Simon Buck: The story behind a celebrity portrait

02 November, 2018

Written by: Ailish Cook

Celebrity portrait photographer Simon Buck draws inspiration from some of the world's greatest photographers and uses this to create his own unique images with a personality. Simon recently faced the challenge of shooting a well-known face in the constrained time frame of 2 minutes, with a requested limitation on equipment used. Today, he talks to us about his journey through photography and how he got the shot.

A photographer's journey

Simon's journey as a budding photographer started with a Kodak Ektra mechanical point n click that was gifted to him by his grandparents at the age of 8. Watching his father precisely document crimes through scientific photography further sparked Simon's interest, resulting in him being given an SLR camera for Christmas when he was 11. Simon's passion for photography grew through school, where he constantly embraced opportunities to capture a variety of subjects. After practising constantly, his break came in 2004 when offered to photograph Louis De Bernieres for a new book release.

"He asked if I would shoot his portraits for the hardback edition and all associated promotional material. Talk about a decisive moment! I was 26 with no commercial experience and I shot the whole lot with my Nikon F80 on a mix of 35mm Kodak transparency and Ilford HP4. The shots came out really well to my surprise and a huge relief and were used across all of Random House/Secker & Warburg's international publishing territories, national press and TV. I'll always be incredibly grateful to Louis for taking a punt on me and we remain friends to this day."

This moment gave Simon the confidence to become a professional photographer. He finished his normal day job on a Friday and started his photography business the following Monday. Constantly looking to develop his knowledge, a workshop with David A. Williams helped Simon on the right path to starting his real professional career.

"It's given me some incredible opportunities, friendships and moments, as well as a livelihood, and I wouldn't change a thing."

Producing distinctive portrait ideas

Producing distinctive portrait ideas is something Simon has familiarised himself with over the years, from planning to execution. His creative process allows him to take exceptional photographs.

"First of all, it's a question of "what's the story": what is the brief or theme and what is the image being used to illustrate? Is it editorial, for advertising/PR or is it a stand-alone art piece? Does it need to reflect a particular emotion or follow a look that's in line with a brand sensibility or an individual's persona? Then I have to know how it will be reproduced and do I have to shoot in mind of a certain format - page width or layout, web header, social media template etc. If it's for commercial purposes, can we maximise mine and the subject's time to create a cross-platform collection that will deliver the best value to the client?"

After answering all of these questions, Simon then is able to plan images around the amount of creative freedom he has.

"This may be planned over several weeks with a creative production team or directly with the subject themselves on set in the heat of the moment, which is riskier but often yields great results. Above all I'm always very keen to highlight to the subject it's a collaboration between us and that their comfort and concerns are my priority. I have my own ideas that I'll bring along on the day, but these are party to change on the flip of a coin depending on the circumstance."

The making of iconic celebrity images: Brian Blessed

In one celebrity shoot, Simon was due to capture Brian Blessed as part of his promotional book signing. This came with a sell-out crowd, multiple media interviews and an incredibly tight schedule, which meant that preparation was key. Simon was initially given a generous 20-minute slot before Brian was to meet attendees, but circumstances changed as they often do.

"I had an idea that I wanted to capture Brian in a fine art set-up. Using a painted backdrop and single beauty dish high overhead, I aimed to create a theatrical spot-lit feel but with the benefit of a soft drop-off to maintain a painterly effect. Perfect for a legendary actor who has trodden the boards for decades, and of course I wanted to nail a signature Brian Blessed exclamation - a belly laugh or bellow. That was the plan."

After a being stuck in traffic, meeting fans and having refreshments, Simon was left with just 2 minutes to photograph Brian.

"One minute before he stepped onto the set, his publicist leant in and told me I absolutely couldn’t use any flash. Brian was suffering an eye injury and direct bright lights could blind him. It was now 5 pm in the middle of December so there was no chance of me even bodging a natural light portrait.

Instant, intense panic inspired an idea that I could still make a portrait if he wasn’t looking up or at the light. If I got him to gaze downward then his eyes would be protected, and I’d get that contemplative feeling. This would be distinctive and counter to his usual persona - something introspective maybe?

He stepped up and as I always do, I asked him if he had any ideas or suggestions regarding his picture. “Well dear boy, I’m always being photographed as loud and larger than life, but I’ve always wanted something a little more subdued and thoughtful”. I couldn’t believe my luck.

So, we got that first shot and then I asked him to close his eyes as if mid trademark laugh and give me his best “GORDON’S ALIVE?!!”.

I made three portraits in just over 2 minutes and experienced a huge learning curve that I still reflect on. I can also confirm being in Brian’s company is a joyful, adrenaline fuelled and wonderfully exhausting experience, as you’d expect!”

The fundamentals of portrait lighting

Simon uses light to enhance a character and tell a subject's story, a key element in his portraiture work.

"I always want to serve the image, flatter the subject and tell the story so will light accordingly. However, for me, it really is about keeping it simple and building up from one base light. If I can position, direct and feather or bounce just a single strobe and create a distinctive, compelling portrait then that’s perfect. I’m often restricted by time (the subject’s or the location access) and space (rarely ideal) so if the lighting can be set quickly then I can concentrate on interacting with my subject, building an instant rapport and trying different expressions, poses and composition.”

"The B1X is absolutely my favourite location lighting choice, no question. I don’t own anything else for that purpose. The build quality, the portability, the simplicity of operation, the consistent results, everything about these lights is perfect for my work. I am so happy to use them, and it takes a whole element of uncertainty away when I’m shooting.”  

Top tips for portrait photographers

Simon let us in on his top tips for aspiring portrait photographers:

- Like any genre, to be better you must shoot, shoot, and shoot. Friends, family, dogs, mannequins. Learn to light faces in a pleasing manner. Start with natural light and if it looks bad, turn the subject 45 degrees and try again. You’ll get it. 

- I also take a lot of inspiration from my favourite current photographers like Sam Jones, Art Streiber, Perou, Mark Seliger, Greg Williams, Danny Clinch, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Jean Roy and Kurt Iswarienko - all names worth checking out! Fill your life with gallery trips to study fine art painted portraiture and the highest quality portrait photography in the best magazines like Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s etc. Look at and learn to decode what great painters and photographers do with the light - it’s the fundamental element of what we do.

- Research your subject celebrity or otherwise. Win their trust. Try and find some common ground and if not then swat up. If they feel you’ve made the effort to do your homework and can converse accordingly, they’ll see you’re serious and be more open to your requests.

Thank you to Simon for featuring in Profoto stories and telling us about his journey through celebrity portraiture. to see more of his work, visit his website or Instagram.

Written by: Ailish Cook

Products used in this story

OCF Beauty Dish White

A portable beauty dish for off-camera flashes