An Afternoon at the Studio with Matt Armendariz
25 Aug 2006

Tucked into a little neighborhood along the western edge of Route 66 is a place... a magical place. A place where memories of meals and moments are captured. It's full of the nicest people you could meet, all working tirelessly to make picture perfect dishes. And I got to join it for a couple of days. As you can imagine, I was pretty much in heaven.
The leader of this whole gang is Matthew Armendariz, of Matt Bites as I think I've noted here a few times is one of my favorite bloggers. He's at his "day job" art directing a holiday catalog shoot for Bristol Farms, a California speciality food chain. Despite the fact that I'm about an hour late due to complete ignorance of the ways of Los Angeles traffic patterns, I'm greeted with a big smile and a hug and shuffled in to meet the crew. There are food stylists, prop stylist and photographers all up to their elbows preparing for the day's shots... several gift baskets which keeps Laurie, the prop stylist, on her toes trying to find ways to make each basket look unique and a summer lobster meal with all the appropriate summery fair like fresh corn on the cob.
I am dumbstruck by all the gear and props... table after table of glassware and plates, rolls of paper and cloth backdrops, piles of cutting boards, beautifully distressed chairs and tables that look straight out of a Donna Hay photo shoot, a whole kitchen full of cooking implements and food stuffs, and a digital back medium format camera I'd give my left eye for (but not my right one, because then it would be harder to use). I'm just giddy at the sight of it all, so instead of grilling Matt with questions about how he got started in the business or who is favorite photographers are, I just sit back and take it all in... watching the workings and listening the to the stories that people, working closely together (and doing so in such a happy and fun working environment) inevitably tell. The conversation bounced from celebrity chat to working in the food marketing industry to delightfully bawdy tales of food styling. Bawdy? Food styling? Yep... Like the time that Beth was food styling for television and was asked to make gnocchi that looked like, well, balls. She made 3 different versions, from abstract to all-to realistic to the delight of the director (they went with the realistic ones!). Or Cindie's special sushi. She got to pick the gender and said that salmon makes a very good proximity. And then of course, through the laughter, somehow the lobsters ended up in the trash can. Yep, we even had our very own Annie Hall moment. Cindie and Beth rescued the lobsters... well, can you call it rescuing them if you are just putting them into a big pot of boiling water... and the shoot continued.
The photo setup was stunningly simple, and other than scale, really not all that different than what I have at home. Everything is shot in all natural light. The studio has a huge garage door, with faux French Doors placed in front. The windows of the doors are lined with frost... a thick semi-transparent vellum which lets in the most beautiful diffuse light. The amount of light can easily be controlled by opening and closing the garage door. Ten foot moveable bounce "walls" are also set around to help fill light on the sides and front. A white painted rustic table is placed between the camera and the doors, and then it's dressed to fit the mood of the photo. Props are moved in and out or around between each shot to find the best placement. This is particularly easy to do because the camera is tethered to a Mac and 23 inch display that any blogger would be completely jealous of. Each shot is studied in Capture One by Jon (the photographer) and Matt to make sure it's right or to figure out what to futz with next. The result of this setup is that by the end of the photo shoot, Matt knows that he has exactly the photos he needs. This of course brought up horror stories of the bad old days working with film in which entire shoots had to be redone because the wrong film was in the camera.
The next day was even more food and some holiday florals for the catalog... but we got to start with a trip to the farmer's market to try, oddly enough, to find some non-seasonal produce to use as props in the late harvest type shots. Of course, this is California, so you can pretty much buy anything... and we were lucky enough to stumbled on a few tables that had already started selling late-season pumpkins and pomegranates. The Santa Monica farmer's market is definitely a food photographers dream street. If you ever get a chance, go and take a camera. Even better, take someone who is as into food photography as you are. What a fantastic experience to have someone else there that "gets it." Matt, Beth and I all oohed and ahhed over all the heirloom tomatoes, the stacks of gorgeous carrots and the piles upon piles of flowering herbs. We loaded up the market cart, and only stopped when we had run out of cash. Then it was back to the studio for more holiday shots... the Turkey Thanksgiving and the Christmas feast with rack of lamb, a ham and a prime rib.
Cindie had been working on the turkey since early that morning, cooking and browning just enough to be picture perfect (but, like most styled food, not actually edible) and it was gorgeous. Each dish is carefully styled on the selected plates (although sometimes later moved to different plates), sprayed with liberal amounts of Pam and water to keep it looking fresh and moist, and then carefully wrapped up with paper towels and plastic wrap until it is needed on the set.
With all this food goodness and photography going around, Matt was kind enough to lend me a tripod and bit of studio space to shoot some on my own. While a bit intimidated by all the professionals, I hankered down in a corner to use up some of the beautiful light that was coming in through the naturally frosted windows in the building.
In between shots of figs and strawberries, I managed to get a few of Matt doing his thing... snapping a few photos, futzing with the turkey to get it just right, working with Laurie on candle placement.
I also learned a few other random tidbits throughout the days:
  • Windex is great for keeping bugs off of food when shooting outdoors. It also is useful in getting "oyster fleas" off of oysters... I'm not sure what those are, but they sound gross.
  • It's very, very easy to make your own bounce. Just find two pieces of styrofoam and tape them together. The studio's small bounce were two 3 foot by 1 foot pieces crudely taped together with some white printer paper taped on one side... and they were light weight and amazingly effective at providing beautiful subtle fill light.
  • If you are shooting beer, and need it to have a head, try one of these air dusters. Just put the straw down in the beer and blow. Since it just shoots air, so you can still drink the beer, but it adds beautiful foam.
  • There is a right direction to photograph a turkey. Don't have the legs pointing at you, or you'll end up with a pretty funny smile. Green mussels are also apparently photographically directional.
In then end, I didn't quite get the interview I had planned... but I got more of an experience that I could have possibly asked for, and I discovered something even more valuable... nothing teaches like first hand on the job experience. My recommendation to anyone interested in learning more about food photography - find a food stylist, photographer or art director and see if you can shadow them for a day. You'll learn more in an afternoon than you could learn in weeks of a class room or dozens of books. And, if you are lucky enough to have someone as fantastic as Matt, you will definitely be back for seconds. (Thanks Matt!) (Photos from my days at Matt's studio are here. I'm not quite done with all of them yet ,but they will be trickling up through the next week.) Technorati Tags: , , ,


(In case you were wondering, I am an Amazon affiliate, and purchases from links in this post to Amazon may earn me a nickel or two... so thanks!).

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