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Phil Sharp: Having Eyes for Portraits

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Read Time: 10 min
This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
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Phil Sharp is a portrait and commercial photographer based in London. He is known for his relaxed yet professional attitude and his distinctive and contemporary photographic style. We recently had a chance to speak with Sharp about his approach to portraiture and even some of his new projects.

QWhat was it that first got you interested in photography?

I spent a year at University in London and really wasn’t enjoying it, so when I came back in the summer a friend suggested that I join him on a really good photography course in Northampton. I wanted to be a film maker and photography seemed related and a good way of getting into it.

QDid you always intend on becoming a portrait photographer?

No, not really, it was a bit of an accident! I was at a loose end and I kind of fell into it.

Photo of Phil Sharp

QWhat was it about portrait photography that attracted you as opposed to other types of photography?

It was quite a natural thing, an interest in people I suppose. It’s quite nice to be able to stare into someone’s face for slightly too long. I think it’s probably one of the only jobs you can get away with that!

I like the idea of recording people for prosperity, immortalising people, knowing that that image will always exist, capturing that moment in time. I love looking at old portraits and trying to see if you can tell anything about that person just from their face or read into the history of the time because of how their hair or face looks.

Photo of Patti Smith

QWho would you say your greatest photographic influences are?

There are lot of photographers that I study and aspire too, people like Philip-Lorca DiCorcia and Diane Arbus. Then there are some photographers that I like for certain elements, so Saul Leiter is someone who I’m looking at quite a bit at the moment, just how his colours and palettes work and you can look at someone like Ryan McGinley for the life and energy.

Also though, I think I try and look at movies and certain cinematographers, so Roger Deakins, who does the Coen Brothers movies, to see how his films are lit and the guy who does all the Spielberg stuff, Janusz Kaminski. It’s quite often that I like how a photographer will light something, and they might not be a portrait photographer, but if I see something I like, I’ll think about how I can incorporate that into my own work.

Photo of Slow Club

QWhen planning a shoot, how important is it to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve or is there a certain amount of thinking on your feet?

It’s good to have an idea and go in with a plan, but you have to know when the elements are against you and you can can’t achieve what you set out to achieve, and knowing when to quit. The flipside of that is knowing when to take advantage of a better situation, something you hadn’t considered, take a different course and just realise that what you had planned was rubbish because now we can do this!

I do some of my best work when I do have a clear image in my head, I can visualise something beforehand and hold it there and make it happen. I even used to sketch things out, try and draw what I wanted to do but I don’t tend to do that so much anymore. A lot of the time when I’m turning up to a shoot I won’t know the location, what’s there and depending upon the time of year it’s hard to know what the light will be doing.

QSo the elements such as location will be chosen by an art director or an agent?

Sometimes, but normally it’s up to me and I prefer to be making those decisions, but it varies. If it’s a commercial thing I’ll have a location manager and an art director and I will usually have been given a storyboard beforehand. If it’s an editorial thing or something like a record cover, generally people just ask me to come up with a few ideas.

Photo of Rebekah Raa

QYou talked a bit about thinking on your feet, how might you go about ensuring that you definitely get the shots you want whilst on a shoot?

Sometimes I’m shooting and I’ll have a whole day scheduled in a studio or on location somewhere and I’ll be so prepared and know what I want, that everything comes together really nicely and I’ll end up getting the shot I want within the first 20 minutes, but because you’re being paid for a full day and you want to give people value for money you’ll keep on shooting for the rest of the day, but I’ll know that that shot is in the bag and it’s a very nice way of doing things. Although sometimes you get to the end of the day and the sun is going down and you’re still not sure you’ve got the shot you want.

QIt must be reassuring to know that you’ve got the ability to get the shot you want quickly and efficiently, especially in scenarios when you just get given a 5 minute slot with a subject in a hotel room?

Well with those sorts of shoots that are like 5 minutes, you have to make life easy for yourself. You don’t want to be mucking around with too many lights and taking meter readings, you just want to find some nice light and shoot as many frames as you can.

Photo of Metronomy

QHow might you go about drawing out the elements of a subject's character that might bring a shot to life?

It’s good to know a bit about the subject, but sometimes the more famous people quite enjoy it if someone says to them, "so what do you do?" And there have been occasions when I’ve not really known anything about a subject and actually that puts you on a level playing field and you can introduce yourselves just as you would at a party and tell each other a little bit about yourselves.

Having said that, it can be a risky tactic as some people are just like, "you don’t know who I am?" This could look a little bit unprofessional, but that doesn’t happen very often. I think most people are modest enough to not act as though everyone knows everything about them.

In fact, sometimes even if I do know a lot about the subject, I’ll pretend I don’t and ask them questions and again that evens out the relationship. People like talking about themselves and have stories to tell, so I like to hear those and just talk to people and have conversations, although as nice as it is to have conversations, if time is tight you need to be pro-active about getting the shots you want.

The thing that people really want to know though is that you’re a good photographer. That’s what puts people at ease, more than conversation and telling people to be relaxed, just having confidence in your own abilities creates a confident and relaxed atmosphere. So sometimes I wont talk that much, but the subject can see that I’m working and thinking behind the camera and that puts them at ease and they’ll put themselves in my hands. The camera works well as a leveling point.

Photo of Jarvis Cocker

QHow specific are you about the subjects and people that you work with?

If someone’s prepared to pay me I’ll photograph them!

Photo of James Yuill

QWhat factors make a shoot enjoyable for you as a photographer?

It’s a bit of a mystery actually. I know when it’s happening in front of me, the right model in the right location, the light is doing what I want it to do and my gear is all working. If it all comes together, I pretty much know as soon as I press the shutter that this is going to be a popular photograph. All the elements combine and people are going to feel something when they look at this 2D image that I’ve made.

QSo that has a lot to do with your photographic eye and your understanding of what makes a strong image?

There are a lot of things that I do that are quite subconscious now. There are a lot of things that I do that I don’t really think about anymore. Things like where to place a subject, the compositional elements. So often I’ll just turn up to a location and tell the model, "hey, go stand over there," and I’ll think, yep, that works.

QSo actually it’s probably those subconscious decisions that define how you’re seeing a certain situation with a subject that makes it a shot taken by you as a photographer, rather than having to work really hard to define a style but not look like you’re own thing.

Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s a controlled looseness to it. It’s not forced but it’s not random, but at the same time I’m not sure why I’m making the decisions that I’m making.

Photo of Speech Debelle

QDo you have any specific cameras or equipment that you’d use for a portrait shoot?

I use a Canon 5D mkII. I’d probably use a medium format camera if I could afford it. I’ve just shot a project using an 85mm f/1.2 lens that was really nice, but I’m not too romantic about the equipment that I use really, they’re just tools for the job really.

Photo of John Lydon

QIs there a portrait shot that you’re particularly proud of?

I couldn’t really pick out one. I feel like I’ve got a long way to go with what I want to, I’m still learning and not quite achieving what I want to achieve, just image wise.

I liked the shoot I did with John Lydon for Loud and Quiet magazine. There were a couple of shots that weren’t published, one in particular where he looks quite vulnerable. He just looks like a lovely old man that’s a bit scared! That was a 10 minute slot, so the lack of time and the fact that we seemed to get on well meant I was quite pleased with the images.

Photo of John Lydon

QDo you have any exciting shoots that you’re currently working on?

I’ve just been doing a project for the Design Museum in London about people and their bicycles. It’s been commissioned by the museum for a publication they’re doing and if nothing else it’s convinced me to get a bike! I’ve tried to keep similar compositions on all the shots so people can look at the differences.

It’s quite simple, just people standing behind their bikes just flat on, but to the layman, I think pretty much all bikes look the same, so when they’re side by side, you can see how the angles and sizes are all slightly different. I had no interest in cycling prior to starting the project, but I’m now really conscious of bikes and keep stopping to check what sort of bikes people are riding.

Photo of Alice Allart

QWhat advice might you be able to offer to aspiring portrait photographers?

The obvious one is take lots of pictures. Don’t think too much about it, just do it. Take pictures of your friends as much as you can, just doing the stuff they do, you might not think it’s very interesting now, but in ten years, just the clothes people are wearing, what they’re watching on TV, the drugs they’re taking, whatever, will be interesting, so take pictures of it.

Don’t get too hung up on kit. It’s not that important and don’t worry too much about trying to define your own style early on, that will come. It’s a good idea to look at other photographer's work and copy them, that’s a good way of learning how to do stuff.

Photo of Kai Kyoshino

QIf you could only take one more portrait shot, who would it be?

My mum.

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