Behind the lens: Helen Bartlett – turning a photographic passion into a career

Helen Bartlett shares the story of her career in family portrait photography, her favourite kit and offers advice for new starters.
A black and white photograph of a baby touching a book.

Helen Bartlett first began photographing children when she was a teenager, at her mother's south London nursery. She launched her professional career in 2003 and is now one of the UK's most accomplished and respected family portrait photographers. Her black and white images use available light and express the emotional spectrum of family life. We caught up with her to find out about the challenges of turning a passion for photography into a full-time career.

When did you first become interested in photography?

My dad was a keen photographer when I was growing up so we had a darkroom at home. My brothers and I all had manual cameras, took lots of photos on black and white film, then developed and printed our own pictures. At the same time, my mum ran a nursery school from home during the week. When I became a teenager, I started photographing the nursery children and selling photos to their parents as a way of making some pocket money. Then I carried on while studying for my university degree as I always wanted to be a photographer. However, I thought it was just a dream and I'd end up doing something else.

A black and white shot of a laughing child playing with bubbles.

When photographing children, Helen always aims to incorporate an element of fun into her images, which is a great way to ensure natural-looking shots. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS lens at 1/2000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO320. © Helen Bartlett

How did it become your career?

When I'd tried a couple of other jobs and still wanted to be a photographer, my older brother loaned me some money to set up a children's photography company and everything just seemed to happen at the right time. Digital photography was becoming more affordable, so I got a Canon EOS 10D, bought a computer and lived with my parents while I became established.

What challenges did you need to overcome?

The main challenges in setting up then were the same as they are now. The main hurdle is getting clients. You can take the best photos in the world but if people don't know about you, then it's hard to get more clients through the door. And when you're starting up, learning to work with children takes time and experience. I remember photographing four small boys in a basement flat, on a rainy day, and thinking that doing this as a job would be an interesting, and fun, challenge. The longer you work with children the more you learn the ways to get the best out of them and also to make sure that everyone has a brilliant time along the way.

A black and white side-profile portrait of a baby.

A specialist macro lens allows you to focus much closer than a regular lens, which makes it ideal for photographing newborns and babies. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Helen Bartlett

A black and white shot of a small child sitting on their father's shoulders.

Encouraging parents to get involved in the shoot helps your subjects to relax and makes it easier to capture candid moments. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/2 and ISO400. © Helen Bartlett

What tips would you offer to aspiring professional photographers?

One of the things to remember is that photography is rarely a route to riches. It's hard work, so before people give up their day jobs, it's important to remember that things don't happen overnight. I'd say learn as much as you can. The internet is a great resource for practical help and learning techniques. But the most important thing is to practise. Because nothing beats actually taking photographs. It's a good idea to simply capture photos of friends and family before you take on paid commissions. The more you shoot, the more tricks you'll learn and the more you'll define your style.

A black and white shot in a woodland setting showing a child in silhouette standing on the branch of a fallen tree.

Incorporating shadows into your images can help to convey a mood and add a sense of atmosphere. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/1.8 and ISO800. © Helen Bartlett

What kit do you currently use?

I'm working with two camera systems at the moment as I make the move to mirrorless. I still have my beloved Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which I use with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Children move fast and the exceptional autofocus and rugged build quality of the EOS-1 D X series is fantastic when you don't know what a session will throw at you – sand, bubble liquid, cuddly toys – with enthusiastic toddlers anything can happen.

In 2020, I added a Canon EOS R5 to my kitbag, which is amazing. I'm really enjoying the face and eye tracking, the vari-angle touchscreen and the 5,940 autofocus positions, which are allowing me to create new and interesting compositions for my clients. I use it with the sublime Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM, which I like to think of as my desert island lens. I also use the wonderfully versatile Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM, which I particularly love for its macro feature, which makes it the perfect lens for photographing newborns. I'll be adding a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens to my kitbag in 2021. The quality of the new RF lenses is astonishing.

I always recommend investing in a fast prime lens as it allows you to shoot indoors using natural light, which is a great way to learn about aperture and shutter speeds. The high quality and inexpensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is a wonderful prime lens to experiment with. The equivalent for those using Canon's full-frame mirrorless system would be the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

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