JRP: Please welcome Food Photographer Stephen Hamilton to JRP Blog. Thanks Stephen for taking time with our readers as the “Spotlight” guest.
Stephen Hamilton: Thanks for inviting me to be a guest on “Spotlight“, it’s a great idea to have photographers from all over the world share their experience and insights.
JRP: Where do you call home?
Stephen Hamilton: Chicago. I was born and raised in the Chicago-land area and have lived in the city since 1988.
JRP: How did you get your start in photography? Is there any formal training in your background?
Stephen Hamilton: I was studying fashion design at the School Of The Art Institute, Chicago and realized that I didn’t like to sew, which you can imagine, is a big part of studying fashion design. I switched to the Photography Program and graduated in 1991.
JRP: Name three photographers that have impacted your work and why.
Stephen Hamilton: I feel it’s important to get inspiration from unrelated things and not just food. For me, an important place I find inspiration is from fine art. I collect art and photography and the first three artists that come to mind are Diane Arbus, Sally Mann and Harry Callahan.
JRP: How large is your support staff and what areas do they handle?
Stephen Hamilton: Visitors to my studio are always amazed by how large the staff can be to shoot a photograph. My principle staff consists of my studio manager/producer, lead assistant and second assistant. Then I hire a third assistant, with a total of three assistants on a shoot day. We have anywhere from one to four food stylists and a prop stylist on every shoot. I frequently include a Rigger who works with me to set up special effects, a set painter, and a camera technician. On the business side, I have an artist representative, a marketing person and a web designer. That’s a lot of people to coordinate.
JRP: What equipment would I find in your studio for a typical shoot? What lighting equipment do you favor and why?
Stephen Hamilton: I use Hasselblad camera bodies and lenses, and Imacon digital backs.
In regards to lighting, I rely on Mother Nature with the help of a Speedotron. I keep it simple, with a single light source and a skim or two to bring out detail. A few years ago, I went on an extended photography trip to Tuscany and used nothing but natural light. When I came back home, I decided that I wanted to incorporate more natural light in my images. Since my studio at the time had very few windows, I built a new studio next door with wrap-around windows and lots of natural light at my disposal.
JRP: Could you describe your digital work-flow and the software you use?
Stephen Hamilton: I use the software that comes with Imacon and Adobe Photoshop CS. For me it’s all about the creative. My assistants do light retouching such as removing dust and making sure the files are clean. I try to get everything in the original image so we don’t have to do a lot in terms of massaging or manipulating an image.
JRP: In your opinion what is the biggest misconception regarding food photography?
Stephen Hamilton: That all the food is fake. I’m known for creating images based on real life moments and for close-up taste appeal. I believe you can’t do either one successfully using fake food.
JRP: With today’s economic conditions tell us how you keep productive and retain your creative edge.
Stephen Hamilton: By constantly doing more work and immersing myself into the food world. I am also an avid cook, have photographed cookbooks, attend food and wine events and spend time learning from food stylists, friends who are chefs and restaurateurs.
From an economic perspective, I have not budged from my rates during tough times. When the economy gets rough, you have to work three times harder to keep clients coming back. Instead of cutting back on marketing you have to double or triple your efforts.
JRP: Do you have a memorable shoot you could share with us? What made those images or the shoot special?
Stephen Hamilton: Good question, there have been so many. But one in particular stands out. About six years ago, I did a shoot for Fox & Obel Market and Café, a European style market in Chicago. My crew was minimal; just me, a prop stylist and my lead assistant. F&O brought in their own chefs, food and a list of shots they needed. I truly had no idea what to expect, but everything came together in a magical way. The chefs, who were not trained to style food for a camera, did an amazing job and there were no layouts or rules to follow. The shots just kept flowing, the music playing and we spontaneously created a lot of memorable images that have won many awards. Not only that, solid friendships were formed and I have worked with everyone on that shoot time and time again.
JRP: What has been some of the best advice given to you by another photographer?
Stephen Hamilton: When I was a photo assistant, a photographer said to me: make sure you work for multiple photographers and take the best parts of what you learn from each one and apply it to your own business. Advice, that I took to heart. I worked for one photographer who was an amazing photographer in terms of lighting, but a horrible businessman. I worked for another photographer whose photography was just okay, but was a gifted businessman. So I’ve always tried to refine my craft and be a smart businessman.
JRP: What advice would you like to share with other photographers?
Stephen Hamilton: First, to be true to your art and to your passion. Second would be, running a studio is more than shooting photographs. I deal a lot with corporate America with big budgets and big projects. They want to know that you will creatively follow through, be on time and on budget.
JRP: Thank you Stephen for sharing your thoughts and images with us. It has been a pleasure.
Stephen Hamilton: Thank you James, it’s my pleasure to share with you and your readers.
JRP: To view more of Stephen Hamilton’s photography please follow this link: