LIGHT-YOUR-STORY-Chasing-Light-with-Jim-Sullivan Hobolite

Discover how professional food & lifestyle photographer Jim Sullivan chases light to delight the senses

For me, everything starts with light - just as we begin a new day. I approach making photographs with a clear vision of how I intend to use it - and I chase light with the same intent. I am constantly “seeing” light ; how a landscape looks in the late afternoon light, looking down an alley at night and seeing how a single lightbulb over an entryway lights up its surroundings, inside a dive bar where a few dingy light bulbs give the bar its classic vibe, or even with flat light. I am learning how to shape light ; where to add it, when to subtract it. All of these aspects give me fuel for thought on how I will use it.

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Copyright @ Jim Sullivan

I am forever chasing light.

My journey into the world of photography began about 12 years ago in Los Angeles. At the time, my ambitions were firmly rooted in the culinary arts—I was dedicated to becoming a chef, spending my days and nights honing my skills in the kitchen. This pursuit led me to cater for a private event in an artist’s loft, serving about 30 guests. It was an evening that changed the course of my professional life. 

During the event, I noticed guests attempting to capture the essence of my dishes with their cameras, not fully capturing the essence of the moment and scene. Describing the photos as "unusable" might have been polite, but it sparked a realization in me: there was a niche for high-quality food photography, a space where my passion for culinary arts could merge with the visual storytelling of photography. The intriguing part? My experience with photography was limited to family Polaroids and occasional snapshots with a point-and-shoot camera.

The very next day marked the official start of my photographic journey. I purchased a Canon AE-1 film camera and several rolls of Tri-X film from eBay, a decision directed me into a world I knew almost nothing about. I was determined to learn through trial and error, setting my camera to manual mode and immersing myself in the works of renowned photographers like William Eggleston, Alex Webb, and Richard Avedon. This period of self-education was akin to my culinary training—intense, rigorous, and full of discovery.

Over the next year, I captured everything that piqued my interest, gradually narrowing my focus to food and cocktail photography. Transitioning from a self-taught enthusiast to a professional content creator in such a niche field was daunting. It involved putting myself out there, embracing vulnerability, and facing the uncertainty of a creative career head-on.

This journey taught me the importance of adaptability, continuous learning, and the courage to explore new avenues—even when they seem unreachable at first glance.

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Copyright @ Jim Sullivan

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My guiding principle has been: "Work Hard, Be Humble, Repeat." This mantra acknowledges the abundance of talent in the photography world while emphasizing the role of perseverance and dedication in my own journey. I've always sought to collaborate with and be part of a community of like-minded individuals—those who prioritize their art above all else. This shared passion is why I continue to be drawn to the culinary and cocktail scenes. They are rich sources of inspiration for me, blending creativity with craftsmanship in ways that resonate deeply with my own approach to photography.

Exploring tools to shape light has been instrumental in crafting my narrative. Over time, I've honed my skills in how and where to use intentional light, recognizing its essential role in storytelling. Classic noir films, for instance, showcase the dramatic impact of lighting in creating their iconic style—a technique mirrored in Michael Mann's films, where light and cinematography collide to form his distinctive visual signature. Similarly, Lindsey Adler's mastery in portrait lighting demonstrates the power of light in defining a photograph's mood and character.

My fascination with the cinematic approach to lighting has significantly influenced my photography. I often draw inspiration from the way filmmakers and photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Art Streiber shape a moment with light to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. I am forever in awe of how they are able to create such masterpieces by use of light in their photographs.

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Copyright @ Jim Sullivan

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Copyright @ Jim Sullivan

In my own work, I try to be very specific in how I light food or cocktails. My work tends to be minimalistic in nature with a very specific focal point on my subject. I never want my images to be distracting nor do I want them to be gimmicky. I’ve heard the term clean and well lit, or even “moody”. If that’s true, so be it, just as long as my work has a sort of edge to it. I’m always searching for ways to have my work feel like there’s something more to it. Whether that be a sexual undertone to it or even have a roughness to it. Is that always achievable or does it come through? Maybe not, but I’ll keep trying. Practice makes mastery.

The capacity of light to reveal or blind, is quite powerful. It can create myriad stories simply by adjusting the intensity, direction, or temperature. This art form motivates my interest to keep learning, growing, and creating. To break past the limits of my own photography; whether that be a subject matter, my approach, or learning new techniques. For me, it’s important to keep learning how to see light, when to use it or when to take it away.

Just like in the culinary arts - it’s not always about adding something, sometimes the magic happens when you take something away.

The pursuit of light, in all its forms, is a journey that never truly ends.    


3 Ways to Light Your Story with Jim Sullivan

1. What is your favorite lighting set up for food photography?

There are definitely various ways to light food for photography but if I have my choice on the approach I would utilize as much soft, natural light as possible. If there was a situation when there wasn't good quality light, I am able to recreate that look using my Hobolites lights with various techniques.

2. How do you play with ambient light with continuous light?

In terms of ambient light I typically like to utilize it as much as possible into my setting as fill and my continuous lighting as my key light.. This is assuming of course that the quality of ambient light and temperature are favorable. In many instances this is not the case so then I have to create that atmosphere. Having to ability to use Hobolites in many different aspects gives me the freedom and confidence in approaching my food photography in any situation.

3. What food styling tip yields the most delicious images?

I think the biggest tip I can give to other food photographers is to use a good source of light. That may be soft, indirect window light or to recreate that light with your lighting setup. In this case I would just use two of my Hobolite Pro lights and throw it through a large diffuser. This setup would give me a beautiful soft light to use

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1 comment

  • Always more than amazed with Jim’s work & most of all the way he utilizes the light that he has to work with.

    Alex Bolar

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