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Jon Busby: ‘ultimately a camera is a means to an end; for me, that end is to create an emotional connection’

Talented portrait and hat photographer Jon Busby of The Portrait Kitchen chats to us about his path into photography, what happens behind the scenes on a typical shoot and his thoughts on using Affinity Photo for iPad for retouching.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you developed an interest in photography.

Thank you for inviting me to be featured on Affinity Spotlight. My name is Jon Busby and I am based in the Midlands, UK, where I shoot from my home studio, AKA our kitchen. I also travel to clients. I do millinery/hat photography and increasingly, portraits and headshots. With my wife Anjee, we created The Portrait Kitchen, which kind of does what it says. Our studio is pop-up and when not shooting, it just looks like a kitchen.

I have been photographing in a serious way for six years or so, and I am self-taught. I’m not full-time and pay the bills working in a factory, which means I get 40 hours a week to prioritise and recharge and not think about photography. I used to have a job in IT sales where I was paid a large salary, but I never enjoyed it. A couple of years ago, I left that world, trading in the large salary for a more simple relaxed life, which would allow me to do more of what I really wanted to do.

I have always had an interest in visuals rather than words. I think I always wanted to be a photographer, but I say that in the sense that as a boy, I wanted to be a professional footballer or Formula 1 racing driver. My Dad used to get The Sunday Times every weekend, and I’d always go straight to the magazine to marvel at the photography. Album covers were a big influence on me. One album, in particular, a personal favourite, is ‘Pretenders II’ and the album cover is a very good portrait of the band. I used to look at it as a kid and think: “I’d like to do photographs like that.”

When I was young, I had an SLR, a Pentax M1, and it was fine, but I never warmed to film, as it was such a laborious and expensive process. There are purists who still swear by film, but I just don’t see the benefits. Digital changed everything for me because it gave me immediacy.

“There are purists who still swear by film, but I just don’t see the benefits. Digital changed everything for me because it gave me immediacy.”

My first digital camera was a Nikon D40. I then went to a D7100, and a D600 and have now settled on the D800. I tend to shoot with either the Nikon 50mm or 85mm f/1.8’s, although I very rarely have the aperture wide open. I also use a Fuji X-T1 with its famous 27mm pancake lens, but that is mainly just for street photography.

What attracted you to portrait and millinery photography?

My attraction to portraiture was simply because I find people fascinating. No two faces are the same and any one face has an infinite number of expressions. I also enjoy interacting with people, so when I am taking a portrait, I use conversation to help break down any barriers or nervousness they may have about being photographed.

All my working life, for some reason, people have always opened up to me, even confided in me. Talking enables a sitter to relax and talk about their interests. I try to latch onto that to expand the conversation. If you are overbearing as a photographer, that can make a sitter become withdrawn. Ultimately a camera is a means to an end, and that end is, for me, to create an emotional connection.

“No two faces are the same and any one face has an infinite number of expressions.”

Millinery photography was one of those serendipity moments. Anjee knew someone who owned a hat factory that was closing down. Initially, the plan was to catalogue their hats as a historical reference. I knew nothing about hats and stumbled across some styles of couture hand-made one-off pieces. They were stunning works of art and craft. I did some more market research on hat photography via Google, and no one was really specialising in it.

I realised that most hat images were taken with the hat on a stand, and I felt that was very limiting. It also meant there was a market opportunity. I believed that putting hats on a model would bring them to life, give them a context and make them desirable to a milliner’s client. Essentially, what I was doing was bringing portrait techniques to hats. I also realised that a lot of hat photography was full length and the hats occupied only a small part of the composition. I decided to make the hat dominate the image using a tight crop. The models I use tend to be quite moody and intense in character, coupled with magnetic looks. I do this to draw the viewer in. We have been very fortunate and now have clients not only in the UK but also in Europe and the US.

Can you give us a little insight ‘behind the scenes’ on a typical photoshoot with you?

A portrait shoot will usually take an hour, maybe two. Around a third of what I do is pre-planned in terms of lighting, composition, colour etc… Another third is what the client particularly wants. The remaining third is the most exciting part: what we create as we interact. I don’t want everything perfect and over-engineered. A technically great photo is nothing without emotion, and only humans interacting can create that. I see a lot of headshots where the sitter has been “corporatized”, looks robotic, lacks empathy and therefore creates no connection. For me, the whole point of a headshot is to create an emotional connection.

Often, the camera can be seen as a barrier to expression by the client. I almost always shoot on a tripod and usually with an old-school cable. This means I don’t have to lean into the viewfinder. Once you lean in, the sitter, especially if they are nervous, will get tense. The way I shoot they don’t know when the shutter will click.

“A technically great photo is nothing without emotion, and only humans interacting can create that.”

A hat shoot is usually longer, around 2-3 hours. There is a fair bit of WhatsApping prior, so all understand the brief. The client usually attends to place the hats and enjoys the experience of being at their own photoshoot. They can also give creative input. It is what I call “glamorous chaos,” but I think the fact that we do this in our home makes the client feel like they are visiting a friend. Anjee manages the schedule and styling.

Kit wise, apart from the Nikon, I typically use a 120cm octabox in close, with a Yongnuo speedlight. Because we are in a small space, I don’t need a lot of flash power. I go low on ISO, close the aperture to say f/16, shutter speed at say 1/125 to remove the ambient light and then fill back in with the flash. I tend to use just one flash and a white reflector.

What kind of retouching do you do on your images?

I normally shoot about 150 images at a session in RAW. I then import them into Lightroom on my iPad. I use Lightroom for digital asset management (DAM) and initial edits like colour correction and maybe cropping, but I don’t use Photoshop.

For the images that I want to retouch, I export them over to Affinity Photo for iPad. I don’t use Affinity Photo desktop, simply because I don’t like desktops or laptops. The whole point of a tablet is to provide a more ergonomic experience.

The goal is always to get as much right as possible in-camera. I use the Inpainting Brush Tool a lot for removing any artefacts, like the odd flyaway hair, temporary blemish or stray thread on a hat. I use the Curves adjustment and a number of macros that other users have created, such as dodge and burn, but I am very light touch with retouching. My job is to capture who the person really is. With a hat image, I may be a bit more creative and play around with the Colour Balance adjustment. The one thing I use a lot is LUTs, especially those created by Ivan Weiss.

How did you discover Affinity Photo, and what inspired you to start using it?

I think all photographers are constantly pursuing the photo editing holy grail app. I think I first came across Affinity Photo in an article as an alternative to Adobe’s subscription model. I don’t have a problem with their subscription model, but where Affinity really caught my attention was their iPad offering. My end goal is to be 100% camera and iPad. We are nearly there, but not quite. We just need someone to create a robust tethering solution.

Why do you prefer editing on your iPad?

It suits me ergonomically. I can edit easily on a train, sofa or in a café. But for the work I do, it is not just about the iPad but also about the Apple Pencil. I was never comfortable with a Wacom. I know a lot of people swear by them, but for me, the Pencil was a game-changer.

How do you feel Affinity Photo compares to other editing software for the iPad?

On the desktop, Affinity Photo is broadly similar to Photoshop. On the iPad, Photoshop is not in the same league as Affinity Photo. I used Photoshop for iPad when it came out, mainly because I wanted the unity of Lightroom and Photoshop. Of course, Photoshop users went crazy with the initial launch, as it was so limited. To be fair to Adobe, it was an initial version but what surprised me more was the slow pace of development since then. It felt like they saw their iPad offering as peripheral.

“On the desktop, Affinity Photo is broadly similar to Photoshop. On the iPad, Photoshop is not in the same league as Affinity Photo.”

I also find Affinity Photo very snappy, especially as I still use a first-generation iPad Pro, now over six years old. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like on an M1.

Like all software, there is a learning curve, but again, the ergonomics of an iPad make that much easier. I have probably only explored ten percent of the app and I’m looking forward to the remaining ninety.

What features/tools in Affinity Photo do you find most useful?

Did I mention LUTs?! I love how I can have done my edits and then can drop a LUT in, just out of curiosity. It helps that Ivan Weiss has a similar mood of image style and feel to me. The Inpainting Brush is probably my first go-to tool.

When you have time, you like to play around/experiment on images not chosen by the client. Are there any new tips or tricks you’ve learnt recently that have made a difference to your workflow?

Always duplicate your background layer. Generally, I will have a layer for specific things such as hair and eyes.

By default, Affinity Photo locks the canvas position, but you can unlock it to rotate the canvas. This makes retouching with the Apple Pencil even more intuitive, especially around tricky areas like eyebrows or intricate hats.

When using dodge and burn, the temptation is to zoom in, but dodge and burn is better done zoomed out. I also use a very low flow, one or two percent, so that I can build the effect gradually.

Also, I adjust opacity a lot more these days than I did when I started. It is a very underrated and simple tool. My main tip though, is to experiment and find what works for you. You always have the ‘undo’ to tap.

In terms of new things, I have been exploring a macro for luminosity masks as well as bringing in text and using masking tools. Once you understand the power of masks they can be transformative.

I’d also recommend following Bethany Acorn on YouTube. She does great tutorials about Affinity Photo for iPad.

Who or what inspires you creatively?

My clients, be they a milliner or someone wanting a portrait. I love that creative collaboration. In terms of photographers, Marco Grob, who shows the power of close-in compositions. Iggy Pardo is someone I started following recently.

I have a favourite quote by photographer Paul Caponigro: “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”

I take a lot of inspiration from music, all kinds of music. I can play something like Olafur Arnalds, Agnes Obel or Nils Frahm, and I start creating compositions in my head. I feel a strong connection between sound and visuals.

Do you have a favourite photo out of all the ones you’ve taken? Could you tell us about it?

Yes. Ironically it was also one of the most technically poor portraits I have ever taken. I was taking portraits at a law centre. I was quite naïve and not that technically expert. The sitter looked a bit like John Lydon and walked in. We took 5-10 photos and he then left. It was all over in a few minutes. But I shot him close up on a Fuji X100T, which has a 23mm lens. For that type of portrait, I should have been 50mm or above. But what made the shot work for me was not the gear, but the emotion of the sitter. It also demonstrates that throwing the portrait playbook out of the window is not always a bad thing.

In terms of hats, probably the one I took of a piece called Kizzy, made by Donna Hartley Millinery. Donna makes amazingly bold hats, and that one ended up on the cover of a catalogue and billboard when Donna’s work and my images were exhibited for a year at Museu da Chapelaria in Portugal.

Lastly, what are your future aspirations? What would you like to achieve in the next five years?

I tend to go with the flow and like it when opportunities appear out of nowhere. I would like to be doing photography full-time, perhaps even doing one-to-one training for people who want to go in this direction but want a human-to-human interaction rather than YouTube videos.

“I’d also like my photography to continue to slightly frighten me and make me feel vulnerable because that generates courage, and courage is when we become our creative best. You can submit to fear and get in line, or you can embrace it and do your best work.”

I’d also like my photography to continue to slightly frighten me and make me feel vulnerable because that generates courage, and courage is when we become our creative best. You can submit to fear and get in line, or you can embrace it and do your best work. I don’t want to become stale and start to take the easy shot, nor do I want to copy other people’s styles. I don’t mind being influenced by others, but I am here to try and make my own individual mark.

In five years’ time, I will be in my sixties, so I’d like to be a kind of role model for others who, like me, have come to portrait photography later in their life.

To see more of Jon’s portrait and millinery photography, visit his website or follow @the_portrait_kitchen on Instagram.