Inspirations

Inspiring Creator Series: Sigourney Whitesel

Post by
Marisa Young
Inspiring Creator Series: Sigourney Whitesel

Sigourney Whitesel is a highly skilled and vibrant studio product photographer based out of Northamptonshire in the UK. Her interest in photography, especially compact cameras, started when she was young. She loved working with film cameras and developing film in a dark room.

Drawn to a career in photography, Sigourney initially wasn't keen on pursuing studio work. Her career path became clearer when she gained her master's degree in Graphic Design and her two creative passions beautifully collided.

Today, Sigourney runs her own successful photography business deeply seeded in her past education and Graphic Design experience. She has a strong social media presence, especially on LinkedIn and Instagram, where she shares her creative banter, Photoshop tutorials and behind-the-scenes glimpses of her work and process. This has earned her a community of loyal followers who are drawn into her colour-popping (and deliciously good) feed, impeccably polished style and generous creative nature - not to mention those gravity-defying, liquid flowing compositions.

I am one of those loyal followers and have long admired her work along with many in our Creatively Squared community. When I first asked Sigourney to be featured in our Inspiring Creator series, I remembered I woke to a very excited voice recording! I don’t know whether it was her delightful english accent or wonderful enthusiasm but I just knew Sigourney would be the perfect addition to our series.

Scroll down to read my chat with Sigourney and learn more about her journey to becoming a successful product photographer for international brands and a creative mentor to many of us, and the importance of having your own creative tribe.

Meet Sigourney Whitesel

Hi Sigourney! We'd love to find out how you got started as a product photographer?

Hey there, I’m Sigourney! I’m originally from a small city called Lichfield in Staffordshire, UK. However, my studio runs out of Kettering, Northamptonshire, UK.

I always carried a camera around when I was younger, we're talking about the obsessive compact camera (Film and digital!) type who had to document EVERYTHING all the time. I didn't initially know what I wanted to do when I left school, so I went into interior design at the University of Lincoln. The first year went by, and I nearly failed the course, it was only when I looked at my other options that I even realised doing photography was a possibility. At the time, it felt like a huge leap because it put me a year behind all my peers, but it was the best decision I ever made.

I studied contemporary lens media and wanted to go down a very art-inspired path of photography. Documentary and analogue film were my things, and I HATED studio work – I just couldn't wrap my head around all the artificial lighting and making something look good enough for adverts. My favourite camera to use was my Hasselblad 500C medium format, and I loved to scurry away in a dark room to develop my own film. Three years passed, and I got a 2:1 in my studies and entered the real world of work, getting hired as a product photographer, shooting handbags, in both a creative and e-commerce format. I didn't have a clue what I was doing, but my first boss showed me the ropes. I fell into a monotonous role of photography, however, it was mixed with doing graphic design and producing company brochures and a lot of website admin and having some creative input.

After a few years, I decided I needed a change and wanted to go back to uni to do my masters, but in visual communication with a specialisation in graphic design. I believe it is here that my creativity fell into place and gave me the leverage that I have today.

After receiving my distinction in my master's degree, I went back into the world of work, specialising in graphic design for another fashion company, and I got to grips with understanding the process of selling and marketing products on a day-to-day basis. To be a good product photographer, you need to have the skills of using a camera; to be a great product photographer, you need to have the understanding of WHY and how businesses are selling to their audiences. It’s not all about making things pretty or visually pleasing, it’s the combination of creative stimulation and aiding an audience’s needs and demands.

After another couple of years, I wanted to make a move to work closer to where I lived, and that’s when food photography fell into my lap. I mixed both graphic design and photography in this role and was the lead creative at a company called Whitworths. I absolutely loved working with food, and even though it was a brand-new focus, I couldn’t have been more excited to try something different. In 2019, a year after starting this new role, the demand of the job really affected my mental health, and I decided on one very stressful day that I was going to quit and start my own business. Even in my master's degree when they asked where I saw myself in 5-10 years, I saw myself as the boss, the leader, and this was the reassurance I needed to grab the bull by the horns and go out on my own.

I gathered all the contacts I had from all my work and educational experience and started to network where I could. In the first year of freelancing, I mainly worked in UK advertising agencies as a graphic designer; however, as COVID hit in March 2020, all of these roles had started to disappear, and so I took a chance on working in product photography. My first big break was working with Halo Top International as I had a connection with the brand manager from a previous job. The rest, as you say, is history.

It's been a long and messy road that has spanned over a 14-year period, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

What are some things people might not know about you?

What equipment do you currently use to produce your content?

Camera: Nikon D850

Lenses: My fave is my Prime Nikon 85mm, f2.8 – the most beautiful glass I’ve ever used. In the studio, I also love my Nikon 105mm f1.4 and 24-70mm 2.8mm. 50mm 1.4 is also banging for large overhead scenes.

Tripod: I use the gitzo carbon fibre compact, however, I also use c-stands for overhead shots in the studio.

Lighting: I’m quite mid-range in overall options, and I have 3 x godox ad600 pros and 1 x godox ad100. For continuous lighting I have 2 x godox sl200w and 1 x sl60w

Do you have a favourite lighting setup?

Flash/Strobe lighting all the way! My style and go-to fave is usually hard light and strong shadows, however, I adore creating multiple light setups that use a lot of diffusion and gradients too!

What are your three favourite props to use?

Oh gosh, this is super hard as a lot of my work is quite minimal, but I do love a standard cube plinth – it’s just the strongest shape for heroes! I’m also a big fan of aperture blocks to help break up compositions, but my fave probably has to be an acrylic water tray. Although you don’t really see this as a prop, it can help you create so many different scenes that it must be a studio staple!

Sigourney takes us on a behind-the-scenes of her gradient lighting setup in the first video. In the other, she reveals the process of using an acrylic water tray and shaped blocks to craft a dreamy, product photo.

[#cta]

What is your best advice to share with aspiring photographers?

Always talk to your competition and turn them into your community.

The best thing I ever did was to reach out to those people already working in the field/niche I was looking to be part of and ask all the questions whilst creating genuine relationships. I have a tight-knit group of creatives that I talk to on the daily, and we discuss everything from pricing structures to contracts, and keeping on top of which clients have reached out to who, and which to basically avoid like the plague. It’s always great for sharing resources and skills if you’re looking to level up! We’re in a group where we quite often receive the same inquiries, but we never put each other off or tear each other down – we’re just happy that one of us might get the job. The more connections you have, the more knowledge you’ll acquire and the better you will be at finding the clients you want to grow your business. It stops us from underselling ourselves and makes sure we’re all aligned with the standard practices our creative industry should be adhering to!

Your behind-the-scenes reels are really fun and popular, any advice for creatives wanting to produce this type of content?I would say don’t overcomplicate anything. Make sure you’re giving an accurate account of the process you’re running through, and always be yourself. I’ve come to embrace the fact that I’m quite dorky and don’t give a hoot about what people think of me, even though I do sometimes cringe when I’m recording myself in anything. If you want to share content, just be confident that you’re sharing something of value and are being as relatable to the industry as possible!

Where do you find inspiration for your own work?So, with a past in graphic design, one of my favourite things to do to train my eye is to collect advertisements out of magazines and analyze them – it's pretty much photography school 101 as you look at what production value commercial artists are creating, stay up-to-date with trends, and learn even more about composition and tone of voice.

In terms of learning more about technical skills, I have taken a lot of what I learned and started to upload bite-size tutorials to my YouTube channel, mainly focusing on Photoshop and retouching now, but we have way more in the pipeline. The goal is to bring out a fuller course later this year or early next that covers an array of topics.

As for others I learn a lot from, there’s Amanda Campeneu, Weekend Creative, Haas House and Karl Taylor who runs the Visual Communication course!

Which other creators do you admire and find inspiring?

Oh gosh, there are too many to name but a lot of these gems are in the community group I mentioned earlier. @gemmaproductphotographer, @nadiajunephotography, and @Dannirossistudio inspire me on a daily basis, @germainephoto is insane with his lighting and retouching, @hiyamarianne is an incredible all-around creative with a lot of industry advice to offer, and @veega.studio creates the most insane scenes with her glorious prop-making and set-creating.

Other top inspirations are @waylershebb for prop styling (have worked with her a few times too – she’s amazing!), @studio.liit is just mega-talented with her clean and crispy images, and @florencejamescollective / @propsyland have the most bangin' work to showcase and give me a lot of comic relief during some of the tough days!

What is next for you?

So, on the agenda this year is growing more as a team and fine-tuning our services. Last year, I hired my two sisters, Maddy and Lydia, who run a lot of the day-to-day items and help me with styling, running my social media, and assisting me during on location shoots. We were absolutely run off our feet last year (2023), making it our most successful to date. However, we realized that it’s kind of impossible to work at that level all the time. This year, we're working smarter, not harder, by raising prices and shooting a reasonable number of shots in one day, and not overbooking ourselves where possible. We want to be able to create work that inspires us, as well as others, and therefore we need the headspace to do so.

As well as this, as I mentioned earlier, we’re looking at building on our training resources, so hopefully, we can share our knowledge with more photographers as the year goes on!

Thank you Sigourney for being a remarkable and inspiring figure in our creative community. It was incredible learning your journey to where you are today and the insights you share through your behind-the-scenes content are so valuable to us all. We are looking forward to the release of your training resources!

To stay updated with Sigourney’s latest work, follow her on Instagram @sigourneywhiteselstudio, pop to her YouTube channel and visit her website to explore more of her creative work and banter.

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