Kate Hopewell-Smith is passionate about photographing people. With a fine art background and a degree in the history of art, she spent the first ten years of her career working in TV marketing, publishing and brand consultancy. Then, after moving out of London to raise her children in a house in the country, which came complete with a darkroom, she got bitten by the photography bug, and what started off as a hobby swiftly became a successful business.

Since 2010, Kate has specialised in portraits, weddings and boudoir, and regularly writes for a number of magazines, including Photography Monthly, N-Photo, Practical Photography and Professional Photographer, as well as training photographers for Nikon UK and Aspire Photography Training. She is a panel member for the Guild of Photographers and is a strong, inspirational voice for female photographers. We spoke to her about being Nikon UK's Lifestyle Photography Ambassador, and to find out more about her stellar career and why she is a 'Nikonian' through and through.

How did you become a Nikon Ambassador?

It was serendipitous; I was featured in a big interview in N-Photo magazine, which the guys at the Nikon School saw just as they were thinking that they needed to do more with the lifestyle genre. Then I spoke at the Photography Show at the NEC, met the Nikon team, and it went from there.

How did you get into photography?

For A level I did art and the history of art, but I never used a camera – I just didn't get the opportunity. I wasn't the kid with the camera in her hands, but I think that's reassuring to other aspiring photographers. I wanted to study fine art at university but my businessman dad was keen for me to get some proper business experience before I committed to anything wholly creative. So I did a history of art degree, which I loved and with which dad was slightly happier, and when I graduated – still fairly unemployable – I did a three-month intensive business course and went into the commercial art world in London, working in advertising. I didn't like it much. After a couple of years I rethought things completely and went to ITV Carlton as PA to the marketing director – it was a fun job with a fantastic team. At my interview I explained how I needed to change industry and the director was very clear that if I worked hard she'd make sure I moved up through the business. Carlton was prepared to pay for me to do an MBA, but by that time I'd realised I didn't want to be a marketeer, so I ended up spending the last two years of my decade in London as an account director at a leading branding agency, which was fascinating.

I got married, we had kids and left London, and the house we moved into had a darkroom. My husband bought me a D80 and kit lenses, I started taking photographs, and the bug got hold of me… My first real education was through a distance-learning course with the Open College of the Arts. After this I signed up to Aspire's 12-month Bespoke programme because I wanted to get industry training, and it went from there. So there I was, mum to two young kids, doing a distance-learning course in the art of photography. And my story is the same as the story I hear so often from other photographers; friends and family say they like your pictures, although the reality is that they're not that great, and they buoy you up with their enthusiasm. And then you get asked to do a wedding and you have to make the decision – do you keep it as a hobby or take it to the next level.

I was at the stage where I needed to go back to work, and photography brought me back to being me. It's been amazing. It's a deeply obsessive thing and it's not something that's very easy to fit around family life. The business is incredible but it's a monster that needs feeding, it's relentless. It's not an easy path to take, but it's so rewarding.

When did you start working as a full-time professional?

I started trading in April 2010 and now I sometimes think, 'How did it all happen?' There are a lot of boxes to tick when you start out, including technical competence and brand. When I began I spent a lot of money on branding and a decent website, because I know from my corporate life that the secret of any successful business is market positioning and branding, and very few photographers understand that. I've worked ridiculously hard for four years. All I do is work – I'm deeply obsessive – but now hopefully I can take my foot off the pedal a bit and enjoy what I've created.

Have you always been a Nikon photographer?

I got my first Nikon – the D80 – in 2007 and I started shooting properly in 2008 so, yes, I've always used Nikons. I am a Nikonian. It is genuinely because I love Nikon cameras. They're very intuitive, and if you have a problem with them you instinctively know how to get to the bottom of it.

What’s in your kit bag today?

I have the D4S, D3S, D3 and D800, and I use 35mm f/1.4, , 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, 105mm macro f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. My desert-island lens for outdoor work would have to be the 70-200mm, but the lens that changed everything for me was the 50mm f/1.8 – it was the first lens I owned that wasn't a kit lens and it let me realise that so much was possible.

I will never get rid of my D3S, either – it was the camera that took me to the next level – but the D4S has taken dominance in my work now. It's such high quality, the ISO range is phenomenal, and it's also about all those little changes on the body and spec that make all the difference. For instance, I like to toggle focal points, and now on the D4S if you're doing this and press the middle of the button, it jumps back to the middle of the range – and of course there is the separate multi-selector toggle for shooting in portrait format.

How has your artistic background informed your photographic style?

When you study the history of art, you spend many hours in the classroom critiquing images, looking at why they work visually and why they connect with the viewer. Some of my most popular training sessions are in composition – lines can be your biggest enemy until you know how to use them, and then they become your greatest friend. And colour harmony and theory help you make good decisions on location. A lot of new photographers have what I call 'photographer's sickness' – a crippling lack of self-confidence – and a decent understanding of composition can really improve that.

Who are your main influences?

In the art world I love the Impressionists onwards – it's all about the more modern, contemporary stuff. As far as I'm concerned, if you paint you paint, and if you're taking pictures you're taking pictures, so the older Renaissance styles that are more like photography didn't do it for me as a painter – I was much more abstract in my painting than I am my photography. My weddings aren't particularly niche or quirky; they're about beautiful venues, dresses, details. My clients want equally beautiful imagery.

In the photography world, Annie Leibovitz has been a huge influence for her attitude, originality, composition and incredible connection with her subjects, and the fact that she remains true to herself. Also Jerry Ghionis – he was the first person who made me think, 'I want to do this, and do it like him'. I was amazed at how proud he was of being a wedding photographer, his use of light – he's been a sheer inspiration. Then there's Adam Alex – I trained with him a while ago and he is the person who helped me really see light – and the US Nikon wedding photographer Susan Stripling. I don't know her personally, but her work is beautiful

What’s been your most challenging shoot?

All shoots are challenging. I'm a location photographer, so when you're dealing with locations and light and people, it's hard. I don't ever go in there relaxed. I have that slight nervousness that you need to do well, but underlying that you have to be super-confident that you can get the shots, whatever is thrown at you.

What do you enjoy doing best in your work?

It's making people happy, without a doubt. It's highly rewarding. Boudoir is what I most love to photograph because it changes women – women who've been through breast cancer, divorce, weight loss – it builds their confidence and, as their photographer, you get the chance to build amazing relationships with them.

I started doing boudoir very early on in my photography career, in 2010. I'd had an email from my sister-in-law's friend who wanted a really unusual present for her husband's 40th birthday – she said that he liked her legs, so could I photograph them? I did some research and did the shoot and I absolutely loved it. I think my boudoir work is very important in my role as a Nikon Ambassador. It's not just 'OK, Kate shoots ladies in lingerie', it's an amazing, empowering genre, and it's miles away from glamour. If I was told I could only do one type of photography from now on, it would have to be boudoir.

Do you have any tips for aspiring lifestyle photographers?

You can do this and earn a really good living but it takes a lot of hard work and you have to invest in the kit. Weddings should be word of mouth, whether it's recommendations from previous clients, the venue or the guests. Once you've established that, you don't need to advertise. I never have, but I've always worked hard at my market positioning. The secret of success is market positioning and who your clients are – you need to position your business to attract the clients that are right for you and your work.

…And what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?

I trained with Brett Harkness at Aspire while I was still taking photos as a hobby, and he told me, 'Just get on with it – stop talking about it!' So I did. But I never imagined I'd be on this level, and a Nikon Ambassador, too. I'm someone who doesn't rest on her laurels, but I'm delighted with where the business is right now.

Nikon Event