How to Stay Innovative and Get What You Want as a Commercial Photographer

Luupe photographer Hayley Benoit discusses her career path from art school student to successful commercial photographer.

UK-based photographer Hayley Benoit’s career is constantly evolving. Using her experience attending art school at the prestigious Central Saint Martins art school as a building block, Benoit organically built her roster of client brands from the ground up. These now include Panasonic, Gelfidditch, PIMMS, and Nike. Her work has been exhibited and featured in Telegraph, British Journal of Photography, and The National Portrait Gallery.

While art school was a great tool, Benoit tells The Luupe that her biggest learnings come on the job, through constant research and always pushing herself to keep up with what other photographers are doing, how creative trends are shifting, and prioritizing opportunities that will keep her moving forward.

One of her best mantras: “Don’t wait for someone to teach you how to use Photoshop. Go on YouTube and figure it out yourself, it’s the only way to learn. The more you practice, the more you’ll figure out what you want.”

The Luupe speaks with Benoit to learn more about her career, personal style, and creative business advice for photographers looking to excel and stay fresh.

“Yellows on Yellow” Test Shoot, London. Nov 2020. © Hayley Benoit

The Luupe: How did you get your start photographing commercially?

Hayley Benoit: After finishing art school at Central Saint Martins I took a year out and worked at Topshop’s flagship store in London. The owner of the fashion brand I was working for at the time knew I was interested in photography and asked me to photograph her lookbook. From then on I started shooting for small fashion brands and publications, slowly developing a name for myself.

Meet Hayley Benoit. Self portrait, November 2020 © Hayley Benoit

The Luupe: Do you think art school appropriately prepared you for working in the commercial/editorial world or was that something that came on-the-job?

Benoit: I wouldn’t say art school prepared me for working in the commercial/ editorial world as such but there were benefits. To be honest most of the things I’ve learnt were on the job and from YouTube.

I wanted to go to art school because I never had the confidence in a studio environment and I wanted to be confident that I could explain what I was doing to a client and for that reason, I would say it has prepared me.

I had no idea what a softbox was when I started out and I didn’t even know what kind of modifiers you could use and what the purpose of these tools was. I knew I wanted to create imagery but wanted to know more about how to create the best imagery artistically and commercially possible. Art School certainly taught me the foundations of things.

Ultimately the best thing you can get by going to art school is having access to all the facilities and working towards what type of photographer you’d like to be. Having the ability to play in a photography studio and shoot with a Hasselblad is something that is very beneficial for the working world. Also, the contacts you get from art school is priceless, however, I don’t think I learnt that much technically, the best way you can learn the technicalities of photography is in your own time, shooting as much as possible to perfect your style.

Portrait of sculptor Cathie Pilkington for RA Magazine London. Dec 2020 © Hayley Benoit

The Luupe: We like to ask a lot of photographers this question and it’s been interesting to see the range of responses. Did you have any mentors early on (or currently) that helped you along?

Benoit: I never had any mentors, I had friends in the industry that I met through art school and assisted some photographers here and there but I’ve never had any mentors. I’d always try to get my foot through the door somehow and even worked as a fashion stylist assistant to understand every aspect of an editorial word and gain new contacts along the way.

This meant understanding not only what a photographer does on a photoshoot but also what a fashion stylist/ stylist does before, during, and after a shoot. From calling in samples from the PR showrooms to enhancing up certain parts of the image visually so that it tells a story, ensuring that the image is completely marketable and reflects the brand in the best possible way.

I attended random events by myself and slowly became familiar with people in the industry. Gradually picking up work through showing my face and keeping active in the creative space, I did a lot of freebies at the start but that’s just how it works I guess.

“Citrus Fruit” Test Shoot, London. April 2020 © Hayley Benoit

The Luupe: Mentorship aside, was the best advice you received as you were just starting out?

Benoit: When I first started out I had very little confidence with the resources I owned, I wanted a super fancy camera and all the accessories immediately but didn’t have the funds. I kept on underselling myself because I thought my equipment wasn’t good enough or telling myself that I couldn’t charge too much because my equipment wasn’t good enough.

The best advice I received and will always remind myself to this day was to not spend all my money on the latest camera gear, it’s not about what camera you shoot with, its about having the right lighting and lens. If you have a good lens and know how to light a subject well you can pretty much make anything look impressive.

“Greens on Green” Test Shoot, London. Jan 2020 © Hayley Benoit

The Luupe: Getting into your personal style a bit, one thing that stands out across your lifestyle, portrait, food, and still-life work is your attention to light. Even the images that (we think) are shot with studio light, have the feel and aesthetic of natural light. Can you talk about your approach?

Benoit: The ones you think that are shot in natural light probably have been shot in natural light. I love using natural light and feel most comfortable using natural light as this is where my love for photography first began, however, I’ve learnt a lot using LED lights and flash and can honestly say that I understand light and photography so much more by experimenting with artificial lighting.

I’ve been playing around with creating studio-type setups using natural light recently, simply because I didn’t have any artificial lights in my kit at the time. It was a really great way to look at things differently this way, especially using plain studio-type backgrounds, I had time to concentrate on shadows and textures, particularly with still life/ food setups. Shooting with these types of setups has been awesome as you can really focus on what you are trying to create without having the distraction of directing people and managing their emotions in front of the camera.

Front Cover Story “Boom Clash” for Fashion Journal Magazine, Melbourne. March 2015
© Hayley Benoit. Styling: ​ Kirsty Barros Hair and make-up: ​Shella Martin Model: Shane Tino @ ​Pride Models

The Luupe: Has the pandemic shifted how you work? If so, how?

Benoit: The pandemic has shifted my work in positive ways. I’ve had a lot more time to plan and focus on things and really think about where I want my photography to go and really study my portfolio. I’ve also had more time to go back on things I’ve learnt in the past and really perfect these skills as well as pick up new skills.

My biggest thing that has been beneficial during the pandemic for me has been connecting with new people and building lasting relationships, everyone’s had a lot more time for one another during this time so I’ve managed to really connect with new people in the industry.

“Wedding Story” for Spark Alice Styling, London. Nov 2020. © Hayley Benoit. Concept and Styling: Spark Alice Styling
Florist: Nari Lee.  Hair/MUA: Veronica Peters. Model: Ellie Lewis @at Contact Agency

The Luupe: Something we also speak with many Luupe photographers about are the challenges of being a freelance photographer – now, and in the time before the pandemic. You had a great quote a couple of years ago in your panel discussion at Astro UK, in which you mention the importance of keeping personal and business money separate. Any other tips for freelance creatives on how to best manage the business side of their practice?

Benoit: Time management is key, I find that the majority of my clients want photos instantly. Every time you book in a shoot, you should always block out time for editing (unless you have a retoucher), that way it doesn’t become overwhelming and you can really deliver the best quality of work at an adequate speed. I often find that I put admin aside when I’ve got a lot of editing to do then things get left behind slightly especially if you have to wear the majority of hats in your business. You need to work out a system that also gives you admin time and time to yourself when you have a lot of editing to do.

The Luupe: The world is shifting and the life of freelance creatives/photographers is evolving at light speed. Any advice to emerging commercial photographers on how to keep up and stay
fresh?

Benoit: The best thing to do is to keep in contact with other creatives, study new editorials/advertising campaigns, do test shoots for yourself to develop new skills, and try things that you’ve always wanted to try. Don’t keep following the same paths that you’re used to, show your work to other people, get advice, challenge yourself to sustain your passion for photography.

“Golden Years” for Fashion Journal Magazine, Melbourne. July 2015. © Hayley Benoit. Styling: ​Jade Leung Hair and make-up: ​Kate Radford Model: Gabi at ​Pride Models

The Luupe: Another great quote and powerful mantra we read recently from you was “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” 

Benoit: I’ve met some really amazing photographers that have no idea how to make photography their profession, they always say that they’d love to be a photographer but never actually do anything with their skills. I had no idea what I was doing when I first started but if you really want it you’ll figure it out.

Don’t wait for someone to teach you how to use photoshop, go on YouTube and figure it out yourself, it’s the only way to learn, the more you practice the more you’ll figure out what you want.

I did photoshoots for fun in the beginning and started finding small teams to work with. I’d email loads of stylists, models, modeling agencies, and people to work with simply by pitching ideas and created something out of nothing. If I never had the courage to email these people in the first place, I wouldn’t be where I am today, I love working in teams and putting creative heads together and have found this super helpful for my career development.

The Luupe: Can you tell us about a recent project that was particularly exciting?

Benoit: One thing that I enjoyed shooting for recently was for Method (a cleaning product brand) something that you wouldn’t expect to be the most exciting thing to photograph but working for this brand was actually super fun. The brand itself was bright and colorful, so it complemented my style very well and I was given complete creative freedom to capture something totally imaginative based on my ideas.

I really enjoy having a brief and developing it into my own personal style so something like this was ideal for me.

Jamila as her mum Olivia. From “The Inheritance Project” Funded by Ideas Tap for the Innovators Fund Award 2013.
As seen at the National Portrait Gallery, London awarded the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2014.
© Hayley Benoit. Fashion: Hannah Newman. Hair and Makeup: Melodie Briere. Location: London, 2013

The Luupe: We know this is slightly older work, but can you tell us a bit about The Inheritance Project?

Benoit: The Inheritance project was a project that I worked on with fashion stylist Hannah Newman. We wanted to create a personal project together that represented our personal skills so we came up with the idea to photograph people wearing their parents’ clothes when they were of a similar age. The project was inspired by photographs of parents, photo albums we came across. Focusing on the relationship a person has with their parents and the things that we inherit from them, whether that be clothes, hair or facial features. The Project was funded by Ideas Tap Innovators fund award 2013 and the image Jamila as her mum, Olivia was shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2014.

The Luupe: That’s really inspiring. What’s exciting you most about photography and the creative process right now? What are you looking forward to in the coming year?

Benoit: I’m really excited about learning new skills and doing more stop motion projects. I think my work has evolved rapidly since the pandemic and I’m really looking forward to working with new people and creating new and imaginative imagery. It’s been challenging to produce test shoots with other creatives during the pandemic, the idea of doing test shoots with new people again excites me especially as I’ve learnt new skills. Most of all I’m excited about working with new and existing clients and developing my portfolio.