From Food Photography to Celebrity Portraits with Matt Carr

This week is exciting for me. I am interviewing Matt Carr. He's a Brooklyn-based photographer that I have personally been following for a while.

One of the ways that I connected with his work was that I was working on some post-production, learning some different things that I could do with the lighting and my portraits as most of you know, I love faces. I'm a huge portrait fan, just portraits in the studio, candid, any which way. I love portraits and I found Matt's work and just, I just love it.

I love the quality of the light, the quality of the color toning and from his bio, I thought that he had also kind of an interesting story. So I reached out and we did a show. One of the things that I wanted to address with this particular, a series of episodes, as you know, interviews come out every Tuesday and Thursday is just the journey that we all kind of start out a certain way.

And the journey is the journey for all of us. There is no one way to do this.

There are so many ways to be a photographer and Matt's journey is no exception.

So I hope that you enjoy this. I hope that you learn something from it. I hope that you check out his work.

Natalie: Hi Matt. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Matt: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Natalie: Yeah. So I reached out to you because I've been a big fan of your stuff for a while. Your portrait work is beautiful, but there's also something about just like your use of light and. I'm really drawn to like portraits and faces and stuff like that and my own work.

So I think that's a big part of what drew me to your work. Have you always been a portrait photographer, sort of the same style that you see on your site now?

episode 260 from food photography to celebrity portraits with matt carr part 1

Matt: I don't know about the same style. I started off in a photojournalism working for newspapers, and that was fresh out of school. I went to school for photojournalism and in journalism, obviously you have to do everything.

You need to do some portraits, you have to do sports, you have to do lifestyle stuff, kind of everything, and they just throw it to you really quickly. So it's, it's a good way to figure out what you like and what you don't.

Natalie: That's super important. That's something that I tell sort of new photographers all the time is, you know, try stuff.

Cause you don't know if you'll like it or not. I did food photography for a while and I really enjoyed it. I didn't last, but it was something that I didn't even have on my radar.

Matt: You got, have a good stylist for that.

One of my first jobs is photographing a wedding cakes Saturday morning at the bakery, like 5:00 AM before I went off to whatever wedding and just learning how to light the wedding cake and then shoot it on film and printed this where you can actually see the white, you know, the details for me. I didn't know what I was doing. So it was a good lesson.

Natalie: Totally. There's a lot going on. That's a lot harder than it looks when it comes to still life or food stuff. Yeah.

Matt: People don't appreciate that. Like when you see food, it's like, oh, I just have a picture. Like now it's it's a lot more involved in that. I'm not going to, you know, if you don't have a stylist, I don't want it the job.

Natalie: Do you work with other folks when you're doing these sessions, portrait sessions and stuff, or are you pretty solo when it comes to like people?

Natalie: It's just usually me and an assistant. If it's a bigger job, obviously they like to have no styling and makeup and all that kind of stuff. But generally most of my work is just me and one other person. So it's kinda nice. We're pretty tight. We're pretty quick. And yeah, it's gonna, it's a lot of fun. I try to keep it pretty low stress.

They will get stressed out about having their photo taken. And if you can calm that down, then you're halfway there to something good.

Natalie: That's huge. That's a big part of my vibe too. I think I like to, I even say it probably on my website somewhere still that I'm pretty laid back. Cause I think people don't like that feeling.

Do you, do you have any techniques to put people at ease that you kind of go to?

Matt: I just use humor really. I go in there and most people have this idea of what what's something horrible is gonna happen, you know, or whatever they, or maybe just that they're out of control and they're, and they have had bad experiences, bad photos of themselves.

I just talk them through the process, you know, and then tell them that no matter what we're going to have some great lighting, the right lens on your face. Then we're going to start with the…it's only going to get better from here kind of thing. So even if there's something you don't like that you have that week or whatever, then that's going to go away.

But mostly…I dunno, kind of buying somebody's confidence that they can trust you for whatever time it's going to take.

Natalie: Sure. And I think any kind of communication is always helpful.

Matt: Yeah. At least I find that I know a lot of like corporate people just when I take their photo, like they say “the last guy just, I walked in and they just bam, bam, bam. And I was out the door.” Like there was no communication at all, which surprises me, so, okay.

Natalie: Yeah, it feels like kind of an intimate thing to a degree when you're trying to really capture somebody's essence, which I think you do really, really well. Not that I know these folks, but it just, you know, it feels like there's emotion in your images and that there's, you know, they're not all like the same, like a school photo by any means, right?

Matt: Yeah. I guess I was talking more corporate in that sense, but like, if it's a creative photo or if something more personality driven. Then I like to give somebody an idea to work with there a scene in their head that they can internalize and give it back to you in that look so that they're more involved.

You know what I mean? It's not just micromanaging.

Natalie: Is that something that you pick for? Like, is it like you kind of choose something or is it something that maybe, you know about there for those listening? I mean, you shoot a lot of celebrities and actors and actresses and stuff. Is it something that you might have already seen them do, or how do you kind of jump into that space? If someone, I mean, clearly they've been in front of a camera many, many times before, so is it something that you just pull out of thin air or, or what's your process for that?

Matt: It's a good question. It depends on how much time you have. Like, some people it's so quick. You've got no time. And if you know, a lot levels, those actors, they can, they can hit it. They, they know what they're going to give you, but you can. Manage that a little bit. Some of them really can't stand being out of character and being themselves. So that takes a lot of coddling and a lot of giving them a scene, even if it's like really quick thing.

“Okay. I'm this, you're that, go” and don't internalize it. And a lot of actors that the good ones have had that kind of training. I forget what the term is called, where you just have a word or whatever, and then you play off that and next person plays off that and it's back and forth kind of thing.

So I've done that before. That was kind of fun or just quickly make a full message. But then there's a creative side where, you know, build a bigger character of who this person is in terms of, you know, what they're experiencing, what, what they just come from, where they're going, something like that.

So that the people I'm photographing this may not be an actor. It might just be a friend where they can put themselves in that character. And then, let's see what comes out and sometimes it's, it works out great. Sometimes not so much, sometimes you have to kind of finesse it, but for me, that's fun to put it on the person and then see what comes out of it.

Natalie: Do you have just a quick example of a scene or something that you've tried, that's worked that you like, or that you go to, or just to kind of give listeners an example of, of what, what, like a story might be like in that situation?

Matt: Well, I can, I can throw one out there for the lot of those actors on the website.

Like some of them might be from a film festival or whatever, where I literally have less than a minute with these people. And I've got two lighting setups on a pocket wizard where I can flip between. If they're not happy with whatever's going on, but they're not happy to be there.

They're not happy in their own skin. I would just, you know, especially for guys, the guys love this… If you say, “you know, give me your best, “get off my yard look” or something like that. They give that kind of vibe and an actor can pick up on that pretty, pretty quickly.

And it's something that's kind of fun to see what happens.

Matt: Yeah, I'm sure it's really fun. I just had a conversation with someone the other day. I shoot a lot of families and kiddos, but I also do a lot of like branding adult stuff. And I, we were having a talk about how with adults doing portraits, you know, having some interesting things to share or say is really helpful.

Kids are running around doing silly things, no matter what, but getting an adult in front of you and just kind of trying to encourage them to be emotive can be tricky. Those are the times I get the most flustered as like just pretend to laugh, you know?

But I think having more tools in your toolbox.

Matt: Or just sharing, especially if you have the time. Share, you know, it's like the Oprah thing, you just give something yourself and the people open up and like give something back. And that's when I worked in journalism, I was really surprised how many people would really open up to me, just like, we'd just be talking and they would just almost confess to me, cause they knew they probably never gonna see me again.

And you know, I'm not the reporter, I'm just some guy it's pops in.

Natalie: I've always enjoyed that too.

I had a project for a long time where I interviewed folks and did a series of portraits with them. And it was a podcast and like a magazine, but I I also have that on the back burner, but I, I love hearing, I love hearing people's stories. It's always good. It was fun. It was fun.

Matt: Yes. People love to talk and love that they love to talk about themselves and if you give them a space, it's. Are happy about it. And some people are pretty, pretty shocked. I mean, they're really surprised that somebody can genuinely care, but what they're saying, I guess that goes for all of us.

Natalie: Yeah, yeah. That the conversation, the art of conversation, or even just conversations in general, don't happen quite as often. These days are just kind of in different formats. You know, it doesn't come through as well over time. Yeah, for sure. Well, I would love to hear, since this is a space for you to talk about yourself.

I would love to hear about, you know, a little bit just kind of a truncated version, if, if whatever works for you, but about your journey, you know, from the journalism days to what you do now.

Matt: Okay. It's those big choppy and weird, but that's much of what my life has been. I started off in Indiana, I went to photo journalism school and got a break.

I'll call it a break. It was a job at a local newspaper in Muncie, Indiana, which we've all heard of, of course down where Ball State is. And that kind of got me going in the journalism world before then. I was, you know, I was doing kind of what I'm still doing now.

I was talking to random people on the street and like, and my neighbors in this really low income area of Muncie, Indiana, and taking portraits of them with lighting for different classes and stuff. And that kind of opened the door for me to get into the newspaper. And then from that, that was an actual job. Before then I'd been working at Kmart and all these kind of not, not very fun jobs.

So that kinda opened the door for a world of, you know, you can do something you like and make money at it. And it was, that was wonderful. And from there, that was just when film was kind of going out the door slowly, a newspaper world, and the digital scanners are coming in and the digital cameras were probably still 10 years away, but the photo department kind of downsized because we didn't need to print photos anymore.

So I graduated from school after graduating that job kind of evaporated because I was a low guy. Then I went to Alaska to do an internship and try to get a job up there, but there's like four jobs in Alaska.

This is early nineties. So I ended up, but yeah, that was I, I applied to every newspaper in Alaska, which is ridiculous. Cause some of them were like two people, you know, I don't know what I was thinking. But I came back to Indiana and started freelancing for the South Bend Tribune, which is a bigger city.

That's where Notre Dame is. Every time Notre Dame sneezed I had to go take a picture of the aftermath. That was fun. I did that for about two years and then a friend of mine was living in Germany at the time and we were talking on the phone. And she mentioned how the prices to Europe were like $400 for an airplane ticket. And then I was like, I never thought about it. I could go to Europe. And I was like, God, I got $400. So I basically, you know, three months later I just jumped on a plane with all my cameras and portfolio and just tried not to come back.

And I floated around Europe for a while and ended up in Prague as so many people did in the early nineties. And started working there. At a small newspaper called the Prague Post. An English language newspaper. I don't think it exists anymore. At the time, there was two English language newspapers in Prague, which is doesn't make a lot of sense right now.

That was amazing, that kind of another stepping stone, another chance to kind of stay somewhere and see what life was like. And at that time, everything was, you know, it was coming from communism into democracy or whatever, whatever the it is there now. And all the magazines were starting out there as like the local Elle magazine, Esquire Cosmopolitan, all those magazines.

episode 260 from food photography to celebrity portraits with matt carr part 1

Like every, every country has these magazines and half of the content comes from America or Paris and the rest is local. I managed to get a job taking a portrait of this, a local actress for the for the Elle magazine. They liked it. And then they gave me another job, another job.

A lot of it was on the job training. I didn't really have much lighting experience, but I learned as I went. And that's where I learned that was really the boots on the ground kind of training.

Natalie: Yeah, that's a big thing. I think that's always like the later thing for a lot of photographers and including myself as lighting a sort of learning the camera messing around with it.

Matt: I was learning that and another language to do my job. It was good fun. It was, it was really interesting. And it was a great portfolio of time. Not a great place to go if you want to make a lot of money.

Natalie: Did you have a dream job at that point in your career where you were you're doing the journalism thing?

Matt: Yeah.

I mean, at that time, I think I thought I wanted to do fashion, which was probably a mistake. I did some, it was, it was fun, but it was just the fashion world is a different world and it's not for people like me. It's just, it's just a lot of cutthroat and viciousness and I just saw it from this like small country view.

I'm sure from New York it's probably even worse, but make the images a lot of fun working with the team is a lot of fun. But anyways, from there I found that portraiture is always my favorite, but I kinda, you know, anything you throw at me I'm going to enjoy doing, unless it's food, as we discussed.

Anyway, so I was there for six years and then moved to London because I thought if I could, I was a very big fish in a very small pond in Prague. And I thought if I could do, you know, like a quarter of what I did in Prague in London or any big city, it'd be fantastic. So I moved there classic me, like, didn't even look in out, how do you get papers or anything like that, I just went and I had some context, luckily from years of Prague and different art directors would come from London. And so it kinda started going pretty well.

I mean, just at the time I ran out of money is when the work started coming up.

Natalie: Isn't that funny how that works.

Matt: Right. So, but it was in London where I realized that my portfolio at that time was like schizophrenia to put it mildly. There was like creative stuff, street stuff, what's in your handbag and portraits and all this stuff. And I would go to our directors. They're used to seeing very specific things from people in the bigger markets and, and they're like, well, some of it's good, but who are you?

What are you trying to say here? Then I realized I have to kind of figure out what I do. At one point I got a job at a newspaper or a magazine in London, and it was a series of black and white portraits, and she said, I want it in the Matt Carr style.

I was like, “I don't even, I don't even know what that means.” I didn't say that when she gave me the job, but I went back and I looked at my stuff and I kind of had to distill that into a portfolio that was all me without any art directors involved or without even anyone's input. So I did what I'm still doing.

I went out and found people on the street that were interesting looking and locations I like, and I would, at that time, I would schedule like call people up. Then I built a portfolio of stuff that was very personal like that.

That's where my career kind of flipped over into being almost straight portraiture. And that was when I wrote and started thinking like, what do I really want to do? That was what I really wanted.

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Natalie: I love hearing about the journey because it's, it's so often..,. I like what you said where you're like, and I just went to London and I feel like I've done that a fair few times in my life as well, where I've just randomly moved places or just left jobs or taking jobs or done things that felt good at the time.

And didn't probably research them as well as they should have, but they really inspired my art.

Matt: My original idea was to drive there with all my stuff in the trunk, which would have been a bad sign for customs and immigration.

Natalie: You know, I love that. I love that. So where you are right now, are you predominantly working out of your own studio or what's, what's the sort of day to day like for you?

Matt: I don't have a studio, generally. New York real estate is so insane that I rent what I need, but these days, you know, with the pandemic and everything, it was so slow, you know, it's either bring the studio to whoever I'm working with or, you know, it depends on it. But like a lot of those actors, those are in hotel rooms or an eight foot box.

Usually they like to put me in eight foot box and see what I can do with, well, you do amazing things with it.

Natalie: What kind of stuff are you lugging around…you're not just using natural light, you're using off camera stuff as well. So do you show up with just a van full of things or do you kind of keep it light?

Matt: I generally keep it light. I'm not, I know some people are bringing or they'd like to bring in a ton of light, but again, it depends on how much time I have and how much money I have to use. Generally there's at least a lot of those portraits, probably three lights. But yeah, it depends on if I have to have help then you know, it does end up being a van.

A lot of my outdoor stuff is this one light. I'm comfortable with one light where I know in post what I can do.

Natalie: I'd love to talk about post in a second. But I'm just curious, what's your favorite setup for portraits?

Matt: That's a good question. Well, I mean kind of goes back to who who's paying for it.

You know what I mean? If it's, it was for me, you know, it all comes off a three point lighting kind of that's how you get the best shape. And then I go from there and adjust, and then in post you can adjust some more as needed, really. You know, I'd love to have five people carrying lights from outside with me.

I can, I can certainly use them, that'd be wonderful. But yeah, it's what you have to work with. Time and money.

Natalie: Yeah. I totally hear that as well. The times that I've had the bigger corporate gigs and I've been able to hire assistants. It's wonderful.

Natalie: Do you enjoy shooting or post-production more or about the same?

Matt: Definitely taking the pictures. I do like the post. If I like an image enough and it's starts coming alive for me, that's, that's a lot of fun. It's less of a thrill, like when you're working and the pictures are coming in and everything's going well, that's, that's like, you know, physically, you can feel the excitement, even the street portraits, like just getting somebody to stop and talk to me, and then have them actually pose for a photograph. That's exhilarating, because there's so many things there's.

First off, I've probably been rejected 10 times before I get that “yes.” So it's very exciting.

I can see that I can bring it to life in post. A bit of both. I definitely don't miss the dark room.

Natalie: No, and I, I'm kind of the same. I really love, I love the duality of the job in general. Cause I'm a, I'm a people person a lot of times, but I also surprise myself with how much I like to be alone.

Matt: Can you think of a time or times when you have been wildly unprepared or nervous and how you kind of overcome that? I ask that because a lot of folks listening are newer photographers and kind of freeze a lot or get nervous. And just curious if you have any ways to kind of work around that.

Matt: I've definitely been super nervous, but I always over-prepare one thing I remember from school photojournalism school, we had one teacher… he just drove home how important it is to, pre-visualize like to know what you're going to photograph. It's kind of difficult in journalism, but at least have the portraits to have an idea, like to go in there. “This is what I'm after.” And it might not happen. You know, things might fall apart.

But at least if you have a starting point or like a lighting setup, just, it can be as simple as just a basic lighting, like a three-point that's, that's at least going to be a good image to start with.

Like I I said, you know, the, the key you fill in the hairlight to start there and, you know, whatever background that's, that's at least going to be a good image to start with.

But at least if you have a starting point or like a lighting setup, just, it can be as simple as just a basic lighting, like a three-point. Just start there and, you know, whatever background that's, that's at least going to be a good image to start with. But I generally don't get nervous about being on the job because I'm over-prepared like I said, at least at this point I'm so kind of used to it.

I get more worried about like getting to the job, like, you know, driving into town, getting through whatever security issue I got to go through and making sure I have everything with me. So I like to pre stress, you know, I'll get my stress out of the way. And then I show up on the job and I'm almost relaxed, but there's been times with the celebrity stuff where especially early on, I wasn't comfortable with it. I'd let myself get freaked out by whoever's coming. And but at the end of the day, like they're just people. They have their pants put on just the same way as we have our pants put on.

The thing about that is like a lot of times with a big celebrity, like, you'll be in your studio, you and an assistant maybe, and then suddenly there'll be like 50 other people there.

Where they come from? Who are they? You have no idea. That just means like somebody big is coming and it's like, everyone jammed into the room. Like, “can I clear the room please?” Because that, that part would stress me out. Still does.

Natalie: I agree. Anytime you have a lot of folks kind of looking over your shoulder, it's a little weird.

Matt: Once the subject is in there, my focus kind of goes into the headlights so that they kind of fall away.

Natalie: I think for any photographer, almost at any level, whether you're just starting out, you're doing a family or something, if your client or the folks hiring you don't trust that you have it or that, you know what you're doing, this other energy shows up, like what if we went over here and did this?

But a lot of times everyone's got an idea, but as long as I have an idea like the previous visualization I mentioned before, as long as they see that you're going somewhere, then that helps a lot before somebody can steal it away.

Natalie: Sure. Are you following anyone right now or alive or passed on that you, that inspires you and your work?

Matt: There's a lot of people. Yeah. There's a lot of people on Instagram. I resisted Instagram until a couple of years ago, but I met some really, really nice people. A lot of people on you know, Dan Winters of course.

There's a lot of people out of Cleveland, Cleveland is like a hotspot. But there's so many, so many good photographers out there. It's ridiculous. You know, you look around and just Instagram it's, it's, you know, inspiring and depressing at the same time. It's wild, you know, just being able to search for stuff that way.

Natalie: You kind of nailed it. It's inspiring.

Matt: I've always thought that, you know, whatever job I get, I used to say 10 photographers could do it I'm sure. But then when they look at your portfolio, like I can see instantly that you can do it, do they want to work with you?

Is there something in your portfolio that says something about you? More than above and beyond the images. And I thought that was really important to show like a lot of personality in it, as much as you can.

Natalie: Do you have a favorite portrait or two that you've taken that you're currently showing or like one that's memorable for you that you really love?

Matt: I go back to those old ones from London, like the guy with the dead chickens, them some guy I met at my local. And I really, it took me forever to get him to say, yes.

It was pretty fun. It was five minutes. And the guy was, Raymond is his name. He had a toothache and he was, he was miserable, but it shows in the image. It's like just him looking kind of semi pissed off kind of semi curious into the lens. And yeah, that's, that's that one.

Natalie: Whereas some people like to really pose people, you know, like tip your chin, like that kind of thing. Like, are you more of like a split second decision photographer when you see something?

Matt: Yeah.

Well, I have the general idea and then a micromanage a little bit, but if you started doing a little too much, it falls apart.

Yeah. Well, like again with the street stuff, like I'll see somebody hanging on and they'll have their arm up on a trashcan or whatever it is, and there'll be just so perfect.

But instead of taking that picture, I ask and I talk to them. You know, as I, as I'm talking to people, they always stand up and they adjust themselves. Like, no, no, go back to what you did before. And nobody can remember what they just did. That doesn't work, but but with the other portraits that are more control.

You know, get the general thing, going, get the lighting just right.

Natalie: So what's what's next for you?

What are, what do you have your sights on right now?

Matt: Just keep going with the creative stuff. I need to do more street stuff. Maybe incorporate more lighting into the street stuff.

I love street photography, portraits and all the rest of it. And then I love the, you know, hyper realistic scenes. It takes tons of lights and stuff, but it's all about finding out what, you know, where your career is going.

I just thought of it as like a barge. If you can kind of start turning it one direction, it's slowly, some people think, “oh, I got to instantly be here.” You don't have to be here right away. You can just slowly turn things. So you're getting going in a direction might take a year to get anywhere near it, but that's something.

And then for me, I'm always thinking like, is there an opening anywhere is there, if I start doing what, what I want to do in this area, is anyone going to want that? But you know, so at least it has to be some kind of commercially viable something. I'm not going to suddenly start trying to do art for, for museums or whatever.

Natalie: Well, are you, are you able to think of anything that you really turn to for inspiration or anything that you would say to people that are just kind of, I don't know, not even just starting out, but people that feel kind of stuck creatively.

Matt: So I remember going back to school, there's one guy. I wish I remembered his name because he's interesting, really interesting guy.

I remember in the dark room and he was listening to like some Miles Davis or something going, and he said it was really important, whatever art you're into music or whatever, just to get it in you because it's going to come out. You know what I mean? And it took me a while to process that, but just the idea that the, the one original thing you have is, is what's in you and what do you want to get out?

I'd like to try to emulate somebody or be like somebody, because it's always going to look like them. So if you can find a way to make these things make sense to you, then that's huge because you know, then it's gonna, it's all gonna come together.

Even if you know, good or bad, you know, you're going to have to have some work that expresses you and you're going to be hired for you. That's important is just to have something that in the end of the day, that says something about yourself and you enjoy doing it because if this happens to be your career, you're going to be doing hopefully a lot it.

And it never really lasts long to do things just for the money.

Natalie: There has to be an element, I feel like alignment with your own vibe, like your own inspiration. There has to be something in it that you enjoy.



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