Professional portrait photographer Phil Sharp shoots for major record labels and music magazines. Audley Jarvis talks to him.
In the short space of four years since first turning professional, 29-year-old portrait photographer Phil Sharp has made something of a name for himself. As a result, he now lists Universal Records, EMI, Apple, NME, and MTV among his clients.
Not bad for someone who originally had his sights set on a career in the film industry, and whose initial reason for taking up still photography was to learn practical skills he could translate to a career in moving pictures.
‘I was really interested in film up until about the age of 20,’ Phil Sharp explains. ‘I figured that if I learned how to take a good still photograph then I’d also be able to make a good film. I had a place at a college in London to study film, but I didn’t really like the course so I moved to another college [in Northampton] and I took up a course in photography instead. And from then on, I just kind of stuck at it,’ he laughs.
‘After graduating with an HND in photography I teamed up with a friend [fashion photographer Rhys Frampton] and we formed a creative agency together. We arranged some studio space for ourselves and just sort of bluffed our way forward as best we could. We got some big name contracts early on and although we didn’t necessarily make the best job of them, we did learn the fundamentals of our trade.’
And what exactly are these fundamentals? ‘Well, right from the beginning, I’d always suspected that expensive kit isn’t what makes a great photographer – vision and execution are the most important elements. Your kit can consist of anything from a pinhole to a Hasselblad, just so long as you’re able use it to capture the essence of what you’re looking for.
We’re interested to know where Phil Sharp falls within this equipment spectrum – does he prefer to work with a four-grand Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III, or a four-hundred-pound Pentax K200D? As it turns out, he’s out on a bit more of a limb than that, plying his trade with a curious mix of proven medium-format quality and somewhat less predictable DSLR convenience. ‘I’d say that my kit has been cobbled together rather than purposefully assembled,’ he offers by way of a disclaimer. ‘As a result, I’m using a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II medium format body, which I bought with a loan from the Prince’s Trust, and a Kodak 14n DSLR, which I borrowed and then bought from a fellow photographer.
‘The RZ67 I use almost exclusively with the 110mm lens, considered by many to be one of the finest photographic lenses ever made, by anyone, anywhere. I still use the RZ67 to shoot film, although this may well change as medium format digital backs fall in price.
While the RZ67 is a proven professional tool, we’re more than a little surprised by Phil Sharp’s choice of DSLR. Launched in 2003 the 14-megapixel, full-frame Kodak 14n was designed to rival Canon’s 11-megapixel EOS 1Ds Mk I. But while the Canon was met with near-universal praise, the 14n received more mixed reviews – something Phil Sharp appears only too aware of.
‘It’s fair to say that the 14n has had its fair share of bad press,’ he concedes. ‘The main problem is that its sensor is unusable on anything other than ISO 80. Seriously, go up to even ISO 100 and shadow noise becomes a major problem. It’s also basically unusable with any sort of long exposure, and by long I mean half a second or longer.’
So why use one at all? Why not switch to a more practical and less noise prone DSLR?
‘Because when used correctly and with enough available light the 14n is a formidable beast, with excellent colour and detail,’ he enthuses. ‘Despite being quite restrictive, the 14n does force you to be more creative when using it. I do plan to upgrade it some day, but I haven’t yet decided whether I want to migrate to a Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III or otherwise yet. It’s a case of sitting down and deciding what’s most cost-effective for what I want to do.’
Phil Sharp’s somewhat unusual choice of DSLR is matched by an equally unconventional – albeit currently in vogue – approach to how he chooses to light his subjects.
‘In the past I’ve used Profoto, Elinchrom and Bowens lighting rigs, but my main sources of lighting at the moment are three Nikon SB flashguns,’ he explains. ‘I worked with New York fashion photographer Nute Nicholson, and he was the one to explain to me that “light is light”, no matter where it comes from. With the more expensive lighting systems you get faster recycle times and more reliable and stronger power outputs, but the light is exactly the same.’
Does Phil Sharp have any tips about the process of using off-camera flash lighting that he’d care to share with us? ‘Well, I tend to start by taking an ambient meter reading so as to make sure I am capturing elements of the environment. Then I consider where to place my key light. Also, it’s important to adjust the power of your flash in accordance with the available light,’ he notes.
How would he describe his own style, and does he consider it to be one of the reasons his clients book him over other photographers? ‘I think that a lot of people commission me because they want something a bit different – something that older photographers might not provide. I don’t think that I’m really all that well established yet, but certain agencies do seem to like my style. Despite being refined in many ways, I also think it’s perhaps a little bit messy, perhaps that’s what they like.’
What about post-processing, is that a large component of his work and individual style? ‘Yes, I do a fair bit of post-processing work, and I’m certainly not averse to it,’ he replies. ‘I look at it as being part of the process and I’ve never really understood why people would be against it. For me it’s another part of the creative process. I’m not a huge fan of images that have been over-processed though; you have to do it subtly, in a way that complements the image.
Finally, does Phil Sharp have any advice to anyone aspiring to work as a portrait pro? ‘It might sound clichéd, but my main advice would simply be to keep taking pictures – as many as you can – all the time, pausing every once in a while to review and learn from them.’
Phil Sharp Profile – Phil’s Kit
Kodak 14n with 28-70mm Zoom Lens
A harsh mistress with a utility lens means I can travel light. The 13.7MP Kodak 14n may be old in digital camera terms but it forces me to be creative.
It’s both light and sturdy enough for my needs.
Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with 110mm lens
This is a great medium format camera and it’s coupled with one of the best lenses ever made.
Helpful for doing portraits when you want eye-to-eye contact with your subject.
My laptop is an indispensable tool.
2 x Nikon Speedlights
Easy to use and quite reliable, although I spend too much time buying and charging endless AA batteries.
Mini Lumequest Softboxes
These fold flat for convenience and offer a slightly softer light when used with Speedlights.
2 x Interfit light stands
Handy at times for light support.
I find that the foldaway waterproof cover is quite useful.
I use this when a little extra light needs to be thrown onto the subject.
I usually keep around half a dozen 2GB and 4GB cards on me. It’s advisable to spread your work over several cards.
Flash Hotshoe Extension Cable
A great way to learn the basics of off-camera flash and still my main lighting source.
All Images by Phil Sharp