Michael Semaan: Going Pro Just For The Love Of It

A little over a year ago Michael Semaan gave up a lucrative position as a Sales Representative in the surgical device industry to pursue his lifelong passion for photography. He’s now a full-time professional photographer with a promising career ahead of him and he has no regrets. As he says, “I’m passionate about what I’m doing and I’m continuing to look and focus forward. In the short while that I’ve been 100% focused on my photography, many great things have happened already and I am working on new things all the time.” Here Michael shares the story of his creative transformation.

Q: Tell us a bit about how you became a full-time photographer.

A: I have become a full-time photographer only recently though I’ve been doing photography on the side since I was 14. At the age of 38, I decided to focus 100% of my time and efforts on my photography and make it my career as well as my passion and formally created Michael Semaan Photography. I left my job as a surgical device representative with Johnson & Johnson.

It has been a great experience and I’d encourage anyone with a passion for something to do it while you can. I think it would be horrible not to try what you want to do and regret it later in life.

Q: You began your photographic career rather recently. Did you just discover your love of photography or have you always been interested in it?

A: In 1988 at the age of 14, I took a photography class in high school and needed help figuring out all that there was to understand regarding photography. My grandfather had a great deal of experience in photography and chemistry, as well as many unique photographic experiences with renowned photographers over his years. From the first press of the shutter release I was hooked — I loved the mechanical aspect of the camera, the way it sounded and the way it felt when adjusting the aperture ring and shutter speed dial. I knew I was making/creating an image and all of these elements were required to make that image appear once the film was processed. The anticipation of seeing what was created as a result was and still is exciting to me.

My grandfather had a full darkroom setup in his basement. Since he was a chemist it was very easy for me to learn all the chemicals and what each step of the process did and why. I found it all quite fascinating. I remember then thinking that having a darkroom setup like this in your house must be normal for anyone that is into photography, and that makes me laugh now. However, I realized then that this was a great way for me to capture and create images of anything, as I saw it, and as I wanted to engage with this process as a form of expression and art. Ever since then photography has been an active part of my life and I’ve been doing photography on the side as an adjunct to any of the jobs along my career path. Now, I get to do it full-time as a career.

Q: It sounds like your grandfather had an impact on your education in photography. Are there any other photographers or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: Yes, most of the credit for my education in photography has to go to my grandfather. He was a great mentor and had a very easy way of relating the various functions of the camera and how each affected the creation of an image depending on the subject and the lighting. He also imparted a lot of life lessons that related to photography, and to this day I utilize the fundamentals of what he taught me about photography and life. Some of the photographers that have influenced me are: Ansel Adams for landscapes, Jose Villa for weddings and family, and Rankin for fashion. I’ve photographed a few weddings and will be focusing more on that genre going forward. Jose Villa is one of my favorite wedding photographers; he has such a great style, vision and ability to use natural light effectively. I’ll be attending a wedding workshop with him this October in Italy.

Q: What are some of the most important lessons you think you learned from your grandfather?

A: One of the most important lessons I learned from my grandfather, regarding photography, was that you don’t always have to follow the rules (this sometimes applies to life as well). Some of the best lessons I learned have to do with light and achieving the desired exposure, not necessarily the correct exposure. There is so much about light: the quality, the direction and so much more as it relates to your subject. Indeed, light itself can often be your subject.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: My grandfather and his neighbor friend were accomplished photographers, each with a wide variety of cameras and associated gear including some Leica cameras and lenses. I recall an R series SLR kit with many large telephoto lenses and a very small compact M3 kit with a few small lenses. I found the simplicity and size of the M system very attractive. I remember asking how many times would I have to mow his lawn to afford one of those; they laughed. I was only 14 at the time and had no idea of the value of such equipment. Fast forward many years and I still had those fond memories of Leica in the back of my mind and I was in a position to afford a Leica. The M9 was the first Leica I ever owned and I am very glad I bought it. I love the images I can create with that simple camera and those remarkable M lenses.

Q: What camera and equipment do you presently use?

A: Currently I am using a Leica M9 and a variety of Leica glass — an Elmarit 28 mm f/2.8 ASPH., Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH. FLE, Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH., Noctilux 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. and an APO Summicron 75 mm f/2 ASPH.

Q: Apart from its compact size and mechanical finesse, which you allude to, why did you choose the M9 for your work? What are some of its specific characteristics that you find most conducive for your kind of photography?

A: I’m a fan of less is more as it relates to a camera’s control system and the M9 is an excellent example. Also, it’s very important for me to have a clear view of my subject and its surroundings, and quick, easy access to focus, aperture, shutter speed and shutter release. The M9 provides each of these things without much else to get in the way. The camera is so very simple in that respect and those characteristics allow me to concentrate on my subject rather than the camera system.

Q: Among your impressive quintet of Leica M lenses ranging from 28-75 mm, which ones do you favor? Many photographers use 28 mm and 35 mm lenses for expansive scenic vistas, but you also use a super-speed normal lens, the 50 mm f/0.95 Noctilux, and the 75 mm f/2 Summicron ASPH. When do you find these latter two are most useful?

A: I really enjoy using very fast glass. The 50 mm f/0.95 Noctilux and 75 mm f/2 Summicron allow me to emphasize and direct the viewer’s attention to my point of view through the use of selective focus and very shallow depth of field. The distinctive way these lenses render subjects and the quality of the bokeh are very desirable to me. I enjoy each of the lenses I have and as you mentioned the wider-angle lenses are primarily used for more expansive deep depth of field images and intentional play on perspective.

Q: Can you tell us something about the location where you took these engaging pictures? Why you chose that particular location, and what you were trying to express and convey to the viewer with these images?

A: Some of these locations are my favorite places to visit, Hawaii being my all-time favorite place to visit and Laguna Beach is where we live. I mostly let my images express my point of view and convey my meaning to the viewer directly since I often don’t have the words to describe the places and things I photograph. To me this is one of the things so fascinating about photography; an image can cause a viewer to say so much to themselves and to others about what they are viewing.

Q: I am intrigued by this unique image of a natural arch created by a strange green plant framing a seaside scene with rocks, the ocean and a deep blue sky. Where did you find this, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: The Montage Hotel in Laguna Beach is set on a very beautiful property with a wide variety of landscapes. I came across this particular plant thinking it was framing the scene right before me in a very unique way, almost as if it were reaching out and pointing to the view I had wanted to capture.  If you look closely, there are bees all over this plant; I thought the detail in the plant with the bees pollinating it would provide a wonderful one-of-a-kind frame to the scenic view below.

Q: This is a lovely golden-hued monochromatic image with grasses in the foreground, a giant setting sun and a blurred rectilinear structure in the background. It shows very adept use of shallow depth of field and while it’s dramatic it also has a peaceful quality. Do you agree, and what do you think this image expresses?

A: This image is near the beach house my mom had rented in Laguna Beach for the month of November last year. That particular day was pretty cold, cloudy and a bit windy. Just as we were preparing dinner the weather had made a change for the better. The wind died down, clouds blew over the hills behind me and the sun felt as warm as it looks here. The fountain grass was backlit in a very warm way and had a very gentle sway to it as the wind became a very faint sea breeze. The structure you see to the left is a house made mostly of glass. I loved the light streaming through the walls and doors of the house. To make this scene seem a bit dreamy, I used the Noctilux wide open, selectively focused on the fountain grass in the foreground and let the rest of the image turn to gorgeous Noctilux bokeh. To me this image expresses the exact feeling I had as this moment presented itself; it was like a dream to me.

Q: This image of a small solitary silhouetted figure sitting on a beach with the shimmering sea in the background almost resembles a pointillist Seurat painting. You could perceive it as having a lonely quality, but somehow it seems like someone experiencing the bliss of the universe. What do you think it is that makes this picture so fascinating?

A: I have received many similar comments about this image. This was a beautiful day in Laguna Beach, warm, soft wind and clear sky. The sun was at an angle that made the water shimmer like diamonds. I wanted to exemplify that look of the water shimmering around the man sitting on the warm sand. The sparkling effect in my opinion is perfectly exaggerated by the use of the Noctilux wide open, and as you mention, it looks similar to pointillist paintings.

Q: This enigmatic image could be perceived as ominous yet it has a matter-of-fact quality of simple observation that makes it beautiful rather than scary. Do you agree, and what drew you to this subject?

A: This is an overhead image of a dolphin off the coast of Dana Point, CA. I had slung myself out over the rail off the bow of the boat to catch a unique view of the dolphins riding the wake off the hull. Look closely at the spray coming out of the dolphin’s blowhole and you’ll see a fantastic rainbow in the spray. It was awesome to be that close to something so beautiful and powerful. I could hear the dolphins clicking and chirping to each other along with the powerful breaths they take each time they leap from the water. I was drawn so close because I wanted to try to capture those things that obviously cannot be heard in a visual image in order to create a sense of being right there. Another driving force behind this image is my daughter who was behind me “Daddy get some great photos for me!” She loves the dolphins and she already knew at the age of 2 ½ that she could get me to do anything.

Thank you for your time, Michael!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Michael, visit his websiteFacebook page, and profile on Stephen Bartels Gallery.