An Interview with People & Food Photographer Francesco Sapienza

I think great food photography consists of making the food look delectable and tantalising, yet at the same time, the image needs to be so beautifully composed that you would not want to ruin it by grabbing a plateful. Francesco Sapienza’s images embody these qualities.  Sublimely lit compositions of mouthwatering dishes, fruits and vegetables; alluring pasta and pastries and scrumptious looking desserts and more.  His professional compositions are excellently crafted with perfect styling and backgrounds, that create both temptation and hunger.

Francesco's great work does not stop there; you can certainly see the ‘character’ of his subjects within his attention-grabbing, skilful portrait photography and also in his brilliantly arresting and colourful street portraits too.

His work is published internationally, and Francesco has had various commercial photography assignments with eateries, museums and more.  His varied portrait projects have included ballet dancers, musicians and Oscar winners.

You can contact Francesco on his website: http://www.francescosapienza.com

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What do you love about food photography and what do you enjoy least about it?

I love the fact the image can trigger so many of your senses. I love the fact that you need to study the food and light it in such way that enhances its beauty. I love the fact that you can experiment so easily by just stopping by your grocery store and buying raw ingredients. You have all the freedom in the world to experiment styling and composition with a minor investment; it’s probably the only genres where, if you’re a beginner, you can create a portfolio from your home or studio possibly even without the help of a food stylist, given that you are good at styling your food. When you shoot portraits, you always need someone else in order to produce a portrait, which is of course a complication if you’re looking at creating portfolio images.

However, in order to develop a body of work further or in case you’re shooting commercially, you need to partner with a food stylist. Also you need to find food that really stands out. I like to draw the parallel with Fashion photography. In order to create stunning and innovative images in both Food and Fashion, you need very cool/innovative food/clothes or a stylist who can do very cool things with basic food/clothes. Well, if you have both is of course even better.

What I like the least is that in many cases you can’t improvise a Food shoot in any location, you need a proper studio equipped with kitchen, fridge etc. Also, I don’t like the fact there is almost inevitably food the goes to waste after a shoot and that is something that really bothers me.

 

What qualities do you look for in someone to photograph for a Street portrait and how do you approach them?

It’s a gut feeling, I just follow my instinct and I approach only people who have something interesting, it can be anything ranging from an accessory to a haircut to an outfit to the way they sit down or stand. There’s very little rational thinking behind the choice of the subject and I like it that way. It’s supposed to be fun and improvised. The real challenge is my introverted nature, it’s difficult for me to approach a stranger and I work really hard at forcing myself and do that. I know I’ll never feel comfortable at approaching a stranger, but I definitely think it’s gotten a lot easier since I moved to NYC. Street portraits have become in my view almost like some sort of therapeutical thing that forces me to fight my nature. I feel like a kid who is promised a treat if they behave well. My treat is a potentially cool image if I can go through the unpleasant sensation I have when approaching a stranger. The fact that I live in NYC makes my life a lot easier though because not only are there countless interesting looks on the street, but also people are extremely approachable and in the vast majority of cases they allow me to take their portrait.

What steps do you take to bring out the ‘character’ in your portrait subjects?

What you need is creating a connection with the subject. Without that, it’s really hard to get interesting images out of them and this is what makes the difference between a good photographer and just a guy with a camera. How you do it is part of your craft and style.

There are definitely some ‘tricks’, but they are not universal and always working. What I mean with that is….take humour, for example. Humour can definitely help create a connection between you and the subject, but being funny is so personal and the way we express out ‘funny side’ varies so much with the individual. Also, the way the subject reacts to ‘funny’ is totally unpredictable. They could be having a bad day and the funniest joke in the world would not make them laugh. I believe you need above all to allow yourself to be you. That will bring you to act in a way that makes you comfortable and you enjoy the process (assuming you’re doing this for fun), which is the entire point for me. What I believe you need to develop and refine is your sensitivity, which allows you to ‘read’ your subject quickly and adapt your game (whatever it is) to the subject. That is the most important thing because it allows you to engage with pretty much any type of subject and hopefully, they’ll respond by showing you their character, or whatever you think would make a good photo. You need to work at your craft, and I’m not referring to the technical knowledge of cameras and lighting, I’m talking about the craft that allows you to engage with a subject and maximises your chances of getting an interesting reaction from them.

One ‘trick’ that is part of being yourself is just admitting to the subject that you’re also pretty nervous and you do this for fun and for fighting your ‘being shy'. People always react nicely to honesty and I think it can definitely help, especially when the subject is really self-conscious and don’t think they can photograph well. I also tell them that 80-90% of people who are not professional models or actors don’t enjoy being in front of the camera, which is actually true in my experience. This helps the subject feel less responsible for the outcome of the images.

That being said, you need to TOTALLY MASTER your camera because you normally have seconds to take the photos and you cannot let any technical difficulty stand in the way and delay the process. The subject could easily get bored or even annoyed and that doesn't really help in creating a connection.

What equipment do you use for each genre of photography that you do (lenses/camera bodies/lighting)?

My main camera is a Nikon D810 and the lenses I use the most are:

Nikon 85mm 1.4 for portraits

Nikon 50mm 1.4 for portraits (normally groups of people)

Nikon 85mm 2.8 macro Tilt-Shift Manual focus for food and still life.

Not so often, Nikon 45mm 2.8 Tilt-Shift Manual focus for food, if limitations in the studio don’t allow me to climb high enough, and use the 85mm 2.8 TS

My backup camera and walk-around camera is a Sony A7RII

Sony Zeiss 55mm 1.8 for portraits and for overhead shots of food when not in studio thanks to the AF and the adjustable display that allows me to raise the camera above my head and still see and frame the image correctly.

Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f4 for interiors of restaurants.

I own Profoto strobes (B1 and B2) and rent Profoto lights when needed. I rarely use a speed light.

Please talk about how you plan a particular Food assignment… How do you envisage a composition and lighting scheme (pre-planned or improvised) (natural lighting or strobes)?

I tend to work with strobes as I like to be independent of the weather and time of the day. I always try and recreate a natural light feeling with my strobes.

The shoots vary quite a bit, so there’s no standard preparation.

On one end of the spectrum there are the NY Times assignments that normally involve restaurant reviews (see examples below)

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/dining/gramercy-tavern-review.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/dining/union-square-cafe-review.html

You normally work in very confined spaces, being a restaurant kitchen or a small area inside the restaurant, often side by side guests who are eating. And you’re on a clock, big time. It’s a pretty stressful type of assignment, but I love that! Normally I need to shoot 4-7 dishes previously chosen by the photo editor, the portraits of the chef(s) and the interiors and exterior of the restaurant. If I don’t know the chef, I Google them and read about their life and achievements in order to be able to possibly find the topic of conversation that could help in creating the connection, that’s all the preparation in most cases. My equipment list is pretty standardised for these assignments and consist of the cameras and lenses above plus the Profoto B2’s (two heads) and some small reflectors, one camera stand and one light stand. They require close up of the dishes, which facilitates the shoot a lot as you don’t need to deal with prop-styling and you only need to concern yourself with the beauty shots of the dish itself. I know the editors want to see a variety of shots, so I normally shoot the dishes from a couple of angles from the side plus from the top.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are commercial assignments with very specific visual guidelines either created by the client’s creative team only or in concert with me. It's key to know what exactly we are going to shoot in order to plan for equipment and lighting. Sometimes the plan goes even further and the image is sketched already during the brainstorming phase. Also, in such cases, the food stylist, the prop stylist and the chef need to be involved early on as well. Inspirational images are used to brainstorm and make sure everybody is on the same page.

A book project would be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and, depending on the type of book and visual direction, closer to one or the other end of the spectrum.

In all cases above the lighting is carefully planned and it most often reflects my style (relatively soft lighting, but rather punchy images and contrast).

 

Who are your photographic influences and why?

My favorite portrait photographer is by far Richard Avedon. His influence is probably reflected in the simplicity of my portraits, I don’t like over-styled images and a lot of elements in the background. What I love about his portraits is how simple they are, rather minimalistic, just a subject against a white backdrop. I love that.

One of my favorite food photographers is another Francesco in NYC, Francesco Tonelli, also probably because of the simplicity of his images. I love his work.

What is the most important advice that you wish you had when starting out, that you can give to somebody who is taking their first steps in professional Food photography?

1) Create a portfolio of the best images that is representative of the work you love to do. Shoot shoot shoot!

2) 'Study' other photographers you love by paying attention to things such as lighting, composition, contrast, general feeling, etc and try and recreate that.

3) Treat it as a business. - Learn how pricing works (when you create something, the pricing structure is extremely different than in any other business) and this is where most people (me included when I first started) make huge mistakes that keep them stuck where they are. - Work on a marketing plan. How are you going to get clients? - Etc….

4) Find your balance between keeping your passion alive by doing what you love (even if it doesnt make you money) and keeping the business alive. These two things are not always overlapping, sometimes they dont overlap at all and that's a problem because you might get caught up in the business and might forget about why you started in the first place (your passion).

Francesco Sapienza

Francesco Sapienza