Photographer Matt Barnes on Creativity, Collaboration, and His Secret Weapon

Microsoft & Sharp

Already an expert at swapping out camera lenses and tweaking exposure settings, Toronto photographer Matt Barnes has had to master a whole new series of adjustments over the course of the past year. Thanks to social distancing, the busy photoshoots that have long been his specialty have suddenly become a whole lot less busy. “We usually have a full crowd of people in the studio — models, PR teams, art directors,” he says. Lately? “It’s more like two or three people.”

Granted, the image-capturing process still involves input from a wide range of outside sources — it’s just that many of them are weighing in virtually. Mean-while, those select few who are physically present are now tasked with staying six feet apart.

While necessary, these strict safety procedures could run the risk of interfering with exactly the types of images that Barnes is known for: relaxed, personality-packed portraits of charismatic individuals looking their most natural. Think Don Cheadle leaning back against a convertible, Liev Schreiber breaking into a sly grin, or Jeff Goldblum beaming in a bold Hawaiian shirt. And that’s just to name a few of the accomplished cameraman’s past Sharp cover star shoots. His portfolio is similarly packed with high-concept advertising campaign visuals and dramatic, rock and roll-inflected art prints.

To continue capturing that same level of magic in the middle of a pandemic, Barnes has worked to ensure his sets remain as fun as they are safe. As in other industries, technology has played a meaningful role. It helps that Barnes has always been someone who embraces cutting-edge tools as a key part of being creative. “I like my clients to see the laid- back artistic side of me first,” he says.

“But it takes having really powerful technology behind me to feel that relaxed on a shoot.” A year ago, he outfitted his studio with a full range of Microsoft Surface devices, particularly keen on their speed and the new capabilities offered by their high-resolution touch screens — a godsend in a business that involves a lot of zooming in on pixels.

As Barnes adapted his operations to socially distanced protocols, the Surface family of devices proved especially critical. “Even when we’re staying far apart, the screen on my Surface Studio 2 desktop is so large that it’s easy for everyone to get a clear view,” he says. “And we can have a live camera pointed at that in a call to keep other people in the loop, which is great for making key decisions in a more collaborative way.” The top performance of the computer’s Intel Core i7 processor plays a key role in facilitating this type of immediate commentary. “I get pretty excited with firing off shots when I’m shooting,” Barnes says, “but everything keeps right up.”

The screen’s ultra-high resolution is another element that makes far-range viewing possible. “When people do get in close, they geek out over the quality and the crispness of the screen,” he says. “Each device really shows my images looking the best they ever will.” And, as a photographer who has built his entire identity around strong visuals, Barnes is also drawn to the minimalist design language of the device. “It has a wow factor that makes a real impression.”

Surface touchscreens have streamlined other areas of the business as well. After all, as Barnes explains, “We’re only usually capturing about 80 per cent of an image in-camera.” The rest happens through the process of retouching. During a recent men’s suiting shoot, Barnes used the Surface Pen to quickly flag a distracting crease to remove later. “It’s much faster and looser to annotate on the fly rather than to have to type out post-processing notes after,” he says. His producer, who regularly uses the 12.3-inch Surface Pro 7 tablet to expedite on-the-go contract management, is similarly smitten with her touchscreen device. “Before she had to print out model releases, and now she gets everyone to sign right on this,” he says. “Plus, she loves how light it is.” (Just 1.7 pounds.)

And while Barnes typically trusts his own Surface Book 3 laptop on all of his on-location shoots, its detachable keyboard has meant that it also proves perfect for end-of-day movie watching. “It’s a work tool, but also a chill-out tool,” he says. As with all of the best photo shoots, sometimes fun can be just as important as focus.