A professional photographer for only four years, the United Kingdom’s Tom Barnes was destined to become a high?value commercial office building realtor. “My passion for photography kind of took over,” Barnes says with typical understatement. With an uncle who directs television commercials advising him to steer clear of a degree in photography, Barnes was destined for a business career. While studying urban land economics, he used his spare time to immerse himself in different self-taught photographic exercises. His autodidactic method has paid off, and 25-year-old Barnes is now a fulltime professional photographer.
Having shot photos throughout his teenage years, Barnes had a majority of the basic skills under his belt by the time he seriously devoted himself to learning photography. He transitioned from hobbyist to professional, having never assisted. “It never occurred to me,” he explains, “probably because I was so young and just didn’t know photographer’s assistants existed. I just never did it. I got offered. My uncle said, ‘Do you want to go assist this guy?’ and I always said, ‘No, I’m afraid I’ve already been commissioned for something that day.’”
Located in Guildford, some friends from Sheffield had a band, and asked Barnes if he could shoot some promo stills. “I thought, ‘I’m a photographer. I could do promos. How hard could it be?’” Barnes recalls, laughing. He took the assignment, handed over his work to the band, and they’ve been loyal to him ever since. “And just my luck they’ve become kind of one of the biggest rock bands in the world,” he reports, smiling.
The band, Bring Me the Horizon, has continued to use Barnes for photos as their popularity has increased. “They’re quite big in the States. They pull about 2000 kids in every city,” he reports. The work he’s done for Bring me the Horizon has enabled him to work with other musical groups. “I got a call from a band called You Me At Six,” Barnes says. “Over here in the U.K., they weren’t big. There was a little talk about them. They asked, ‘Look, can you come down? Can you do some photos?’ and so I went down the next morning. We did some photos, and I literally just got off tour with them a week and a half ago. They were playing to 6000 kids in every city in the U.K.”
The heavily-tattooed and body-modified young men of Bring Me the Horizon and similar bands are visually interesting, to say the least. Alternative Press and other U.S. publications want photos for their readers, and Barnes has been there to document the band with his signature look. Brooding images with a hint of the bleach bypass effect suit the musicians well, and this wasn’t lost on other bands. Now in demand by bands and corporate clients looking for the same image to appeal to similar youth/rock demographics, four years into his career as a pro shooter, Barnes is enjoying a level of success many photographers never achieve. Regarding the moody imagery he’s become known for, Barnes feels it’s evolved in an organic way, almost on its own. “I don’t know; it just kind of happened over the years,” he explains. “In the past three years I started getting known for a certain look. It has become a signature thing. I never really set out to have that signature look.”
Barnes rarely shoots with natural light alone, if ever. He’ll typically use two heads when shooting bands, but has been known to use up to five. “It’s not a particularly hard set-up,” he says. “Most of my work is done with three Profoto Pro-7b units and six ProB heads.” Barnes is about to begin using the new Pro-B3 generators. His smaller flash needs are met by two Canon 580EX II units.
Starting off with a Canon 10D, Barnes’ equipment has grown to keep pace with his talent. “I’ve invested heavily in ridiculous amounts of equipment,” he says. “I always try to have my own stuff.” His body needs are now covered by three Canon 5D Mark II units. His main lens is a Canon 24 – 70mm f/2.8L lens.
The commercial work he does for clients is all digital, but Barnes is well-versed in film photography. His ever-growing collection of film cameras include a Kodak Retina 1b, a Ricoh KR-10, a Nikon L35, a Asahi Pentax SP500, two Miranda G’s, a Miranda RE?II, and an Olympus Trip 35. “I love film and I never use it on a commission, he says. “It’s just for documenting my life and just chilling out.”
With an entirely digital workflow for his commercial clients, Barnes currently runs Apple Aperture and Adobe CS4. “Aperture is for jobs I need to batch process. I use it as my RAW converter.”
Although Barnes relies on his lights to help achieve the style his clients ask for, it’s the way he implements his equipment which delivers his look. For instance, he incorporates a 16-foot boom. “I use it quite a lot,” he says. “I don’t have it straight up. I have it boomed out over them. Literally, I can be standing eight or nine feet away, and the light can be two feet from their faces. That way you can avoid all the light spill that might happen if you have the light further back.” What helps this photographer stand apart is “little trick bits most people don’t occur to use,” he says.
Locations are an integral part of the image Barnes portrays for his clients. Armed with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of interesting outdoor locations in Britian, Barnes is able to deliver just about anything he’s asked. Abandoned train station? No problem. Rolling hills in the background with one dead tree in foreground? Got it. When he lived in Sheffield, the area’s diversity made this easier than his current location in London, but clients know they can rely on Barnes to find what they’re envisioning for the next round of photography.
When asked why he prefers to shoot on location, the reasons are both physical and psychological. Squeezing a band, their crew and handlers into a small studio environment is not the most relaxing atmosphere for creating good portraits. Barnes feels people tend to relax more when they’re outdoors, with a stereo in the background. “I find it looser than in studio environments,” he explains. “Everyone gets very uptight in a studio. ‘Oh, God, I’m going to have my picture taken.’ Whereas outside it just feels like six dudes hanging out.”
Barnes has largely retired himself from shooting bands live. He cites the hours and conditions of that type of photography as something he’d like to leave in his youth. The art he can create in a controlled environment of a proper photo shoot is infinitely more appealing to this young photographer. While primarily known for his work with British bands, Barnes is not interested in being typecast as the next Jim Marshall. “I’m trying to break out of that a little bit, because I don’t want to get stuck in the mold of just being ‘that music guy,’” he says. I would love to do more advertorial kind of jobs for other clients with larger budgets with sets and props. That’s definitely where I see myself going.”
Regarding other gear, Barnes has been using PocketWizard MultiMAX units and three Plus II’s for over a year. “Before that, I’ve literally been through every type of trigger. I had infrared to start, and then I had the cheap eBay wireless things,” he says, before mentioning a long list of other triggers. “I’ve either broken them, or they’ve been so unbelievably unreliable, I’ve just had to get rid of them. PocketWizards have been the only ones I’ve never had a problem with, never gotten rid of, and intend to use probably for the rest of my career. They have to support rear?curtain sync, and Multimax does that better than any others.”
The Sekonic L-358 is Barnes’ choice of light meter. “I’ve had it years. Literally, I can’t even remember when I bought it. I’ve had it since it came out, and it’s just been absolutely brilliant,” he says. “I’ve never had to change the batteries, and I think I’ve still got full battery recharge life. It’s been an absolute work horse. It’s been battered, and thrown about, and yeah, it’s still working absolutely brilliantly. Those things—the light meter, the PocketWizards, and the Profoto stuff—have actually been my best purchases. I can confidentially say if they broke, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would have to have the exact same ones straight away. But luckily, they’re probably never going to break. I’ve spent over £25,000 on equipment, and most of that has been Profoto.”
Barnes also has a magazine habit to the tune of £150 per month. He is constantly doing research on fashion campaigns for ideas and to keep track of what’s current. “My whole idea behind this style that I’ve grown into is I want people to look how they’ve never looked,” he explains. “I want them to look how they don’t look in real life. You’re trying to make people look as impressive as possible. I want people on the fashion side of things. When I do a shoot like that, I want them to feel the same way. I want them to say, ‘Wow! That’s amazing.’”
Citing communication as one of the most important things in dealing with his clients, Barnes typically has a 20-minute conversation with them on the day of a scheduled shoot. He works hard to understand the expectations clients have and what type of personalities he’s dealing with. In this way, he can set the mood accordingly, and then goes about portraying them how they want to be seen. “If they’re going to do a wink in a photo, that’s going to make them look cocky, now, for six months, because these are going to be their press photos for six months,” he says. “I make them aware of how they are going to be coming across, and listen to all of the ideas they have. I very much think that, as a photographer, and as a band, we’re all just one-half of the same thing. We’re a unit for the duration of the shoot. We’re after the very best photos from the session. I listen to their suggestions, and they listen to mine. We just bounce off each other most of the time. I will keep shooting until they’re happy.”
However long it takes, and whatever he’s doing, Tom Barnes’ clients keep returning, and new ones seek him out. At nearly the start of his career, Barnes keeps evolving, shooting, and is obviously doing it long enough to make his subjects happy.
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