Shooting the next big thing
When it comes to studying and capturing personalities behind his lens, portrait photographer Sam Chua has plenty of stories to share about the characters he's encountered so far.
When it comes to achieving success with a photoshoot, it’s important to be as clear with communication as possible. It’s the clients who have expectations that make the shoot go smoother.
Currently based in Vancouver, Canada, Sam works with clients from all walks, especially those from the entertainment industry who are en route to meet with Hollywood’s casting directors. It’s a rewarding process, which the former systems engineer at a newspaper says is a highly collaborative one.
In an email interview with The Fashion Collective Singapore, he shares how he develops and refines his photoshoot approach. “Portraiture is entirely about finding a way to connect to the subject on a human level. There’s lots of joking around and finding common ground and humour. You could say it’s my hobby to collect snippets of information, so I can hold a conversation on a wide variety of random topics, from microbiology to ’40s social dances,” he quips.
TFCS: What drew you to portraiture photography?
The focus on portrait photography is because I live in a city with a huge film and television industry. There are so many actors and background people, so the competition to stand out is fierce.
When I first started working with a talent agency, it gave me access to a pool of clients within the industry. With headshot photography, it was a way for acting talents to set themselves above their peers when a casting call is made. So they were willing to pay a premium for experienced photographers.
Before that, I was handling mostly fashion and wedding photoshoots.
TFCS: Your clients are mostly from the entertainment industry. What are they expecting when they come to you for a photoshoot?
“Surprisingly, it is the clients who have expectations that make the shoot go smoother. There are few things worse than a complete newbie showing up with dreams of making it big, and have no idea how to even begin. When it comes to achieving success with a photoshoot, I’ve found it important to be as clear with communication as possible.
I’ve had clients shown up in completely crumpled clothing, or hungover from partying too much the night before. Far too often, there will be clients who show up unprepared, thinking that you can magically produce clothing in their size on demand.”
TFCS: Do you have any particular approach when it comes to achieving the kind of images you have in mind?
It depends. Recently I had to photograph a heavily muscled black guy. To get him looking intense and riled up, I simply said two words: Donald Trump. I got the perfect scowl from him.
Another time, I had a rather serious German lady to photograph. To her surprise, I started giving instructions on posing and smiling in German. That got her howling with laughter.
TFCS: How did attending photography school change or enhance your photography perspective?
There are people who say that photography school is a waste of time, whom I disagree with.
Professional photographers are trained mostly through two ways: one is school, and the other through apprenticeship. Contrary to what some people may think, you can’t just learn it all from Google. Attending photography school gives you the benefit of identifying and pushing you in areas that you are weak in. You also meet friends and make future contacts within the industry. Having that network in place gives you a depth of knowledge to draw from when you are stuck.
TFCS: As a professional, how do you make a subject come alive in front of the camera?
I see it as part of my job to do as much research as I can on the subject before the photoshoot.
I find that the best subjects to shoot are usually people with stories to tell, and people who are able to let their guard down. Nothing is more annoying than someone who is so self-conscious to the point that every image feels posed rather than genuine.
That said, it is also my job to figure out the best angles, and relax the subject as much as I can. I like to take clues from a person’s name, clothing, and small details to build a sense of connection. When a shoot is booked, I usually look up the person online. Through this “homework”, I usually am able to better understand what kind of movie roles the person is looking for, and angle the photoshoot accordingly.
TFCS: What challenges do you encounter?
I’ve found that other photographers have challenges photographing subjects with different skin tones. I’ve overcome that by using a light meter, colour calibrating, and white balancing each shoot. In this way, I won’t have someone’s skin looking too pink or yellow or orange. Some people can get really offended if you make them appear paler than they are in person.
Portraiture is about finding a way to connect to the subject on a human level.
TFCS: Do you have any preference for using certain lighting or backdrop to create a type of mood?
The current trend is high key lighting. Trends change time to time, and varies according to the market.
TFCS: Do you prefer to shoot in the studio or on location, and why?
I prefer a studio. This way I can concentrate on a familiar and predictable environment and focus all my efforts on really connecting with the client. Locations are good for creating certain looks, but quite often when people see your portfolio, they may have an idea of what they want in mind.
TFCS: What are some traits a freelance photographer needs to survive this industry?
Good financial skills help you to plan ahead to smoothen out the boom and bust seasons. Also, having the ability to connect and network with people, which also leads you to finding the key decision makers to get jobs.