The secret of great photos - skill, sensitivity and luck

Carolyn Djanogly says chance plays a part in achieving her best celebrity portraits. But hard work and talent are also involved.


By Katie Taylor, December 16, 2010
Follow The JC on Twitter
“Big  close-ups, sharp focus on the eyes”: this photograph of actress Helena Bonham Carter is typical of Djanogly’s style.

“Big close-ups, sharp focus on the eyes”: this photograph of actress Helena Bonham Carter is typical of Djanogly’s style.

How did you start out as a photographer?
I have always taken pictures but without having any knowledge of the technical side. When I was at university I would take pictures for the college newspaper. When I began at the BBC as a television documentary maker, I kept it as a hobby, but the photography finally took over. I left television with no money, no camera, no real knowledge of how to work a camera and took a risk.

"It was working on my book, Centurions, that was the real launch-pad for me as a professional photographer. I was so taken with the idea of celebrating people who have shaped 20th-century British life. I thought it would be a fascinating project to learn about well-known people and take portraits of them. I spent three years working on that.

Can you describe your style?

I always used to shoot in the same way, with big close-ups and sharp focus on eyes. The effect I achieved was by using three things: natural daylight, black and white film, and shooting with a long lens. I got beautiful results without actually knowing how I achieved it technically. It was a formula that I stuck to for a long time because I love close-up. I'm fascinated by faces. Many photographers allow the setting to inform the picture and its story. I tend not to - I like the facial architecture to make an impression on the viewer.

Who are your influences?

I have always loved the work of Richard Avedon. I cite him as my absolute hero. I wouldn't say my style is influenced by him but as a photographer I love his stuff. It's the splendour of his work that got me excited.

Your portraits are quite intimate. How do you achieve that?

Djangoly: “I’m fascinated by faces”

Djangoly: “I’m fascinated by faces”

There isn't a set technique. It's all about the connection the photographer has with the subject; it's about reading the atmosphere right when they walk into the room. You as a photographer can't go in with an attitude, you have to go in with no attitude and be able to absorb theirs. They often come in with an atmosphere about them, and I think if you are sensitive to that, then you can connect well with them. But there are no guarantees - you have to be lucky.

"Sometimes the best shots are the ones you didn't set out to achieve. It's happenstance which causes the best photos - moments just happen, it's catching the moment.

What do you do when a subject is not co-operating?

It's stressful. There's no magic answer to it, you just try and fit round them and try to stay calm.

What is your favourite photo in the collection?

That's really hard. I love the Linford Christie one because it is so loud. His laughter - you can hear it. It's just a joyful, fabulous shot. I love his gleaming white teeth and the sparkling bling of his jewellery. It's a man who is thrilled with where he's at. As a viewer you are just engaged with it and it makes you smile, and as a photographer I can hear him laugh, that belly laugh coming out of the picture. It is just joyous.

The shot of Dame Judi Dench leaning out the window is quite striking. How did you take it?

That was pure fluke. I flew to New York to photograph her, so that was a big deal, and at the same time I also did a session with Julie Andrews. I was in Judi Dench's hotel suite, and with lovely architecture around her from downtown Manhattan, I just thought I should broaden it out with a couple of set-ups for a choice of pictures. I leaned out one window and she another and it was an interesting environmental shot, which is not typically my style but, interestingly, it's the one people always want to buy from me.

What do you want viewers to take from your photographs?

To feel as though they have learned something about the personalities of these people. I hope I've brought the viewer closer to the subject.

Carolyn Djanogly published Centurions, her book of portraits of important British figures of the 20th century, to coincide with the millennium in 2000. She is marking the book’s 10th anniversary with an exhibition at Nomad Galleries, London SE1 until January 23. Portraits include Amy Winehouse, Richard Branson, David Hockney and Terence Conran. Details at Info@nomadgalleries.com

    Last updated: 3:28pm, December 16 2010