Shea Evans and Exploring the World of Food

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All images used with the permission of Shea Evans.

Shea Evans is a food culture photographer who captures not only the beauty of food and its ingredients, but also how people’s lives revolve around the delicious things they find on their plate. His eye for shape, color and light helps him to produce arresting photographs that are a treat for the eye as well for the palette. We recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about how he is able to combine his passion for photography and food.

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The Phoblographer: You identify yourself as  food culture photographer? How is this different from being a “traditional” food photographer?

Shea: I think identifying as a “food culture photographer” broadens my niche a bit, and opens me up for a wider range of clients, while also being a more accurate description of what I do.  I used to tell people I was a “food photographer”, but that would lead them to assume a couple of things which weren’t true.  First, that I ONLY photographed food, no people, no “scenes”, no farms, no restaurants, no “culture”,  just desserts and mains, maybe an appetizer.  The term “food culture” at least makes them pause a bit and think bigger.

Second, when a lot of people think “food photographer”, they think food that’s been basted with motor oil, hidden lit cigarettes for steam, mashed potatoes for ice cream, and they invariably want to tell you about this.  And that’s not what I do either.  Everything I shoot could be eaten, and a lot was eaten (if a bit cold, or dry) after I photographed it.  With the exception of rarely putting some canola oil here or there for “glisten”  or undercooking or overcooking something for the right look, I’m interested in photographing real food.  And luckily this is a time where “messy” food and “used” rustic props are in vogue, and our culture as a whole is interested, really interested, in fresh food, local food, handmade food.  Credit where credit is due, I got the term “food culture photographer” from the incredibly talented Penny De Los Santos, who truly embodies it.  Though we’ve never met, I greatly admire her work and vision.

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The Phoblographer: What came first? The love of food or photography? When did you realize you could combine both of them into a career?

Shea: Honestly, I’m not sure when love really entered the picture, though it’s there in full force now.  I started cooking a meal a week for my family when I was 8.  Yadayadayada, being a chef became my profession.  I got into photography in high school and spent 4 years in college working in a photo lab, back when they were labs, with actual chemicals, ha ha.  The passion that ruled my 20s was snowboarding and that literally took me to the other side of the world and back, but that’s another story.

I thought that when I turned 30 (five years ago), I would have all my ducks in a row, a clear path, but in truth, I was lost.  I thought that what I wanted to do was start a personal chef business.  I started taking pictures of what I was making at home, with the idea that I would then take those images to an established personal chef to say, “Here’s what I can do already, I’m worthy, teach me the rest, please”.  But the pictures I was taking were terrible, I mean really, truly, horrific.  I think the first one, I used the on-camera flash, shot super wide, so all you see is this dish, like a deer in headlights, caught in the midst of a dark, destroyed kitchen.  So I figured I had to learn how to take better food pictures if anyone was going to believe me, and after about a month of studying everything I could find about food photography, I completely gave up the personal chef idea and went down the food photographer rabbit hole.  I started the business 2 years later, once I had invested in some real equipment and felt like I had something to offer clients and the community as a whole.

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The Phoblographer: Tell us about your Deconstructed Flavor series of images? They are very interesting graphically and for their use of color? Was this a self assignment or work for a client?

Shea: This is personal work, and I’m thrilled with the positive response I’ve been receiving about them.  In the beginning of all of this, I started a food blog called “Cooking with Hoover”.  I shot two dishes a week for four years, pretty much purely to motivate myself to constantly be trying, be learning, be pushing.  A few months in, to maximize this learning process I started doing two shots per entry, a “before” raw ingredient shot and the finished dish.  One night, while making a leek and scallop dish, I noticed how close the shapes were, and how beautiful the interior of the leeks were and so I put them tightly together and photographed them.  All of a sudden I found myself doing these overhead shots with other dishes, basically taking the flavor palate of the dish and spreading it out over a cutting board, table or parchment paper and photographing it.  All of these eventually got made into an actual meal.  I’ve tried doing some with simply “pretty” ingredients and I’ve failed every time.  I think what makes them successful is that they’re flavors that work together in a dish (citrus and honey, leeks and scallops, pork chops and sweet potatoes) and the mind, perhaps unconsciously, knows this.

I’ve given a few away as prints and next month I’m going to be printing them out on metal and hanging a few of them for sale in a client’s restaurant.  I really love making them and hope to continue to explore this style further.

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The Phoblographer: Tell us about your lighting? It seems very natural, but are you using strobes or artificial light in any way? Do you have a preference for the quality of light that you shoot food under?

Shea: Food is a tough thing to light successfully.  I think food photography in particular can be difficult because even people that might not have an eye for photography, know what food is supposed to look like.  Everyone gets hungry, everyone eats.  If the lighting gets too edgy or too overdone, you can lose that visceral reaction in your viewer of, “I want to eat that whole thing right now.”, because people’s brains get hung up on why the lighting looks different than how they usually see food.

My approach is to mimic window light, because I think this sets the viewer up for a familiar food scenario.  This is what the food looks like when they’re eating by the window of their favorite restaurant, or by the window in their kitchen, or on the porch after they’ve finished grilling.  If I can use actual window light, easy peasy, but if not, I use Nikon SB-910s.  I’ve used a lot of different modifiers over the years (DIY cardboard boxes, small umbrellas, soft boxes) but my current love is the 60” Photek Softlighter II.  I attach two flashes to this using a FourSquare block and then put the diffusion material over it.  It’s huge, round (nice round catchlights in eyes) and what really sets it apart from other umbrellas is that you can unscrew half of the shaft, meaning you can get it really close to your subject, food or otherwise.  Really though, what I’m looking for is big, soft, directional light that flows across the food, be it a window, an umbrella with flashes or Profotos.  Once I have my main light source, I break it up with a few white and black cards here and there, to both fill shadows in the food, or create “breaks” in the light for a more dynamic final image.

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The Phoblographer: For your client what is the type of work you are frequently doing? How did you build a client base in what is considered a very competitive field?

Shea: Great question and honestly, I’m still figuring that out.  Right now my clients are local publications, boutique food companies, tourism boards, restaurants and resorts.  I’ve built this through cold emails, word of mouth and random chance.  It’s a hustle.  It’s early enough for me that I’m still heavily reinvesting the money I make into new equipment or marketing and promotion.  I still work a night job that supports my regular bills, but I’m coming up to that edge where I’m going to need to jump into full time photography and I’m both electrified and terrified by the prospect.

I’m doing what I can to really diversify my revenue streams.  After my work gets published, I often find myself either licensing those images back to the business I profiled, or getting more work from them. Right now it’s about ⅓ personal work, ⅓ editorial work, that then drives ⅓ commercial work.  A really concrete example of this is some personal work got me a magazine assignment at a local bakery, where I randomly met a customer, who was about to begin working on a cookbook, but needed a photographer.  A few months later I was shooting an entire cook book (a career goal I thought would take longer to achieve) which should be published early next year.

I also have a growing number of images with a food specific stock agency, Stockfood, that is generating a small amount of regular income.  As I said above, I’m dipping a toe into the fine art world too.  There are plenty of times that it feels like I’m flapping featherless wings though.

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The Phoblographer: What role does a food stylist play in your shoots? What do you look for in a good stylist that helps you achieve your goals as a photographer?

Shea: Believe it or not, I’ve never worked with a food stylist, though I’d love to, and a prop stylist too for that matter.  I think they are definitely the unsung heroes of the food photography world.  And I think a successful shoot is equal parts “Magic lighting” and excellent styling, from great looking food to the perfect backdrop matched with the perfect silverware.  It’s really make or break.  My portfolio is a mix of food made by professional chefs in restaurants or stuff made and styled by me.  I think my background in the food industry gives me a bit of an edge against some of my food photographer peers.  I have a solid understanding of food, how it works, and presentation.

It also helps that I’m comfortable “in the back of the house” on my restaurant assignments.  I can talk the lingo and I understand the restaurant world.  I know how to physically move (it’s an acquired skill) in a fast, busy kitchen.  I really think it helps because it’s that much easier to build a rapport with the chef or restaurant owner.   It’s so much easier to get great imagery when the shoots go as smoothly as possible and everyone is comfortable.

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The Phoblographer: What are your go-to pieces of kit (camera, lenses, lighting, etc)? Why?

Shea: I shoot with a Nikon D-700 and it helps that it’s full frame but only 12MP, huge pixels and great in low light situations, like restaurants.  When I shoot food, it’s almost always with a 50mm 1.4, sharp as hell with creamy bokeh, not too close, but not too wide, one or the other and food gets distorted a bit too much.  Desserts, drinks, amuse bouche, sandwiches it’s usually 105mm macro.  I think this has more to do with focusing distance than that I love that focal length.  If things are smaller, I need to get closer.  I think ideally, I’d love to shoot everything at about 70-85mm and be able to focus inches away if I needed to, but so far, that’s not an option, ha ha.  Hey Nikon want to design a food photography lens with me?!  I have a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm to cover my bases, but the primes above are the workhorses when it comes to straight food shots.

Lighting-wise I get the most use out of small white and black foam board pieces in a range of sizes, held up by plastic clamps.  Seems like they’re my little minions that are always in the shoot.  First choice is strong but soft window light or direct sun, diffused by a thin curtain or my 72”x39” photoflex panel.  Next up it’s flashes or strobes in a big softbox or silver umbrella.

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The Phoblographer: What do you love most about what you do?

Shea: Man, that’s a tough question.  The easy answer is getting to eat amazing food made by really talented people, because that perk is not a myth.  Or getting to connect with chefs or companies that are passionate about what they’re doing, because I’m passionate about what I do and it’s a familiar and wonderful human connection to make.  But truthfully it’s everything.  I love how hard it is.  I love that it challenges me to be both creative (photography) and grounded (business).  I love getting to go out and photograph these food stories in our community and bringing those back to a larger audience.  I mean, a few weeks back, I found myself inside a hundred year old barn photographing a dinner put on by local chefs using ingredients from the farm that the barn stood on, while the sun was setting over the Sierras and bathing this huge open valley in warm orange light.  It’s not what do I love most, but what’s not to love?

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