Damien Hirst v. Reality, or Life Imitating Art

Venice is one of our favorite places on earth, so last April after a visit to my brother and his wife in Rome, Barb and I took the train north for a four day stay. On the vaporetto ride to our hotel in the Dorsoduro, we noticed in front of the Palazzo Grassi a large grotesque statue of a horse and rider being eaten by a snake. There was also a sign promoting the new exhibition by Damien Hirst, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”IMG_0561.

We immediately purchased tickets online, and the next day arrived early at the Palazzo. The first thing that caught our attention was a giant bronze-like sculpture that filled the atrium of the building, several stories high. The conceit of the exhibition is that a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of east Africa, full of treasures accumulated by a freed slave from the Greek era. The slave’s name was Cif Amotan II, an anagram of “I am fiction”. In addition to the sculpture, jewelry and coins, there were videos showing how the booty was brought up from the ocean floor.IMG_0590


Still frame from video of Damien Hirst’s “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”

We quickly realized that Hirst was pulling our leg. The scale of the exhibit was breathtaking, ten years in the making. The exhibit was so large that it continued at another venue, the Punta della Dogana.

Reviews of the exhibit were very mixed and provoked strong negative reactions. One reviewer said “it is not an exhibition. It’s a showroom for oligarchs.” Since Barb and I are not oligarchs and are not allergic to kitsch, we were among those who loved it.

This April saw the opening of a new exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds”.  Underwater archeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered the site of two cities that had been on the coast of Egypt, but over the course of centuries had slipped into the Mediterranean.

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An archeologist inspects the still encrusted head of a queen on-site underwater in Thonis-Heracleion

See the similarities?

Colossal statue of the god Hapy, over 17 feet tall, 6 tons, in great hall of St. Louis Art Museum

As we walked through this exhibit, we were struck by the comparatively small scale of the authentic discovery relative to Hirst’s extravaganza. There was great effort involved in mounting this show – door frames of the museum were removed to make way for the large granite statues displayed in the main hall. The fact that these two cities that were thriving for centuries and are now underwater is a reminder of how transient were are, and that a place like Venice will undoubtedly be swallowed up by the sea like Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.

I’m grateful to have seen both exhibits, and each of them reinforces my appreciation of art and reality.

Forty Years and counting


Steve on the way to portfolio showing

Februrary, 1977:

Jimmy Carter had just been sworn in as our 39th president, Rocky (the original) ruled at the box office, “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was topping the charts, and checked sport coats were de rigueur for budding photographers calling on clients.

I realized recently that this was the month forty years ago that I set up my studio, a tiny room behind a storefront on South Gore in Webster Groves, with my darkroom in the basement of our house.

There have been many peaks and valleys in the intervening years, but I am blessed with a memory that remembers the good times more than the bad. I have worked with some talented colleagues, collaborated with clients of every description, and enjoyed it immensely.

Now 4 studios and 6 presidents later, I’m still shooting what I love, food and beverage. Since summer of 2015 I have been privileged to share space with the folks at Big Club Hall.

Thank you to all of you who have helped me, encouraged me, and allowed me to flourish.

Steve at Big Club Hall

Steve at Big Club Hall

Soap’s On!

Last week I photographed some of the wonderful soaps made by my friend Ken Gilberg of Herbaria Soaps. He is going to have a new sign installed over his awning that will be about forty feet wide.

New storefront sign for Herbaria

New storefront sign for Herbaria

It was a challenge to create a large enough file that will reproduce well at that size. I used the panorama function in Photoshop to stitch together seven images. The results won’t be up for a while, but here is Ken’s rendition from the low res file I sent him.


Stuffed Pasta

We had a fun shoot recently at Louisa Foods, which makes all kinds of stuffed pasta. It was a new client for me, and we did the shoot in an area next to their test kitchen, which was a very convenient way to work.

Steve, Silvia, and Ann at work

Steve, Silvia, and Ann at work

Grilled chicken on pesto risottoI worked with Silvia Cianci, their Senior R&D Corporate Chef. She is a native of Italy, and has a passion for Italian food, and pasta in particular.

At lunch Silvia treated us to some delicious grilled chicken on pesto risotto.



New Lens in the Kit


Max's eyelashes

Max’s eyelashes

In the process of selling the studio building recently, we also sold some camera equipment that was either old or under utilized. I decided last week it was time to update my SLR system, so bought a Nikon D810 with a 50mm lens, and ordered a Zeiss 100 mm macro lens that just arrived today. It is incredibly sharp. The photo above was shot at iso 1250, handheld at f/2.0 and 1/125th. Cannot wait to get some food in front of this!

Back in the Saddle Again

After closing on the sale of our studio in late May, we have been busy organizing our basement and garage to accommodate the things that we brought with us. We also had a nice trip to Wisconsin, and visited friends in Michigan and Indiana.

I was glad to work again with my friends from Nature’s Variety on a shoot yesterday. Carol Ziemann was lured from her semi-retirement and did a great job as usual. It was fun and a bit unnerving to shoot in a different space after 30 years of familiarity with my studio. Scott Smith and his colleagues were gracious hosts, and provided everything we needed.

Shooting for Nature's Variety at Scott Smith Studio

Shooting for Nature’s Variety at Scott Smith Studio (bandaid on nose covering recent skin graft)

More Tips from St. Louis Food Photographer Steve Adams

If you are a commercial food photographer in St. Louis, or anywhere else, you don’t need to communicate with your subject as portrait photographers do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply a bit of charm in the food styling department.

The more time you spend making the food attractive as it can be up front, the easier things are later on. Here are some tips to help you improve your food styling, naturally.

Use less food than you normally would

Pan seared scallops with spinach

Pan seared scallops with spinach

It might seem more generous to serve plates piled high with good food, but an overcrowded plate can look less appealing than a minimalist spread. This goes back to previous conversations we have had about using the white space of the plate to frame your dish.

Look for contrast with backgrounds

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

While there are times when all white on white can be visually striking, I find I get better shots if I go for contrast. So a pale colored food and plate gets a dark background where as a vibrantly colored dish tends to be best with a simple white background.

Choose simple crockery and tableware 


While highly decorative China and ornate utensils be very beautiful on their own, they can also detract from the visual impact of the food. Plain plates, especially classic white allow the food to stand out and be the star of your shoot. (see Scallops photo above)

Get some work-in-progress shots

It can be easy to focus on getting the final plated-up food shot and miss out on some great opportunities along the way. Try taking a few shots during the preparation and cooking process. This can help place the viewer in a certain place and time, while also highlighting what makes the dish unique.

Dig in and reshoot

Crab Cakes with Remoulade

Crab Cakes with Remoulade

Related to taking shots while in preparation, the opposite can also make for a great photo. Once you have a shot of the whole food that you love, eat or serve some out and then take another shot. Often a half finished plate is more appetizing than the original whole.

Vary the camera angle

Sirloin steak, two different angles

Sirloin steak, two different angles

Just like human subjects can be photographed from more flattering angles, the same goes for food. It’s important to remember that the concept you see in your head might not always make for the best photo. That’s one reason why I often shoot a dish from different angles. Get the shot you think you want, but then take a few moments to recompose and take another. Variety is key, especially if you’re shooting for a client. Clients like choices.

Try and capture the ‘yum’ factor

Lemon Sorbet with Strawberries

Lemon Sorbet with Strawberries

Think about what makes your dish really delicious, and then aim to highlight this characteristic in your food photography shot. Ice cream is a great example. It’s all about smooth creaminess and licking drips from the sides of your cone or bowl. Fried chicken is another good example, where the detail within the delectable crispy parts of the chicken are can be highlighted.

Remember that inspiration and new ideas can strike from anywhere. When you’re eating out or even just flicking through your favorite food magazine, take note of what looks appealing and what doesn’t to you, and take those ideas with you to your next commercial food photography session.

St. Louis food photographer Steve Adams has been shooting in his own studio since 1977. If you are interested in taking or need some great food and beverage photos, St. Louis advertising photography, animal photography shots, or other advertising subjects, please give me a call or send me an email. I’d love to answer all your questions and give you the advice you need so that your next shoot can be a special one. You can reach me (314) 781-6667 or via email at: info@steveadamsstudio.com.

Nicholas Nixon, 40 Years of the Brown Sisters

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The Brown Sisters, by Nicholas Nixon

I highly recommend the exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum of the work of Nicholas Nixon, who has photographed his wife and her sisters every year since 1975. What started as a casual record of family gatherings grew to a body of work that is an evocative study of relationships, time, and the process of aging. We enjoyed a gallery talk by the curator, Eric Lutz, as a guest of our friend Linda Mueller. Nixon is scheduled to speak at the Art Museum in February, and I hope to attend.

In my own small way, I have documented my 3 brothers whenever we are in the same town, which is pretty rare. Stan has lived in Rome for more than 30 years, Dave has lived in Malaysia, Australia, and Paris over the years, and Greg is in Chicago. It seems like we only get together for major illnesses, weddings and funerals. Here is one from 7 years ago:


Left to right by age: Steve, Stan, David, and Greg, August 2007

Left to right by age: Steve, Stan, David, and Greg, August 2007

Here is another one from 1995:

Steve, Stan, David, and Greg Adams, August 1995

Steve, Stan, David, and Greg Adams, August 1995

4 Highly Photogenic Foods and How to Shoot Them

Like people, all foods are beautiful. Every dish can make a stunning photograph with the right equipment and a bit of creativity. As a Saint Louis food photographer, I keep my clients happy by bringing out the magnificence in their foods. Meticulous food styling and fresh ingredients make my work easier. Even so, there are some foods that always look great on camera. Here are my favorite ingredients for spectacular shots.


Blood orange pomegranate salad with basil

Blood orange pomegranate salad with basil


  1. Blood oranges. These citruses are as delicious as they are exotic. While not totally bizarre, they’re not too commonly found in supermarkets. They’re unexpected. What really makes them great photo subjects is their red, Technicolor flesh. It’s a sunset in an orange.


A cool-toned setting brings out that burst of color. The juiciness of the fruit is best brought out with a secondary light source that isn’t too soft. A little harshness sets off highlights that emphasize the fruit’s moisture.


Hamburger hero

Hamburger hero


  1. Burgers. Burgers, generally speaking, are amazing. Tender beef, crisp lettuce, gooey cheese and soft bread meld together for an orgy of tastes and textures. Before I make myself too hungry, I’ll explain why burgers are among my favorite Saint Louis food photography subjects.


When you’re eating a burger, you can’t always see all of those ingredients, but you can taste them. When a burger is dressed up for a photo shoot, the food stylist or burger artist must arrange all of the ingredients towards the front of the bun. Each ingredient is as important as the last, so I focus my lens on the sandwich as a whole. Don’t detract from a great burger shot with fries or a cluttered background. Let the burger take center stage.


An intense light highlights the textures and colors so you can taste each ingredient with your eyes. In fact, that’s a pretty accurate way to describe great food photography: tasting with your eyes.


Guinness Braised Beef

Guinness Braised Beef


  1. Parsley. Parsley does to your breath what it does for photographs. It freshens. A tasty, though otherwise colorless dish such as beef stew gets a spark of color from a fresh sprig. Mint, basil, spinach, and lettuce are also handy ways to add color to a dish. Parsley is humble. It does not need to be in focus, and it’s happy whether it’s perched on the side of a dish or plopped in the center.


Raspberry Mint Cocktail

Raspberry Mint Cocktail


  1. Berries. Berries are excellent for taking food photos because they’re just so versatile. They make an attractive primary subject, but they also work well as a garnish. Scattered at the base of a beverage, they add color and visual flavor. Garnishing a dessert, they add color. Strawberries, with their exterior seeds, have the intricate detail to make an interesting subject on their own. But they also flourish when sliced and fanned over a decadent cheesecake.


If you’re an aspiring photographer, try experimenting on these foods. The camera loves them, and they reliably make easily beautiful shots. Fresh ingredients bring life and vitality to your photos. Your camera will do the rest.


If you are interested in taking or need some great food photos, St. Louis beverage photography, animal and pet photography shots, or other subjects, please give me a call or send me an email. I’d love to answer all your questions and give you the advice you need or resources I offer so that your next shoot can be a special one. You can reach me (314) 781-6667 or via email at: steve@steveadamsstudio.com.

Main Light and Fill Light Series

So you’ve learned a bit about your main light source in my last post, Main Light and Fill Light in Food Photography: Part 1, Main Light. Your main light source will construct the shape of your subject and set the scene for a beautiful photo. But, just like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, every light casts an equal and opposite shadow. You will use a less luminous fill light to balance out the shadow created by your main light.

When To Use A Fill Light

A bright, direct main light source, such as a Fresnel, is best used in combination with one or two other light sources. A harsh light creates a dark, intense shadow and high contrast. But when the main light source is soft, such as that from a hazy light, the illumination may be dispersed enough to make a fill light unnecessary.

A very common flaw in amateur photos is a loss of detail in the parts of the subject furthest away from the light source, while the parts closest are beautifully lit. This is especially true with photos taken with throw-away cameras that have an overpoweringly bright built-in flash. Using a fill light greatly enhances the quality of your photographs and sets them apart from casual, throwaway camera snapshots.

Using Fill Cards For Food Photography

In my Saint Louis commercial photography studio, I use several sources of fill light to bring out details lost in the shadow created by my main light. Fill cards are an excellent and super simple source of fill light; they’re just sheets of paper used as a controlled way to reflect other light sources. Any poster board or paper can be used as your fill card. As you saw in my video, I also use a handy tool known as a “magic arm” to clamp onto my table and hold fill cards in just the right position. If you’re practicing photography at home, a binder clip, tape or a very patient volunteer can serve the same purpose.

A shiny silver fill card reflects the most light, often creating a second highlight on the subject. In some cases, multiple highlights are desirable, such as when you want to portray the healthy, shiny skin of a red apple. In shots where less intense highlighting and a softer effect is desired, for example, if you were photographing a soft, decadent slice of cheesecake, a matte silver fill card would work.

For an even less intense fill light, a white card is suitable. It won’t reflect the light quite as intensely as a silver card. Instead, the light will bounce off the white card and disperse for a gentle, well-lit effect. This means all of the subject can be lit without the creation of additional highlights.

If you want to get even more creative with your secondary light source, colored fill cards are a fun option. I’ve photographed a very red, very shiny apple with the help of a red fill card. The red fill card casted a subtle crimson light, making the apple look all the more red and delicious.

A fill light source can also be an additional light. It should be dimmer and softer, and used to carefully bring out the details the main light source left in the dark.

When I bring together two or more sources of light in my St. Louis advertising photography studio, something magical happens. Multiple light sources bring the subject to life. Get creative with your light sources next time you take a photo and watch as you uncover more details than ever before.

Steve Adams specializes in the finest stock photos of food and drink in St. Louis, along with other expert subjects such as animals and pets, and cultural/travel photos. He has worked in his own studio since 1977 providing photographs for a wide variety of clients such as Nestle Purina, Bacardi, Kraft and Anheuser-Busch. You can reach Steve at (314) 781-6667 or via email at: steve@steveadamsstudio.com.