112: Perfecting the Art of Food Photography with Taylor Mathis

Welcome to episode 112 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork talks with Taylor Mathis from Photographing FOOD about lighting, consistency, and his go-to equipment.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork talked to Paul Jarvis about growing a company of one. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Perfecting the Art of Food Photography

Photography is one of the most important aspects of food blogging. We’re always told that people eat with their eyes, and that couldn’t be more true when trying to gain a following as a blogger.

While Taylor started his photography career as a wedding photographer, his interests quickly settled on food photography. He has devoted his career to perfecting the art of food photography, and now he’s sharing what he has learned with you. His composition, lighting, and gear tips will give new insights into your photography setup and planning.

In this episode, Taylor shares:

  • How he got interested in photography
  • How he started his photography business
  • Why it’s important to understand light as a photographer
  • Why he suggests shooting in RAW
  • Why he prefers to shoot with flash
  • The equipment he recommends for beginners
  • Why macro lenses are great for food photography
  • How he prepares for difficult shoots
  • His essential gear

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Bjork Ostrom: In this episode we talk to Taylor Mathis from Photographing FOOD about how he gets the same look and feel for his photos all of the time, his go-to equipment, if he had a budget of $100, and the most important thing he’d tell somebody that’s just getting started with food photography.

Hey there everybody. This is Bjork Ostrom coming to you from the wonderful, the romantic, St. Paul, Minnesota. Yes, indeed, romantic. I just found out this week that USA Today recently, I don’t know how recently, but recently declared St. Paul, Minnesota the most romantic city in the U.S. I’ll have you know that. Not related at all to what we’re talking about today, which is food photography.

We’re talking to Taylor Mathis today from Photographing FOOD, and Taylor is somebody that I’ve known for a long time and has been really involved with food photography for a long time and was one of the first people that really got into the game of teaching about food photography. He has an awesome, incredible series called Photographing FOOD, which we’ll talk about towards the end of the podcast, which you can find at photographingfood.com.

He’s going to share some really specific advice around not only Photographing FOOD, but Photographing FOOD with artificial lighting. That’s actually his preferred way to shoot food photography. He’s going to talk about why that is, and how you can implement that, especially important for people that have some restrictions. Maybe you don’t have natural light, or the natural light that you do have isn’t great. He’s going to talk about what you can do in order to use artificial light but still get a really good look with it.

I’m excited to share this interview with you today with Taylor. Let’s go ahead and jump in. Taylor, welcome to the podcast.

Taylor Mathis: Hey Bjork, thanks so much for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so fun to think back. It must have been a couple of years ago where you were doing a podcast. I don’t think you’re doing it anymore but talking about the business of creatives. I remember it was one of the first podcasts that I was on, so it’s fun to think back to that. So a belated thank you for having me on your podcast way back then.

Taylor Mathis: Not a problem. You’ve made it far past what I made it with mine.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Taylor Mathis: I think I only made it to like 14 episodes, and you’re like at 110 I think?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Well one of the things I was thinking about before I was starting this, is just like the grind of content. You know what that’s like. Right? There was a time when you had a blog, and you were blogging and created a cookbook, and obviously photography is that. But I feel like it’s the name of the game so often, is just like the grind. Like pressing record or pressing publish and continuing to do that. But fun to have you on, and fun to be able to talk about photography here with you.

What I would love to do to start, I always love to hear people’s origin story a little bit, so take us back. I’d love to hear about the time where you were kind of like, “Hey food photography, this is a thing, and this is something that I could potentially be doing.” When were you first kind of exposed to that and realized that was something you were interested in?

Taylor Mathis: Back in college … I went to the University of Wisconsin, and I was on the swim team there. I only swam three out of my four years, so my senior year I had all this extra time. I’d always been interested in photography, but never really had time to do it, so I took a class at our student union over the summer. It was film photography.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh cool, yeah.

Taylor Mathis: I was like, oh this is awesome, you know doing the dark room, that kind of stuff. Then I got a digital camera that fall of my senior year and just started shooting all over Madison and ended up getting stuff that I was able to print and sell in stores. I ended up getting a big show at our student union, so I was like, “Okay, this is interesting.” I graduated college in 2008 with a major in financial planning, and that’s when the economy was completely tanking.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, you and I both, and it’s interesting for our friends to talk to them, like coming out of that time, it was such a fascinating time to graduate college because literally like 2008–2009, it’s like man in the past 30 years, probably one of the worst times.

Taylor Mathis: Especially with a background in … My job was-

Bjork Ostrom: Finance.

Taylor Mathis: Okay, how to manage your money. Well guess what, I have no idea at 22. I actually decided to go out to photography school in California. I went to a place called Brooks Institute. I went with just the intention of I want to learn how to do this commercially, how the business works, and when I’ve learned what I need to learn, I’m going to leave. I didn’t really have the intent of getting another degree or anything like that. I stayed for about a year-and-a-half, and moved back to Charlotte, North Carolina where I’m from, and where I live currently, and started my business, and started out in weddings, and quickly realized that being a … How old was I then? Like 23 year-old guy who’s not married. It’s a really tough sell for weddings.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Taylor Mathis: I actually started a blog with my wedding business, and I would do Food Fridays, where I’d go to like my favorite restaurants and take pictures of food.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Taylor Mathis: I was like, okay, I like this more than shooting weddings. From there, I was like, okay, I’m going to focus on food, and I just started shooting really whatever paid at the time, but trying to build a portfolio around food and getting with magazines, totally building up my business.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so it’s almost like this experience that you had with weddings led you to … Like your interest in photography, you knew that natural path into photography. But then saying this doesn’t feel like a good fit necessarily for who I am, and where I am, so what are the other things? You introduced this new subject, which is food. Then it’s like, “Hey, I actually am kind of interested in this.”

Taylor Mathis: The irony is now that my wife is wedding videographer, and I’m her second shooter.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s full circle.

Taylor Mathis: So I am at wedding every weekend.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. I want to go back to talking about the Brooks Institute. I think a lot of people that listen to this probably are interested in photography, doing photography at a high level, and doing it well. It’s a huge part, especially for food blogs, but also for if you have a fashion blog, if you have a product blog, if you have a tech blog. Any of those require high-quality graphics and media.

I would assume a lot of people are learning on the fly. They’re listening to podcasts. They’re maybe taking one-off courses, but I’d be interested to hear you talk about what it was like to do some more formal training. What do you feel like were the biggest things that you took away from that? Maybe a favorite class, or even a concept or a professor that taught you something really valuable during that year-and-a-half.

Taylor Mathis: If you keep in perspective, 2008–2009, the whole online education thing was really just starting. Lynda.com had just started when I was in school, and there wasn’t really the wealth of information that there is online now.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and even Lynda was more like, “Here’s how to develop or use Photoshop.” It wasn’t even the photography side stuff yet.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, and Creative Live hadn’t really gotten off its feet yet. It was just getting going. Here’s what’s crazy, is when I was in photo school was when Vincent Laforet did the first film with the 5D Mark II. Cameras didn’t shoot video back then.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s right. It was just on the cusp of being able to shoot, like DSLR cameras being able to shoot video.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, so like the recipe videos you guys do, there’s no way you could do that back then. So it was-

Bjork Ostrom: Isn’t that weird? And that’s less than 10 years ago.

Taylor Mathis: It’s insane how fast things are changing. At the time, really I saw the best way I was going to learn, and the quickest way was to go to school doing it. Now, I would not necessarily say that’s the best way to do it. Just because the cost of what it would be for school, and just there’s so much information out there nowadays, that really I don’t think you need it like you would have 10 years ago.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and related to that, do you think you would … I was having this conversation with friends the other day. Would you do a traditional four-year degree? Just out of curiosity.

Taylor Mathis: In just photography?

Bjork Ostrom: In general. Like for you personally, regardless of what photography, finance, IT development, is that something you would do? If you were to go back, and you were to be 18 again, would you enroll? Knowing what you know now, and like being the year 2017? This is just like an offshoot curiosity question.

Taylor Mathis: Oh, yeah, I probably would just because my college … I mean I was an athlete in college, and I got recruited and had a scholarship. My experience was different than the normal one, and I loved it. The guys I swam with, they’re my best friends still.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so it wasn’t just purely education. There’s also a huge social component to it.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. I think it’s also with the college thing, is you have to realize that it’s not the world of, I graduate, I get a degree and a job. You still need to be doing stuff outside of that. You almost need to have an entrepreneurial mindset of like, “Okay, I’m getting these skills, now how am I going to find this career for myself afterwards?”

Bjork Ostrom: Right, right. Yeah. You just mentioned this quickly, but you had a scholarship. So you had a swim scholarship to University of Wisconsin.

Taylor Mathis: I did. Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh that’s awesome. That’s really impressive. Lindsay was a swimmer, and so she was really good. We did it in high school, so I would go to these swim meets. I remember watching them, and being like there was no chance that I’d be able to do that. I had a friend who was like, “Oh it’s not that hard.” He joined senior year. He had never swam before.

Taylor Mathis: Oh wow.

Bjork Ostrom: Just like in the warm-up thing, he got out and threw up. And he’s like, “I’m done.” Swimming is so hard, so a lot of respect for you.

Taylor Mathis: I did the distance freestyle stuff. Like the 500, the thousand, the mile because I’m not a sprinter. Anyway.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. We digress. Anyway, so you went for this year-and-a-half, but I’m curious to know what were the things that you pulled out of that? What were the most valuable elements out of that time of learning photography?

Taylor Mathis: Definitely lighting, just understanding how light works, and that it’s weird because it’s an art, but it’s science at the same time. Light is all light waves and they behave the same, really however you are. The concept of diffusing, and it’s like your high-level lights and surface to … I’m blank on the word. The size of your diffuser, and how big it is, how far it is from the subject. It’s all going to do the same thing. It’s just how you can manipulate that to get that look you’re going for.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain that a little bit more? When you say, “It’s all going to do the same thing,” what does that mean?

Taylor Mathis: Okay, yeah. Let’s think of it this way. The sun, you know how when you’re outside, no clouds in the sky, say like noon. You’ll see this harsh shadow line around you. That’s because the sun is a relatively small light source to you. Now if you were actually standing right next the sun, other than the whole burning up thing, your shadows would actually be really soft, really diffused because it would be a really large light source to you.

When you hear this whole diffusion and soft light, when you hear these words, what that means is you want to have something for that light to hit that that becomes the light source. So say you have a sheet in front of a window. When the light hits that sheet, the light source is now the sheet, and it’s very large compared to your subject.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh interesting. Got it. So what you’re saying is light will always perform the same whether it’s the sun or a light bulb and-

Taylor Mathis: Or a flash, or something like that. The whole color temperature of lighting thing has to do with the Kelvin Scale. I don’t know if you guys have talked about that much at all.

Bjork Ostrom: That would be … I don’t know if we’ve talked about it specifically on the podcast, but can you talk about those two things, specifically the color of light, and what that is and maybe tie in the Kelvin Scale. You don’t have to talk super deep into that. But in general, what would that look like if people saw that, how does it change, and what does it mean for light color to change?

Taylor Mathis: It’s a temperature scale where it’s based … I think it goes from like 2,500 maybe, is the low point to like 10,000. The numbers to remember are 5,200 K that’s like daylight, and 3,000 or 3,200 K that’s tungsten lighting, and that 3,200, 3,000 is going to have that orange light. If you walk into like a restaurant or walk into a room with tungsten lights and look at them, you can see an orange color. Say like the lights in your house are tungsten, and you’re looking outside. It looks a little bluer outside, a little warmer, if you go from inside to outside really quickly. Your eyes adjust really quickly to it, so you may not notice it. But those are the two general types of light we have, and it’s either tungsten or daylight balanced.

Where this plays a role in your photography, is your camera needs to be on a white balance setting for those. So if you’re shooting in like a tungsten setting, and if it ever looks like really, really blue, or really, really orange, sorry, you’re on the wrong one. So you need to either switch over to tungsten or switch over to daylight.

Sometimes the auto white balance on your camera does a pretty good job, but if it is looking off, you can go to either … On Canon, it’s the light bulb for tungsten and then a sunshine for daylight. Then when clouds are over it, it’ll change the temperature too just a little bit.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. It’s kind of the setting that maybe people don’t talk a lot about, but you have the ISO, which we talk about that impacts how sensitive it is. Aperture, shutter speed, those are all ones that people are like, “Oh yeah, I’m at least familiar with what those are.” But people might not be as familiar with kind of the white balance end of things.

Usually, I would assume that the camera’s going to be set … Like if you bought it and didn’t change anything, it would probably be set to auto white balance. Is that right?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, I think that’s the default. If you edit in Lightroom, and you’re editing a RAW file, you’ll see there’s a temperature slider, and it goes towards the right, it’s going to be higher numbered. The left’s going to be lower number, and those are adjusting the white balance.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it.

Taylor Mathis: That’s how you can kind of change it.

Bjork Ostrom: So if you use Lightroom, you can manipulate the temperature, the Kelvin temperature of the color using Lightroom, using that slider. Here’s a question. What if you don’t know what the temperature is of the room that you’re in? How do you find that out so you can correctly set that on your camera?

Taylor Mathis: You can take a picture with one setting, take another with one, and kind of go with what looks best. It’s not really a huge problem, unless you’re dealing with flash and artificial light, it could be off. If you’ve got a filter over your flash, or something like that. You’ll kind of know if it’s wrong because it’ll be like really blue or really orange.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so it’s almost one of those things where it’s like, it’s not a problem until it’s a problem. Then you’re like, okay, I know if this is orange or if this is blue, if my photo feels off, then there’s probably something going on with the white balance. Then either maybe set that to auto white balance and see if that fixes it, or figure out what type of … If you are in a room where there’s a lot of tungsten lights, not artificial lights necessarily, but a certain color temperature, and then you’re setting those.

It’s interesting for people like go into like a Home Depot or Menard’s next time, you can look and see. Almost all light bulbs will have the color temperature on it. Won’t it?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, it’ll say, 5,200 K or 5,000 K or 3,200 K. That is the Kelvin temperature. Actually the hardware store is a great place to see it because if they’ve got a daylight bulb and a tungsten bulb next to each other, that’s where you can really see, oh that one’s really orange. That one’s really blue.

Bjork Ostrom: For people that want to see what that is, next time you go in, you can go to the light section, and see those because they have the display ones. That’s what you’re talking about?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. So 5,200 K would be the daylight balanced, meaning that’s what it looks like if you were to use the color from the sun. Is that how that works?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, and what it means is it means that your whites are going to be white. They won’t be really blue. They won’t be really warm. To some extent it is kind of a subjective thing because you can make it a little warmer if you want. You can make it a little cooler. But it’s just when it’s like, oh that is really orange, or that’s really blue. That’s when you’ll see that it’s really off.

You can definitely swing up or down there. Kind of go stylistically because if you’re going for a dark and moody kind of shot, then having that kind of cooler bluer would actually work with that. Or if you’re going for a more kind of welcoming, homey, warm, bowl of soup type thing, a little warmer in the whites might work better for that type of mood.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and it’s one of those things where it’s knowing the quote/unquote rules, so then you can break them.

Taylor Mathis: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s helpful to have that understanding, so then once you get into it, you can play around with that a little bit and see what that looks like, and how that works.

In general, obviously different for every single camera, but where would people find that, and how could they change that with their camera? It would be a setting in the settings area, or is it a dial? Where is that?

Taylor Mathis: Every camera’s going to be different. It’s going to be under the white balance. You’ll see like a W/B maybe, and then you can click it. I know on Canon, you click the W/B button, and then you can scroll a little wheel, and you can see the icons for either the light bulb’s tungsten, the sunshine is daylight, and I think there’s like a cloudy, overcast one.

You can also do a custom one, where you can dial it to like 5,200 K. You can do custom white balancing, where you have a white card. Where you take a picture of it, and then you put that on your camera, and you kind of correct from that. I don’t do that. There are times when you should, but no. I shoot in RAW, so I can just adjust it in Lightroom afterwards.

Bjork Ostrom: For those that aren’t familiar, I’m guessing a lot of people are. There might be some people that aren’t though. What is the advantage of shooting in RAW, and why is that beneficial?

Taylor Mathis: That’s a great question. Shooting with RAW, it’s kind of like … You’ve got this awesome 18 megapixel camera that gets all this information. When you shoot in a file format other than RAW, you’re not accessing all that information. Basically a RAW file is just the data that every pixel on that sensor captures. It’s either a one or a zero. It’s all that information, and your computer then looks at that RAW file and turns it into a JPEG image of what it should be. You can’t see a RAW file, it’s just data, which is nice because you can’t mess it up at the same time because it’s just recorded data.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, sure. One thing to consider with those, is those are really, because there is so much data, really, really big files. Right?

Taylor Mathis: They are. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: I don’t know. How big would a RAW file be from a typical DSLR camera? Would you know offhand what that file size would be?

Taylor Mathis: Probably 20 megabytes, somewhere around there. It all depends because some of the Nikons have 50 megapixels or the Canon 5D SR, those are massive. If-

Bjork Ostrom: Right. And the idea … Oh I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Taylor Mathis: As more megapixels get put into the cameras, they’re going to get larger file sizes, but memory cards are also getting bigger too.

Bjork Ostrom: The idea with RAW, correct me if I’m wrong with this, but every single pixel on a RAW photo potentially could be a little bit different in terms of the data that it has, the color that it represents. Whereas, with a JPEG or a PNG, what they’ll do is they’ll say, okay we’re only going to use 5,000 different color options, which sounds like a lot, but it’s actually not that much, and saying so if something is kind of like this red, we’re going to just kind of clump that together. So five pixels might be in an area, and they’re all kind of this similar red, so they’re going to just make those the same, so it seems a little more pixelized. Is that right? Or is that off?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. The concept of what you’re explaining … I mean I don’t know exactly how they’re doing it, but the concept is it’s not compressed. A JPEG is a compressed file where it’s taken all that information and compressed it down into a smaller preview or rendering of it. RAW files, you can’t see them. You have to use a program like Lightroom or something to open them up and look at them. The nice thing is, you can make changes to them without actually harming the file because it just says, okay, you want to make it brighter? Okay, well add like two to everything. It’s using math and science and a lot of things I don’t understand, but it’s just basically taking that data … It’s kind of a base recipe, and like okay, we’re going to change it just a little bit, but we still have this core information that was captured.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. So it has the kind of foundational element of the photograph, and then you can manipulate on top of that without necessarily impacting that foundation of the photograph.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, and it’s going to give you the most flexibility in post-processing, and the most freedom of things to change. The beauty is, you can’t accidentally save over it. Say you shot a JPEG, and you’re in Photoshop messing around, doing stuff, and then you save it. You can’t undo that.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Yep. And that’s a huge thing to be able to have access to the original file. Do you always shoot in RAW?

Taylor Mathis: I do, yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep? Okay. So if people have the space and the ability to do that, maybe recommended to do that. Again, fair warning, it takes up a lot of space but it’d be good to have an external hard drive anyways probably, if you’re going to be doing a lot of photography.

Here’s a question. Daylight balanced, so that means it kind of matches the color of what daylight would look like. If you were going to be shooting with artificial light, is it just safe to assume that the only thing you want to get is daylight or daylight balanced light bulbs?

Taylor Mathis: Probably. It kind of depends on your budget. Tungsten lighting, you can take some amazing pictures with a five dollar tungsten work light you get at the hardware store. That’s going to be, obviously tungsten balanced, so it’s going to be really warm. It’s going to be around that 3,200 K. But flashes are daylight balanced. The small battery powered flashes, those are automatically daylight, well close to daylight.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Taylor Mathis: They may be a little bit off, but that’s close to it. I know you guys use the EcoLight some, and I’m pretty sure that one’s daylight balanced.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep.

Taylor Mathis: You could possibly get tungsten bulbs if you wanted to. In general probably daylight is the more popular option because I think most of the LEDs are … Well LEDs are kind of cool because they make some bi-color LEDs, where you can dial in the color temperature to be exactly what you want it to be, which is awesome for video.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, we just installed those upstairs. This is total me geeking out, but we have an Amazon Echo/Alexa, which if anybody’s listening to this on that, they just triggered all of them. But I wanted to try and set up controlling lights from that, and so I set those up. The other thing that you can do is you can control the temperature of them from your phone. You could like set it to be really cool, or you can set it to be really warm, which is kind of fun. You’re saying with photography lights now they have that where you can set the color temperature of the actual light itself.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah for instance, there’s, I think it’s IKAN, I-K-A-N is the company. They make this one light that we use at weddings a lot because when you go into a reception, and you’re shooting video, it’s incredibly dark. We can kind of dial into whatever the kind of ambient light color is in the room because sometimes it’ll be tungsten lighting, but then if there’s giant windows on the walls letting some daylight in, we’ll need to kind of do a little mix between tungsten and daylight. So it’s nice to be able to dial in to exactly what you need to be.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and that was actually a follow-up question that I wanted to ask. If you’re going to do a shoot, are you as much as possible trying to match. If you have daylight, then you try and have daylight artificial lighting? Or if you’re just doing natural light, should you go around and turn off all the other lights if they don’t match because they’re not daylight? What does that look like, or do you just kind of hope that with both lights on that it kind of mixes well and looks good?

Taylor Mathis: It all depends on a couple of things. One is how big is your frame? Are you getting the room in the shot that’s going to have windows in there, and it’s going to have other lights? Then you may need to kind of balance things, if you’re trying to show that window outside. Say if you’re shooting the interior of a restaurant, and you really want to show the architectural qualities and have the lights, then you’re going to have mixed color temperatures in there. You’re probably best exposing for probably the daylight because you’re showing the windows coming through. It’ll be daylight. Then you can, in Photoshop, kind of bring in the other lights.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Taylor Mathis: But that’s probably more complicated than most people will be getting into. If you’re using flash, what’s awesome about flash is it’s so powerful, and you’re general shooting at a shutter speed of at least anywhere from 1/60 to 1/200 of a second. You’re not going to get an ambient light in there, so that flash is going to be the daylight. It’s going to take over the whole set.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about why that is, how that works? Why you wouldn’t get any ambient light in?

Taylor Mathis: The way it works is with flash, the … So just a quick review, ISO, that controls the sensitivity of the sensor in your camera, and how much light is going to make up your exposure. Aperture is the opening of that lens, and how much light hits the sensor. Those are the two things that are going to be affecting your exposure with flash. The shutter speed is not really going to change it at all because the flash is firing so quickly. The only thing a shutter speed would do is if it’s beyond something called the sync speed, which is how fast the shutter can move to keep up with the flash. If you shoot beyond your sync speed, you’ll see kind of black lines going through your picture.

So for most cameras, it’s either 1/160th or 1/200th. Some cameras it’s 1/250th. If you shoot at 1/200th, and you see a line, go down to 1/160th. If you are at 1/250th, and you see a line, go down to 1/200th. You can shoot at that, and you’ll still have a brightly exposed image because if you’re shooting at night or when it’s darker outside, 1/200th, you might not get enough light in. But with flash, you’re going to get plenty. The beauty of that is you can handhold it, and you don’t need a tripod because 1/200th, you can still have sharp images while you’re hand-holding it.

Back to your question of … Sorry, what was the question again?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, no. That’s okay. This requires me to then think of it as well. Going back … Everybody’s going to be able to remember because they were just listening to it. To track back, we talked about sync speed. You talked about artificial lighting. You talked about the flash. We talked about mixing light. I think that’s where it came up from.

Taylor Mathis: Oh I think you-

Bjork Ostrom: Or was it after that?

Taylor Mathis: No that’s right. It was why is the flash going to drown out the ambient light.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, okay. Thanks.

Taylor Mathis: Okay, thanks. Here we go, so it’s because generally, when you’re shooting at 1/200th of a second inside, the lighting is not going to be bright enough to really have any impact on the picture. Then when you throw off the light coming off the flash on top of that, you’re really not going to see anything.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Okay. Interesting to hear you talk about using flash. I would assume that … You know, some people think about artificial lighting … I have no idea, but I would assume a lot of people try and get natural light when they’re doing their photographs. I would be really surprised if there was a decent group of people that are using flash when they’re doing their photography. Would you prefer flash over artificial lighting over natural lighting? Or when would you use each one of those, and what is your preference?

Taylor Mathis: My preference is actually flash. It’s what I’m most comfortable with because I probably shoot 98% of the stuff I shoot with flash. That’s because I can get the exact same look every time. A lot of the style of my images are based upon that look of using the flash because they’re consistent. They’re always going to look the same from a lighting standpoint. I can make that light anywhere, anytime, any place I want.

When I was shooting commercially, I’d do a lot of restaurant photography for magazines and stuff. So I’d have to shoot like six in one day. I can’t always go when there’s ideal window light, or there would be really no great place to shoot, no great window or anything like that.

Bjork Ostrom: Right, you’d be going into a dark restaurant that has a certain look and feel. It’s perfect for the restaurant, but it’s terrible for photography.

Taylor Mathis: Oh it’s horrendous for food photography, yeah. I would have to bring lighting with me, and flash, I could just consistently get that look I wanted. It’s the consistency. Portability too because I can just pick it up and take it wherever I want, and just when you modify it, kind of how we talked about earlier of like, okay, let’s get that nice, large, soft diffuser. When you use that on flash, you’ll get that nice soft light. Yes, it’s a small little flash, but when it’s illuminating a very large diffuser, it’s gonna create that really soft, nice light, and it’s going to create a nice window. The main modifier I use is 47 inches in diameter, so it’s pretty big.

Bjork Ostrom: And when you say modifier, that would be something that you would also call like a diffuser. It’s something that you put in between the food and the flash.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. It opens up like an umbrella, and you put it on a light stand. You put the flash on top of the light stand, and kind of the inside of the umbrella is silver reflective material. I can fire it off inside there, and it will reflect off that. That kind of diffuses it once, and then it’ll go through this kind of thin, white diffusion material, so it’ll diffuse it even more. When it comes out onto the food, it’s really just this nice soft lighting.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. When you say the artificial lighting, you’re able to reproduce that in a way that you can’t obviously with natural light. Usually, I would think of that to be true with just standard artificial lights as well, but it sounds like you’re not using flash like just throwing a flash on top of your camera. It’s almost like you’re using it kind of like an artificial light, like you would with what I would consider an artificial light. But the difference is that the light isn’t always on. It just obviously flashes.

Can you talk about what the difference is between having artificial light that’s just always on, versus using a flash. Is it that piece that you were talking about where the ambient light can’t impact it in the same way, where you’re using just the artificial light that’s always on?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. There’s two kind of points with this. One is that with the flash. It’s cool. It doesn’t get hot or anything. Tungsten lights, they’re really powerful, really bright, but they get really hot. They’re not as portable because I need a plug, and if I’ve got this hot light, I don’t want to be in a restaurant and have someone knock it over, something like that. A small flash is great for that.

Now technology is catching up where LEDs are getting more and more powerful and getting less expensive too. There are some great solutions where you can use continuous light that it will have the same power as the flash, but it’s really, really expensive. The price of flash has actually gone down a ton in the last couple of years now that manufacturers in China, like Yongnuo has started to make a flash that it’s I think 60 or 70 bucks, and then the wireless receivers are $30. So for all in, it’s about 100 bucks for the flash and the trigger. And I saw that Amazon just came out with their own that was like 30 bucks or something. I haven’t tried it yet, so I’m not sure how it works but-

Bjork Ostrom: Amazon is just taking over everything.

Taylor Mathis: Totally.

Bjork Ostrom: We have these dog bags that we use when we walk for Sage, and we’re like, “Oh we found these great ones.” Then like two weeks later, Amazon has the exact same ones. I’m like, “What? You’re even getting into the dog poop bag business?” They will stop at no end. Amazon is taking over everything.

Can you talk about, like if somebody were to put together their beginner artificial lighting or beginner flash setup, what would be the pieces of equipment that you would advise that they get? And we can link to these in the show notes too, even the ones that you mentioned.

Taylor Mathis: Okay. I mean, you definitely, obviously need a flash. You’re going to need a way to trigger that flash. The last place you want to put your flash for food photography this is. It’s a little different for event photography. You don’t want to put it directly on your camera because it’s going to have a harsh light that just goes right onto your food, and really is going to make it look awful.

A lot of people with their misconceptions of flash are when they’ve done something like that because it’s just not flattering at all. You want to kind of recreate the whole window setup of like I want to make my flash be a window, so I’m either going to put it to the side, so that I can either stand behind it or have it coming from the back left or back right or some variation of that. That’s the idea, and to do that, we’re going to need a way to support our flash. A light stand is this thing that kind of folds up, and you can get a little mount for it where you can put your flash on top of the stand.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it.

Taylor Mathis: Sorry. Go ahead.

Bjork Ostrom: No, go ahead. I’ll let you go.

Taylor Mathis: Okay. Then the wireless trigger. I think I stopped last time I was saying this, but it communicates with the flash and the camera, so that when you press the trigger or shutter button on your camera, it’s going to tell the flash to fire, and you’ll be able to take your shot. Wireless is really the best way to go because having a cord connected to your flash and your camera, you’re going to end up tripping. It might not be long enough, and might have you ending up knocking the stand over. Since you can get the trigger and the flash for a hundred bucks nowadays, it’s really not that bad.

To put that in perspective a couple of years ago, a Canon 580 X2 would be like 400–440 bucks, and then Pocket Wizards would be like 150 each. So it’s come down a lot since then. It’s really made it accessible to anybody who’s kind of just getting into photography.

Bjork Ostrom: When you have that setup, are you putting something on the other side to reflect back as well? You have this strong light. It’s kind of coming in from a certain side. Are you also wanting to reflect a little bit of that light back on the other side? Or what is your recommendation for that? Or have you found that you don’t need it necessarily.

Taylor Mathis: You will need to modify the flash, and there are a couple of ways to do that. My favorite way is by using this 47 inch octobox, which I’ll send you a link so you can link to it in the show notes.

Bjork Ostrom: Perfect. Great.

Taylor Mathis: With that, you’ll be able to get nice diffused light, but if you don’t really want to make the investment of buying a modifier or anything like that, you can really just make a V out of two big pieces of foam board, and kind of put like a sheet on the front of it, and you can fire out of the back of it, kind of put the flash on the table. They make little stands for it. You can get two so it will just stand up on the table. You can fire into the back of that foam board V, and that’ll diffuse it. It’ll bounce through the front, where if you’ve got like a bed sheet or some diffuser material on the front of that, that’ll soften it too.

So there’s ways to make modifiers. I’ve taken some great pictures by just taking a cardboard box and putting parchment paper on the front and doing that method. But with buying a professional-grade modifier, it’s going to give you a lot of durability. It’s going to help with that consistency too because it’s always going to be the same distance from the front of the modifier. So you’ll be able to kind of gage, okay, I need to set my exposure in this range because the distance that your flash is from the subject will affect the exposure and just how bright it is. Because obviously, if you move the light closer, it’s going to be brighter, further away, not as bright.

Bjork Ostrom: I’m envisioning that. The two pieces that you would need to buy would be the wireless trigger. What did you call it? It’s not the wireless trigger.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah wireless triggers. I mean they’re transceivers.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay. So the piece that you’d put on your camera that essentially talks to the flash. Then you’d obviously need the flash itself, but that would in some sense, maybe be the only thing you’d need because then you could, if you wanted to, rig up where you have kind of a cardboard V like you said. Then putting something on the other side of that V like the exposed area, so the flash bounces off of the corner of the V and then comes through the sheet, and then creates a nice diffused look. Is that kind of the general setup for that kind of version one?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. That would work. It’s great if you’re just shooting at home and don’t want to make a huge investment. But if you’ve gotten confident with your photography, and you’re ready to go start shooting for clients and stuff, I would buy some type of modifier because it helps with the perception because part of when people hire you to shoot is you want to be able to do things that they don’t know how to do. Because that’s kind of why they’re hiring you. Part of that is having the equipment.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, like if you showed up to a restaurant, and you had like a bed sheet around your shoulder, and you’re like, “All right, I’m ready to shoot.” They’d be like, “Uh, maybe not.”

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. It wouldn’t really help with the credibility aspect.

Bjork Ostrom: Right. That’s interesting to hear, and I appreciate it because it’s a different perspective from like when Lindsay would shoot, she would always try and look for natural light. One of the hard things with that is, like you said, it changes. And it’s always a little bit different. You can’t rely on it in the same way. Especially critical and especially important in situations where you’re shooting for a client, so like a restaurant or doing a shoot where you have one day. And it’s not like you can shoot that recipe or that dish another day. So you have to make it work at that time. It’s interesting-

Taylor Mathis: Yes, there is-

Bjork Ostrom: Go ahead.

Taylor Mathis: Sorry. I don’t mean to like bash natural light. I think natural, if you find it, and it’s great, use it by all means. But, when I was doing this professionally, in the situation, I can’t really tell the client, “Hey, you know, we have to do this another day. The light’s just not right.” That doesn’t really work. I need to be able to have a solution to get the shots they need that day.

Bjork Ostrom: Right, yep. And you found that using the flash over the artificial light was the most beneficial way to do that.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah. Then I just got in the habit of like, “Oh I like how this looks. Oh I can set it up any time I like. I can shoot anywhere. I can shoot at night if I want to.” So I just kind of got in the habit of like, “Oh okay, this is kind of with my style.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yep, and especially important for people that maybe they have a full-time job that they’re going to and need to come back and still want to shoot something, but it’s 8:00 at night. Or they live in Minnesota, and it’s 5:00 at night in the winter, and it’s dark. So to have those options I think is really beneficial.

Walk me through a typical shoot. What would it be like if you were to set up today, and you were to do a shoot for … It could be on your own, or it could be a restaurant or a client. What would that look like from start to finish at a high level, kind of the Sparks Notes version?

Taylor Mathis: Probably the most important thing, and something people overlook a lot is going to the shoot, you need to know what you’re trying to get out of the shoot. Have a plan of, okay, this is the shot I want to get. This is how many versions I want to get because as you know with food, some foods just have a really, really short shelf-life. Once you make it, once you style it, you can’t really then be like, “Okay, so how am I going to do this? How am I going to light it?” You need to kind of plan in your head, and it may take just five minutes just sitting there thinking about what you’re going to do. Then you’ll have a plan of attack of, “Okay, how am I going to do this?”

The next thing I would do is I would have my lighting set up before I get my food out there, and I would take a test shot. Put a lens in place, or something just to make sure I’ve got my exposure set, at least my initial starting exposure. If I adjust my aperture, then I’ll need to make changes to my exposure then, but at least I’m in the ballpark of where I need to be.

I’ll probably have my first background I’m thinking about using already in place. Then if you’re making the food, then I would work on getting the food done so that you’re ready to shoot, and then you’re ready to go. If you’re shooting for a client, and their providing the food, I would tell them then, “Okay, I’m ready for the food.” Then they can bring it out, or they can start making the preparations for it.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. That’s I think a really good point, even you saying that you have something. It could be a spare lens that you set down, and you get everything set up, so you know that … Obviously, it’s not the food, but it’s kind of a subject, so to speak, that you’re putting in there and getting everything fine-tuned before you bring out … Especially if it’s something like an ice cream. Then it’s like, well, and you have exactly six minutes if you’re lucky to shoot that before it starts looking really terrible.

Speaking of lenses, I’d be curious to know what do you consider your kind of essential gear? What are the things, obviously the camera body, but what are the other things that you’re like, “If I’m going to do a shoot,” the desert island question. Right? You have whatever, seven things, and you have to maintain a photography business on a desert island. What would be the things that you would bring? It doesn’t have to be seven, but the most essential things?

Taylor Mathis: It’s a little pricey, but without a doubt for Canon the 100mm macro. I think it’s the 105mm on Nikon. It’s my favorite lens for food. It’s just amazing because you can get up close. It’s got really nice compression with it having that long focal length. It goes to f/2.8, so I just love it. It’s without a doubt my number one go-to lens. The other two lenses I use are the 50mm f/14 and the 17–40, if I’m getting just a wider shot.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Can you talk about, for those that aren’t familiar, what a macro lens is? Why that’s a nice thing to have, especially with food photography?

Taylor Mathis: It’s great because it allows you to get close to the food. Lenses have something called a minimum focal distance, and what that is, it’s with the physics and the optics of the lens is, that’s the closest you can be to your subject and still have it in focus.

Bjork Ostrom: I notice sometimes when … I don’t do photography a ton, but it’s that point where it’s like the camera goes back and forth. It just gets super blurry one way, and then it gets super blurry the other way. I’m like, “What’s going on here?” Then I realize, “Oh I need to scoot back a little bit.”

Taylor Mathis: When you’re taking pictures of people, it really isn’t as big of a deal because a person’s so much larger. Food’s not that big most of the time. It’s rare that your subject, if you’re doing just a single dish, will be larger than like your face, if you think of it that way. Many times your subject will be like the size of your ear, or something like that. Especially if you want it to fill the frame, you need to get in close. Many times, getting in close, you’re going to exceed that minimal focal distance, and you just won’t be able to focus on it.

But a macro lens, the minimal focal distance is really, really short. So you can get in close, and you can actually get true one to one size, where on a full-frame camera, the size of it in the image is the size of it kind of in real life, if that makes sense.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Got it. So one to one meaning that it’s not like … It would be what it would be like if you were looking at it in real life. Like the same, it would be comparable.

Taylor Mathis: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: I feel like it would be easier if they called it a micro lens. I’m just going to say that. I think they should rebrand it because when I think of micro, I think of like tiny closeup.

Taylor Mathis: That does make sense. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: If you know anybody in the photography naming world, you can send them my thoughts and feedback. The other question that I had was you said it has some really nice compression. What does that mean as it relates to the lens and the photograph?

Taylor Mathis: The longer your focal length, for instance, 24mm, 50mm, 85mm. 85mm is going to be longer than 50 and 24, like that. The longer the focal length, basically it just makes people look a lot better. It makes food look a lot better because have you ever taken like a wide-angle lens and held it up close to your face, and you know how your face looks all distorted. It doesn’t really compress the subject at all. But when you’re shooting with a longer lens … I can’t really explain all the physics of it, but it just makes that background just a lot more compressed and looks just a lot better.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and maybe one of those things where people would know it if they saw it but wouldn’t really be able to describe it. Like it has that-

Taylor Mathis: Yeah I can send you-

Bjork Ostrom: … appealing look.

Taylor Mathis: I can send you a link for the show notes. There’s some just videos and gifs people have done going through all the focal lengths, and then you’ll really see it. What’s cool is, especially if you’re doing people, you can make that background go really just out of focus and blur, but it’s not the same as the bokeh effect you get with aperture. It’s a different type of effect.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. It’s interesting. The like nice background effect, whatever that would be, obviously aperture plays into that, how blurry it is. But then like you said, there’s also this other element that’s a little bit harder to designate or to pinpoint and say like, “This is what it’s doing,” but you can feel that and see that, like you said, when you do those side by sides. We’ll be sure to link to those in the show notes as well.

You have this awesome series of eBooks that you’ve done, and is it nine total? Is that right?

Taylor Mathis: Yeah, there’s nine of them.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and it walks through all of these different really important subjects and topics when it comes to food photography. Everything from using window lighting to getting a natural lighting look with flash and talking about what to do after you take photographs, what it’s like to do outdoor. And we’re saying before we press record, it ends up being like 400+ pages of really awesome information.

But when you look back at that, and you hear from people that have purchased that. It’s called Photographing FOOD. What are the most common things that people take away from that. The things that you hear from people where they’re like, “Oh I was really struggling with this. I figured it out, and it had a big impact on my photographs.”

Taylor Mathis: One thing is probably just kind of seeing light and paying attention to the way the light looks because lighting … Because I think photography, what is it like writing with light. That’s what the translation of it is. Something like that. Lighting is so, so important to photography, and it’s really what can make a difference between a good picture and a great picture. The issues, four of them are kind of geared around lighting. So you’ll really understand shadows, understand highlights, understand reflections, and just how you can modify those to get the look that you want. Because different people have different styles and what they like, so at the core, that’s kind of the most overarching theme throughout everything.

One of the issues I do go into the lens selection as we were talking about. I just remembered with macro and with the compression, and it’ll show you using the same subject kind of what that looks like. Then just over that, just kind of ideas of “Oh, how can I shoot things that way?” Just kind of taking the things you hear about with photography, and seeing what is actually important when it comes to shooting food. Because not everything really plays a huge role in food photography, because our sets are so small. This really just kind of focuses everything towards photography geared towards food.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Let’s say this. You’re to sit down with somebody. They come to you, and they say, “I am going to start shooting food photography, and I’ve never picked up a camera. I’ve never done anything related to photography.” What would be the advice that you’d give them? It could either be like concrete photography-related advice, or it could be mindset advice. If you were to sit down and talk with somebody about that, what would that advice be?

Taylor Mathis: One thing that definitely helps is to have an appreciation and interest in food because you really have to have that to kind of tell a story with your picture. And kind of understand of, “Oh, why would I style something this way?” Or, “When I’m cooking this, this is a really cool part of this recipe, you know when something splatters in like this.” Or to kind of think about how can I show a recipe that’s done over and over again. How can I give a different spin on it? By thinking about what goes into it, and what kind of makes that dish unique.

For instance, if you’re doing a flambe or something, okay, when things are on fire, that’s the cool part. That’s kind of what you want to focus on, that kind of stuff. Or if you’re shooting fried foods. Okay, when it’s covered in batter, not fried, not great-looking, but when it’s in the batter, bubbling away, something like that. Or cocktails, the actual pouring of the cocktail’s pretty cool. So just having an understanding and appreciation of food is kind of one key ingredient.

Another one is just realizing you’re not going to get perfect the first time. That it takes practice and being willing to practice. And as you keep to practice, you’ll kind of start to figure out your style, and like what you like, what you’re drawn to. And if you kind of head that direction, you’ll end up being able to really enjoy it and kind of follow through with that.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I think that’s such great advice, and one of the things that I try to bring up as much as possible, that idea that you’re not going to be an expert when you first start out, and it takes a long time. And to be okay, not feeling good about your work, which is such a weird thing to say. But when you’re in those early stages, you won’t feel good about it, but that’s okay and to stick with it and to not feel like because you don’t feel okay with it, that means that you shouldn’t do it. It just means that you’re in the beginning stages, and you know what you want, how you want it to look, but you aren’t quite there yet. But you’ll get there if you stick with it. I think that’s a great note to end on.

Actually, I want to end on this. For those that are interested in picking up those eBooks, I know that you offer those kind of as a big bundle that they can check out. How can people find that Photographing FOOD series and learn more about what you’re doing?

Taylor Mathis: If you go to photographingfood.com, and also on Instagram, we’re @photographingfood.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Cool. And we’ll be sure to link to that in the show notes as well. Taylor, thanks for coming on the podcast, for returning the favor of coming on and bringing this podcast interview full circle for us. It was really fun.

Taylor Mathis: It was great talking with you Bjork.

Bjork Ostrom: Thanks Taylor.

That’s a wrap for this episode. Hey, before you go, I just wanted to say one thing quick. We are now 110+ episodes into the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, and we don’t have any sponsors. That’s an intentional thing. It’s never something that we’ve sought out. Maybe we will someday, but for the near future, that’s something that we’re not going to do. We have Food Blogger Pro, our community of food bloggers. If you’re interested in being part of that, you can go to foodbloggerpro.com. Otherwise, we just do this podcast to release a valuable podcast and to stay connected with you.

One of the ways that you can help us, help to spur us on to continue to do this is to leave a review for the podcast. So no matter where you listen to this, it could be on the podcast app, or it could be in iTunes on your computer. Maybe you listen on Spotify or another podcast aggregator. Wherever it is, if you could leave a review, that would be super helpful.

The most prominent area for that is iTunes, and if you’d be able to do that, take a minute to do that, that would just really incredible. I see all of those. I read all of those. They come in every Saturday morning, I get a little overview of any of the reviews that were left, and that would really be a big deal. So I would appreciate that if you have a minute, and it also helps us to show up higher. So the more interaction and engagement we have with the podcast, the more reviews that we have, the more downloads we get, and it becomes a positive circle.

One more big thank you to Taylor for coming on the podcast. Again, be sure to check out his site and his collection of eBooks on photography. You can find that at photographingfood.com, and a big thank you to you for tuning in and listening to this each and every week, or even if you do it every once in a while, one-off here and one-off there. Whatever it is, we really appreciate it.

All right, we will catch you guys around. Make it a great week. Thanks guys.

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