ProFiles | Helen Cathcart image

The work of Lifestyle photographer Helen Cathcart has featured in countless renowned publications. Here, she explains how she started and how she plans to change perceptions of the elderly.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

How did you get into photography?

I studied for my degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, but it was quite fine-art based and they didn’t really teach us anything about actually working in photography.  So I graduated with few practical skills – I couldn’t even assist – and ended up waitressing for a couple of years. When I went back to do an MA in Art Direction I realised I needed to use being a student more, something I hadn’t appreciated during my first degree, so I entered loads of photography competitions. It was winning the D&AD Student Award that got me a four-week placement with a London ad agency. On the basis of that I moved to the capital and luckily the agency kept me on in a visual resources role. That led me to picture editing, and I later became a photo director for a picture company where I was commissioning photographers. But I still had a yen to do it myself, so decided to leave and start on my own.

So was doing a Masters degree the catalyst?

It wasn’t even the masters itself, it was just being a bit older and realising how I’d spent all that money on the BA, but had come out not knowing how to get a job. It was the realisation that I had to get much more out of the MA.  A student project got me access to photograph backstage at the ballet and that’s the project that won me the award. So it was just about making better use of the resources the second time around.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

You were recently a finalist in the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition, weren’t you?

Yes. I think it’s important for your profile to enter competitions. It’s quite time consuming but I try to enter when I can. When I was starting out as a photographer I began with a blog where I would photograph new cafes and restaurants in east London, and from that they would pay me to do the photographs – that’s how I got into photographing food.

Do you do a lot of your own food styling?

In food photography there’s a lot of different styling being done by different people. But I always set up the shot myself; a lot of photographers get the food stylist or the prop stylist to do that, which I can’t really comprehend. I have a lot of say about what props we’ll get and then I construct the shot. I don’t often have a prop stylist on set, but you still need to work with teams, so you’ll still have a food stylist involved in the shoot. My art direction background enables me to have a bit more input in it, which is quite important to me as I think the whole point of being the photographer is that you’re putting together the final shot.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

Would you say you’re a big foodie yourself?

Absolutely, that’s why I got into it! I’ve just done the East London Food book (Hoxton Mini Press) with food journalist, Rosie Birkett. We first met when starting our careers, working for a magazine called Eat Me. We were sent individually to cover Meat Liquor and we just really got on. We then randomly got put together for a shoot on fishing in Aberdeen and the rest is history! The book contains all of our favourite places to eat in East London. The publisher approached me to do the photography for a book they had in mind and I recommended Rosie. Together we picked the places we wanted to showcase.

What kind of effect do you think Instagram and the fad of photographing food has on professional food photography?

I guess it shows there’s a massive interest for it out there and it seems to be the trend. I was working on some videos for a magazine the other day, and they were looking on Instagram to see what normal people are making at home so they could showcase it in a magazine format. So I know magazines are looking there for inspiration.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

You moved to Sydney at one point?

That’s where my career as a photographer really started. Whilst working as a photo director I would often commission myself, and realised I was having more fun doing that! But the idea of quitting my job to be a photographer in London was too scary, just too much competition. It felt easier to go to a new country and to start afresh. My initial plan was to go out there and get more freelance picture editing work on glossy titles. My first commissions there were for Condé Nast Traveller and Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and that’s what kickstarted everything out there and meant that when I came back here they knew me and commissioned me here too.  Australia was doing the lifestyle stuff I do now way in advance of here, and that really inspired me. They have amazing magazines for interiors and food, I still think they have the best ones in the world. They have a really fresh way of shooting it and amazing styling.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

Is it difficult to switch off and draw a line between fun and business when you’re shooting in some exciting destination?

I don’t think you ever relax into it. You always say to yourself ‘I’ll come back here some other time’ and then you never do! Obviously it’s brilliant to get to travel to all these places, and you get to enjoy the best of of a place in a short space of time. But if I go on holiday I tend not to bring my camera. I don’t want to carry it – the carrying is the bane of my professional life, and I’m so exhausted from taking photos that I don’t even want to lift one!

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

What equipment do you tend to rely on?

I have a Canon EOS 5D Mark III but I don’t use a lot of equipment and I don’t use any lighting, which surprises a lot of people. The thing about my work is that it’s very much me using the available light, and I’ve learnt how to do that in such a way that it gives me a distinct look and can fool people into thinking it’s artificially lit.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

Do you need reflectors to achieve this?

Rarely. In fact I like having that dark look and making the most of the shadows for food.  For travel shots, people say don’t shoot in bright sunlight but I love it. I love having lens flare, contrast and shadows. I’m obsessed with sunlight and I want it to be as sunny as possible. I use fast lenses with large apertures to make the most of natural light. Tripods can be a necessity, but if I can get away without using one I will.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

You have a project called Bolder – can you tell us more about that?

This is something I do with Dominique Afacan, a friend I met whilst working with a publishing company. We both wanted to do a personal project outside of our commissioned work, we felt like we needed to do something personal to refresh things. We came up with the idea on a plane one day. I had just been to Cape Town and had to photograph Liz McGrath, the owner of the owner of Cellars Hohenort, for House and Garden SA. She was in her 90s and absolutely fascinated me. I was telling Dom about her and how I felt about getting older and she felt exactly the same – and we came up with Bolder. We’re both obsessed with getting older and wanted to change people’s perceptions of ageing. We had this idea that we would find these amazing people over 70, I would take the portrait and Dominique would interview them. Within a month of launching it we had such a good response, so we’re just trying to build up followers now and maybe get a brand sponsor on board so we can develop it more. It’s such a beast in itself that it’s not really a side project anymore! Next weekend we’re off to France to photograph Michel Roux Sr.

Helen Cathcart - Bolder© Helen Cathcart

So have you found it difficult to find people? Have they come to you or do you approach them?

In most cases they are people we have thought of or that have been suggested to us and we’ll approach them to ask if they’re willing to participate.  We usually just email them and find they’re very keen to help us change people’s perceptions of ageing. We try to get a range of people from different backgrounds, although admittedly it’s quite affluent at the moment, but we’ve got really interesting people on there. We wanted to do this while we’re still young and we can do something about the perception that the media currently portray, so that things might be better for us when we’re in that age group.

Image: Helen Cathcart© Helen Cathcart

What other projects are you working on?

Lots! I’m doing one book with Michel Roux Jr’s daughter and wife, that’s with Octopus books. And I’m doing another cookbook for a publisher in New York. I’m doing a lot of things for Marks and Spencer and I’ve just taken on an agent, so I’m moving into more advertising and brand work.  I’m also doing a lot of interiors; I’ve got a project coming up in Paris for Alexander Waterworth interiors, who work on a lot of restaurants, and I’ve got a lifestyle piece coming up for Vogue Russia. This is especially thrilling for me, as I’ve always wanted to shoot for the Vogue titles.

Helen was speaking to Matt Golowczynski.

To see more of her work visit, follow her on Twitter @helencathcart and check out her personal project Bolder at (@being_bolder)

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