Portraiture and model photography are popular categories amongst photographers, mainly because there is so much room for creativity. They allow photographers to experiment with an array of lighting, location and styling setups. However, with all these options available, things can sometimes get a little... complicated. Shots start to get lost in over-production, resulting in messy and unappealing images.
Thom Bartley understands this, and knows when to use techniques sparingly. His refreshingly simple approach to photography makes for a clean and uncomplicated image, which screams quality. His no nonsense attitude towards his craft has allowed him to block out the noise and focus on creating high-grade images with only the essentials.
We caught up with Thom to find out more about his style of Photography, how he works with his models, and why his approach to photography is a lot like Karate...
Where are you from?
I’m from Wolverhampton but spend a lot of my time working in Birmingham in the UK.
When/how did you get into photography?
I was a relatively late starter. I went travelling around Asia when I was 23 and before I went I thought it would be a good idea to get a “proper camera” so I could grab some decent images whilst I was travelling about. I bought myself a starter Nikon DSLR and I still remember that I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a lens on the camera when I first took it out the box, that’s how little I knew about photography and cameras at the time. Over time I practiced more and more and found myself leaning towards portraiture as my primary focus, I’m completely self taught so I just figure things out as I go along.
Tell is about your style of photography?
Portraiture mainly, although I do like to do a bit of street photography when I get the chance to go anywhere interesting. My style mainly revolves around simplicity. I like simple outfits, block colours and clean minimal editing. In general I like to let the personality and style of the model come through as opposed to imposing my own concepts too strongly.
People put way too much emphasis into gear and "doing things correctly"
What camera equipment are you currently using and why?
Sticking with the theme of minimalism, I keep things simple. I use a full frame Nikon DSLR and a 50mm f/1.4 lens 90% of the time. In the studio I have a pair of Bowens strobes, again though my setup is simple, my studio is literally just a pair of lights and a backdrop I’ve put up in my tiny garage. People put way too much emphasis into gear and “doing things correctly”. If I paid attention to all the guides on the net that told me how I had to set up a studio or shoot on location I’d never do anything.
I had a photography student come to do work experience with me once and she deﬁnitely had more technical knowledge than me. I just click the shutter and focus on the photographer / model relationship as opposed to technique.
With regards to equipment I’d say that it’s hard to buy a bad camera nowadays, if anyone is thinking of getting into photography and think that they can’t because the equipment is too expensive don’t let that put you off. If I had to do my job with a 10 year old DSLR that cost £100 off eBay I deﬁnitely could. Just get out and shoot.
Where are you getting inspiration/influence for your images?
I don’t really have any big name influences. When I first started I used to look at peoples work on places like 500px, Instagram and all the usual places and think that was cool, but in general I’m not a huge fan at looking at other people’s work. Either it’s good and I hate it because I’m jealous, or it’s bad and I hate it because I hate bad photography.
However, just to shout out a few local photographers: I’m always impressed with Matt Leach’s studio work and emphasis on concepts and collaborating with make up artists to get cool shots. As someone who rarely collaborates with anyone and doesn’t put a lot of time into planning shoots he stands out as someone who’s planning actually pays off in his final images. I’m also impressed by the work of George Davies, Levi Thomas and Daisy Denham who do some really nice simple location work which suits my taste.
I’m just looking for someone who has a strong look and has the confidence in front of a camera
Tell us about the process behind finding/selecting models to work with, how you work with them, and what planning is involved before shooting.
I live in Birmingham and although there’s a decent selection of models here. It’s no LA or London, so sourcing good models is always a tough job. I’m very selective on who I shoot nowadays which means sometimes I’ll only shoot once a month, if I can’t find anybody good, I don’t shoot. I see a lot of talented photographers around here shoot models who I believe aren’t up to standard and they do themselves a disservice by bringing down the overall quality of their work. That may sound harsh but to me I never think it’s a good idea to shoot just because you’re bored.
I find most of my models either through Instagram or through agencies getting in touch with me and sending me models to test. I’m never too fussed about experience, I’m just looking for someone who has a strong look and has the confidence in front of a camera. I’m always also looking for models who have ideas and treat this business professionally. If you’re a bad communicator or are unreliable I’m not interested in working with you. I’ll also often shoot models more than once if I like working with them. As a general rule my first shoot with a model will be a straightforward studio shoot and then once I know how she works and what kind of vibe she gives off I’ll often do a follow up shoot which I can plan out more effectively due to my knowledge of what’s going to work best with her.
As far as planning goes it’s usually pretty straight forward. I’ll often put together a look book based on what I feel like shooting combined with what I think will work with the model’s look and then ask them to contribute any ideas they may have. After that I tell models to pack as much as possible so we have lots of options to play around with on the shoot and just wing it on the day.
In Karate you learn techniques and moves and it’s all really complex... Over time you learn to take these techniques and distil them down. The same applies to photography
Tell us about your philosophy of how to shoot great images.
Don’t over-complicate things. Get a good model, concentrate on the basics of composition and don’t mess around too much in the edit. Also be aware of things that are completely overdone for example shooting against graffitied backdrops or in derelict buildings and don’t do them. I also don’t like images that don’t make contextual sense so if I see a shot of a girl in lingerie standing in the middle of a forest or the street I just think the image looks stupid because it makes no sense.
I used to teach Karate, and in Karate you learn all these techniques and moves and it’s all really complex. Over time you learn to take all these techniques and distil them down and take only what you need in order to perform effectively. The same applies to photography. You can spend your time getting caught up trying to force in all these techniques and end up with overworked images. Once you learn to only use what you need and not overdo things just because you can I feel your work becomes a lot stronger.
What are you using to edit your images?
Lightroom 99% of the time and occasionally Photoshop when I need to do something a bit more tricky. I also use programs that apply filters / presets to shots so I can consistently batch process a large selection of shots. I often edit up hundreds of shots from one shoot so to individually tweak each one isn’t viable with time constraints, therefore often I adjust exposure, black / white levels and highlights on the raw files and then use a preset to batch process everything.
What do you do when you’re not shooting?
Lots of things. At the moment I’m doing a lot of commercial videography for various clients. I also work with Impact Hub Birmingham and TEDxBrum, as well as a bit of general design and branding work. When I’m not working I’ll be found watching documentaries or sitting around in my underwear binging on YouTube.
Do you have a favourite image that you've taken?
Not really and if I picked one I can guarantee that in a few weeks time I’ll have changed my mind and looking back at my choice here will irritate me. One image I’m fond of though is this picture of two children playing in a boat that I took on the island of Palawan in the Philippines a few years back. It’s different to my usual work, but something always draws me back to it.
Discover more of Thom Bartley's work: