3 Ways to Make More Honest Portraits

Sherri Koop

Sherri Koop is a storyteller who explores the human condition with her camera. She's photographed high-profile and no-profile clients in big beautiful places and small intimate spaces. She documents celebrations of joy and moments of deep sorrow on film, and this article generally speaks to that medium; however, the principles apply to both film and digital photographers. 

I have always felt that black and white strips away the distractions of nearly everything but emotion; it’s almost as though my intellect takes a back seat. I see differently. I feel differently.

As a film photographer, I need to be intentional about my choice to make a black and white photograph. There is no post-production conversion; I decide long before what I refer to as “the portrait moment.” This is one of the things I love most about shooting film.

I am not a documentary portrait photographer. My passion is to make portraits that are gently directed and carefully composed on black and white film.

My love affair with black and white film began when I first saw the portraits that world-renowned portrait artist Patrick Demarchelier made of Princess Diana in 1991. Initially intended for her personal use only, she loved the images so much that she decided to share them with the world—Demarchelier had created a new visual story of the late Princess. Until that point, every public image we had seen of her was formal and somewhat guarded. These new photographs were full of emotion, candor, and vulnerability. I was intrigued. And deeply moved.

I became obsessed with the black and white portrait. I spent hours in the public library, pouring over books of black and white portraits; I desperately wanted to recreate what I had seen in Demarchelier’s portraits. I felt that my first step should be one of observation, so I booked a session with a portrait photographer hoping to experience first hand how this type of portrait was made. I dressed similarly and attempted to direct the photographer in a way that would replicate the look and feel of those iconic portraits. Needless to say, there were more than a few elements absent. For one, the photographer’s style was too rigid, and the studio was too formal. I was nervous and awkward, and I felt no connection with the photographer. Needless to say, the images were nowhere near what I had visualized they might be. But I learned a great deal, and the fire had been stoked.

I began documenting my own life in black and white. I learned quickly that I was drawn to very clean, simple images. My 50mm f/1.4 lens was the only lens I used for an entire year. I wanted to eliminate any distraction I might have with respect to equipment, thus forcing myself to photograph the world as my eye saw it. To this day, that lens is my most used piece of equipment.

My career as a portrait photographer began with photographing pregnant women and newborn babies. I began to see the human body as a sculpture that I could paint with light and shadow. As the babies grew, my subjects became more interactive. The challenge became marrying my love of painting with light to an authentic connection with my subject. I practiced mostly on what I commonly refer to as my “toughest customers” to date: my own children. Prior to the digital age, children were not so camera-aware, and there was ease to photographing young kids. Nobody ever asked to see the image immediately after it was made; the experience was really defined by the relationship between the photographer and subject. Perhaps this is exactly why I find my own children to be my biggest challenge. There is history, and so many layers. My boys know not only how to push my own buttons, but how to prevent the “button” on my camera from being pushed. Some of the most vulnerable photographs I have made of my children are when they have been just slightly under the weather. Their defenses are down, and they are vulnerable and open. The experience of photographing my own children has helped me immensely in creating my own approach to working with children.

There are three things that are consistent in my photography:

1. USE PRIME LENSES

All of my work is made with prime lenses. While a zoom lens most certainly has its time and place, I prefer the complete control I feel with a fixed focal length lens. I choose to use longer lenses so as to give my subjects room to breathe, and available light only, so as to allow myself to breathe. The fewer distractions, the more connected I feel.

2. START WITHOUT THE CAMERA

My sessions begin without a camera. Regardless of the subject, I like to spend time establishing common ground. A connection and some level of trust are critical. This is not contrived; it must happen organically. I sit down with my subject, or get on the floor with them if necessary, and communicate. My personal style is what I would identify as “deep and shallow.” The depth of connection is what I am most passionate about; the shallow depth of field is my paintbrush. Oftentimes, the most intimate portrait is made in one of the in-between moments, such as when someone feels we are conversing as friends. It may be a moment of reflection, or it may be in a split second when for some unknown reason walls come down, and emotion is released. Either way, the initial connection will determine the level of vulnerability in the portrait. I typically shoot 2-3 rolls of 36-exposure film or 4-5 rolls of 15-exposure film for each session. It is the complete story of images that is the way to finding the individual portrait—I believe the individual portrait is not restricted to one image. Historically, I will frame a series of images with the intent of creating the individual portrait within that frame.

3. CONSIDER FILM STOCKS

I would be remiss if I were not to mention the film stocks that are my canvas. In the early days of my career, I was fiercely loyal to Ilford XP2. As most of my work was printed in sepia tone, this film worked really well. I would typically push it to 800, which resulted in a beautifully contrasted warm image. About 10 years ago, I began to experiment with Kodak black and white film. I have found TMax 400 to be the smoothest and most versatile film for my purposes. When the available light is right, my preference is TMax 100. I find this film to have extremely fine grain and incredible sharpness. In contrast, I have started incorporating Ilford3200 into my individual portraits. While I have been using this film for many years in low-light documentary settings, I only recently started introducing it in a more close-up portrait environment. On occasion, I will push it to 6400 and I love the dream-like results I see. (Editor's note: for non-film shooters, there are numerous film emulation presets and actions you might wish to consider when creating a cohesive series of photographs.) 

I received a call from a woman several ago who was inquiring about a family portrait for her and her son. The significance of the session was that this would be the first family portrait since the death of her husband. The gravity of this portrait had me entering into the session heavy hearted and deeply respectful of the sacred space we would share. We didn’t talk much during the session, but we certainly did communicate. For the first part of the session, I made some individual portraits of the young boy. We connected well; he was the age of one of my own children so the common ground was easy. When I felt his mother was ready, I asked her to join him by the window.  When she entered the frame, that point in time was ineffable. The room was quiet and felt safe. The walls came down. This is what I refer to as “the portrait moment” and out of this particular moment came two of the most powerful portraits I have ever made. In the first photograph (below, left), a young boy snuggled into the arm of his mother, the anguish on her face clearly visible as she embraces the deep sense of loss and gratitude all at once. In the second photograph (below, right), the quiet shadows of the tear on her cheek, the mischievous look on his face while we converse about young boy things, leaving him oblivious to the pain on his mother’s face.

 I think most photographers would agree that there is something about the black and white portrait that feels curiously timeless. Perhaps it is that the rich history of photography is rooted in black and white film. More than that, I feel like somehow there is a deeper level of permanence . . . as if the moment was there for longer than it actually was. This depth and mystery are what feed my passion.

 If you're curious about using film and want a pro to guide you on all the best how-to's, Sherri's eBook, Film, is for you.

Sherri Koop is an award-winning portrait photographer who has been committed to the medium of film photography for over 12 years. Together with her professional work, she is passionate about documenting the everyday in film. Her work has been featured in Wedluxe, Lemonade and Lenses, Magnolia Rouge, Real Weddings, Vancouver Mom, and Little Bellows, among others. Discover more on her blog and her film-only Instagram feed.

Craft & Technique Sherri Koop

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