For food photographer Anne Watson, the ideal mode for taking pictures of food is dressing head to toe in all black. She facetiously refers to herself as the Photo Ninja, stealthy shadowing chefs as they plate their creations, ultimately snapping the shot that will complete the story of the dish, to the public’s delight.
The Fallbrook resident is Orange County’s most acclaimed food photographer, winning first place as the People’s Choice 2016 Errazuriz Wine Photographer of the Year in the Pink Lady International Food Photographer of the Year Awards. Her work, which frequently appear in Orange Coast, Where OC, Laguna Beach Magazine, newspapers and cookbooks, have played a vital role in documenting some of Orange County’s most prominent chefs of recent years, all of whom speak of her as OC’s own lunchtime Leibovitz.
Her pictures give homage to the fundamental elements of what makes great dining, creating intimate, behind-the-scene moments in telling a chef’s story and capturing not just the food, but the ambiance around it. The quality of light in each vibrant image illuminates the essential nature of the dish, drawing in the observer with its power. When Playground chef Jason Quinn was asked to describe Watson he simply stated,”I love Anne and her talent more than any quote will do the justice of.”
Watson never set out to become a food photographer, though. She graduated from Pepperdine University with a degree in public relations and a minor in business administration, but then headed to Boston to get a job as a prep cook in a bistro. “It was something that I always wanted to try, and it kicked my butt,” she said. “It showed me that while I loved being in the kitchen, my place in the kitchen was not cooking, I could do it, but it was very militant, and I just didn’t have the guts to cut it—literally, I cut my fingers a lot.”
She ended up going into the corporate world, taking a PR gig with Jaguar car company and sojourning twice to Italy. Watson shot everything from motorcycles to great landscapes to objects of Americana. With the exception of taking a photography class as an elective in high school, Watson taught herself. “I just kinda always loved photography,” she said. “My dad handed me down his old single lens Pentax. It had a broken light meter, and I took it around everywhere.”
Her first paid gig was a project with her husband, author Tim Watson, for his book There & Back Again To See How Far It Is. For it, they covered 8,000-plus miles of two-lane highways in the Western U.S., which she called “crazy…Living for weeks at a time out of my bike’s saddlebags that were barely big enough to carry my camera and a large-Ziploc-baggie-sized bag of clothes…would I do it all over again tomorrow? Hell yes.”
Watson rekindled her relationship with the culinary world after frequenting Costa Mesa’s SoCo Farmers Market in 2011. She began blogging about her market discoveries, on a mission to explore and meet the chefs spearheading a new OC food movement. The photographer grew in prominence and skill alongside upcoming Orange County chefs such as Carlos Salgado, Andrew Gruel, Amar Santana and others, developing her style while capturing the groundbreaking dishes they were producing.
Food photography allowed Watson to marry her twin passions of food and photos. “I would just go up to them and say ‘Hey, can I take pictures of your food?’ I think what you’re doing is awesome,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that I can call some of these chefs my friends now. Shooting their food became second nature. I just wanted to go hang out with them and take pictures of their food.”
Watson relies on her Nikon D800 to shoot, alternating between specific lenses. “I try to always shoot with prime lenses because I find that they’re crisper,” she said, “and I prefer that I move back and forth instead of the lens moving back and forth. That way, it feels more of an extension of my body.”
When asked what makes a great food photo, Watson says, “It’s really hard [to explain] because I find I can’t—It’s just what you see. I find the lens is an extension of my eyeball. It’s what I see and it’s fast and I do it as quick as I can and then the next dish comes out—it’s fast-paced.”
While self-taught, Watson has developed certain techniques. Watson works with natural light 99 percent of the time, finding herself drawn to the little corner table next to a window. When it comes to her favorite food to capture, “I love shooting tacos, mostly because I get to eat them when I’m done shooting them.” And struck by the beauty in the details, Watson believes in photographing real food.
“I don’t ever want to take a picture of mashed potatoes that are disguised as ice cream or something like that,” she says. “It’s very important that the food be real so that the photos are communicating a truth, that there’s an honesty to my photos. If you see cheese melting, that’s real cheese, If you see milk pouring, that’s real milk.”
Watson’s ultimate mission as a photographer is to show people how beautiful a dish is from the perspective of the chef who created it. “I can see chefs when they create a dish,” she said, finishing up her interview by phone while she was taking the Pacific Surfliner back home. “It means a lot to them and that is something so important to share with people through photos.”