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Now the shops are open again in the UK, why not consider doing a portrait project on local shopkeepers? While the interior of a Morrisons or Specsavers, and the staff uniforms therein, won’t differ much whether you live in Newquay or Newcastle, chances are there at least some interesting independent shops left on your local high street. If you live in a particularly quirky town, the choice can be even wider.

Glastonbury, in Somerset, is one of the best examples of the latter – indeed it’s hard to think of a quirkier town in the south of England. So Vicki Steward, a local photographer and blogger, decided to capture local shopkeepers. We caught up with Vicki to find out more about the project. For more, see her highly entertaining blog.

It is important to put shopkeepers at their ease, so they don’t look stiff, or ‘pose’

Why did you decide to do a project on Glastonbury shopkeepers?
Glastonbury high street is unusual in that it’s almost entirely independent and a lot of the shops rely on the trade from the town’s many visitors. Obviously, with the first lockdown local businesses were suffering.

I wanted to support our local shopkeepers by encouraging people to visit once everywhere had opened up again. People put a lot of effort into making their premises visually interesting here, plus most places had used lockdown as an opportunity to clear the clutter and create space for social distancing – so they were looking at their best.

Don’t get rushed as you shoot and think about careful composition

How did you go about arranging it?
I simply went into the shops and asked if they minded being included. Most people were really happy to oblige.

Generally people know about my blog and know that I’m really keen to support and promote the town and its community – plus I wasn’t asking for any money! I took the photos there and then, it was very informal.

The shops in a town like Glastonbury can get busy, did you have to do the shots before they opened?
It was just after the shops had reopened after the first lockdown, but before people were allowed to travel outside of their local area. The shops were very quiet, with only local shoppers.

Choosing the right time, before shops get too busy, can also make the process easier

How did you put the shopkeepers at their ease and stop them posing?
I asked them to shout out the rudest word they knew! Even if they don’t want to do it, it raises a smile. It was a trick I first used when a friend asked me to take a photo of her and her four-year-old son, as he was shy and hiding behind his mum’s legs.

I was trying to find a way to engage him and so I hit on this question that I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist answering. Both him and his mum ended up laughing.

It almost always works on adults too, and I get some funny and surprising replies. I think as I’m using a phone, people are less intimidated than they might be by a large and professional-looking camera, it’s more informal. I show them the photos immediately and delete any they really dislike.

I don’t publish the photos unless people are happy with them. I’m really camera-shy myself so It’s important to me that people feel well represented.

Vicki found a smartphone ideal as people were less intimidated than they would be by a big ‘pro’ looking camera

Was it hard to get the shots in low-light interiors?
Surprisingly no, and my phone camera seems to deal really well with low light, and mixed artificial light and daylight.

What smartphone did you use and why?
I used my Huawei Mate P20 Pro. I am absolutely blown away by how good phone cameras are nowadays. The wide-angle view is perfect for landscapes, or situations like this project, where I’m trying to fit in as much of the shop as possible.

A wider angle lens is excellent for capturing more of the context of the shop

The phone is always in my pocket, it’s so convenient for the sort of photography I do. I’ve always felt an eye for a good composition is more important than having loads of kit.

I don’t do a lot of editing either, just a little bit of adjustment in Google Photos generally.

Don’t go over the top on the editing, particularly with colour saturation – this is a documentary project, remember

Was there a good response to the project?
Yes, it’s made for a very popular series of blog posts. It’s one of the more inclusive things I’ve done for the blog too, especially as I covered the more ‘normal’ retailers as well as the more alternative and unusual shops the town is known for.

I like to remind people that Glastonbury is a small market town in Somerset, as well as an internationally known place of mythology, magic, and, of course, the festival.

Few towns are as quirky as Glastonbury, but most will have some interesting independent retailers

What else have you been up to photographically speaking?
I’ve just published a book called Crap Postcards of Glastonbury Tor as I love taking photos of this iconic landmark from supermarket car parks or with industrial machinery or retail warehouses in the foreground. I’ve enjoying the irony of producing postcards of views that aren’t picture-postcard perfect. Maybe your readers can come up with a similar idea for a well-known local landmark…


Further reading
Portrait photography tips


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