Ryan Matthew Smith graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle in 2007. Since late 2007 he has been employed at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, WA, as a Digital Imaging Editor and Photographer. Ryan was the principal photographer and photo editor for the highly anticipated book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Modernist Cuisine is currently scheduled for release in March 2011.
How did you become the principal photographer and photo editor behind the book, Modernist Cuisine, the Art and Science of Cooking, which will be released in March 2011?
‘I was a pretty freshly graduated student in November 2007 when I saw a job posting on craigslist looking for a photo editor with skills in compositing for an invention firm. The ad actually didn’t even mention a cookbook project at all. I applied. During the interview process I found out about the book project and that my duty on the book would be to do the photo editing and all the compositing for our “cutaway” shots. Lead author Nathan Myhrvold was planning to do the photography himself; he has been an avid photographer for years and contributed many beautiful photos to the book. However, as the project grew in scope it became clear that Nathan would not be able to take on the lead photographer position, in addition to writing duties and his full time job as CEO of Intellectual Ventures. As photo requests piled up; it was decided I could take a stab at taking the photos for the book and I haven’t looked back since. We now have a full studio and have taken about 140,000 shots since April of 2008.
The book is made up of six-volumes with a whopping 2,400 of ‘lavishly’ illustrated pages. Do you have past experience as a food photographer and what type of research, if any, did you do before taking on this unique and massive project?
‘Before taking on this project; I had almost no professional experience and no food photography experience. I had two very in depth portfolio books that grabbed the attention of Nathan and the editing team; the only issue was they were focused in architecture and nature. I had very little studio experience and had never shot food of any kind; even as a student. I really do feel that having a strong artistic sense towards photography in general can easily transfer through any of the disciplines from advertising all the way to fine art. I had spent many, many, hours working on photography skills before joining the team, so jumping to food and studio work was not a huge leap but there was definitely a learning curve involved. Most of the research was done on a trial and error basis while we were shooting because there was a constant push for photo material from the design team.
‘In terms of influence on style; it’s clear we don’t just look to other food photography for inspiration. Advertising and fine art photography have had large influences on the photography in the book. I’m very intrigued by minimalist, high contrast imagery that really pops off the page. I feel that comes through in the photos’.
What equipment did you use for these shoots and did you have to learn any particular skill(s) beforehand?
‘We used Broncolor 3200 w/s power packs with Broncolor Pulso F4 heads for lighting. Typical sets would use 2-3 lights. My main camera is a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon 24-105 f/4 zoom lens. We also have a Canon 1ds Mark II, Canon f2.8 180mm macro lens, and a Canon 65mm 1-5x macro.
‘I had a pretty good understanding of compositing but given the large amount and complexity of photo illustration I spent many hours on Photoshop trying to find new ways to blend images together smoothly and quickly’.
How many people were involved on set while you were photographing and what were their specific roles?
‘On set, we generally had myself and one chef working on set at any given time. Sometimes two chefs for major shots. To start, it was always head chef Maxime Bilet who is both an amazing food stylist and artist; he endlessly contributed cool photo ideas and did excellent styling on the food plating shots. When Max became too busy with writing/recipe development, the food styling duties were split between kitchen chefs: Grant Crilly, Johnny Zhu, Anjana Shanker, and Sam Fahey-Burke. All of them added their own touch to food styling, greatly helping diversify the food plating in the book. Grant Crilly and Maxime Bilet also were instrumental in the creation of the cross sectional photos; troubleshooting, engineering, and styling these very complicated photos’.
How carefully were the shots planned out beforehand and how much was left to chance?
‘That would completely depend on the photo. With the cross sectional “cutaway” photos, where we would cut in half pans and build sets to look like the food in the pans was in the process of cooking, we would actually dedicate a good amount of time in meetings to planning out exactly what needed to be seen in the photo. Other times we would find a crazy ingredient or technique on the fly and decided it was too cool not to rush into the studio to take some shots of. We actually would often take really cool photos with no idea of how they could fit in the book but just knew they would look really cool. And when the shots are cool enough we tend to reach pretty far to find a place for the photo. The bullet through the eggs is a good example; There is no logical reason to take pictures of a .308 round shooting through a line of eggs with the intention of placing it in the book. But we took the photo because we knew it would look amazing and ended up opening our Eggs recipe chapter in the book’.
How long have you been working on the photography for this book and approximately how long did each shot take? Were there some shots that were really difficult to capture and if so, what were the factors surrounding this?
‘I’ve been photo editing since December of 2007 and photographing since April 2008, almost 3 years now. Some of the cutaway shots would take hours to build the sets and would sometimes require reshooting. We would end up shooting upwards of a couple hundred shots of material to use in the final photo for the most complicated photo illustrations in the book. Shooting the cutaways was probably the most difficult photos to take for the book. You really need to visualize the different photo set ups and exposures you will need to get one composite image and be very careful with keeping the light consistent throughout the shots. I would often get into photoshop to realize something wasn’t working out so well and the team had to rebuild the set for a reshoot’.
Did you shoot much video while working on this project and if so, what are your plans for the footage?
‘We did shoot some high speed video while making the book because we are lucky enough to have a Phantom V12.1 high speed camera in house. The quality of the stills from the camera is not nearly as good as the Canons so we didn’t use it very much for the inside the book (but we did use it for the eggs photo as well as a few others) but are planning to use the video to draw attention to our website and blog. I posted a video of popcorn popping in slow motion to YouTube/our blog a couple of weeks ago and it has already generated 300,000 hits so we see it as a good advertising tool to gather buzz for the book’.