Ever caught yourself yearning to break the mold of standard photography, to add a spark, something unusually remarkable to your work? If you answered yes, yes, uh, YES, then you should wander into the mystery-filled realm of CGI.
Steve Hansen is here to reveal the heart of his expedition into this intriguing world of CGI. He talks about how it beautifully collided with his photography and shaped and enriched his work. Walking us through his journey, Steve unfolds the realms CGI flung open for him. The awe-inspiring imagery he could materialize for his clients and the freedom to evolve his artistic and technical skills. He talks about capturing fleeting moments.
Whether you are an experienced photographer carrying around scruples of wisdom or a novice nurturing a seed of curiosity about photography, Hansen’s poignant revelations on CGI promise not just to enlighten but to inspire. So lend us your ears, let’s bask in the warmth of shared understanding, and together, let’s see how CGI can transform your perspective and elevate your artistry in photography. A fascinating conversation awaits.
Steve Hansen is a Seattle-based food photographer, director, and CGI artist. He spent 18 years as a cook and chef at some of the best restaurants in the world, including Le Cirque, Restaurant Daniel, and the Herbfarm Restaurant. During his time as a private chef, he began the transition to photography, assisting both photographers and food stylists before opening his own studio in 2018.
Mica: [00:00:00] Welcome to the 31st episode of The Savory Shot. Dang, y'all. Can you believe we're on episode 31 already? Oh my God, I'm buggin y'all. Time sure flies by when you are havin fun, eh? Hey!
First things first, did you listen to episode 30 with Jackie Alpers? If you haven't, you better moonwalk your butt to that episode and give it a listen.
Cause y'all, that was a good one. Okay, I have a story for y'all. Did anyone have those old Photobucket accounts? Well, I have one. And I still have it, and every so often, I like to go [00:01:00] in and go down a little memory lane. Well, y'all the other day, while I was sipping my fuh fuh thing, I dove deep into my old account. Y'all, the nostalgia! Oh my gosh, the older I get, the more I appreciate these grainy ass three megapixel photos.
Let me paint a picture for y'all. The year was 2004, I was a senior in high school, and it was at the start of my school year, and y'all, everybody had a cell phone. Everybody but me. I gave my mom the biggest puppy eyes and convinced her to get me a cell phone.
So we got one of those burner looking Nokia phones. You know the ones, the big clunky, with that iconic ringtone. Dee dee dee dee [00:02:00] dee. You could play snake on it.
Y'all, I thought I was so cool. I walked into my school on the first day with a little pimp in my step. I was pimp walking all through the hallways thinking, man, I'm so cool. That is until my bestie pulled out her shiny suit. Samsung flip phone. You know, the one with the camera. Y'all, my heart dropped. That weekend, I skated into the Sprint store and spent my entire paycheck on a flip phone.
I remember that first click. That first glimpse into its tiny screen as that grainy image appeared. Y'all, I thought I was a [00:03:00] magician. I thought it was magic. It's wild to think that nearly 20 years later, we'd be looking at a world where images come to life through CGI.
And through AI. It's crazy, y'all. The things we can do. Man, and I love this topic. I love talking about this. I love talking about the future. So today, I'm beyond thrilled to introduce you to the phenomenal Steve Hansen. Steve Hansen is a food and beverage photographer and CGI artist based out of Seattle.
Y'all, when we talk about a maestro in splash photography, Steve's name just shines at the top. Y'all, this episode is amazeballs. I mean, it's, it's fantastic. And I loved every [00:04:00] second of it. Steve led us into his world, y'all. He shed light on the rocky beginnings and the leaps he took to conquer the CGI space. We talked about the future of CGI and how it'll impact us as food photographers. But, before we get into that, let's start the show.
Mica: I just [00:05:00] wanna start off by saying thank you so much for being on the show. I was first introduced to your work in my photography class. We were learning about splashes in intermediate photography and your photos were some that we studied and I was like, this is freaking amazing.
So I've just have been a huge fan of your work ever since. So thank you, Steve, for being on the show.
Steve: Absolutely glad to be here.
Mica: I want to dive right into this because I've got so many questions. We've got so much stuff to talk about and I'm excited to like get right into it. The first thing I want to start off with is your background. You have a degree in baking and pastry from Seattle Central College, and then you have another degree in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America.
How have these two skills influenced your approach to food photography?
Steve: It's been pretty much everything. I've always told students or people I've ran into that a lot of it has [00:06:00] to do with knowing your subject matter. I think everybody in this business, whether you're a photographer or food stylist, comes at it, sometimes intentionally, but sometimes on accident and you stumble into it.
That was certainly the case with me. I had a couple of degrees, worked in kitchens for quite a while, but was always a visual artist from the time I was a kid and knew that's really where I needed to be. But I really enjoyed my time as a chef and it was a lot of fun. But I think what the business taught me and what I understand about food because of the business, allows me to really... Have an interesting eye as far as what produce should look like when it's at its best. I have an understanding kind of science behind food in general, how liquids behave when they're thicker versus thinner, how to make a vinaigrette. All the basics, knife skills, everything, understanding how to collaborate with a food stylist.
To ask the right questions. To know if something on set makes sense culinarily, both visually and culinarily, which, the art director and the food sales have a big say in that too. But I'm very hands [00:07:00] on. If I'm doing test work from doing client work, I tend to be fairly hands on my food stylist, love it or hate it.
So sometimes I'll back off and let them do their thing. Sometimes I do it solo. It just depends on the project. If you're shooting baseball or if you're shooting food or whatever it is, knowing your subject matter is absolutely critical. I would recommend anybody who goes into photography to study what they want to shoot first.
You could pick up photography and like I say, I studied it for years, but you could probably get if you were quicker at learning that you could probably get under your belt in six months. It depends how, you know, naturally you are at it, but you could get good at photography pretty quick. So yeah, I would learn your subject matter before anything else.
Mica: That's a great point you bring up. I wonder, would food photographers benefit from taking a culinary course? Or private lessons. What do you think?
Steve: You don't have to. Some of the best photographers I've studied had no culinary school. Obviously it's not [00:08:00] absolutely mandatory. They're technically extremely gifted on the, on a technical sense, on a strictly artistic sense. They understand how light behaves.
Some of the things where I sometimes struggle at, I'm very organic in my process. Like is it too much light, too little light? How's this make me feel? What color? And some people are very technical. That's definitely not how I approach it. I have people around me who understand that to a tee. Surround yourself with really good talent, sort of like a, you know, a famous musician might surround themselves with really skilled musicians in their band who know what they're doing.
Mica: I've been advised so many times, like when I was in school, they're like, you need to get to know as many chefs as possible, before you start taking on clients and booking work and things like that. I know that some, for me myself especially, approaching a chef and offering to do like a collaboration is like the most scary thing on the planet. So if, if a photographer approached you when you were in your chef [00:09:00] days, what are some things that would catch your attention to want to do a shoot with them?
Steve: Oh god chefs are chefs are tough to talk even talk to really. I'd it took me years just to get to get the chef out of me like just the constant stress and anxiety of being a chef. Like they don't want to talk to you. If you know somebody's in the business and you're friends with them I'm sure they'd love to do it.
It's rare they have a lot of time. It's usually food stylists who are in their formative years who really want to test the most. The collaboration between a photographer and a food stylist, especially starting out, that relationship can last a long time. They're usually former chefs, typically, not always.
More recently they're mostly former chefs. So they understand a lot about food. And they know a lot of the tricks and it's good to watch them work and you can pick up a lot of your own food styling tips from them just watching how they go about their business. I would always recommend that people seek out food styles locally to where they are and if you're just a starting photographer, find somebody who's just [00:10:00] getting into it, who has a lot of time and some effort to put into some test work.
And then forge a relationship together. That way you don't have to know everything about food styling. It can be a collaborative effort. Whereas I, you know, I always, being a chef, you get to be a control freak and I have to have my fingerprint on. Every like a lot. So it just depends on where your, what your background does, what your strengths are, what your focus is.
Are you going to be more of the technically minded, visual artists where the lighting is a hundred percent you're in the technicality of photography is your wheelhouse and you let somebody handle the food. That makes for a good collaboration. In fact, the more I progress in my career, the more I'm using food stylists because the bigger the projects get, the more specialized the stylists need to be and the more people I need on set, honestly, to get the job done.
So I can put my two cents in there, but they always know what they're doing and it turns out. While I like to have my hands on things, especially when I'm test shooting for myself, the collaborative effort's really nice. I would reach out to food stylists locally. Restaurants, talk to an owner of a restaurant, say, do you need some photos for [00:11:00] your restaurant if you want to get into restaurant photography, which is surprisingly not my forte at all.
I never do lifestyle. I have done some restaurant shoots, but it's really not my thing. Those are typically for people who have really good architectural photography skills. It's almost like wedding photography.
We have to be jumping around. So yeah, the collaborative thing is really nice to get to meet people in the business. I would join, I don't attend these meetings too often, but I used to join ASMP and some other organizations where you will go to meetings and meet people in the area.
So getting to know everybody in the business is really helpful regardless. Whether they're suppliers of camera gear or the more people you know, the better. Collaboration can really lead to a lot of good things.
Mica: Oh, I love that. The collaboration leading to wonderful things and building a relationship with someone who's just starting out a food stylist. It's funny you mentioned how you like to have your hand in everything, like your finger in every single pie, all that jazz. When you do like your portfolio work, do you prefer to work with a food stylist or do you like to [00:12:00] work solo on your portfolio shoots?
Steve: I work almost exclusively solo on portfolio shoots and I try to do a lot of portfolio shoots because you get way better even if you've been doing it forever. You learn something, a lot of things every time you go at it. What you want to do is you want to show the client what you're all about photographically.
And every time you do an advertising shoot or a packaging shoot or whatever it is, there's an enormous amount of input from the creative director from how the food stylist styles food. There's a lot of things that go into it. And I'd say there's a good chunk of that on my website, but I want to have a lot of work on there that gives people an idea when they look at it for the first time, what my style is, how I go about things in a vacuum.
And a little bit of the advertising stuff too, to show that I can work in collaborative environments and troubleshoot. That's one of my favorite things to do is troubleshoot ideas that come my way where someone has an idea in place. I'm like, how are we going to make this a reality on camera?[00:13:00]
But when I'm doing my portfolio, I want that to be as much of me as possible. I certainly will not, never turn down the opportunity to work with somebody, especially if they're specialized. There's ice cream stylists, there's pizza stylists who almost do solely that. So working with them is, is always a treat.
I want to show people who come to my site exactly what I do quickly. I'm in the process of redoing the website now cause I'm going to be doing another marketing push in the summer. But everything is being thought through like how the images are positioned. The visual content of the images how they resonate off one another. But I'm getting into motion CGI. Every time you add a skill to your set you've got to I think refine your visual identity even more.
The broader your skillset, the more important it is to have a very cohesive visual presentation on your site. And my stuff does vary a little bit. It's not all the exact same look, but I try and I light a certain way when given the chance and I style a certain way when given the chance.
Most of the style I [00:14:00] do will be on the beverages and on some other components, but the food, when it's complex, I'm almost leaving it always to a food stylist. So those will be collaborative shoots. But yeah, just having that solid visual identity is really critical.
Mica: For anyone who might not know what that means, what does visual identity mean to you?
Steve: A lot of it you can learn by reading or observing the old masters in fine art. When you see a certain artist who's famous, you'll typically be able to know immediately if they had painted it. My favorite painter growing up was Monet. I do a lot of painting at home, which is like a therapeutic mindless activity that kind of lets me understand light a lot better when you really have to actually physically create it from almost nothing.
I tell students to read everything, but photography books and every and follow everybody, but photographers, because you'll pick up these interesting ideas from sculptors, from artists that you can implement your own work, like how they lit something, how they used color.[00:15:00] In painting, you can really have a lot of freedom to manipulate color and nobody will second guess it.
Whereas in photography, especially food, like if you do something wacko, people are gonna be like. Oh boy, but you can, you can sneak it in there, especially lighting cocktails. I recommend kind of just going outside of your comfort zone to find new inspirations for your work for sure.
To answer your question, like with visual identity, it took a while. And I think that's what students are just confused about. It just takes time, um, to get a cohesive, you'll, you'll take in inspiration over time, over time, over years and years and years.
And you'll start to be like, all right, I'm, I like lighting from the left a lot. My style is lighting from the left with a softbox. With a harsh light in the middle of that soft box. So you get like a dual harsh, soft kind of thing. And then some sort of kicker coming from the rights, possibly colored a little cooler, almost like you were lighting an athlete and occasionally a beauty dish from above and then.
A lot of my imagery now is very colorist, I guess. It used to be very moody, like Rembrandt, [00:16:00] like some of the people that I followed growing up. In fact, a colleague of mine out of New York, Francesco Tonelli is really good. Does a lot of really moody dramatic. And I think I, I started doing that and I thought, Oh my God, this is just fantastic.
I'm, I wonder if everyone else is doing something like this. And I looked him up and I'm like, Oh my God. Yeah, no, it's done a lot. Um, and he, he had a, he had a very similar background as I did. I think we worked in some of the same restaurants in New York and he's heavy handed on his own. I don't want to speak for him, but I think he'll do a lot of styling himself.
Really beautiful work. And I've sort of veered to more of like the middle tones, dramatic color, semi harsh lighting, but not to where it's like not appetizing. Some of the light can get really, it depends what you're shooting. But yeah, it just kind of honing your style over time and creating an identity.
It's all your own. I think it really is just a time thing. One day you'll be looking at your work and be like, it all starts to kind of, it all has the same feel to it. Oh, that must. And it'll just happen like overnight. I never thought that I'd be [00:17:00] shooting a lot of mid tone. You know, moderately saturated colors.
I really liked the dramatic look early on and it'll change over time too. I'll probably in a few years I'll probably shoot a little bit different, but you have to be very committed in that regard because when an art director looks at your site or your work, you only get a few seconds and they've seen so much imagery.
They've looked at all of the imagery, like they may not everything and they're, a little bit jaded by it. So you have to come in not necessarily with something that's literally never been done before, completely off. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but you have to bring something somewhat new to the table, have a skillset that might be unique and be able to work with people and be able to problem solve for them, which is probably the biggest thing is to make their vision a reality.
But as you progress, I think you'll get more work and more response when you post things in that are cohesive.
Like anytime you post on Instagram, three images in a row that are very similar, I think they actually form something more than their individual. images. You get more of a broad [00:18:00] positive reaction from it if, if they resonate well with each other.
Mica: The key thing that you mentioned though, is that it takes time. And that's probably one of the most frustrating answers, things that beginner photographers don't like to hear because the world is like instant gratification. I want to be instantly good. I want to instantly know who I represent and what I do.
I like that you said that, that it takes time and it really does. It feels like it's overnight, but you've been doing all of that background work to do that, to find that part of you. You mentioned about like your work and how you want people feel when you present yourself.
There was a article by Coffee Code. One thing that I really loved about it, besides your bomb photos, like, gosh, they're so amazing.
The author described your work as capturing the fleeting, fluid, and fragile moments. [00:19:00] What advice would you give to photographers who struggle with capturing fleeting fluid and fragile moments in their work?
Steve: Yeah, I found that interesting because it was a compliment because nothing is fleeting or, or fragile. Every single one of my shots is, is composited. There's no way to do it. I've had one shot that I've kept where it just happened on accident because from an artistic standpoint, with splashes you're never going to get it to behave exactly the way you want. Usually what I'll do is I'll get an initial splash, an initial hit, but it completely depends. Like some of the stuff I've been posting recently is, is every individual element was completely shot in isolation.
It's rare that they're fleeting. They need to look fleeting. They need to look like they're happening. And that, that actually takes time and something that I get better at every day of, of creating really beautiful shadow and integrations. Creating little droplets here and there that showcase some sort of movement, even if it's subtle.
To not just have it look like a composite, but [00:20:00] something a little bit more cohesive. I don't see anything wrong with compositing or at all. In fact, I like the control, I like the visual look it gives you. I think it's really good. It's really whimsical when you have more control and can do what you want with color and shadow and all that. That's one of the things that got me into CGI is when you take a shot, you bake in everything and there's no going back.
Those fleeting moments when you can get them are awesome. In fact, the core of the splash shot is some sort of interaction between powder and liquid or an ingredient liquid. And then I build it out from that actual fleeting moment shot. So I'll build upon it.
And even when I do motion stuff or CG stuff, I'll get a something in front of like a high speed camera. That's a really awesome shot where everything's happening at once because you want those interactions, especially with motion. Then we'll composite a couple of elements on top of it, or composite some sparkles, or just add a little extra salt and pepper to it.
In advertising, you need to be able to respond to people's requests for edits. So everything has to be on its own layer, almost. I mean, there's occasions where that's not the case, but there are few and far [00:21:00] between.
Some of my Photoshop files are over a hundred gigabytes. It takes a while to load those things. Cause it's a hundred, it's a hundred megapixel camera.
It adds up a lot and sometimes I get sloppy and I leave too much data on the plates and it just it gets a little crazy, but it does takes some time to load some of that, you get 16 bit Adobe RGB files and 100 megapixels and you're doing like 50 layers sometimes and it gets really crazy.
My computer, I mean my computers are mostly for CG so they tend to have a lot of memory anyways, so it doesn't really affect them too much. In fact, Photoshop is the one that's slow most of the time, I can't make use of my computers on occasion.
Mica: You must have one heck of a file archival system.
Steve: I do. I mean, it's not just that. It's the, it's the scanned. I mean, I, I take a lot of, uh, we'll get into CG later, I'm sure, but I, there's a lot of scanned items that are photo scanned items where you take pictures in every angle of an item. And you [00:22:00] restitch it together in 3D and it gives you a mesh and an overlay of the actual photographs for 3D and some of those, a single Apple can get into the multiple gigabytes of information.
It gets pretty crazy. So a lot of storage at home and a lot of storage at the studio. I split my time now between home and studio because I have a whole post production suite there with the CG stuff too. I won't come into studio for that. It's mostly just for shoots where people are on set, more traditional.
Mica: We've talked about CGI and I actually want to dive into CGI. What inspired you to incorporate that into your work?
Steve: Time. I had a lot of time on my hands. I was doing most of my shoots in New York and I would be in a hotel room. I don't tend to go out a lot. When I was a chef, I would do that all the time, so I'm just tired of. I basically sat in the hotel room and was like one day. I think the actual initial thought was I had somebody do a, I was doing a traditional photo shoot and I needed a [00:23:00] render of the physical packaging product.
That I was participating in shooting and the render, I think it was like two grand for a bag render, which isn't terrible. It's not too bad. As far as rate goes, but I was like, I'd like to be able to do this myself. And I started seeing what people were doing and start and I started seeing the technology advancing really quickly.
And this is only four or five years ago. Compared to now the resources available compared to then are night and day. I do not have a math brain. I didn't have coding experience. So I jumped into this. I saw the power of it and how fast it was progressing. And now the resources are in abundance.
It's like when I started teaching photography, there were only a few places to go for that. Now there's just tons of talent and YouTube doing a great job of it. Which I still follow today. I keep up on stuff, but I don't have tons of time for that. CGI is incredibly powerful, but I only use it when I need to.
I had a lot of time doing this photo shoots and in New York, I would sit in the hotel room and study for hours, [00:24:00] like three or four hours. Cause once you get the bug, once you realize what you can do with it, you just get absolutely addicted to it. I would watch hours and hours every day of the stuff, even at home practicing because you're starting from scratch as far as what you know, and you know nothing.
There's people out there who know a lot of stuff, who've been working in film and games for years. But I came at CGI with a very practical, I just want it to be an extension of motion and photography for me. Adding a little extra trick in the bag when needed. So I don't need to know how to do these really complex, insane mathematically based animations or things that are very abstract and difficult to process. I just want it to be a virtual studio in a sense where I can go in. Cause in packaging we would have issues where we'd have to find a pumpkin in spring.
And so now I scanned so many products that I've run into over the course of the years. photoscan them, and put them in the 3d realm that I can grab a pumpkin, light it the same way we do on set and then position it and then blur it [00:25:00] out or do whatever you need to do. And then ingrate it into the scene.
So similar to what you could do now with AI is just ask for a specific type of image. You don't have as much control over it, which is one of the things I like about CGI versus AI. It's like, yeah. I, I've heard a lot of people saying, AI is gonna put photography outta business, but if CGI didn't do that, which it has incredible control, incredible fatality and incredible art, direct ability, then certainly a AI won't have. AI for me, I use it for idea generation. It seems like a more replaced stock photography and the daily social needs of companies as opposed to the really high level stuff where it has to be incredibly art directable. It's actually been a nice tool.
Not one that I use all the time. Cause CGI really gets you where you want to go in a very like deliberate way. It's not just leaving it at the whim of the algorithm or whatever you as an artist and as a client, we'll get exactly what they're looking for. The ability to go back with CGI, I found I can put on a VR headset and go into VR and physically touch a scene [00:26:00] that I'm working on and then back out of it so I can have a very tactile virtual interaction with the scenes. It's really fun. The thing is, it's overwhelming and for my kind of brain and how I come at things, what I really like is the advertising world because they'll come at you with, you'll need to put in your ideas, but it'll come at you with some sort of idea, like a starting point and some things that they need in the shot and needed them to look a certain way.
Whereas in 3D, if you're doing personal work in CGI, it's overwhelming because you can literally do anything. You're not limited by what glassware you have in the studio. I just make the glass or if I don't have the right ice cube, I make the ice cube.
Mica: You can do that in CGI? You could do that?
Steve: Yeah, in fact in CGI, I will blow your mind. I can model a nice cube in 3D, I can tell it how many bubbles it has, how many cracks or veins or how much roughness on the surface, how translucent it should be.
And then I'll create a system with nodes in 3D and I use Houdini exclusive, which is like a super complex package. It has a system within it called PDG, which is [00:27:00] basically a variant. It's actually kind of like AI will do the same thing.
We'll just create variant upon variant of what the basic idea was. So I can tell it, I want a hundred different ice cubes that all are slightly different, slightly different bubble counts, slightly different. And I'll just start churning these out like exponentially. You can do the same thing with scans.
And so you just have this massive inventory of props, plates. If I scan a plate or model plate, I give it a set of variables and it'll start pumping out new plates for me. And they look photoreal. Like they, the one big thing is I tell people, especially if you're in food, especially, is to not try and do everything in CGI.
You're not gonna be able to do a bowl of spaghetti in CGI. It'll take too long. There's certain things you can do, certain things you cannot do. It's there's a lot of product renderings, which are great that clients love me to add on to shoots. It just adds value to what I'm able to give them. Because if they like my style and I can do a lot of different things with that style and they they've worked me before and they're comfortable with me Then we can do a lot of different things for a campaign. Some photographers have to collaborate with CGI artists, which can take [00:28:00] forever. There's a lot of things that are missed in translations.
Sometimes it's a great collaboration, but it just depends. But if you're able to do motion, I'm not a master of motion, but I understand it enough to get the final result. And I work with a team who really knows their stuff. CGI is just overwhelming. Like there, it's a subject matter that could be its own three hour discussion.
It goes on forever. But it is something that I think is worth learning on a basic level. People use Blender for, it's free. I, I do not like Blender at all. I can't stand, like once you know Houdini, you can't use any other piece of software. Houdini is I think, like 300.
Considering what it can do, it's almost free. So, I would really recommend people learn that first, because they're... The team that puts development of that software is insane. For liquid simulations, I don't necessarily have to go into studio and throw paint around. I can actually fully art direct it where I want it to go and how I want it to behave and how viscous and how much surface tension goes into it.
There's no guesswork. If you put the computing energy into it, it looks 100% photoreal. It's a really neat. [00:29:00] It's a really neat tool that I try and use in a very organic manner because I don't know if I had mentioned this earlier, but getting clients to buy into it can sometimes be a challenge because they're like, Oh, CGI is just fake.
And I'm like, a good render engine will be able to render something 100% photo real if you give it the information it needs to do it. If you're using really good models, you just can't tell the difference sometimes. The flexibility of being able to come in and do these incredible animations, go open the project file years later and still work in the same scene with same lighting not have to reset things. I could do packaging in there with my photo scans all day and you wouldn't know it wasn't a photograph. You know, a camera will distort reality just as much as CGI I mean it converts light rays into RGB pixels and through a lens which heavily manipulates the image coming through sometimes. So it's just another tool, but I sneak it in there at a client's I'm like Hey, we could do this. At least portion of this and CGI and sometimes they're like, absolutely not.
For no other reason, they just don't understand the process or they just don't want that to be. I think most of it is they just don't want anyone, the word CGI to be [00:30:00] associated with something that's very typically very organic, even though you can get a fully photoreal organic look. So getting past that sometimes is, which is why I'm delving more into cosmetics, more into product on occasion because CGI really does well with those.
So I'll get the food clients around to that eventually. But, it'll be an ongoing process.
Mica: They'll come around. South by Southwest, this past year, I finally got to attend. I bought my pass in 20, I bought it in 2018, so, or 2019, so that I could go in 2020, and it, obviously, 2020, it was canceled and kept getting deferred and deferred and deferred until last year when I finally went.
But, I met this gentleman, who was obsessed with all things 3D and he was like developing an app for restaurants, they take a photo of their dish and it will present itself in a 3D format [00:31:00] where you can see it 3D and it's like this is the future of how people are going to order food because they see things on a menu and it's descriptive words, but attention spans are getting shorter and shorter by the day.
And also people are still very visual. If they see something in a 3D form, they're the dish in a 3D form that that will influence them more than a flat photo. And he's like, this is very much the future. So with that being said, is CGI the future of photography and food photography?
Steve: I don't think so. I, I like the idea. Like for me, if I'm telling a story, if I want to make somebody excited, I will use CGI. If I want to make them moves, I'll use motion. If I want to make them hungry, I use still imagery. So still imagery, when you pick at every little thing and you have control over every little thing, and it's a still image and it's not going anywhere.
There's no motion blur. [00:32:00] The amount of taste that can be transferred through that medium. When I see a really good image of a hamburger that's perfectly done, I'm immediately hungry. But if I see a, a, a nice, like robot move around a hamburger, then I'm kind of like moved.
I'm like, oh, that's exciting. I wanna go see that. And then when I, when I see a, a CG of a burger, which is basically almost impossible to do, I've tried it. It's very whimsical.
It makes you excited about a brand. So it just depends what sort of artistic mode you're going for, which is why I'm just so glad to be able to handle all three for a client. What do you want to happen? Do you want to, do you want an animated gift to tell a story? Do you want, a CGI to get people just enthralled and stop scrolling and stare at your feed for like literally minutes on end to just watch what you're doing, which happens with a lot of CG works.
There's a really good call to action ability with motion. It's also a lot easier. Motion. Once you get a good product on set and you shoot it, it's very to the point, like, all right, we got it. With CG, there's endless edits that could happen.
[00:33:00] There's endless flexibility almost to a fault. So there, there's no one thing, whether it's AI or photography, or I think you should understand all of them as much as you can. It's a lot of work to put in to understand them all well enough to produce. It to, I mean, it took me. Well, over a decade and hours, just an insane amount of time, which I know most people may or may not be able to commit to it.
But I, I'm never bored with this industry. Like there's always something around the corner that you can look to that is exciting that you can bring on because it won't just be people in a dark room, just typing in keywords into an AI. There will always be that need for interaction, a need for believability.
If clients are a little put off sometimes by even including CG, I'm sure they're going to be put off by just using fake, you know, it, it, so there's, there's room for it all. And if you understand it all from a very broad, you can bring on people who are very good at these specialized skill sets, whether it's prop stylists or food stylists, let them do their thing.
And then you have a very broad understanding of what needs to be done from a [00:34:00] director's or a photographer standpoint. And you can step in when needed or if you couldn't find that pumpkins say, you know, some, if you're just a photographer, you just don't have the pumpkin, but if you're a CGI artist too, you can be like, well, let's go make it out of thin air and let's, it'll be.
A hundred percent seamlessly integrated into things. I use it sort of as an additional tool. I'm not a traditional 3D artist that came up doing games or films, which is a majority of, of CG artists, and they're mindbogglingly skilled at, at being able to make the impossible reality and integrate it into live footage.
Whereas I'm just, I just see it as sort of an additional studio. A virtual studio sorts where I can just play around and I test lighting all the time if I don't want to go to the studio and I want to see how something looks in a certain light setup. I go into 3D. I move lights around, see how it looks and then you can just translate that to the studio later.
And once you're done learning 3D, you know lighting like the back of your hand and you know a lot about refractions, caustics, way more than I learned doing photography, way more, you in 3D have [00:35:00] control over the shape of the bokeh on your camera in the render engine. You have the control over how glare looks, how many like you, it's a, it's a deep dive and especially in post production and motion.
That's another deep dive. It's a whole thing, but the encouraging thing is that when you learn photography and you learn blend modes and you learn all the basics, all every lighting, all of that stuff translates one to one to the next step, whether it's motion or CGI, all of it. Like you can use it. Like if you have a visual identity and you understand about the basics of layering and light and all the stuff that comes into the technical side of photography, it all translates.
If you're a good photographer, you're going to be good. Not overwhelmed by motion. You will be very much overwhelmed at the beginning of my CGI. But once you get over that hump and you'll know it, it'll be, you'll enjoy the heck out of it. It's a lot of fun because there's no constraints on your creativity at all once you get to that point,
Mica: What do you think would need to happen, or what would it take for food brands, food [00:36:00] companies to embrace CGI?
Steve: What I'm putting on my new website is a very detailed explanation of the process. So they can look at it. I might even do a live interview kind of thing where I just discuss the process from a very casual manner. But a very concise manner because they just don't have a lot of time to look at this stuff.
But I think forming a, good relationship with people that you've worked with photographically or in motion or whatever. If they're comfortable and you can show them examples of what that might look like. I think it goes a long way. And sometimes I'll just be like, all right. If they know it's CG, they're going to look at it and be like, that's just CG.
There's a pride I think some people get and notice if something's CG or not, they'll try and pick it out of a lineup. That was CG for sure. And sometimes they're definitely right. Not everything is about being a hundred percent photo real all the time.
Some of it's just about making an impact or a visual explosion of color, whatever. So there's a place for it. There's no, I'm not going to have, like I said, a bowl of spaghetti with tons of little particulate matter and tons of detail and try and model [00:37:00] that it's just not going to happen.
Mica: My husband and I, we visited the MIT museum, which I did not know they had a museum and it is a great museum to visit. If you're ever in Boston, but they have this whole AI wing. And they're just showing like the things that they can currently do with AI, things that they are trying to do in the future, medical, health, art, just the sky's the limit, but one of the machines that they have, it's where you, you sit down and you watch videos and you identify if whether it's, real or if it's AI. My husband did terribly on on his end.
And I was really good. I think I missed three questions, like three videos. It really forced me to watch human behavior and like, how do [00:38:00] humans move when they talk, when they're nervous. Are they fidgety? Do they look around when they're talking, like you, you really just get so observant.
And so I feel like with learning, just based on what you've described with CGI is that you become more observant with photography and the message that you're trying to put out, like you become so much more intentional. Am I hitting the ballpark when I say that?
Steve: Yeah. I mean, in fact, I would, I would recommend just like. If you can learn CGI, it makes you, you can do anything in CGI forces, you forces you to hone in. You're, you're not being forced into a corner to be more focused creatively by external forces, you're doing it internally.
Which is actually pretty hard to do. This forced me to answer a lot of artistic questions about what I like to do and what I don't like, because it's all out there in CG. You're not limited in any way.
So it forces you to be creatively disciplined, which translates to photography and motion big time. It helps you direct a [00:39:00] lot better because you can move cameras. In fact, in VR, I'll get in VR and physically move a camera around and you can actually have a, there's a physical camera that you're holding and there's actually a screen just like on a real camera where it shows you what the lens is seeing so I can practice moves and practice how things might behave on a real set. It really helps the artistic mind developed big time and, and the technical mind, because it is just overwhelming. Which is where I think, AI would do really well is in software like Blender, Houdini, where you, if you're going to be really good, you have to know Python and VEX and some other coding languages.
You don't have to, but it really helps. You can type in some keywords and get an image of it will be nice. And, you know, Houdini or some other programs is to be able to type in kind of generally speaking, what you're looking for, and it'll give you like in Houdini, like a, an AI built node graph of what it thinks you might want that translates to a CGI animation.
And then you can tweak it from there and make it yours. You have the nodes, you have everything organized. So [00:40:00] incorporating AI as a tool like Photoshop's doing right now. To an extent to just give you a few extra tools, it can only help the creative drive, the creative process.
It's been exciting, creatively exciting for me for the last five years, and it seems to be just getting better and better as time goes on and what tools are available. Just as long as you're, you know, develop your photographic style, your artistic style and be really confident in it and have the technical side down as much as you possibly can and surround yourself with people who are even better than you at a very specific thing.
You're going to go pretty far in. And I think where people hopefully don't get impatient is that you'll probably struggle for a while and it'll be hard to find clients who are high paying. You'll get that first client who's like, for some reason you just end up being the photographer where they couldn't find somebody or you'd reach out to somebody and they're like in a pinch and they're like, Oh, we got somebody locally or it'll be that there'd be like one job.
And if you do a really good job at that project. Your name will get passed around fast. Not all the time, but that's how it [00:41:00] happened with me. I haven't done a lot of marketing in years. My whole career. I haven't really focused. I don't think you necessarily want to do that. You want to, you want to be so honed in that and, and so skilled that people will come to you.
And through word of mouth, through other reasons, it seems like if you start chasing clients, they'll start to like scatter. But if you really create like a presence that people gravitate towards artistically, it'll happen. Like I don't advertise in a lot of places.
I let word of mouth do the work for me. Instagram is a good place to post stuff. I don't, I tried doing Tiktok. I'm just too old for it.
Mica: You would do so well on TikTok though. People would be so obsessed with everything you put out there.
Steve: I'm going to create an account for my cat. I mean, my cat will, and, and the cat will have like half a million followers and I'll have 20.
Mica: That will do well too. I follow a, uh, a TikTok account.[00:42:00] They do like comparison videos between their senior dog and their younger dog. And I have a senior dog and a, and a younger dog. So like it tugs at my heartstrings. So your cat could be famous.
Steve: I would work for my cat eventually. I know how that would go down. Yeah. It's, it's really good. It's a really good medium for transmitting ideas and doing really quick. But I don't do a lot of education anymore, and I don't think a lot of the people who pay my bills, who I'm working with higher up, in the ranks, are on TikTok.
They're not there yet. The future art directors of the world are all on TikTok, and they're coming off the ranks. And it's just a different way of communicating. At the end of the day, it's just like the visual results of what you create for people.
And there's a lot of distractions out there as far as, I do want to do more education. I do want to do, more social media. But I, my, my primary goal is to create incredible shots for my clients.
Mica: I want to ask you, cause I'm like [00:43:00] super obsessed with this CGI conversation. What was one overwhelming thing about Houdini when you first started learning about it?
Steve: Literally every, the whole, the whole program, everything like I got into it. I didn't even know which direction I didn't understand vectors or normals or man, this is a conversation that could really, yeah, um, I know I've, so I, I started from the ground up. It took major discipline. I didn't even know I had, I was super frustrated at the beginning.
I felt dumb. You're starting from scratch, even if you know your stuff artistically. I think it's having like Houdini is really special because I have a monitor that's in front of me. That's a Wacom tablet that I do all my retouch on, but in Houdini, it's just the, it's the sandbox.
In Houdini, you have nodes and every node is like something you plug into. It's almost like audio equipment where you plug something into something else and something else. There's like a chain that, that funnels down vertically or horizontally in Houdini. Where it's just a set of instructions that follow.
So if you want to create a box, there's a box node. If [00:44:00] you want to create a liquid simulation, there's a liquid simulation set of nodes that you have to and you could spend your whole career just understanding liquid simulations. I have friends who just do that. They're liquid CG artists. That's it.
You can create your own tools. I have a system that is just a liquid launching tool. So when I drag it onto my node graph, it just starts up and the lights are all in place. I have a whole lighting system that I can drop in in like two seconds.
And you just create these systems over time that, uh, that are just like actions in Photoshop that save you time. I have a virtual studio set up. I drag in and I can be up and going within seconds in Houdini. Yeah, it's, it's, I would start, I would start with Houdini, actually, because it just teaches you more about 3D than any other software program.
I use RealityCapture for scanning physical assets into 3D, and I use ZBrush, which is a sculpting software for cleaning those models up. Sometimes sculpting my own things, so it's a visual sculpting clay program they use on the [00:45:00] Wacom tablet, so you actually can actually draw on a piece of virtual clay.
Sometimes I'll do it in VR, you can actually physically touch the clay and mold it. So you can create pots or plates. So you can see immediately how like time consuming this is. So some clients are just like, let's do it. If you if you want to see a good example of a company fully embracing this CG technology into their day to day visuals is, I think it's a, it's not a company I work for, but they do the truffle tomato sauce and the truffle oils are called truth.
I think TRU FF, fantastic visuals coming out of there. So much fun. And so they, they're fully on board with that stuff. They don't do it for everything, but , it's just another tool. So I'd really recommend it, but I, I wouldn't tell everybody to do it. Cause it is a major time commitment. It is like understanding motion is challenging, but this is a whole another level if you're starting as a photographer, going into additional techniques. It can take years of your life to get this under your belt just [00:46:00] to start even at a basic level.
And then even that it's just overwhelming. I sit down if I'm just gonna have fun in 3D and just experiment. I can spend half an hour just trying to figure out what the heck I'm gonna do where isn't it when I walk into the studio mess around I just grab a plate grab a thing shoot it it There, there is a lot to be said for constraining your artistic options.
But CGI forces you to do that internally, not just externally. It's a really good tool for learning. I would, I would recommend that over almost anything else for really understanding the visual arts in general, from a technical standpoint.
I'd really recommend it, but I don't recommend it lightly because it is, like I said, a major commitment.
Mica: It sounds so fascinating and it sounds like very futuristic. I'm always thinking about what's next for photography and what role do I play in that or how can I use that? To grow or what skills can I add [00:47:00] on to this arsenal of skill sets that I already have?
How do you envision the future of food and beverage photography and what role do you see CGI playing in that evolution?
Steve: I think it's going to come slow. I think clients are very traditional and I wouldn't say set in their ways, but they know it works and they know what they want and they're, they just want it. It'll be a slow process so you just have to you have to show the work.
It's not gonna be for everybody. In fact, like I said, you can collaborate with food stylist. You could also collaborate with a 3D artist. If you have, you know a photo or a motion project and you want something CG in there just reach out to a younger 3D student they're more than usually more than happy to kind of collaborate on something like that.
Hopefully this brings to light some of the different techniques that the general day to day generalists, especially in something like food where CG's not used that much, um, is, is sort of the, a really fun place to be right now.
Mica: I'm curious [00:48:00] about Houdini now. I'm gonna I'm gonna jump right into it when I.
Steve: Careful. Yeah, it could be, uh, it could suck you in fast and spit you out the other side. It's,
Mica: I love those little rabbit holes, I want to close out this interview with one last question, what personal philosophy has guided you throughout your career and it continues to inspire you now in your work?
Steve: I think the general philosophy, I don't have like a, a mantra that I hang over the door of my studio or anything, but I, I would say like the, the biggest thing is just consistency. I learned that in cooking. What we're doing isn't like rocket science and you just have to come in every day and give it the best. It's corny, but for, for an artist like me, who has a scatterbrain, it's not the easiest thing to sit down and put your butt in the seat and commit to something that can be very nerve wracking, sometimes very sporadic and, and busyness. You have to wear a lot of different hats.
In the kitchen, you have to wear a lot of different hats. This is [00:49:00] possibly even more in the photography business. But yeah, I think it would just be, to be consistent to show up.
Mica: I love that. I love that. I know you mentioned that you don't do a lot of educational courses today. Could you see yourself doing a course on, on CGI? You've spent so many years studying it and now you're pushing it out there. Is that something that you could see yourself teaching in the future?
Steve: Possibly. I think from a food standpoint, yeah, yeah. I, I, there's so many people who are, freelancers for ILM or other people who just have absolutely mastered it and it would school me. I care about the output. I don't care how I get there. So I'm pretty scrappy with the 3D thing and I'm pretty scrappy with how I work, which doesn't really translate to education.
I've taught before about what I know and I've delivered it as far and wide as I could, especially early on, I think even before I was really ready. I had some interesting ideas to share, but it's hard to translate what's going on in my head to a one, two, three kind of step for people to kind of follow along with.
I'm all over the place [00:50:00] usually. Which is great sometimes in, in generating imagery, because I think, a director, you go to see a director on a movie set, they're very disciplined, but if you had to explain them how they made a movie, they'd be like.
Steve: I, so I've, I've tried to put that in words before. And I, I don't know, like, what do you want to, what do you want to show people? Some of it's just so simple. I'm like, I don't like talking about gear at all. I don't care. Like, I know what certain lenses look like, but I don't, I don't really. I need light here, not light there that I'm very like, how many stops?
I don't even, I don't know. I'll feel through it. I'll feel through it. And I've gotten, if you do it long enough, it's very instinctual. So teaching is something I might try again down the road, but I think there's so many people doing it right now who are very specific in what they want to teach and know everything about that one subject. And they're really good resources to look to. The liquid CGI guy or the retouching guy.
There's so many people who are very honed in. I'm very broad in what I, so I [00:51:00] can oversee projects and get them done teaching a specific subject might be, but I'll probably dabble in it again down the road for sure. So you might see more of me in that regard, but not in the next five years, I don't think.
Mica: No, you're going to, you're, you're going to be in, in CGI Lala magic land. I mean, every time I see a photo pop up on your Instagram and you talk about like it's a CGI and this is what I was like, oh my god, that looks so amazing. I'm gonna be obsessed with this. I swear, this is my last question, if a photographer came to you and they were wanting to know more about this. About CGI, like what resources helped you learn? Were there like books or links or anything that helped you along the way?
Steve: I know that SideFX, who makes Houdini, S I D E F X. They have a YouTube channel that has enormous amounts of really good content. I physically will go to the conference [00:52:00] they occasionally have in, last one was in Vancouver, B. C., and it was all about CG. Render man, which is Pixar's primary render engine was there.
Intagma is another YouTube channel that is fantastic. They're very scientific, very... It can be sometimes hard to follow for a newcomer, but man, they do some really good work. I use V Ray as my primary render engine. I was going to use RenderMan, but V Ray... Is like the camera in 3D, I suppose. That actually renders the physical image and uses physics to do so. Redshift is another engine that's just fast, but everything looks really plasticky. It's gotten better, but as it gets better, it gets a lot slower. I think V Ray is really surprisingly. I didn't think I'd go with them, but they're really good. I'm. So looking at their website, they interview people. They have something called the CG Garage where they interview people in the business from all backgrounds, whether they're working on movies or games or advertising, super interesting.
This is long form stuff, so it can be a little dry. It takes some [00:53:00] concentration over a long period of time to pick this stuff up because man, yeah, it's, it's, uh.
Mica: You had to like pause and then rewind it and then play it and go, wait, what did I just hear? And then go back.
Steve: Those are the, yeah, those are the primary resources. I think that's a good place to start. And then you'll naturally branch out, you'll see people that resonate with you that who are doing things that you want to do, and you'll just follow them.
Mica: What advice would you give to any photographer who is hesitant or just completely against uh, AI, CGI, any of that?
Steve: I would say I there's no reason to be against. A render engine and a camera doing the same thing. It's just as real as a camera. There's no one. There's nothing that's more real than the other, especially when using scanned assets. That are real to begin with. You're manipulating reality of the second you press the shutter.
And there's literally a million different ways to be creative. It's just, if you're going to be successful, I think it's just about patience and making the right moves at the right time. What's going on in the industry, what's going on in the economy, there's just so many different [00:54:00] factors. If you're not up for that, there's other ways to be in the creative fields that are more consistent, I suppose. There's just so much going on all the time that being kind of an outlier photographer in a studio may not be the only way to go.
So yeah, hopefully I can just share some of my techniques. Then that, you know, maybe somebody just wants to focus only on CG and that's a good way to go too.
Mica: Yeah, you could be a liquid splash specialist CG. I mean, that sounds,
Steve: They're in demand. They're heavily in demand. Yeah.
Mica: That is like a conversation I would want to have with someone. Be like, wait, you do what?
Steve: Yeah. I know, I saw some people I can get on that. You can have, you could probably have on the show. I don't know how busy they are, but they do a lot of work for ESPN. Anytime you see something flowing, whether it's in a movie or a TV commercial, there was a, probably a liquid artist who understood how to guide liquids, which is not easy to do.
Mica: Oh my gosh. I would love to have a conversation. I mean, I just, I want to have a conversation with food stylists [00:55:00] who specialize in ice cream only because I think that's super cool. It's so like defined. So that's super cool.
Steve: I'll put you in touch with them.
Mica: Get me in touch with them. I would love that. Where can the listeners, if they should be following you at this point, cause you're awesome, but if they're not, where can they follow you?
Where can they support you, learn more about you, see your work, all that jazz?
Steve: It's Instagram for me right now. At Steve Hanson Visuals. Yeah. Uh, HN, SEN, um, and the websites mostly is for my clients to, there's some high resolution stuff in there. That's the website, stevehansonvisuals. com. Which is currently being updated and that's it for now. I'll probably spread it once I start doing teaching again, I'll probably go further on that.
Mica: Well, if you end up on TikTok, whether it's your work or your cat, I'm following, because both are interesting topics as well, so.
Steve: Or a cat in the [00:56:00] studio.
Mica: That would be.
Steve: Shooting BTS on a GoPro.
Mica: Right, there is a, there is a TikTok channel. There's a guy, he. And he attached a GoPro camera to his dog and he's like, I'm just curious to see what my dog's day is like. And that is what he posts on his Tik Tok. This is a dog and I'm more interested in the dog's day than I am in my own husband's day.
And, and, you know, sold it. There's a little bit of something for everyone. So if you jump on there, I'm, I'm there with you. I'll follow you where you go.
Steve: Sounds good to me.
Mica: Thank you so much for being on the show. This was one of my favorite conversations of the year, and I want to have more about the, about everything about the future, about everything, but thank you so much for being on the show.
Steve: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.