The Pro In­ter­view

From new­borns to teenagers and all the chaos in be­tween, He­len Bartlett spe­cial­izes in pho­tograph­ing chil­dren. She tells Keith Wil­son why she never tires of spend­ing her morn­ings with some­one else’s kids

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An in­spir­ing and re­veal­ing chat with fam­ily por­trait photographer He­len Bartlett

The early 20th Cen­tury ac­tor and co­me­dian W. C. Fields once fa­mously re­marked: “Never work with chil­dren or an­i­mals!” But for Lon­don-based fam­ily photographer He­len Bartlett, chil­dren are her pri­mary fo­cus, “Bring them on!” she de­clares, and the more the mer­rier…

How long have you been spe­cial­iz­ing in fam­ily por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy?

About 14 years. When I started out I wanted to be a fam­ily photographer but when you’re start­ing out you do a bit of every­thing, in­clud­ing shoot­ing wed­dings, but I re­al­ized fairly quickly that I didn’t en­joy wed­dings. In fact, wed­dings and fam­ily pho­tog­ra­phy hap­pen on week­ends mostly – week­ends and school hol­i­days are my busy time – and af­ter a cer­tain point you’ve got to spe­cial­ize, so I got rid of the wed­dings and it’s been 99 per cent fam­i­lies ever since.

What was the ini­tial rea­son for want­ing to fo­cus on fam­i­lies?

Be­cause it’s fun! My route into

pho­tog­ra­phy was my Dad. He was a sur­geon but also a very keen photographer. We had a dark­room at home and we’d print black & white and also colour, back in the ’80s, so we did a lot of pho­tog­ra­phy as kids. My broth­ers, my mother and I ran a nurs­ery school, which was based in our house and we had 20 or 25 chil­dren every morn­ing.

One day my mid­dle brother started to take pic­tures for the nurs­ery and when I got a bit older I took over from him. I’d take pic­tures of the nurs­ery school in the sum­mer and hand print in the dark­room, sell them to the par­ents and drink the pro­ceeds! I did that as a sum­mer job as a teenager and then when I was at univer­sity I’d come back and do it in the sum­mer. It made enough money so I didn’t have to get a holiday job.

It’s the school hol­i­days now (at the time of the in­ter­view), so how does that af­fect book­ings for you? Is it a busy time?

I’m pretty busy at the mo­ment, which is fan­tas­tic. Au­gust is a funny month be­cause a lot of peo­ple go away for the whole of the sum­mer, some choose to stay. This sum­mer has been in­cred­i­ble be­cause of the weather and I am em­brac­ing it be­cause the sun’s out and peo­ple are feel­ing su­per pos­i­tive.

It varies from year to year where the book­ings come from, the sea­son usu­ally starts at Easter, but this year Easter was a to­tal washout. It just rained non-stop so it was a dis­as­ter, but this sum­mer it feels as if it’s been hot for­ever. In early De­cem­ber, the shoot­ing stops be­cause you don’t have time to process the im­ages be­fore Christ­mas. Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary are quiet, ex­cept for some new­borns, then it tends to pick up when the sun comes out.

When you have two weeks of good weather that’s when the sea­son starts for the year, but ob­vi­ously that can vary.

You also shoot abroad?

Yeah, a bit. It’s mainly been for reg­u­lar clients, if I have clients that I start shoot­ing with in the UK, but then they move abroad or they go on holiday.

I had one fam­ily last year who were go­ing on holiday to France and they said, “we’re go­ing to have all of our fam­ily there, all our broth­ers and the cousins, so why don’t you fly out and see us for one day rather than do­ing it at home?”

I tend to do a cou­ple of shoots abroad each sum­mer. It’s just eas­ier and cheaper for clients re­ally. It’s also fun but it takes more time so you don’t want to do lots.

And when they’re on holiday ev­ery­one is to­gether, so that makes it eas­ier to plan?

Ev­ery­one’s to­gether, ev­ery­one’s re­laxed. Par­ents don’t have their mo­bile phone

I tend to do a cou­ple of shoots abroad each sum­mer. It’s just eas­ier and cheaper for clients re­ally

con­stantly ring­ing with some­one from work, and the kids have mel­lowed out and don’t have home­work to do.

When do you pre­fer to do your fam­ily shoots?

I do all my shoots in the morn­ing. I tend to find kids are at their best first thing, straight af­ter break­fast. Ev­ery­one’s slept, ev­ery­one’s eaten, the parks are empty and you can blast through and have a re­ally good morn­ing. But if you start later in the day, you never know what may have hap­pened be­fore you’ve ar­rived.

Okay, when you set off in the morn­ing, what do you pack?

I shoot with two cam­eras most of the time, two Canon 1D X Mk II bod­ies.

I know these cam­eras can with­stand a bat­ter­ing of tum­bling chil­dren, dog spit and sand cas­tles. I tend to shoot with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 on the other when I’m out­side, but inside I’ll swap to an EF 50mm f/1.4.

So you pre­fer to stick to Canon prime lenses rather and zooms?

I’ve been shoot­ing more with a 24-70mm f/2.8 this sum­mer, just be­cause I need to shoot with some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent to draw me out of my com­fort zone and make me shoot a bit dif­fer­ently. Then I tend to go back, so most of my work is shot on primes. I find it eas­ier to know ex­actly what the fo­cal length is, oth­er­wise you’ll just zoom in and then zoom out. It’s more in­stinc­tive to take three steps for­ward and know what I’m go­ing to get when I put the cam­era up to my eye. The qual­ity of those primes is just ex­tra­or­di­nary as well.

Do you have a favourite?

The new 85mm. I was so stag­gered by the jump in qual­ity I had to buy the new ver­sion of the 35mm the following day! I just couldn’t help my­self. The 85mm is long enough – if you’ve got a kid run­ning around you’re still close enough to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with them. On the beach for ex­am­ple I’ll use the 70-200mm f/2.8, but I find the fo­cal range is too far away and I’m just too far back. You have to be able to stay in­volved with who­ever you’re pho­tograph­ing.

What about light­ing? Do you work mostly with the avail­able light?

I used to be en­tirely work­ing with avail­able light, but a cou­ple of years ago I bought one of these LED pan­els. Mostly be­cause I was find­ing you’d go off to a shoot in Novem­ber and it’s rain­ing and you’re in a base­ment flat and that can be pretty chal­leng­ing. So I got one of these LED light­ing pan­els to use if I’m shoot­ing in­doors in the win­ter. I’ll take that along, pop it on day­light to add a lit­tle bit of ex­tra light so I can do a bit of move­ment. If you’re pho­tograph­ing a new­born and a tod­dler, that new­born is go­ing to be very still but the tod­dler is go­ing to be mov­ing all over the place, so you do need a bit of flex­i­bil­ity in the light­ing.

I tend to find kids are at their best first thing straight af­ter break­fast

All your work is in black & white. What are your rea­sons for that?

When you look back at child­hood colour pic­tures there’s no get­ting away from what you’re wear­ing, the neon T-shirts, the fash­ion and hair­styles, but when you look at black and white, that stuff is com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant. All you look at in a black and white pic­ture is ex­pres­sion and emo­tion, ac­tion and re­ac­tion. For the type of work I want to do I think black and white is stronger. I want to be sure the pic­tures I’m tak­ing now fit in with the pic­tures I took 13 years ago and the pic­tures I take in 13 years time. So, I need to have a sim­ple pro­cess­ing tech­nique. I want these pic­tures to be the pic­tures that the kids want to take to univer­sity and hang in their house when they’re adults. Black and white has amaz­ing longevity for that type of thing.

Yes, it’s time­less and doesn’t date as quickly as colour.

Ex­actly. And it looks great!

On your web­site you have sec­tions for New­born, Ba­bies, Chil­dren,

Black and white pic­tures are all about ex­pres­sion and emo­tion, ac­tion and re­ac­tion

Teenagers. Which age do you pre­fer over­all though?

[Laughs] I like them all. The teens I shoot are those I pho­tographed since they were lit­tle and grow­ing up. I had a client this year who said, “I guess this will be the last time now be­cause they’re teenagers”, and I said, “why on earth should that be the last time?” Then she said, “now you say that I re­al­ize how bizarre that sounds, as if I can’t bear to look at my kids, now that they’re teenagers!”

In fact, kids get more and in­ter­est­ing as they grow up. New­borns are great be­cause you’re in this house where there is so much love, hardly any­one has slept and you’ve got this tiny thing that ev­ery­one is fo­cused on. Then you’re pho­tograph­ing a tod­dler and it’s all over the shop; then you’ve got a five-year-old and you can play games and they’ll chat to you and you can do stuff; then you get to the teenagers and you’re talk­ing to these semi-adult peo­ple and they’ve got these ideas and tell you about pol­i­tics.

What’s your ideal fam­ily sit­u­a­tion to pho­to­graph?

My per­fect shoot would be a big fam­ily, at least four kids be­cause I re­ally like the dy­nam­ics of chaos. I like it when there’s loads of stuff go­ing on and there’s plenty

of peo­ple. I thrive on that chal­lenge of never know­ing what’s go­ing to hap­pen in five min­utes time and re­act­ing to it. That’s where I find I get my best pic­tures. I don’t come with a plan, I turn up and see what’s go­ing to hap­pen and run with it.

Do you find the best form of ad­ver­tis­ing is word of mouth?

Def­i­nitely. Peo­ple know then what to ex­pect; they’ve heard you’re nice and you get on with the chil­dren and that you’re fun – all that stuff. More so now be­cause there’s so many pho­tog­ra­phers. I’m lucky be­cause I have a big num­ber of re­peat clients who book a shoot every year, or even mul­ti­ple times a year. About 60 per cent of the peo­ple I see every year are re­peats and then the rest are new peo­ple who build up over time.

Do some leave it longer to re­book to see how the kids have grown?

Ab­so­lutely. On my web­site there are sto­ries where I’ve pho­tographed some chil­dren from new­born to teenagers. So, I have lots of re­peat busi­ness. This is lovely be­cause if peo­ple get into a habit, then you can see each year how the kids are de­vel­op­ing, what they’re in­ter­ested in and just build up these crazy doc­u­ments. Some things will re­peat again and again and other things are a one hit won­der

– a kid might start play­ing vi­olin, then the next year they’re not in­ter­ested in it at all. Then you’ll get an­other who was play­ing with toy he­li­copters when they were one and is now re­ally into avi­a­tion aged 13 and you can see how that in­ter­est has grown. It’s re­ally cool.

It sounds like you’re cre­at­ing a photo bi­ogra­phies for some?

Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. The longer you do it, the more im­por­tant it feels to keep do­ing it.

What has been your most mem­o­rable mo­ment so far?

I would say the mo­ment that sticks most in my mind was pho­tograph­ing a lit­tle boy who didn’t have very long to live. That was pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant photo shoot I’ve ever done, sim­ply be­cause we were tak­ing joy­ful pic­tures to cel­e­brate him and they’re the pic­tures his par­ents have now.

How old was the boy at the time?

He was a baby. Just un­der a year.

If you’re work­ing with kids things will go wrong fairly spec­tac­u­larly

And what has been the most em­bar­rass­ing episode you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced on a photo shoot?

[Laughs] The most em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment was lean­ing back against a book­case while pho­tograph­ing a baby and feel­ing a box fall­ing from above me and then be­ing show­ered by ap­prox­i­mately 3000 con­doms! Then say­ing, “So, not plan­ning an­other?!” It turned out the Mum’s mum was a fam­ily plan­ning nurse. I couldn’t look any­where be­cause there were con­doms ev­ery­where!

Is there much com­pe­ti­tion in fam­ily pho­tog­ra­phy?

There’s def­i­nitely more com­pe­ti­tion out there, but what’s fas­ci­nat­ing about so­cial pho­tog­ra­phy, wed­ding and por­traits is that peo­ple get on very well. If some­thing went wrong and you’d need a help­ing hand some­one might be able to as­sist.

I’ve pho­tographed a cou­ple of wed­dings over the years for peo­ple that couldn’t make it. You think it would be quite cut-throat be­cause ev­ery­one’s af­ter the same work, but in fact there’s a huge amount of cross-re­fer­ring and friend­ship within the so­cial pho­tog­ra­phy world. A lot of my friends are pho­tog­ra­phers. It’s a grow­ing in­dus­try in terms of the num­ber of peo­ple in it, but it’s a shrink­ing in­dus­try in terms of the num­ber of peo­ple who are ac­tu­ally mak­ing a full-time liv­ing out of it.

In that case, what is the best piece of ad­vice you would give to some­one want­ing to start out in your line of work?

Don’t panic! If you’re work­ing with kids things will go wrong fairly spec­tac­u­larly and fairly quickly be­cause it’s kids.

They fall out of trees, they tum­ble over, they do have mas­sive melt­downs, but if you don’t panic then the par­ents can deal with things as they would nor­mally and you can just get back to work­ing quickly and hav­ing fun. I think the at­ti­tude of the photographer is what guides the at­ti­tude of the par­ents and the chil­dren will be guided by the at­ti­tude of their par­ents, espe­cially if they’re very lit­tle.

That’s the thing with kids, they’re volatile be­cause they’re kids. So, if you can re­act to them rather than try­ing to get them to fit with what you’ve planned then you’re go­ing to have a much eas­ier life and get bet­ter pic­tures. So yeah, just don’t panic and be to­tally cool with it.

01 Lens HERE COMES THE SUN He­len’s pref­er­ence for shoot­ing with fast prime lenses at wide aper­tures re­ally help when pro­duc­ing bokeh in this por­trait ex­po­sure Canon EF 50mm f/1.2l USM 1/200 sec, f/2.5, ISO400

03 Lens SPIN­NING AROUND Nearby parks and chil­dren’s play­grounds are top lo­ca­tions for shoots and pro­vide plenty of sub­ject va­ri­ety in one space ex­po­sure Canon EF 35mm f/1.4l USM 1/30 sec, f/13, ISO100 03

02 Lens BE­TWEEN THE BEACH HUTS These beach huts formed a per­fect frame for this can­did mo­ment, shot with a 35mm f/1.4, one of her two favourite lenses ex­po­sure Canon EF 35mm f/1.4l USM 1/1250 sec, f/4, ISO250 02


07 Lens THE BOYS AND THE BUB­BLE He­len prefers big­ger fam­i­lies on her shoots. “I thrive on never know­ing what’s go­ing to hap­pen in five min­utes,” she says ex­po­sure Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8l II USM at 24mm 1/1250 sec, f/3.5, ISO400

05 Lens THE AVI­A­TOR Most clients make re­peat book­ings to doc­u­ment their chil­dren grow­ing up and their chang­ing in­ter­ests and hob­bies ex­po­sure Canon EF 35mm f/1.4l USM 1/250 sec, f/1.4, ISO8000

06 Lens HERE’S LOOK­ING AT YOU All of He­len’s fam­ily pho­tog­ra­phy is shot in black and white, mostly be­cause of the con­ti­nu­ity it al­lows when doc­u­ment­ing kids ex­po­sure Canon EF 100mm f/2.8l Macro IS USM 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO1000 06


08 Lens ex­po­sure 09 Lens SLID­ING SUC­CESS Early morn­ings from 8am on­wards are bet­ter for fam­ily shoots as ev­ery­one is fresh, en­er­getic and ready to have fun! Canon EF 35mm f/1.4l USM 1/1000 sec, f/3.2, ISO1000 ANY­ONE FOR TEN­NIS? Tele­photo zooms are rarely used as He­len likes to be close to have a con­ver­sa­tion with her sub­ject, but there are ex­cep­tions… ex­po­sure Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8l IS USM at 140mm 1/320 sec, f/2.8, ISO320 09


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