Creating a Mood and Feeling in Food Photography

All images by Shant Kiraz. Used with permission.

Photographer Shant Kiraz is portrait and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles. He got into photography professionally after being approached by Zagat. Yes, he was approached by Zagat. For a while, he was the lead photographer for Zagat Restaurant Guides until 2014. Since then he’s shot for Eater.com, Micro Matic, Zagat Restaurant Guides, Amazon Inc., LA Canvas, Porter & Sail, San Diego Magazine, Darling Magazine, 24 Hour Fitness, Pasadena Magazine, The Irish Times etc.

To Shant, his ability to create a mood in a photo is what separates him from the average Joe on Instagram.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Shant: What attracted me to photography was the idea of creating compelling imagery without the necessity of a large crew. The “lone wolf” appealed to me since I could complete a project A-to-Z.…

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into food photography?

Shant: The truth is that I kind of fell into it when Zagat approached me to become a lead photographer for their food and interior publications. I ended up enjoying the entire process, and thrived on the challenge of adding my own flavor to food photography, no pun intended.

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Phoblographer: Where do you typically draw your inspiration from with food photography? Lots of your images seem to be about using lots of white and specific placement of colors.

Shant: The thing I focus on the most when photographing food is telling a story. I do my best to transport the viewer to the table. Every dish is unique and has a different message to convey. I tune into that to inform the arrangement and styling of the whole scene. For example, I would photograph a delicate sushi dish with a more zen-like arrangement versus a southern BBQ plate. I try to look at the food itself is a starting point, not the destination.

Phoblographer: How important do you feel effective use of colors are in food photography?

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Shant: I use color to emphasize what’s most important in the photo. Depending on the scene, having a bright sriracha bottle in the background could be distracting. In other settings, I may bring it closer to the dish (or even add a few dribbles to the plating) to create a narrative.

Phoblographer: What do you think makes for a fantastic food photo besides getting someone hungry?

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Shant: When I first started, I was focused on making food look super tasty, but as time went on, I became more fascinated with the props around the food versus solely the food. Props would imbue the shot with a whole different meaning. That’s when I realized that food photography was more about the table than the food. It’s all about putting the viewer in the shoes of the diner.

Phoblographer: A lot of your photos seem to be almost like environmental portraits of food. Talk to us about that. Is that intentional?

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Shant: Placing the viewer at the table is interesting to me. This is also why I’ll often photograph food in 1st person perspective with hands in the shot. If the scene calls for it, I’ll arrange some silverware, request additional plates to “fill the scene,” or swap a different table cloth. I also like to photograph mid-meal to further emphasize the feeling of being there. The alternative is taking macro shots of noodles, which I’m less stoked about.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Shant: I’m using the Sony a7R II and my go to lens is the Zeiss 55mm 1.8, mainly because of its versatility. I shoot in mostly natural light, and use a small reflector when needed. For larger assignments, I’ll pack strobes and reflectors. Generally I try to keeping my bag lightweight and only pack the essentials.

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Phoblographer: So you do portraits, editorial work and food; but what do you feel you specialize in the most and why?

Shant: The short of it is that I’ve become known for my food photography. That being said, a lot of the techniques that I use in food photography also inform my portrait work. For example, using a key prop as a starting point for inspiration, setting up a scene, and making the viewer feel like they “present” in the space.

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Phoblographer: I’ve asked this of a lot of photographers and no one has really said anything about it: what do you think is the next big trend in food photography?

Shant: Overhead shots have been a trend for a while now so I believe we’ll continue seeing more of it, but something that is often missing is storytelling. As photographers, we are storytellers, first and foremost. Any Instagrammer can take pretty overhead photos of their food, but creating a mood and narrative is much trickier. That being said, DRONES.

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Phoblographer: Have you seen Martin Parr’s Real Food? What are your thoughts on it?

Shant: Martin’s work is very unique and I think he does a great job of not glamorizing food that should not be glamorized. Although our styles are pretty different, I always enjoy seeing photographers use the medium to make a strong statement.

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