Interview with Ben Sasso
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I discovered Ben Sasso’s work a couple of years ago when I first became interested in wedding and natural light portrait photography. The thing that drew me to Ben’s incredible lifestyle portfolio was the consistency in his work. Every photo showed a beautiful model with subtlety retouched features, encased in a golden hazy glow of afternoon sunlight. The next thing that struck me was his enormous fan base, which at the time of writing stands at over 35,000 Facebook fans – an impressive feat for any brand, let alone a solo photographer.
A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to conduct a video interview with Ben. We had a chat about his work and how he got to where he is with a combination of hard work, dedication and helping others. Ben said some really inspirational things and I remember not wanting the interview to come to an end.
Then last week when I came around to editing the video, I found to my horror that something had gone wrong with the sound and the video was unusable. I was almost too embarrassed to even tell Ben, but sent him an email in the vain hope that he’d find the time to type a few words out for me instead. True to his word of wanting to share and helping the community, I received an email the next day from Ben with full and insightful answers to all my questions.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did. Over to you, Ben…Hello! My name is Ben Sasso and I am a photographer and educator based in Los Angeles. I shoot lifestyle and editorial work as well as select weddings. I’m a huge believer in sharing what we know and doing our part to push the photo community forward. We are all in this together.
Do a lot of wedding clients hire you because of your lifestyle work?
The majority of my clients these days are photographers themselves that seem to follow me for my lifestyle and editorial work. Even with couples who aren’t photographers, they always mention my lifestyle work and that they love that the candid and natural feel of that often spills into my wedding work. Shooting both has really given me a great perspective on each. My wedding work has shown me what REAL candid moments look like and how beautiful they can be while my lifestyle work has taught me how I can direct the bride and groom into those moments during their portraits.
Do you find that showing such beautiful models (often retouched) can give your wedding clients false expectations?
I like to think that most people are smarter than that. I purposefully never shoot any styled wedding shoots that way, so those two worlds stay separate. Every person in my wedding portfolio is a real client and I like to keep it that way. I feel that I am able to direct my couples into those lovely natural poses and moments so there isn’t a huge disparity between my work with models and my work with couples. I still want to keep models out of my wedding portfolio though, because I want potential clients to completely trust my ability and not see a model and think that I shot with a model and am trying to pass it off as a real client. Obviously I understand the value in styled shoots but it is just a personal choice to keep those two worlds separate for me.
Your images have a unique look to them. Please describe how you shoot to achieve this.
Well this could be a heck of a lengthy answer that starts with everything I’ve been inspired by since my childhood and ends with me giving a mentor session about how I shoot, but I’ll try to wrap it up in a nutshell. I am a huge fan of consistency which is why my style tends to be pretty well defined. In my mind, every photographer’s style has two parts to it. The visual style and the emotional style. The visual style is made of what you see in the images and the emotional style is made of what you feel because of an image. The things that make my visual style what it is, are shallow depth of field, soft light (either shade or back light), and a natural environment. My emotional style is made of fun, and intimate moments. Obviously a lot of that comes in through the way I shoot but a great amount of it also comes in through my location choices, model casting, wardrobe, etc. Each image is a sum of its parts.
Describe your post production workflow to help achieve this look.
Again, this could be another doozy of an answer. Without getting too technical, I always know what I want my mood to be in an image before I shoot it. That decides how I shoot and how I edit the image. For example, if I want something to feel a bit more nostalgic and summery, I might introduce more faded film tones into an image. If I want something to be softer and more peaceful, I might edit with less contrast and cooler tones, while a higher energy shot my have warmer tones, and bolder contrast. That is my short answer. My long answer comes in the form of a mentor session or self paced class that I offer on my website here.
How do you direct your couples to make your photos look so relaxed?
I actually recently wrote a couple of articles about this so instead of giving you a longer but less inclusive answer, here are the links to those articles!
Any essential tools or plugins that you use in post?
Just a few that I made myself. I do almost all of my editing in Lightroom and I made a preset that I run on all of my images to help me speed up my workflow and keep my images consistent. It doesn’t create a finished image at all, but takes care of things that I know I will be doing to each image anyways (taking the saturation down, lens profile corrections, etc). I also recently started using Exposure 5 to add some subtle grain to my black and white images. Lightroom’s grain tends to look extremely fake so I prefer not to use it much.
How much time do you spend in post?
This totally depends on the shoot but if I sit down do it in one sitting, I can finish a wedding within about 5-6 hours. Engagement shoots can be about 1-2 hours and lifestyle shoots can be about 2-3 hours.
How did you build such a huge Facebook fan base?
I’ve had the honor of being published in a decent amount of blogs and magazines which have all added into traffic to my Facebook, but I also put a bit of focus onto the social media side of my business. Over the past year or two I have changed my business a bit.
My target audience used to be engaged couples or other people who would hire me to shoot, but now my target audience is photographers. I have transitioned into more of an educator role (which I really love) so that means that when I post an image on Facebook, I always try to post a tip with it (which a bride might not care about, but a photographer will). On my blog I post educational articles, which end up being shared and driving more traffic to my Facebook. Of course, the reason I do those things isn’t specifically for the social media benefit, but it is because I love sharing what I know. I learned a lot from reading photographers’ blogs or following specific photographers on Facebook when I was starting out and I want to be able to pay it forward.
Photographers are more likely to follow a photographer than a bride is so it isn’t always the easiest to build a large following if you are primarily targeting potential clients, but that targeting is still important. If a potential follower comes to your Facebook and sees all kinds of posts, they might really like one or two of them, but not the rest which means they probably won’t follow you. If you have very targeted posts, they either won’t like it, and won’t follow, or they will like all of it, and will follow (and you will be reaching the audience you want to reach).
How do you maintain such a fan base?
Building your social media base is only half of the battle. The next step is fostering engagement. Getting people to comment and share images, clicking on blog posts, etc. I have always stuck to one rule (and many other things that feed into that rule): be consistent AND interesting. You can’t be consistently boring, or interesting just once a month. Neither of those will benefit you. You need to be posting consistently (a couple of times a week), and you need to post interesting content (good images with thoughtful captions, etc). For me, the interest comes in through the tips that I give with my images, the educational articles that I post, etc.
Do you use other social media channels and if so, how?
The only other outlet that I really focus on is Instagram. I treat Instagram as another place that people follow me to keep up with what I am doing. While about 80% of what I post on there are images taken with my phone, I also might post an image from a recent shoot with a caption about the shoot and mentioning that I just posted that set on my blog. Despite what you think, not everyone is on Facebook all of the time. Some people get their “news” from Instagram and I want those people seeing my work as well.
How do you find shooting with the Canon f/1.2 lenses?
I love it! I own the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and Canon 85mm f/1.2L and I both love, but I find myself using the Canon 50mm f/1.2L the most when the extra reach doesn’t matter. Just like any lower aperture lens, it can take a bit of time to get used to the focusing but once you are comfortable with it, you start to see how easy it can be.
Do you find much difference between the cheaper lenses, e.g. an f/1.4 or f/1.8 compared to the f/1.2’s?
Absolutely. I have owned a few different 50mm’s (the Canon 50mm f/1.4, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 and now the Canon 50mm f/1.2L), and I found pretty noticeable difference in all three. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 seemed to be sharp, but it was also sharp where it was supposed to be soft. The background blur had a pretty harsh quality to it. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 had soft background blur, but it also appeared soft where it should have been sharp. The Canon 50mm f/1.2L is the best mix of both. It is sharp where it is in focus, and beautifully soft where it is out of focus. Obviously, we all have budgets so you will be able to afford what you can, but within my budget and needs in a lens, I found the Canon 50mm f/1.2L to be the best fit for me.
Do you use any other gadgets to create unique looks to your images, such as the one below?
My “gadgets” are pretty simple. The only thing that I really use outside of a camera and lens are a few pieces of broken glass. Shooting through pieces of broken glass can add subtle blurs and light washes over the image that you can use to add a bit of visual excitement into a shot, or to draw your eye to a specific area in the frame.
How did you create the effect in the night image below?
I actually get asked about those images pretty often. I set up that shoot because I wanted to step out of my “normal” which was all natural light in the afternoon. I decided that the best way to do that was to shoot at night to get rid of my usual light source. Since I wanted these to have a high-energy mood to them, I wanted to put bright and random color washes over the frame to bring movement to the image. I shot with flash on-camera and a 2 second shutter. The flash froze my subject with a quick burst of light, and then while my shutter was still open, I painted on the lens with a flashlight covered in paper (to soften the light). The flashlight is what gave those random color washes.
How do you get your subjects’ eyes so sharp and clear?
Obviously this is depends on the image, but eyes are often the most important thing in a frame. Almost no matter what else is happening in the image, if your subject’s eyes are open, that is where your viewer will look first. It’s just a matter of instinct. People (and even animals) connect to one another by looking into their eyes. By making sure that the eyes in our image are strong, we are making that first impression, and the connection to our image, as strong as it can be.
Because of my shooting style, in certain portraits, my subjects eyes already seem sharp and strong because of the shallow depth of field. Everything else in the image is soft and blurred, so the eyes seem strong in comparison. In post, I have a brush that I made that sharpens, brightens, and adds contrast to the eyes. That makes the eyes a bit more defined so they pop a bit more. If you decide to do this also, it is important to make sure that it is subtle. If you are having trouble, ask your friends (the ones who you know will be brutally honest), if it looks weird or overdone. If they say yes, dial it back a bit.
Do you shoot film?
I do but I shoot digital as well. Each medium has it’s purpose and I like to make the decision on which one to use based on what my goal for the shoot is. If I am aiming for something a bit softer or more nostalgic feeling, I might use film. If I want the images to look a bit more polished, I might use digital. Each tool has its purpose.
Why did you go with the Canon system?
That choice was made for me by my high school yearbook teacher. She gave me an old Canon Rebel as a graduation present and I have stuck with Canon since. Canon and Nikon both have killer products to offer, but I have always loved my cameras and haven’t had a reason to switch.
(View all of Ben Sasso’s camera gear.)
What are your Loves and Hates about your Canon 5D Mark 3?
Honestly, there isn’t much to hate about it. I’m sure that I could come up with something if I tried, but I love my cameras and don’t want to talk bad about them behind their backs. Some things that I really love about the Canon 5D Mark III: high ISO capabilities, dual card slots, weather resistance, video at 60fps, auto focus, etc.
Please leave us with some parting words of encouragement for aspiring photographers!
Shoot for love, not money. I am always seeing photographers start out by shooting in a style that they think will be the most lucrative, and only getting burnt out on it, then switching to shooting a style that they love a few years later. If you shoot what you love, you will progress faster, enjoy it more, and you will still be able to make a living. In addition to that, photographers are friends, not competition. You can always learn something from everyone and everyone can learn something from you.
Inside Ben’s camera bag:
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