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Samm Blake: The Art Of Emotion

Photo by Samm Blake
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
Crumpler Backpack
“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.”


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