With a career spanning over three decades, Nuno Correia has an impressive photography portfolio of food books, international chef collaborations, and food magazine features. And he’s a tabletop director. We sat down with Nuno to discuss his path to directing and the roots of his unique visual language.
Agnieszka Celej: Your works really stand out against other tabletop directors – you have your way of lighting, your way of camera movement, your way of storytelling. How did you find your own visual language?
Nuno Correia: My approach is what I’ve learned from photography. I’ve been a photographer since 1989 and that’s what I really like. I’ve started in sports photography – and I was a football photographer. They have 30 pages in GettyImages with my images with Spanish football, with the big stars that were playing at the time.
In photography, I think I got not to the top, but close, so I thought ‘ok, now that I’m good, I have a good team working with me, post production, etc., time to move to filming’.
And what I did was transporting what I achieved in photography into film. I did around 30 food books with several chefs, international chefs, I worked with food magazines as well. So that language, the photography language, I transplanted into tabletop. My goal is not to get to the perfection of tabletop like most directors do, where it almost touches CGI. I like it, but it’s not my way. My way is more organic, it’s more natural. The light, the approach, the food itself. So that’s why it turns out a little bit different.
I’m still doing photography – it’s my passion. Of course, I like filming too, but my real passion is photography.
A: So are you now a photographer half of the time and a director the other half?
N: Yeah, the balance is 50/50 I think. And I want to keep it that way, cause with filming, I think I’m at a very good level, I could maybe get a little bit better still.
What I do in photography supports what I do with film and vice versa. So it’s good to have them both balance each other out.
Jakub Laskus: It’s interesting, because it’s not that easy to switch between the two. It’s not just composition, it’s movement, physics. So is there any special approach you take? Or is it just intuitive and natural?
N: I think it’s intuition. When you’re shooting things with chefs and food, you are surrounded by people cooking. I’m very fast when shooting, I almost have it all in my head, you know? Plus, with my experience, it’s much easier now. But, with all the information I have from the past, from working with chefs, of their movements and what they do with real food – I think it’s intuition.
It’s not something that I plan or spend a lot of time trying to achieve. It’s intuition because I have a background in so many things regarding food and techniques.
J: In most cases you’re showing the beauty of natural food, meaning that you don’t do too many super sophisticated or abstract things. No abstract textures, no artificial feeling.
N: I prefer the things you can do in a more natural way. Most of my works don’t have any cleaning – I’m talking 80% of my films. I like the other styles too, and sometimes it’s impossible to do the natural thing – for example with chocolate. I remember in 2021 one of my clients wanted to do a natural shoot of a chocolate. In the end, with all the restrictions in their guidebook, it’s not that they had to do CGI but you had to do it almost looking CGI.
J: How about grading? I’ve noticed that your color-correction is quite different. I mean, it’s super tasty, but you can truly feel certain tints like yellow…
N: It’s because I don’t use DaVinci, I use Baselight and I think it makes a big difference. It provides a very different approach to color. I use a lot of masks, so that certain things don’t get too influenced by others colors. I certainly do have my own way of grading.
A: I wonder, having so much experience and being involved in so many photographic and film projects, do you still have the need to work on self-development?
N: I don’t have time to do it. (laugh) If I’m not filming, I’m in photography, when I’m not in photography, I film, so…
But this is great, because if you work a lot of days a month between these two fields, it lets you avoid repentance, because you’re always doing different things. I have a lot of things in my mind, I’m trying not to repeat, of course, sometimes it’s impossible, because there are some movements that are the same. But I try not to repeat the things I’ve already done.
J: With your fast pace of work I wonder, how many shots do you do per day?
N: I can do a lot. In my head, everything is clear, I know exactly what I’m going to do, and I believe in that and my clients trust me. Of course the exact amount of shots depends on what it is that the film needs. If the movements are not so fast, I can make 20 shots per day, if the shotlist is more complicated it can be 5-6 per day.
What makes the process really slow usually is uncertainty. It can start from the director, it can start from the client. If the director has many questions and the client is the same, that’s a difficult situation.
The most effective shoot is where the director is certain and knows what he wants to do and he’s trusted by the client and they grant him freedom.
J: How to film food so that it looks tasty? My observation is that some directors, the more cinematic-driven ones, are not that aware and don’t care that much about how tasty the food looks. The more important thing is the overall cinematic feel of the image.
N: For me it’s completely the opposite. It’s the food first and then the rest. You start with the food, so it must look good enough for people to want to eat it. My job as a photographer is to make the stills look appetizing. When I film, I have to shoot that still with movement, but the still stays the same, so the food remains the hero. And then the rest is just to see that you are filming not photographing.
A: Is there any part of the whole process that you like the most?
N: Let’s unpack what I don’t like. I don’t like writing treatments, although my treatments look very beautiful and they’re written with a very good design. I also don’t like PPMs. Of course, if you’re in a very big live-action movie you decide about the cast, the art direction, the styling, etc. But with food? It’s just talking about nothing.
A: And what do you think about AI? Have you already applied any AI tools to your work?
N: No, but I had this discussion many times in the past month with colleagues and creative directors. I don’t think it’s a tool you can work with, because you’re not the author.
And I think what’s going to happen is, when you do everything with artificial intelligence, it will show you very pretty images, but they won’t be your images. It’s an image from someone mixed with an image from someone, so you’re not the author of that image. It’s not you who made that image.
Being an author is not the same as using someone else’s skills to blend it all together and create a very beautiful image. For instance, in photography, everyone with an iPhone is taking beautiful pictures. They don’t need to go to Photoshop, they just work with calibration, saturation, exposure, and come up with a beautiful picture. Anyone can do that. But at a certain level, they can’t do that, because it requires a good camera and a professional approach. If you’re printing a very big image, you have to have good resolution.
And that is going to happen in films as well. The competition that these tools are looking for is not high-end photography or high-end film. It’s more the guys that use the iPhones as a tool to work.
When you do a still image for an advertising agency, the thing that they do is open the image and just zoom in to 300% to look for the wrong part of the image, so, with these images, I think it will take a lot of time to be perfect.