Fashion, Celebrities, Beauty, Commercial, you name it, this guy's shot it. I reached out to fashion/commercial photographer Chris Nicholls from Toronto, Ontario. Shooting with the biggest names in fashion, I just needed to know his secrets. Someone with over 20 years in the industry, this humble Canadian knows all the ins and outs from who to work with, to some tips on getting started, to an inside scoop on what it's like to work with some of the most controversial stars of today.
Last week I gave Chris a call and got a very in-depth view on his opinions, techniques and some of his past that lead to where he is today.
Hey Chris, tell me about yourself?
I'm a commercial/fashion photographer in Toronto Ontario. I've been in the business for many years and hopefully many more.
How old are you?
Ahh.. really?? You have to ask that? (laughs) I'm 53
I know instructed a couple workshops at the New Brunswick College of Craft & Design in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Tell us about your experience there.
I was invited as a guest lecturer, Peter Gross is the person who stayed in touch with me and arranged for me to come down and speak, and we all went out to diner, and he also invited me down a second time.
Take us inside of your camera bag…
I use a Canon, I don't believe it matters what type of camera you use in particular..
I use a 50mm lens and an 85mm
I don't use zoom lenses usually, its just what I've grown accustomed to, I mean I sort of believe that there is a discipline of using a fixed lens that forces you keep moving around your subject instead of zooming in, and not thinking of your focal length.
Which editing software do you use?
I know you're pretty recognized for your lighting techniques, and studio work, which lighting/weather conditions are ideal to you?
I don't have a preference really, I do a lot of work outside with natural light as well. We're Canadian so we're forced into the studio a lot. Clients require predictable results and studio can give you very predictable results. You have to present a series of photos, they all have to be consistent. Say you're doing a series of 10 images of a garment, or a person or whatever, light changes throughout the day, you want them to look like a series, so studio does that. You can really own it, and make it exactly what you want it to be. More like a safety net in a way.
Do you prefer outdoor locations or studio work?
When you're shooting outside it's very observational based, but when you're in the studio, it's very constructive, you construct what you want, then work within. It's just a different way of thinking. Location photography sometimes people can become overwhelmed, the excitement of being somewhere new; everyones on the beach, excited to be there, but it's not ideal for the lighting, where the sun and wind are facing. I don't have a favorite, my retoucher is always commenting on what I do and she always says "oh you're so good in natural light" now I take offense to that (laughs) I'm like "oh well, what's wrong with...." but I think maybe she prefers to retouch natural light. It's hard to want to be in the studio, Would you rather be in the studio, or would you rather be in Hawaii? Or would you rather be in the studio or be in Ottawa??? You know .. In the winter you'd rather be in the studio.
Do you remember the photo you took when you realized that you could pursue photography as a career?
Yes. I mean, yes and no... I mean everyone thinks, like, when you do a drawing, "I could be an artist" but then the more you study art and the more you realize "oh this is really hard." I think you go through ways of thinking. I think every photographer has become a photographer because someone has said, "You're really good at taking pictures" and to be honest it was probably your parents or a friend or something. And you're like "oh I guess I am... I guess that's what I'll do" And almost every photographer has a story like that. Not very many people take photographs and don't share them with anyone and then still think they're really good photographers.. It's sort of about that process of showing and sharing and showing off. So when you start off you're like "Oh I'm good at this, I'll study this" I think there's a realization later on , the more you know about it, the more you realize that you're not good enough. So there's this other realization that, "Oh I thought I was good, but look how good all these other people are" You know, I'm not as good as them and thats why they're working and I'm not. And then there's a gradual confidence building process when you put trust in a situation where you have to take photos for money, and it works. From my point of view, I still doubt myself in certain situations, I'm thinking like, "Why me? I don't know what I'm doing" Even 30 years later I still think that. Then you take a step back and think about what you're doing.
When I was about 28, I was $75,000 in dept and none of that was student loan or anything, that was my business debt. It wasn't camera equipment I bought, it was accumulated debt from trying to invest in my business. I knew I was going to be able to pay that off, but I got very discouraged, for about a year I stopped taking photographs at all, and just tried to pay back my depts.
I would say being out of college, about 6 or 7 years after graduated I realized I was going to bounce back the other way. I'm a slow learner.
That's great news for me... I'm 20 right now and feel the pressure to be out doing things and succeeding. So you being 28 and just kind of getting your feet on the ground gives me hope!!
I mean it sounds to me that you're way ahead of what I was at 20 years old. You are already way ahead of me and in the way that you already know what you want to do, and you spent some time in New York and you've travelled a bit more, you know. You've seen professional photographers working. When I was 20 I was still in college. You have to be patient, I would look at it like a slow slope that will slowly rise. You have to constantly invest in it but it will always grow. Providing you're making the right decisions, creative decisions. It's helpful to think every photograph you take like a building block, no one can take away from you. It's not going to happen quickly, it's not American Idol (laughs) You're not going to get discovered, you know. Even if you photograph Miley Cyrus, tomorrow. It's not going to instantly transform you into work for the next month, it's just not. People tend to think, 'I just need that little niche..' 'Wheres that magic door I just can't find?' I think it's just a mistake to think that way. Every job I've had, right from the very beginning until now was a logical progression from the previous job I was doing, it was a slight step. People aren't going to see the picture you took of your neighbor and say, "Wow that's an awesome photo, will you shoot Rihanna's next cover???" It's just never going to happen like that. You just get back on the steps and slowly rise and is sped up by good photography. Be patient, you're only 20. You have lots of time. In fact it's better if it takes a long time because it's always getting better, if you peak too early then you're like "oh, now what?"
Do you remember your first cover? How old were you?
My first cover if I have to be honest with myself was for an event baptist church magazine, it was of someone praying. My father was a graphic designer and he had lots of church clients and needed photos. Or maybe NOW Magazine, it's Toronto's free magazine, local theater people and sometimes celebrities. I was in my 20s.
I know you’ve worked with some big names in your career, what’s it like being on set with sometimes, big personalities of the celebrity world?
It's harder working with celebrities. It's easier working with a model because a model is a model and their job is to have their picture taken. It's what they're good at. When you point a camera at them they know what to do, it's what they do. People have this mistaken assumption that models have this big ego, and for the most part they don't. They just like getting their picture taken and they're good at it, and they keep getting work and it's fairly easy work for them and they're happy to get paid for it.
Celebrities, it's not what they're best at. They're best at what they do; singer, actor, whatever. Even an actor is best at acting, not getting in front of a camera and being themselves. Celebrities come in, providing you get some pictures, they'd rather leave after that point. They'd usually want to shoot the cover first and then after that they're really not interested in sticking around for the most part. So it's a bit of a game to convince them that the pictures are really good and that it's going to be a lot of space in the magazine. They usually see that as not being so important, the cover is the main thing. So it's a bit of a dance to keep them there.
A lot of people say "oh when you shoot this person you should do this, you should tell them to do this" and I'm like, 'ohhh, no I'm not going to tell them anything' Im going to be the nicest person I possibly can to them because I want them to stick around. And so often they don't. They arrive late and they leave early, it's the truth of it.
Tell us about your shoot with Miley Cyrus for the November issue of Fashion magazine? What’s she like to work with and styling, concept, location, etc
She was very professional, she was a lot of fun, she showed up on time, which is unusual. She didn't rush away either, she brought a lot of people with her, we photographed in a model's house. We photographed this male model in Toronto for a few days and he had a beautifully renovated house in Hollywood and I had asked him, "Would you ever allow a photo shoot there and he said, Sure just contact me!" So I reached out to him for that and he was excited to have Miley drop in. It was right around the time of her VMA controversy, it was only a few days after.
The styling, obviously we wanted her to look sexy, there were multiple comments in the press that we took such beautiful pictures of her with clothes on because there were so many pictures of her circulating semi naked or whatever at the time. Which she would have probably done for us as well, but it was a fashion magazine and the point was to put great clothes on her. I think it got a very positive response, from her as well. We were trying to raise her status in the fashion world. There were a bunch of fashion designers that wouldn't lend us clothing because it was her. You would think that they'd be like "Oh it's Miley, of course we'll lend her whatever" but there were some designers that she even cited as being her favorite that wouldn't lend us clothes.
We just shot Lorde, she's on the current cover, and all the designers fell over themselves to dress her. I mean it might be different now, but Miley just seemed a little volatile at the time, people weren't really sure which way she was going. I think she'll be fine, I think she's just having a lot of fun. I took her passport picture for her (laughs)
Is Taylor Swift as sweet as everyone says she is??
She is, super sweet, super nice. Just the nicest girl. really genuine, so friendly to everyone on set. It's like she didn't know she was a star.
Katie Perry wasn't in a very good mood when we photographed her, I'm sure she's probably a nice person, just having a bad day.
Demi Levato was very guarded...
Miley really wasn't, she wears it all on the outside. I think she really is that person. She has a lot of fun I don't think it's at anybody's expense, she's doing what every 20 year old girl likes to do.
Are you represented by an agent/agency?
I am in the states, I have an agent in LA.
What are some pros and cons of being a freelance photographer and being represented?
I've never got a job from my agent. I had 2 agents prior to that and I've never gotten a job from them. Agents aren't interested until they think they can make money from you. The reality is your work gets you your job, not your agent. Mostly it's when the photographers get really busy then they can't handle the business end of it. They are artists, not business people. Most photographers aren't good with their money. Agents are able to ask for more money without feeling guilty for it.
How important is taking time for personal work?
If I'm going to be honest I would say not at all. I don't do personal work. All the time I spend behind a camera is work, or leading to work. I'm not an artist, I'm a commercial photographer. Other photographers would give you the complete opposite answer.
How important is social media when it comes to your career? How can it help/hurt you?
I do have an Instagram account: @chrisnichollsphotography. It's not important to me at all. I do have a Facebook account which my studio manager maintains halfheartedly. I've never been on it. I don't know how Facebook works. I've never been on Facebook. So, I know how Instagram works, well sort of anyway. Sometimes that can be fun, I've heard that sometimes photographers get work from that. But I think they have to have a really strong portfolio and a lot of existing clients to begin with, it's another place you can put your work and it can potentially be seen. I can tell you I've never once got a job from social media.
Any advise you would give to young photographers that are trying to break in to the industry?
I mean I think the good news is, that if you take great photographs people will notice. Provided you put it in front of the people. You need to reach out and approach them. I think the rest of it is sort of peripheral, you just have to create amazing photographs. If people aren't hiring you or people aren't as interested as you think they should be, then you are fooling yourself that those photographs are good. People should fall over themselves when they see your photographs. "Oh my god, they're amazing I have to show them to everyone I know because they're so great" You have to take these pictures and show them. If you're not getting a response like that then they're not good enough. It's as easy as that. If you want to be a successful singer, write a successful song and get it played on the radio. You could be an instant success. Say, if you wrote "Royals" and you recorded it and took it over to your local radio station, it wouldn't matter if anyone ever heard of you at all, you would be instantly successful. Music is a bit more viral then imagery, I think. It's as simple as that, you just have to get out there and just keep working at it. Just keep working so much, all the time, just never look back and always look forward. "What do I need to do next?" and be honest with yourself and how good your photos actually are, and how they compare.
You're only 20, you've got lots of time. If you know thats what you want, then start heading in that direction, and going as direct as you can. Going to New York and seeing other photographers work, but also be selective to who you work for because whoever you work for will shape you as well. The best thing you can do is in dear yourself to someone.
Where can we follow you? Facebook/twitter/instagram etc
All photos: www.chrisnichollsphotography.com & instagram.com/chrisnhicollsphotography