After completing a Business Management degree and seven years into building a career in property development, Holly found herself very unhappy with her day-to-day life, and an honest and hard review of her life, work and motivations led her to a dramatic career change into portrait and lifestyle photography. She is the first to admit it was a brave move, given that she had never taken a portrait in her life, but it spoke to her twin passions for pictures and people, and she has never looked back. Based in London and working worldwide, she has a range of clients, from large businesses and agencies through to public figures and charities. We caught up with Holly shortly before The Photography Show – where she will be talking on the Nikon stage about making the move from hobbyist to pro – to find out why the D850 suits her style so well, and why she’s in love with her unassuming 50mm…

So how is 2018 shaping up?

I’ve just come back from Australia – my sisters live there, so I spent some time with them and then had six days in the outback, working with the Royal Flying Doctors Service [RFDS] – amazing people who do amazing work. I recently shot an event for RFDS Friends in the UK at Clarence House, and it got me thinking that photographing them in their environment would be really interesting – not least because I used to watch the TV series and my dad was a pilot!

In March I’m at The Photography Show, where I’ll be giving two talks on the Nikon stage. Rather than portrait techniques, I want to talk about the business, about taking it from a hobby to a profession. I’ve spent five years learning hard lessons for myself, so what I’m aiming to do is answer the questions I’m asked the most by people I meet and mentor. It begins with the camera but that is only a stepping stone. Being a photographer is also about running a business; it’s a hard balance between art and that, and that’s where many people struggle. I was lucky enough to come from a business background, but a lot of photographers don’t.

Where does your love of photography come from?

Family. My granddad loved photography, and he passed that onto my dad, and now there’s me.

My granddad died when I was six, so I don’t remember much of the time I spent with him, but the memories I do have are all related to his photography. He had a projector he used to screen onto a blank wall, and my sister Katie and I would sit down and watch while he talked us through his pictures. My nan had a picture he’d taken of some horses on a beach she kept long after he passed. My granddad had always said was his best picture, and my nan could talk you through exactly why – he’d drilled it into her!

Obviously it rubbed off on me, and I was ten when I got my first camera. I still remember going with my dad to the shop in Chester to pick it up. But I’m not going to say that was me sorted, and that I took photographs all the time from then. As I grew up I was distracted by the normal teenage things, like having fun and seeing my friends, and I dipped in and out of it until I got to university. Then I started taking pictures to print and brighten up my grotty student room, mostly random shots of flowers and, for some reason, a church doorway. People didn’t believe I’d taken them – they thought they were postcards – and I started to think maybe I had a talent for it.

Why did you get into property development, and what prompted the switch to photography?

I did a Business Management degree at Leeds University, and I loved it. I was a real geek, right at the front for every lecture. I wanted to do my masters after graduating, but I couldn’t get a loan. Shortly before we got our degree results, I was working behind the bar in the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot in York, and got talking to a couple of guys who ran a property development company. I told them it was something I was interested in, and they ended up offering me a job. They more or less gave me free rein, and I chose to work in land buying, which I loved.

Then – this is the short version – after four years the 2009 bank crash hit and the company ended up going into administration. It coincided with my desire to travel, so I went to Australia for a year and when I came back I got a job in London back in property development but although I was incredibly lucky to get any job in that industry during that period, I hated it. The company culture wasn’t good, a few people took a dislike to me, and I felt bullied, which made me want to prove myself even more. So I pushed through it for two years but it was an uphill battle; I ended up completely miserable.

So I started therapy, and what hit me was that a large part of my identity is work; I get very closely attached to what I do, it is who I am as a person. For me to get up and do it, it has to be something I’m passionate about. My therapist asked me to go away and think about all the things I enjoyed doing, rather than just thinking about what I was qualified to do. One was photography, so I started researching it to get rid of my assumptions – like not having a photography degree meant I wouldn’t be able to work as a photographer.

In hindsight, it seems a little crazy that I made such a big decision when I felt so bad – I had a well paid job and I needed to pay the bills but ultimately I was unhappy, so I quit to become a portrait photographer. I’d never even taken a portrait! But I remember thinking that things couldn’t get any worse, and nothing is really a risk when you’re at rock bottom. If you’re OK, the opportunity cost is a job that is OK, but if you’re not OK, and it seems like nothing can get worse, then really you have nothing to lose. It’s funny how some of the best things come from the worst situations.

With anything creative, you can’t be attached to the monetary outcome: you have to do it because you love what you do. Probably 50% of my time even now isn’t paid; I do this because I want to, because I care about it. That was the big shift in my thinking – I’d chased money and status after university but when I chased it I realised it wasn’t important. As long as I have the money to cover my expenses, I’d rather work less and do what I want to do than earn lots of money and hate every day.

…and why portraiture in particular?

It came about through a process of elimination. I didn’t think I’d enjoy studio or product work because of the isolation, and even though I had contacts and interests in architecture, I think I was just a bit over buildings and the industry at that point. Portraits played to my passions for being around people, meeting them, interacting – that’s what I find fascinating. And, luckily, I turned out to be pretty good at it. So five years ago I started my business through the Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme, which supports business start-ups, and I ended up becoming a Young Ambassador for them. I was lucky to get that support and structure – there were courses, classes, mentors, and you were with a group of people going through the same experiences as you, be it in different industries.

Which was your first Nikon, and which cameras do you use now?

I got my first Nikon just after university, 14 year ago – a D70. When I started my business in 2013 I bought a brand new D800 with the 85mm f/1.4. I later added a second-hand D4, which is an excellent camera. I bought it for its ISO capabilities and amazing focusing, but for my use it was too heavy and ended up spending most of its life sidelined by the D800 and then latterly the D810. I did toy at one point with getting the D5 but, again, it’s too big and heavy for me, especially with longer lenses, and it’s not really stealthy enough, especially when I’m trying to be unobtrusive.

What I needed was an upgraded D810, so when the D850 came out my heart skipped a beat – it was as if the D5 and D800 had spawned a love child! I’ve had mine since launch. It’s perfect for my style of photography: I need a large sensor and large files as many of my clients want huge enlargements, and its ISO capabilities are amazing. Working with ambient and natural light relies in large part on being able to push the ISO but not see it. I don’t want noise or grain, and with the D850 I can get much higher than previously without seeing it. The autofocus is incredible, too, probably because it comes from the D5, which has one of the best AF systems out there.

I love using it – it feels medium format in the way it shoots and in the detail it delivers. Some little tweaks have made a big difference, like the addition of a tilting touch-screen back, the amazing extended battery life, and the fact that it hasn’t got a pop-up flash. The number of times I smacked myself in the face with the built-in flash on my D800 and D810, I ended up taping them down. My view is that if you use pop-up flash on cameras like these, you don’t deserve to have them!

Which lenses do you prefer?

The new 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is incredible. I use it a lot for my lifestyle work. When I’m working with “real” people rather than models in less than ideal situations, it enables me to blur distracting backgrounds, and the zoom makes it so flexible, it acts like a prime – and it’s very flattering.

I love my 50mm f/1.4 – it’s literally what I live on. It’s fast, lightweight and compact, an all-round great lens, and it only cost me £250 secondhand! It’s perfect for environmental portraits where you need a wider angle of lens you can use in a small space, and where I don’t need as much compression because I want to retain background detail. I’m also obsessed with lines and the 50mm gets the lines straight. The 85mm f/1.4 is an incredible lens, too, but best at taking relatively close portraits, like head and beauty shots.

And I’ve just started dabbling with the 58mm f/1.4G. It had the best from the 50mm and 85mm, with the beauty of the 85mm but the feel of a 50mm. I might make this my new obsession.

What are your go-to accessories?

My favourite is my wireless tethering tool, which is really useful paired with my iPad Pro. It’s great for showing what you shoot as you shoot, so that models, clients and my assistant can see what’s being produced and give their feedback. And, unlike traditional tethering, I can still look at the images on the camera screen at the same time as they are checking them out on the iPad. It makes life a whole lot easier on set and helps you ensure you’re delivering to brief.

I’m also very partial to a reflector. My style often makes it hard to tell whether I’m using natural light or flash, and that’s what reflectors are so good at. You can get amazing results with the typically overcast UK sky. Those really cheap ones that cost £7 on eBay are perfect – and the cheap materials used helps them be extra bendy, so you can channel light in anywhere!

How do you approach your imaging?

When you’re working environmentally, you have to become an expert at two key things – using the light that exists, and manipulating and adding light to get your desired result. Generally, I’m a soft light enthusiast, so I use large softboxes and overcast days. I like to layer levels of complexity according to the environment as I find it; I’ll start by trying to use the natural light, then if necessary I’ll add a reflector, and if that’s not enough, I’ll add artificial light or flash.

My new favourite trick is to use beams of harsher sunlight and expose for that area, so it lights a portion of the face and throws the rest into shadow – it’s a real balancing act. The thing is, as much as you plan, think about your location and choose the time of day, you can only work with the available light, so I’m constantly exploring and analysing the environment I’m in. I do try to get it right in-camera as far as possible. My philosophy is never take an OK image and make it great; take a “great” image and make it “amazing” in post-production.

Which pictures are you proudest of?

It changes as I evolve and find new people and stories to tell. I look back at some of the first images I took five years ago and think, ah, did I really do that? But some of my earlier stuff I still love and still think works.

It’s probably my personal work I most connect with though, as it is often more about story telling than anything else – I like to provoke a thought, a feeling. I am so proud of my 2016 exhibition, “Love. Lived.”, featuring portraits of elderly people alongside their love stories. Everyone who viewed it had their own favourite because they would see a little bit of themselves in those stories, and so I felt like I’d done my job – conveyed people, told who they were.

One of my favourite shots is of Lucia standing in her doorway in the village of Solaga near the city of Oaxaca in Mexico. She was a friend of a friend and invited us to have dinner with her family. It was incredibly kind and open, and I love discovering new places and cultures; it’s an amazing opportunity to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t connect with.

The image is part of a recent series I shot, in Mexico during Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The festival is incredibly significant in those cultures, it’s bigger than Christmas, and it was crazy in the city, but out in the villages it’s much less frantic – actually quite calm and very moving. I cried a few times listening to people talk about its significance, although it’s actually a celebration!

What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Shooting out in Oaxaca was incredibly challenging because I couldn’t speak the language. For me, portraiture is about connecting with your subject, so you can get something out of them that other photographers haven’t, and I create that connection by talking. So I felt very disarmed that I was going in voiceless, but what I realised pretty quickly was that kindness and humour in facial expressions and body language are international.

More generally, my biggest challenge has been in reconciling the idea that this work I love and care about, my passion and art, has to be run as a business, and that will sometimes mean working hard to shoot stuff you don’t love, working to a brief you don’t like. My biggest learning curve has been to become accepting of failure. You have to care but be willing to take the criticism and get over mistakes, because you learn far more from failure than you do from success.

Do you have much opportunity to shoot your own projects, or is it mostly commissioned work?

I have an agent and clients I work regularly for, including British Land, the Shard, the Prince’s Trust and Clarence House but I try to do as much personal work as I can; I think it’s the most important way to test ideas, practise failure and push yourself to be better. Overall, I split my time around 50:50 between commissioned and personal work, but it comes in waves during the year. I’ll have lots of work one month, so my personal projects will take a back seat. Then, when commissions are slow – January is usually very quiet for me – I’ll use that time for my own projects. I’m passionate about both types of work; it all fits together to show who I am as a photographer.

What advice would you pass on for success in portraiture?

Your portraits should be like a fingerprint, so people know they are yours. Find your own style and niche, make yourself an expert at that, and eventually clients will come to you for that specific thing. You won’t play in the high-value game if you spread yourself too thinly, and that’s difficult at the beginning, but you need to follow what you’re good at and get the experience in it. That’s not something you can shortcut, sadly; being an expert takes time and relentless commitment to the goal!

For more information visit www.hollywren.com/