Get to know some of the industry’s top photographers, and learn what it takes to capture that perfect shot!
How did you get your start as a photographer? How would you describe your style/aesthetic as a photographer?
I went to school as anybody does, just not really sure what I was going to do. I was good at math and I liked it, so I said, “let’s do this.” My marks weren’t spectacular in high school, and because of this they only let me in as a part time student, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I’d always wanted to do photography, so I picked up the camera and started shooting. Very quickly I fell in love with it, so I went to the photography professor at the University and asked to take a class there, he let me jump into the second-year program. I could only take one class per semester, but I was spending 90 per cent of my time on that one class and 10 per cent of my time on my other classes, so you can get an idea of how well I did.
When I left university, I worked at a camera store for 10 years and photographed a lot while I was there to start building my portfolio. Gradually I went on to more part time work and started to do photography more full time. I left the store eleven years ago to do photography full time.
All the digital photography was self-taught. When I started doing it, I thought I was going to be a landscape and fine art photographer because that’s what I saw other people doing, and then my professor brought in a Richard Avedon book and I went through it and all the portraits blew my mind.
It’s hard to recognize your own style because style isn’t something you plan to have; it just evolves as you work. A lot of my stuff is punchy and a little more on the edgy side. It has a fashion look to it because I’m used to shooting fashion work, but I think my work is very honest. I always try to bring out who I’m photographing and really bring their personality out in an image. I try and work collaboratively with the hairstylist, and most of the time I try to make sure my hair work isn’t too dramatic. It’s usually more lit, edgy, punchy, and contrasty and I try to make it not too overly posed.
How did you begin shooting for the Contessas? (When did you first start?) Tell me about that. (Who was your first Contessa client? etc.)
I started about seven or eight years ago. I owe all my Contessa work to Melissa Duguay. She approached me about it. I’d been shooting some beauty and fashion work, but there weren’t really too many people doing it out here that much. Melissa was my first client and that’s how it all started.
I understand you’re based in a small town. What’s it like being a photographer from a smaller town? Any challenges?
For the first two years I only shot with Melissa. I think a challenge I faced at first was hairstylist themselves didn’t know the value of competing. They didn’t know what it could do for them. Not even just getting the award but what it can do for them in their salon. The prestige of it and being an award-winning stylist or finalist can really help you optically as far as how people can see you as a stylist. That has been a hurtle. I work with people in Halifax, and Newfoundland, and I work with people in three of the Atlantic provinces and it all snowballed from there. I have also approached some stylists and introduced them to the idea of competing. It’s a smaller market, but I don’t know if I would say it has been a challenge. I have been doing this for a long time now that I understand the market, and I think there is a lot of opportunity for me here because there aren’t as many photographers who specialize in beauty and fashion work as there would be in a place like Toronto. I have been fortunate that I have been able to work with a lot of talented people. The opportunities have been great, and I think stylists are seeing the benefits of competing.
What do you like most about shooting for the Contessas?
The creativity. The energy. The collaboration. Everyone’s so involved in the shoot and everyone is on the same page. We’re all trying to create something incredible. The energy on set is amazing!
Tell me about how you work with your clients on a Contessa shoot. Can you walk me through the process? How hands-on are you throughout the process?
I’m as involved or not as involved as the stylist wants me to be, however, I always try to be as involved as I can be. I will help with model selection, styles, makeup, basically every aspect of the shoot and the preparation too. It’s all about working with the stylist so it can be stress free for them. You don’t want to put them in a situation where they’re scrambling. You want them to be able to excel doing their work.
I help with image selection too. I’m there right through the end. I make sure that when the stylist is ready to submit, the files are all titled the right way. I try to take off as much as I can from the stylist so they can focus on the creative aspect.
How do you deal with any differences in opinions that you may have with a hairstylist when it comes to shooting the collection?
Ultimately, it’s their product. In the end, the stylist opinion is what wins. I can suggest things and it’s a collaborative process but in the end the stylist is the CEO of the shoot, so they make the final call. They know hair better than I do so I can only make suggestions. I shoot tethered to a computer so they can see the images right away which is always helpful.
How do you feel when a collection you work on wins a Contessa? What does it mean for you? Is there a specific collection or winner that stands out to you (and why)?
It’s so rewarding. Every time you shot for competition, you shot to win. So, I’m always over the moon for the stylist because they put so much time and work into these things that it’s so cool to see them win.
They all hold a special place in my heart. It’s always cool when someone wins a new category for the first time, or if they win a big category. That’s always great because I’m a small part in getting them something they worked hard for. But I don’t think one collection sticks out, they’re all special in their own way.
What are your top tips when it comes to shooting for collections? Any tips on how to plan a photo shoot?
I think really focusing on pre-production is important. People tend to miss that aspect where they’re just like oh, we will figure it out as the day goes. Another big one is being realistic with timelines. Really being smart with pre-production and making a schedule is important. The stylist has to communicate with everyone who is involved in the shoot to make sure that it works with everyone and that everyone is on the same page. I also suggest allotting more time than you think it will take. You never know, things happen, and things can go wrong.
Also trying not to overload yourself on a shoot day is important. A lot of stylist can underestimate the mental energy it can take to do a shot and I think they can get exhausted and the mental drain can affect their work. So just being aware of your energy on the shoots is really important.
I understand that the pandemic was especially hard for photographers. How did you get through this? Was there anything creative that you did to still be able to work with clients during the lockdowns? (examples: shooting with multiple people/teams on the same day, offering special pricing/packages, travelling to them, etc.)
We have been super fortunate out here on the East Coast, we haven’t been hit as hard, so we have been able to work. Travel has been affected and of course COVID is a thing here too, but we’ve been fortunate to be able to operate and do things. I did reach out to my main clients, and obviously hairstylist have been hugely impacted by the pandemic, so I reached out early to a lot of them and let them know that I understand that their incomes may be different this year. I offered payment plans, and some discounts here and there.
Why do you think it’s important for people from smaller towns to enter competitions like the Contessas? What advice do you have for stylists from smaller towns who are looking to shoot a collection for the first time?
I think the main thing that stylists need to think about and realize is that this is a big industry. Small town or not they’re a lot of other people who do what they do, so how do you separate yourself from other stylists? How do you show what you can do differently?
A lot of people get into hair dressing because they have a creative bone, and they want to show that through their work. Competitions are a way for you to take your career to the next level and show what you can do. You don’t get to do the cuts and styles you get to do for competitions every day, so it’s such a great opportunity for them.
A lot of stylists who do competitions are able to advance themselves because of it. They can become educators, or if they’re already educators, they can use their competition work to better their teachings. If you go on a stylists Instagram, nine times out of ten, you see content from behind the chair but doing competitions gives them something different and something that makes them stand out.
What other industry gives you a Canadian platform, right here in our country, to compete? Just because you are from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t do great and big things- where you are has nothing to do with it.
To check out Denis Duquette’s website, click here.