Interview, Plus Tips On Shooting Senior Portraits With Michael Sasser
Denver photographer Michael Sasser got some attention when this behind the scenes video showed how a simple setup could produce some great portraits. He dropped a new video, so I reconnected with him to see what he has been working on. Turns out he has a new slow-motion video camera, and is now offering video production to clients. This video will give you a taste of one of his shoots, and in the interview Michael shares some insight on his methods, gear, and experiences.
From the video above, it’s easy to see that Sasser’s setup is not over the top, as he becomes very agile by not having a bunch of gear to haul everywhere. While some shooters might scoff at not bringing many different lenses, multiple flash units, and other accessories, students or non-professional models who aren’t used to elaborate setups might actually be more comfortable with it. “Last year I decided that I was going to focus more on the subject than whatever crazy lighting setups I could do outside. It was time consuming to take all of the gear out. Set up and take down was downtime where the model/senior just waited. I put lots of my time into finding good light and decided that is what I would focus on.”
Not keeping the model waiting and being able to keep them engaged helps the feeling of the shoot to stay loose and fun. In several of Sasser’s videos, the models appear to be having a great time, so their feelings easily come through in the images he captures. Getting just the right moment can make a good image an amazing one, and Sasser knows that keeping things light and easy-going is a sure way to get as many of these moments as possible. “As a joke I tell all of my models that if I say something funny, please laugh, because I am trying REALLY hard. That always gets a giggle from them and they know it’s okay to smile when I say something funny. The key is to always have your camera up to your eye, and wait for the right moment. It’s usually right after a big laugh when they’re still smiling but not making a weird laugh face.”
A part of the video that stood out to me was the gymnastics section. While brief, it speaks much more to the personal interests of the model, and has an interesting visual component to it. Unlike other controlled locations though, lots of activity in the background could hurt the impact of the final images, so Sasser had to get creative to make it work. “The gymnastics photos were lit with 3 Dynalites. The key light was with a 2x3ft soft box and the rim lights were bare bulb. The gym we shot in was so distracting and the backgrounds were so busy. To deal with this I used lots of power on my flash to make her brighter than the background and force the background to go black. I wanted it edgy, and rim lights are great for this. For the video portion I used the modeling lamps to add some character to shot.”
Speaking of gear, Sasser told me that after taking out a bunch of lenses and support gear, he wanted to scale it back a bit and focus on what seemed to work best. This is his primary kit for jobs of this style.
With such a simple setup, the results are great. His use of wide open apertures creates a very noticeable blurry background in a number of his shots. This can be tricky to work with, because sometimes getting just the right focus can come down to a matter of millimeters. Sasser shared his secret to nailing proper focus with me. “It’s imperative that you have your camera set to continuous focus. That way if they start to laugh and lean forward, the camera adjusts and keeps their eyes in focus. Also, its nice to be able to take a lot of photos with digital. I don’t go overboard, but I make sure that I got what I wanted, check my image real quick, and if it missed focus, I will shoot that section again.”
Regarding the senior portraiture market, there’s definitely competition in the Denver area, as with other major cities. Sasser has been producing these short videos as promotional piece to help get new clients. I asked him about why he produces these, and he remarked, “I wanted to find a way to differentiate myself from all of the other ‘Senior Model Programs’ out there. I received some great advice once. Give your clients something to talk about, and give them a way to talk about it. That is whole reason I am putting these videos out. I am hoping seniors will see themselves in slow motion and spread it like wild fire.”
Here is another video he released from another shoot earlier in the year.
He mentions slow motion because in the last year, Sasser went out and got himself a Sony FS700, which can shoot 240 frames per second. Apart from making a short, fun video that his clients would share, upping the production value by having super slow motion footage is just another thing for them to get excited about. All of a sudden his clients are sharing and spreading the video over Facebook, and I’d bet they will have some friends who see it and want one for themselves.
As one of the many photographers who have found themselves getting into video since the advent of the DSLR, it didn’t come without it’s own learning curve and struggles. Fortunately, Sasser had some background in audio production, so that part came easier than others. “The biggest challenge shooting video was the editing stage. I felt I could get quality footage. I have been recording my own songs for years now, so the audio made sense. Creating stories and putting the clips together was the hard part.” To practice his new craft, Sasser started making music videos in his spare time, and shooting other personal projects. “Everything looks cooler in slow motion.”
Video was just one of the pieces of the puzzle for Sasser, who is a full time photographer, but found the market open for someone with video services, so he started offering them. In reality though, what made the biggest difference for him wasn’t from doing video, it was from spending more time cultivating client relationships. “I found that the video market was pretty easy to break into because there aren’t as many doing it as photography. Maybe it is just the case in Denver. The biggest difference with income happened when I started doing pre-consultations and in person sales. It gave me more time with clients to build a better relationship, and they spent much more money.”