A Masterclass in Portraiture: We Interview Tianna J. Williams

A Masterclass in Portraiture: We Interview Tianna J. Williams

Some photographers have skills that blow us away. Embedding emotions into images sets some photographers apart, so I knew instantly I had to share Tianna Williams’ work with our readers.

Tianna was interested in taking photographs, so she walked into a branch of a big electrical chain store here in the UK, and was sold a Nikon D3200. The store assistant recommended the kit lens to start with, but she bought the 50 mm f/1.8. Feeling overwhelmed by the camera’s controls, she turned to the wealth of free information on YouTube.

The birth of her first child inspired her photography; she was determined to record her daughter’s life as she grew. This, plus working as a midwife in the National Health Service here in the UK, steered her in the direction of maternity photography. Her professional knowledge enabled her to form a special relationship with her clients. Consequently, she had a unique selling point for her services, a real connection with her subjects that many photographers cannot achieve. Her empathy and cheerful kindness are evident in her skilled work.

For a short while, she’s dabbled in photographing jewelry. She says it was fun, recognizing the precision required in capturing such detail. However, it was her connection with people that drove her photographic ambition.

Although still primarily a maternity photographer, her portraiture is diversifying, so she’s increasingly capturing non-maternity portraits of women too. Given the negative publicity of the issues that some female models have had with a very small minority of male photographers, it is understandable why women can feel most comfortable being photographed by other women.

Tianna says that she doesn’t now have a lot of time for other photography, and she recognizes that’s not necessarily a good thing for personal growth. Nevertheless, she is determined to find time to collaborate with the hair and makeup artist she now works closely with.

She feels blessed with her studio, which she calls luxurious. Her main space is long enough for her to shoot full length at 70 mm, using the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8. The building includes her office that doubles up as a viewing room, a hair and makeup/dressing room, which also stores a lot of props.

I have so much fabric! I often go to my local fabric stores and get a real feel for the materials. They must be used to me now. I once got strange looks when I’d be waving lengths of various materials up and down to see how they moved in the air! I tend to purchase a material called chiffon; it’s light, airy, and perfect for photo shoots. You can steam it very well too. I regularly buy 4-5 meter lengths, which seems quite a lot, but it really works so beautifully.

Tianna recently bought some canvas material, which she used on maternity sessions. She loves the textures, as well as how it holds their shape. She also buys dresses and items in bigger sizes from online stores to suit her maternity customers.

What’s striking about Tianna’s work is how she chooses fabrics and colors to work with different skin tones. She grew up in Birmingham, a wonderfully multicultural city in the UK, where she still lives and works. I asked her whether that diversity helped her to successfully photograph such a fabulous wide range of people. She feels that it does, but she hastened to add that it should not be considered a hindrance to others who are not so fortunate.

Tianna has a knack for matching fabrics to people, finding something that suits them, but she always gives the client the final choice.

I find, darker skin tones work so beautifully well with strong, bold, and rich colors.

Tianna told me that many colors have powerful and important meanings culturally. Many of her clients are black. Being proud of their heritage, they ask her how she can help them convey that, which, she says, is a huge honor. Nevertheless, she says making her clients feel comfortable, and respecting their uniqueness, are essential.

I don’t know everything about all the incredible backgrounds people have. But doing my best to understand and be culturally competent, as well as respectful, means they are comfortable with me.

Being a woman of color also engenders trust, as inevitably, she has understood from shared experiences. Many of her clients want to include their cultural background in their sessions, so she actively encourages it. Her clients have seen her portfolio, so doing that doesn’t seem at all like tokenism or taking advantage of their heritage, but a genuine desire to support the client. Besides, it was very apparent from talking with her that Tianna is shooting for her clients, and her work is not about bolstering her portfolio. Trust and respect are fundamental to her work.

She is aware of cultural appropriation, although she has never had a client that has asked for something that would not be associated with them. However, she has thought about it and told me she would find it challenging if they did because people come from many varied walks of life, and their background isn’t always obvious.

Before the shoot, Tianna consults clients, asking about their ideas. She finds that meeting them in person is the best way to achieve this, although that isn’t always possible. Moreover, a lot of her clients travel a long way to see her, so it means resorting to telephone conversations and emails. Her clients have usually read about her and seen her portfolio before they meet. Consequently, there is already a connection and realistic expectations.

Tianna told me that learning lighting has always topped her skills priority lists. This has paid off. What's most important to her is creating images that the subjects will love. Furthermore, people must feel properly represented in their photographs. Correct lighting is a big part of that and a lot of thought goes into it.

Her usual (but not only) technique is to feather the lighting, using the edge of the modifier to get the best of the soft light. In editing, she keeps warmer tones to ensure darker skin tones glow. She avoids dulling skin tones, which can result in a gray-looking result.

Tianna shoots excellent baby photos too. Her styling is simple, concentrating on the beautiful baby and not paraphernalia.

I always say to parents that their baby is the boss. I give them the choices of colors that they like — no more than two or three — and I set expectations about poses. But it doesn’t always go to plan! The hardest sessions are typically when a baby is struggling either with feeding, wind, or a growth spurt. A fussy baby and stressed-out parents make it harder.

If the baby isn’t happy, Tianna encourages the parents to bring the child back another week. She even sometimes asks parents to take their child to a healthcare professional, her nursing background and midwifery training coming into play.

Creatively, she is considering more images including a baby’s cultural heritage. She told me about a wonderful session that incorporated the mother’s bridal veil into the images.

It was just beautiful, not only because of the photograph but the cultural element for the baby too. When she is older, what she will have is an incredible image of her time as a baby and the importance of who she is, all in one.

Tianna is a member of UK Black Female Photographers (UKBFTOG) The group was founded by Jemella Binns (Mellz), out of a need to connect with other black female photographers across the UK. She and others felt that, at events and trade shows, they were and continue to be underrepresented.

The work done by the group and many members led to collaborations and sponsorships from Nikon and One Vision Imaging. Speaking engagements and job opportunities resulted. One of the biggest events was the We Are Here Exhibition in September 2020, which was put together in just six weeks. It was a huge success, leading to more opportunities across the country.

You can view Tianna’s work here and on Instagram.

Images used with permission of Tianna Williams.

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13 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

Thanks for another well written and well thought out article, Ivor.

As I read each paragraph, I kept thinking of how I could apply what you were saying about Tianna's photography to my wildlife photography - to use what she is doing as an inspiration that will help me improve my work. Nothing immediately came to mind, but I think that if I keep milling it about in my head, I will come up with some parallels that can inspire me to do something new or different.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Tom, and I am sure Tianna will appreciate your comment. Although I don't do huge amounts of studio work, I do some, and have certainly learned from the information she generously shared about lighting techniques. When I read about studio lighting, I am always comparing studio lighting to daylight.

Tianna Jarrett-Williams's picture

Hi Tom! I really do appreciate your comment for sure. I can’t thank Ivor enough for this wonderfully written piece. I’m honoured that you’re considering how to use this to support your own work, that’s incredible! I’ve never considered wildlife but I’m always in awe of that kind of work. How exciting.

Tom Reichner's picture

Tianna!

Wow! So surprised to have you respond to me! What an honor!

I think that all photography has things in common. So the wonderful portraiture that you do must have things that I can learn from, things that will help me with the kind of photography that I do.

For one, it is clear that you are very interested in your subjects. I bet you think the world of each person that you photograph! And that undoubtedly plays a large role in the way that you photograph them. Each of the photos that Ivor used in the article seem to show your subject in the very best way possible. Everyone that you shoot looks great!

I can easily translate that to photographing wild animals. I, too, think the world of the critters that I shoot. I do lots of research on the species that I pursue with the camera, because I am so interested in them. Hopefully the passion and love that I have for my subjects will someday translate to portraying them in as positive a light as you do your subjects.

Tianna Jarrett-Williams's picture

Hey Tom!

Sorry I am just replying to you now. Ahh you are welcome! I am really grateful you commented! So that for me is an honour.

I agree with you, that is what makes it such an incredible industry. The interchangeable skills.

I really am, I love to learn about them. I used to be a midwife and nurse so getting acquainted with people in a short space of time is something I am used to - and one I enjoy. So being able to empower them in this way in front of the camera is a real privilege. Thank you so much!

I think you can too, especially as you are taking the time out to learn about them. What makes them unique. I believe you already do that, so that is incredible! Just brilliant!

Deleted Account's picture

You answer the way you look: very refreshing and so much positive energy. Admirable. Keep it up!
Edit: bookmarked your homepage, it is well done as well. I have not that many in my list.

Tianna Jarrett-Williams's picture

Hey Jan, what a lovely statement to make! Thank you! It costs nothing to be kind and I think that attracts goodness back to you. That is just so wonderful to hear that! I really like it, though I must update it a little with more recent work. Happy New Year if you don't get a chance to reply before then, best wishes for 2022!

Deleted Account's picture

Hello Tianna, all my best wishes to you and have a great 2022. I'd love to read about you again. Maybe Ivor can do a story again in some time? - Your images give me a good mood just by looking at them. I'll drop a message in some time when I revisit your pages. Cheers! -jan

Tianna Jarrett-Williams's picture

Hey, I am so sorry I am just seeing this comment and it is such a shame the account has gone so I can't address you properly. I hope wherever you may be that you have an awesome year too! How lovely!! Hope to hear from you soon! T.

Deleted Account's picture

"Some photographers have skills that blow us away."
What happened to me while reading this very well written article, I couldn't stay with the text. My eyes were constantly drawn to these absolutely stunning images. What wonderful light, how subtle or strong the colours are. Thank you so much, Ivor, for introducing Tianna to your readers. And you have done it beautifully. Congratulations to her.

Tianna Jarrett-Williams's picture

Hi Jan! That line really blew me away! Honestly, what amazing words and feedback. Thank you SO much. I’m really grateful to Ivor, who has really portrayed me and my work in the best way possible. I read it and think wow, this is me! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time out to comment too. Means everything.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Jan. That's very kind of you to say that.

Deleted Account's picture

You both earned it. She started with a D3200, 50mm. I remember your article: "Buying an entry-level camera..." and my question. Here is the answer :-)