Erin is an award winning advertising and editorial photographer who works around the world and calls the foggy outerlands of San Francisco home. Known for being collaborative, optimistic, detail-oriented and inspired, Erin and her team bring enthusiasm and experience to projects big and small.

By Zach Singh

Erin Kunkel is represented by Apostrophe

When did you first think of becoming a photographer?

I majored in art in college, but at the time I was a painter. After moving to Europe for a few years after graduating I started shooting and became interested in telling stories through photography. When I returned to the US, I was fortunate to get a job as a studio manager for a National Geographic photographer and realized that my dream job of being a freelance photographer was attainable.

In terms of photographic genres, what made you pursue food photography?

My love of food photography is rooted in studying ecology and working on organic farms in Europe. This experience led me to became a travel photographer- where on a given shoot I would be expected to capture a wide range of images, from portraits to interiors, food and landscape images. I have always been interested in where food comes from, and working with talented farmers and chefs around the world inspired me to focus on food imagery.

What do you consider the most important breaks in your career and why?

Over time, there was a cumulative effect of many opportunities and connections with people, that enabled me to experiment with photography and become confident in my skills and in promoting myself. This came from shooting a lot of personal work, assisting other photographers, and being a studio manager.

I noticed that you also shoot travel, lifestyle, kids and location photography along with other personal projects; what kind of assignments and advertising do you like the most?

I don’t know that I have one favorite- more than anything, I love the mix of high energy, location shoots with lots of people contrasted with the relative intimacy and peacefulness of small shoots. Each shoot is a chance to collaborate with talented people, be inspired by new things, and tell a story in an unexpected way.

Some might describe your portraits as highly technical, cohesive, sophisticated and authentic at the same time; is this a good characterization?

Yes- I think authentic is perhaps the most important- a portrait offers a small glimpse into someone’s life, and I always strive to relate to the core of who someone is. I try to let portrait shoots unfold naturally, even when there is a specific concept we’re walking in with. I especially love it if I’m able to photograph someone at home, in their workspace or anywhere that is meaningful to them- surrounded by things that influence them.

Do you feel it’s important to collaborate with other professionals in your editorial shoots?

Much of my commercial and editorial work involves a large group of people with whom I collaborate- which is really stimulating and great. But as a counterbalance, I also enjoy editorial shoots where I am on my own and work in a very nimble, fluid way.

I read that your father influenced your love for travel photography is that correct?

Yes, my dad flies a small plane and I have always loved exploring the world with him and my mother, and gaining perspective on the world through an aerial view. My grandfather was botanist and took great landscape and nature photographs that I’ve always loved.

How much are you traveling now and how do you divide your efforts?

My schedule varies, but I am often on the road- some years, I’m away from home the vast majority of the time. The strength of a shoot location often features prominently in the work I do, so I go wherever the job takes me and where I think the location will allow me to tell the best story. We often bid advertising jobs in multiple locations so we can give the clients great options and pros and cons for each place. I have a studio in San Francisco and shoot a lot here in California, but I’m always ready travel.

What are you doing for marketing, what are the advantages of using the production company Wonderful Machine?

I market directly to clients through online and printed promos, social media and face to face meetings as much as possible. My commercial work is represented by Apostrophe, who does a lot to market my work. Likewise, I have also worked with Wonderful Machine for many years, but more for their role as a source to direct people looking for specific work or people based in San Francisco.

I noticed that you use a lot of outdoor light in your photographs; is that a preference or do you equally love studio work?

The studio is a great, controlled and often more quiet environment, but I’m happiest outside- I like utilizing the unique quality of light in each place as a narrative element.

What type of cameras do you shoot and what is your favorite lens?

My workhorse cameras are the Canon 5 DSR and Canon 5D Mark III- but my camera choice depends on the project. For ad jobs in studio, I prefer shooting medium format- usually Phase One and Hasselblad. My favorite lenses also really depend on the subject matter and the workflow that makes sense for each job- what I need for a food shoot is very different than what I choose when shooting fast moving lifestyle on location.

Is there any specific lighting technique that you use?

I am often combining ambient daylight with strobes to create a very natural look. I also use HMIs and other continuous lighting for their unique quality of light and the ability to seamlessly move between stills and motion.

You shoot at beautiful locations, would you please name some of them and tell as your favorites?

Put me on a boat or in water and I’m happy! For this reason, Hawaii is one of my favorite locations, as well as the diversity of environments on each island. Working in Mexico is always a favorite – for it’s amazing textures, and incredible food and people. I’m also partial to Big Sur, California- it’s dramatic coastline, lush forests and bohemian structures lend themselves to a lot of shoots. I also love being in Europe, where the mix of old and new architecture offers great location possibilities. I’m headed to an assignment in Croatia in a few weeks, which looks stunning.

Do you have any advice for up and coming photographers?

Hustle – work hard, surround yourself with talented, interesting people, and don’t ever feel entitled to success or opportunity. It’s a very challenging and competitive industry and beyond raw talent, it takes relentless drive, commitment and integrity to make it all happen. Treat people well and appreciate the chance to collaborate – strong images are often the result of a team effort. Learn to recognize and fine tune what makes your perspective unique, rather than trying to emulate others. Taking good pictures is just a small part of what it takes to be a professional photographer, so be patient and pay attention to the business side of things.


Hand Painted Canvas Backdrops

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There is 1 comment on this post
  1. October 19, 2016, 10:59 pm

    Such an inspiring and complete work of Erin. I’m following some food photographers (I am a newbie food photographer) but I can say this interview and the style/mood/natural feel of Erin’s photographs has widened my view and made me think of new posibilities as a food photographer.

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