An Interview With Stephen Hamilton

An Interview With Stephen Hamilton

I have been following Stephen Hamilton’s work for the past couple of years. I first came across the Chicago-based food photographer’s work through his personal work and project called “The Restaurant Project.” In this project, Stephen has dined at restaurants throughout the country experiencing new dishes that chefs have to offer. While dining he takes an iPhone image. From this image, he recreates a beautiful shot of the meal back in his studio. I have enjoyed seeing Stephen's recreations and contacted him to learn more about the project. Here are 7 questions with Stephen Hamilton.

In between questions are examples form the Restaurant Project. On each image there is the restaurant's name, iphone inspiration photo, and the final studio image.


1. How did you find your way into Food photography, and where can your work be seen?

Originally I went to the Art Institute of Chicago thinking I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I quickly realized that I hated to sew. I had always been interested in photography though, so I started doing some fashion photography—and realized I just didn’t have the personality for fashion. Finally, I found my niche in food photography, which I’ve been doing for over 15 years now. I shoot mostly commercial photography but you can also find my photos everywhere from national magazines, cookbooks and TV news programs, to Bravo’s Top Chef. I also publish a food and photography magazine, called Who’s Hungry?, so all of the photography you’ll find in there is mine.



2. Could you tell me more about the Restaurant Project and your inspiration for starting it?
I started out doing a version of The Restaurant Project for Chicago Now, right when everyone started taking pictures of their food at restaurants. Then, I was eating at my friend Elizabeth Karmel’s Hill Country, and we started talking about how cool it would be to recreate restaurant dishes back at the studio. I’ve done about 70 recreations now. The series serves several functions: it’s a great opportunity to connect with chefs, explore new restaurants, and challenge myself creatively. Seeing what these chefs are doing helps me to constantly be thinking about food and presentation in new ways.


3. What is one of your favorite images you have created in your personal work?



Most recently, I loved creating the oyster shot that’s on the cover of Who’s Hungry? Issue No. 5. Once in a while, you see that everything from the lighting and props to the composition is going to come together in a beautiful way. When you get a shot like that, you usually aren’t struggling with it. You know right away that it’s going to be great.


4. What has been the most challenging dish to recreate for the restaurant project?

Any time you’re recreating a dish from a chef associated with molecular gastronomy, and you’re working with very detailed and composed plates, it can be challenging. I don’t typically shoot dishes like that; even though they may taste amazing they may not have a ton of taste appeal. But it’s fun to mix it up.


5. Do you involve the chefs in the process or recreating images of their dishes?

Very rarely. Once we were recreating a salad by Sprout Executive Chef Dale Levitski, and we couldn’t find the watermelon radishes he uses. We reached out to him and he was kind enough to send one over to us.


6. What have you learned about yourself as a photographer in doing this personal project?

More than anything, I’ve learned that as a photographer, you have to constantly be pushing yourself to learn new things. No matter what field you work in, the more you do and the more you explore, the deeper you work is going to be. That’s a big part of what The Restaurant Project, Who’s Hungry? Magazine, and my blog are all about. They are great creative outlets. If I have a day off, I still like to be shooting.


7. What camera/lens/lighting gear are you using for these pictures?

Typically I use Speedotron lights and Hasselblad cameras. The lens I use most often is a 50-110 zoom. I still use a handful of lights that I bought when I first started out; they’re workhorses.

For more of Stephen's work Check out Stephen



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Amazing work. I always admired the photos on the walls of the Top Chef episodes and even spent some time (probably more than I should have) investigating whose photos they were (to no avail). I used to live a block from his studio. I'm going to hit him up to be a free assistant of his one day soon! Great stuff. Thanks for the article.

Ryanwiz's picture

I'm hungry.

nice work

Jay Scott's picture

It is so hard to find great food photography resources online. Stephen Hamilton and "Who's Hungry" just made my number one reading spot. Thank you for this article, Fstoppers. Best resource I've found this year. More food photographers or still life would be greatly appreciated.

Taylor Mathis's picture

Jay, Glad you liked the article. Here are some of the other Food Tutorials and articles I have written for Fstoppers

Honestly, I just don't get it. Stephen's work is great, but why re-create the work of a chef? Why not just take a better photo of the food at the restaurant?

Scott, have you ever taken a professional photograph? I seriously doubt that the proprietors would want Stephen to bring his entire setup into their establishments; and likewise, Stephen doesn't do half-assed photo work.

Yes. I am professional food photographer and restaurants hire me to work at their location where the food is the freshest, they have all their cooking resources, and I can work directly with the chef to style the food exactly how they want it. I work off days, before the restaurant opens, or simply in a less busy section of the restaurant.

This is like repainting a Picasso instead of taking a photo of it.