Photo Insight with Harry Borden: Bill Nighy

March 13, 2017

Harry Borden Bill Nighy

As luck would have it, Harry had an identical pair of glasses to Bill, which he used to great effect.

Bill Nighy’s roles in films including Love Actually have made him one of Britain’s best-known actors. In person, he’s known for his sophisticated dress sense and was named one of Britain’s best-dressed men by GQ magazine in 2015. Like Michael Caine in the 1960s, his distinctive glasses are an integral part of his brand. Most photographers who shoot portraits of him feature them in some way and he’s often pictured with one hand touching the frame.

In February 2014, he was about to appear on BBC TV in David Hare’s political thriller Turks & Caicos, the second part of the acclaimed Worricker Trilogy. As part of the publicity drive, he was being interviewed for Spectator Life magazine and I was commissioned to shoot the portraits. The venue was the Sutherland Suite at the luxury Connaught Hotel in Mayfair.

As always, I arrived at the location early and looked around the suite for good places to photograph him. I aimed to shoot with daylight most of the time, but also brought my lights and a tobacco-coloured backdrop. I’m always happy to do an environmental portrait and the hotel room suited that approach, but I had the backdrop just in case the hotel room was too cluttered. I also have black and white backdrops but felt they would be too sterile; the tobacco-coloured one was different and wouldn’t jar with what he was wearing.

Nighy arrived, looking magnificent in a classy suit. He was very charming and erudite, and was very clear about how he wanted to appear. As the shoot progressed, I remember learning a lot about tailoring from him because he was talking in detail about design features he did and didn’t like in suits.

The stylist had brought a rack of clothes chosen for him to wear, but it was always going to be a struggle to get him looking as good as when he arrived. Consequently, he only very reluctantly wore the clothes provided, or would only wear them on the condition that the shot only showed his head and shoulders.

I had a couple of hours to do the shoot, but a lot of that time was taken up with discussions about clothes. At one point someone turned up with several different expensive watches for him to put on. The shoot was generally convivial, but I remember Nighy getting a little frustrated by the things he was being asked to wear.

I photographed him in different outfits, using natural light as he stood near the window or in front of a wall panel painted with brightly coloured birds. There was also a grand piano in the room and I shot him in silhouette with the net curtain-covered window as a backdrop.

Harry Borden Bill Nighy Cover

Harry’s more conventional image that was used on the cover of Spectator Life

So far, so good, but I wanted to take a classic portrait, something that would stand out. I put up the tobacco-coloured backdrop and did a few pictures, one of which was later used on the cover of Spectator Life . Then I looked more closely at his glasses and noticed that by chance we were wearing exactly the same glasses. They were a vintage pair with black frames, made by Cutler and Gross, and I suddenly realised I was missing a potentially interesting opportunity to mess with his brand.

At that point I suggested he wear both my glasses and his at the same time. The idea was influenced by the photography of Asger Carlsen, who takes photographs that look like everyday pictures, but which are digitally altered to look strange or surreal. I was trying to do something similar but in-camera.

I also decided to shoot him in profile, without showing his eyes. I was photographing him more as an object than a person – a familiar object, but one that has something unusual about it. I took the shot with my 50mm lens, with settings of 1/100sec at f/5, ISO 100. I lit him using a softbox.

I think the other people on the shoot thought I was going a bit off-piste when I took this picture. It was one of those occasions when I had got all I needed for the commission and I wanted something for myself. Realising we had the same glasses was a serendipitous moment – if I’d planned it beforehand and asked a stylist to find the same glasses, they would have found it impossible.

I was really pleased with getting this completely unexpected picture. It wasn’t used by Spectator Life but was displayed in the 2014 Royal Photographic Society International Print Exhibition. This one has a twist and that’s why I will be putting it in my portfolio.

Harry Borden is one of the UK’s finest portrait photographers and his work has been widely published. He has won prizes at the World Press Photo awards (1997 and 1999) and in 2014 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society. The National Portrait Gallery collection holds more than 100 of his images. Visit

Free download!

Get your free digital download of Improve Your Photography - Nature!