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A Look Through the Lens of Photographer Judy Stephens

If you’ve ever been to the Marvel Entertainment booth at a show like San Diego Comic Con or New York Comic Con, you might see a blonde blur running around like Quicksilver taking photos of celebrities and fans. That workhouse is Associate Producer Judy Stephens. Sure, the day job sounds fun, but what makes Judy’s story so interesting is her work in photography, video and her creativity and passion for cosplay.

I don’t remember how long it’s been since I met Judy but it didn’t take long before she became one of my favorite photographers. So when I had a chance to chat with her about and showcase some of her work, I definitely wasn’t going to say “no.”  So sit, back, grab some tea, and let me tell you a story of a young woman from Motor City who made good.

SeagateCreative: How or when did you get your start in photography?

Judy Stephens: I’ve been taking photos since I could hold a camera. Both my grandfather and father had an avid love for photography; specifically train photography, so I grew up surrounded by cameras and family dinners ending with slide shows.

During high school I took a variety of night classes at the Center for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit. By senior year I was spending almost every night printing in the darkroom. There was (and still is) something soothing about the smell of fix in the air.

SeagateCreative: What was the first photo you remember taking?

Judy Stephens: First photo? Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t actually remember the first thing I took a photo of as a photographer. Highly likely it was black & white and something fairly mundane. I’m sure I have the negative for it somewhere.

SeagateCreative: What was it about photography that made you want to do this professionally?

Judy Stephens: I have always felt at ease and in control behind the camera. While in high school, I grew into myself through my camera, and it just made sense that I would go to college for it. At eighteen, I’m sure I had no idea what photographing for a career would entail, but I knew I wanted to work in the photo industry in some capacity.

SeagateCreative: What’s the most surprising idea you recently had and why? 

Judy Stephens: It may not be necessarily new or surprising, but taking a model out of the “norm” and placing her/him in a unique location fascinates me – such as a cosplayer in the middle of the Times Square insanity, or the middle of a random field.

Lately, I’ve gotten in my head that I’d love to shoot cosplayers in Iceland or another “foreign” place – such as a Sailor Moon-style costume in amongst the volcanic rock formations, or a super hero on a glacier. I’ve shot cosplayers similar to this before at conventions, but have not yet the opportunity to shoot this in a wilder place.

SeagateCreative: Is there a particular photographer who has inspired you? What is it about their process or work has changed you?

Judy Stephens: During high school I remember seeing my first Andreas Gursky print at the MOMA in NYC; his approach to photography is extremely methodical and he uses the color of a scene to slap you in the face. I am always fascinated with photography of the mundane, and how that can be brought into a lens. It was through Gursky, that I was introduced to the Bauhaus style, which inspired me in the way I looked through the lens.

At the core, a photo, to me, is all lines and shapes, and manipulating those to your own means.

SeagateCreative: When on a shoot, walk us through what your process is like.

Judy Stephens: I’m a fairly casual photographer, in that I walk onto set with some basic idea of how I want to shoot, but I’m ready for that to evolve once we’re shooting. As of late most of my shoots have been on location at a convention or office, and thus requires me to be able to adapt fairly quickly to the light or actual space.

For my most recent costume shoot, I photographed a group of friends in cosplay at the Dylan Candy Bar in NYC. I start all shoots by taking some basic shots to get both the costumers and myself into the mood. From there it’s all about how the angle or pose of the model, or how the location works.

At Dylan’s, the shop is full of color and great backdrops, plus the costumes that they were modeling matched perfect. Shoots can either go smooth where the location & model just fit together. The Dylan’s shoot was just that. We spent about two hours or so exploring the three floors of the shop, finding good spots and working around the customers in the shop. Also, the shoot was collaboration between the four costumers and myself, as we each had a base idea of what we wanted out of the shoot, and I’d say it was great success.

You can see a shot from the shoot here:

SeagateCreative: That looks fun. I can definitely see what you mean by the color and how it plays into the overall shot. Speaking of, is there any particular gear or equipment has helped you to create a breakthrough in your art? 

Judy Stephens: The second lens I ever owned was a wide-angle 20mm, which on my Nikon N80 created slightly warped images. I started using it to shoot portraits and at close range it would create these fascinating shots, which I fell in love with. Though I no longer shoot with that specific lens, I do tend to lean toward much wider lenses and the warp style it can add.

SeagateCreative: How has your choice of gear evolved since you first started in photography?

Judy Stephens: Well first and foremost, when I first started shooting, everything was film. I preferred Fuji slide film as the colors had this intense pop, but also relied on negative film too. With the explosion of the digital age in photography, using a DSLR greatly evolved my style as I have the ability to view the photo I just took.

Secondly, I used to be obsessed with collecting lenses, which at one point I had about four to five at any one time. But over the years, I realized that I preferred having a smaller selection of lenses, as before with all the lens options, I was more focused on which lens I could use, and not the actual photo I was taking. Currently I own two lenses, a 18-200mm and a 30mm which allow me options but also allows me to focus on my subject.

SeagateCreative: What’s your favorite thing to shoot and why?

Judy Stephens: Color, color and more color! I love using different, vibrant colors to produce a photo, either that being a great landscape/background or the intense coloring of a costume.

SeagateCreative: Working for Marvel Entertainment, you do a lot of the convention coverage highlighting the booth and cosplayers. How did this role come about?

Judy Stephens: I am currently the Associate Producer at Marvel, where I manage the AR App and its content, as well as the photographer & cosplay blogger for Marvel.com. Almost eight years ago I started out as a web design intern. At first I worked only two days a week for a semester, but soon discovered they had a softball team in need of female players, and eventually found myself hired in the licensing department as a data entry temp.

By the time I graduated college I had been hired full time as a web designer. Since then I have circled through different positions within the Digital Media Group. Since my original hire, however, I’ve contributed my photography skills to Marvel in a more official capacity, which has in turn allowed me to attend and cover conventions and events, and become the Marvel.com cosplay blogger.

SeagateCreative:  How does this role influence you as a photographer?

Judy Stephens: It’s through my work at Marvel that I have been able to grow so much as a cosplay photographer. My coworkers are incredibly interested in what I do on the weekends, and supportive of my “hobby”, which allows me to travel so frequently to conventions and events, including one year where I was able to attend 15 cons! It was traveling to SDCC and Dragon*Con by which I first became knowledgeable and involved with the larger costuming community. The best way to become a better photographer is to take more photos, and in the last eight years, I have taken a lot of photos!

SeagateCreative: What role does editing play in your creative process and creating your aesthetic?

Judy Stephens: Being able to edit your own work well is crucial as a photographer. The photo, which you might have loved at the shoot, could possibly not work once you’ve sat down in front of your computer.

I have three editing steps. I make a general edit immediately after the shoot, and then a day or so later, I cut that down to the final edit. Once I have my edit, I’ll bring each in Photoshop and pull up the colors/vibrance, do basic touch-ups and any final finishing touches.

SeagateCreative: When you look for a collaborator to help on a project, be it a model or even a post-production assistant, what kind of creative qualities do you look for?

Judy Stephens: When I for a collaborator, such as a model/cosplayer, I’m mostly interested in someone who is as passionate as I am about the subject. Passion can mean many things, but I’m looking for equal effort, punctuality and a good attitude for all persons involved.

SeagateCreative: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring photographer to help them develop their ideas into art?

Judy Stephens: Keep shooting. You can only become a better photographer the more you take photos. So get out there and start taking photos.

SeagateCreative: Let’s take a look at some of your favorite photos:

SeagateCreative: Who is this?
Judy Stephens: Yaya Han as Carmilla
SeagateCreative: What gear are you using?
Judy Stephens: Nikon D200, 18-200mm lens, natural light.
SeagateCreative: Tell us a bit about this photo.
Judy Stephens: I had the opportunity to photograph Yaya as Carmilla at AnimeUSA 2009. As a vampire, Carmilla can’t be in the sun, but we were shooting in the morning. I prefer shooting outside, when I can, so I found this patch of reeds outside the hotel and had Yaya pose in them. Later in Photoshop, with layering different color and shadow levels, I was able to edit the photo to look more like night.

SeagateCreative: Who are they?
Judy Stephens: Disney Princesses
SeagateCreative: What gear are you using?
Judy Stephens: D300S, 18-200mm lens, natural light. 
SeagateCreative: Tell us a bit about this photo.
Judy Stephens: This shot was such a spur of the moment things. We had been taking very fairy style photos just moments before and then we saw the port-o-potties. I suggested the shot, and with all ladies in agreement, got the photo. Also, they’re not faking their looks of disgusts, as it really did smell potent.

SeagateCreative: Where is this?
Judy Stephens: Coney Island in the Snow
SeagateCreative: What gear are you using?
Judy Stephens: D300S, 18-200m lens, natural light
SeagateCreative: Tell us a bit about this photo.
Judy Stephens: This photo is from a shoot we did at Coney Island in January 2011. After weeks of planning, the day of the shoot the temperature dropped under freezing, but the show must go on. And every person on the shoot, from the stylists, models and photographers were troopers. Collaboration truly at work to produce some great work.

SeagateCreative: Who is this?
Judy Stephens: Sailor Moon
SeagateCreative: What gear are you using?
Judy Stephens: Nikon D200, 18-200mm lens
SeagateCreative: Tell us a bit about this photo.
Judy Stephens: I love this photo for its simplicity, but it also marks the beginning of a whirlwind year where I attended over 15 conventions and events across three countries and two continents. I had been taking photos of cosplay for years before this, but 2009 marks the moment I found the friendships, which I treasure to this day.

SeagateCreative: What is this?
Judy Stephens: Silent Hill
SeagateCreative: What gear are you using?
Judy Stephens: Nikon D200, 18-200mm lens
SeagateCreative: Tell us a bit about this photo.
Judy Stephens: This photo is from a series that are monumental for multiple reasons. This set was the first time I pushed myself to use Photoshop to grossly manipulate images. Each photo in this series has 10-15 layers that each adds a unique aspect to the photo. Secondly, these photos were the first of mine to ever go viral across the cosplay community.

We know you want more. Be sure to follow Judy on these channels for news and more amazing photos:
Official Site
Twitter
Tumbr
Flickr

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