Seth Hematch's Sneaker Photos Are Better Than Yours
With the rise of social media and power-packed smartphones, photography is in the midst of a renaissance. Thousands of sneaker shots are uploaded to Instagram hourly, plastered with #womft and #wdywt to flaunt the latest heat on feet. Looking for some forgotten classics recently, we discovered Seth Hematch, a vintage sneaker fiend with a knack for killer snaps and a few words of advice for aspiring photographers.
Amazing shots, Seth! What does your kit look like?
Amazing is maybe too much. [Laughs] Glad you like them – I do what I can! I shoot with a Nikon D5100, switching between 35mm f/1.8G and 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G Nikkor AF-S DX lenses. The rest of my kit consists of a polarising filter, a remote for the camera, a touchscreen tablet and my smartphone. It’s an amateur starter pack really. [Laughs]
Whoa, that’s a crazy simple kit.
Honestly, I don’t need more for now. I’d love to shoot with a kit worth tens of thousands of dollars, but unless it was for my job, I would never spend that much on photography. You can take decent pictures just using my starter pack. I’m planning to buy a drone soon for shooting snowboard runs, so that could expand my possibilities.
Anyone else helping you out behind the scenes?
It’s just me out there, which does limit my shot opportunities somewhat. It can be a bit frustrating to come up with a great idea, but know that you can’t do it alone. Sometimes I have tried to get my friends to help, but they don’t care about shoes and become bored within minutes. It doesn’t really faze me though; this is a hobby that I enjoy doing by myself.
Do you have any formal training in photography?
Photography has been a part of my life for a long time now. At first, like most people, it was simply to immortalise moments of my life, like travel, events and skating. Disposable cameras were my best friends back then. I was a graffiti writer, so it was the only way to keep my pieces alive and to record the work of other writers.
Quickly enough, shooting with perspective — to capture angles that would transcribe feelings through pictures — became more interesting than just taking photos as a memory. In whatever I do, I like to bring my own style. To answer your question though, I never thought of myself as a photographer and never considered it as a possible career, so I didn’t feel the need to get professional training. A lot of my knowledge I simply picked up thanks to the Internet.
Everybody seems to be a ‘sneaker photographer’ nowadays. Thoughts?
I’m not a frequent Instagram user, but you can find some awesome content when you are well referred. The standard of sneaker photography seems to have increased, but the trade-off is that a large part of it has become boring, with clone accounts posting the latest hyped shoes. It’s all a genius marketing exercise really.
Personally, I don’t really care about any of that. I don’t take part in the race for followers, and the business side of things goes way over my head. I see more gold diggers on Instagram than real enthusiasts. Sneaker photography was originally a way to share your passion for shoes, but now it seems to have fallen into begging culture – becoming a narcissistic world that praises over-consumption. Real shoe lovers seem to be gradually leaving the sneaker community, only to be replaced by a new generation more interested in hype and resale value. Vintage sneaker lovers are still out there though. You can find some crazy never-before-seen shoes – you just need to dig deep enough.
Instagram was one of the first ways for me to share my pictures, but I always keep the original ratio from my camera. I never use a square ratio – except if it’s for a particular reason. I will not change the way I shoot for Instagram! I don’t like constraints, to conform to a mould. Fuck the rules! [Laughs]
It’s all about filters these days. How much of a role does post-processing play in your work?
Processing is crucial to sublimate your pictures – unless of course you are lucky enough to capture the image at the perfect moment and with the absolute perfect light. It allows me to infuse the image with the atmosphere, mood and feelings that I had during the shoot. That’s why I don’t use any presets. Sometimes the RAW image comes out so clean and pure that I don’t want to edit it or only alter it lightly. Other times, an image just beckons to be overplayed, so I try to introduce a bit of my own background by actually painting a wall with colours related to my shoes.
The background to me is the most important part. The first thing I do is search for the best angle to capture the surroundings; I then consider how I could insert myself into the scene – to merge with the landscape and complement the overall composition. It’s even better if you can introduce dynamism or when there is a correlation between the shoes and the setting. Sometimes I will also bring an object related to the shoes or just use something I find on the spot.
In many of your shots, the shoes themselves are just a small part of the overall image.
When I started, the idea was to highlight the shoes only, like a portrait. My approach has evolved though, and it’s now more about composing an image with the shoes and what I see around me, as if constructing a painting. In graffiti, lettering is the base, but with characters and a background, it comes out better most of the time, and it’s the same approach I take with sneakers. Composition is more interesting than a close-up. If you use a lens with a high aperture, you will make a clean picture of the shoe with dope bokeh, but that blur gives you no understanding of where the scene takes place. The result most of the time is a beautiful image, but a bit impersonal.
What comes first, finding the perfect shoe for a location or finding the perfect location for a shoe?
It depends — I do both. When I’m on a freestyle expedition and I want to take a picture, I don’t have a choice of shoes, so I will simply look for the best location. Sometimes though, I will come across a location that instantly gives me an idea involving a certain pair of sneakers and I know I have to come back!
What’s the greatest length you’ve gone to nail the perfect sneaker shot?
Hmmm… I would say it’s more a matter of height than length. I live in the mountains during winter, where I manage a ski rental business, so snowboarding and hiking are ways for me to reach the perfect locations. For the shot I took of the Nike Air Alpha, I began my ascent up the mountain one hour after the last chairlift. I ended up climbing to an elevation of 3400 metres!
Ever encountered a sneaker blowout on a shoot?
Strangely enough, never during a shoot. Still, a shoe can look immaculate when you put it back in the box, but then you’ll discover a big crack through the midsole the next time you open it. It’s just a risk you take, though you are more likely to destroy a deadstock pair than one that is worn every so often.
One time I decided to wear pair of brand new sneakers from the mid-90s for the very first time. I was walking proudly and thinking to myself, ‘Damn, that midsole is so comfy!’ It was only later that I realised I had been leaving a trail of crumbs all over town like Hansel and Gretel. Having knowledge of materials is essential with vintage shoes. Polyurethane midsoles will inexorably crumble after about 10 years due to hydrolysis, but Phylon will remain unaffected.
I tend not to bring any gems with me into the mountains nowadays. The change in climate can be too intense. Just as humidity isn’t good for sneakers, the same can be said for the dry mountain weather. In only a matter of months the leather will crack if you don’t hydrate it, the same as your own skin. The dry weather can also cause issues with the pressure in the Air bags. In reality, snow itself isn’t so bad for sneakers, provided you keep them dry. I have many beaters that I have used as mountain boots for years and they are in much better condition than some people’s shoes after only a week of wear.
What advice would you give to budding sneaker photographers?
Personally, I don’t regard myself as a photographer. I am simply a lover of vintage sneakers who takes shoe selfies. [Laughs] I just try to highlight gems as best I can with camera in-hand. The main thing I will advise is to open your eyes.
I often spend a lot of time on shoots trying to take a nice shot in a beautiful place and it comes out nothing like I hoped. Other times I can take a shot in a hurry at a location that doesn’t look all that great and the shot turns out fantastic. The best pictures are taken in action and moments of life. The more natural and unforced a shot looks, the better it turns out.
And last of all, don’t try to copy. Find your own style, be different, be creative and whatever you do, don’t take pictures of sneakers on your bed!
Follow Seth on Instagram here
Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 39. Get your copy here!