This week I welcome Bella West. Bella West is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Dorset, England. She has been a professional photographer for over 15 years and is recognised as one of the UK's leading photographers in her field. In 2008 she was awarded the most prestigious and respected accolade, that of Fellowship in not one, but two of the leading professional bodies - the British Institute of Professional Photography and the Master Photographers Association - one of only a handful of females to be recognised at this level. Bella definitely has a signature style that her clients love. I am a huge fan of Bella's work, she is a true master of light, composition and capturing the true emotions of the people she photographs.
It's a brilliant interview. Enjoy it and I look forward to your comments.
Tell us a little bit about Bella?
I have been a photographer for the past fifteen years, my grounding was with as an apprentice with a sports photographer.Essentially this wasn’t the area I wanted to work in but to I was given an opportunity just to use a camera and work alongside someone who can advise on composition and the technical aspects. I worked for this photographer, for below minimum wage for three years whilst also attending Bournemouth Art College in the week. At the time I wasn’t sure where this was going to take me or if indeed i would be able to use the skills learnt with him within the area that i eventually worked within. HOwever, in hindsight I realise that the skills I honed have been influential in the way that I compose and see pictures now. It gave me the ability to think on my feet, to have eyes in the back of my head and to get a split second exposure at exactly the right time. All this is relevant in my work today so I am hugely grateful for the time I spent here.
Once my own business was developed, within the wedding industry (again, how or what on earth am i doing photographing weddings?!) and over the past eight years I have been under the guidance of Kevin Wilson who has encouraged my style and created finesse in my work through his teaching of controlling light - I think this, has given definition to my work and without it, yes I would be doing ok, but it has allowed me to put a very firm stamp on my own style and thus now I can market my own very particular way of working to a very definitive market place. I knew from very early on in my career, the importance of having a signature style, otherwise - who are you marketing to? I wanted to know who my clients were so I could point at them. I also knew that quality reigns above all - the best marketing too you have, is your work - and I mean the final presentation: the album, the framed print, that is the last thing that your clients walk away with - at that point, they have no interest in the fonts you have used on your website, the music, the colour, the hype - at this point that is irrelevant, they have in their hands your biggest advert.
Three years ago, I attained Fellowship with the BIPP with a panel of social images (wedding and portrait) and with the MPA (environmental portraits of children). This has been by far the hardest journey I have had to take with my work, but by far the most rewarding and has opened doors and invited opportunities that have made my business stronger.
Like a lot of women (and perhaps men), I lose confidence very easily and I very rarely look at my work with great satisfaction (I don’t think this is a bad trait) - but when I layed my 20 childrens portraits out before they were judged, I thought, this is where I want to be with my work and now I can take this forward. It has given me the confidence to speak up about what I do.
Financially, I have never been driven, I get a great buzz from an idea for an image and it is never in my mind to think about how much money it is going to be worth - in fact, I believe the two run hand in hand - people will pay for individuality and passion in a picture.
Marketing - all done through my website- I occasionally place a paper ad (always full page) for my portrait days, but my wedding work is purely through word of mouth and the web.
I run my own school of environmental portraiture workshops, two day residentials which has been hugely popular a lot of learning, a lot of fun and a lot of amazing food!
Where is home? Home is beautiful Shaftesbury set admist the amazing Blackmore Vale, Dorset, ENGLAND! I have just opened a new gallery, a great space to hang my work and meet clients. Having been working from home for fifteen years, decided it was time to grow up!
If you could live anywhere on this awesome planet where would you build your dream home? On the coast, within reach of the hills. England of course!
What is your current state of mind before we continue with the interview? I am in my pyjamas , so not quite got my professional head on this morning. Tea will sort me out! I am currently writing a masterclass which I am taking for the the BIPP in a couple of weeks. I like to work early.
Did you go to school to study photography? Bournemouth college of Art and Design - alongside the school of life, far more beneficial. My work/business was transformed by the amazing Kevin Wilson.
How long have you been a photographer? Fifteen years
How long have you been a wedding photographer? Twelve years
What or who got you started in wedding photography? I think my father is to blame essentially. I was dabbling in weddings having spent three years working for a sports photographer. I did a very small wedding for a friend and came home with some images which didn’t fit to my normal criteria - there was more of a design and it kind of moved me. I had been shooting very much from the hip for much of my work - not because I particularly wanted to but because that was all I knew. I had a secret passion for classical imagery - that was very uncool at the time! So, anyway, I showed my father one of the images and he was blown away - even questioned whether I had actually taken it! Such faith! He was a very creative man so this was a great compliment. He told me to put the image up for an award, there was no way I was going to put myself forward to be critiqued ! Two days later my father died, very suddenly and unexpectedly.
What better way to make him proud - I entered my first MPA competition and won, that gave me the confidence to begin and follow a dream.
How would you describe your style? Sensitive, quirky, graphic, personal.
How many weddings do you average per year? 25
Do you have a few recent images you can share with us?
What type of cameras do you shoot with? Hasselblad H2 with P25 digi back and D2x Nikon
What is your favourite photography accessory, other than your camera? Imagination and god’s light
If you had to choose one lens which one would it be and why? 100 mm Hasselblad
What lighting equipment do you take on a shoot? What ever the big man decides to do on that day. Lastolite reflectors
Can you describe how and when you use flash, video light, reflectors and natural light during a wedding? Flash is on the camera only for when the couple are leaving the ceremony and perhaps first dance if necessary. I use reflectors if I have time - I do feel they can lift an image to another level. There is an element of skill in using reflectors ie I will often use a very dark location such as barns which may only have one light source from the door. Throwing light in from outside can have amazing results and get you out of trouble - it then has to be moulded to flatter the subject. Reflectors have saved my butt a few times, but they are fiddly to use and if not careful, you will lose the moment through concentrating.
What is your favourite computer/editing accessory, other than your computer? My projector.
How important is Photoshop in your final images? Important for me to view my images. to crop and to do minor alternations. I use it sparingly.
What is your most used Photoshop tool, plug-in, action set etc.? Crop tool
Are you a MAC or PC lover? Mac - they both have their uses.
Do you plan on buying any new equipment and if so what do you have your eyes on? I am very happy with my gear. I have to have good reason to change. Perhaps D3 when I grow up.
I finally feel I have mastered my Crash-Art workflow, can you briefly describe for the readers your photographic workflow after a wedding?
Download in Capture One, backup, edit down probably two or three times - less is more, i don’t like to give too much choice. Back up final edit. Output to jpeg, open each in PS then close them! Viewing to clients with ProSelect via projection in the gallery.
I use Queensberry albums, what wedding albums do you supply your clients with and do you design them yourself or outsource the design?
I am very loyal to my suppliers - we look after each other. I have just completed a fine art album with Albums Australia with my portraits. I design all my own albums, would never outsource anything. Control freak Bella...
How do you feel about cropping an image?
Essentially, cropping is done in camera but I always allow for extra breathing space. Always allow space when shooting.
I choose photographers for these interviews because their work inspires me and gets my creative juices flowing, hence the interview. What gives you ideas and inspires you to create such amazing imagery? Without doubt, the value of a photograph should never be underestimated - my children continually remind me of that. A photograph is always unique, a moment in time like no other. I have a real understanding of the importance of creating emotive memories. Music - if I am looking for a particular image idea - I run with my ipod.
What has been your most memorable assignment and why? Working towards my Fellowship has really been life changing. Failing my Fellowship first time around was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It is a great leveller and I now have a great understanding, that having ideas and imagination is one thing - building on those ideas is quite another and only when you have grasped the fundamentals of good classical photography can you go forward and execute those images. There are no short cuts.
If you could shoot a wedding with someone who would it be and why? I like to shoot alone generally - in another world - Peter Webber (director Girl with Pearl Earring) and if James Nachwey were to dip his toe into wedding photography, they would make for interesting observations.
Do you have an assistant/2nd shooter that accompanies you on wedding assignments? No.
How many images do you average per wedding and how many do you usually present to your clients? Shoot between 4 and 500 - present around 300-400
Where would be your dream destination wedding? Perhaps somewhere where there are some interesting characters - I am going to Rwanda later in the year - perhaps something very raw and unpretentious where there is love and not much else.
How do you make the bride and groom, bridal party etc… feel relaxed in front of your Hasselblad? I am quiet, leave them alone with some gentle cajoling and tweaking when necessary. I don’t buy into jumping up and down and creating false emotion.
Have you ever had anything go wrong at a wedding and if so, how did you handle it? Nothing goes wrong on my weddings!!
if it did - if in doubt, humour prevails.
What are your favourite three images you have shot recently? Can you describe their creation in regards to location, lighting, composition, camera settings etc, also your thoughts when creating the images and what they mean to you?
I shot this in Spain a couple of weeks ago - I like long grass to shoot through but it was so windy, I had a real problem focussing the bride. so I stuck with the grass and much prefer the anonymity of this.
I shot this for a designer in an old Cheese factory. The dress was in fact red and the wall a wonderful green with lichen and moss climbing. But I feel it is stronger in black and white with a light tone. I like the contrast between elegance within the distressed environment. It is very simple and quiet - I think we try to sometimes put too much into an image when just the basic qualities are what makes it strong in the first place.
From a wedding last year - I like this little understated Armani dress and it really needed treating quietly and simplistically. I think this image was plucked out of my head from a picture I saw years ago by Cecil Beaton of Twiggy. I love window light and the graphic or softness it applies in different situations.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about photographing weddings? Timing
What do you think of the wedding photography industry at the moment and where do you see it in 5 years from now? I get very enthused when I see someone following their only heart. I do feel that in many ways, the digital era has been detrimental to our industry. On the flip side, it has opened up the opportunity to let loose creativity. My concerns is that photography is no longer photography, it is just imaging. We have some amazing photographers here, who have incredible ideas. Many of which, I feel are being suppressed, by not having the skill base to allow them to go forward.
A wedding photographer who inspires you? I’m inspired by all those who are striving to learn their skill - even more so who are learning the fundamental basics.
It’s almost that time of year for a Bella West family portrait. Is there any photographer out there that you would be stoked to say - he/she took my portrait? Irvin Penn
A inspirational website and/or blog you visit often?
Facebook has been an excellent marketing and networking tool,otherwise, no, I don’t surf different sites.
The first photographer that comes to your mind and why? Kevin Wilson. A great teacher, a true master of good classical imagery and I owe him a beer.
The last workshop or seminar you attended and why? I have not been on any workshops for ages
Do you have any workshops or seminars planned for the future? I am hosting my own residential environmental portrait workshop (children on location) September,the first one in June last year was a great success. It is going to be very honest and no holds barred exercise into my entire working format.
What photographic organizations do you belong to? BIPP
One way you market Bella West Photography? My most successful marketing tool is me. The last thing my client leaves with is their photographs.
Do you advertise? If so where? No. Other than my website.
How important is an awesome website for your business? Fundamental. It is my shop window.
If not a photographer, I would have liked to be a marine biologist studying the great white shark. What would you have been? Pathologist. The human body and how it works/doesn’t work is fascinating.
I realize that each great photographer has a particular penchant or love for photographing a particular subject whether it be nature, portraits, sea or landscapes, shadow and light, etc. as a result I would love to have you talk about and share whatever images you feel appropriate of your own private obsession in the magical world of photography. I do wish I had more time for personal work. My Fellowship panel was hugely personal and I felt much of my own emotions are very much embroiled in some of the images there. As I said earlier, a photograph really is a moment in time like no other - so anything which will evoke emotion is a success. A successful image is one that stands the test of time, that may be kids in the bath, moments of contemplation etc. that is what I like to shoot, anything which is important in my life.
Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph? Iggy Pop springs to mind. I’m off to Rwanda later in the year - I’m sure some wonderful faces with stories engraved on them...
When I was 2nd shooting I was picking everybody’s brain, I still am actually. That’s why I love these interviews so much. Every interview I learn something that makes me a better photographer. What advice do you have for somebody who wants to pursue wedding photography? Defining a style is fundamental - but don’t be distracted by your peers. Decide the style of photography you like, learn the elements of good classical lighting/posing etc and then run with it in your own style. Whenever I give talks, I always liken this to a first date. If you go out and pretend to be something that your not, and that relationship continues - it is very difficult to keep up that pretense, be honest to yourself.
At the moment I’m finding a lot of my photographic inspiration from cinema and Russian fashion photographers. We know that each of us has someone or something, which inspires our life and work. Can you tell us the true basis of your inspiration? A real understanding of the importance of using photography as a memory. And I mean a photograph, printed on beautiful paper and finely embellished, hanging on a wall. Not an image on a monitor. A true appreciation of how short life is and how important it is to record.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your photographic career?
Name one photographer you would like to take a portrait of? David Bailey has an interesting face.
If you could be invisible for one day with your camera... My daughters classroom..... interesting!
I’ve learned the most from… My mistakes.
What talent would you most like to have? To be able to draw
Something you’re still learning? Life. Oh and hands.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? My daughters, Lauren and Evie.
What is your greatest fear? Creative block.
Something that is overrated? Youth - I love getting older
Something you’re saving up for?
I would be very happy with a 35mm Hasselblad lens. Please!
What item do you wish you had designed?
Time - I would have exaggerated the concept...
If you could have lunch with anyone who is famous who would it be?
I really have had to think hard on this one - because they are famous does not make them interesting! But, I think Richard Branson would tell some great tales, I love to hear how he created his business on a shoestring and through his strong personality and self belief, managed to have his dedicated friends working for him for nothing. Richard would definitely be paying though and we would have Cristal champagne, that’s the deal.
Where you'll find me on a Friday night at 9 p.m.? Home with my girls or friends. With a good bottle of French wine.
Your favourite film (movie) of all time? The Killing Fields - I saw it in French and it moved me when I was about 14 - I discovered an inner emotion I didn’t thing existed. Sometimes in April - a film about the Rwandan genocide.
Who would play you in a film (movie) of your life?
Someone short....Actually - Cynthia Dixon, the redhead from Sex and the City - many people have said how we have similar features, though I fear she is far too tall!
First thing you would do if you won the lottery?
Pay my parking fines. I am a serial collector.
Which five words would your friends use to describe you? Ok - I have asked five different friends for one word each
Francie friend: beautiful
Catherine friend and PA: dependable
Ginny: 100% dedicated and focussed. A beautiful friend.
Kevin Wilson friend and mentor: Impetuous and driven
Jill Thorning Jensen (photographer): inspirational (she also said ‘mad’)
What ambition have you not yet achieved?
A book - I would like to produce a coffee table book of my Rwandan portraits
What would you like to be doing in 5 years from now?
I would like to be publishing my work
And the last question, if you had one wish…
My children to be healthy and happy forever.
Oh one more, if someone said ‘how can I be the next Bella West?’ What would you say?
One of the first things I say in my masterclasses is, please don’t go away wanting to be Bella West - find your style and run with it. By all means be inspired, but being focussed and shooting from your own head and heart, you can’t go wrong.
Your readers can find out more about me: