Finding My Focus

So you want to be a photographer. Great. What do you want to photograph?

Most photographers whom I’ve talked to that have gone to portfolio reviews with art directors and buyers hear that their portfolio lacks focus. You can argue that the days of specialization are over and today’s photographer needs to have a broader range in order to make a living. I agree with that argument but, if you’re concentrating on architecture and fashion, you’d better have two portfolios and two distinct sections on your website because the architects don’t care about your fashion work and vise versa.

From the time I decided to seriously pursue photography as a profession, I wanted to do portraiture, celebrity portraiture to be specific. I sold my house in Phoenix in 2002 and moved to the land of “lights, camera, action” to make a name for myself as a celebrity photographer. I stayed two years before leaving for other opportunities. While celebrity photography was what I consciously wanted to pursue almost from the beginning, other opportunities popped up along the way that took me in different directions.

An architectural spread of a restaurant featured in kontakt magazine.

I can’t really say if my interests followed my photography or my photography followed my interests. I can say that passion for photography is not enough. You also have to be passionate about what you’re photographing. In fact, I would argue that passion for your subject is more important than the passion for your craft. The desire to fully express yourself and what you are passionate about is the driving force behind perfecting your craft. This is why some people can create amazing images with their iPhone and others make complete crap with a $30k Hasselblad. Photography for photography sake is useless. </soapbox>

My mom likes telling the story (stay with me now) of how, at age four, I was already frying eggs for my own breakfast. I’ve always been pretty creative in the kitchen with a natural instinct for fusing flavors. As an adult, one of my favorite things is to invite friends over to my house for extravagant meals. When Food Network came on my Tivo was full of Iron Chef, Ming’s Quest and Naked Chef. When No Reservations came around that was the ultimate show to me, combining two of my three great loves in life: food and travel. Don’t even get me started on how cool I think Anthony Bourdain is (though more as a culinary advocate than a chef).

While living in Phoenix, I tried to find the hidden gems of the mostly chain, barely there culinary culture. There were some highlights. I spent a week in New Orleans and got a taste (no pun) of a culinary scene. It was not until I moved to NYC that I discovered what a culinary culture really is. I was engaged to someone with a love of food and an adventurous palate. While we probably didn’t even make a dent in the NYC food scene, it certainly wasn’t from lack of trying.

A walk through the subway station at Times Square prompted my return to LA from NYC. There was a series of posters featuring characters from True Blood, which ended in a group shot. It hit me. I had lost my way. This is what I wanted to do. So I came back to LA to make a name for myself and do photos for TV and film promotion.

Here’s the catch: there are almost as many wannabe celebrity photographers in LA as there are wannabe celebrities. This in itself did not deter me, as I’ve never been one to choose the easy path. But I came to the realization that I didn’t care as much about celebrity portraiture as I thought, maybe that wasn’t the way to go. Not to mention there are entirely too many celebrities who are famous just for being assholes on reality shows. At least Mel Gibson put out some great movies before he turned into an asshole. But I digress.

My start in food photography came from restaurant features in Ignite magazine.

I wish I could say I had an epiphany when I was contacted by I writer I knew to see if I was interested in contributing photographs to a book on the Arizona food scene. But it happened a little slower. I agreed to do the book, but I would have agreed to do anything at that point just to have the opportunity to shoot. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited about it, shooting portraits of chef would be good practice, but it was just a side-project for me.

The epiphany didn’t come until about a month ago. I had just done a test shoot for food since it has been years since I’ve seriously photographed food and wanted to test lighting ideas and lenses (post and images coming soon). I was getting the opinion of a photographer friend on photos that had been selected for a promo piece that was going to be sent out to architectural firms. There were a couple of restaurants in the mix. My friend had also seen the food photos I just shot and commented that restaurants and resorts look for photographers who can shoot architecture, portraits and food. It’s not super common because each one requires a completely different skill-set and lighting style than the other.

A few days later my friend from Costa Rica emailed me telling me how the management company for his rental condos had hired a photographer to spend the week at a condo and photograph several of the properties, including his. They wanted to charge him and when he saw the photos, he refused. He said the photos I took while I was there last year were much better. They paid for her stay, plus an additional $5,000. “Get down here,” he said. “You could make a killing.” Bing. Epiphany achieved.

The chef in the open kitchen at Salt's Cure in Hollywood.

Food, chefs and travel. This is what I’m passionate about and this is what I want to photograph. All of these things are creating the perfect storm to get me on track. The cookbook project has evolved into an exciting, recipe and chef-driven book, which I am headed to AZ to photograph the first chef this week. There will also be a website with extra chefs, recipes, behind-the-scenes and interview videos.

Finally, I am excited and inspired. I have a ton of ideas; so many that I’m having trouble keeping track and prioritizing them. I’ll reveal them as I get them sorted out. Some are for another time and some I need to get going on. But, most importantly, I’ve found my focus.

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