Monday was a wonderful day: the perfect day for an intrepid wedding blogger to grab her little Vespa and head for the hills. Setting off from my south Manchester base mid-morning I scooted bravely along country roads (at times yelling wheeeeeeee as I went) and went to interview star wedding photographer Chris Hanley at The Riverside Studio.
When I met Chris he was beaming with pride at his new premises – a spacious and stylish basement photography studio in a historic mill complex in Cheshire. I had a grand tour and we chatted about kingfishers and developing the studio space, which really took my breath away. It’s great to see someone really in their element and The Riverside Studios couldn’t be more perfect for Chris and Claire Hanley. This much admired photography team are at the very top of their game and with the world – and the riverbank – at their feet, what better time for a Proper Interview!
This is an extract. Click to read the full interview here.
So we’re here at The Riverside Studio, which seems like a spiritual home as well as a creative space for Chris Hanley Photography. Tell me about your journey from the day you shot your first wedding to making your new home at Riverside today.
When I very first started in photography I was trained by the die-hard old journos and taught tricks of the trade. You know how some people like fresh cut grass, petrol or the smell of new car? As an impressionable 17 year old then the first thing that struck me was the smell of the darkroom.
The first wedding that came along was something so inspirational it was very, very hard to turn down. It was a big wedding at RAF Fenny Bentley down near Watford, the station where all the officers for the Battle of Britain planned the onslaught and the bombing of Germany. If you can imagine the RAF hierarchy, this grandiose officers’ building of theirs was amazing as somewhere to get married! There was going to be another photographer shooting very traditional classical stuff so it was great because all I had to do was shoot the wedding as I saw it – and I was given completely free creative and artistic licence to do that! It meant I didn’t have to worry about the consequences of not shooting it correctly for the state occasion. It worked beautifully because I gave it such a newspapery kind of look. The official wedding photographer was using tripods, with big cameras and her pictures were a million miles different to mine.
I got the flavour for it then, and the bite! Everyone was looking at those pictures and going, “you know what, those are fantastic!” but in those days shooting a wedding like that wasn’t seen to be the right thing to do. We spent a lot of time as photographers worrying that people wouldn’t buy into creativity. That was the very first wedding that unleashed it all, and then gradually I began to pick up weddings where people liked that kind of style – and it progressed from there really!
But as things have developed and as my time becomes more precious, as we have to get more and more stuff done, it was a case of needing another identity, another base. That’s why we got Riverside. It had to be a location, a destination place – People had to come here and feel as if they were coming to somewhere that was ‘Wow – photographer’. And that’s what we have here: an old whitewashed basement next to a river and it’s lovely! We can put our own brand onto things now. As much as meeting and greeting clients at the Hilton was great, they can drink our coffee now and eat our biscuits, and have our stamp on it and listen to our music and – it’s our vibe. And that’s how we got here!
The way you’ve built your brand and your business is inspiring – for me as a wedding blogger as well as for other photographers. Your photography is distinctive: is this what sets Chris Hanley Photography apart from the crowd?
You have to have a true passion for photography within you. You can teach people how to take a nice photograph but you have to be able to see the photograph first and you have to be able to convert the passion and the feeling into pictures. The majority of top cameras these days on “Uncle Bob” mode will take a decent picture. But the composition, framing, passion, response in the moment that you take that picture is from within. And that’s what stands photographers apart.
It sounds like a great adventure! Tell me about the highs and lows of your career, Chris.
The high was meeting Annabel Williams and Damien Lovegrove, Catherine Connor and Jane Breakell who were guiding influences. Annabel set me on my way in terms of marketing, and if it hadn’t been for my attending Annabel’s four day marketing course I’d never have met Damien. It was on that course – Damien was the guest speaker photographer and we just hit it off straight away. Since that day Damien has been my guiding influence from a business point of view.
The other high of course is having Claire to work with me, which is lovely. We don’t work in a way that it feels as though we’re a man and wife team… it’s a business.
There have been some lows… the lowest point for us was the first six months when we’d left full time employment. We were lucky enough to have some money that we could live on without either of us going and getting a part time job, or Claire getting a full time job while I went and took pictures. My logic was to go for wedding clients so we built a brand around that offering a certain type of experience with a certain type of look for our pictures, and that’s who we were going for. We decided to target top end high quality clients and give them an experience. Eventually that’s paid off. We’ve found our niche and people love us for it!
I’ve noticed that your brides and grooms tend to come back: after you photograph their weddings they might have a Cherish the Dress or Beach Bride shoot, and if they have children they love your Bellies, Babies and Bambinos photography. Has that been a conscious decision, to develop these steps in the photography journey again?
I would say that our aim is ‘clients for life’. I don’t mean that to sound flippant: it’s all about giving someone an experience, giving them quality at affordable prices, fair prices – exceeding people’s expectations. Once you’ve done that it’s like when you find a good local plumber, car mechanic or whatever you’ll recommend those people or always give them the trade back. This one small business that we use that have done repairs on our house or structural changes – because they’ve excelled at what they’ve done we use them every time and we recommend them. They’re not the cheapest but they do it well – it would be a false economy to go for a cheaper supplier and then try to fix it a couple of years down the line. You’re always looking for a lasting product, and that’s what we aim to do.
Do you think many photographers see that? Wedding photographers?
It often goes back to the low point in somebody’s life: have they been made redundant, perhaps they’re a keen amateur, and they’ve got a DSLR camera and feel they need to get some money in. Everyone has to start somewhere and the problem we have in the industry is that some photographers are producing fantastic quality work but they’re selling themselves too cheaply. If I shoot 15 – 20 weddings a year it means 20 weekends of the year I’m sat in my back garden with my family and kids, and it’s nice – and that’s what it should be all about: raising the game and providing quality so you can fit both into your lifestyle.
Tell me about your best wedding – for whatever reason, which is the best wedding you’ve photographed and why?
The best wedding I’ve ever shot? I haven’t shot it yet. The best wedding was the one I shot last Sunday. And the best wedding prior to that one was three Sundays before that, and the one before that was… [it's only at this point your trusty interviewer catches on!]…
I would say at the moment a wedding at Capesthorne from last Sunday. When you look at the images on the cards as they’re downloading, sometimes they just absolutely take your breath away and these pictures did. And I know I’m hardly going to have to edit any of this stuff because it’s just perfect off the camera, more or less.
When I shot my son’s wedding it was absolutely fantastic. The thing is, when you have nice people in front of your camera, people that know your creativity and like your product, and they want to help you along it makes your job so much easier. If the venue’s right, the food’s right… but equally you can photograph a wedding where people have booked you for your creativity and most of their budget has gone on the photography. So the venue may not be Hampton Court Palace – it may be your lovely local golf club. Or a local hotel – that’s where they’re paying us to be creative and to create pictures that no one else will have of that venue.
Is that easier or harder – is it more challenging?
Oh, I love it! It’s a challenge for me too. One of the processes I do is if someone tells me they’re getting married at, let’s say the Deanwater Hotel, and I’m thinking I know the venue, I’ll have a look at the website, I’ll look at the links page because there’ll be photographers there who’ll have shot it, I look at flickr and I try to get a feel for what everybody’s shooting.
And then I’ll not do that.
What we’re trying to do is to give people beautiful, flattering pictures which no one else has. It’s a case of looking at something and not shooting the obvious unless there are weather or time constraints. So I’m trying to give people, even at the most popular wedding venues, different pictures if I can.
What’s the secret of your success, Chris Hanley?
Haha! Hard graft.
Don’t take yourself seriously.
Have passion in everything that you do.
Think about what you’re giving somebody from their point of view. Aim to exceed people’s expectations. Think of yourself as the client: what would you like? Analyse it. If this was me buying this, would I be happy? If there’s an element of doubt, sort it out!
Catherine Connor once said this to me: if you’re going to put photography in a carrier bag, then you want your carrier bag to be hand woven, organic linen with jute handles, or a Harvey Nicks carrier bag – rather than maybe something like a Lidl or a Netto carrier bag. There’s nothing wrong with those… but if we put our photography in a carrier bag it’d be Harvey Nicks or a bespoke handmade one.
Who would be your ideal bride and groom to photograph?
I think my perfect bride was my son’s wife Sophie. It’s all about attitude: people who love being photographed. I know it’s our catchphrase, love being photographed, love the photographs you are in – but that means so much. If we’re talking famous people, I’d choose Keeley Hawes and her husband. They’d be a great couple to photograph! I would absolutely love the opportunity to shoot them somewhere in Italy… Siena is an absolutely gorgeous place: the light there is like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life. It’s utterly delicious. I can see her there, definitely.
Who would be your ideal client for Cherish the Dress?
[Instantly] My wife Claire. She can still get in her wedding dress, and it’s a project we have on the back burner. We’ll get round to it sometime!
The other person I’d really, really like to shoot is Lily Allen. She’d be great.
What’s next for Chris Hanley Photography?
Now we have Riverside and our new home here, we need to raise the bar slightly in terms of what we’re going to offer our clients.
We’re going to strive to make our picture style even more exciting, we’re going to try and get involved more with projects like Shutter Rock and the photographic industry. If we can do something that raises the profile of British social photography and gets the standards raised and everyone on a level platform, that would be great. To put something back into the industry would be great. But I think for the next two or three years we’ll strive harder with the weddings we shoot and maybe look at doing more workshop training in our new home!