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
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