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Full Stomachs, Wide View

Paul Quitoriano uses the Tamron SP 35mm VC Prime lens to showcase his NYC food photography.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Paul Quitoriano

When San Francisco native Paul Quitoriano first arrived in New York City to start his career, he originally intended to put his photojournalism degree to use in the news arena. He worked for the Village Voice doing news assignments, until one day he was asked to take pictures at a local restaurant—and that's all they wanted him doing from that point on.

"I had to rationalize it a bit because I had really wanted to stick with news, but I've come around," he says. "When I show up to a restaurant, I'm kind of the validation of all of the owner's hard work—I've come to document it. People aren't always happy to see a news photographer, but they're always happy to see a food photographer."

What arrived just a few weeks ago to help Paul hone his craft: the Tamron SP 35mm VC Prime lens. "It's a unique mix of wide-angle capability with macro capability," he says. "It allows me to get much closer to my subjects and take advantage of bokeh and elements in the foreground, which is sort of my trademark look. Plus the wide angle allows me to get more of the environment into each image so there's a little context."

Paul prefers to shoot in natural light, which means he has to prep by scouting out the restaurants. "I have to plan the shoots around certain times of the day and based on where the restaurants are, so I'll check out their locations on Google Maps and see whether the building is facing east or west so I can figure out what time of day the light will probably be streaming through the windows," he says. "Sometimes I do have to use a flash, though; I'll bring a couple of fill cards and negative fill cards and work around that. I also have to remember to turn all of the lights off, because otherwise I'll get mixed color temperatures that can affect how the images turn out."

Working quickly before the food "fades" is imperative in his work. "Especially with meat, or with items that are salted, which I instruct the chef not to do," Paul says. "Dairy can also be super-tough, because it curdles quickly. A lot of times you can fake it, though. Soy milk, for example, does better than regular milk, and the viewer can't usually tell the difference. In any case, I usually try to have a stand-in for my actual subject as I'm setting up; then I'll bring the actual food in at the last minute so it's as fresh as possible."

There are certain foods that are more photogenic than others. "Sushi is by far the easiest food to photograph," Paul says. "It's so pretty, and the shapes and colors always pop. The hardest food for me, on the other hand, is curries, which I love. It's usually a bunch of curries set out in bowls, which doesn't make for a terribly compelling photo. In cases like that, I'll often get a hand model to add a human element, or I'll try to focus on textures so it doesn't look so flat."

Photographing unusual foods is Paul's forte, and using the 35mm allows him to boost his creativity. "I recently visited a restaurant that makes Jell-O shots in lemon rinds," he says. "The pieces of lemon are pretty small, but the 35mm's macro capabilities allowed me to show what was going on. I like that the image is a mix of textures that the macro was able to pick up: You can see the pores on the rinds, but also the smooth surfaces of the Jell-O."

© Paul Quitoriano
F/2.8, 1/30th sec., ISO 1250

The 35mm allows him to create a mood for an image by capturing more of the environment. "With this milkshake image, for example, I wanted the viewer to see the neon lights in the background and some of the other elements to give the image more personality," he says. "I wanted the viewer to feel like she's in an old-time '50s diner with classic American food. I even toned it a bit warmer to make it feel more timeless. A photo like that becomes about the food and the place."

© Paul Quitoriano
F/2.0, 1/60th sec., ISO 1250

He also has what he calls his signature technique of placing something in the corner of the frame to lead your eye into the main subject. "Some food photography is just a plate on a blank table, with no other context," he says. "I always like to place an element of some sort in the foreground, my main subject more or less in the middle, and then something behind that, so the whole image flows better."

That’s the technique he employed in this pie slice image. "In the corner of the frame, you can see something peeking in," he says. "That's actually the milkshake from the other photo. Sometimes it helps tell a visual story to have elements like that next to each other, especially because it somewhat marries the images when you see them side by side."

© Paul Quitoriano
F/2.0, 1/60th sec., ISO 1250

What angle or perspective Paul takes depends on the type of food he's photographing. "Overhead shots, for example, are usually reserved for very graphic scenes that lend themselves well to that POV," he says. "For instance, take the overhead shot of a bunch of Oaxacan dishes. The 35mm was perfect for an overhead without a lot of distortion. It made it so I didn't have to be on a ladder shooting straight down, which is usually what I have to do. With the 35mm, I can stand on a chair, frame it up, and fire away."

© Paul Quitoriano
F/2.8, 1/125th, ISO 640

But that's not usually how people see food when they're eating, which is why Paul will often include a perspective that makes the viewers feel they've got a seat at the table. "I like taking pictures where the viewer is kind of looking through the flowers or other items on the table, for instance," he says.

Paul sometimes styles the food himself; other times he uses a stylist. Either way, he tries to avoid an overstyled look. "In that overhead shot, I wanted to show a more casual setting, as if someone were sitting down to a laid-back meal with family or friends," he says. "That's why I included elements like the condiment bottles. If you were really sharing a meal like this, it would be a little messy and not perfect-looking.

The styling also depends on the type of food he's shooting. "If I had done this kind of overhead shot with sushi, for example, I would've used more clean lines and not included branded sauces in the frame," he says. "It's good to know the culture of the dishes you're photographing to help inform how you depict them."

After doing this type of photography for so long, the subjects in front of his camera now transcend edibles. "Often when I look at dishes in a restaurant, I don't even see them as food anymore," he says. "Instead, I see them as shapes and patterns and colors, all of which I can play with to make them more dynamic."

One such study in shapes and colors: his split-screen image of a tropical drink next to a quesadilla plate. "By themselves, the images were just OK," he notes. "But when you place them side by side, you get to play with different compositions and colors within a single frame. The tiki cup, for example, is cylinder-shaped, which contrasts nicely with the quesadilla triangles. There's also a touch of purple shading in the quesadilla, due to the way it was prepared, and that works well with the green tiki cup and the green leaves in both pictures. That's the kind of visual consistency I love to try and capture."

© Paul Quitoriano
F/2.8, 1/60th sec., ISO 640

To see more of Paul Quitoriano's work, go to www.paulcrispin.com.