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November 2016

Perfecting the ‘difficult’ shoot with the EOS 5DS

Top advertising and commercial portrait photographer Tom Barnes is no stranger to difficult shoots. His way of working is proof that people, no matter their status, give more when they can have a laugh. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim discovers how he manages to get the most from his subjects and why the EOS 5DS helps him achieve the speed and precision required for big campaigns...

Speaking to Tom, it’s impossible not to smile. At the time of our interview, he was in the middle of arranging his life insurance and, in true British style, was able to bring sarcasm and wit to even the most mundane of subjects. Immediately, I began to understand why he’s a go-to photographer – it’s as much for his personality as his professionalism.

© Tom Barnes
© Tom Barnes

Phillip is the landlord of Tom Barnes' studio and an ex-army boxer. Tom says, “His stories are incredible.” Taken an EOS 5DS with an EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 100mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/2.8, ISO 50.

“I get sent to difficult shoots all the time,” he shares. “I had to photograph someone the other day and the press person came into the room when they were four hours late and just said, ‘She’s in the worst mood. You’re going to have ten seconds with her. She does not want to be here.’ And I ended up photographing her for 45 minutes, got five different set-ups and we had a great time. She was like: ‘Thank you so much for turning my day around.’”

Tom is a natural people person, driven by a fascination with faces and the stories they reveal. “You can tell so much just through the face’s textures and expressions. 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. Everything else bores me,” he admits.

When a subject arrives on a shoot, Tom will drop everything and spend time with them – finding out how their day was, what they’re into and doing whatever he can to make them feel at home. Unlike most ‘people people’ he is also a complete tech geek, and as such, it is easy to imagine Tom excelling various paths. But his mind was only ever set on photography.

Never looked back

At the age of five Tom’s father handed him a camera to play with at a family gathering, little knowing he would never put it down. Tom began honing his craft by spending the earnings from his paper round on second-hand photography manuals. He is entirely self-taught and doesn’t cite any industry influences. “We had a good charity shop in the town I lived in,” he explains. “I said to them, ‘If you get photography books coming in, I would like to buy them.’ You know when you’ve got a 13-year-old boy asking you for something that specific that’s pretty good. So they used to keep books aside from me. So I learned on all these 1970s knackered photography books, 1950s I think my oldest one was. But they were all manuals, and they were all how to work a camera, how to shoot a certain way, how to do all these things. I didn’t really realise until I was about 16, 17 that there were books of photographs.”

© Tom Barnes
© Tom Barnes

Sketch shot for the second series of Channel 4’s Tattoo Fixers. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/50 at f/4, ISO 320.

Having first found his grounding in music photography, Tom claims that his love for photography was fed by his lack of musical talent: “I had my mates who wanted to play in bands and do all that and I just couldn’t do it. So I ended up going along anyway and I started bringing my camera. When I moved to Sheffield [for university] it was the pinnacle point. Because I had been to gigs with my camera since the age of 13 and I’d always taken pictures. But when I moved at the age of 18 to a big city, coming from a smaller town outside of London, I realised that actually I could make money from this. And it all kicked off from there.”

By Tom’s final year at university – in Urban Land Economics, which he contends was “as dull as it sounds” – he was already travelling across the world to cover music assignments. “When I came out of university, I did four days of work in an office in London. I was meant to be there for six months. On the fourth day I went in and said to the boss, ‘Hi just so you know I’m never coming in again. This is clearly not right for me, not what I want to do.’ And my boss said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I’m already doing it; I’m a photographer.’ And that was it. I never went back.”

Pressed for time and after precision

These days Tom’s agenda is fully booked with world-class campaigns. This high profile work led him to lust after Canon’s highest resolution DSLR: the EOS 5DS. “As soon as the EOS 5DS had come out that was it, I knew that was what I wanted. I think I was one of the first in the UK to have two of them, because everyone was getting one. And I kicked up a stink and said that I had to have two matching bodies. Ever since, I’ve shot everything with them. I absolutely love it. It’s a very good camera.”

Boasting a 50.6 Megapixel 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. Tom explains, “The main advantages that come with the camera are the resolution matched with the speed. For years if you wanted the resolution you could get it but the cameras were slow and clunky. Now, [with Canon] you have the reliability of the DSLR which has 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, yeah, it’s basically given me the speed of DSLR with medium format sized images.”

© Tom Barnes
© Tom Barnes

Swimmer portrait shot. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF85mm f/1.2 lens; the exposure was 1/100 at f/7.1, ISO 160.

The EOS 5DS offers unprecedented engineering and as such there was a learning curve, even for a techie like Tom. “I had to learn how to refocus. On the 5D Mark III, you can just kind of ‘spray and prey’. So it doesn’t really matter because you can centre focus and then refocus quite a lot. With the 5DS, you have to select the auto focus point that is 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 that is very precise. It works very well for me,” he points out.

In terms of lenses, Tom turns to the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II USM lenses. “I did have the 85mm f/1.2 which I love but I’ve just sold it and I’ve bought the 70-200mm because I have a couple of 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. 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. It’s a worst case scenario kind of situation because for portraits the longer the focal length the more flattering the image so 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.”

But perhaps more surprisingly, considering his signature ‘moody’ look, Tom is not big on post-production. “Everything pretty much is done in-camera,” he advises. “I’m not going to lie to you and say everything is done in-camera; the toning and contrast is done after. 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. For me, it’s fairly straightforward. 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. I’m quite particular with various things. And it’s probably that that helps me achieve a look in-camera.”

© Tom Barnes
© Tom Barnes

Lou Hopper and the body, shot on location with rain, smoke and police interference. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 30mm; the exposure was 1/10 at f/4, ISO 320.

Tom is not always stuck in the studio. In fact he often sets up outdoor shoots, meaning durability is a big plus which dictates his equipment choices. “I exclusively use Profoto lighting because I bought into the system when I was about 19 years old. And that was about 13 years ago; I’ve just used it ever since. It’s super reliable. I guess it’s also why I like Canons. It’s because you can kick the crap out of them and they still work.”

The Gadget Man

It’s always interesting to ask a self-taught professional what kit they can’t live without. Tom is an absolute gadget nut. He has high praise for Tether Tools’ ‘core controller’ that is an in-line power stabiliser for USB ports as well as the popular Zacuto Z-finder that aids Tom when shooting outside where tethering is not always possible. But it is not until we discuss magical “bits of rubber” that he gets truly ecstatic.

“Have you ever heard of Sugru?” he enthuses. “It’s the best thing ever. It’s the bomb. Basically what it is, is little packets of mouldable rubber which you can take out and mould into shape, leave it over night and then it sets and it cures. So that in the morning you have this solid bit of rubber that you can build anything on to. I’ve built this kind of grip-up using this rubber, and it’s for the shape of my hand. You can do anything with it.”

As a photographer who has carved a successful career out of soft skills, hard skills and pure dedication, I ask Tom what advice he has for starters on the same path. He concludes: “Don’t study photography in college. Just go out and do it, you’ll learn so much more on the job. I’ve got some people that assist me and we chatted about it and they said that they learnt more in first month of assisting a photographer than they ever did in their three years of university. You learn by doing. Get out and do. If you think you’re working hard, you’re probably not working hard enough.”

Biography: Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is an award-winning self-taught photographer based in London, the UK. After being handed a camera at five years old he was hooked and it became his career when he turned 18, touring the world with bands. These days Tom no longer tours and instead focuses on advertising shoots and personal shoots, from bodybuilders to refugees, criminals to Olympians. His clients include Barclays, Channel 4, Samsung, Tesco, The Sunday Times Magazine, Sony Music, Virgin EMI Records, to name but a few.


Huey Morgan photographed in a pub in West London, the UK for the cover of his book ‘Rebel Heroes’. Taken on an EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/8sec at f/7.1, ISO 100.