Amateur Photographer Workshop


I was recently asked to hold a workshop for Amateur Photographer Magazine and thought I’d share it with you. Oliver Atwell of Amateur Photographer invited Jennifer Peel and Isobel Murphy to London to spend a day picking my brains!

We spent a very cold day in rainy South London, shooting in the streets with our two models, China and Chai-Lee. Check out the short video below.

The first thing I showed Jennifer and Isobel was not to worry about the weather. I always say, “the weather is, what the weather is – we have this day to shoot, so how shall we do it?” There is no point in wishing you had sunshine – when you have to do a shoot on a certain day, in a certain location, you just have to get on with it and enjoy it, whatever the weather!

We found some great top shade just outside the Amateur Photographer headquarters – a covered walkway outside a cafe, which provided shelter from the rain and created very soft light on the model’s face.

The sofas and the green chairs outside the cafe instantly inspired me, so we used them for the first shoot. We dragged the sofa onto the pavement and positioned it under the high roof of the walkway, right at the front, where the light was softest. From this one position, we could get all sorts of different angles and shots, just by walking around her, and zooming in and out.

I often find working with models quite different, as I am used to being in control and directing people. Models usually want to do the posing for you, unlike “ordinary” people who are nervous and worried about having their photo taken. It’s normally much more fun for me to take a camera-shy person and show them how good they can look, and ultimately give them loads of confidence – that’s what I really love about my shoots. I think most people can take a good shot of a model; it requires very different skills to make the rest of us mere mortals look like models!

However in this case, China has only just started modeling; she’s only 16 and was terrified when she turned up (although she did a really good job of pretending not to be!). This was great news for me, because suddenly we did not have an experienced model, we had a 16 year old girl, who was really nervous about the shoot – just like any other teenage girl – and I was therefore able to show Jennifer and Isobel how to relax someone, and how to take control of the shoot – looking at shapes in the picture and rearranging those shapes until they look good.

I asked China to sit on the sofa any way she liked, and I then moved her around until she looked “right” to me. I did this by asking her to move her legs slightly sideways, or turn her shoulders, then her head, etc. I tend to start with someone’s feet, put them in a good position, angle their legs, then move up to the body, then shoulders and arms, and then their head, and finally their expression.

Just before I take the shot, I ask them to relax – because inevitably when I am positioning all their “shapes”, they become stiff and feel “wooden,” but to me their shape looks the best it can look at this point; so once they relax, they tend to drop into a comfortable version of the shape I’ve created. People often say to me “but I feel really wooden, and unnatural” – and I say, “I know it feels weird, but you look fabulous!” Basically, when people feel really relaxed in a shot, they don’t always look their best! And by this, I mean when their “shape” is relaxed. I know that when they are positioned, they will not feel natural – but they will look great. Just think about your holiday snaps – most people take snaps of their family and friends on holiday because they feel really relaxed, however, they usually hate them! By positioning people in some quite un-relaxed positions, you often make them look their best! Can’t really explain it – its just experience!

We then changed clothes and moved onto our 2nd background. I knew this black dress was going to create an amazing shape against the huge pillars, and provide us with a variety of different images. Note – she is standing in the only dry patch of ground! We are getting soaked, but shooting some great pictures!


I tend to keep the camera straight for the wide shots (the distortion is from the wide angle lens), and then I tilt the camera deliberately for the closer shots to make it look more dynamic.


I then showed Jennifer and Isobel how to create movement in her hair to make an interesting shot. I crouched China down on the ground, so I could shoot down towards her, thereby making her eyes look bigger. We then asked her to face away from us, and then swing her hair around, so we could shoot and capture the movement. We have to do this several times, to get a good shot – not every one will be perfect, because we have no idea how her hair will fall, so we just shoot lots, and ask her to keep repeating the process until she gets dizzy!


Then onto our third set of clothes. I chose the black & white clothes after I’d seen this hoarding full of black & white drawings – because I thought the whole thing would work so well together. This was a very busy street and we had to shoot in between cars driving past, and trying not to get run over!


After lunch it was time for some new locations with our next model, Chai-Lee, and we found the perfect underpass below Blackfriars Bridge. We managed to dodge the commuters and the buskers and grab shots in the few second gaps between people walking through.


Of course, I never forget my iPhone – I just love seeing the instant results it gives, particularly with Hipstamatic and Camera + – and it also means I can show some of the images to the model, because they are already finished!


Next it’s a quick change into a dress, under a fire escape! Although Chai-Lee had brought some smart shoes to wear with the dress, we all loved her boots, so asked her to wear these with the dress to give a rather incongruous look, which I think works really well, with the rough brick walls and adds “attitude” to the shots.

ABOVE: shot on Canon 5D mark 2 - shooting from below makes people look taller, as you can see from the two shots above. BELOW: shot on Hipstamatic on the iPhone 4S - I just love it! Shooting from above gives a totally different feel.

ABOVE: shot on Canon 5D mark 2 – shooting from below makes people look taller, as you can see from the two shots above. BELOW: shot on Hipstamatic on the iPhone 4S – I just love it! Shooting from above gives a totally different feel.

Finally we ended the day with a much needed hot chocolate in the rooftop cafe of The Blue Fin Building, home to Amateur Photographer and IPC Magazines.

And even then we couldn’t resist taking a few iPhone shots of Chai-Lee in the cafe! The backgrounds and light were so inspiring!


So what did they learn?

Isobel Murphy:

“The workshop with Annabel was AMAZING! We had so much fun but learned a lot too, Annabel has a very relaxed style of teaching, which helps a lot with the practical side of photography. I learned a lot about the psychology of lifestyle photography, how to engage with clients and make them feel most comfortable to get the best out of a shoot. I learned to prepare for shoots more in advance, making it up as you go along works better if you have planned your location! Getting variety out of a shoot is also something I learned from the workshop by just changing a few angles, poses and backgrounds. Finally I learned that to create beautiful photographs it is so important to not be focusing on the camera the whole time, but the client. Making things as simple as possible on the technical side can really help you to connect with the client. Thank you so much Annabel the day was ace!” (Please note that Isobel works with another girl called Jennifer – not to be confused with Jennifer Peel who came on the AP day!)

Jennifer Peel:

“The thing that stands out to me is the importance of preparing a client for a shoot and how this really affects the final images. I’ve never told a client to wear makeup as I’ve probably been too shy or worried of offending them and I’ve never told them what to wear (or chosen with them). You’ve really made me realise how important it is to do this. Also the way to approach a shoot, not to shove a camera in someone’s face, particularly a child, straight away but to slow it right down and get to know them first.

I’ve also learnt that I need a 70-200mm!

It was a really good experience to watch someone else shoot, to see how they direct and interact with a person to get the expression you want. I’ve learnt how to get a big variety of shots by just making little changes to the person’s position and moving your own position to get a different backdrop or angle. You don’t always need a fancy backdrop – Annabel has a way of making a backdrop out of almost anything look good. All of our pictures were taken within minutes walk of each other, but yet they are all so different. I’ve learnt how to see things differently – to look at the colours and textures and know how they can come out on camera.

I feel that Annabel has taught me what I need to know to push my portraits to the next level – thank you so much!!”


Annabel x

Behind the scenes shots: Oliver Atwell, Jennifer Peel and Isobel Murphy
Video: Shot by China’s Mum, Julie / Editing: James Robinson

Thanks to Oliver Atwell of AP for organising such a great day, thanks to China and Chai-Lee for braving the cold – and especially to Izzy and Jennifer for being such good fun! With personalities like those, they are both going to go a very long way! (And I love their photos too!).


Read the ‘The Amatuer Photographer Masterclass with Annabel Williams’ article .pdf