Saunak Shah is an Indian-born photographer and designer based in New York. He has over 10 years of experience and uses photography as a medium for self-expression in his art director job. Most of his work focuses on people and the environments they live in as well as scale, sense of place, minimalism, and identity. During his photography career Saunak has worked for brands like Land Rover USA, Nokia USA, ADYN UK, Other UK, Her Velvet Vase USA, Innisfree and others.
His photos were featured in various exhibitions in and outside of the US. Also, Saunak is the founder of Pursuit of Portraits, a place that connects portraiture enthusiasts around the world. You can check out his profile on KeepSnap Directory.
KeepSnap: Hi there, Saunak! How’s life? We are proud to have you with us on KeepSnap blog and we think that your portfolio is like a travel to some part of our world that’s very difficult to see in the real life but really exciting to watch. It probably took a lot of time and hard work to elaborate your style. When did you start to get interested in photography and why did it happen?
Saunak Shah: Thank you KeepSnap, the pleasure is all mine. Thank you for this feature and for giving me a chance to share my story with your subscribers. To answer your question, I got interested into photography at a very young age due to my parents, who were both photography enthusiasts and were and still are a major driver in the way I look at things. Around the age of 8, I was playing with their SLR cameras and watching projected slides of their work. I would say, that was a big influence for me and I started taking more interest in it ever since.
KeepSnap: Your work is focused on people, their personality, and the way they live. What made you choose this as the leitmotif of your photos and did your vision of photography change with time?
Saunak Shah: I've always been a people person. Actually, I love watching people even more (In the most non-creepy way). I could sit in a park or a cafe and easily get distracted by everyone around me. When I was in middle school, we would go on these photography excursions to villages in rural India and I would spend most of my time making portraits. I think I was drawn to the subject naturally. I guess something about capturing an emotion of a moment in someone's life speaks to me. Over the years, I've been interested in taking travel photos, cityscapes, street photography and portraiture. Although themes around peoples of minority or diversity excite me most as well as concepts like existentialism, sense of place and minimalism.
KeepSnap: What was your first camera that you used to take a professional photo? Have you got a favorite camera that is somewhat sacral to you?
Saunak Shah: I switched between a few of my parents cameras at an early age ranging from Canons to Minoltas but I remember my first 35mm film camera being the Nikon N80! Currently, I'm loving the Canon 5D MarkIII.
KeepSnap: Saunak, let’s talk more about your style. Your photos are really atmospheric and personal. There’s a perfect balance between the real and unreal, the shots are crisp, and the play of light is awesome. Did you come up with this by yourself or was there someone who helped you shape your style?
Saunak Shah: Most of my work is personal and the style kind of developed over time. I'm drawn to themes of larger than life situations, fantasy and hope and the play of light and color. I was greatly influenced by the portraits by Steve McCurry while I was growing up.
KeepSnap: Do you engage the sense of space in your photos in order to complement the subject or the other way around?
Saunak Shah: The subject leads the direction at finding that sense of space. Most of the times an ordinarily scene or location will be transformed just when a person walks into it. That human element is essential in my work to give it that sense of scale but also to give it purpose of place and connection to the environment.
KeepSnap: Many of your shots look like as if they were taken on a film camera. Do you achieve this effect through post-processing? And what camera and lenses do you use? Please share some tips with our readers.
Saunak Shah: While at school, I was part of the photography department and we developed our own film in the darkroom. That opportunity to be able to control a photograph in post was what appealed to me the most. Today, as a graphic designer and photographer, I use the same sensibilities towards my work when it comes to exposure, highlights and shadows or any other traditional techniques of post-production. A lot of my work does use some level of post-processing and editing. I feel taking a good shot is half of the challenge and the other half is what you do to make it even better. Since the last year, I've been using the Canon 5D MarkIII with either the 24-105mm zoom or the 35mm and 50mm prime lenses.
KeepSnap: Did you have any photo that became the tipping point in your career and let you start working with such big brands like Land Rover and Nokia?
Saunak Shah: Photography has always been my passion and hobby. I work in Advertising as an Art Director so most of my photography work have been projects that I undertook on the side or on freelance basis. I would say there are a few smaller accomplishments that fueled my drive to photograph and pursue work further, like the time when one of my street-style photos was on display at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio as part of the #MobilePhotoNow exhibition or the time when my work was on display at Chelsea Market in NY through July 15th, 2015 as part of a collaboration with Woodsnap in an exhibition titled "Unseen NY". I was one of the 7 photographers selected to be part of this collection. Two of my photographs were winners as part of the weekend hashtag project organized on Instagram. That got me a lot of exposure and engagement from thousands of people. I was soon made a community ambassador for both my accounts on Instagram. i.e. @saunakspace and @pursuitofportraits. Eventually, brands stumbled upon my work and I got a chance to work for brands like ADYN UK, Her Velvet Vase, Other UK and such to create social content. The work for Land Rover and Nokia came organically as they were our clients at the advertising agency I worked for and I was working on their social initiatives.
KeepSnap: Saunak, are you a self-taught photographer or did you receive any special education? Do you think education and gear are important for becoming a professional photographer?
Saunak Shah: For the most part I'm a self-taught photographer but I do think formal training in photography can take you a long way. Going on photography trips while at school and having parents who embraced the art of photography definitely helped me a lot. I think creativity ran in the family so I always kept an attitude that was open to learn from what I saw around me and learnt from the people who influenced me. Although, I'm always eager to learn more and frequently take classes at the International Center of Photography here in New York. I think you can have the best gear and lenses, but the true lens to be able to see, compose, direct and capture photos that make them truly timeless is your eye.
KeepSnap: Portrait photos you shoot are mesmerizing and they look natural. The thing is that most of our readers are portrait, event, and wedding photographers. What qualities a good photographer that works with people needs to have and what does it take to capture an awesome portrait shot?
Saunak Shah: Thank you for the compliments. Even though portrait photography can look seamless and natural, it can be one of the most challenges things to do. I try to engage with the people I shoot to get to know them a little before I jump into making their portraits. Portraiture is such a sensitive subject that you need to get a sense of who the person is, what he or she is thinking about and what features speak to me as a photographer. When I shoot someone, I try to bring those qualities out or capture that moment. A lot of candid portraits are the result of taking that shot when they least expect it. Exterior elements also play a vital role like light, color, environment, weather and mood. All these are aspects that I'm always thinking about.
KeepSnap: You work with people a lot and we bet that you had many interesting moments in your photography career that may inspire or make our readers smile. Please tell us a story.
Saunak Shah: There was one time I was covering New York Fashion Week at Lincoln Center when I saw a stylist from the distance outside in the pavilion being shot by another photographer. I kept waiting around to be able to take a shot of her. Eventually, after 30 mins of waiting I asked her if I could take some photos and she initially paid no attention but said, “Make it quick, I don’t have much time”. I quickly did my thing, took a shot or two but since then we’ve already organized 3 photo shoots together. My personal take-away is never to let a moment or chance to make someone’s portrait go by as you never know what it might lead to. So many times I’m on the subway or walking around and I’m distracted by lots of interesting subjects. I wish I had taken a shot of every subject I’ve crossed paths with. Opportunity doesn’t always strike twice.
KeepSnap: Saunak, what do you do now and what plans do you have?
Saunak Shah: At the moment, I’m working on the launch of our first print publication along with my team for Pursuit of Portraits. We are organizing our second instameet, this time in partnership with Central Park Conservancy and InstagramNYC on Sunday, October 4th in Central Park as part of #WWIM12 organized by Instagram. Down the road, if I had the chance, I would love to take a year off and travel for photography. At some point I'd like to open a non-profit for under-resourced children so I can give back and share with others what I learnt and enjoyed when I was young. Aside from photography and making portraits, I’m thrilled to have recently joined IBM Interactive Experience in New York City as Associate Design Director.
KeepSnap: What professional literature can you recommend to our readers?
Saunak Shah: I’ve been reading PDN (Photo District News) and RF (RangerFinder) publications for a while now which I enjoy quite a bit. I’ve also been into other lifestyle publications like Kinfolk & Cereal. There is so much of interesting material these days. I’ve also been following the work of Street Dreams Magazine which is another photographic quarterly that curates the best of mobile, digital, film and print.
KeepSnap: And the last thing. What do you think about KeepSnap’s idea and what tips can you give to our photographers so that they don’t look for clients anymore but make clients find them themselves?
Saunak Shah: I’m really loving KeepSnap’s idea of creating a directory of photographers and connecting them to others to find work. There has been so much change in how brands are actually finding photographers these days when social currency is measured by the amount of followers and engagement you drive. My advice would be to embrace it all. Try out everything and see what works for you the best for you.
KeepSnap: Thank you so much for your time, stories, and tips, Saunak. It was awesome to have you with us. Thanks once more and good luck!
Saunak Shah: Thank you! And thank you again for this opportunity!
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