A smiling child playing on a swing.


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

Helen Bartlett
Helen Bartlett

Family photographer

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.

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.

A smiling young boy lets a young girl play with his hair.

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.

"The more you shoot, the more tricks you’ll learn and the more you’ll define your style."

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 practice. 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.

Motion-blur shot of a young girl playing on a roundabout.

What kit do you currently use?

I usually use two Canon EOS-1DX cameras as they’re rugged and suitable for all situations. Kids move really fast so you need to be able to capture that, and also you’re never quite sure what you’re going to have thrown at you when playing exciting games with enthusiastic toddlers – sand, water, cuddly toys, the list is endless.

I often shoot with prime lenses. My usual kit for an outdoor shoot is a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens. Inside I tend to use the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. And if I’m shooting babies under the age of one, I usually bring a macro lens as well.

A young girl does a forward-roll on a sofa while a young boy looks on.

If any of my clients wants to photograph their children, I usually suggest they start with an inexpensive Canon prime lens such as the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM. They’re fantastic! They’re a great way to learn about apertures and shutter speeds. And they let in a lot of extra light, so they’re perfect for photographing children indoors.

Check out Helen's tips for capturing beautiful family portraits.

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