Photography by Sandra Coan


One Hour Photo Featuring Sandra Coan


Lesson Info

Photography by Sandra Coan

Let's take a look at some of your photos and continue the conversation as we go through this. I love that baby. So, did this one make... This one, I think, made it into a lot of your shots here. So, talk generally about some of the photos that you've brought us here today. Sure, so I always tell people, like I just said, I consider myself a portrait photographer. And I know that in this field a lot of people say, 'oh, I'm a newborn photographer' or 'I'm a family photographer.' Well, for me, I'm a portrait photographer and I just happen to specialize in newborns and kids. And that's an important distinction for me because I feel like, as a portrait photographer, it's my job to tell somebody's story in a frame, right? To get a little piece of their personality in a frame, and I aim to do that if my person's five days old or five months old or 50 years old. And that's why I love pictures like this, because I feel like this kinda tells me a little bit of this little person's personal...

ity. You know, like... Happy baby. Yeah, kinda easygoing, just sitting there, and I don't know, it just... I feel like I know who this little person is or is going to be, and that's what I try to do in my work. So, I have actually zero photos of babies in my (laughing) photo archive, and so, nothing against babies. No, you have to be called to do it, but not everybody wants to do it. One of the questions, I'm curious, is how much good time do you get with a baby when you're photographing? How much time can you expect to photograph? Well, it depends on the age of the baby, and I've actually gotten quite good at this. This age, like six to 18 months, probably good shooting time where they're gonna be engaged and with you, you're like 20, 25 minutes. And I tell my clients this because, you know, I say plan an hour, we're not gonna shoot that whole time, but we're gonna come in, I'm gonna go really fast. I'm really good with kids, it's kind of like a superpower that I have, right? Where I can get them to engage with me and I enjoy them and they enjoy me and we work well together. But we're all business for 20, 25 minutes, and then we play, take a little break, and then, if they still have it in 'em, we'll do a little bit more, but most kids don't. And I think that that's important too. I know in your questions you had some people who were wanting to start baby newborn stuff, and I think what I see a lot of newborn photographers do is say 'oh, well I'll come in and we'll have a four hour session.' Right, you know, you see that and you're like... Well, if that were adults you could see that. Yeah, but I'm just like that is bananas. (laughing) Those babies are gonna be exhausted. I really try to respect, you know... I mean, just developmentally, you know, most kids have 20 to 40 minutes in them. So, you have to use your time wisely and efficiently and just go in and know what you're doing and know what you're trying to get. So, for me, I'm always trying to get engagement, and that doesn't necessarily mean that the baby's looking in the camera, but it means the baby's engaged and is happy. I never want kids to be crying or uncomfortable or that kind of thing. Excellent shot, love that one there. Alright, so very different category. Very different category. So, again, I'm a portrait photographer, and this is a photo... This photo actually means a lot to me that I took of my mother-in-law, who just recently passed away. But she had dementia, and she would have really good days and she'd have really bad days, and this was on one of her bad days. And she would do this thing where she would wear multiple coats and she'd kinda curl up in a ball and just kinda fold into herself, but we knew we wanted to get pictures of her. I was there with my husband and his twin sister and my boys, so we were trying to get some photos. And what was amazing... So, I didn't know how this was gonna go. Was she a willing... Was she interested? She was. She was not interested. (laughing) She wanted to sit on the couch with all of her coats on. So, we brought her into the studio and I put a table for her to lean on because I thought maybe that was part of why she was folding on herself, and we let her keep one of her coats on. What was so fascinating about this is I started talking to her and talking... I have twins, and so one common thing that happens with people with dementia is they get caught in this loop of conversation. And so, we started having this conversation where she saw my kids and she's like 'oh, I have twins,' and, which I'm married to one of her twins, and I was like 'yeah, I know, I have twins too,' and then she'd laugh and she'd be like 'well, you know I have twins,' and we kept having this conversation. But it was so amazing because this woman... I mean, she;d literally just been folded in on herself moments ago, and she lit up and this thing she did with her hands, she was singing songs. I get kind of emotional talking about it, but it's the same thing that I think about when I photograph babies, right? To work with somebody on the opposite end of the story... They still have something to say, they still have something to share, you still... It's your job as a portrait photographer to help them tell that story. So, this has actually started, for me, a personal project where I wanna work... Sorry, I wanna work with older people, with the elderly, I wanna tell their story too. Well, they need great photos of them as well. And their families do. These pictures, you know, we cherish. Yeah, oh, yeah, absolutely. You know? Now, you don't just bring someone in off through the front door, into the studio, sit down, sit, and take your photo. No. How much... Talk about that interaction time, communication, and building a relationship. Sometimes I actually do bring them in through the front door and sit them in front of... Sit them, and I start building that relationship while they're there in front of my camera. So, this kind of portrait... A lot of the portraits I do, I shoot with a Rollo-Frex, an old Rollo-Frex camera. Oh, okay. So, it's on a tripod, and it's the kind where you look into. And what's great about those cameras is that you can focus, and when my subject is on a stool.. Once it's focused, I really don't have to touch the camera except to release... So, you're done technically. Yeah, so I can just sit there and talk and have a conversation and hit the shutter when I see the moment. And so, there's a different level of engagement that happens, which is one of the things I love about that camera. I feel like it let's peoples' guards down. It's got two lenses, people don't know where to look, it's confusing, and so you can just sit and talk to people. And it produces beautiful portraits, I think, because of that. And it's interesting because I use that camera when I'm working... I've started this project working with older individuals and their adult children, but then I also use that camera when I'm working with toddlers or little kids, and it's the same kind of effect because... Because the camera's so weird and it's not what they're used to seeing, because you're not hidden behind it, it just becomes a conversation, and you're able to capture them in a really different way. That's amazing. I used to sell those twin lens reflexless cameras, and so it's... I've not met many people who still are using them. And so, that's a whole interesting story there. Alright, so going back to the young ones here. So there again, babies. So, are most of these shot with film as opposed to digital? They're all shot with film. All shot with film. Yeah. This one was shot with my Hasselblad H2 in Fujifilm. And again, I love... I mean, there's a lot of reasons why I shoot film. I just taught a whole day class on it, (laughing) why I shoot it, but again, part of it for me is also about the connection, because what happens when there's no way for you to look at the back of your camera and check, that is just a non-issue. It's like you learn to trust the process, and that technology takes over, and then, again, it becomes about you just doing what you're supposed to do as a portrait photographer, which is connecting with the person you're taking a photo of again, regardless of how old they are, and telling that story. And this actually one of my favorite kinds of photos. There's this kind of interesting trend in newborn photography where oftentimes babies are used as props almost, and I don't do that in my work. I was going to ask about that because the first image that we saw and this one is very plain, it's very simple, there's not big bold colors, there's no shiny props there. There's no... Nobody's in a basket, nobody's... Which is great. If that's your calling and that's what you wanna do, that's great. It's a different thing. It's a different thing. I don't like to use my babies as props, but what will happen is I often end up using the adults in their life as props. And so, I love this, I love the story behind it. There's, you know, the protection, the big hands, the small baby, again, I love that connection with a newborn. For some reason, it fascinates me. These little tiny people... Every time I take a picture like this, I think this person's gonna grow up to be somebody's parent or aunt or uncle or grandparent. They have a whole story, and I want them to be able to look back at photos like this, or people in their lives look back at photos like this, and be like oh, I still see you in that, you still look like that, or you still make that... Or I wonder what you were thinking, or, you know? That's the fun of it for me, so... I always get kinda goosebumps when I can get these great eye contact shots with babies because I wonder what they're thinking, like what's going on in there? Right, because they're clearly interested. They're engaged, yeah. They're trying to figure out what's going on. I'm telling you, babies are my people, that's my superpower, and you'll notice this a lot in my work. You're gonna see a lot of eye contact at some point. So, again, this was with the Rollo-Frex. I can see the square image. Yeah. So, there's a little bit of that... So, do you keep that square on most of them? I always keep the... I love it, I think it's beautiful, and it's also a different way of seeing, you know, a different way of cropping, which I think is interesting. But again, this is, you know, people talk about... I always say that I am a studio portrait photographer, and I know it's not cool and I don't care. (laughing) I love it. I know it's not on trend. I don't care, I love it, and this is the kinda thing. It's like you can have the family in studio, you can have them sitting in front of a gray back drop on a couple of stools and it doesn't have to be stiff and... It still can be about that family and that connection. And this is the beauty too, of the Rollo-Frex, is we had everybody looking at the camera, everything was perfect, and then mom and the older boy had this moment. Suddenly got engaged. And you can get it 'cause I'm not caught up in the camera, I'm talking to my people and looking at them. Now, you're working in a studio. How much does your lighting setup vary from image to image? It doesn't at all. You keep it pretty simple? (laughing) I always laugh and say I'm a one trick pony, yeah. I have a big seven foot octa dome that just stays, and I love big, Big old soft box. just big, right there, and then that way little kids can be running around, and I can get that. Creates a nice light. Gives you a little bit of room to work with. If you move two feet back, it doesn't change everything. Exactly, or if somebody's running around... So, you don't need seven lights and everything. No, I always tell people everything I do, I do with one light and one light modifier. Beautiful. Yeah. Again, that's the Rollo-Frex. Going into the... Maternity. Maternity phase. Yeah. And so, will you often engage with a customer for kinda a couple years? Oh, yeah, this woman in particular, this is her fourth pregnancy, and, you know, I've literally watched her family grow up, which is amazing, or I'll have people.. I have people whose photos I took like this, it started with maternity and I'm photographing their kids' bar mitzvah portraits or high school seniors, which makes me feel like I'm the oldest person ever. The business side of my brain says this is a lot better when you have six months... Six month intervals when you see these people as opposed to, well, that was a great wedding you had there. If you have one again... Yeah, bye, which you don't really say because that would be awkward. No, it's actually wonderful, and I always tell people I have the greatest clients in the world. And because you are with them at these really wonderful points in there lives, and then you see them as their family grows and you get to know them, they become friends, which is really great. I have some clients who I adore. We've been work together like 12 years now, 13 years now, and when it was our 10 year anniversary, we were in the middle of the shoot and the mom said, she's like, you know this is our 10 year anniversary? And I was like I didn't, and so we all just went out to dinner afterwards. I called up my family, we went out to dinner. That's really nice and special. I love that. Excellent. I could honestly talk about this stuff all day. Now we have somebody in the middle of the spectrum. This is the senior portrait. Oh, okay. So, this is the little boy... This is not a little, I mean, that little boy I watched grow up, and this was my take on a senior portrait. He didn't want the in the field with the guitar kind of picture. On the train tracks. On the train tracks, no, we didn't want that. He just wanted some... And he's a really neat kid, really unique, really smart, very sweet, and I think that this kind of captures his personality, a little shy. How much will you shoot as far as number of shots, length of time with a senior? You know, or with anybody. So, for example, on the Rollo-Frex, I have 12 frames on a roll of 120 film. So, it's not a lot. So, again, it's a whole different process, it's a whole different way of seeing, it's a whole different way of shooting, and I think at his session I shot three rolls. So, not a ton, but we're still taking up that hour. Yeah, I mean, 36 shots. I mean, that's a couple little megabytes of information for some people. Yeah. They would blow by that in a few seconds, but that becomes the entire shoot. Yeah, and it's also different too because the process is so much slower. So, and I talk about this in my intro to film class. That was actually a big selling point for me coming back to film because I started in film, went to digital, and then made the choice to come back. And part of it was I actually like the slowness, and people think I'm crazy because they're like, but you work with two year olds and three year olds and they run all over the place, and I'm like, yeah, and I'm shooting with a Rollo-Frex. I like the slowness. It changes the energy in a shoot, like instead of being frantic and like I've gotta capture everything and I hope I caught something, it's just like no, we're all in control here. I can see from the photographer's point of view it becomes much more about anticipation. It's like you can see a moment while being in... Yes, totally. As soon as they look at me, click, that's the one, and I didn't need 40 other shots from the other three seconds 'cause that was that one moment. I actually have a photo that I share all the time that was just that. It was right when I was first transitioning back into film and I was scared about it, but I could feel... You know how you can feel this moment coming? Things are coming into line, they're starting to align. Yeah, it's like it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen, and I got the shot, and it was this little baby and she's laughing. And it was just that perfect shot, and it was one frame. And I know that if I had shot it with my digital camera, I probably would've caught it, but it would've been 40 frames before, 40 frames after. I would never... 'Cause I would've been like, oh, baby's laughing and having fun. I gotta take every single moment, every single one, but here, we just capture it. And there's a lot of directing too, it's not like these things just happen. So, do parents bring their kids back at periodic intervals to get their shots? Yeah, usually in the first year, three or four times in a year, and then once every year. I love this picture so much because mom came in with a newborn and she was like, I would love it if you could get a picture of her, and this little girl was like, I am having none of it. I hate you, I hate your camera, I hate this whole process, which is weird because I'm usually really good with kids. But we ended up getting this, and this, again, is the beauty of that giant seven foot soft box 'cause she was runnin' around and we were able to get it. And if you look in her eyes, you can see that reflection of the soft box. So, if you wanna kinda check out what portrait photographers are doing, look at the reflection in the eyes and you'll get a hint, unless they've done something funny. And I love this picture too because, again, it's that eye contact, it's that personality, it's telling me who she is, but just from a geeky, I'm a film photographer point of view, I love the tones of it. And I think that when people hear that you shoot film, people think of oh, everything has to be light and airy and super blown out looking because that's what all the film is in the wedding industry that we're seeing right now. But I'm like no, it can be anything you want it to be. This is a little of a moodier shot than I normally do with little kids, but I thought it... I think it suits her personality, it certainly suits her mood at the time, and it's beautiful, it's gorgeous. So, it doesn't have to be light and airy. It can really be anything. So, with the films that you're using, do you have one favorite film or do you bounce back and forth depending on... No, I have a favorite, I'm a total... I told you I'm a one trick pony. Well, let's hear it. So, my color film, I'm always Fuji 400H, and I did shop around. So, in the beginning, I always talked about how different film stocks have different personalities. There's no universal standard, they all have their own way of seeing and color profiles and all that kinda stuff. So, I did shop around and try to figure out what worked for me, but I just... I'm obsessed with Fujifilm and the skintones. It's just so pretty. So, I'm sure we've got some people out there who want to do newborn photography, but they're not trained, there isn't accreditation for that. What are some precautions for people doing newborn photography just to be careful of? Yeah, well, they're people. These are tiny little people, and again, I say really look at... I know there's that, like we said, that trend of using babies as the prop and setting them up... And when you're trained and you do it well... There's some actually fantastic classes on how to do that well on Creative Live. That's beautiful if that's your style, but it scares me. I've heard horror stories of babies being injured... Let's wrap it up and... Yeah, I mean, just keep in mind that there are little tiny human beings. These mean the world. Their bones are relatively fragile. Yeah. They don't have neck control. Treat them like they are the fragile, precious things they are. And actually, it's great that we talk about this with this frame. So, I always have a parent or a spotter just out of frame, even when I'm on a big bed, even when baby's completely safe, I have somebody right there. And this is an image where mom had been kind of patting baby, we were getting baby ready. She kept trying to crawl off the bed, and I just caught her hand in the frame, but I actually love it because, again, it has this kinda feeling of safety to me, but also, it's just an interesting story. And I love the little baby's face, again, that connection. But safety first, these are children. These are little tiny babies, they're not props, they're not toys. That's good. So, be safe. And this is really what I do. So, like I said, I don't pose babies in my works. I don't do props. This is a very young one here. Yeah, this is brand new. And I just like babies to be babies. I just want them to do what they do. Again, part of that is I'm a portrait photographer, I wanna be seeing who they are. And these kind of pictures, inevitably, I'll take something like this and the parents will get it and they're like, oh, we have an ultrasound photo with the baby always had her hand up here, or her dad sleeps like this, you know, whatever. They can recognize something in their baby, which I love, and it's safe. Now, this set... I always tell people I don't pose babies, I also don't just throw a baby on the bed and see what happens. (laughing) (mumbling) But there's a little... I don't pose babies, I'm not gonna wrap 'em up and put 'em in things or whatever. I'm gonna let them stretch and do what they want to do, but I also really take a lot of time to make sure the babies I work with are comfortable, so they're warm. I don't wanna see babies in the startle. You know, it's that thing that newborns do when they feel like they're falling, and it will... They'll startle and it will wake them up. I wanna make sure that they're comfortable and they feel safe. And so then, any time you're taking a portrait of somebody, if they're comfortable and they feel safe, you're gonna get a better picture of them. So, I try to do that with my babies too. So, this looks like a challenging photo for me to take, and why I'm saying that is because, with a Rollo-Frex, if you've not used a waist-level viewfinder, you usually hold the camera down here, and getting the camera tilted to shoot straight down... How do you do that? Well, this one was with my Hasselblad. Oh, okay. So, yeah. So, that one you have a viewfinder on. Yes. Okay. But what you can do with the Rollo-Frex is you can... So, instead of here... You turn it upside down. You can turn it upside down. Which is a little awkward. Which is a little awkward. But it's already awkward to start with, so you're not traveling that far. So, you can do that, and you can look at it here and shoot down. But did you put the bedding on the floor so that you could more easily stand it up? I have a little bed in my studio, and it's a little lower, and I'm tall, so I can usually just stand up and get over top. But either that or I'll put... I have a big beanbag that I'll put babies on. I always warn people, again, safety, if you are working over a newborn baby, either they're on a bed or they're on a beanbag, just make sure you always have that strap around your neck. And nothing that can fall off, lens caps, hoods. Glasses, like I do this all the time when I'm shooting because I wear glasses, and you just, nothing, because they're babies. Gotta be very smart with that. This is so fun. (laughing) So, again, so this is just a baby being a baby. And this is... Every once in a while I'll post a picture like this on social media and I'll be like oh, I don't pose babies, and people say well, you posed this baby, and I'm like no, babies naturally sleep on their stomachs. It's okay, that's a natural position for a baby to be in. And sometimes newborns... Okay, so they'll startle, like I was just saying, and so, we swaddle them, and that gives them the pressure, but laying a baby on their stomach is the equivalent of swaddling because it'll give them that pressure on their belly that they like and that pressure on their hands and their feet, and they'll sleep really well like this. But, of course, not through the night. You're not supposed to do that. I never thought I would ask this question. Do you have a recommended diaper that you prefer? Because, you know, it doesn't have the right colors or just simple and white. Turns out I do! Oh, how about that? Isn't this just so crazy? The things that you learn. The Honest Company makes really great diapers. They have really, I know, but you can get just plain white ones, which is really nice, and I have a bunch at my studio. And then they also make some that are kinda fun like little skulls and crossbones or rainbows or whatever, they're fun. You like the clean ones. Yeah, well that's kinda my whole thing, right? I like simple, simple, simple, simple, but yeah. Nice, I really like that one. That's a great one. Thank you. And that's a good one to end on. So, let's talk real briefly about some of your other classes here at CreativeLive. You've got Introduction to Film Photography and then you got another one on strobes. Talk to us a little bit about the difference between these two. What's going on? Yeah. So, the Intro to Film, it's just that. It's an intro to film. It's everything you could possibly need to know to get going, get started. We talk about, gosh, metering because it's so important. We talk about film stocks, the differences between film stocks. We talk about professional film stocks and consumer-grade film stocks, black and white, color. How you meter for all of them, the differences in that. We talk about the cameras, the kind of film, you know, 35 millimeter, that was hard, versus 120. What goes in what camera, how many frames you get on a roll. We talk about pushing film and the effects you can get with that. We talk about lab relations. I always say, to be a good film photographer, you just need to know your film, know your light, know your lab. And so, we basically go over those three things. It's a really good class, if I do say so myself. And then you have strobe photography, so working in the studio with film, which you seem to know quite a bit about. That's what I do. Well, it's interesting because when I did make the choice to come back to film photography... I shoot inside, I live in Seattle. I knew light was gonna be an issue, and I knew nothing about studio lighting. And so I was like, okay, well that's why we have the Google, right? I'll just figure this out, and there were no resources for film photographers. I mean, there's a lot of resources out there that's really geared towards shooting with strobes digitally, but there are some inherent differences between the mediums, but also between the cameras, obviously. You know, like I couldn't find anything on how to get my Rollo-Frex to work with my pocket wizards even though all these film cameras out there were made to work with lights because people were using studio lighting long before... They had PC sinks. Yeah, all of that, but it was intimidating and scary because there were no resources. And so, I kinda taught myself a lot of stuff, and that's why I was so excited to be able to put this class together, because I know film photography's coming back, it's on the rise. It's not just for wedding photographers anymore. Everybody's doing it. I would love to see more film photography being shot in studio. I think it's classic and it's beautiful, and if you're gonna do that, you're gonna have to know and understand light. Alright, well, good. It's good to have a class. Now there's a great resource Yes, excellent, perfect.

Class Description

Click here to ask John Greengo your questions for future One Hour Photos!

Every month, John gives you an hour of expert guidance and immediate feedback with student questions and critiques in this exciting new series we're calling One Hour Photo. John will also sit down with one guest photographer who will offer insights, advice and industry knowledge, and participate in a photo critique of student images. This month's guest is Sandra Coan.

Sandra Coan is a film photographer specializing in studio portraiture and family photography, with over sixteen year’s experience working in both film and digital photography. Her award-winning work has been featured in a variety of publications including Click Magazine, Lemonade and Lenses and Seattle Bride. Sandra's work is also part of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry’s permanent collection. Sandra is an educator with a passion for teaching others about the beauty of film photography and the joys of building and running a successful photography business. Check out her CreativeLive classes here.



Enjoyed this wonderful conversation with Sandra Coan and I love her photographs and how she seems to get the personality of the baby and the person she is photographing. So happy when I see someone using film.

a Creativelive Student

This is great, John. Thank you!