2017 – what a year of highs and lows. I got married, which is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And even though I’ve changed jobs plenty of times, becoming my own boss was a huge leap; I’ve never been more excited or terrified about my career. Those major life events made up for plenty of stress and uncertainty in the past year, feelings that I know were pretty common across the country.
While I’m incredibly thankful for the big things that made 2017 ultimately happy for me, a smaller and more subtle activity has especially helped me combat the constant bad news and general malaise of the past year: working on my photography. There’s nothing quite like seeing yourself incrementally improve at something you really enjoy.
With that in mind, here are some of my favorite photos of 2017, in chronological order. Many of my best photos happened later in the year, partially because my improvement accelerated throughout 2017 and partly because I didn’t start freelancing full-time until October. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take any good ones (in my opinion) earlier.
March 3: Soft-shell crab bun at Le Fat
One of my first multi-location photoshoots for the AJC that had photos featured on the front page of the Weekend Go Guide took me to a selection of different Asian restaurants that served bao. Later in the year, I was able to speak to a guy who had been a photographer for the AJC for many years who gave me my first real critical feedback on a bunch of my photos. It was pretty rough – this was pretty much the only photo that got his approval full-stop. However, he did give me a lot of great advice and said I definitely had an eye for photography, so I felt pretty good despite having most of my work to that point trashed.
May 5: Tangiers, Morocco
I’m sure this is one of those photos that everyone takes in Tangiers, like the blue domes in Santorini or the view from Sacre Coeur in Paris, but it’s still my favorite photo from my honeymoon. This is taken from the roof of Restaurant Dar Lidam, which is a popular tourist destination thanks in part to being a filming location for the James Bond movie Spectre. Even though Spectre’s not the greatest movie, I’m still a freak for James Bond and Bond + honeymoon + expansive landscape photograph = one of my favorite pictures of the year.
May 18: Before and After tray at Magnolia Cafeteria
In addition to just liking this photo, this is literally the first thing I ever Photoshopped. I had to teach myself Photoshop from scratch this year and I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but this is the first time I ever used it to produce a new image from my own photos. It might be simple, but I like this image and it’s a signifier of how my skill set grew throughout the year.
July 22: Corn-themed first course at Bacchanalia
Shooting Bacchanalia for the AJC felt like a major accomplishment to me. It didn’t pay more than other assignments and it wasn’t even particularly more difficult than other shoots I’d done, but it was the first time I felt like I could possibly call myself a pro without blushing. The AJC editors wouldn’t send some random scrub to shoot Bacchanalia for a starred review, would they? Also, shooting at Bacchanalia was just generally exciting and invigorating: working near super creative and talented people always feels that way.
July 25: Ice cream cone at Queen of Cream
I like this picture because I think I achieved the look of pure Instagram bait.
July 30: Blueberry-bacon waffles at Twain’s Brewpub
This photo might not stand out to others, but to me, it felt like my first technically perfect (or near-perfect) photo. The light and the focus are just right, and this is probably the clearest and most detailed image it’s possible for me to create with my equipment. The histogram for this photo is a beautiful bell curve. On top of the technical plusses, the waffle just looks really freaking delicious. This piece ended up getting picked up by some other Cox media outlets and I patted myself on the back because I figured the pictures were a big reason why (note: I have no idea if that’s actually true or not).
August 20: Peachtree Presbyterian
In an effort to expand my skills, I’ve volunteered to provide photography at a few different places over the past six months or so. My first volunteer gig was with Peachtree Presbyterian, where I took photos one Sunday morning so that they’d have images for a hospitality initiative. In this picture, I was trying to get the greeters at the door and I accidentally overexposed the shot a little bit, which is why it looks so bright and white. I liked the look and it actually became my favorite photo from about 800 or so that I shot that day.
September 2: Snooper’s Rock near Chattanooga, Tennessee
My brother and his family live in Chattanooga and we visited them for Labor Day weekend. On our trip, we drove up to Snooper’s Rock, which has a beautiful and easily accessible view of a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Tennessee River. I stitched together several photos into this panorama. What I like about this photo is how it reminds me that millions of years ago, the Tennessee River may have flowed through an impressive canyon like you see out West, but time and erosion have transformed this area into rolling, tree-covered hills.
October 7: Enchilada-flavored raviolo at Better Half
This was my favorite shot from all the work I did on the AJC Fall Dining Guide, almost immediately after I left my agency job and began freelancing full-time. This was a really cool dish that is obviously beautiful, but the thing I like most about the photo is the way the plate looks. The pattern of the plate looks grainy, which causes a kind of optical illusion that makes you think the photo is grainy. But the food is perfectly clear and in focus, so it confuses the eye. One of the cooks chowed down on this plate before I could, and I really wish I’d gotten to eat it.
October 9: Fried chicken plate at Matthews Cafeteria
Another shot from the AJC Fall Dining Guide. Matthews Cafeteria is one of those places that gets so much attention from the press that it leads to unrealistic expectations. Yes, the food is pretty good – but when you work with them, they are so accommodating and friendly, you can’t help but be happy for them. They hadn’t started frying chicken for dinner yet when I visited, but they made this plate special for me, even though I offered to come back at a better time. The next day, the owner called me to make sure everything went okay and that I’d gotten everything I needed. Of the dozens of restaurants I’ve visited for photoshoots, he’s the only owner to ever check in with me later. This photo reminds me of that classic, friendly, old-fashioned hospitality.
October 13: Lemon meringue pie at C. Ellet’s
I took this photo on one of my first visits to C. Ellet’s, the gorgeous steakhouse at the Battery run by Resurgens Hospitality Group, one of my regular clients. At the beginning of a business relationship, you want to impress, and this is one of the first photos I showed to my clients that got an immediate, audible, “ooooohhhhhhhh….” It was a confidence-builder and made me feel like I really deserved to be working with such a renowned restaurant group.
October 15: Restaurant Eugene pastry chef Sara Mellars
From a technical perspective, this is nowhere near one of my best photos of the year, but I love how it captures the attention to detail seen in the kitchen at Restaurant Eugene, the flagship of Resurgens Hospitality Group. The kitchen at Restaurant Eugene is a difficult place to take photos: the lights are weird and all over the place, it’s a small space filled with busy people and everyone there is very bright and talented. My first session there, when I took this photo, was intimidating. This photo is great example of how hard work and attentiveness are expected, and I feel like that extends to me even though I’m not a part of the kitchen staff.
October 26: Chefs Linton Hopkins, Gunter Seeger and Chris Edwards at Restaurant Eugene
Clearly, it was a busy October. One of the highlights was shooting the Michelin on the Road dinner at Restaurant Eugene with guest chef Gunter Seeger, cooking in Atlanta for his first time years. There is an insane amount of talent and success in this picture, and I was honored to be able to capture and catalog the night with my photography.
October 26: Michelin on the Road Dinner
Even super chefs take selfies. I was really excited to have captured this moment between chefs Daniel Porubiansky of Century House Tavern, Gunter Seeger and Shaun Doty of the Federal and Bantam + Biddy.
October 26: Squash at Restaurant Eugene
One of the dishes at the Michelin on the Road dinner at Restaurant Eugene was poached lobster in Kabocha squash broth. Each diner received a bowl with poached lobster and various preparations of squash, over which servers ladled the warm squash broth. The broth was sent to each table inside a single large kabocha squash like this one, which was used as a vessel to prepare the broth and serve it. This was a picture that I checked on my camera and immediately thought, “whoa.” The colors and contrast on the roasted squash were so intense in real life, I was glad that I was somewhat able to capture that intensity in a photo.
October 31: Bone marrow at Holeman & Finch Public House
This is just a beautiful dish that kind of sums up what I like about Holeman & Finch.
November 2: Fried chicken special at C. Ellet’s
A huge challenge that I’ve faced since beginning to work with Resurgens has been styling food that isn’t delivered to me perfectly plated. Something like this fried chicken special, which can be served with oysters, champagne and side dishes, takes a lot more work and thought to make it all fit and look good in frame. I was happy with how this turned out, and it reminded me that food styling isn’t rocket science.
November 3: Caviar at Restaurant Eugene
This was just a really ballin’ plate of caviar.
November 4: Biscuits and jam at Food 101
101 Concepts is another restaurant group client, but I’d actually worked with them before in a previous job. Ron Eyester, the well-known Atlanta chef famous for his appearance on Top Chef, had just returned to Food 101, where he’d been the executive chef earlier in his career. I knew him from my previous job too. So this shoot at Food 101 felt incredibly natural, and I’ve already got a great relationship going with the team at 101 Concepts. This shot is one of my favorites from my first shoot with 101 Concepts, and I would go on to have several more and have more still planned for 2018.
November 4: Lamb shank at Food 101
Another excellent dish at Food 101 that has a lot of Chef Ron Eyester signatures: huge portion size, a slight twist on an American classic and of course, completely delicious.
November 4: Onion rings at Food 101
This was a long photoshoot, but I got to take advantage of some great light and was lucky to have late afternoon sun hit this dish. Even though it’s just onion rings, I like how there’s a geometry to the plating and the texture really pops out of the image.
November 7: Bartender at Holeman & Finch
One challenge of working regularly with restaurant clients: you can’t exclusively take pictures of food. It’s nice to have clients make requests outside of your normal area of subject expertise because it means they trust your skill set, but photographing people and conveying motion are definitely new for me. I was happy that this photo turned out like it did, and I think the folks at Resurgens felt that their trust in me was well-placed.
November 9: Chef Art Hayakawa
Photographing chef Art Hayakawa at his restaurant for the AJC was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a professional. First of all, Sushi Hayakawa is an amazing restaurant that deserves every drop of praise it’s received. Chef Hayakawa himself is a gem of a person: he’s so serious and professional, and holds himself and his employees to an exceptionally high standard, but he’s also warm and welcoming in a refreshingly genuine way. He seemed suspicious of me at first (as many of my AJC assignment subjects do) and wanted to be sure that I’d be taking high-quality photos for the paper. I moved around a lot while photographing him, trying to get some interesting angles and catch him in his signature state of deep concentration. As I put my gear away, his sous chef thanked me and told me that Chef Hayakawa “could tell [I was] working hard and appreciated that [I] did a good job.” They invited me to eat the sushi he’d prepared for the photoshoot, and I’m glad I did – it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
November 9: Sushi Hakaido plate at Sushi Hayakawa
One of the two plates of sushi I ate at Sushi Hayakawa. The lighting was tough at the restaurant, and I’m not sure I truly did the food justice, but I’ll never forget this meal, so I’ll always like this photo.
November 14: Seelbach cocktail at Holeman & Finch
It wasn’t until very late in the year that I started incorporating off-camera lighting into my photography, and this cocktail is from one of the first photoshoots where I did so. I liked this one for the ridiculously long lemon peel and ridiculously shallow depth of field. It’s almost abstract, which is not a style I get to play with very often.
November 14: Liquid Swords cocktail from Holeman & Finch
This is a photo that I was proud of for a variety of reasons. I feel good about it from a technical perspective; the lighting, focus and exposure are all solid. But I really love the way the light came into the frame and highlighted the elements of the scene exactly as I wanted. The color is so vibrant and the etching on the glass is so intricately detailed… I felt like I truly achieved my vision for this final image. Even though the composition is relatively simple, those other details make the photo dynamic and exciting. It might be my favorite image of the year.
November 16: Sweet potato pie at H&F Burger
Shooting at H&F Burger and Hop’s Chicken at Ponce City Market has been a completely different kind of challenge compared to working in restaurants like C. Ellet’s and Restaurant Eugene. This shot just seemed to capture the feeling of the season, and I like that everything’s a little off-center and and disheveled but still somehow looks orderly and geometrically aligned.
November 16: Ice cream sundae at H&F Burger
I liked this photo because I thought it was one of my most successful early examples of using off-camera flash. One thing that was never made clear to me before I started experimenting with off-camera lighting is how much more depth of contrast you can produce in your final images. Ironically, flash used in the right way can give you deeper blacks than are typically possible with natural light. I guess you learn the hard way when you don’t go to photography school….
November 23: My nephew at Thanksgiving
I’m lucky to have a nephew who looks like he’d be at home in an Osh Kosh B’Gosh catalog, and I just loved capturing this moment where he laid back on a chair in exasperation because no one was paying attention to him. Word to the wise, buddy: the camera’s always watching.
November 30: Whole fried chicken at Hop’s Chicken
This fried chicken dinner became my nemesis in late November and early December. Shooting a whole family meal with limited space, props and time at a busy restaurant in a food hall is a major challenge. But the chicken, all on its own and simply lit, resulted in a final image that felt like it pulsed with intensity. It’s just really in-your-face chicken, and I liked that.
December 11: Chicken biscuit at Hop’s Chicken
Again, I can’t overstate how tough shooting fried chicken can be. It’s much harder to make it look delicious than you’d think. But damn, dripping a little honey on this breakfast biscuit certainly did the trick. That shot of yellow in the center of the frame makes such a huge difference between a very average picture and one that makes you stop in your tracks.
December 13: Exterior of Holeman & Finch Bottle Shop
Good design leads to good photography, and when I read a little about how to do these long-exposure zoom photos, I immediately thought of the neon signs at H&F Bottle Shop. Even though the technique to make this photo is simple, I was really glad that what I saw in my mind’s eye when I imagined this photo is almost exactly how the final image turned out.