David Handley’s take on kids photography, digital transformation, photography courses and more [interview]
By Ugo Bresolin
Meet David Handley – an award-winning photographer based in London. His specialisation in children and baby photography for fashion and advertising campaigns earned him a solid reputation in the creative industry, as well as international prizes such as the Sony World Fashion Photography Award. Read David’s story from playing in a makeshift photo studio as a child to working for brands like Disney, Lego, Nestle, Ralph Lauren and Marks & Spencer, to name just a few.
Production Paradise: You grew up in a family who highly valued artistic expressions such as photography. How much growing up in an artistic environment shaped your career’s aspirations?
David Handley: My father is a talented artist and an art and photography teacher. He had a huge influence, as he largely changed my career through his love of photography. We would visit art galleries and museums all over the UK, which exposed me to the greatest artists from an early age and created a broad cultural base on which I have built my own work. He often painted at home and turned our living room into a makeshift photographic studio. He would use home-made lights and equipment to take portraits of family, friends and neighbours. A small upstairs room was converted into a darkroom where I would help him develop his black & white prints. Gently rocking the chemical-filled trays I would marvel at the magic of a blank piece of paper turning into an image. I think that witnessing this process of creating a photograph from inception to finished product fired my imagination and desire to become a photographer.
Production Paradise: Your photography has a very distinctive style while at the same time stays current and edgy. What is your main source of inspiration?
David Handley: I try to capture what I see and feel. I love finding a picture within a scene or a person, rather than having a prefixed idea and trying to stage a scene. Improvising and adapting to a situation is the best way of creating a natural photograph. My inspiration comes from many sources but mostly from observing scenes of life as they unfold around me. For instance, I once saw a man on the London Underground carrying a large yellow surfboard; this image was so wacky and unique that it later became the springboard for a fashion story that I shot the following year.
Art is also a strong inspiration, in particular works using experimental media. On my bookshelves, there are publications by Picasso, Hockney, David Bailey, Bill Brandt, Ansel Adams, Sally Mann, Martin Parr, Robert Doisneau, Tim Walker to name but a few.
Production Paradise: Capturing the decisive moment that brings emotions into a picture is an aspect of paramount importance for any photographer, and children are so unpredictable! Tell us more about your approach to children’s photography.
David Handley: I like to portray children as children in dynamic and natural poses. My best pictures capture them doing what they want to do, with me as an attentive observer that captures spontaneous moments. Putting the child at ease and forgetting the camera is key to this. In my online course, I share my methods for getting the best out of child models. Patience, adaptability and the ability to improvise are the main attributes for photographing children.
Commercial shoots are more structured. My team helps to guide the children in order to meet the clients’ brief and recreate the brand’s image.
Production Paradise: You have been chosen by global brands such as Ralph Lauren or Marks & Spencer and your fashion editorials have been published in some of the best kids’ fashion magazines – how did you manage to build such an impressive list of clients?
David Handley: Photographing for global brands and magazines was the outcome of building a reputation and portfolio over many years. Fostering working relationships, maintaining contacts in the business and consistently living up to clients’ expectations generates more work.
Production Paradise: Your talent has been recognised in many international competitions, such as in the Sony World Photography Awards. How do you see these recognitions?
David Handley: Having won the Sony World Fashion Photography Award, I was delighted and it did open a few doors, although I wouldn’t say that it changed my career significantly. Last year, I entered more competitions, submitting a story I had wanted to shoot for many years: “Best friends forever”. It’s a tale of a boy and his best friend, a penguin, who do regular things together like having a water pistol fight in the back garden or laughing together on their way to school.
The story was very successful and gave me the opportunity to have full creative control and experiment with Photoshop to merge images, after having photographed the boy and penguin separately. I hope to do more work like this in the future.
It is rewarding to receive recognition and praise from one’s peers. Competitions help to keep photography alive as an art. There is a danger of becoming too focused on the commercial side of things and focusing on a personal project reinvigorates my creativity.
Production Paradise: We live in an era where digital retouching has acquired an important role, especially when it comes to commercial photography. What is your approach in this matter?
David Handley: Digital has transformed the business. Analogue photography was a highly technical art form which took years of training and experience to master. Shooting with film required precision and I always shot using slide film so there was no room for error. Exposure, colour and lighting had to be perfect and there was an additional skill in instructing the labs how to develop each roll.
All this has changed in the digital age, when you can take a picture and be two stops out with your exposure and then just alter the brightness with the click of a button on a computer. What has been gained in practicality has been lost in craftsmanship.
Digital, however, is marvellous and makes a professional photographer’s life easier but has opened the doors for less skilled photographers. It’s nearly as if computer skills are overshadowing photographic skills now. I feel like the medium has been devalued to a degree.
Personally, I have embraced digital photography and its advantages, especially commercially. However, out of habit from shooting film, I still get accurate exposure, lighting and colour and just do minor adjustments on a computer. Old habits die hard!
Production Paradise: Other than working as professional photographer, you run an online course on children photography and have also lectured at the Central St. Martins University of Arts in London. Given your experience, what do you think is the role of photography schools today? Is there something only established institutions can teach?
David Handley: There is a huge interest in photography now. Social media has turned everybody into a photographer and there is an endless supply of online lectures and courses for developing photographic skills. However, I do think that if you want to learn online you should choose an interactive course, such as my own, which provides personal feedback and tailor-made advice based on your assignments.
There is, nonetheless, a limit to what you can learn from a course. Established online tutorials and art colleges are best but beyond this, you can only develop your own style and improvement from experience.
Production Paradise: How is Production Paradise helping you in reaching a larger audience?
David Handley: Marketing in today’s competitive business environment is essential, especially online. Production Paradise is an invaluable marketing tool which enables professionals to reach a worldwide audience. It continues to give me an opportunity to show my work to an audience who I couldn’t reach any other way.
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