Food Photographer of the Week: The Savvy Sabin Orr from Las Vegas
Introducing Sabin Orr, a super talented food photographer from Las Vegas, Nevada. With more than 20 years of food photography under his belt, Sabin Orr is an industry veteran.
Sabin has worked with legendary culinary names such as Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy, and his work has been published in Las Vegas Magazine and Food & Wine.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your passion for photography.
I grew up in the St. Louis area on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. I didn’t have a clue about food or cooking or photography because I was always playing sports or games or watching sports with friends and family. I live in the St. Louis Cardinal red and bleed the St. Louis Blues.
I’ve converted to being a Las Vegas Golden Knights fan and season ticket holder but the Blues will always come first. I got season tickets so I could take my 5 year old son to the games and let him experience what it’s like to grow up being a fan of a professional team.
The last three years have been a blast with him at these games. He’s dead set that he’s going to be in the NHL as a professional hockey player now and I’m going to do everything to help him achieve that dream.
My town of about 30,000 people was filled with chain restaurants and fast food. I discovered photography on a whim in college and the transition was easy because it was like playing a sport to me. The more you practice the better you get.
2. What do you find most appealing about food photography?
Most appealing… You want me to critique my own work? Ha!
When I am the creative director or I have most of the creative control, then I will take it to a conceptual level. Simply, I want it to have that cool wow factor.
For people to say that is awesome, how did you do that, wow. Through the complexity of them, I want the images to cause the viewer to get fully engaged beyond the coolness. That wow factor is the attention grabber. From there, I’ve got them contemplating and deciphering the message or correlation of the image(s)
3. What is your source of inspiration?
Mainly the right side of my brain! Not trying to be a smart alec, but I rarely look at anything first for inspiration. That comes later once I’ve got a solid direction to pursue. Ideas usually come to me when speaking with someone about a project or problems they are trying to solve. Of course so many other facets of a particular job come into play when visualizing the initial concept, but I usually start with several ideas that will be visually pleasing and thought-provoking.
From there, it is how do I meet and exceed all of the clients’ needs plus the ones they are not thinking of.
There is no such thing as a bad idea because many great ideas come from some of those horrendous suggestions.Sabin Orr
4. Which are your top food photos and what is special about them?
The first would have to be the portraits I took of my grandparents in a cornfield while I was a Sophomore at SIUC during my first photography course ever. I took black and white photography as an elective because I was a radio/television major and you had to take a minor relative to the field.
My mom was always taking pictures of us as kids but I didn’t know that she took it in college until I asked her what she thought about me taking a photography course.
I went into the class not knowing a single thing and realizing after two hours that I was in way over my head because everyone else wanted to do it for a living and I simply thought it would be a fun course. Little did I know how demanding it would be of my time. It wasn’t until my professor silently challenged me about halfway through the course and I began taking it seriously. And the next assignment was portraiture and I set out to prove him and my classmates wrong and that I could excel at photography.
The switch was flipped and I was off to the races and determined to be successful. Plus, I was full of confidence and knew that I could do this. At the end of that semester I changed my major to photography.
The next photo would probably have to be a bologna sandwich. Doesn’t sound like much but that’s why it stands out. I started out as a product photographer in Chicago. I hated product photography but that is where I got my first chance.
Ultimately I became quite comfortable with product, still life, and table top photography. I did campaigns for Estee Lauder, Levi’s, Unilever, Avon, Shure microphones, and several other Chicago-based companies.
I moved to Las Vegas and started fresh again in late 2006. I got an editorial assignment to shoot some products on white. It was for the featured products-to-buy page. I was a ninja at shooting products on white because of my 5 years in Chicago – 60% of the shoots I did were on white. So I nailed it for the publication and didn’t think too much about it. They told me that they were some of the best files that they’ve ever received, which kind of made me laugh inside because it was like bowling with Bumper guards on to me.
Shortly after that they called me with a rush job to do food photography at Toby Keith’s bar inside Harrah’s. I had never done food photography but approached it with what I knew – from doing product photography. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a new invigorating challenge unlike shooting products.
All of the dishes were different shapes and color, texture, and time was of the essence.
I dropped off the files in person and watched as the art director opened them up. She said, “Dam, you made a bologna sandwich look good! You’re going to get really busy Sabin.” I was once again off to the races and I haven’t looked back.
5. What is the most beautiful restaurant/setting you have taken photos in?
Living in Vegas makes it difficult to pinpoint one specific restaurant since so many of them do an excellent job with décor, branding, and hospitality.
6. Please describe a typical photo session.
For a restaurant without a food stylist, it would go something like this:
- I would want to have a preproduction meeting/scout/conversations. From those three I figure out which locations in the restaurant I want to shoot at or on as well as look at pulling in any of the atmosphere or decoration that pertains to the venue’s brand. Sometimes a dish will not allow any of the venue’s atmosphere or elements to be included because of the type of plating or other factors. Knowing this allows me to organize the shot list order to give to the chef.
- I want to go over the shot list with the chef to understand the plating of their dish and to see what dishes they are plated on.
- Discuss any changes to the dishes and or plating options.
- If I don’t know the chef from a prior shoot, I like to know what kind of experience the chef has with making food for photos and then adjust accordingly.
- Let the chef know to not prepare any of the dishes prior to me giving them a 5-10 minute heads up unless they are positive that the food can sit. I will ask them for the plate ware that we have agreed on using so that I can place it in my set for testing prior to the final dish. Sometimes I may ask them to make me a dummy of the dish to use as well.
- I sometimes instruct the chef to plate half of dish because the finishing touches may only give us a few seconds and I usually need to make some fine tuning tweaks.
- The food on the dish dictates the camera angle that I think will best portray as visually appealing. More often than not that is not from overhead, which is what seems to be considered a standard norm for food photography.
- This camera angle may force me to ask the chef to plate the dish off center or slightly larger or higher/lower or cheated to the left or right. I often show the chef examples on my iPad as well as talk it through with them on an empty plate so they understand it from my point of view and the camera’s angle.
- Shoot tethered and mark the images for my final retouching. Often times I am looking to capture the dish at one particular angle, focal length, aperture, and more than one capture to composite the image together.
7. You also help restaurants with social media. What are some of the ingredients behind a successful Instagram account?
Ahh! social media. It has taken on many hats and become more significant in the photo and culinary industry. Make sure to post on a consistent basis and utilize the correct hashtags. Tag people in the photo as well as those that produced the photo. Give photo credit to the photographer, stylist, chefs, etc.
The other area would be to take it more seriously because it is a direct reflection of their brand. Have a goal, a plan of attack, and execute it. Think about the content being posted. Stop making the mistake of looking at it as “It’s only social media.”
Print media is unfortunately fading out and close to oblivion. Websites and social channels are the means of showcasing images and videos.
8. What are the most common mistakes chefs and restaurant owners make with their food photos?
Tricky question… The number one mistake would be rushing the photo shoot to just simply get it done. Or letting the cost of the photo shoot and quantity of shots dictate the photos. If they are going to invest time and money in advertising, then they should not waste that invested time and money.
I will never sacrifice quality for quantity on a shoot and I make that very clear. I want to produce imagery that both parties are proud to display and have their names attached to.
Say the shot list is 12. I’d rather give them 8 killer AW inspiring shots than 8 good shots and 4 okay shots because, ultimately, they’re going to get so much more out of those 8 fantastic shots then they would with 12 decent shots.
9. What tricks do you use to make “ugly” photo beautiful?
Lens choice, depth of field, and going in tight on the food can often rescue an ugly looking dish from the depths of unattractiveness to something interesting and compelling.
10. What are your best tips for food styling?
Ha. You get out of everything what you put into it! Experience and research is the key to food styling. You are only going to learn it by physically doing it and researching it.Sabin Orr
11. Can you take beautiful, professional-looking food photos on a smartphone?
Flat out, NO!
12. What type of equipment do you use?
Canon bodies and lenses as well as Sigma and Zeiss lenses. Profoto and Speedotron strobes with tons of light modifiers and bounce cards. In the past, I used view cameras and Hasselblads with phase 1 backs.
13. Please share a couple of food photography tricks useful to amateur food photographers.
Follow the light… Take a food item or a food dish and figure out how to make that one item look 20 or 50 ways different. Learn from that practice what techniques work in what situations. You will always be adapting in learning.Sabin Orr
I often say now that the easiest thing I do is take the pictures. Being a successful photographer encompasses so many other necessary qualities like accounting, marketing, keen business sense, organization, leadership, communication, negotiating, writing, networking, philanthropy, etc., and, foremost, your self worth.
All photos copyright by Sabin Orr Photography;