The Basques are an ethnic group that inhabit a region in Northeastern Spain and Southeastern France. Traditional Basque culture includes family-style, all you can eat dining at long tables downstairs and rooms with beds upstairs for traveling Basque sheep herders. The restaurant Shea was hired to photograph, Louis Basque Corner, is one of the few remaining Basque style restaurants in Nevada and he was given the task of capturing not only the food, but the vibe of the restaurant itself.
I caught up with Shea to chat about the shoot, food photography and how he maneuvers himself in order to get the shots he needs in such an up-tempo restaurant environment. Check it out below:
How long have you been shooting food? How did you decide to make it a career?
I’ve been photographing food specifically for about six years. Initially, I thought I wanted to transition my restaurant career into being a personal chef. I was going to take pictures of dishes I was making at home and take those to an established personal chef to say “here’s what I can do, teach me the rest,” but the pictures were terrible, I mean, really horrible. So I decided I better at least learn how to photograph food better before I went to a chef to apprentice. After about two months of reading everything I could find on the subject, I ditched the personal chef idea and dove headlong into becoming a food photographer. The good news is I still have some knife and presentation skills that I can utilize if needed on shoots. I know how food works and what to expect in a finished dish and this helps in the communication between myself and the food stylist or chef I’m working with.
How important is it to connect with people and chefs for whom you’re shooting when walking into an unknown space?
I think the faster you can make people comfortable, whether they’re the subject of the shoot or just a part of it, the smoother it’s going to go all round. In the case of head chefs or restaurant owners, they are just insanely busy people. While I’m focusing my whole day on capturing their food, my shoot is, a lot of the time, just a blip on their radar. They’re thinking about ordering, about managing staff, somebody didn’t show up, which special are they’re running, what’s the next step in marketing, etc. I think understanding this while doing what I can to build a rapport quickly leads to a successful shoot that ultimately benefits me and my client, whether it’s the restaurant or an editorial client that sent me in. I think making that connection is critical to a successful shoot.
Talk a little bit about your lighting techniques when shooting food in various spaces.
With food I’m always looking for window light, that is to say: big, soft and mono directional. If I can find that in an actual window in a space, all the better, but if not I use flashes in a five foot umbrella or other softbox to mimic that light. If the light through the window is hard, like direct harsh sunlight, I might work that a bit, put some glasses with liquids in the shot so you get those flares and shadows in the image, or I might diffuse the window with a white panel. I’m generally bouncing some light back into the shadows with a white board or small cards. I try to have a few “safe” lighting scenarios in my bag of tricks and then also throw something new in every time to keep it fresh and hopefully continue to push myself creatively.
What is your favorite part about shooting food? What are the biggest challenges and how do you overcome these?
I love the challenge of trying to convey flavor visually. I’m trying to get mouths to water, a reaction that’s usually triggered by smell and taste, and I’m trying to pull the whole thing off with visuals alone. I love that challenge. I think the biggest challenge isn’t the photography itself it’s just the business of being a food photographer. Choosing how and who to market to, building relationships in the industry and community; it’s something that just takes time and diligence. I overcome them by just putting my head down and hammering it out. It’s incredibly challenging but that also makes it the most rewarding job I’ve ever had, and I can’t imagine trading it for anything.
Any advice for aspiring photographers?
Go out and fail. That probably sounds crazy, but what I mean is, I never learned more than when I fell on my face, whether it’s with a shot, or poorly crafted email or whatever. You have to just try a lot, shoot a lot, study a lot and in all honesty, fail a lot. You just have to go out and do it and do it and do it and then keep doing it and gradually you’ll start to develop a style, a way you like doing things and a way you don’t. But that all starts with failing. Then you get to know what success is.
For more of Shea’s work, visit sheaevans.com.