If you’ve heard of "America’s Next Top Model," you’ll undoubtedly be well acquainted with its photographer. A judge for 17 seasons, Nigel Barker was propelled to household name status as viewers saw him critique model portfolios and take part in various themed photo shoots. Now, in partnership with Adorama and with the backing of Canon, he is preparing to launch his own show: "Top Photographer With Nigel Barker," a web series showing Barker on the hunt for emerging talent in photography. In this exclusive Fstoppers interview, I chat with him about how the show will work and also get advice on social media, the process of selecting portfolio images, and how to handle yourself with clients.
When I first caught wind of Barker’s new venture, one of my initial thoughts was how technical this show was going to get. "America’s Next Top Model" was a series that was relatively easy to follow; it appealed to the casual viewer. Photo shoots were but one segment of each episode; with "Top Photographer," it’s the focus of the entire format. I was keen to know whether it’d be quite specialist and attract only a very niche audience or something different. During our Skype chat, Barker told me that he’s expecting the standard of technical knowledge to be quite high. Besides himself and a representative from Adorama, who together complete the resident judging panel, each episode will feature guest appearances and judging spots from various industry professionals, who he anticipates won’t hold back when it comes to discussing their expertise.
It turns out plenty of the submissions have come from relatively established photographers whose work he claims to already be familiar with, to Barker’s surprise. Scrolling through the entries, he exclaims: “I know who he is! I know that guy!”
The Selection Process
This lead me on to the next nagging question I had: is the team trying to select photographers who are working at the same level as each other? The answer in short: not necessarily. Barker says there is “no prerequisite” for entrants to be at any particular level and that "Top Photographer" is every bit the learning experience as it is a competition.
So, how will contestants be selected? The application process involves submitting just one photo. Cue scrolling through your portfolio for an hour, trying to remember which photo had the biggest impact on you when you first saw it. And surely we all have at least one good photo in our portfolios that was, although we’ll never admit it, completely accidental?
“We know from Instagram there are a lot of people who can apply cool filters, and they have shots they ‘fluked upon’,” Barker says. “[The contestant] could be someone who’s a brilliant iPhone photographer and all about Instagram. That’s ok if they’re really good at it and have a good following and that’s their thing; these days, that’s a form of photography.” The submission of one photo from each entrant will be used as the primary screening process, that is, until the thousands of entries are whittled down to a much smaller selection of finalists. Barker and his team will then be doing some further research into each of the hopeful contestants, not least of which will involve digging deeper into their portfolio, their aesthetic, and their current brand as a whole.
Being an All-Rounder
In the same sense, he notes that some applicants currently specialize in film photography, or use equipment not particularly noted for being high-end. However, amateurs can fear not, as all contestants will be provided with the same Canon DSLR for the duration of the competition. I noted that as a Nikon user, I’d immediately face the obstacle of acquainting myself with a Canon camera.
But it seems that sort of predicament may be the least of their worries, as they’ll all be put through their paces with a series of weekly challenges that will see the contestants have to tackle portraits, fashion, landscapes, sports, and so on. It’ll make for particularly interesting viewing to see a photographer who may be used to a studio environment try to work his way around mastering the etiquette of landscape photography and likewise, to see how a landscape photographer copes with the pressures of having a model in front of them, with a client breathing down their neck, expecting results. Of tackling various photo genres, Barker tells me: “You’re always going to have your preferred area of expertise that you’re known for, but if you look at the greats in history, whether they be Ansel Adams or Avedon, they’re people who did move [genres] and were able to take pictures of still life, landscapes, and inanimate objects, but then did fashion and beauty with a lot of movement. I think, as a photographer, having a knowledge greater than just one small little area is valuable and is a reality of anyone who is really at the top of their game."
Taking Good Photos Is Only Half the Battle
One of the many things I’ve discovered in my own photographic journey since moving to London has been the importance of networking. Being good at what you do, whilst instrumental to progressing, is but half the battle on the road to success. Many of the jobs that have kept me afloat have stemmed from the ability to network — to make yourself known within the industry and to keep good working relationships with both previous and potential clients. Surely, any show staking the bold claim that it can produce a top photographer would need to touch on not just the technical aspects of photo-taking, but also the skills that will take you from hobbyist to industry professional. I’m told contestants can expect to both learn about and showcase their photographs. Outside of photo-taking, they will be assessed on their ability to present themselves and their skills as a business person. Referring to his own past experiences, Barker recalls that sometimes, the photographer can "get something [the client] didn’t see." He talks about the occasional need to speak on behalf of your work, claiming that possessing the charisma to both present and explain your images is essential in having a client "fall in love with the whole package" and not just your photos.
It’s a characteristic that one would certainly require as winner of "Top Photographer": one of the prizes is a photo exhibition in New York City, hosted by none other than Barker himself, and attended by a who’s-who of industry experts. Recounting an opportunity he was given to exhibit his work shortly after first relocating to NYC as a budding photographer, Barker stresses that the winner’s exhibition will be every bit a career make or break on the back of the show; it’ll be an opportunity for the victor to present his or herself to magazine editors and creative directors, all of whom are potential clients.
Reviewing Images and Getting Feedback
Two topics I also wanted to touch on were social media and the process of selecting images for your portfolio. Barker draws on the correlation between the two in the modern world. He reminisces on a time when the responsibility of final image selections for an ad campaign fell on the photographer and his clients. The team working on any shoot are but a small number of the audience who’ll be engaging with the final product, no less. "You might have your personal favorite shot, and that’s fine. But you’d be very shortsighted to think everyone likes what you like," he notes. "The general public has a different opinion half the time. Their aesthetic may be different; they might like something more obvious or more pretty."
Acknowledging that apps such as Snapchat and indeed, the latest addition of Instagram Stories are often marketed and primarily consumed by younger generations, he says social media can and should be used to gauge which image(s) should be at the forefront of any given campaign. "Now, you can put those images on social media and assess the reaction. [You can] see what gets the most likes and comments before making a decision." Barker is also quick to note the introduction of insights and analytics on many social media platforms. Hundreds of thousands of likes may be great for an ego boost, but from the perspective of a brand trying to market their product, taking a social media response at face value can actually be counterproductive. "You can get millions of likes from Sub-Saharan Africa, but that makes no difference to what you’re selling in New York," he jokes.
Moving On From ANTM
Despite both its foray into the world of reality TV and its particularly candid nature, "America’s Next Top Model" was undoubtedly a pioneer in bending the rules of the fashion industry. As the show progressed, endorsement from reputable publications and brands (American and Italian Vogue, anyone?!) only seemed to flourish. The momentum surrounding the show snowballed, airing all over the globe and being adapted in hundreds of countries. In Barker’s own words, it became "a juggernaut," altering the boundaries of what it meant to be a model of color, or one that fell short of the industry’s strict height requirements.
[ANTM] gave me a platform to discuss photography, fashion, business, and the industry as a whole... The number one thing people said they liked were the photo shoots; they loved behind the scenes and getting an insight into how we created photo shoots or how we worked with the models.
In many respects, that’s what 'Top Photographer' is: taking those aspects of a show like ANTM and making a whole show solely about them. 'Top Photographer' is not about the models, it’s about the photographers, how they handle the challenges, and what their vision is.
Everyone is armed with a camera; the whole world has an interest in photography and social media. Everyone has a knowledge of photography like they never did before. The time is right for a show like this, because for the first time ever in history, everyone — regardless of their skill level — has access to photography. Just like every child was given a pencil, now, everybody has a camera.
"Top Photographer" films throughout September and will begin airing in November. The deadline for entries is 11:59 pm on August 12. You can read all the rules, find out the prizes, and apply to be a part of the show right here.