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Lou Manna - Capturing the feeling of good food


Written by Karina Fernandez Izquierdo Ryland Stud id 11038835 Photoes by: Lou Manna


Lou Manna has for over thirty years been taking pictures of all things edible. He’ve been a photographer for the New York Times for 15 years, recently penned his own book on food photography called Digital Food Photography (with another food photography book set to debut next year) and he currently operates a studio on Fifth Avenue where he works with high profile food industry clients. Manna is also a member of the Olympus Visionary Program, a select group of nine professional photographers who exclusively use Olympus cameras and accessories.

New York-based food photographer Lou Manna discusses shooting trends: “The old style of photographing food involved lots of props, edge-to-edge sharpness, dramatic, shadowy light and was shot from a high angle. On the other hand, today’s food photography is about brighter, less-contrasty lighting, shallow depth of field, less food and fewer props.” He’s a great authority on this, as one who’s photographed delectable dishes for over 28 years for publications like Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Wine Enthusiast, and The New York Times, as well as working with such renowned chefs as Michael Lomonaco, Pierre Franey, Emeril Lagasse, and Jacques Torres. His work also appears in over 30 cookbooks, including Dessert Cir-

cus, The Four Star Kitchen, and Grilling for Dummies. Engineering to Photojournalism He recounts one of his fondest memories at the age of eight, “When I took pictures of a beautiful tree covered with snow with my Brownie camera.” Manna grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he took photography classes, became president of the photo club, and shot pictures for the yearbook at Xaverian Catholic High School. “I liked the whole process of taking pictures,” he recalls. In addition to photography, he studied video, filmmaking, art history, and had a passion for languages.


After high school, Manna attended Stony Brook University, where he majored in electrical engineering and studied photography as a sideline. He became staff photographer and photo editor of Statesman, the school newspaper, as well as facilities manager for the school’s darkroom. “I amassed quite a portfolio from my newspaper pictures,” he says. During his first year of college, he started shooting for local papers like Smithtown News and Three Village Herald. “This is what changed my mind--and my major--to communications.” Although he made “literally $5 per picture,” he

got paid for something he loved to do. In those days, he hardly got any sleep as he worked in the darkroom at night, then delivered the resulting prints to various newspapers and took classes by day. After graduating in 1976, Manna discovered that engineering jobs were difficult to come by, and “the idea of being behind a desk designing circuit boards didn’t appeal to me. I love people.” He took his portfolio around to various publications, and eventually showed his images to the photo editor of The New York Times. According to Manna, he was in


the right place at the right time as this newspaper was changing from being a more-literary journal, and they loved his work. “I walked out of there with my first assignment--to photograph a 100-year-old man playing a bagpipe on the beach with his dog by his side.” As time went on, he became what was known as a “personality photographer” at the paper. One assignment involved taking pictures at a little girl’s funeral. “I had tears in my eyes from grief as I was shooting the photos--I felt the moment,” he recalls. One of these images appeared on the front page

of The New York Times. Richard Avedon called the newspaper and commented that it was the best front page shot he had ever seen, and requested a signed print from Manna. A Delicious Specialty He “fell into food photography” when his early New York Times assignments took him to the home of food critic and writer Craig Claiborne in the Hamptons. Manna was commuting from his studio in Commack, Long Island, to work in the Hamptons and Manhattan. He was sent to Claiborne’s home to shoot food and to work with influential chefs, like Pierre


Franey. As he spoke fluent French (and professes to be a good cook to boot), “I started getting other foodrelated jobs.” Altogether, Manna worked for The New York Times for about 15 years. He often contributed to the Sunday magazine, shooting food, people and lifestyles. He also free-lanced and built his own photo business during this time. Today, food photography has become his special niche. His impressive client list includes General Foods, Kraft, Pillsbury, Planters, Corningware, National Yogurt Council, Tabasco, T-Fal and Krinos. He’s also

been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel internationally. “I’ve seen palaces, dungeons, wealth and poverty.” (He once co-piloted a small plane to Vermont to photograph Argentine actor Fernando Lamas’ daughter’s wedding.) Manna has worked from a variety of studio locations, including his current site in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, which has recently undergone extensive remodeling. This studio has a large, state-of-the-art kitchen in which Manna plans to hold client parties, in addition to using it for his food photography. Digital Visionary


He became involved with digital technology early on, which he attributes to his electrical engineering background in college, and the fact that he’s a selfproclaimed “gadget freak.” At one time, he shot with 35mm, medium and largeformat cameras. During the ‘80s, he hooked up a TV monitor to his video camera, which was placed next to his still camera, for instant feedback from his clients. Now, he does this digitally. In 1990, he took classes in Adobe Photoshop. He states, “I was a visionary and saw digital photography as the future of the

industry over 10 years ago.” During the early ‘90s, he began using the first Kodak DCS digital camera series, and moved on to a Nikon E2 in 1995 (a 1.3-megapixel digital model that cost approximately $13,000). The E2 had “fulllens coverage with a digital chip,” and Manna used it extensively in his work. Nonetheless, he found that the early digital models operated too slowly for his quick style of shooting, “and they didn’t have the quality of current digital models.” Today, he relies exclusively on Olympus digital cameras, beginning with the E-10


and E-20 models. Both cameras offered video live feed, which enabled him to show clients and chefs images on a television screen, “a more interactive approach to photography.” And now, he’s using the Olympus E-1 digital SLR with its interchangeable lens system. He loves the digital chip on the E-1, and enjoys the ultrasonic cleaning system, “which shakes dust off the camera’s CCD-it’s great to use a camera that cleans itself.” He’s also excited about Olympus’ Global Service Support, which was introduced with the E-1. “I’m thrilled about this, being a world traveler and professional photographer,” he comments.

Tricks of the Trade: Five Tips for Shooting Food Like a Pro Manna has taught food photography for years to students of the French Culinary Institute and many other professional groups. Thus, he’s produced a brochure as a teaching aid, which includes some of the following tips: Food Prep Manna (or his stylists) use brushes with light cooking oil to add shine to food or vegetables. Likewise, using a spritzer bottle with glycerine and water on glass surfaces like bottles and glasses adds droplets. “I also use hand-carved,


plastic ice cubes when shooting beverages.” Elmer’s Glue is used instead of milk in cereal shots, as it keeps cereal from getting soggy over the course of a photo shoot. To create “ice cream” that won’t melt under hot lights, Manna shares this recipe: confectionary sugar, mashed potatoes, Fleishman’s margarine, and light corn syrup, shaped with an ice cream scooper. If you’re preparing food to be photographed, Manna advises, “Undercooking usually works best for better-looking food. Overcooking dries it out too much for photography.” Lenses Photographers who want to shoot food are advised to have a variety of lenses

in a wide-angle, normal or telephoto range, depending on the desired result. A macro lens--or one with close-focusing capability-is a must, according to Manna. He often shoots with a telephoto lens to get that “in your face” look, to compress distance, and to give a shallow depth of field. He uses a wide-angle lens when he wants deliberate distortion. Lighting “Whatever you do, don’t use on-camera or direct flash,” Manna points out. “Diffuse light somehow.” Lighting sources can include sunlight, window light, or some type of offcamera flash, such as studio umbrellas, grid spots, or softboxes. He suggests


using reflectors, foil, or mirrors to bounce light back on the subject. Manna uses mirrors in varying sizes to bounce light into a reflective surface, such as a small mirror for one pea on up to a large mirror for a group of subjects. Props These days, fewer props are used for food photography than in the past, says Manna. They tend to be smaller, more lightweight, and in lighter, more pastel shades. Manna sometimes uses food elements as props. When shooting a table setting, he says, silverware and glassware are simpler, with solid or textured napkins. He also uses textured wood or paper backgrounds.

Composition The old trend of food photography involved shooting from a high angle. Not so today, Manna points out. He shoots from low angles, and uses shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus, which isolates his main subject. As the viewer’s eye is attracted to the brightest object in a photo, Manna purposely places darker colors near the edges of a composition. For visual flow, he arranges his compositions in a circular manner so that the eye stays within the frame.


Bibliography www.photofocus.com/2009/12/03/an-interview-with-lou-manna/ www.huffingtonpost.com/lou-manna www.manta.com/c/mm37ydf/lou-manna-inc www.loumanna.com/ Pictures http://www.loumanna.com/#a=0&at=0&mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=2&p=4



Lou Manna