Photographer Spotlight – Aaron Van
Tell us about yourself…
This is always a tough one as I’m not used to talking about myself much. I love movies, cooking, Disney and of course photography. I realize that all of my passions are creative in some way and I have real love for experiencing creativity on many levels. I have an eclectic taste in music that spans many genres except country and heavy metal and I love learning new things and working to better myself in everything I do, every day.
My wife and I met in 2001 and she is a creative as well, working as an elementary school music teacher, this year is her 21st year teaching. I have a 14 year old daughter who just started her freshman year of high school. She shares a love of music with my wife and never did pick up an interest in visual arts or photography, probably because she had a camera stuck in her face for so many years! When I’m not in the studio I’m usually spending time with my family and most likely we’re at Disney for an escape from reality.
How did you discover your love for photography?
I grew up in Massachusetts and when I was 10 we moved to Florida where I’ve lived since. When I was around 8 years old my grandfather gave me his Nikon film camera and my parents had a good friend who was a National Geographic photographer, so I was exposed to photography fairly early in my life. In high school I was the head photographer on the yearbook and newspaper staff and continued to grow my photography education through local classes and mentorships. After high school I decided to go to college for graphic design and digital media using the computer to create art.
After I graduated I moved to Fort Lauderdale where I worked at a few ad agencies designing for Fortune 500 companies. I continued that career for 20 years as a designer, then later as an art director and creative director at various agencies. While in advertising I worked with many photographers for ad campaigns and did some of the photography and video production myself. When digital photography got its start I picked photography backup as a hobby, but always in the back of my mind was an urge to make a living as a photographer.
When my daughter was born in 2007 I owned a small portrait studio and took my first stab at photography as a career, but after 2 years I realized I was definitely more of a creative than a business person and I went back into advertising. Over the years I continued to educate myself in photography and in 2015 I would get another opportunity to work my way into a career as a photographer. Being in advertising I really wanted to get into commercial photography but didn’t have a passion for fashion or products. I’ve always loved cooking and developing my own recipes and in 2015 I won a recipe competition that sent me to Ireland for a week on a foodie trip. Of course I brought my camera with me and shot nothing but food for the week. Coming home from that trip I made the decision that I wanted to photograph food for a living and now 6 years later that’s what I’m doing as my full time career.
Who are some of your favorite photographers? (Past or Present)
In the food and beverage space my favorite photographer is Wonnacott. I’m always in awe of the work he creates for his clients and I can only hope to one day be working at his level. Others I have admired over the years include Steve McCurry, Joe McNally, Platon, Greg Williams, Elliot Erwitt and Jay Maisel.
You recently upgraded to a medium format camera. How has this influenced your workflow, style, and approach to photography?
I have always loved the look of medium format and knew from the start of this career in commercial photography that medium format was the ultimate goal. Cameras are getting so good these days that the difference is not quite as discernible between full frame and medium format as in the past, but there is still something about the way medium format renders an image that I absolutely love. If I want my work to be the best it can, there is no other option for me than medium format.
The Phase One was an obvious choice. Having worked with Capture One for many years, I wanted to continue working in that ecosystem. It wasn’t until after I chose to purchase my Phase One camera that I even knew of options like focus stacking on the XF body; that has been such a game changer for my workflow. Overall I pay closer attention to the details these days because I know this camera will capture every last one and that has pushed me creatively in a way that I am loving.
Can you describe a photographically challenging situation that you were confronted with that you were able to resolve on the fly?
While on set one day I decided I wanted to make a top down image of this large table scene that had 10 people sitting around a long table. Even with my widest lens overhead, I had a difficult time capturing the image the way I wanted and the distortion did not work for the look I was going for. I decided quickly to move to a medium focal length prime and capture the table in 3 sections from overhead. The challenge was that I wanted the scene in the image to look like it was one complete scene and not three sections just merged together, so I planned specific movements with the people at the table like passing a plate or toasting with a glass of wine that would cross over the 3 sections I was photographing. I would have to do the same movement from each camera location so that I could line up those interactions in post and create a complete image that looked like it was captured in one shot from overhead. I’ve included that image in this article so you can see the result. It seems like such a simple image to capture and it wasn’t bad with the wider angle distortion, but I knew I wanted it this way and I was really happy with the outcome.
Before finding yourself in food and beverage, you developed a background in many things including art direction and design. How does this play into the photographer you are today?
I use a combination of Canon 5D Mark IVs, my Hasselblad, and occasionally a 4X5 rail camera, each has qualities that make them perfect for what I want to achieve. This is a great question and one I talk about often with clients. My background in design and advertising allows me to understand the challenges my clients face when it comes to their design and the assets I’m creating for them. It also allows me to communicate better with their agencies and design teams to know what they need me to deliver and sometimes even to anticipate their needs on a project and deliver them plenty of options without being asked. I’ve been told time and time again by clients and agencies how much they love working with me for this one point alone.
I also think my style has developed quite differently from other food and beverage photographers as my designer’s eye is always influencing how I photograph a scene. I have a deep understanding of how the eye moves through an image and how the brain works when looking at something. I understand the psychology of what makes an image flow effortlessly and I know what details will make the brain stop and say “that’s not quite right”. Given that background, not only am I able to avoid the small details that might hinder an image, but I’m able to use that knowledge to create an image that can connect with a viewer in a different way.
What is your favorite underrated photographic tool? Why?
Platypod! This product has so many uses for me in and out of the studio. I use it to hold flags, mirrors and reflectors on my sets in places where it’s difficult for me to get bulkier arms and stands. On a recent shoot I had them holding acrylic rods to hold pieces of ice in place above a glass for a splash shot. I’ve included that image in this article as well.
I can get my camera in close on a subject across a table when I can’t get a tripod in the right spot. I even use it outside when I’m just carrying my camera around for fun and don’t want to bring a tripod with me. It’s a very versatile tool that I honestly didn’t think too much of when I first saw it, but has become a regular part of my shoots.
Can you elaborate on your switch from a portrait to a food and beverage photographer? (why you switched, how you rebranded, etc.) and evolved over the span of 4 decades?
I have always loved portraiture. Working on the yearbook and newspaper in high school had me photographing a lot of people and faces and when I first wanted to make photography a career, family portraiture seemed like an obvious fit. While exploring photography as a business I knew I really wanted to be a studio photographer. I wasn’t as keen on the fast and loose style of lifestyle photography; I loved the technical aspect of controlling my light and creating an image from the ground up.
I learned quickly there is a creative side and a business side to this industry and it was difficult for me to sell my work to people. As I grew and learned more about photography, I started to realize that commercial photography was where I wanted to be, but it wasn’t until later that I found the world of food and beverage work. It’s much easier for me to sell what I do to a company as it’s less of an emotional sale and more of a business transaction and so it was a perfect fit for me.
Since I was still working in advertising when I decided to start in this new direction, I was able to take my time building a portfolio for this new work and finding clients. I spent 3 years building food and beverage on the side of my full time job and when the new work started outpacing my full time job, it was the right time to make the switch to photography.
I’ve now been doing commercial food and beverage full time for almost 4 years, I own a 4000 sq ft studio in Orlando and am working with large national clients. I still have a ways to go to get where I want to be, but I’m definitely on my way now and so thankful to have found my niche. I do still love taking portraits and from time to time I have the opportunity to photograph the chefs I work with. It’s really special to me when I get to create a portrait.
If you were behind your camera and could choose anything you wanted to be in your viewfinder, where would you be and what would you be looking at?
Firstly, I’d probably be in a studio. I love working in the studio. It could definitely be a studio in Ireland or England or Paris or Germany or any exotic locale. I wouldn’t mind that at all but yeah probably just a studio. As for what I’d be looking at, I’d have to say liquor. I just love how creative you can get with photographing a liquor brand. Food is great and you can have fun with food, but if food were like an older brother or sister, liquor is like the crazy uncle! I love all the splash and the lights, the rockstar/celebrity/nightclub vibe. Liquor is loud, it’s rock and roll, it’s flashy and a little bit crazy and I love that about it!
Why did you select Capture Integration as your equipment partner?
Every person I spoke to about moving into medium format mentioned their wonderful experience with Capture Integration. After all the personal recommendations it was clear that Capture Integration wasn’t only the best choice, it was the only choice for me. My rep drove out to my studio to give me a demo and talk me through the choices I had. He helped me with questions and when there was a difficult issue I couldn’t figure out, he didn’t give up until it was resolved. Capture Integration has been a great fit for me and it’s nice knowing I have the support I need in the future.
Where do you go from here?
I started from scratch 6 years ago building a portfolio in a niche of photography I had never before explored. I was told by a mentor when I first started on this path that with a lot of hard work, it would take 3-5 years to build a successful business and then another 3-5 years before I would really be shooting the work I wanted to be shooting. I believe I am right in the middle of that timeline and he was absolutely right.
This past year, while challenging with Covid, has been one of my most successful both in work and in professional growth. I can say that I’ve successfully built my foundation, I’ve made it to base camp on my way up the mountain, and now comes the exciting part. From here I get to start really refining my portfolio and my style. I get to explore the details of everything I’ve learned and put into practice so far, and I get to master the techniques and processes that have helped to build that foundation.
I am also currently working on my first release of fine art food photography. Being that I started pretty late in this game and being 43 now, I wanted to start looking at what the future looks like for me a ways down the road. While I love my client work, I figure I’ve only got so long before I can’t do a 10-14hr day in the studio as easily, so I’ve been working on my “what’s next”. I love working in the studio and I love food photography. I have the tools I need to create super high resolution fine art images. I don’t see any reason why I can’t create a line of fine art with food as the subject so I’m getting started on exploring that now.
Sometime in the next 6 months I’ll be releasing my first edition and I’ve included a little sneak peak at one of the images. One of the concepts I’m working with is creating images that have details that cannot be seen with the human eye. For instance, this single coffee bean will be offered in 2-3 large format sizes, printed on acrylic and is a 45 image focus stack shot at 100mp in medium format with a 120mm macro lens. The level of detail in this tiny single coffee bean at the resolution and print size is quite interesting to look at. I’m having a lot of fun exploring food from an artistic viewpoint and finding ways I can put my own personal spin on these images. It’s only just the beginning of this new journey and I’m excited to explore it as well.
I am so excited for what comes next. I’m excited to see what I can create. I’m happy to have the team of people around me that help support me and my work everyday and to have the tools available to create without limits. It’s been a long road to get to this point and it’s been a scrappy journey so far. I’m really looking forward to this next chapter of my career.
Thank you so much for your interest in my work and how I’ve gotten where I am today. It’s been fun to share this with you and I hope you found some of it interesting. Now it’s time to get back to work!