag the shots I like in Lightroom

Lara: I tend to like the more interactive shots.

* Correct & Deliver

- Minimal correx (simple color/exposure) in Lightroom
- Deliver edits; get feedback


* Just lots of meetings before the shoot

- Preproduction meeting with ad agency
- Preproduction meeting with client and ad agency
- Review ad campaign
- Meet with food stylist and prop stylist to review shots, recipes and prop selection (sometimes with client or agency too)

* Day of shoot: I show up and shoot, then that's it. I have no control like Lara but then I don't have to see it again after shoot oftentimes.


Color management is crucial on advertising jobs. The clients are extremely particular so we take steps to calibrate our monitors and check color balance, temperature and exposure with almost every single frame. It changes so quickly when using natural light -- clouds, temperature; almost every shot in a new setup has to be color managed.

Lara: Spyder makes sure your monitor is color calibrated. Your monitor can actually color-shift over time. It will make your pictures better.


Matt: Both Lara and I have a ton of props and have fun going shopping. I need to it b/c client dictates palettes and materials. We love this Australian ceramic company called MUD. The scale of these plates is a little smaller; they're thinner, they're available in different colors. They're stylish but they don't take over the food. They are custom and take time.

Lara: My studio's a mess; messy is my style. I've decided. Unfinished linens (cut fabric yardage) are cheaper; you don't usually show an edge. Napkins are an exception and most napkins are too big. Invest in some really nice finished cocktail napkins. Plates and napkins should be small. Look for alternate uses for things. I have a little white tray that's actually a stove burner cover that I flipped.

Lara: Quickly, as it came up in previous sessions, I'd like to talk about UGLY FOOD. Here's a pic of a lump of gray ugly salmon pate on a plate. Ugh. But I put it on little toasts, with a fennel front and on a pretty wooden board, and suddenly it looks like something you'd want to eat. Always ask yourself, what would look beautiful about this food? What do I have? What is it?


Matt: We all take clips of inspirations.

Lara: did the quince cover from Gourmet and the whole alphabet series. I love his warmth and use of light and dark.

Lara: - I could look at his persimmion forever. By the way: Currants ALWAYS photograph well. Take a picture of a current; it will help your self-esteem.

Lara: - golden fries in a cold metal container with saltcellar and spoon; I love.

Lara: - a prop stylist that really inspires me.

Lara: Magazine inspiration:

- Anything Australian including Donna Hay
- Elle a Table
- Maison Cote
- Gourmet
- Sunset
- Country Living
- Real Simple
- Martha Stewart

A few good places to splurge: Horne, Three Potato Four, farmhouse wares
Bargains: CB2 and Crate and Barrel, West Elm (curtains), Pottery Barn sales racks, Anthropologie back corner, IKEA, thrift stores, yard sales, sometimes eBay.


Just a bedroom in her house
Vellum taped over the windows
Large white bounce on the side.
Small piece of foam core to minimize burst
Bottles & tissue add additional diffusion
No bounce keeps it kind of moody
Large bounce behind sheer curtain to keep the rest of the studio out of the shot


Mirrors bounce light back on to the "hero"
- to show every single ingredient on a burger, eg
Pocket wizard


Shooting with strobes is just like with a window but with far more control. I shoot with natural mostly; it's free and a great learning point. But you know, nobody would pay for natural light it's so changeable. A good strobe is just like natural light.

Use 2 shoe mount flashes with umbrellas:

- one to the side and slightly to the front
- one to the side and slightly to the back

Shoe mount flash advantages:

- lightweight
- relatively inexpensive
- no wires!

Shoe mount disadvantages:

- low power
- so-so battery life
- smallish light source

Matt: I don't like using strobes I'm always fighting it but I've figured it out. I have lots of space and like to diffuse. I'll shoot my light through a big giant scrim with a faraway table to light up an entire area, like a big big window.

Lara: You can make a vellum frame to put in front of the shoe mount flash too.


A variety of fast lenses
- something wide, something telephoto
- macro
- 2.8 or better is ideal

Tripod is great to have just in case

Diffusion material
- yes full sunlight is sometimes too much!

Extra (charged!) batteries, compact flash


For shooting indoors with available non natural light, B&W can be your friend in high ISO because it looks better grainy than color does; high shutter speed.

For shooting indoors in very low light, tripod is a necessity

With lots of natural light in restaurants, it can be too much; you need the diffusion material.

Chef's platings can be challenging; they don't understand frame size of camera; they'll put 6 different componenents on a plate. Sometimes you have to keep turning the plate, turning the plate, rather than mess with the chef's choices (and risk annoying the chef).

There are no retakes when you shoot real people in real situations. Sometimes you get nice light, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you don't even get electricity. Big time chefs don't like waiting and posing. A good fast lens and high ISO will save you!


Try new things

- Change your angle: Shoot from your preferred vantage point and then move: directly overhead, straight into, 3/4, left, right, close-in, backed out.

- Try the shot with different lighting. Add or take away a bounce. Add a black card. Try a mirror.

- Always take a few shots after you've "gotten" your shot.

- Recreate a photo you love. Try to match the look and feel of the styling and props. Notice the highlights & shadows to understand where the light is. Notice the depth of field. It's harder than you think but a great technical exercise.

- Practice: Deborah Jones who did the French Laundry cookbook told me: Take a subject and shoot it for 5 minutes. Then change somjething and shoot it for 5 minutes again. Repeat as long as you possibly can. If you force yourself to continue you'll stumble on something else.

- Don't be afraid to fail.

Challenge yourself to understand your camera, focus, framing.

- Play with your f/stop! A highly selective focus doesn't always make a food photo worthy.

- Learn to read a histogram. It sounds technical but will let you see your images objectively, not "looking" at the subject but the graphical representation of light and data. It's a pain but it really helps, expecially if you want to know where you're over- or underexposed that don't have huge spikes on either end. Sometimes the camera looks fine and the histogram shows all the spikes on one side which show exposure issues.

- Shoot tethered. You can see exactly what the image will be as you take it, so you'll have a better understanding of aperture and exposure settings (plus you know you'll have the shot)

Get feedback

- Ask for a critique from someone you respect

- Post your photos to one of the many food photography groups on flickr, ask for critique and make sure you offer critique. Both will help you improve. Look for groups focused on critique.

Food Photography Club (
Still Life With (

Just do it

- Volunteer to do work with a small biz: producer or resto. They work with you to make the food look great

- Invite a photographer whose work you love to coffee or "fly on the wall" opportunity (Lara did this with Matt)

- Contact a food or prop stylist in your area and ask if they're willing to test with you. They'll get portfolio shots and you'll get experience of working with pros or even just the experience of observing.


How do I get started?

- Find a local mag and submit an interesting story with photos (Lara did this). If it's good they'll ask for more.

- Create an online gallery or portfolio that showcases your best work. Doesn't hae to be expensive; goal is to have a central resource to show others what you do so they don't have to comb your blog (Matt's first break)

- Find a new restaurant or producers and offer to shoot a "starter" set of photos for free

- Ask to photograph a grower at your local farmers' market so they have a great shot for themselves to use if needed

- Look into microstock sites (iStockPhoto, ShutterStock). Search for unusaual foods and shoot what's underreprsented.

- "Assign" yourself a photo. Think about it from a photographer's point of view and as if you're working with someone else. This could be a weekend recipe, a small getaway, a series on farmers, etc. Put yourself in someone's shoes as a photographer. It will teach you how a project works and someone mahy see it.

How to charge

- Creative or production fees: for time, energy, expertise. Sometimes by the recipe, sometimes by the hour

- License fees: profit. Based on USE. How much are advertisers paying to be on a page? What's a fair amount if my photo takes up the page? You need to figure it out where you're comfortable. Pricing's a big issue; there's no standard.

- Discounts for new clients, small biz etc. I waive the license fee for small businesses, they deserve to have good photos too. Make sure they understand it's a NEW client discount so they understand your value.

Figuring out the $$

- Fotoquote ( - good software will show you the running ad rates and distribution for magazines. Under $100
- Web tools for estimating - they'll spit a low and high number

"Can I use your photo for my publication?"

- If you want to go pro, say no to requests from commercial enterprises. You won't get more work from it and it will reduce the value of the image for future uses. Plus, why let them make money off your work? San Pellegrino is notorious for this.

- I donate images for nonprofits or class projects, cause I'm nice.

Matt: I work with an agent, which takes away the issue of determining price.


Q: Difference between Adobe CameraRaw and Lightroom?

Lara: I don't use CameraRaw, it's a plugin for Photoshop. But Lightroom is like Bridge and CameraRaw combined; it's good for organizing. But they're the same kind of software for correcting raw files.

Q: What was the rubiks cubey chart of color squares on the color-corrected avocado slide you showed earler?

Matt: Put the card in. I use it for gray correction. Shoot raw. Open it in imaging software. With the eyedropper tool click on the gray.

Q: I have problem with Photoshop on my Mac and have tried everything. The picture looks different when I load on my blog, is it the different between PC & Mac?

Lara: Yes AND browser problems. I go all the way down to generic RGB for something on my blog because it looks the most similar, but there's always going to be color shift between browsers and as we mentioned monitors aren't always color calibrated. Worse on reds and greens. I have an article about it on StillLifeWith but it's not perfect.

Matt: Let go, let god.

Q: I have Lightroom and love it but have trouble - it disorganized all my photos, I can't work out the best pipeline and everything's labeled 2009. Do you have recommendations for where to read about how to best organize?

Lara: When I shoot tethered I have everything go into one folder and import into one place, then create a different folder that I drag them into. I don't create a specific folder for each job, just import into into the autoimport folder THEN create the folders I want.

Matt: I use Aperture for batch edits. I have my job that's burned and put away; Aperture will reference those files but never touches them, they just create a version. Start from the bottom; it might be too difficult to redo everything.

Q: Can you talk about how publications expect to receive files? I want to deliver correctly; confusing about how much editing I do on my side. Is there a standard?

Matt: No. It helps to ask how they want it, what it's for (web or print), do they have any color profiles, those are absolutely OK.

Lara: They do have naming conventions they want you to use usually. Usually TIFF in Adobe RGB.

Q: You're both using full frame sensor; what's the difference between them and crop sensors?

Lara: I like full frame sensor, I shot with crop sensor for a long time; you definitely have to adjust when you move over. You have to get used to a change in your depth of field.

Q: You both said you're self-taught. Did you take any classes?

Lara: I won the class with Heidi on Menu for Hope one year. She did a portfolio critique for me and that really opened my eyes to what I was doing well and what I wasn't. The Food Fanatics class is great for food styling.

Matt: I'd been art directing food shoots for 10 years before photography so that was my class.

Q: What's the difference between strobe light and constant light with diffuser?

Matt: It's just constant, the biggest diff is the temperature of the light, lights that are always on have a different color spectrum.

Lara: You can stop motion with a strobe. YOu can stop some motion with a really fast shutter speed but most stop motion is done with strobe.

Lara: It's easier with constant light for sure.

Q: I hear about tilt/shift lenses. Can you explain what they do?

Matt: It's a lens that moves up and down and right and left, originally used to correct perspective; works the way a lot of large-format cameras do. It allows you to change your plane of focus so that you can shift things around not just through the f/stop. They're a lot of fun.

Lara: A lot of mag food shots are done with tilt shift. If you see something where top of pie is in focus but bottom is soft, it's tilt shift as opposed to front/back depth of field.

Q: Have you done anything about using various lenses?

Lara: If I haven't done anything on the same shot with different lenses, I will. All my lenses are Canon.

Q: What do numbers mean on lenses?

Lara: First number is focal length, like 50 or 100 or 35. Has to do if it's telephoto or wide; how much fits into the frame. 100mm makes far away look bigger; 35mm will be wide and shallow.

Next number is f/number: 1.4, 4.0: has to do with the aperture to control depth of field. There's no "always set here" -- you have to spend time to understand how it works. Most lenses only go to 4.0; if you have 1.4 you'll get more flexibility.

Q: Do you print your own work out and hang it on your own walls?

Matt: I can't STAND looking at my own work. It's done, I don't want to see it. I like what I do but I can't stop thinking about it.

Lara: My husband bought me a thing where a great printmaker would print one of my photos; it took me a YEAR to talk to him. Finally we did it; 3-4 months ago it was ready; I haven't picked it up yet.

Matt: IF it's of a moment, or friend or family yes; food shots, no.


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