In a world where everyone has a camera with them at all times (phone camera), not often do you take time to sit and appreciate an image any more. Many types of visuals, photographs especially, have become so easy to consume, that we often forget what went into creating them. Today, we sat down with award-winning photographer photographer, Freddie Child-Villiers, who’s still able to create images that will make you stop and wonder how it was done.
Child-Villiers has been creating incredible, unique images of African tribes, wildlife, and fashion for over 15 years. Learn about how he got started as a photographer and why he is still creating these images today.
Where are you from? Where are you living/working now?
I’m originally from the United Kingdom; however, I moved to Cape Town in 2004 and have been here ever since.
When did you first start shooting? What made you pick up a camera?
I started my photographic career when I was fifteen. My school’s art teacher was very traditional and firmly believed that any deviation from a true-to-life painting or sculpture wasn’t ‘art’. So, picking up a camera was a welcome relief – and something I immediately fell for.
That said, growing up, my mother was a keen amateur photographer. I later learnt that my late uncle had spent a couple of months documenting the Soviet-Afgan war as a photojournalist in his early 20’s. Though I didn’t know this when I first picked up a camera, he became an inspiration to me as I got older.
What inspired you when you first started shooting, and what inspires you now?
The industry was quite different now from when I started. Things like Instagram, YouTube, etc., didn’t exist. So, I found inspiration in magazines, books and physical interactions. I used to deeply analyse work that I considered ‘cutting edge’ – bearing in mind that digital cameras were relatively new and photoshop as we know it wasn’t nearly as powerful.
I became fascinated by the Hasselblad Masters. On a flight back to the UK, I happened to sit next to one of these photographers. Chatting with him made me aspire to win the prestigious title. To this day, it is still something that motivates me to push my work, and who knows, maybe someday, I’ll realize this dream.
What did you shoot when you first started out?
Starting out, I would shoot anything and everything. From school sports matches, property for the local estate agent, covers for friends’ bands, portraits for Christmas cards, you name it.
I classify myself as a pretty versatile photographer, and I owe this to my early enthusiasm.
What was your first camera setup? + any gear?
My first camera was a small 35mm Fujifilm. But, I started my business with a Canon EOD 20D. I invested in a Canon 50mm 1.4, Sigma 10-20 and eventually a Canon 100-400. With that, I had my bases covered.
How has your equipment changed since you first started, and what impact do you think equipment (camera, lens, etc…) has on a photographer?
Anyone who tells you that gear doesn’t matter is full of it. Sure, it is possible to create fantastic imagery on any camera, but specialised equipment allows a working photographer to execute their vision with greater reliability and repetition.
As I’ve grown as a photographer, I’ve realised what equipment best suits my needs and style. For my portraits, I use a Hasselblad system. Much of my work is created using artificial flash, so the high sync speeds obtainable with leaf shutter lenses are necessary. I also value the resolution of the files when retouching and printing. However, I also own a Canon 1D system, which I use primarily for my wildlife imagery and videos.
“In my work now, the nerves tend to kick-in right at the beginning of the expedition. The planning is done, and now the success of the trip is up to fate…”
When did you first start shooting with Hasselblad cameras? What was your first model? Lens?
I bought my first Hasselblad in 2007. It was a traditional V-System camera with a CCD digital back. It was completely manual, even down to the shutter advance, and I used the hell out of it. I later traded it for an H-System camera. I was working in the fashion/advertising industries and needed something quicker and more dependable on set. Now, my work involves a lot of travel to remote places, so I’m using their latest mirrorless X1D. It’s a FANTASTIC camera!
Did you study photography at all? In-school workshops? If not, how did you learn?
I am entirely self-taught. Early on there were only really books and trial and error to learn from but, to this day, I use a myriad of different resources to keep up to date – YouTube being a firm favourite.
How did you get into photography as a business? Many photographers can shoot compelling photos, but not a lot are able to provide value to their client like you – how did you get started with this?
I started young and didn’t have any risk at the time. However, I also didn’t have anything to fall back on. I chose to pursue my photographic career rather than a university degree – I had to make it work.
I was fascinated by fashion photography and surrounded myself with other young, talented and hungry people within the industry. I built up a team of designers, stylists, hair and makeup artists. This quickly became my unique selling point, and I realised that people didn’t care what training we had – to be taken seriously, we needed to produce great work repeatedly. It didn’t take long before we were working for local brands and publications.
When I was twenty, I caught a bit of a break, winning the SA ELLE Magazine photographer of the year award. This gave validation to my work and me the confidence to market myself to more prominent clients. That same year I shot for Africas Next Top Model, part of the Americas Next Top Model franchise and was awarded semi-finalist in three Hasselblad Masters categories.
Fast forward, and while my business has changed a fair bit, my ethos is much the same: strive to produce great work repeatedly.
What drives you to shoot subjects like you do?
Over the years, I’ve photographed enough subjects to know what I don’t enjoy shooting. Now, I try to spend as much time photographing the things that I am passionate about. This lead to me shifting my focus entirely in 2017 and move into the art genre. My passion for the African continent, its people and culture became something that I felt compelled to pursue.
Do you ever get nervous? – depending on what you’ll be shooting?
I spend a considerable amount of time planning before a shoot, which mitigates nerves. Commercial shoots are daunting enough, and there’s no place for nerves when running a set. Prior planning meant that I was better equipped for an inevitable curveball, as I’ve already got the lighting, location, etc., covered.
In my work now, the nerves tend to kick-in right at the beginning of the expedition. The planning is done, and now the success of the trip is up to fate…
Do you always use natural lighting? What kind of lighting do you use/prefer and why?
No, quite the opposite. I love being able to manipulate light. Even when shooting outside, I’ll use a strobe if I can; my go-to, Broncolor Lighting and Elinchrom modifiers.
Do you work with any assistants or helpers for creating your images? If so, what do they help with?
My core team is very small, only me and my wife. When travelling, we’ll employ someone local to the area. They travel with us and assist with navigating the language and culture. My wife helps with lighting & video production.
Take us into post-production – how did you learn about photo / video editing?
I’m pretty computer savvy, so I learnt to retouch through trial, error and determination. With software like photoshop, there are often many different ways to achieve the same outcome. However, I’m constantly honing my skills, and platforms like Youtube have made it very easy to keep up. If I find an elegant solution that improves my workflow – I’ll use it.
Walk us through your process for editing? (ex: start with Lightroom, move to photoshop, finish with overlays) (only include as much detail as you’d like to!)
For my personal work/photographs I take on my phone: I open Lightroom, apply one of my presets and call it good. Check out my latest presets, ‘The Kodachrome Project‘ which emulates the notorious Kodachrome slide film from the 1990’s
For my commercial work: I do an initial pass in Phocus (Hasselblads software) or Lightroom before migrating the files to Photoshop. I never use a preset for these images. However, once they’re complete, I tend to convert the colour into a LUT or preset. This means that should the client wish to have another shoot or have an existing image colour matched; I can do it without hassle.
Unless the client has a specific use for them (i.e. on a poster), I never use overlays. Having said that, I’ve created a film grain overlay which I use from time to time…
Is there anything you would do differently for a client than a regular, personal shoot?
No. I treat every job as if it’s my most significant commission. I’m not shy to turn away potential clients should their budget or timeframe not allow for the level of detail I hope to achieve.
I will say that pursuing personal work is incredibly important, particularly if you’re working in the fashion/ advertising industries. It is far easier to talk about one’s personal work enthusiastically – which clients respond to positively. For this reason, make your personal work reflect the type of work you want to produce commercially, even if it’s quite different from what you’ve done so far.
What are some long term goals of yours? Who/What do you wish to shoot one day?
Currently, I am developing a homage to Africa’s traditionally practising tribes. When it is complete, my goal is to exhibit the photographs on a global platform, with a portion of every sale going back to the communities where the photographs were made. I also hope to publish a hardcover coffee table book, so that the works can be widely enjoyed.