An Interview with Michael Wharley - Shapers Of Light

An Interview with Michael Wharley

An Interview with Michael Wharley

Meet Michael Wharley:

Michael Wharley is a British portrait and advertising photographer, who works his magic from a busy studio in the heart of London. Shooting campaigns for film and theatre as well as brands, Michael’s cinematic images regularly feature in high profile campaigns around the UK and beyond, from the London Underground billboards to Cinema hoardings world-wide. His portraits are carefully lit and rich in detail – getting under the skin to connect and tell a tale in one frame.

Michael Wharley was a successful stage actor for six years before becoming an awarded photographer. What made you switch career paths?

M:  I had a lovely time on stage after studying English at Oxford and acting at the Central School of Speech & Drama. I was in more than 30 productions in 6 years, but the acting bug ran its course and I needed a new challenge. I actually got quite far down the road to training to be a criminal lawyer, but then a camera intervened, and that was that. I work with actors from TV, film and theatre all the time now, so my experience is still useful, even if I’ve been ‘clean’ from acting for over a decade.

What was your first paid job as a Photographer and what challenges did you face?

M: Oh, wow, that was 12 years ago now, so it’s a bit hard to remember! I think my first money from photography was £60 cash to take an actor friend’s headshots. I shot two rolls of Ilford B&W on a Pentax P6, processed the film and printed the shots myself, so it was wildly unprofitable, but it was a start. The challenges I faced were probably universal: trying to learn confidence with equipment while directing a client, taking any job to make ends meet from a wedding to events to corporate portraits, eating a lot of beans on toast because they were cheap. I went full time in summer 2010, and it’s been my only job since then, so I must have got something half right.

What inspires you and how much creative input do you have compared to the client?

M: Generally, I try to look at other photographers’ work and campaigns as much as possible, and go to exhibits (when we aren’t locked down). Whether it’s contemporary narrative stuff like Gregory Crewdson or Gillian Hyland’s work, classic portraiture like Irving Penn’s or beautiful abstract colours from Saul Leiter there’s so much visual stimulation to absorb. And then the lighting in film and TV inspires me too. I’m always snapping the screen when we’re watching Netflix. Gangs of London and Chernobyl had some jawdropping lighting.

In terms of creative input, as I’ve got better technically and creatively, I’m more confident in finding freedom within a brief. The story element or hook we need to shoot for a campaign, film or theatre show might be clear, but I’ll make calls about lighting, colour and mise-en-scene.

&Juliet poster                                                                                                           Sunset Boulevard

The ‘& Juliet’ campaign was for a big musical where the agency had even done a test shoot, but I choose the colours, worked with the actor and found the poses that worked dynamically as we shot. It was creative, just within tighter confines.

Then, the ‘Sunset Boulevard’ shot was taken last week and was a much freer –  my client just said, ‘a sort of noir, High Hollywood era portrait’. So, armed with photobooks and moodboards, and bouncing off the actor Mazz Murray’s outfit and energy, I created this set up.

What kind of research do you do before a shoot?

M: I try to make a mash of ideas that brew and stew, and leave space for improvisation on the day. If it’s a drama, I’ll read script for ideas or a sense of tone, and if it’s commercial brief I expect a lot of stimulus will come from the client and I’ll bounce off that. Either way, I’ll put together a pitch for myself with mood boards of imagery to spark ideas. I do draw lighting diagrams the day before a shoot with notes on shapers and lighting ratios, just so I have a basic structure in mind and don’t get distracted by technical stuff.

The Weir

What was your favourite photoshoot and why?

M:  The most recent shoot is always my favourite! But shooting the campaign for a revival of Conor McPherson’s ghost story The Weir really changed things for me.

I was a bit stuck in a rut shooting headshots for actors and then this dream of a commission came in: ‘shoot a picture like a haunted Rembrandt painting’.

We made a little pub in my studio, cast some characterful models, I designed the lighting, we focused on the details, the light, the haze and the rings of foam on a long-nursed pint of Guinness. The shoot went brilliantly, the images did well for advertising the show, and subsequently won me a Gold in the Portrait category and ‘Photographer of the Year’ at the British Institute of Professional Photography’s 2018 awards.

It was the first job that really allowed me to express myself artistically, the images were used all over the country, generated lots of other commissions and got some recognition in the industry, so it’s a happy memory.

What is your favourite kind of lighting and how do you achieve it?

M: Hmm, well I love building a shot up from scratch, light by light, in the studio, but also responding to available light on location and augmenting it or overpowering it with strobe. 

In my current personal project ‘In Green Shade: the English and Nature’, I’m trying to use flash light subtly to augment environmental portraits of people in the landscapes or working environments they love.

By contrast, these dramatic, motorhome-set shots were taken just before lockdown. The interior was with lit with detail and care: it’s all strobe, but mimicking and heightening the way the ambient light would fall.

Then, it was raining heavily and blowing a gale and we only had 15 minutes to grab this secondary set up. It took all my lighting skills (plus 2 wind-resistant assistants) to create the feel of a sultry LA night, and that was about totally overpowering available light.


Colour gels are a reoccurring creative choice you make to light you subjects, how do you built your colours and what is your thought process when deciding on what colours to use?

M:  I try to use colour to help tell stories or create atmosphere. My starting point is often the way light colours fall in the real world, but then it’s whether you dial it back to naturalism, boost it up to create a super-saturated reality, or make a more graphic image. In the motorhome shot above, the blue and orange tones created the sense of place and the atmosphere. In the studio shot below, I was trying to create a ‘mixed’ early morning atmosphere, where strip lights, neon signs, dawn and the blue light of night are all at play

The Heart of a Tiger                                                                                                                      Natural Hair project

Then in the image from my Natural Hair Portrait Project I wanted light that made darker skin tones look fabulous. So there are subtle orange, teal and purple colours in there, but not so strong they overpower the skin tones or ‘become’ the story – I wanted heightened but ‘invisible’ light that created an aspirational, positive vibe.

Group shots are a constant feature in your work. What are the main difficulties when shooting several people at the same time and how do you overcome them?

M:  Creating dynamic group shots is tough: you think you have the shot, and three of ten people are blinking or two heads are half obscured. It can be so annoying! I think you learn to compose a base group set up, positioning people on multiple levels and angles, and then give notes to create energy and dynamism as you shoot. Sometimes it’s simply easiest to shoot people separately and composite them together afterwards (it’s happening even more with Covid precautions), but if you can create a whole shot that draws from the energy of a group that’s always satisfying.

What camera do you use and what is your favourite lens?

M:  I shoot with a Phase One IQ4 150MP most of the time (it has Profoto trigger built in so that’s extra handy…) and the 150mm Schneider lens is a thing of magnificence. The files are such beautiful resources to edit too, so rich and detailed and they definitely enhance creative possibilities.

But, the right camera for the right job is always the main thing. I shot promo imagery for the feature film ‘Summerland’ with a Sony A7III on a 24-70mm Canon telephoto because it could shoot silent, and it gave us a poster image that has appeared all over the world this year, in large format print, online and on screen. It’s not a worse photo because it was shot on a 24 MP sensor instead of a 150MP one – it had energy, emotion and elegance and caught people’s eye. I simply couldn’t have got it with a loud, heavy medium format.

Summerland Poster

You made a photo journal during Covid19 lockdown tilted: “These Four Walls”,  which is featured on your website, with moving images of your personal life. What inspired you to create this project and how did your life change during this difficult time? 

M: Home life is not normally my subject – I’m not really a selfie guy. But Corona threw all normal order up in the air. I was a bit listless in week 2 and picked up the camera idly with an idea of maybe doing a photo journal.

It was only after about 5 days of shooting that I put the images on the computer: then the square format became a deliberate choice to echo the title that popped into my head, and the heavy, almost solarized B&W was to try and capture something of that draining underpinning to daily lockdown life. I’d watched both Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and Mark Jenkins’ Bait just before Lockdown and they were definitely on my mind. B&W and confinement…

These Four Walls                                                                                                  These Four Walls

Getting a daily shot became a satisfying routine. I left the camera lying around and just tried to be open to seeing moments and visuals that spoke of the time, or the mood. So it was a solace and a creative outlet, albeit a domestic, small, scale one – it doesn’t touch on the extremes lots of people experienced. But it’s been a re-education in observation, and it made me use the Phrase One much more instinctively.

And last but not least, what is your favourite kind of snack on set?

M:  I’ve got SUCH a sweet tooth. I try to eat foods on set that will sustain energy over the course of a long day – lots of water and an orange & date Naked Bar are the current healthy favourites. But if times are desperate I’ll crave a Snickers or three! Oh, and there’s always a pot of freshly ground, freshly brewed coffee to hand in my studio.

Check out more of Michael’s work on his website and Instagram.

Written by Kristina Babak

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