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Shooting Fashion and Editorial Photography

Leo Lam incorporates personal values into his iconic photographs with the Tamron 180mm macro and 28-75mm lenses.

By Jennifer Gidman

Images by Leo Lam

Leo Lam has become a photographic force on the fashion, beauty, and editorial landscape since he established his commercial studio six years ago. His work has been published worldwide, and his client list spans four continents. It’s Lam’s diverse background (he’s an electrical engineer and a serial entrepreneur by trade, with artistic sensibilities informed by time spent in London and Hong Kong — and a classical tenor to boot) that injects a unique perspective into every one of this Seattle-based photographer’s beautifully composed images.

His engineering background and scientific mindset, for example, enhance his photo shoots, which he describes as “technically rigorous.” “I have a very technical background, so technique in photography to me is physics and engineering,” he explains. “Through my other careers, I’ve worked on semiconductor sensors and the theory of digital color management. I can literally explain to people how a camera works down to the semiconductor level. Basically, with photography I like being in control, and by thoroughly understanding the techniques and turning it into intuition, it actually sets me free: I know if I envision something in my head, I can produce it."

This freedom from worrying about the technique in photography allows Lam the luxury to focus on the creative and incorporate his value system into his images — such as the aesthetic value of minimalism. Although his technical background gives him the capability to inject more elements into any images, Lam is careful not to go overboard. “Less is more,” he says. “Less especially means more substance. More thinking is involved: You can’t really hide behind a lot of elaborate makeup or styling, for example. So much can be overdone these days in fashion and beauty to the point of losing sight of the human element. People often equates fashion to overdoing everything, but that’s not how I think about it. The whole idea about fashion, to me, is that it’s showing what’s iconic — it should be a reflection of the times.”

© Leo Lam

Lam’s values aren’t simply artistic: He also places an emphasis upon the values he holds — including the people he collaborates with. “Among the people I work with, everyone shares the same set of values,” he says. “I work frequently with Erin Skipley, for example, a celebrity makeup artist who is also featured in Beauty.com and who also happens to be my best friend. People like her are all at the top of their game and value integrity, collaboration, mutual respect, and creativity based on teamwork and fun. Talent can be taught — it’s those other values that are hard to find. We refuse to work with people of low integrity, regardless of how skilled they are.”

For his fashion, editorial and beauty work, Lam relies on the Tamron 28-75mm lens, and the 180mm macro lens. “These two lenses combined can do just about everything in this type of photography,” he says. “The 28-75 has spectacular image quality. It’s so versatile as an editorial lens, with a range to shoot relatively wide angle to include context, as well as a portrait range. It’s also a solid macro lens for fine detail photos of garments and accessories.”

Lam is equally impressed with the 180mm macro lens, which he has been increasingly incorporating into his workflow. “First, it’s lighter, which is perfect since I prefer to handhold,” he explains. “It’s also incredibly sharp: The optical quality is measurably superior, and you can see its exceptional rendition. This works wonderfully for beauty work.” The 180’s focus ring, which provides for instantaneous switching between autofocus and manual focus for fine-focus adjustment, has also caught Lam’s attention. “The usability of the focusing clutch mechanism on this lens is phenomenal,” he says.

© Leo Lam

The 180’s extended front element-to-subject working distance is ideal for Lam’s work process. “This is pretty much a standard focal length for beauty work,” he says. “To me, it’s perfect because it’s not so long that I have to be far away, but it’s long enough that I can shoot at a reasonable distance to get no distortion. I don’t want to be further than talking distance, though, maybe 10 feet away — close enough so I can still talk gently to the model. I’m a singer, so if any of the models in my images look like they were being serenaded, they probably were!”

© Leo Lam

Working with the models in front of his viewfinder isn’t as easy as it might appear: Just because they’re professionals doesn’t mean you can expect them to know what you envision in your mind. “Professional models aren’t psychics,” says Lam. “Like any good movie director, you have to guide them and communicate ideas clearly to them. You can’t expect them to emote without telling them how to feel. You also have to provide a very positive, instructive atmosphere and have lots of patience. You have to make them comfortable: Chat with them like you would with any other human interactions, find out what their interests are. Many models are involved in musical theater, for instance, which makes for fun conversations. After all, the business of photography and modeling are both about people and should be fun, right?”

© Leo Lam

In the end, Lam simply tries to focus on the people around him to create the most compelling images. “I care about people,” he says. “I joke that my studio is the Home of the Happy Set — there are no egos allowed. I believe that if a model or anyone else is uncomfortable on the set, my images will look uncomfortable. In my other capacities, I work on sustainable energy and medical devices. Those researchers and doctors are the heroes who are working to save lives. For anyone who makes people uncomfortable on set, I ask them, ‘Are we saving lives here?’ There’s simply no place for negativity in the creative business. We’re fortunate to work on something we’re passionate about!”

© Leo Lam

For more information on Leo Lam’s work, go to www.leolam.com.