We catch up with the gifted portrait photographer Debbi Clark, who first discovered her love of photography at art school and still brings the same creative magic to all her images…
Q: Why and how did you get into photography?
I was studying fashion and design at Central St Martins: it was here my love of photography was discovered. I used to go out with my very first camera – an Olympus Pen-F 35mm film camera (which I still use and love today!) I used it back then to photograph landscapes, capture patterns of cloud formations, close-ups of tree bark, flowers, grass – picturing shapes, shadows and formations in the way the light moved on to my subjects. I used to photograph portraits of friends at art colleges as inspiration for the design. It was when I became obsessed with playing with lights that I moved my studies to the art of photography, to learn the technical side and really bring my images to life: I fell in love! Being behind the lens literally transports me into another world – having a medium that I can express myself through is like travelling to another dimension.
Q: How did you become an Olympus photographer?
I had always used Olympus film cameras but when I founded my charity – the Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation – I asked if Olympus could support my work with young people in disadvantaged situations and enable them to learn photography. Olympus kindly supported our art foundation with E-PL8 cameras and I started using a digital PEN-F, which I have to say is one of my all-time favourite cameras. I have taken most of my favourite portraits and campaigns to date using this fantastic little beauty of a beast.
Q: What subject do you most often take photos of?
I would say my work is mainly portraits and editorial fashion. My all-time favourite subject has to be the iconic actor Helen McCrory OBE, who is also a dear friend of mine and patron to Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation. Helen has the most incredible bone structure: I always undertake a fascinating journey each time we shoot. In a way, peoples’ faces are similar to landscapes: their bone structure, lines and the way they look at certain angles are what I work with. It’s then about capturing their essence.
Q: How often do you take pictures?
I take pictures every single day, whether professionally or literally being in the moment and seeing something that captivates my eye.
Q: What’s in your camera bag?
I have two PEN F’s – one black, one silver (I always carry two cameras as you never know what might happen) plus four batteries, a charger, M.Zuiko 45mm lens, M.Zuiko 17mm lens and M.Zuiko 75mm lens.
Q: What kit’s essential for your preferred genre, other than cameras and lenses?
I also carry gaffer tape, six SD cards, tape measure, a Profoto flashgun, Ledgo LED light, more batteries, BluTack, wire, coloured gels cut out in small squares, a tripod, 35mm film, my Carmex lip balm and my crystal, which I sometimes use in front of my lens to create a sun flare or a rainbow light.
Q: What keeps you busy, other than photography?
I am CEO of the Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation, a charity I founded in 2013 to support young people living in disadvantaged areas, by providing them with the inspiration and tools to develop lifelong artistic passions. We provide free workshops in arts and photography.
Q: Do you shoot in Raw or JPEG? (and did you change – and why?)
I always shoot RAW and JPEG. Shooting RAW gives me the advantage of being able to edit to a higher level, and I always shoot JPEG in the eventuality of an image not being able to process, therefore I always have the JPEG to back up.
Q: How do you know when one of your images is good – what do you look for?
I know when one of my images is good as soon as I have taken it: it’s like a connection I get between the subject and me behind the lens. It is difficult to explain but it feels like a moment of intuition and spontaneity, it’s like being in sync with my camera, my subject. There is always a moment in every shoot when you click that shutter and you know you have it, you’ve captured that moment.
Q: What’s your workflow like?
My workflow is pretty easy at the moment so I am taking the time to look back in my archives and editing. I have found some great images that have been buried deep amongst my hard drives, probably due to my oversubscribed schedules over the last three years. Usually, I would use a team of creatives for a fashion editorial, but for portraits, I usually prefer to work on my own with the subject. Sometimes I feel too many people on set interrupts the dynamic of what is needed to create that personal shot, to capture the essence and relationship between photographer and subject. I am also now preparing for an exhibition, which I should have held in this month in May – ‘Do Not Disturb’ – which we’ve had to reschedule due to Covid-19.
Q: How much editing do you do after you’ve taken your photographs?
It depends on what I am shooting as to how much editing I do. Personally, I prefer keeping editing to a minimum, usually just adjusting light levels and cropping. I don’t use Photoshop so most of my images are lit as I would like to see them when exposed. If a client wishes to be more retouched then I would send it out to my re-toucher who I work with very closely, and who I trust with my work.
Q: What do you do with your photos once they’re finished?
I usually send them to my client to approve: I would never use any images that are not approved. It does sometimes happen that I would prefer one image over the one the client likes, and this is probable in most creative industries, as we are all looking at our work from a subjective point of view.
Q: What’s the best feature of Olympus kit?
The best feature of the Olympus kit has to be the PEN-F in itself: I love the custom Monochrome settings and the Custom Dial that you can program to shoot in your own personal style. For me, that’s what makes photography so beautiful – each and every image is subjective.
Q: What’s the most useful piece of photography advice you’ve ever heard?
The best piece of photography advice was from legend Terry O Neill: I first met Terry back in the early ’90s at an exhibition, when I was taking photos on my 35mm Pen-F. He said to me “Always make sure you’ve got a film in your camera” – I think we’ve all done it at one time or another, for sure! To this day I carry a roll of 35mm film in my kit.
Q: Who or what inspires you?
I have to say Terry O’Neill has always been one of my biggest inspirations, alongside Helmut Newton and Peter Lindbergh.
Q: A side from photography, what do you wish you were really good at?
I wish I was really good at sketching and drawing. I sketch a lot but become extremely frustrated with getting my proportions right, and hands – looking at most of my sketches they all seem to resemble a hobbit in some shape or form.
Q: If you could only have one lens on your camera, which would it be?
If I could take only one lens to a portrait session it would be my Zuiko 45mm Prime, it really is a superb lens, one of my favourites – an exceptional quality lens.
Q: What’s next on your wishlist, kit-wise?
I am yearning for the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III!
Q: Where can we see more of your photos?
You can see more of my photos on Instagram @debbiclarkphotography and www.debbiclark.com although these days I seem to post more on my Instagram than my website, so my latest images would be on Instagram, and my website has my full bio – plus my photography work on portraits, editorial and fashion campaigns.
Q: Can you point us at an Olympus-using photographer who deserves more of a spotlight (and tell us why?)
Jay Mc Laughlin is one of my favourite Olympus photographers: I have worked with Jay at LFW and he has also come along to support our young people at Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation. His fashion and street photographs are superb, he is one of the most technical wizards of all the Olympus cameras that I know, as well as being a super creative fashion photographer.