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Michael Ray: Professional Food Photographer

Professional Food Photographer, Michael Ray 

 

My Name is Michael Ray

There are basically two sub genres of food photography. There’s editorial food photography and advertising food photography. And the difference is in editorial food photography you are trying to sell magazines; it’s more about making a pretty picture. Where advertising food photography you are trying to sell that “blank” – whatever it is in front of your camera, you’re trying to sell that.
So it’s a different type of photography and I am the advertising type. 

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Michael Ray is a successful commercial food photographer based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His extensive client list includes, but is not limited to, Heinz, Ocean Spray, Sara Lee, Jose Cuervo, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Subway, and Weight Watchers, and his successful career has spanned over 3 decades, beginning in the 1980s. His eye and drive for technical perfection and his unique lighting techniques create beautiful and mouth watering photographs.

We had a chance to interview Michael via phone and throughout the conversation Michael expressed the realities of what it takes to be a successful food photographer among other interesting insights. We hope you enjoy this detailed yet intriguing and informational interview.

 

 

Photigy Interview with Michael Ray 

When did you decide to become a photographer? Can you name a moment in time when it clicked in your mind and you realized that photography was more than a hobby, but a passion?

I think I knew I wanted to be a photographer back in the second grade. There was something called “finding your orbit” and that was one of the careers I selected. To be honest with you I don’t know if I’ve really ever had a passion for photography. It’s been sort of my job. When I go on vacation I usually don’t take my camera with me. I’ll take shots of my kids or I’ll take my point and shoot. I think I’m a little unusual like that, where it’s really not my passion.

 

 

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What is your passion if you don’t mind us asking?

My motorcycles are my passion. I have hobbies. Don’t get me wrong, I get into it [photography]. You have to be somewhat driven to be good at anything. It’s not the kind of thing that drives me. I know some photographers that it’s all they think about and that’s all they do. That’s not all I think about think about or all I do. I like to go hunting. My motorcycles are important to me.
I’m actually playing around with video right now it’s what’s taking up my spare time thoughts. I’m kind of moving in that direction. Don’t get me wrong. I really love photography, but it’s not what drives me.

 

 

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In terms of photographic genres, what made you pursue food photography?

It sort of matched up with a skill-set of mine. I knew when I was going to school, I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburg, I realized that I was drawn to meticulous lighting. Product photography was something I was interested in. Making sure everything was separated from everything and making sure you could see the shape really well, I was really into that. Food photography was just like a natural progression.

I actually hate product photography now.I used to work at a catalogue house in Chicago, so maybe I OD’ed on it there, but catalogue photography is always based on “well how many shots will you get done today” and you never really get to do it as well as you want to, because there is always a timeline and always a time schedule involved.
And it’s one of those things where I really started to hate product photography, but it seems like for food photography it’s more of an event, we have four shots to do today.

You never hear that in product photography. It’s always like how many can you bang out today to make money. Where food photography is much more time consuming and that time that is spent, the food stylist plays for it a long time, while that food stylist is playing I’m playing. So I sort of get more time to refine the shot and that’s what I really enjoy. To answer your question my skillset sort of dovetails right into food photography.

 

 

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When you dive into your food photography, what influences how you take your shots, the inspiration behind each shot is it more directed by a creative director or art director, or do you have a little more leeway on how you style the food and take photographs of the food?

There are basically two sub genres of food photography. There’s editorial food photography and advertising food photography. And the difference is in editorial food photography you are trying to sell magazines; it’s more about making a pretty picture. Where advertising food photography you are trying to sell that “blank” – whatever it is in front of your camera, you’re trying to sell that.
So it’s a different type of photography and I am the advertising type.
It’s a real team. For the kind of work I do, usually the art director is there, there’s a food stylist, the food stylist has an assistant, and sometimes we have another kind of stylist that is kind of a food stylist assistant, but she sort of works the set to some degree.

A lot of times the art director’s client shows up to the shoot. So it’s a real team work type of thing, if you are a prima donna you won’t last really long in this career, because you have to please all those other people to some extent. You can be a prima donna and state “we’re going to do it my way” and you’ll find that you won’t have any clients tomorrow.

 

 

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In food photography, the photographer really never touches the food. He’s more in charge of the lighting and the angle, which is a lot of times dictated by the art director. A lot of times the client comes in with a layout. You are there to make that drawing into a photograph as much as possible. That’s not all the time; the more fun jobs actually give you a little more leeway.

They come in with a rectangle. They know the sign they have to do is X by Y, so you have a dimension that you need to create a pretty picture in and you have to sell that “steak” inside that 6 by 9 or whatever size dimension you are trying to fill. There’s a lot of creativity there and it’s not always dictated by the client and there’s always a lot of decisions to be made along the way.

There is a lot of creativity involved that process, it’s not like “oh ok what are we going to shoot today” a lot of it is determined already.

 

 

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What type of camera do you shoot with?

I use an Arca Swiss 6 by 9 view camera. Some people would call that large format some people would call it a medium format. But it’s a view camera with a digital back on it. I also shoot 35mm occasionally probably three percent of the time for food. I have a Nikon D800, D700, D3 and I have a tilt shift lens that really works out well for food photography.

Most of the time I use the Arca Swiss view camera with Schneider lenses, which all of my lenses are really old. As a matter of fact, 3 or 4 of them are out for repair for shutter damage. It’s an interesting mix because it’s old technology with new technology. You have the view camera which is technology from the 1800s with a modern day digital back on it – you get the tilt and swing and all the control of the view camera with a 112mb file I get out of it.

 

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Continuing down the equipment train of thought, what is your favorite light modifier and why would you consider that your favorite?

Well it’s not a really a light modifier. My favorite light is a Fresnel spot. It’s my signature light and it makes my photography what it is. It’s a strobe (I shoot flash) I call it my “big ten inch”, they don’t even make them anymore. It’s a 10’’ Fresnel spot by Norman and there are other companies that make similar products.

The Fresnel spot, what’s nice about that is not so much its focusing ability, but what it does is it projects a light that is pretty crisp, the shadow is a crisp shadow, it’s like using a bare bulb, but the light doesn’t bounce around the whole studio. It just kind of goes where I want it to go and what I like about that is I can use mirrors to reflect light back where I want it, but because the shadow is so crisp, I can get very accurate with those mirrors, and I can put light pretty much anywhere I want it.

You have the main light casting shadow, but I can kick light back from that reflection, back into the product. It’s sort of my signature and it’s what I base my style on.

 

 

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How important in your workflow is post production do you do your own post production or do you have a retoucher that helps in that part of the process?

I know a lot of photographers are really into post production. There’s another photographer I know and I respect him, I think he’s a very good photography, and somehow I got this email or I saw somewhere online where he was giving a webinar (and one of the things you have to realize about photographers is – I don’t know what other people do and they don’t know what I do specifically, because it’s not like “hey come over to my studio and steal my ideas” it just doesn’t happen like that), but this guy was giving a seminar.

I’ve always liked his work, I met this guy a long time ago, and we actually went to a workshop together, a workshop on creativity. I met this guy and it was even before we were both into food photography. We’ve kept in touch a little a bit, anyways he gave this webinar and I’ve always liked his work and he does some nice stuff, I don’t think he’s extraordinary, but he does some really nice stuff and he’s very successful. He has, from what I hear, got a gorgeous studio, and he has a team of people that he works with.

One of the people he works with is a retoucher and they are on staff and that’s unheard of in my market in Pittsburg- there are just not staffs for photographers. For myself I hire a freelance assistant when I need them. For most food jobs I hire a freelance assistant and there’s a food stylist. Usually food stylists are not staff people and they are usually brought in. So this photographer has a full-time assistant and full-time retoucher and I knew that ahead of time.
When I saw his webinar he was nice enough to show the before and after stuff and it just blew me away – Here’s some really really mediocre photography in my opinion, but his retoucher was able to snazz it up to a point where it looked really really good.

 

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There’s another photographer in town in my market in Pittsburg, PA, a photographer that is ok and we compete a lot. I don’t think he’s a great lighter, but he’s a great retoucher – he sort of makes up for his deficiencies through that. I’ve always try to not use retouching to make up for deficiencies and people used to make fun of me, because they would work with both of us over time and I was so inept at Photoshop that people who don’t even know how to use Photoshop were telling me what to do.

But, I’ve really gotten a lot better and you just need a few techniques that really make a difference. With post production I don’t spend a whole lot time. I like to actually give a disc to the client as they are walking out the door. So between shots I’ll do a little compositing.

One of the techniques you use in food photography Photoshop wise – let’s say you were shooting something with whip cream on top, that whip cream tends to burn out exposure wise, it’s either that or just the opposite, where you have really dark shadows. So what you do is you take two different exposures and just do a real quick mask. You don’t want to do a hard selection you just do a layer mask. – so that kind of work I do all the time, but I’ll do that in-between shots and it doesn’t take very long.
And everything I do I keep on layers so that if the art director decides they don’t want what I’ve done then they don’t have to use it.

 

 

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It’s not like I have a problem with creativity – a lot of times photographers won’t want to give that away. That creative part of it in the retouching, but my stuff really doesn’t need very much retouching. Retouching is not that big of an issue to me.

So you’re when of those photographers that gets it right in camera?

That’s what I try to do, but the farther you go along you can spend twenty minutes doing it in camera or you can spend two seconds doing it in post. You get to a point where you just say this is a better use of my time and the client’s money. A lot of clients of mine have retouchers on staff.

What advice would you give to a beginner that is starting off in the food photography industry?

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One of the things I would say to them even if they are in a big market like New York, you cannot start off as a food photographer. You have to be a commercial photographer first. There are a lot of skills that transfer to food photography that you get in commercial photography – and that’s a good reason.
But, the main reason is that there is just not enough food photography work out there in a normal market to have you survive long enough to make it in the industry.

 

 

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Photography is very tough and it’s getting tougher all the time. Technology is making it easier for everybody. It’s just harder to be a professional. The thing about food photography is that the market is relatively small. There aren’t that many clients for food photography, it’s relative of course. If you decide “I’m going to be a food photographer” you’re going to have a hard time finding enough clients to let you survive.

What I would recommend to people who want to be food photographers is to become a commercial photographer. Take pretty much any work you can and you’ll be building your skills and you’ll be making contacts at the agencies. Eventually you go from a commercial photographer into a specialty. But, you have to have that base, because you have to afford the equipment you have to afford the space.

All that takes money and the only way you are going to get that money is to work and if you work as a commercial photographer you can kill two birds with one stone – you can get yourself better and you can get money at the same time. And that money will allow you to get everything you need equipment wise and you sort of move into that area.

 

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There’s a woman I work with, she’s a photo assistant for me, and she has a job at a newspaper/local magazine, she wants to be a food photographer and this is a great way to do it. She’s doing more than food photography (she’s doing all kinds of photography) but eventually that’s what she wants to do. But you just can’t put a shingle out and say “hey I’m a food photographer”, because you will starve, I guarantee it.

I might be wrong, but if I had a $1000 I would bet it.

 

 

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The first thing you have to realize is I’m not a super artist (I know that) there are those 1 percents out there that just have everything, they understand what’s going on, they have an amazing eye, they figured out lighting, they’re charismatic with clients, they are going to be successful.

And the advice I just gave, probably doesn’t apply to them. But, if you are relatively normal then you are going to have to work at it. You are going to have to be around in the business long enough to go where you want to go. But, you just can’t say “I’m going to be a food photographer”, because there aren’t enough food photography clients out there. You have to shoot machines, you have to shoot products, you have to shoot headshots, and you have to shoot anything on the commercial side.

And if you want to shoot weddings that’s cool too, that’s getting more and more acceptable in the industry. It used to be you were one of two things either commercial or retail (weddings, portraits, etc..) even that distinction has gone away a bit now. My advice is shoot anything you can, make as much money as you can, and if you still want to be a food photographer, go in that direction later.

 

 

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And another thing that’s hard to admit. If you are a photographer, there aren’t many photographers that could have gone to MIT if they weren’t a photographer. The IQ of a normal photographer including myself is not the same as a doctor. That’s a gross generalization, but in general that’s true. It’s a profession for a more common man.

The one percenters that I mentioned, they just excel because they have their stuff together. For a normal person that wants to have a fun job, I don’t know how I got so lucky, but this profession is amazing! People spend and pay me thousands of dollars to take pictures – is that bizarre or what? It’s such a great career and you just have to make a couple of right decisions. The decision that I’m talking about is don’t be a food photographer the first day of photography school.

 

The Photigy Team would like to thank Michael Ray for his time and willingness to share his experience. We look forward to seeing more of his mouth watering works. Connect with and find more of Michael’s works here:

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5 responses on "Michael Ray: Professional Food Photographer"

  1. I would like to obtain your permission to use some of your food photos in my website. I too; back in the day; did food photos….Like you I really do not like it or to do it again. I would be very happy to show credit for your photos.. Look at my website and see what your thoughts may be. I make the sauces (American style). I will have 2 sister companies; Portuguese products (not shown; Mexican Products (not shown.). Your photos will only be used for Baron Georg.
    Please let me know your thoughts…………….
    Georg

  2. A great read – very interesting! Now I’m hungry…

  3. Very well done, you brought out the person behind the camera beautifully. Thank you Michael for sharing and thank you Alex for this great interview.

  4. Very interest! Thank you Alex and Michael!

  5. Great interview Alex. More of these please, really useful.

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