This is interview #4 in series designed to showcase some of our amazing clients, what makes them tick and how they have found a niche in the world of photography.
Meet Shea Evans. Shea specializes in shooting food including the raw ingredients, preparation, and the finished product. Shea’s background prepared him for a career in shooting the culinary arts and through his website we can all enjoy a feast for the eyes.
You are known as a “Food Culture Photographer”. How does that differ from being a “Food Photographer”? I use the term Food Culture Photographer because I feel it’s a more accurate description of what I do. My target clients need more than just “food beauty” imagery, they also need portraits of chefs or owners. They often need editorial style story telling for their business marketing and social media. They might also need interior and exterior shots of their restaurant/winery/farm, etc. So I’m keen to identify myself as someone who can provide these assets to them, even though it’s all in the scope of the food world, hence “food culture photographer”. Hopefully, it broadens both my client base and my own work.
You were a chef before you became a photographer. How has that benefitted your photography? In a couple of ways, I understand how food works, what is going to last on set, what’s not, how to communicate that to the stylist or chef I’m working with as well as bring my own concepts from my days as a chef to the table, literally. For smaller clients it means I can wear the food stylist hat too, though the deeper the team the more realized we can get a shot. I also know how to move in the restaurant environment. Working in tight spaces with lots of people moving around is something I’m more than comfortable with and that comes from my years in the restaurant industry.
Sometimes you use all natural light when shooting food and others you have used lighting. Do you prefer the end result produced from natural light or a more controlled lighting source? I wouldn’t say that I prefer natural light, but I do think that natural light can usually be more interesting, the way it’s bouncing around a room, coming through a particular window and bouncing off a wall. You can get great light from a big umbrella or soft box too, but it’s going to be the same every time, and that means so are my shots, so it’s great to get as much diversity as I can.
Given that you are using a perishable subject matter do you have a small window to get the shot before the appearance of ingredients changes? The short answer here is yes. Some food you’ve got more time than others, but in general, it’s a pretty small window, 10-15 minutes before it’s dead. It could be less if there is a sauce involved or a temperature issue, something really cold on something hot melts fast, and something really hot gets a film or glaze over it after a bit.
How do you make food images so compelling when your viewers can’t use their sense of smell?I try to use visual flavor cues as much as possible in my photography. In a way, this is the essence of the Deconstructed Flavor project, showing the viewer what something tastes like, by visually showing them what is in the dish.
How long was the learning curve to figure out how to shoot food in a way that provided you with a finished result you were really happy with? I think that’s simply an ongoing process. I rarely come away from a shoot happy with every image result. It’s the nature of honing a skill, you can always get better. Having said that, I think it was more about figuring out the light I wanted and once that clicked and I had a language to communicate that in my mind, my shoots started getting more consistent. I’d say at least two years of shooting two dishes every week.
Is what we see in the finished product the way it looked in the camera or do you have to spend a lot of time in post production? My post production workflow has recently changed to Capture One – Photoshop – Lightroom. My goal is to make it look how I envisioned it when I shot it. I find myself shooting most of my food work with one light source and then using bounce cards or relying on the depth of the file to pull shadows. It can depend, but usually it’s a pretty accurate representation of what was actually on the table.
Given that you love to cook, what would be your single favorite meal to make from scratch? Man that’s a tough one. Pesto from scratch (Garlic, fresh basil leaves, parmesan, salt, pepper, olive oil, pine nuts all in a food processor) is my go-to comfort food, served with sautéed mushrooms and shallots or maybe seared scallops over linguine. But I’ve got a pretty mean carnitas taco recipe that involves slow cooking a pork shoulder for about five hours. I don’t think there’s a single meal I could narrow it to. I also think I should say I make almost everything from scratch. There’s not a lot of packaged food in my house, just a lot of ingredients.
What ingredients are the most enjoyable to shoot? I’m noticing in my own work that I’m drawn to vibrant colors, so tomatoes and citrus are kind of a slam dunk in this arena. But in other ways, the thing that’s the most enjoyable to shoot is the thing I haven’t shot before.
When you are shooting for a restaurant do you find that chef’s want to be very involved in the shoot to make sure their product is done justice? It can go either way, and I’m more than happy either way. A chef could be very hands on, and that can help make a shoot more authentic, it can also mean building a rapport with a chef to either work him into your food shots (hands plating a dish, etc.), or he can suggest some valuable ideas of how to shoot something that then pushes your own envelope. This is also a time where I build the relationship, that comes around to help me make a more authentic and comfortable looking portrait when it comes time for that shot. Then again, a chef usually has a ton going on and may not be very involved at all in the shoot other than to direct his line cooks which dishes to send out. I find more often than not, I need to slow the kitchen down, to get the shot, before another dish comes out and then dies on the table before I get to shoot it. That’s the most common issue.
Since you are so comfortable in the kitchen does that put other chefs at ease when you are working with them on a shoot? Being able to trade war stories and relate to what their life and work is like is really helpful. I try too to make it clear that it wasn’t like I was some big to do chef anywhere, I was just a guy in the trenches for years. I come into their environment with an open and curious mind and wanting to learn more, not trying to one up anyone with a crazy story or how much experience I have. There is simply nothing like working in a restaurant. Everyone should do a year of it, just to get the feel, I think it would make better patrons and people out of all of us.
Restaurants are an incredibly hectic environment. Do you find yourself feeling rushed to get shots when shooting on location?Working in the industry for as long as I have, I’d say no. I work fast. I set up shots before any food comes out and I’ve got a couple of tricks up my sleeve to switch things on the fly to get a variety of shots in a single location in a short period of time. I think I also just handle that kind of stress, the pressure of the moment stress differently than a photographer who hasn’t worked in the industry. I simply ignore it, just like when I was a chef. Allowing stress into a shoot is going to kill it, really fast, you just have to roll with the changes and sometimes this is where the best and most unexpected imagery comes from, the moments of “this isn’t working out like I thought”. If everything worked out like we thought it would, life would be pretty damn boring.
Do you prefer to do a shoot where you prepare the food or would you rather be given a dish to shoot prepared by someone else?I’d rather someone else prepare it. I did a blog for years where I did everything and that’s fine too, but it takes so much longer.
Is it harder to make the perfect dish or to shoot an image of that dish? If you mean make the perfect dish for the shot or to get the shot of that dish, I’d say about equal. If you’re talking about a perfect dish to eat, than that’s the harder one. So much goes into making perfect food and it’s a shared experience right? For instance, say I snowboard all day and then go to my favorite Mexican spot and get a burrito, that burrito is going to taste amazing compared to if I had gone to the same spot after having just worked on the computer all day. You see what I mean? The eater brings in his own set of history to the table and the chef needs to somehow anticipate this and prepare a meal accordingly. That’s nearly impossible It takes two to tango.
Are you at a point in your career where you can shoot only the things you love or do you have do shoot other things to help pay the bills? I try to take only the shoots that make sense for my brand and career. Essentially there are three questions before every shoot. Is it good for my portfolio? Is the money good? Is it a good networking connection? If the answer is yes to two of these three questions, I take the job. Having said that, and maybe this is hokey, but you have to love a lot of things to be a good photographer. You have to be interested, to be open, you have to want to say Yes to questions much more than you say No. Saying yes to things usually gets you pretty far, pretty fast.
If you could only use one lens to shoot food, what would you choose and why? 50mm 1.4. I think that focal length is pretty close to how the human eye sees food. I love my 105 macro too, but the shots I get with that, I’m usually showing the viewer an angle or a closeness that they don’t see when they go out to dinner. I think to be successful you have to keep it as natural as possible. People need to immediately know where they are in the scene and the 50mm doesn’t put them too close or too far way.
Most photographers can’t say that they get to eat their subject matter after they are done shooting. Do you enjoy that perk? Yep, but not as much as folks might think. However, I have eaten some amazing food while at work, not always fresh from the kitchen, but amazing none the less.
There is a perception that food we see in photographs isn’t really edible. Is your subject matter heavily staged for the photo or are we seeing what would actually go to a table? Almost everything I shoot could be eaten or was eaten. I think digital has really changed the food photography game is this respect. Seeing results is so much faster that we can shoot real food, there’s no need to do stuff to it to make it hold up.
You have a gallery called “Deconstructed Flavor” that contains images of raw ingredients before a dish is made. How did you come up with this concept? Is there any particular shot in that gallery that is a personal favorite? I don’t have a personal favorite here. The leeks and scallops was the first one. I just noticed the similar shapes but contrasting colors, pushed them together and made a photograph. At the time I was trying to maximize my learning so I was taking a before and after shot of my meals to learn as much as I could about lighting and styling. It just grew out of that, then became this thing I’m now known for. I’d encourage young photographers to experiment. Make weird images, follow your creativity. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t but you’re going to learn so much more by failing than by playing it safe. I certainly failed a bunch with these. There are quite a few Deconstructed Flavors that will never see the light of day, haha.
You have some great scenic shots on your website. Do you enjoy getting out of the kitchen and shooting landscapes? I enjoy mixing it up. I have a good friend, Rachid Dahnoun (also an a PhotoFolio guy), who is a landscape photographer. We joke about how frustrated I get with the weather and waiting for light, and how frustrated he gets with the meticulousness of styling food or a table. I like shooting different things, but I’m also aware that Rachid and I will probably never be in competing markets.
In your “Restaurant Life” gallery, you have shots that bring people in as subject matter. Does this add a significant variable to what you are trying to achieve in a finished shot? I think food is tied to the people that make it, to the people that serve it to the people that eat it It’s purpose is all of these things, to provide a medium for an artist (the chef), to provide an income for a worker (the server) and to provide sustenance to a patron (the eater). That to me is the story of food photography. It’s not just food on a plate with no one around. That’s a waste.
Do most of your clients know what they want in a finished product or do they prefer to hand you the reigns to do your thing? Again, really depends. I shot a job earlier in the year, where the client didn’t really even know what they needed so I wrote the shot list for them, then just shot things on it and handed everything over on a drive. A recent job I did in Napa was completely different. The client had a very specific shot list and not only that, but we shot tethered as much as possible with the client on site, approving and making changes in real time to each shot. There are pros and cons to each, but I’d say overall I prefer to have a direction. The best creativity comes from working within boundaries.
Why did you choose a Photo Folio for your portfolio/website? A lot of reasons here. Superfast load times, ability to customize to a fantastic degree, huge images, back end SEO, ease of interface, ease of making changes to site, ease of creating new galleries for clients. A lot of reasons. I still think they are far and away the best option on the market right now.