Rangefinder Magazine

Profile - Michael Ray – “It’s All About the Lighting”

By Harvey Goldstein 

Photography is all about lighting the subject; The word “photography” comes from the Greek meaning to paint with light. During the interview process for this article, Michael repeated, “It’s all about the lighting” numerous times. What he says is 100% true. Whether one uses film or digital capture, without proper lighting, the final image will fail. 

Michael Ray is a photographer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who specializes in artistically lit food for use in advertisements, packaging, cookbooks and specialty publications. The proper knowledge and use of lighting is important in portrait and wedding photography; it is crucial in photographing food. Using imaginative lighting techniques, Michael can emphasize and de-emphasize the tone, texture and shape of the product and successfully accomplish exactly what he, the food stylist and art director are striving to achieve. With his outstanding lighting ability, he is able to make the photograph communicate with the viewer. The accompanying text is almost superfluous, the photograph tells it all. 

Michael began his career as a staff photographer for a design firm in Lexington, Kentucky. It was here that he learned the designer’s point of view on how photographs work in the process of design and communication. It was also here that he began to photograph food. 

After a short stay in Kentucky, Michael moved to Chicago where he worked in a catalog house with over 150 people on staff, including 21 photographers. Because his space was near the kitchen, he became the obvious choice to photograph not only food, but glassware, silverware and chrome objects as well. It was here that Michael learned to photograph reflective and difficult objects and how to work with hot lights. He discovered that by using a smaller light source, the shadows would not fill in as they did with a larger light source and he would get a better texture. In this day of computers and digital manipulation, Michael still prefers to take the extra 5-10 minutes to light the subject properly while photographing rather than to manipulate the light afterwards on his computer. It was also at the firm’s lunch table where he received much of his photography education. He absorbed and retained a lot of information from his co-workers. 

Although Michael has worked in many aspects in the commercial field, he is primarily a food photographer with 75% of his work being in that genre. When asked about photographing weddings, he said that although he no longer does that type of work, wedding photographers rate high on his approval list, “Photographing weddings is good training because of the stress factor. The planning and discipline of a wedding photographer will prepare one for any kind of assignment.”

 On any given day, Michael may find himself challenged with one or more of the various areas of food photography. He points out that there is packaging, advertising and editorial food photography, which is his preference. 

Packaging is the work done for the boxes of cereals, frozen foods and cake mixes. He describes this as being tedious; food stylists have been known to count the number of peas that they will arrange on a plate. It is not uncommon to make 350 pancakes before deciding which one will be used. Many exposures are made in an attempt to tweak and improve the image. Food photography is a process of improvement; each photograph is an improvement from the previous exposure until Michael and the team are satisfied with the end result. Interestingly, 99% of the time, the last exposure is the one selected. Some of Michael’s clients are Del Monte, Heinz, Bayer, Ocean Spray, Sara Lee and College Inn. 

Advertising photography is more technical than editorial, but not as exacting as packaging. Michael states that Editorial food photography is the most enjoyable, it is a team effort. The team is made up of the art director, food stylist, prop stylist, marketing director, client and photographer. 

During the pre-production meeting, the team examines the art director’s ideas and together everyone plans the session. The props are all assembled and checked out to be sure that everything is as it should be. As with the Boy Scouts, the key phrase is to “Be Prepared” because sometimes concepts are switched in the middle of the shoot. 

In photographing an assignment, the food is arranged in reference to the camera. While the camera remains stationary, the set may be moved for different perspectives. Michael states, “The most important decision in food photography is where to place the light to enhance the shape and texture of the subject.”

 The team experiments with lighting, composition and propping while using “dummy” or “stand-in” food. When the team thinks they are ready, the stylist brings the “Hero” (real) food to the set. This is when the pressure really begins. There are always last second changes in the lighting to accommodate the differences between the dummy and the hero food. There is not a second to waste. The longer the hero food sits on the set, the more it deteriorates. There is a real challenge to get the shot completed as fast as possible while still taking the time to make all the necessary improvements that will satisfy all the team members. 

Michael’s equipment of choice is the Arca Swiss 6x9 view camera with a DCS Pro Back that captures a 48 meg tiff file. This camera has all of the advantages of a view camera but with the benefits of digital capture. Michael is a believer of creating, composing and lighting in the camera and not in Photoshop. His mainstay lenses are the Schneider 120mm Super Angulon and the 58mm Super Angulon lenses. 

Michael’s advice to aspiring photographers is to develop a portfolio and continually market oneself. Taking his own advice, Michael created www.pittsburghcreative.com. 

He continues to be energized by the variety of his work. Michael Ray is a successful and happy individual who states, “I never dread going into work.” 

For more information on Michael Ray, visit www.michaelray.com. You can also visit his food portfolio site, www.foodportfolio.com and his “how-to” site, www.professionalphotography101.com.  

Harvey Goldstein from Branford, Connecticut has been in the photographic industry for more than 30 years. He is a former studio owner and presently edits numerous association newsletters and magazines, as well as being a freelance writer.