We had the pleasure of chatting with Ben about how he got into photography, what it’s like on a shoot with him and his ethos when it comes to retouching.
We read that you trained as an actor. When did your interest in photography begin, and how did you become a professional photographer?
Indeed I did. I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and graduated in 2003. Theatre was always my first love. I used to delight in taking pictures on disposable cameras as a child, and I was always thrilled when they came back, and you could wade through an envelope of strange and wonderful images. Peculiar close-ups of the family dog and abstract motion snaps from the car always featured heavily, but my favourite pursuit was surprising my brother with sudden “from the hip” shots.
I started taking some headshots for a few actor friends and my interest in portrait photography grew from there. I began like many portrait photographers do; in the great outdoors, and then as I grew tired of being battered by the wind and rain, I gravitated towards working in a studio setting.
I have spent my whole life around actors, so taking pictures of them seemed like a very natural thing to do.
What attracted you to headshot and portrait photography?
Well, I have always liked people, they are endlessly fascinating. As an actor, you spend vast amounts of time studying people’s mannerisms and movements, their specific energies and what makes them unique. You start to soak up behaviour and body language. You’re always on the lookout for something that you might be able to feed into a character at some point in the future. I will often meet a strange and wonderful person and think “wow, if I behaved like this on stage people wouldn’t believe it was real!”… so the idea of meeting people from all walks of life, getting to chat to them, seeing what they’re about and then trying to capture that essence on camera is wonderful. I can honestly say I have never had two shoots that were the same. This is a marvellous thing. You can’t get bored.
Many of your clients are entertainers. Do you feel your acting background helps you cater for their needs?
I do! Yes! It’s a scary old business having your picture taken. I have had my own headshots done on numerous occasions so I have a good idea of some of the things that are swimming around an actor’s head. For me, the big thing is making the whole experience as chilled and stress-free as possible, and also not doing any of the curious things that have been done to me in a headshot session. I once went for some headshots, and the first thing the photographer said to me was: “Hmmm, big nose, small eyes, foppish hair, this is going to be very difficult!!” Outrageous! I then felt most ill at ease for the rest of the shoot.
Headshots are a big deal for actors. A good headshot can make all the difference. So my number one aim is to take the pressure away. Make the shoot about getting an excellent portrait of them as the human being they are. Most good actors are interesting by default. You just have to let them be themselves.
“You never know what someone is going to bring to the table, so it’s always exciting.”
How do you prepare for a shoot, and what’s your favourite part of the process?
Hmm, good question. Prep is vital for me, I think. I like to have everything ready. Everything. You never really know what curveballs will be thrown your way, but if all your equipment is ready and your mind is clear, then you’re in a good position to deal with whoever comes through the door.
If I know a little about the client, then I might have a palette of canvas set up ready to go or perhaps a specific selection of chairs/furniture if I know what kind of vibe they are after. I usually serve mint tea, so I have that brewing and ready to pour on arrival. I really don’t like to rush and I find people need time to relax into the studio space and find their feet. This is much easier with a good brew.
My favourite part of the shoot is easy! The initial meeting and chinwag. This can be anywhere from 15 mins to an hour, depending on how long it takes someone to feel relaxed. Some people need to get moving, talk outfits and get amongst it, whilst others need half an hour to chat theatre and what’s happening on the continent. Everyone has different needs. It’s also the time you can start to work out how you might shoot somebody. How their face works, their range of gesture and generally how expressive they are. I love this bit! You never know what someone is going to bring to the table, so it’s always exciting.
Talk us through your equipment setup on a typical shoot.
I keep things relatively simple for a portrait session. I mainly work with a 150cm Octabox as key and fill with one or two 4ft umbrellas. I then throw in a V-flat depending on the mood we are after, and I use various modifiers for the odd kicker or to light the backdrop. I almost always veer on the side of simplicity, though. Furniture is key to me. Deportment and energy changes radically depending on what someone is seated on. I think a lot of clients don’t realise how much difference it makes. Some folk utterly transform when you take them off a high stool and give them a leather wingback to lounge in…
“Even the most camera-shy have masses to offer. You just have to find a way in.”
How do you capture photos that have personality and depth?
This is the challenging bit. Everyone is interesting. Everyone is unique. Even the most camera-shy have masses to offer. You just have to find a way in. This is one of the main reasons I only shoot one client a day, as you never really know how long it is going to take and how long someone might need to open up.
I chat the whole time I shoot, and I try as gently as possible to find out what makes the subject tick. Their hopes, dreams, values, and politics are all of great interest to me, and once you get someone on a topic they care about, interesting things start to happen. When people start to talk about the things that matter to them, their whole demeanour shifts and all sorts of wonderful things can come out of it. I will then throw in little splashes of posing which will probably have been inspired by little things that the sitter has done during one of these expressive moments.
I usually take some simple, tighter shots at the end of the session. This can yield some nice results, and when it’s good, you feel like you have really earned those moments of stillness. This isn’t for everyone, of course! Some people just like to kick back and be directed. So the art is working out how they work best as quickly as possible.
My favourite theatre director always used to tell me: “Support the actor, that’s 90% of the job,” and I think it applies to portrait photography too. How can you work best to support your subject within the context of your style and approach? Work it out, then support them.
“I want to capture and present someone as close to the real them as possible.”
What kind of retouching do you do on your headshots?
On the whole, my ethos is to try and make people look as natural and as like themselves as possible. So when it comes to retouching, the bulk of the work is on the colour grading side of things. I tinker away blemishes, dry skin, misbehaving wisps of hair and other non-permanent distractions but I don’t get involved in the world of heavy skin smoothing and altering the actual structure of a person. There is a huge amount of pressure on people these days to look a certain way and not just in the entertainment industry. I want to capture and present someone as close to the real them as possible. You are enough. More than enough. As you are.
How did you discover Affinity Photo, and what inspired you to start using it?
I think I kept seeing the hashtag “made in Affinity,” and eventually, it piqued my interest. I’d only ever used Lightroom and Photoshop in the past, but I’m always on the lookout for different bits of software that might help me approach a photo from a different angle. I then saw that a couple of photographers who I admire were championing Affinity, so I thought I should wade in!
It can be easy to get in the habit of retouching images in the same way, always using the same tricks and techniques, so hopping on a new bit of software can shake things up a bit. There’s always a learning curve, but it was pretty smooth with Affinity.
Do you have any favourite features?
LUTS. LUTS. Did I mention LUTS? These bring me an endless amount of joy. Sometimes they are a vital part of building up the depth of colour for an image, and sometimes I use them as a quick finisher for a portrait that’s working for me but still isn’t quite right. I’d love to say that I always know the right way to go when I’m editing an image, but sometimes I just like to roll the creative dice and see what happens. LUTS enable me to quickly see an image in a different light, and it almost always gets me back on track.
If you could photograph anyone past or present, who would it be?
Well, this IS a tough one. So my instinct is to say 2Pac. I’m a huge fan of 90’s hip-hop and 2Pac’s album All Eyes On Me has to be one of the greatest rap albums of all time. He not only had a great face, but he was very political, had amazing energy as a performer, and I bet he would have some stories to tell too. I’m told he appreciated a wide range of music styles as well. Music plays a huge part in my shoots, so I would relish the opportunity to share favourite albums with him. I’d play him some Vulfpeck and see what his stance on modern geek funk is…