Anne Stephenson’s Comfort in a Bowl

Finding great photographers you didn’t know of before is always a thrill. Here’s a great behind-the-scenes story about Anne Stephenson of Salt Lake City, Utah. I was particularly drawn to her food photography, which gets front row treatment on her blog.

I asked Anne if she would be willing to take Sekonic readers behind-the-scenes of one of her photo shoots. Working with food prepared by Kathleen Korst, here’s how, in her own words, Anne created “Comfort in a Bowl.”

©Anne Stephenson

©Anne Stephenson

Collaboration is really important to me. When you work with someone as a creative equal, the energy flows, and you end up with something far better than you initially imagined. For portfolio shots, I also like working with people new to the industry. My friend Kathleen Korst, a culinary student, is just defining her style of food and learning about presenting. Working together seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to swap skills and create shots for our portfolios.

For the soup scene, it needed to say rustic, pub-like, earthy, and warming. Kathleen specializes in English food. We wanted to use traditional inspirations, but with a modern twist. We used an old crate as the base of our set and placed it on the kitchen table. We then angled the table to catch the light coming in the windows on the right. Since our original concept consisted of creating “moody” food (more shadows featured with minimal light) we kept the lighting simple. On the left, we hung a black velour drape held by an extension arm on a light stand. After preliminary discussion, we narrowed down our choice of a bowl and added to the scene a can of Boddingtons, a pint glass, a pewter pot with some herbs, and a napkin. Later, working on the principle of “less is more,” we took out the spoon, played with some crackers/crumbs, then scratched that idea. Finally, we removed the can of Boddingtons. Kathleen prepped the food and styled, while I used a stand-in for the main bowl and did a few test shots.

The bowl needed to be in a welcoming position for the viewer to visually dig in. I selected my 24-70mm lens to give a little more compression than my 50mm. I tend to play with depth-of-field and started shallow at f/2.8. For food, I usually rely on my Sekonic L-758DR to meter for the highlights, which gives me a starting point for exposure. I find it saves time, compared to second-guessing what my camera suggests. It’s one of those tools you can’t imagine shooting without after you use it awhile. When I set up a specific lighting ratio, it’s a must.

Ironically, in our efforts to minimize the set, I moved the drape positioned behind the table just out of whack. The light now filtered slightly through the frame of one of the slatted wooden kitchen chairs we’d pushed off to the side. Since I often shoot tethered, particularly when collaborating, I asked Kathleen what she thought of the test shot. We talked for awhile about the “window” that had appeared on the right side of the photograph and how it looked as if it had snow on its ledge. Although it wasn’t intentional, sometimes mistakes like this can be tweaked for added effect. I usually don’t like bright light on the edges of my photos, but it gave the illusion of being table-side, next to a window, so we decided to keep the effect. Later, I applied a gradient in Lightroom to help burn in the window and tone down the brightness a bit. I also opened up the shadows at the front edge of the bowl (my hand-held fill card only did so much) to give more contours and shape. Other tweaks involved cleaning up some residual cracker crumbs and some unflattering bokeh in Photoshop.

For food photography, key aspects include imagination, problem-solving and, most importantly, knowing your story. You usually don’t need a lot of space, expensive studio equipment, or fancy accessories—just the ability to see and direct light where needed.

For styling, I’ve learned through experience less is truly more. Finally, with some ingenuity, you can keep the focus on your subject and create a one-of-a-kind backdrop to tell your story. I enjoy when people ask me about where I’ve shot some of my food photos and I reply, “My kitchen.” I’ve turned my kitchen into a dramatic back-lit bar, a ’50s style retro diner, and a rustic pub, all with lighting and sometimes gels, if needed. While I enjoy photographing at real-life locations with character, I find it equally gratifying to selectively pull from my collective memories and create new places of my own making.

©Anne Stephenson

Behind-the-scenes photo of the shot in progress. ©Anne Stephenson

  • Camera: Nikon D700
  • Lens: Nikon 24-70mm  f/2.8
  • Exposure: 3.0 sec at F/2.8; ISO200; 62mm

Already working professionally, Anne Stephenson is wrapping up her B.S. degree at The Art Institute of Salt Lake City. She recently exhibited her Food Art consisting of digital transfers at Nata Gallery in Salt Lake City. You can learn more about Anne Stephenson and her work at her site.


All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©Anne Stephenson, all rights reserved; story is ©Sekonic. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.

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