Even though his professional photography career came about by accident, his artistic eye was no accident at all. "My background was publishing," he says. "I worked for Condé Nast in London in the early '90s. I was working for GQ and Vanity Fair, and I did advertorials. So not only was I selling, I was also creating editorial. I've been on thousands of photo shoots and been part of the layout and design process; I've even sat on press for output. So there's a certain logic to my background, even though I never planned to be a photographer."
This experience complements what he feels is an innate sense of what looks good. "You either have an eye or you don't have an eye," he says. "You can learn certain things. You can train someone to crop or compose, and you can hone or polish that skill, but I think that subjective thing, that thing that's coming straight from you, is innate. It's a luck of the draw. You either have it or you don't. I like to think I have it-I hope I do!"
He Knows the Business
Hills has worked with many publicists since his big break with Alan Cumming, which has allowed him to expand on the celebrity front. "A publicist for a celebrity will call me and say, ‘We haven't got anything new of them.' Maybe the actor has a project or film coming up, so I'll do a half day or a full day and shoot six or seven looks, different colors, different lighting styles. That way they've got six or seven exclusive photo shoots that can go to different magazines.
"There are so many magazines that don't commission photography and don't want to go to the expense of setting up a shoot. The celebrity often doesn't want to do a shoot, either. I take the pain out of it all."
While most of the major Hollywood publicists call him on a regular basis, Hills isn't sitting by his phone waiting for jobs to come in. "Marketing is one of the key factors of my business," he says. "If you're not shooting, you should be marketing. I have an agent, and I syndicate my celebrity images with Corbis. Even with the two of them working for me, I'm still out there waving the flag and making my calls every month."
Hills makes sure that he's always working ahead to generate interest for future clients. "From a marketing perspective, I'll shoot creative stuff to help further myself business-wise," he says. "I'll have a client in mind and shoot something I know might fit that client. Sometimes you want to tie in a project specifically to the images. You don't want to go too far down that line, though, because then the image won't make much sense once the project is over."
When he's not shooting or marketing, Hills is a spokesperson for HP and Hasselblad. "I'm kind of a digital evangelist for both companies." He's also working on several personal projects. He's in the middle of a book to benefit breast cancer research, although he's taking a break from it at the moment; and he's appearing on high-profile TV programs. He's been the guest and home photographer for the "Top Model" programs in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and a photographer for TLC's "Cover Shot" makeover program.
"The great thing about my ‘Cover Shot' assignment is that the picture from that photo shoot was made into a billboard in Times Square," he says. "We were there for the unveiling and everything."
Being on TV is no big stretch for Hills. As he explains, "Some photographers are not very vocal, but I'm so used to talking to people. I'm comfortable in front of 2,000 people or two people."
Thinking of breaking into the celebrity portraiture realm? While Hills' tale may appear to be a once-in-a-lifetime success story, he believes that you have to take a chance and create your own destiny.
"Be fearless. If there are celebrities you'd like to work with, write to them. Aim realistically, of course; don't try for Madonna first! If there's an actor or actress you admire because you like their work, you have a much better chance of shooting them because you have a familiarity with them. People often are more accessible than you think they are."
For more images, visit www.francishills.com