Francis Hills is known as the Accidental Photographer, and for a compelling reason: Five years ago, after losing his job during the dot.com bust, Hills picked up a point-and-shoot and discovered his true passion. His serendipitous journey only intensified from that point on. Just three months after he started shooting, he decided on a whim to write a letter to actor and fellow Brit Alan Cumming to request a photo shoot with him. To his delight, Cumming accepted, jump-starting Hills' professional photography career.
Today, Hills is a sought-after photographer in the celebrity, beauty, and fashion genres-not bad for a guy who confessed that he stumbled through much of that initial photo shoot with Cumming. Stars like Liz Phair, Vanessa Minnillo, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Piven, and Tatum O'Neal (this month's cover shot) have all pouted, preened, and shown off their pearly whites in front of his lens. The secret to his impressive overnight success? An easy rapport with every person who steps in front of his lens-whether it's a superstar or an unknown fashion model, an eye for art, and an aspiration to make every image iconic.
Talking the Talk
Elvis may have advocated a little less conversation, but human interaction is the cornerstone of Hills' success. "I'm a people person through and through; I don't shoot product or landscapes, I just shoot people," he says. "It's all about the interaction-whether they're wearing couture clothes or a pair of jeans, it's about the person. I talk to people. I know that sounds silly, but there are so many photographers who get behind the camera and start clicking away and moving people around like mannequins. You'd be surprised at the difference it makes to just talk to them. Even when they're having their hair or makeup done, I'll just get them a coffee, sit down next to them, and chat."
His conversational ease holds true whether he's shooting a movie star or an up-and-comer. "I was more intimidated in the beginning wondering if my lighting was correct rather than by whom I was photographing," he says. "I don't think I've ever been so star struck by anyone that I started fumbling around and messing things up. I was more concerned that I was going to make a complete mess of the shoot and never get hired again. I still feel that. This business is feast or famine. During the few weeks of the year when it's very quiet, I get anxious that I'm never going to work again!"
When dealing with more famous photographic subjects, Hills tries to incorporate their work into his casual conversations. "Actors generally don't have much of a problem talking about themselves," he explains. "Since I've always had an interest in film and TV and books, there's often something of theirs that I've seen, so I ask them what they're doing now and talk about some of their past projects just to get to know them better."
He finds this especially helpful in relaxing some of his subjects who, ironically, don't know how to act in front of the camera. "One thing I have found is a lot of actors don't know how to be themselves," he says. "They're always playing a part, and they don't know how to ‘be' when they're just being themselves. You almost have to direct actors, be a little more specific with them."
Setting the mood at the shoot is critical, as well. "I have a digital assistant and a lighting assistant, and the three of us try to set a very relaxed tone on the set or in the studio," he says. "The last thing you want to do is make the people you're shooting feel like they're in front of a firing squad. I enjoy what I do, and I want the person in front of my camera to enjoy the session, as well."
Music plays a big part in the "Hills ambience." "I always ask what people want to listen to," he says. "It doesn't make sense to put on modern jazz for someone who would rather listen to Fergie or Pink. I actually had a satellite radio system put into the studio, so I have about 175 channels to choose from. I can guarantee there's something they want to hear. I also always ask clients to bring an iPod with them so they can plug in their own music."
Making his subjects feel at ease often involves coaxing a smile or laugh. "I'm a sucker for smiles," he says. "If I can catch someone in a smile or laugh, it's wonderful.
You get to see something unguarded and genuine."
Mel B. (A.K.A. Scary Spice) proved to be one of his favorite celebrities in this regard. "She has the most wonderful sense of humor and this really dirty laugh," he says. "We spent about two hours just laughing when I shot her-it was so much fun. And she was naked, which was even funnier. Here's another tip: When your subjects are not wearing any clothes, always look in their eyes while you're shooting them!"
He's Got the Look
Besides his easy rapport and drive to excel, there's something else that draws clients to Hills: His portfolio. "When it comes to portraiture, whether it's the famous or the non-famous, I can capture that ‘little something' that people seem to like. If it's beauty or fashion, it's the style, feel, and quality of the image. In the back of my mind, I'm always trying to make iconic images. That's my aim, anyway-I know you can't do it every day!"
Hills, who uses Profoto lighting about "90 percent of the time," has stuck with styles that suit him, even if in the beginning he got some flack for it.
"I love high-key white because you're just concentrating on the person, whether it's on the clothing for fashion or on the personality for portraiture. You're not distracted by anything else," he says. "When I first started shooting, I went to one magazine and they said, ‘There's no color in here.' The irony is I still get hired to shoot high-key white, for advertising and beauty."
You have to be confident in what you do well and make sure you present it accordingly, says Hills. "If someone's paging through through your book, often they're looking for something they already have in mind," he says. "You have to be very careful when you populate your portfolio. If it very significantly varies in terms of lighting styles or situations, it can throw people off. That's why it's so important to know your prospective clients. If you mainly show apples to people, and then you show them some oranges, as well, it can totally throw them off."