Shooting "difficult people" with Tom Barnes

Guitarist Jesse Hughes lying on his back on a wooden floor, legs raised, holding a guitar above his head with both hands
Jesse Hughes from the rock band Eagles of Death Metal. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens. © Tom Barnes

"I get sent to difficult shoots all the time," says advertising and commercial portrait photographer Tom Barnes. "I had to photograph someone the other day and they were four hours late. The press person came in and said, 'She's in the worst mood. You're going to have 10 seconds with her. She does not want to be here.'"

The story has a happy ending, though. "I ended up photographing her for 45 minutes, got five different set-ups and we had a great time," says Tom. "She was like: 'Thank you so much for turning my day around.'"

And that was no accident, but a testimony to Barnes' skills as a people person, which he's finely honed over a long career in portraiture.

Huey Morgan, wearing a black leather jacket, sits at a wooden table, blowing smoke from a cigarette
Huey Morgan photographed in a pub in West London for the cover of his book Rebel Heroes. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Tom Barnes
An ice hockey player staring intently, holding his stick in both gloved hands, his face looking cut and bruised
Ice hockey portrait, roughed up with good make-up. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Tom Barnes

Fun approach

When a subject arrives on a shoot, Tom will drop everything and spend time with them, finding out how their day was and what they're into, doing whatever he can to make them feel at home. "You can tell so much just through the face's textures and expressions," he says. "The face and the eyes really give it away. Plus, I quite like to have fun on shoots. If you're photographing a car or a flower, you look mad if you start talking to them. I quite like jacking around and having a bit of a laugh. And it's really been the best thing I ever did, just focusing on people."

You can tell so much just through the face’s textures and expressions.

These days, Tom is fully booked with world-class campaigns, and he leans heavily on his Canon EOS 5DS in his work. "As soon as the EOS 5DS came out, that was it; I knew that was what I wanted," he recalls. "I think I was one of the first in the UK to have two of them. Everyone was getting one, and I kicked up a stink and said I had to have two matching bodies. Ever since, I've shot everything with them. I absolutely love them."

Boasting a 50.6MP sensor as well as advanced signal processing, thanks to Dual DIGIC 6 processors, the EOS 5DS is an obvious choice for advertising photographers who need ultimate image quality, paired with the ergonomics of an EOS body. "The main advantages that come with the camera are the resolution matched with the speed," says Tom. The camera's successor in the current Canon range is the EOS 5DS R.    

A tattooed man wearing denims sits in front of a trolley holding tattooist’s equipment
Sketch shot for the second series of Channel 4's Tattoo Fixers. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Tom Barnes
A high-contrast mono image of the head and shoulders of a female swimmer wearing goggles and a cap
Swimmer portrait shot with Profoto lighting. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. © Tom Barnes
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"For years if you wanted the resolution you could get it, but the cameras were slow and clunky. Now you have the reliability of a DSLR that's obviously had millions in R&D spent on it, which is something that smaller companies with higher megapixels can't do. Since I work with a lot of 'difficult' people, I may not have too long to shoot them, so it's basically given me the speed of DSLR with medium format-sized images."

There was a learning curve, he admits. "I had to learn how to refocus. On the EOS 5D Mark III, you can just kind of 'spray and pray'. So it doesn't really matter because you can centre focus and then refocus quite a lot. With the EOS 5DS, you have to select the autofocus point that's as close to your point of focus as possible [because the higher resolution reveals even the slightest focusing inaccuracy]. So, I researched and looked into the focus system, which is very precise. It works very well for me."

Three-quarter-view portrait photo of a middle-aged man wearing a dark pin-striped jacket and an open-necked shirt
Phillip is the landlord of Tom Barnes' studio and an ex-army boxer. "His stories are incredible," Tom says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. © Tom Barnes
A tattooed woman in black carries a shovel in one hand and drags a body wrapped in black bin bags sealed with tape
Lou Hopper and the body, shot on location with rain, smoke and police involvement. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Tom Barnes

For lenses, Tom turns to the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II USM. "I did have the 85mm f/1.2, which I love," he adds. "But I've just sold it and I've since bought the 70-200mm, because I have projects coming up where I need a zoom rather than a prime, and I must say I'm really happy with it. The 70-200mm is good because the flexibility it gives me is excellent. But that said, all of those lenses give me great flexibility.

"Now I use the 24-70mm and 70-200mm on every single shoot; I very rarely use the 16-35mm but it is there just in case I need it. For portraits, the longer the focal length, the more flattering the image. Therefore I never really need to go super-wide, but in case I'm stuck in a really small area and need to get a wide shot, that's my go-to. Those lenses are great. When you nail the focus they really sing."

A mono photo of a young man from the waist up, his entire body and neck covered in tattoos
Antony Fleming, one of Tom Barnes' tattooists, photographed in downtime on a shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Tom Barnes

Perhaps more surprisingly, considering his signature "moody" look, Tom is not big on post-production. "I'm not going to lie to you and say everything is done in-camera; the toning and contrast is done afterwards," he says. "But I don't really do much post. I don't have thousands of hours to spend in the office, tweaking and making sure everything is right, so getting it right in-camera saves me so much time. I have a couple of light modifiers [mounted on his studio flash] that I absolutely love and they give me the look that I'm after."

Written by Deniz Dirim

Tom Barnes' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon 5DS R camera with a 24-70mm lens on a white background.


Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail. The ultra-high resolution enables extensive cropping and still delivers sharp image quality.


Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM

Featuring superb image quality edge to edge, a robust build and impeccable weather sealing, this L-series ultra-wide angle zoom lens has a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture for crisp results whatever the lighting conditions.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.


Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabiliser that makes it ideal for shooting handheld in low-light conditions, and ultra-low dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours.

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