The most important thing to understand when discussing the photography of Samm Blake is that she’s not particularly interested in how photographs are made. Instead, she’s concerned fundamentally with why photographs are made. This philosophy, one that keeps technique utterly subservient to content, was instilled in her at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Born and raised in Australia, as a photojournalism student with an interest in fine art, she says she wasn’t taught technique. Or, at least, if it was taught, she didn’t pay it much attention.
"I find a lot of photography schools teach the ‘how to take photographs,’" says Blake, "but not actually ‘why’ you would take a photograph. In some schools, people come out very technically proficient, but they take the most boring photos because they’re disconnected from the art side of creating the work. To have emotive content rather than a technically perfect exposure—that’s a huge way I shoot. It’s a very emotional response to how I’m feeling at a wedding. I go into it completely with no expectations, no idea of what the wedding is going to be. I don’t like to previsualize anything, and that’s why it’s a completely emotive reaction to whatever is happening in front of me."
It’s not that Blake is technically agnostic. In fact, the photographer, now based in New York, is very deliberate with both her in-camera choices and her postprocessing editing. She selects tools and techniques based on the look she wants to achieve—a look that’s dictated by the content rather than a desire to show off her technical proficiency.
"I find what makes an image awesome is when there are things imperfect about it at the same time," she says. "I feel like spending too much time creating the technically perfect image, emotion isn’t shown on the bride’s face because she’s bored and fed up. I work very quickly to get shots and then I get the shot and move on. If I was using anything other than the two cameras I have, it would produce a completely different result that I wouldn’t want. I basically shoot a whole day on 55mm and 35mm lenses."
Blake carries two camera bodies, and says those normal and wide-angle lenses stay on 80% of the time. She’ll switch to a 24mm or 85mm lens on occasion, too.
"The 24mm I use more for reception or getting ready," she says, "dancing shots, or if I’m in a tight room. And the 85mm is pretty much only for ceremony and a bit of reception. I’m getting wider and wider as I shoot over the years. Three years ago, I would have said 85 and 50 were my main lenses, but now I just love images that have lots of space in them. I think photographers just try to fill the frame too much when they’re starting out. I always love images that have room to breathe."
In post, Blake employs a light touch, although her editing is fairly involved, with images getting color-corrected in Lightroom before each is refined in Photoshop. She uses postprocessing to create images that feel natural, even traditional, in the sense that they harken back to a bygone era. Her best advice to photographers trying to refine their visual style in a world where anything is possible is to keep it simple and consistent.
"Have one color look," Blake says, "and have one black-and-white look. Earlier this year, I taught a photography class and I did portfolio reviews. I reviewed 85 people one day, and my biggest critique was inconsistent editing. If I was a client hiring a photographer, I want a pretty clear idea of how the images are going to look. I don’t want to hire a photographer and then in editing that week they’re in a yellow phase, so everything is looking yellow. I think this is also because I shot my first five years as a wedding photographer on film. I’m always in my head trying to create a very clean color image, just very classic, something that’s not going to date. I just try to make my images look like film. I want the feeling a photograph gives to be the most obvious thing and then the post production to be secondary."
Blake’s portfolio intermingles color images with beautiful black-and-white. She says black-and-white has become her signature look, something for which she’s specifically hired.
"The biggest thing my clients tell me is that they love my black-and-white images," she says. "Maybe because the ones I choose to put in black-and-white are very nostalgic sort of images that kind of feel like they’re out of someone else’s photo album from a long time ago. Also, my all-time favorite images are always underexposed, for some reason. That’s my favorite way to photograph. I think that’s always playing in my head, to try and shoot like that. And that’s what I like a lot about my black-and-white images, that I can get away with doing a bit of that underexposed thing more. I’m not afraid to make really dark, grainy black-and-white portraits."
Blake isn’t afraid to break many of the rules of wedding photography because she doesn’t exactly consider herself a wedding photographer. She’s not in denial, it’s just that she avoids the classification because the label can be—often unfairly—stigmatized. People hear "wedding photographer" and they think they know what she does. She would argue they most certainly do not.
Hiring Blake is akin to inviting an artist to the event and asking her to interpret it in her own free-form way. Her images are beautiful and romantic, engaging and emotive, even when the viewer has no connection to the bride and groom. Where many wedding photographers may follow a formula, Blake trusts her vision and responds to what makes each ceremony unique. This doesn’t mean, however, that she’s free to forget that she’s also, in fact, a wedding photographer.
"I always shoot a wedding as if it was my own," she says, "like what I would want at my wedding. And, of course, I would want family photos and group shots. So I understand that they’re important because I would want them taken at my wedding, as well. I’ve always been happy to do the boring shots and such because they’re important to the bride. And it’s not that painful to do, at the end of the day. Of course, this day isn’t about photograp
hy—the photography is a cool aspect of it, but the best aspect is all your friends and family who love you the most in the world are here to celebrate you."
|Samm Blake’s Gear|
|Two Canon EOS 5D Mark III bodies
Canon EF 24mm ƒ/1.4L II USM
Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L USM
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L USM
Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.8 USM
Three Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites and transmitters
Ona Messenger Bag
"That’s all I basically shoot weddings with," says Blake. "I try to keep it as light as possible, as I’m always lugging it around Manhattan on my back or trying to fit it all on as carry-on for flights. I make sure my camera bags don’t look like ‘camera bags.’ It helps not stand out how much gear I have when coming home on the subway at night."
When it comes to posed portraits, Blake says she gets the best results when she boils that part of the day down to an impromptu 10- or 15-minute session, rather than the traditional hour or 90 minutes of planned family portraits. It originated from her clients who didn’t want to be absent for much of the festivities.
"I happily accepted the challenge of ‘alright, you’ve got 10 minutes,’" Blake says, "just because I actually resonated with it. It made so much sense to me. But I could only do that after so many days of having that long training. I know how to make an introverted guy come out of his shell and, like, I know how to deal with all the different personalities because I’ve done so many weddings. Now, to go from an hour and a half down to 15 minutes, I can just do it."
One of the ways Blake keeps her family portrait sessions short and sweet—and the images full of real emotion—is to forego the standard wedding photographer’s playbook. She avoids strobes and almost never uses modifiers to alter the ambient light.
"Last time I used a reflector was in 2008," she says. "Flashes and stuff like that, I never use any."
Technically, not never. Sometimes, rarely, when the ambient light is unappealing, Blake will break out a strobe and use it to create more useful light, but only when it’s absolutely necessary.
"By only shooting 15 minutes worth of portraits," she says, "I had to get better at my receptions because I would be at the receptions a lot longer; photographers always kind of skip over the reception. With the father-daughter dance, I kind of made it a challenge, a conscious decision when I was at a wedding once, to get better at this. I felt like I was a pretty good photographer during the other parts of the day, but I needed to get better at lighting. I can’t just say this room is ugly or has bad lighting; I have to make it better. So I taught myself how to use a little camera flash and radio triggers, and trained my second shooters to read my obnoxious sign language from across the room—because they always hold the flash—and we generally do a backlighting thing. But at one reception, which only had 18 or 20 people and it was in a really small room, I realized if I started using my flash, I was going to kill the entire ambiance of what that was trying to create—having an intimate dinner. I had just got my Canon EOS 5D Mark III then, and I hadn’t really tested out the extremities of how far I could push it. But I didn’t want to use flash at this wedding, so I took a risk and shot it all really high ISO and was really, really surprised with the outcome. So, now, in the evenings, I do a mix of ambient light, just natural light, whatever I’ve got going on in the room, but where I can and it’s suitable I create variety by using different flat lighting sources."
As a photographer whose clients afford her the opportunity to travel the world, Blake is able to work in the most beautiful locations in a way that she finds creatively fulfilling. Best of all, she says, there’s never a subject she’s uninterested in, and never an overbearing art director suggesting she do it differently.
"I think what I enjoyed from the beginning," she says, "was having creative freedom. After graduating, I was starting to do lots of little commercial jobs, and I was shooting a whole range of different things. Basically, anyone who would give me money, I would happily accept. With the weddings, I felt the most creatively free. No one told me how to shoot or what to shoot. People would just trust me to document the day for them. And I guess I’ve always been a pretty stubborn personality type in terms of, I only want to shoot what I want to shoot. I don’t really want to shoot other things. That’s why commercial photography and me would never really go well together. I’m shooting for me, those things that I’m really turned on by, photographic-wise. What people hire me for is the artistic side. People just let me loose and trust me, and that’s awesome."
Samm Blake On Branding
|Samm Blake serves as a branding example for professional assignment photographers across all niches. She shapes her portfolio and marketing materials to cater to a specific type of customer—and she trims the pedestrian shots to leave only those that reinforce her brand. She may shoot family photos, but she doesn’t sell them. That wouldn’t help to set her work apart. Instead, she shows the aspirational images that make a select group of clients willing to pay a premium for her artistic services. It’s a lesson all photographers would do well to learn.
"I’m carefully curating my portfolio to only attract particular types of brides," Blake says. "And I’m very open about the way I do work. I only shoot 20 weddings a year now, so I only need 20 couples to like me and pay for it. By carefully curating my portfolio to be a representation of the way I want to see the world, I don’t put any typical shots that a mother would want to see in a wedding photographer. I’m also very conscious about the groom, as well. Like my logo, for instance—I made sure it was a very unisex type of brand. I want the respect of the guys because, ultimately, guys don’t want too much butterflies or cherries flying around. My ideal client is like a graphic designer or someone in production or the film industry. I’m trying to get that guy’s respect, even if he’s just looking at my logo, to show that I’m not into the fluffy side of it all, even though my images are hugely romantic and nostalgic."