Matt Armendariz: Taste Maker

Although he has built a portfolio filled with beautiful travel, architecture and lifestyle images, Matt Armendariz’s first love is food. It’s the thing that drew him to photography in the first place.

A professional photographer for just five years, Armendariz has 25 years in the food business. He used to work in marketing for large natural food retailers, where, as a designer and an art director, he couldn’t help but notice how much he enjoyed his days in the studio with the photographers who were hired to shoot his projects. Those photographers—every last one of them—were exceptionally generous with their time and knowledge, and they encouraged Armendariz to pursue his interest in photography.

“I jokingly say that I was literally the most annoying person for three years,” he explains. “I carried my camera around everywhere. I was, like, okay, I have an eye for this, I understand light and proportion, but now I need to understand the mechanics of how to take a photo, all the technical aspects. Photographers were so great: ‘Bring your camera, let’s play.’ I was constantly asking them questions. It was almost like the schoolroom for me. They were very generous and helpful and took time to mentor me.”

Armendariz quickly got a handle on the technical aspects of photography and then soon mastered them. He has set a high standard for the subtleties of lighting, in particular. His portfolio is full of natural light, in keeping with the popular aesthetic of bright and airy food photography, yet he manages to give his work a level of polish and precision without taking away from the illusion of reality so many clients are after. That’s the difference, he says, between an amateur and a professional: the ability to create the appropriate aesthetic on demand, even when a shortcut isn’t available.

IMPORTANCE OF PROPS AND STYLING
“No one is ever going to make the same thing look the same. What you realize as a tabletop photographer is that everything we do for the most part exists within this 2×3-foot space. Everything lives there, so every detail becomes magnified and amplifi ed, and it has a lot more signifi cance. It just doesn’t happen accidentally. That doesn’t mean that there’s not beautiful, weird, random moments on the table, and you’re, like,okay, everyone stop, let me photograph this, because that happens, too. But when you’re in the studio, everything has to happen for a reason.”

“In the past two years, I’ve shot a whole rebranding for KFC,” he says, “and I’ve been working with Target. What I’m noticing is, these are the jobs that go to the people who really have the experience. ‘I can take beautiful pictures of food in my house.’ Well, that’s fine, but can you do it with six art directorsaround you, the entire agency, a giant studio and four assistants? Early on, it was, like, it’s great that I know how to harness the power of natural light. But what if I’m out for a job and I really want it, and they’re, like, ‘Our restaurant is in the basement.’ I don’t have the luxury of just saying, ‘Look how beautiful, it was really easy, I just opened the window.’ I’ve got to light it. I’ve got to make it look exactly like why they hired me. And my portfolio is 99% natural light. It’s those moments that split the true professionals from everyone else. And so you absolutely have to know how to do that.”

To simulate natural light with strobes, Armendariz first reverse-engineered his favorite natural-light photographs.

“It was a process of teaching myself,” he says, “because I didn’t know anyone who was shooting food with strobes the way I wanted it to look. If you look at food photography from the ’80s and ’90s, of course, there are nine lights on it with reflectors and it’s so overly lit. I had to take a step back, I had to look at how I liked to shoot—a certain color temperature, a certain direction and a certain intensity. That started my formula. So how can I get that with strobes? I figured out that it takes so much diffusion to get a strobe to be as soft as a window. For me, it’s literally a couple of heads just bounced and diffused and filled. The light source is so far away from my set sometimes. Sometimes, it’s two 8×8 Scrim Jims between the set and the lights, while the lights are still shining into big V-flats. I need this giant, soft, nondirect light coming over everything. And it’s only then that I go back in and shape it, because it’s still pretty flat. So, rather than cut my light, I have to start shaping it, especially when clients say, ‘Oh, we want this very moody, we want the highlights bright, but we want some dark shadows.’ Really, it’s just black flags, black silks, black V-flats, all around. Some foods, you can’t even tell the difference—it makes no difference whether you strobed it or whether it was natural light. Other things really make a huge difference.”

Armendariz says his starting point with any image is determining the story he’s going to tell. Sometimes, it’s a directive provided by the client, other times, it’s a simple narrative he creates just to give direction to the elements in the scene—from the food styling to the props to the lighting. With a story in mind, things fall more naturally into place and the image will read easier for the viewer. It’s like working from a script.

THE MARTHA STEWART EFFECT

“I cooked on her TV show,” recalls Armendariz. “I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t nervous. It’s literally Martha Stewart…. It was the best experience. She was delightful. When somebody like Martha Stewart pulls you aside and says, hey, I picked you personally to be on my show because I like your photography, you’re, like, holy shit, that’s pretty amazing. It was fantastic. And then I think back to what she and everyone who has worked with Martha Stewart, what they’ve done for photography, what they’ve done for food photography specifically. Starting in the late 1990s, they really changed the way we see food, I mean, Martha Stewart specifically. She’s this indirect model for how we see food. And every editor and photo director that has worked with her and has since moved on, they’re the best people in the industry, they all have done this Martha Stewart training. It’s like the Martha Stewart school of publishing. And they’re all phenomenal. She was shooting natural light early on and changing the way we looked at food in these magazines—this combination of amazing typography and graphic design and photography, winning all these awards and changing how we see food. It’s really, really monumental.”

“For me, it’s really all about the story,” Armendariz says. “I love to write; I love to tell a story. There’s no better way to communicate that than with light. When I think of dappled light that’s kind of direct, but maybe gone through some trees, I think of being outside with people, a summer day, that kind of thing. That really drives a shot. To me, if a shot is a departure from the style that I’m used to shooting, the story is even more important.

< strong>HARD LIGHT VS. SOFT LIGHT
“If I’m going to use hard light, it’s almost always going to be natural, because I think hard light with strobe, a bare head, that crosses over a little too much for me.

“I’m not just shooting to make a pretty picture,” he continues. “Many times I do, but in many cases, I’m in the studio, even with natural light, and it’s just not doing what I need it to do to tell the story. And everyone is looking at the monitor, saying, ‘Oh, but it’s a pretty shot.’ Okay, but that’s not good enough. It’s not telling the story. I think that’s the art director in me. I need someone to look at this, spend half a second on it, and for me to really make a point within that first reaction, that, yes, it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon or 7 in the morning or whatever.”

Not all of Armendariz’s stories are written by his clients. He believes in the importance of personal work to keep him creatively sharp. Sometimes, these images even attract new customers.

“Personal shoots have turned into stuff for clients,” he says, “because they’ve seen the images and said, ‘Oh, let’s do that.’ I work on a personal project because I want to tell the story the way I want to do it. When you’re a commercial photographer, of course, you put a lot of yourself into it, but you still have parameters to meet and a message you have to communicate, and it’s somebody else’s message. And you do it, and it’s great, but there are just those moments where you do personal stuff because you want to do it the exact way you want to do it. Maybe I want to do a beach story, or I want to have six models come over and have a pizza party in the backyard. I’m constantly doing that kind of thing.”

CLEAN AND MINIMAL SHOTS, NO STORY
“Sometimes you don’t want to communicate anything, and you want it to be as plain as possible. Not just like throw a seamless down and shoot it, but, you know, so clean and minimal. That speaks to the importance of prop styling; if it’s only going to be two plain white bowls, they better be pretty spectacular one-of-a-kind things if that’s what’s carrying the style, which is supposed to be no style.”

One of Armendariz’s most requested images came from a test shoot. It’s prominently featured on his website, and it was a test collaboration with a prop stylist.

“The image with the hands,” he says, “that was personal. That was testing. Three of us playing. Between food styling and the prop stylist, these moments come together. Like all things, it’s the meeting of the minds, and it’s sometimes greater than you expected, and it’s all because of an accident. But those moments become really important as a business owner because you market yourself with those, or a certain imagespeaks to someone. It’s the one image that’s included every time I get a deck or swipe or something from an ad agency. It’s the single image that they pull of mine, no matter what the job is. Every one. It’s interesting to be hired by clients years later who would never have that style then, but now they’re into that.”

SOMETIMES IMPERFECTION IS BETTER THAN PERFECTION
“It’s usually after we’ve got the shot, where I mess things up a bit where it’s too sterile,” says Armendariz. “It might not be appropriate; some people hate crumbs and they hate messiness. Other people love it. It really all depends. It’s kind of funny. I’m always trying to push my creative limits within reason because there’s really not a lot, the area that food photography lives in is pretty narrow. You can’t take food away too much from food or it becomes something else completely. You know, I could shoot a fashion editorial in the most crazy, tricked-out, conceptual way, and it would really be great. But if you try to apply that to food, it loses what it’s trying to do. It can still be cool, and people do that all the time, but for me, the message, it moves it away from making people want to cook. My job, the big picture, is to getpeople to make what I’m taking pictures of. Or to buy it.”

The importance of personal work is a bit of advice that Armendariz regularly shares with young photographers. Luckily, he says, there are a lot of different ways to make a career in food photography. It’s also quite possibly the easiest photographic discipline to practice on a shoestring budget. It all starts with a passion for food.

Matt Armendariz’s Gear
IN STUDIO:
Phase One 645
Phase One IQ180
Schneider-Kreuznach 120mm LS ƒ/4.0 Macro
Schneider-Kreuznach 80mm LS ƒ/2.8

LOCATION AND TRAVEL:
Canon EOS 5DS
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2 USM
Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 L II USM
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM
Apple MacBook Pro
And always Capture One—always!

“People come to workshops and say, ‘This is what I want to do, but I just don’t know how,'” he says. “People really see food photography as just taking a picture, but it can go in so many different ways. You can report on food culture and go the National Geographic route, or do you want to be a big-time commercial food shooter doing fast food and packaging? The commonality for all of it is that you have got to know how to shoot food six ways from Sunday. You have to know what it does, you have to understand it, you have to know food so well and then you’re already so far ahead. I’ve heard people say, ‘Wow, shooting food is so easy because it doesn’t move.’ But you have to know it inside and out. All the top food photographers that I know, there’s this common thing: Everyone loves to cook and to entertain. And you have to look at the big picture of food. You have to know your subject as well as humanly possible.

“The other thing is to be as good as possible technically,” Armendariz adds.”Shoot all the time. People get into a rut with food photography. ‘Well, I only bake so I only shoot my pastries at home.’ That’s fine, but you just picked the one thing that can never be messedup in a photo. Pastries are beautiful.

Even on a bad day, they’re beautiful. Go and photograph a slab of meat. Go and photograph a butcher. Go shoot Indian food. That’s not to malign an entire region of the world, it’s just hardto photograph. Anything that’s stewed and brown is difficult. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and shoot as much as possible. And not just food. Get out and travel and shoot landscapes and photograph your friends.

“There’s no excuse,” he says. “What if I was rea
lly into shooting expensive cars that were over $350,000? What if that’s what I really wanted to shoot? There aren’t many opportunities to do that. Or what if I only wanted to shoot beautiful models that were over six-feet tall with blond hair in couture gowns? That’s not something you can do all the time, you know? That’s a very specific place to be. But, with food, you can easily practice with lighting, with propping, with angles, that kind of thing.”

See more of Matt Armendariz’s photography at mattarmendariz.com.

PAYING IT FORWARD

Matt Armendariz is happy to make thechallenges of starting a business much less daunting for other photographers. Not only does he share his knowledge with anyone who asks, he also teaches workshops, leads seminars and blogs freely about food and photography. It stems from his early experiences with the commercial photographers who generously showed him the ropes.

“I’m always giving back,” he says, “or trying to, at least. It’s not unusual to find a new photographer shadowing at the studio or a new food stylist. I work with my local community college and always try to have an open line with them should any students have questions about running a photography business or making pictures. It’s literally an open door, and everything I give back always returns tenfold. Almost every week I’m fielding emails from students and new photographers about the world of shooting food, and I do my best to respond to each and every one of them. It’s super-important to pay it forward. Always.”

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