The portraitist and food photographer talks to Ron Egatz about developing film in a bomb shelter, how she lights food to make it look tasty, and the importance of metering to get her images right in-camera.
Not many photographers her age have as much film experience as Emily Knudsen, but she feels fortunate she does. Originally from Lebanon, Connecticut, she took a photography course in high school there, learned darkroom skills, and shot countless rolls of 35mm film. “I had a Pentax K1000, and that was my first real manual camera,” she says. “It was given to me by my father. It had been his and had been given to him by his father.”
Knudsen refers to her grandfather, the K1000′s original owner, as the spark of her interest in photography. In the 1950s he had built a Cold War bomb shelter in his basement. This he later turned into a darkroom, where he developed film and printed. “That was a big hobby of his. It got traced down through my dad and then to me,” she says.
Although she has since joined the digital revolution, Knudsen’s roots are firmly planted in her film origins. “This might sound kind of silly, but for me the one big attachment and the thing that really hooked me using that camera—and really getting into photography—was the feel of the shutter and advancing the film,” she explains. “I loved it, just that feeling. You had just completed the picture, you put the shutter down. Take your picture and you complete it by advancing the film. I loved that.”
Learning basic skills in her high school class, Knudsen then started looking for higher education opportunities in photography. “I went to get my senior pictures done and asked the photographer where she went to school,” she recalls. “She went to the Hallmark Institute of Photography. That’s how I got into rethinking Hallmark, and it sounded perfect because it was such a short program and it was so intensive. It was all photography and, more importantly, not the photography, but the business end of it.”
Attending Hallmark right out of high school, Knudsen initially studied portraiture. Being a self-described people person, she thought this was the way to go. Eventually, she learned working on commercial assignments such as products was more to her liking, with food photography at the top of her list. “You’re there in the studio and you can take as much time as you want,” she says. “Pressure’s off, unless something’s melting. It’s just you and your subject, which can’t talk to you, or rush you or anything. I am very picky in just about every little detail. I really find myself liking that and just liking to have my own time and just working by myself and styling things the way I want them.”
After she built a general portfolio covering a range of photographic styles, Knudsen graduated and began working at a portrait studio. Her assignments included lots of babies, children and some families. She grew tired of this type of shooting, and eventually took an internship at The Improper Bostonian. Soon, she was photographing food again, more than she ever had in school. She was sent on location, which initially made her anxious, as she was used to studio lighting. Turning a challenge into an opportunity, she researched photography and food both online and in food magazines. Drawing inspiration from her research, she soon found her vehicle. “The more I looked at the food photography I liked,” she recalls, “it just looked like natural light.”
Blessed with an encouraging editor at The Improper, Knudsen quickly began forming her signature style. When on location at a restaurant, she will move dishes near a window to take advantage of natural light. “I usually mix a little bit of flash—I just bounce the tiniest bit of flash to fill in shadows, but I’m all about the natural light now,” she says. “I almost don’t know what I would do if I had to photograph food in the studio.”
Part of the appeal of working this way is the verisimilitude, according to Knudsen. Although this flies in the face of what most commercial photography is about in our age of heavily retouched hyper-real media, this young photographer has her reasons, and they are honest and full of integrity. “It seems more natural,” she explains. “It’s as it should be. That’s how you view food when you’re going to eat it. It’s a shame when you view food and it doesn’t look appetizing. It’s a shame.”
With her editor sending her to Boston’s better restaurants, Knudsen is fortunate in that the great culinary artists she’s documenting are all about presentation. Arming herself with a Canon EOS 5D and working with accomplished chefs, she rarely has to ask them to change things or use different dishes.
Although her photographer grandfather passed away before seeing his granddaughter follow in his footsteps, he would be proud. Knudsen knows how to make dishes look their best, and quickly builds strong rapports with chefs. “They’ve worked with photographers before,” she says. “They know what works. I put a lot of trust in them to prepare the food because they really do know what they’re doing.” That said, she does make small styling tweaks now and then, such as wiping something errant off a plate, but she largely lets the chefs present as they wish.
Coming from a film background, Knudsen relies on her early training and applies it to the digital world. “I am all about getting the shot right in camera,” she states. “That’s something I learned from film. You’ve got to get it right in camera. The flip side is that using a digital camera, you do have that ability to instantly view what you just took, so you really can get it right in camera. Obviously, metering is very important to me. I like to play around to see what works.”
Light metering is part of her approach, although her eye for food photography in natural light is very accurate. “The first time I ever used the meter was at Hallmark,” she says. “That’s where I learned it. That’s where I got my Sekonic L-758DR meter. It is a huge help. I use the meter more so when photographing people, when I’ve got my lights out and everything, but even on location, just to get that light right, I rely on my Sekonic. I’d rather just have the shot right and go home and tweak a few things and call it a day. I like being happy with what I have and knowing I was able to get it right in camera. I carry it around everywhere, and it’s always held up for me.”
For the immediate future, Knudsen sees herself staying in Boston and learning more. Although she’s out of the bomb shelter darkroom, she still uses film now and then for personal projects. Her professional and impressive food photography is digital, and that’s where she’ll keep her focus. We don’t know where opportunity and career changes may take this young shooter, but we’d be happy to sit down to a plate of almost anything Knudsen has photographed. She makes it look that good.
You can see more of Emily Knudsen's photography on her website.
To read more from poet and PhotoVideoEDU contributor Ron Egatz, visit his website.