I just returned from London, where I traveled—I am proud and a little stunned to report—to see two of my photographs receive top-three finishes in the 2017 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year Awards.

The journey held special significance for me. 2017 marked the third time that my photographs have been selected as finalists in this international food photography competition based in the United Kingdom. I first heard about the competition from my English husband, Tim, in 2012. At the time, photography was still a hobby for me, and with Tim’s coaxing, I submitted some photographs on a whim. When I received a nomination to have a photo as part of the award ceremony exhibit, I was delighted. It felt like a sign. Although I didn’t place, just seeing my photo hanging in the Mall Galleries in London among some of the best in the world was something I’ll never forget. The awards were in April, and by May I had quit my day job and officially started my food photography business full-time.

Last year I decided to submit my work again, and one of my photos was shortlisted, while a second one went on to be a finalist and was exhibited again in the Mall Galleries. And although my finalist image didn’t receive an award, my shortlisted photograph went on to win first place in the People’s Choice Award for the 2016 Errazuriz Wine Photographer of the Year and it was an incredible honor.

This year, I once more submitted some of my photographs for consideration, only to learn that the contest has grown exponentially over the years. This year they received approximately 8,000 entries from more than 60 countries. The competition was fierce, so when I learned that three of my photos were shortlisted this year, I was elated. And then I had to pinch myself when I was notified that two of those three were selected as finalist images to be part of the exhibit in the Mall Galleries this April, an honor reserved for only 151 of the initial ~8,000 entries. And for the first time, at the end of the award ceremony I had received two third-place category honors for both of my images.

The first photo placed third in the Errazuriz Wine Photographer of the Year’s “Produce” category. I shot it at Michael’s on Naples Ristorante in Long Beach and it was actually an outtake during a menu shoot with Executive Chef Eric Samaniego. I was shooting the chef’s prosciutto plate, and when their General Manager & in-house wine expert Massimo Arrone decided to pair a Lambrusco with the dish, I snapped a quick photo of his pour. I’m happy I decided to keep the photo!

The second photo placed third in the Food for Celebration category. Again, it was an spontaneous outtake! I was at Mesa restaurant in Costa Mesa, in the midst of a menu shoot with Executive Chef Niki Starr and was getting ready to shoot her Prince Edward Island Mussel Platter. As she prepared the dish tableside, I waited on the other side of a fireplace for the finished product. I saw chef bring the steaming platter out to the table, and saw the guests enjoying the process so much that I couldn’t help but capture the moment.

The third photo was shortlisted – and although it wasn’t hung in the gallery, it was “commended” in the Marks and Spencer Food Adventures – Mediterranean category and can be viewed in the Commended gallery online. This shot was yet another spontaneous moment from a shoot that I did with the team at Michael’s Pizzeria in Long Beach—a moment when I entered the kitchen as the chef was cutting fresh chestnut fettuccini noodles by hand and hanging them to dry.

Below are a few snapshots I took at the Mall Galleries during the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year awards reception. As I look back on the photos that received honors this year, I can’t help but smile to myself and reflect on the spontaneity of all three. Although they were not the photos I had initially staged, styled and planned for, they embody what I love most about photography – capturing a moment & freezing time – there is true beauty in the unexpected!

{Follow Anne Watson Photography on Twitter/Instagram @annewatsonphoto}