For Sheryl Nields, agility and flexibility is key in her portraiture. Her images often show a delicate balance between getting what the creative team wants out of a shoot, as well as maintaining a level of spontaneity to keep her work fresh and inspiring. Working from an almost intuitive nature, she is able to connect with her talent within only a few minutes of meeting with almost no prior briefing.
Sheryl has had work featured in many prominent places including GQ, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine. She has photographed the likes of Prince, Jared Leto, Snoop Dogg, Josh Brolin and Charlize Theron, just to name a few.
Beyond her amazing photography, Sheryl is also a single mom enjoying life in Venice Beach, California.
Where did you get a start in photography?
I first started photographing in high school. Growing up I was really obsessed with beautiful images. I plastered my bedroom walls with images from Italian Vogue. After high school I did my first year of foundational arts at Otis College of Art and Design and then moved to New York and enrolled at Parsons School of Design to continue my education in photography.
From the beginning I was always a darkroom junkie. I started shooting professionally while I was still in college. During that time I had a few fashion clients and did some packaging work for music albums but I really had no real business sense. Most of my work really came from the fact that I just never stopped photographing. I would walk around New York and approach unique and interesting people to ask if I could photograph them. This really opened up a lot of doors and I made a lot of connections. It’s so important to put yourself out there and find your voice.
I often hear that many photographers don’t know how to take that leap from learning the craft to making a living from their work. What was this transition like for you?
After graduation I spent the next five or six years just learning the business side of photography. I worked on improving every aspect of my profession, from production to location scouting to assisting. I even became a master printer. I wanted to know everything there was to learn about the photography industry.
I really got serious about becoming a full-time photographer when I had my son. Leaving him with a nanny while I went out and made couple hundred dollars assisting just didn't make any sense. Suddenly time was not the same as it used to be and I have a little man that I needed to support so things became real clear. At this point I completely shifted gears. I started turning down any work that wasn't as a photographer. That was scary for me but then things really started to take off. It was unexpected and magical. I feel very fortunate for the career I have built.
Was this around the time that you started working with an agent?
It was! Working with an agent has been amazing for me. I’ve found that many people are so eager to get paid work, they often undervalue themselves and subsequently the entire photography industry. I realized that some of my early jobs, after everything was said and done, I wasn’t even making minimum wage. I’ll never fault another photographer for their hustle but it’s awful that sometimes the people and businesses needing the content are willing to take advantage of artists eager to work. The great thing about having an agent is that she really lets me do my thing and she does her thing. A client will come to her with the shoot estimates and she handles a lot of the negotiating to get the budget to get the job done. It helped me get a grasp of what the industry standards in pricing are and make sure that I fully realized the value of my work and time. This allows me to focus on the creative process and do what I do best.
You’ve photographed a number of amazing personalities, musicians, and celebrities over the course of your career. Is there anyone you haven’t photographed that you would love to?
That's a difficult one... it's not really about who I shoot, it's about the experience and the connection that I have with them. There have been plenty of times that I've shot people that I've been dying to shoot and the shoot was just ok, versus other times where the talent and I got on like a house on fire and really went to that creative place together. It’s a sweet spot where I can get my subject to let down their guard and show their true self. It’s important to me that I show that the people I shoot are real people.
How do you approach your photoshoots if you don’t have much time with the talent?
Every shoot is unique but my general approach would be to pre-light three setups, then see what works with them. I’m constantly testing and adjusting as the shoot moves along, making sure to involve the entire team to make the shoot the best it can be. Before the shoot I discuss what we’re going to try with my assistant and they help me make sure things stay fluid. I always have to make sure that I don’t break the momentum of a shoot by messing with my lights.
Does your work have a particular style? What has been the general reaction to your work?
I don’t think I have a particular style. I think "style" changes as you evolve through your artistic journey. I've been told that people love my lighting and clients love the way I shoot women I have a reputation for being fast and painless.
Rather than a style, I think I have core fundamentals. For example, I like people to look the best that they can look so I shoot for that rather than try to be edgy or create drama. I won't share pictures that hasn’t been shown to the talent and I definitely won’t shoot something of someone that shows them negatively. I am not interested in that side of things.
How does using lighting affect how you plan a photoshoot? When did you start using strobe?
Light is everything. I love light. Your entire shoots mood is set by the lighting. I started shooting strobe around 1990. Early on, I was blessed to have a client with big equipment budgets. This really allowed me to just play with all sorts of light modifiers and strobe units. From ring lights to parabolic umbrellas, it helped me to really understand what light does when you shape it. I’ve found how incredibly important it is to not over-light and to learn that many times you can accomplish the same with two lights as you can with six. The most important part is that good light will not only make good photographs but make your subjects feel good. Using lighting has been a long journey for me but the more you use it, the better you get and the easier it is.
Do you have a formula for how you plan to light a certain subject or do you plan well ahead of time?
I always plan ahead of time - I actually over plan in the off chance I have to compensate for the potential of the lighting not working with a certain subject or creative taking a sudden change of direction. In the first few shots, I know immediately whether my plans for lighting are going to work for my subject. I’ve learned how to change direction on the fly to keep the shoot moving because if you get flustered or lose confidence, it will affect the trust of who you’re photographing.
Beyond your paid work, what are you passionate about? Do you have any interesting side projects that you’re working on?
Beyond still images, I'm passionate about films. I am currently shopping a documentary about stuntwomen that I am working on with my partner Gillian Hormel. I love stuntwomen. They’re so badass. This initially started from an idea about photographing them but it’s turned into so much more. We’ve sort of created a story about each one and how they each choreograph their own stunts. Their contribution to film and cinema is often huge but these people are seriously undervalued by the entire industry. I really believe they’re artists in their own right and yet they get so little credit. It’s almost criminal that there isn’t a single award category for these amazing people.
We’ve heard that you’ve done some interactive projects as well. Can you tell us a little more about those projects? Is this a new focus for your work or one offs?
I would love for it to be a new focus! It is a difficult transition I've found to make. Interactive projects are very expensive. I'm still trying to see how I can give birth to this whole new media venue. This began with a fascination I had with funhouses and optical illusions. My creativity really isn’t limited to my photography. I’ve created a few flip books and also worked with a company in London that creates “pepper’s ghosts.” If you’re not familiar with the concept of a pepper’s ghost, it’s an optical illusion that is often used to create almost a “hologram” effect. They used this same sort of technology for that performance at Coachella in 2012 where Tupac appeared on stage. The biggest issue with continuing these projects is simply the scale and cost.
Any advice for those just starting their careers in photography and looking to make a living from their work?
Don’t undervalue your work and make sure you know your worth! Shoot what you love, have fun, and keep an open mind.