Interview: Oli Sansom
Photographer Interview: Oli Sansom
I first came across Oli Sansom's photography when he was recommended to me by a mutual friend for inclusion on my list of the 100 Best Wedding Photographers in the World 2016. At the time of publishing that list I wrote that Oli's photos were "Quiet, thoughtful photos that reflect the story rather than tell it." I stand by that today but I would add that there's an equal measure of technical assurance and wry freedom.
It's photography that's enjoyable on many levels.
Can you briefly tell us a little about your life, where were you born and raised?
Born and raised in Melbourne, I cut my teeth drawing monsters for classmates in grade two, and then spending years in shitty death metal bands while working at ad-agencies as a designer, illustrator, animator, being paid to draw monsters, and then, as a creative director for a great digital-health startup.
Have you always been a photographer? What was your path to photography and specifically to shooting weddings?
I fell into this relatively recently, and when the last company I worked for collapsed, I asked myself what was keeping me up at night, and followed that. I was fortunate enough to partner up with a great friend really early on and shoot a bunch of her friends weddings (mine were all getting wasted or had just discovered Tinder), and because we did them on the cheap, we went in with that beautiful naiveté that’s tough to come by and tough to retro-fit later on, but it turns out is really important to finding your edge.
Do you remember the first moment or time a camera/photography jumped out at you as something different/interesting/worth pursuing?
When I saw bokeh! I didn’t have a metaphorical photographic-art bone in my entire gaping, cavernous skull. It was all about that sweet, sweet background blur, and subject isolation. It’s funny that what we get addicted to becomes the thing we chase & produce, and early on in a craft, that can be quite a primitive thing. So I guess that means to me that we’ve got a bit of an obligation to discover slightly finer, more nuanced things to become addicted to in our craft. With the end goal being that we’ve become so finely & esoterically tuned that no-one understands our images anymore, our mother stops calling, people stop hiring us, and we become a sad decrepit quasi-artiste mess wondering what could’ve been, if we only listened to more Justin Bieber. On a more serious note (or… less serious), photographing live music was a huge catalyst. What a great space to learn to adapt to changing light and composition, very quickly.
Do you have a style or widely understood approach to shooting weddings ie fine-art, documentary?
My general approach is to arrive on time.
What/who do you look at for visual inspiration?
My answer to this is subtractive rather than additive. I don’t watch many movies, that said Im hugely inspired by a general cinematic approach - I did catch the new Blade Runner on a plane and it DIRECTLY inspired how I edited a 3-day elopement. That’s an amazing thing. I’ve done away with facebook and other online things that can steal attention - stimulus is everywhere, and every last thing we see hammers a nail in our subconscious about the nature of what a “thing” is. So they get replaced by music, and art galleries.
What would a perfect day shooting a wedding look like for you?
Bruce Springsteen fronting the wedding band in backyard, or a coked-up bride climbing a wall chasing a butterfly at 3am.
Wait - they both already happened.
The only place to go from here is Michael Bolton MC’ing in a leotard, I guess.
Do you have any sort of routine before a wedding to get yourself into the right frame of mind to achieve that perfect day?
The 7 p’s! Proper prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance. Bags packed, everything charged, logistics all sorted the day before. Simple stuff. Then I listen to a bunch of death-metal, listen to a few youtube videos of david Lynch interviews played backwards, and we’re good to go. The truth is, while I’m reluctantly confident that when it comes to the crunch I can make the best out of any situation I’m thrown into (otherwise people wouldn’t fly me halfway across the world to continue to do this), I go into each day second guessing myself and leave with the feeling that I could’ve given it a further 150%.
The best frame of mind, is actually not feeling in a good frame of mind. That’s what makes you reach further. That said, I’ll still iron my shirt and pack my bags with sugary treats for the day.
Generally speaking, what do you focus on when you are shooting a wedding, by which I mean, what about a wedding is important for you to prioritise while your shoot?
Make everyone feel seen and loved. You know, it’s weird, this thing - every photographer is more or less doing the same thing, and ticking all those boxes. I’m no different - it almost comes down to what we choose *not* to talk about or show, as our way of marketing and separating. A lot of our folders of RAWS would be quite similar. I could say that I have a specific special focus, but then that would be more for the purposes of marketing or positioning in this interview. So I focus on everything: my satisfaction (because if you please yourself, you’ll please your clients, they aren’t binary opposites), the couples emotion (because if you don’t focus on it, you might be a negligent sociopath), people, and details.
All of it. It’s majestic. What a job! It’s a luxury.
So you be there, and you get it all! I refuse to believe that folks shouting about small moments being important and better than images of couples on mountains, won’t still get that mountain shot if its there. I refuse to believe that folks shooting couples on mountains and marketing just that, aren’t getting great candid moments also. The idea that what we present on Instagram is what we think is important is codswallop. We spend so much time chest-beating about what’s important and creating illusionary factional warfare, which instead is just a bit of marketing wank.
You can, and should, prioritise it all. This isn’t rocket science - invest yourself, and get good at all the bits.
At the end of the day how I shoot on the day myself is just the product of how I see the world, and that’s the combination of a whole lot of different things, many of them actually being completely outside of my control - that’s the scary, and exciting admission. On the day as far was what I’m conscious to, I’m quite on autopilot, and I’ve been told that A: folks barely notice that I’m there, and B: that I look like a squirrel that’s inhaled a years supply of coffee beans when I’m photographing, which probably relates to the state of zen you get into when looking for great moments.
So as far as what I’m conscious of, it’s catching great small moments, layered stories, and just keeping things fun and upbeat for my couples. Problem solving is a must, and the main priority is making everyone feel comfortable, and that nothing is too hard. If I get a ridiculous request, I’ll honour it quickly, make them feel loved, and then do what I know will work best.
Making them feel loved and doing great work is really all that matters. Get it all, get it good.
I often think peoples experiences of marriages, theirs or their parents, can have an impact on their involvement in working in the world of weddings. Can you explain what weddings mean to you personally?
Not yet being married and maybe naively, I don’t know how much this would/does impact my photography. I’m pretty sure they’ll remain very separate things. I already love shooting, love people, and am sensitive to the small stuff. Having seen north of 150 now covering a whole wonderful bunch of diversity, to me if nothing else, the day should just be a space where a bunch of cathartic connections get to boil together in a glorious saucepan.
In the feedback you've received from wedding clients over the years, would there be one word that keeps popping up again and again?
It’s not really a word, but recurrently, I appear to be a hit with peoples grandmothers.
Having seen lots of weddings, what would your advice be to a beloved family member if they came to you and said they were getting married and asked for (any) advice on how to approach their wedding day?
What three pieces of advice would you give young photographers starting out?
There’s plenty of great esoteric advice out there, now that we don’t have to surprise-eat the sentient creature next to us just to keep a roof over our head. So I’ll leave that stuff to Chopra & Robbins - I’m gonna roll with advice that’s important to keep a good creative and open headspace, and that’s all the boring infrastructure stuff.
If staying in love with the craft, making our couples feel loved is the main big goal, then the infrastructure of our photography business is the thing that lets that happen without us getting a brain-hernia.
1: Get a good CRM. That stands for Client Relationship Manager, and it provides a safe and automated space in the cloud for each and every one of your clients or couples. Pay the dollars so you can collect good data, automate boring stuff like invoicing and contracts, and keep cashflow coming in properly. I use Studio Ninja ($300 per year - use my code OL90336S for a % off) - thank me later. Pay someone a small fee to set it up for you and run you through it: it doesn’t matter how easy it is, don’t listen to anyone who says “just do it yourself" - including Studio Ninja - pay the dollars, and get someone to run you through it, hands-on. It’ll just take a few hours, then you know you’re setup, and not second-guessing yourself watching instructional videos - and you can ask questions along the way.
2: Partner, partner, partner. You aren’t an army! Partner with an editing house or hire an editing assistant, and get them to do your base-edits, then you can invest the extra hours into your final cherry on top. If this only cuts out 5% of your income from each wedding, then it’s money well spent. You aren’t being paid to correct horizons, exposures, and colour balance. You are being paid to put your vision into the images at the time of shooting, culling, and your final post-production touches. Partner with a lab to produce your prints, and outsource your client delivery packages so that you don’t have to go to the post office. I use Atkins Lab, and they do all of this.
3: Get big hard drives and settle on a proper backup procedure, now: start by imagining that you’re already shooting your ideal number of jobs per year, and buy enough storage space to last you 5-6 years before you have to change things up. It will cost you, but when you’re sighing at dropping some serious clams on proper hard drives, think of the plumbers & electricians who spend 4 years as an apprentice and have to buy a war-chest of tools along the way. Load up early, so that you’re not always waiting to upgrade.
Spend your time and very limited headspace as a small-business owner on the things that matter: 1 - staying creative and in love with the craft, and 2: doing things that actually bring in business: taking photos, marketing, and side projects. There’s no benefit to be had in doing busywork - there’ll be plenty enough of that as it is. The thing about those three points up above, is that you’re gonna end up doing them sooner or later as it is. It might not seem like it, but you might as well get them sorted now, and I’d have implemented all three of those in a heartbeat wayback had I known better.
Dollars come and go. Your time and the sanctity of your headspace doesn’t.
How can couples get in touch with you?