Interview with Sunset Magazine’s Tom Story

In my life as a photographer I have had many heroes: Uta Barth, Robert Frank, Andreas Gursky, Julius Schulman, William Eggleston, the list goes on. I appreciate photographers that excel at capturing the mundane and who are able to translate real life into something that makes you look twice.

One of my heroes in the contemporary (and more practical world) is Tom Story. He is the man responsible for 90% what feels like 90% of the images you see in Sunset Magazine and is a huge inspiration to me. I love the way he captures a space: open, light, crisp, but always with warmth. He shoots architecture, lifestyle, decor, food, travel, you name it. He sets the tone for much of the magazine’s more recent modern bend. He was also nice enough to answer some of my questions even though he is a very (very) busy man:

How long have you been working as a professional photographer? Were you trained or self taught?

Well, I’ve been with Sunset for going on 11 years now, before that I was freelancing, mainly architectural photography. I started college in Munich, Germany, went to Salem State College in Mass where I was extremely fortunate to meet with and take classes from an amazing photographer, Shelby Adams, who gave me the push to explore photography as a medium. I finished up my degree at the Academy of Art College in SF, where having landed at a very commercial oriented school I proceeded to primarily study alternative processes, such as making Daguerreotypes under another extraordinary photographer Jerry Spagnoli.

How did you start working with Sunset?

I was assisting different photographers who were shooting for Sunset, so I met and worked with various editors and directors on shoots. The director of Photography at the time, George Olson and I struck up a good relationship, primarily concerning vintage Mini Coopers, one of which I was the owner at the time and he got to see me working as an assistant on cover shoots and big home shoots and liked the way I carried myself I guess. Eventually, the staff photographer at the time Norm Plate decided to retire after 30 years and go freelance. Sunset asked if I would be interested in becoming the replacement garden photographer. This was right at the height of the dotcom explosion in the Bay Area and I was very busy, but also having talked to architects at the time who were telling me that this company just bought a new couch for 12k, but only had enough money to run for 6 more weeks etc. I had been hearing that story over and over and was realizing that maybe it was a good time to explore a steady paycheck.

With shooting such varied subject matter for Sunset, are there certain set-ups that intimidated you at first? Is there a style you prefer i.e. interiors vs outdoor travel shots?

The first three years were almost exclusively garden oriented, which really taught me the patience for light, early morning, late afternoon the weather such as wind, taking advantage of overcast days (giant softbox!) ~ at the time, there was another staff photographer, the very talented James Carriere who primarily shot food and I learned a lot from watching him. Slowly I shot more home stories, and felt my strengths lay in the home/garden realm. Over the years I have started shooting food more which I love to do, and travel, which I think takes an incredible amount of energy and concentration, organizational skills, and finding ways to work with people as subjects. That has probably been the most fun and the biggest challenge in my career. Most of my people photography up to that point had mainly been contained within a home or garden shoot. So learning how to take a shot list, break it down into a schedule, dealing with travel light weather etc has been a fantastic challenge on many levels and completely enjoyable. I have to say that I am incredibly lucky and fortunate that I am shooting food in the studio one day, a home the next, traveling to Hawaii or Canada or New Mexico the next week and then shooting a garden in SF the next day. It keeps all of it fresh and the skill sets are definitely interchangeable.

Do you like to work with a defined shot list or do you like to go off the grid during a shoot?

I generally work with a shot list, fortunately there are editors and writers and they do a great job researching and narrowing the story down to fit the pages and needs for that issue. That said, I can’t remember the last time I ever stuck strictly to a shot list. There’s a reason behind hiring photographers, you need to be engaged in the stor
y, experience it for yourself and bring your vision back also. If I find something that seems visually more appealing or a better fit for a certain story, I’ll definitely shoot it and let the editors make their choices back at the ranch.

Do you have any tips for amateurs that are shooting their homes for blogs?

Level your camera, use the longest lens possible for the shot, use a tripod, slow down and compose. It’s all about editing. You have four walls in which to compose your image, be aware of your focal point, but have fun playing with the edges. Expose for a mood or feeling. Vignettes tell the story better than 1 wide angle shot. Details tell the story too, finishes, hardware etc… not everything has to be in focus…

Are there some homes you’ve shot that stand out as favorites?

My personal taste runs more in the mid-century modern and I’ve shot quite a few of those for Sunset, but I really like it when you can see the owners personality in the home.

What camera do you normally shoot with?

They will pry my Contax 645 out of my cold dead hands. I use the Phase P45+ back on it, upgrading to the P65+ hopefully soon (hint hint Sunset!). I primarily use the Contax glass, but have collected some tilt/shift lenses that I use when I shoot homes. I also use a Sinar P2 when I shoot food or product in the studio. The Canon 5dMKII comes along also, I primarily use it when I need the speed of use, or any ISO over 800 which the Phase does not handle well. I also picked up a Panasonic GF-1 this year which I love, have adapted manual focus lenses for (a whole nother conversation) and I tend to use it for things like a Bi-Plane ride I had to shoot this year or where I want to be a little more low key. The RAW files are quite nice.

Do you continue to shoot for pleasure when you’re off the clock? What do you like to shoot?

I have two small kids now, Clara age 4 and Miles age 2 so there is no shortage of material on my days off! When I do shoot on my days off for projects it tends to be more landscape oriented.

Do you have an iphone or use any of the camera apps for it?

I love my iPhone and use it ALOT. I almost exclusively use shakeit, I have an extensive SX-70 collection and miss the images from that camera, but feel like the look I get from Shakeit comes real close. Really the best camera is the one you have with you, and to be able to shoot snaps or video with something that’s almost always on you is fantastic. The editing process that comes with the Phase files can be exhausting time wise, it’s really nice to have something that shoots jpeg and I don’t have to deal with it in post.

Thanks Tom for taking the time to share!

(All Images: Thomas J Story for Sunset Magazine)

13 Responses to “Interview with Sunset Magazine’s Tom Story”

  1. oh my! amazing. what I wouldn't give to be a jet setting photographer. that's the life.

    I just watched Visual Acoustics… and now I'm dreaming of architectural photography.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is a terrific interview. Thank you both.

  3. Studio Speck says:

    I love the last shot of the balcony with a wood/cabling mix. Something to think about with our renovation. **We have thought about using glass, but that seems really office-ey and trendy.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Anne says:

    Very, very interesting interview! As a photographer myself, I can say, it was interesting to hear answers from a professional photographer.

  5. john says:

    So when are you going to interview yourself so we can find out about your life as an architectural photographer?

  6. Emma says:

    Great interview. Living with a photographer myself I am somewhat immersed in that world. His pointers for amateurs like myself were the exact same things my husband tells me. Always use the tripod, level the camera, think about your light, and compose your shot! Makes a big difference.

  7. Debra says:

    I love of the photographs especially the backyard. We're moving into a house in September and I'm completly obsessed with all of the things I want to do to the backyard space.

  8. You are right Anon "this is a terrific interview". Love the images specially on the pool.

    Deirdre G

  9. Wow! What A Space!!!great images as well. Very relaxing, peaceful, and heavenly designs!great job on every detail.wonderful post!Thanks for sharing.xoxo victoria

  10. [...] ladies. I got to work with Anh-Minh and Meg (here’s Meg’s house in Sunset shot by my hero) back in March right here in Venice shooting at a house I pass every morning on my walks down to [...]

  11. John Florance aka spinsLPs says:

    I highly recommend the documentary on Shelby Lee Adams. Incredible.

  12. Jora says:

    Our house was featured a couple years ago in Sunset and we had the pure pleasure of meeting Tom Story as well as his wife. We got to hang out with them for two whole days and we still speak of them from time to time! He also shot one of my all-time favorite photos of our family…. :-)

  13. Gav barbey says:

    Hi, just as a long shot I was wondering if Tom Story graduated from Hotchkiss High school Colorado
    Thank you
    Gav Barbey

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