One award-winning Radlett photographer has a particular knack for getting the very best from her subjects, whether they are people or places, cats or dogs. And it turns out her meticulous approach runs in the family…

When Su Kaye won the prestigious 2022 British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) Photographer of the Year award, she felt a sense of deja vu. ‘I had a vague recollection of my father’s connection with the award, went through some old newspaper clippings, and it turned out that my father – Paul Kaye – was the first-ever person to win the award back in 1977.’

Radlett-based Su, then, comes from something of a photographic dynasty. ‘My father had an illustrious career in classic portrait photography specialising in capturing images of Heads of State – the sort of images you’ll find in embassies across the world. Formal portraits of sultans, kings, prime ministers and ambassadors, many of them shot in his Baker Street studio – that was his area of expertise. When I said I was keen to follow in his footsteps, though, he and my mum insisted that instead I should get a ‘proper job’.

Su headed to university and trained as a primary school teacher – but, with photography in her blood, her love of the art form remained as strong as ever. ‘Eventually I realised Dad wasn’t getting any younger and – given how many people he’d trained over his long career – it seemed crazy not to have that opportunity to learn from him myself, something I was doing right up until his death three years ago.’

Great British Life: Su's self portrait, shot with an Olympus digital cameraSu's self portrait, shot with an Olympus digital camera

Su says that the most important thing her father taught her work-wise was the importance of detail. ‘The tiniest things make all the difference – whether you’re photographing people or animals,’ she says.

Having worked in photography since the 1990s, Su is perhaps best known for her photographs of dogs – and certainly it’s her image of 14-month-old bulldog pup, Eddie, entitled Things are Looking Up, which concentrates of the extraordinary shape and folds of the pup’s neck, that won her the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) award last year in a field of some 1,200 images. She then went on to win the ‘best studio photograph’ category with the same image in the prestigious International Dog Photography Awards to become International Dog Photographer of the Year, too.

Says Su: ‘I entered my first competition with the BIPP just after I’d started as a photographer in 1995, and, back then, Dad gave me his verdict on the three photos I submitted and deemed them ‘ok’. I actually got very high scores from the judging panel then, with one of my works the highest scoring print in the competition. It wasn’t until the following year, though, that the photographer with the highest score was named ‘Overall Photographer of the Year’, meaning I missed out. To have finally won last year, then, was extra special. I’ve entered photography competitions over the years and judged plenty of them myself, so I know you’ve got to come up with something different to catch the eye.

Great British Life: A happy mingling of people and dogs in this studio family portraitA happy mingling of people and dogs in this studio family portrait (Image: Sue Kaye)

When Su first began photographing dogs, she was, she believes, the only person doing so locally. These days, however, she says plenty of photographers will have a go: ‘I do question their chances of success, though, when I hear of photographers who have no knowledge of dogs but who try to photograph them professionally anyway,’ she says. ‘it’s just not going to work. I have dogs myself – a couple of Border Collies - I love dogs, I understand dogs and I love and photograph cats, too, as they’re another creature I understand well, but I’d be reluctant to photograph, say, horses, as I simply don’t know enough about them. Just as with people, it’s always about making a connection: between subjects, if there’s more than one in any one shot, and always between subject and photographer.’

Having had a studio on Radlett High Street for 18 years, these days Su shoots from a home studio, where she says it’s very calm and relaxed and easier to get the dogs to focus. The variety of tricks she uses to keep her canine sitters engaged, includes noises to try to communicate with them in their own language. ‘I have a whole repertoire of sounds, from a high-pitched “wuff” to a deep bark, and I’ll experiment to see what works. I’m just glad I’m not recorded!’

Beyond award-winning dog photography, photographing dogs and owners together and human portraiture, Su also recently won an award for Documentary Wedding Photographer of the Year. ‘I’m not a wedding photographer,’ she explains ‘but my shot of a bride on her own during covid, when her family and friends were only able to watch the wedding online, sums up the sense of isolation and sadness of that time, I think.’

Great British Life: A market seller in IndiaA market seller in India (Image: Sue Kaye)

Further afield, Su loves to shoot abroad whenever she can. ‘I’ve worked gratis for charities in order to support their work – for the inspirational Hope Foundation in India, for instance – and of course it allows me to take images of the area in general. I also love photographing wildlife with my son – our favourite place to find it is Africa, so we try to travel to that part of the world when we can. Sam’s in his early 20s and though he works in IT, he’s also passionate about photography and already has an Associateship qualification with the Royal Photographic Society. ‘ So that’s the next generation of Kaye photographers already up and running, then – it must be in their genes.