Notes from the Pros: Brett Harkness

Notes from the Pros

An ongoing series sharing words of wisdom from professionals

27 OCTOBER 2010


Brett Harkness is a photographer working in Manchester. He began his working career with a six year tour of duty in the Caribbean as a photographer on cruise ships. He met his wife Christy whilst working there, and she is now his business partner in their photo business. Brett covers all aspects of travel and social photography from weddings and lifestyle to fashion and commercial.


Brett learnt the fundamentals of  social photography working on Caribbean cruise ships.

“I learnt how to approach people with a camera and how to put people at ease around me and my camera. I learnt to work long hours and to see quickly and compose in second. It took me six years to master this but gives me a big advantage when I have, for example, 10 minutes with a bride and groom. And I learned to go around the back of people because you will often find better light or a better view.”

Back from the Caribbean and working from a 12 square foot studio above a bridal shop in Rochdale , Brett started shooting weddings for £150-350 each with  a couple of rolls of film. It was a nightmare and nearly quashed his desire to do wedding photography. But the £180 cheque for his first photography was an emotional moment and the start of real business. That cheque is now proudly framed on the studio wall.

by Brett Harkness, on Flickr

“There are three things that people don’t stress enough that are required to be a successful photographer:  passion, hardwork, and belief. Without belief then we have nothing. Without passion you won’t be able make your photography stand out. There is a quote from David Bailey that I like about photography: ‘You need more imagination than a painter to see the extraordinary because everything looks ordinary’.”

“Digital allows you to shoot too much, so it is important to reign yourself in. And don’t shoot 50 weddings a year because you can. Shoot 15 weddings a year with passion and you will be a better photographer.”


by Brett Harkness, on Flickr

Brett’s photography drips with luminous light across the whole frame bringing you right into the picture to join the story.

A respectful mischievousness determines the framing and placing of subjects so that the juxtaposition of elements often surprises: Detail of small black fingers gripping a ledge turns into a young gorilla, an Indian shepherd gazes proudly at the lens with two favourite animals one under each arm, or a moment of (deliberate?) symmetry spotted when a gorilla and a small girl lean against opposite sides of a pillar and both pick their noses.

“There is a client for every photographer and every style, and some styles are more interesting than others. Above all else learn to create your own style, and realise what you are not good at.

“Go on training courses but use them as a starting point. No amount technical perfection will sell photos if you don’t have a style that is different.

“Around the Brett Harkness studio we always have brochures to nit-pick the lighting techniques of big marketing and stay contemporary.

“I hate vintage which is all the rage at the moment. I try to make images that show the experience, like getting a bride to run through a field.

“Our clients get into the photography too. For travel, weddings, people are prepared to pay you for experiencing the day with them. They never say ‘Thanks for the photos’. They say, ‘Thanks for bringing us to the beach and giving us such a great day.’ They get involved in the activities of the photography.

“You have to give your client a different experience every time they come back to you. Otherwise they won’t return to you.


“I shoot JPEG, not RAW, so I can see exactly what I am getting, and I  don’t offer the client a disc.

“50 mm is my lens of choice for environmental portraiture. It causes you to look around. I used to zoom too much. Now I am making the shot by what’s around them.

“Fashion, I’ve jumped into big time this year. Fashion is a way to experiment.

“I started using Elinchrom flash lights this April and it’s opened up a new creativity. Flash gives you depth and clarity, and flexibility, particularly outdoors.

“If I flash people from the side, it keeps fabric folds emphasised in the shots. I saw this amazing shot of the bride and bridesmaids as we were leaving the house. The two dark wood doors give the frame, and with flash from side, they are radiant.

“Now I go and seek out the rain. I used to be afraid of it. Now those lovely glistening rain drops are so tempting.”


by Brett Harkness, on Flickr

“I am a massive believer in tangible things people can hold. Our brochures are the most expensive things we produce for marketing and they are a great help in conveying the quality of the photography. One potential customer looking through the brochure remarked ‘you feel too expensive’ which meant that we didn’t waste our time talking about something that wasn’t going to happen. But many people come in to the studio to see what they want to work towards. Successful selling works by giving them a taster, and then allowing them to buy the things they want. What they buy will then be emotional to them and have more value.

“Networking is of course key to our success. And most importantly, networking with the right people, and making sure the right people are talking about us. It’s other people who can sell your photos for you.

“Social networking is a massive business tool for us. We’ve had training courses booked in an hour and since April when we started out using Twitter, we’ve had two wedding bookings, one commercial, and one social booking.

“Viral sharing is massive. We now watermark a small selection of 6-7 photos from a shoot and then give them to people for them to share with their friends on Facebook, websites, email. People get to know what we do and share the pleasure of the event, and have the opportunity to buy prints. It works in curious ways. Recently we got a £1000 album booking from a bridesmaid at a wedding because she loved the photos we took.”


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