Michael Semaan: Discovering his own Photographic Path

Michael Semaan is originally from New York but grew up in Minnesota. He spent most of his career as a Sales Representative in the surgical device industry. However, in December 2012, he left that job to pursue his dream of being a professional photographer. In October 2013, Michael went to a workshop in Italy conducted by Jose Villa. He describes the experience and using both the Leica M-System and Leica S-System.

Q: We last interviewed you for the Leica Blog in July 2013. What have you been up to professionally since then, and do you have any projects in the works that you can share with us?

A: Yes, thank you! It’s hard to believe that was last July. The timing of the last interview was fantastic as I was visiting Minnesota for the 4th of July and had the opportunity to sit down with my 97-year-old grandfather and read the interview with him on the iPad. That was a great experience to be able to share with him as he is the one who taught me about photography when I was 14.

Since the last interview I’ve been involved in quite a lot of portraiture (family, maternity, newborn and boudoir), landscape projects, and the wedding workshop with Jose Villa and his amazing team. I was one of the few photographers to have many images feature and published in the recent Elephant Parade Dana Point art book.

I have a continuation project I’m going to be shooting and working on in Kauai towards the end of March.  I plan to have a series of images for sale as limited editions from the project and on display at the Stephen Bartels Gallery in London. I’m open to considering galleries here in the USA that may be a good fit. One such gallery that may become an actuality for my work to be displayed, featured and for sale is here in Laguna Beach, California. More to come on that aspect of my photography.

Q: The pictures in this portfolio were evidently shot in an elegantly picturesque location in Italy and (aside from some magnificent architectural tableaux) the theme seems to be an upscale wedding. Is that correct, and if so were you acting as the wedding photographer or on a personal assignment with a different aim point?

A: Yes, the theme is absolutely upscale in every regard. Our purpose was to utilize the location and everyone involved for creating simulated aspects of wedding photography. My point of view was a wedding photographer capturing the amazingness throughout the Villa property for the various photography sessions.

Q: I believe you mentioned that the images in this portfolio were taken with both the Leica M-System and S-System. Is this correct, and if so, how did the two systems compare in terms of the shooting experience and the character of the images you captured? What specific cameras and lenses did you use for this project?

A: You are correct. I utilize the Leica S and the Leica M. Shortly before the workshop I was able to move from the Leica M9 to the M. For me, this has been a fantastic move for the way I utilize the M-System.

The S has many qualities and characteristics that are a joy to utilize. I can at any time intuitively access my desired controls, aperture and shutter speed with great tactile feel and feedback. The viewfinder in the S is huge, bright, and crystal clear, making for very easy composition and manual focusing when desired. Since I shoot quite a bit in low light levels without external lighting, this is a great feature that is very similar to the M with the added benefit of actually seeing in the viewfinder exactly the view you’re going to capture. The S is a very easy camera to get acquainted with, especially if transitioning from or currently utilizing a DSLR of various makes. The form factor is very small and compact considering there is a medium format sensor inside. I really enjoy the ergonomics of the S; it fits my hand so well that I rarely utilize a strap when shooting. Another feature I absolutely love about both the S and the M cameras is just how easy and accessible it is to shoot a custom white balance in camera very quickly and accurately. Finally, the GPS built into the S is a great option to utilize. I admit, initially I didn’t think I’d ever activate it. Now I’m thinking of getting the M multifunction grip with GPS. It is a very well thought out system with a fabulous choice of glass much like the M-System. I currently utilize the S with the Summarit-S 35 mm f/2.5 ASPH., Summarit-S 70 mm ASPH. (CS), and the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120 mm f/2.5. This combo allows me a great variety of options and a very compact system that is very travel friendly.

For the workshop I kept things simple, as these shoots were very dynamic, fast-paced, and at various locations throughout the Villa or the Leica S, I utilized the Summarit-S 70 mm f/2.5 ASPH., and for the Leica M I utilized the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. For me this combo works fantastic as it lends itself well to my style of photography; selective focus, shallow depth of field, and desire for beautiful bokeh. The Noctilux is such a joy to shoot wide open. I often utilize a 3-stop ND filter so I can shoot wide open in bright conditions allowing me to maximize my style and expression with the Leica lenses. Also the low light capability in these systems is fantastic, which for me is great, as I prefer to utilize natural light whenever and wherever possible.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about this workshop that your portfolio came from? Also what are a few things you feel you learned from this experience?

A: The wedding workshop took place with Jose Villa and his team in Sovicille (just outside of Siena), Italy in October 2013. Jose conducts about two workshops per year, for a truly unbelievable event for all involved. Thanks to Laurie Arons Special Events, we were able to have full access to Villa Cetinale. The Villa was built by the Medici family for Pope Alexander VII, and is quite the amazing display of utmost craftsmanship, opulence, and royal appointments. Jose works with some of the top talent in the industry, all-making up his amazing workshop team. Each of the following people have a specific specialty and shared their talents to make the event astonishing: Laurie Arons, Joel Serrato Films, Kate Holt of Flower Wild, Summer Watkins Ball of GreyLikes Weddings, Shira Savada of Martha Stewart Weddings, Mar Romero of Team Hair and Makeup, Richard Photo Lab, Julie Song Ink, Preston Olivia, Tara Jones Calligraphy, Gabriellla Bridal, Samuel Couture, and more.

Throughout the four days at the Villa we shot a variety of photography as it relates to weddings such as engagement, boudoir, details and the day of the wedding. Each of the people listed above shared their specific expertise during the shoots in an effort to exemplify and showcase their creations through our imagery.

As with most things I’ve been involved with, it takes a team of talented individuals to reach a high-level result. I continue to surround myself with others who are performing at a high-level within their specialty. Jose and his team are a very close-knit group of people; you can immediately see they’ve worked with each other for quite a while. Jose is an open book when it comes to his photographic style, exposure formula and preferred lighting conditions. Jose is a dedicated film shooter, which for me was great to have exposure to again as I learned from my grandfather years ago on color negative and slide film. I have applied any and all transferable knowledge from my film experience to the way I currently shoot digital systems. A lesson learned for my post-shoot workflow is to delegate tasks that do not need to be done by me and that keep me from shooting. Another great lesson learned is to work with and establish a rapport with high-quality vendors; they help to make your work look the absolute best possible. Vendors also greatly appreciate proof prints from collaborative shoots; most admit they need us (our images) to help their creations look so good. Jose’s message for everyone to find their own path has made me rediscover that I really enjoy shooting landscape images and have been very drawn to that focus over the years without recognizing it myself.

Q: There are two images of architectural vistas  that show the same structure in the background, but both leave quite a different impression in the mind of the viewer. One feels directed, focused, and kind of magisterial whereas the other feels more expansive and natural. Why did you shoot these two disparate images at the same location and what point, if any, were you trying to make about this majestic setting? What camera, lens, and aperture did you use to achieve such extended depth of field?

A: I choose to capture these two images the way I did primarily because of the overwhelming sense of being enveloped in the grounds of the property. Every aspect of the property is a scenic wonder begging to capture your attention, focus and wonderment. I was drawn to this very, very long (~500 yards) aisle of sorts that led to a monastery high a top the hill in the distance. As you walk from the rear of the main Villa towards this aisle, your vantage point is drawn to various elements of the grounds that I found quite remarkable and unlike any property I’ve been to previously. With image on the right (captured with the M and Noctilux 50 mm at f/8 1/125 s ISO 200), I’m about 1/3 of the way into the aisle way and was captivated by the features you see in the near foreground all the way to the monastery in the distance. In regards to the image on the right (captured with the S and Summarit 70 mm at f/4 1/250 s ISO 100), I’m about 2/3 of the way along. At this point you are treated to a very strong sensory experience. Along the sides of this aisle are rows and rows of olive trees; the scent in the air, the perfect temperature and the deep greens of the grounds were quite amazing. I felt this vantage point displayed a point of view out of respect as in the near distance you can see a gate leading up the hill to the monastery. Although we had complete unrestricted access to the entire property, I felt it unnecessary to venture up the hill to the monastery.

Q: This is a masterful double portrait, evidently of the bride and groom. Part of its emotional power derives from the fact that both subjects are looking directly into the camera with calm yet intense expressions, and they are beautifully separated from the out-of-focus bucolic background and soft flowers in the foreground using very shallow depth of field. What was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release and what camera, lens and aperture did you use?

A:  Yes, this is one of my many favorites. My objective and goal was to capture it exactly as you so well described. I loved the details of the couple and all that surrounded them and wanted to very purposefully direct your attention to their expression while capturing a surrealistic point of view of the foreground and background elements as they related to the couple. I utilized the M and Noctilux wide open; I absolutely love the render and character of this combo for such imagery. I’ve utilized this combo so frequently that I can now quite easily pre-visualize my desired result just prior to pressing the shutter release. This allows me to focus on the couple and engage them rather than only observe them.

Q: The wonderfully jaunty poolside image of the groom shooting his animated bride to be with an old twin-lens reflex has a charming retro quality that is enhanced by limited depth of field. Was this a spontaneous grab shot, or did you ask them to pose, and what about their relationship do you think this communicates to the viewer?

A: Yes, this was captured as they were playing into each other. This was part of the engagement shoot that we did during the workshop; these two really connected throughout the shoots. You can tell by their interactions how much they enjoyed each other. Although one spoke only Italian and the other only German, I believe their body language was well understood between them.

Q: In this image, there is a tension between the intimacy and active engagement of the couple staring into each other’s eyes and the beautifully composed formal setting in the background that really takes it up a notch. The softness of the background details give it a kind of eternal quality of a moment in time. Do you agree, and was that your intention?

A: I completely agree as this was my intent to capture the captivating couple in the foreground and the timelessness of the Villa’s chapel in the background.

Q: You included a tasteful and well-executed example of what could be called boudoir photography that has become increasingly popular in wedding portfolios. What are your views on this trend, and how do you think this image functions in the context of the portfolio?

A: Yes, it’s popular to capture a boudoir session as a wedding gift from the bride to be to the groom to be. My wife did a boudoir session for me as a gift prior to our marriage; I love it. When I conduct boudoir sessions it has to be done tastefully with the goal and objective of allowing the beautiful subject to be very comfortable and at ease with me and the surrounding environment as well as anyone else involved in the session. I believe the image fits very well as it is very elegant, classy, complimentary and sexy!

Q: In some sense the above image is a straightforward portrait of the groom posed against an ochre-colored wall, but it is nevertheless very revealing and compelling because his expression embodies that unique combination of mixed emotions of somebody about to embark on a life-changing event. Am I reading too much into this, and what is your impression of this image?

A: Haha, you’re right on. Although this was part of the workshop, he still had to burn one last cigarette before heading out for the ceremony. I am drawn to this image, as I believe this is a very realistic pre-event butterflies in the stomach feeling captured in a complimentary fashion.

Finally, I’d like to thank Jose Villa and his amazing team, Ebi, Mary-Jo, and Ben from Leica Camera USA, and Roozbeh of OC Camera for all of your help, I appreciate it!

Thank you for your time, Michael!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Michael, visit his websiteFacebook page, Twitter, Instagram and Google +.