This In Focus interview is with Stuart Wood and was conducted by Sarah Fitzgerald-Jones.  Sarah says :-

I was very fortunate to do this interview with the incredible award winning photographer Stuart Wood. I was blown away by his work and would even confess to being a little star struck by him! A really genuine nice and very talented man who works incredibly hard in his work. I can’t thank Stuart enough for sharing so much with us in this interview. Grab yourself your favourite drink take a seat relax and enjoy the images and the interview, take a look at Stuarts websites to see more of his fantastic images in the links at the end. Enjoy and thank you Stuart !


1: Stuart, you have been a professional photographer now for 20 years, how do you see photography in general has grown in this amount of time? 

We have seen immense changes in 20 years. The advent of digital photography, that properly took over around a decade ago, changed everything. I know of photographers that retired early because they were terrified of this new and all conquering ‘pretender to the throne’. I held onto film for as long as possible, but as all my clients slowly and surely drifted to the digital camp one by one, I too had to make the change. When I lecture to Colleges and Universities today, I point out the disadvantages of only knowing digital photography and an over reliance on ‘Oh, I’ll sort that out later’. When we only had transparency and Polaroid to work with, we had no other choice but to get it right in camera, because if retouching was even available, it was incredibly expensive and would not impress your client very much if they were forced to resort to it. As a result and out of necessity to perform for the level of clients that I wanted to work for, I had to get good at making sure the image was actually correct ‘in camera’. In my lectures, I then show the students images that have absolutely no retouching, other than the usual colour, contrast correction, etc. When I show these images, I am sure that some do not believe me, but I am still firmly convinced that despite how wonderful Photoshop is, we become the very best photographers that we can be by concentrating on photography.

2: When you first started out where did your passion initially lie? 

I was given my first camera as a birthday present at 14 and my life changed! I always had a passion for photography, almost like it was wired into my persona. When I read photography magazines or was near to a ‘real’ camera, I would light up like a firefly because there appeared to be a magical paradise that was patiently saving a place for me. Believe it or not, I still have that enthusiasm within me today and my wedding couples and even some of the celebrities that I work with, love my passion for getting the image, which works wonderfully as this enthusiasm seems to be contagious and they all get really involved with the process. When I started out with my first serious camera, which was an Olympus OM1n, I would photograph anything and everything and I adored every moment. Then I joined the local camera club, from which I actually learned quite a bit at the start, but then quickly outgrew it as the draconian rules and regulations that the dreaded ‘judges’ would give out, stifled any further development. These guys would turn up after dark on a winter’s evening, like vampiric travelling minstrels, looking like your uncle at Christmas, festooned with pipe and patches on their jacket elbows and would proceed to administer their ‘judgement’ mercilessly and woe betide anyone who attempted to try something different! I was realising that as my photography was developing, my results in competitions worsened and like any intransigent establishment more interested in keeping the current order safe at all costs, the system was impossible to assail, so I left ever so slightly frustrated rather than conforming.

I had what I can only describe as a calling, so I gave up my lesser ambition to be a supermarket manager and left my job at Sainsbury’s and enrolled full time at one of the top three photographic courses at Salisbury. By the end of three years I was invincible and ready to conquer the world! (nothing wrong with enthusiasm, if it is channeled properly) As a student, I had already been commissioned to shoot for a national magazine, something that is now increasingly remarkable and I also won the student of the year at The Photographers Gallery, as well as securing a distinction on my course. I had achieved all of this because the course was so good and adaptable, that I was steered towards my speciality of shooting people. I was the student that got into the places that the rest thought unrealistic and while there, got people to do things that they would not ordinarily do. I took this a stage further when I started writing to celebrities and begging a few minutes of their time for me to shoot them. Here was another of those life changing paths that I decided to travel on, because I ended up shooting 25 out of the 250 that I got I touch with and it was this project that opened the door for my national magazine commission and my eventual major student award.

There’s a poem by Robert Frost that is featured in the wonderfully inspiring film ‘Dead Poets Society’ and it is all about making choices for your own life and not necessarily conforming to what people are expecting of you. I am lucky to be able to do a job that isn’t really like work, because I absolutely and utterly adore it and while I’m not interested in any worthless and meaningless trinkets such as ‘Best Photographer in the World’ titles, I am completely committed to becoming the very best photographer that I can possibly be and for me, that is the difference. To be able to do what I do has meant taking risks and difficult decisions along the way and the Frost poem finishes with,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

3: You have taken some incredible images of celebrities. How did this first come about? were you approached or did you offer your skills? Tell us a little about your first celebrity session.

First of all thank you for the first sentence of this question! Now armed with my portfolio of well known folk, I had to tread the streets of our fair capital sometimes twice a week on the Derby train, seeing potential magazine and TV clients. Eventually someone would give me a small job and with my usual enthusiasm, I would sometimes expand this if possible and the pictures would be used bigger than anticipated or take up more pages of the magazine and this continued until I started getting some pretty scary commissions!

The big break was in 1994 shooting the main image for BBC Pride and Prejudice. This was a very difficult project to work on and I had been told that three photographers had previously been sent to secure the image, but had come away empty handed! I managed to dig my heels in and get it at the very end of my second and last day. I then became known as the guy who will somehow come away with the image.

My actual first celebrity shoot was for my student project and it was John Inman from the old sitcom ‘Are you being served?’. All the usual knockers had been laughing at my attempts to kick start my college project, as at first it appeared that the only response to my requests was rejection. They weren’t laughing a year and a half later when this project had changed my life and I had secured the award and the magazine commission, but much more valuable was the incredible experience that I eventually got ‘under my belt’ and I actually emerged from college as an already experienced celebrity photographer. John Inman was appearing at Salisbury Theatre and agreed to give me an hour. Considering that I have had all of two minutes to shoot a Radio Times cover since then, he was incredibly generous with his time and very charming and welcoming. The next subject was Melvyn Bragg at ITV Studios who gave me 10 minutes from the moment that I arrived! I still managed to get a picture that we both loved. After these first two, I was on my way and never looked back and I began to realise that throwing myself in at the deep end wasn’t so bad and I actually appeared pretty good at what I was doing too! I found out that I thrive under pressure and was able to quickly read a location and find something that would work.

4: You have recently done some incredible images of Sheridan Smith, were you told how the images should be or would you be given the details of the character and able to create from there and do as you choose?

Sheridan and I are good mates whenever I work with her. I first shot her when she was very young on ‘Two Pints’ and then 3 years ago, I got the ITV Drama, Mrs Biggs, for which she deservedly got a BAFTA. We got on so well that we started to really move the pictures further. Then last year, I was the natural choice for ‘Cilla’ and it was here that it really all came together. When I shoot anyone, I like to get something more than a likeness. I want more of them than that. It was during our times shooting the Cilla pictures that I suggested we try some different approaches and we really started to go places that we hadn’t before. When I run my courses, I absolutely stress that while the technical knowledge is important, even more important as a people photographer is a connection with the subject. If they are not comfortable and relaxed with you, then forget it. If you’re the cool, unapproachable Clint Eastwood type, then you may make a pretty good cowboy or cop, but you’d NEVER make a people photographer!

During Cilla. I studied all the old 60’s style and lighting techniques, but still the main success of these images is that Sheridan is with a mate that she knows she can trust and will make her look great and that can be seen clearly in her eyes. Sheridan then went on to the cancer drama ‘The C Word’, which was incredibly sensitive and she insisted that I be her photographer. My approach for this job was to realise that this was a tragic real story and as a result, I would need to be sensitive and not exploit or patronise the person portrayed. When the pictures were released, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Derby (Lisa Lych, who wrote the book, was from Derby) and both her mother and brother got in touch after and thanked me for such lovely and sensitive images. I was even approached by people who had gone through the cancer experience, or had lost loved ones and they thanked me for treating the subject with such sensitivity. I cannot begin to put into words what that means to me.

Late last year, I shot Sheridan on ‘Black Work’, which is a very dark police drama that has just aired. Now it was appropriate to make the images both dark and lonely, so that it encapsulated the character and as such, the images are completely different.

5: Do you feel there is more pressure on you when working with celebrities than there would be with Joe public?

I would only say yes if we are shooting a magazine cover with limited time. I shoot lots of ordinary folk like myself, all the time for magazine or TV. Some of these have incredibly sensitive stories to tell and that can put the pressure up. A couple of years back I shot the lovely parents of Holly Wells from Soham. The pressure to make sure that we handled that project correctly and professionally was immense. Despite being a father myself and feeling so dreadfully sorry for these poor people, I still had to do my job and get the best image. What was lovely, was I received a beautiful, sweet email from them the next day saying how they had not been looking forward to the shoot, but I had made it so easy and nice for them.

The other obvious exception to this is when I shoot people’s weddings. This is such a big responsibility and I work so hard on these days, because I want to give them everything that I can.

6: Looking through your images you absolutely capture emotion and story telling perfectly. Many people can take a photo, but not always give a story to an image how do you think you manage to bring this across so well? 

I need to have an empathy with the subject and I need to get that connection. As I’m known as being a sensitive photographer, I have ended up with a lot of these commissions. So much so, that I now have a separate section of my website just for ‘sensitive’. I have photographed people who have suffered the worst injustices and tragedies and hardships and you can usually read this in their eyes. It’s my job to bring that out, but to do this respectfully and never ask them to act.

I have literally cried after doing some of these projects.

Even when I’m shooting for charities, I always leave my subjects with their dignity and I would never exploit them under any circumstances.

7: Looking at your wedding photography you capture people very naturally, do you find in the past 20 years things have changed quite dramatically in what is required to produce eye capturing images? Tell us what do you feel makes just 1 wedding image stand out above all the rest?

Ok, my approach to weddings is to bring all the experience shooting at such a high level for the TV and Editorial clients, to their wedding. This is unusual and is my particular USP, as there are not that many wedding photographers out there that have the same experience. This is not an easy option and the day after, I’m absolutely wasted! But hey, that’s what they’re paying me for!

I have only been shooting weddings in the ‘new style’ for around 6 years, when I noticed that there was an exciting new market for pictures other than cutting cakes and signing registers and lining everybody up like they’re about to be shot!

I meet up with the couple first and then have a pre wedding shoot. On the day, they know exactly what to expect and we can then concentrate on taking the images further. Uncle Bob is absolutely banned from being anywhere near these pictures, as I want just me, the assistant and the couple. This is when the magic happens!

I always give them everything and if it means spending an hour setting up a picture, or me lying down on a rain soaked jetty during a full gale, then so be it! The couple are obvious brought out right at the end and for a couple of minutes only, so we achieve the spontaneity that you have noticed. I very rarely photograph my couples for more than 5 minutes at a time and as such, they never look bored or awkward.

8: What would you say would be the most stressful thing for a photographer capturing a wedding?

I think that the whole story is vital. I want every picture, from start to finish, to capture as much of the day as we can. I never get complacent or over confident at a wedding, as the day is forever changing and it’s my job to try and stay one step ahead. Years of working under pressure and knowing that what is happening cannot be repeated, hold me in good stead.

9: When you are editing your wedding images how much time do you give yourself to complete and return to the bride and groom? Do you ever find yourself feeling nervous before sharing the images for the first time with the couple?

I’m usually so excited that the couple are already getting pictures a day or so later. They are then all up online within a couple of weeks. Their eventual choice for the album is then retouched to full editorial standards. I’m not usually nervous when presenting the images.

10: What keeps you inspired and up to date in all aspects of photography? 

I’m not a ‘gear’ person! I’m a ‘picture’ person! I haven’t got a clue about the latest gadgets and rely on my mates and assistants to tell me that. My camera and equipment settings are always set to manual, except for the focussing, because I want to control and understand everything. I am absolutely enthralled by beautiful images, so I study all the latest pictures either on social media, in books or in the magazines that I have in my iPad every month. While I want to see what’s new in photography, I also study film and art for ideas. I never copy, but we all need to be constantly inspired. As the late, great Bob Carlos Clarke once said, pick the bones out and make them your own.

If this research sounds like a chore, it isn’t and I love it. If I’m in London and one of my appointments is cancelled, I’ll go to the galleries for an hour or so. All the current techniques used by some of the very best photographers in the world that shoot for the likes of Vogue every month, are all in the paintings in our National Galleries and best of all its all free!

11: What would be your best advice for anyone who would like to pursue  their photography career into the celebrity side of things? 

Things have changed so much since I started, that I would suggest that they find their own path to wherever they want to go and pursue it relentlessly.

12: Finally what do you like to do when your not playing with the camera and working on images? 

Relaxing with my family! Watching TV with popcorn! Watching Derby County, which at times can be equally as stressful, but at least it’s a different sort of stress!

More of Stuart’s work can be found on his websites at www.stuart-wood.com and www.stuartwoodweddings.com