Briars Atlas

Interview

Briars Atlas (Oli Sansom)

I’m Oli. I’m a photographer creative director and educator. I hate the word educator though. It’s so condescending. “You will learn from me, mortal!”. Can we make a new word? I make weird learning tools and try to encourage people to think about things in different ways, blending a background in user experience design, e-learning and of course photography. 


You say you were brought up on death metal and drawing… how did your photography start out of that and what inspired you to start your photography business? 

We grew up watching how much emphasis our parents placed on consuming good music. If you were gonna bother listening to something, it should set you on fire in one way or another. It turned us into partykiller-DJ’s as 14 year olds, as there aren’t many early-teenagers that give a shit about your progressive-jazz and death metal and our opinion on Matchbox 20 was never appreciated, but placing so much importance on the art you consume was super valuable to us as kids. A super intense love of music and drawing naturally led to trying to find those same little fire-moments in photography when it came along. I worked for a brilliant health-startup just under a decade ago, and that business went south, so I just decided to give photography a crack. A year or two spent shooting bands came in super handy – if you want to fast-track your technical chops there’s no better space for it than live music!


Tell us about your photography business?

I shoot weddings as Briars Atlas, and all sorts of other stuff (commercial, music, expeditions to Antarctica) under my own name. Briars Atlas just means “loves atlas” more or less. I wanted a name that sounded like it could be a punk band and be drawn using blackletter or death-metal typefaces, and have nothing to do with weddings. I think the idea was to get some merch involved too. I definitely knew that I didn’t want my name on it or anything saccharine. The “atlas” thing just refers to everyones own story having a different map, and everything in it is valid. All the big stuff, all the small stuff. It also speaks to how I prioritise things. The kid at the wedding engaging in deep-nasal-cavity exploration with his finger at the reception is as important as the first kiss, or any of the stuff we’re apparently supposed to get. So I guess, all that to say that I try and find the quirky stuff, and shoot it on quirky cameras. My 60’s Rolleiflex and 70’s Hasselblad have been a huge part of my look, as well as a host of other weird and wonderful pieces of analogue gear, including 3D cameras from the 80’s. I shoot around 15-20 weddings per year and am in the process of reducing that to 5-10. I never ever turn anyone away, I’ve always used my brand as a filter to pull in my people.


What inspires you artistically when you shoot weddings or couples?

I’ve always been inspired by a pretty narrow gamut of things. Old world photojournalism, Jeffrey Smart paintings, isometric video games, Wes Anderson, that’s about it. All of these and my love of the analogue process bleed into each other and it’s enough things to become my own combination of inputs. It’s why I’m so addicted to the film format, and why it’s pretty much taken over my shooting, as they’re the images I personally enjoy looking at more. Analog, simplicity, stillness. I’m less inspired in making art at the moment and not that wowed by complex, layered, highly processed stuff anymore. I try and look at it as making little slices of nostalgia for the couple, rather than being a storyteller. There’s some exceptions, like when J & A asked me to do a couples shoot, and I decided it would be a good idea to merge those earlier influences up there together and cram 500 photos of them into one frame.


Tell us about your studio or home office setup?
One must have an attractive desk to bang their head on when their Adobe software crashes. Sometimes an attractive desk is a hardwood front-door welded onto some makeshift steel legs that you need a crane to move (like my last one). My current one was actually meant to be a dining table. It’s this rad brutalist, modern trestle thing. I love it. If I’m gonna be stuck impressing my butt into a chair for hours on end, it should be in the presence of some nifty industrial engineering. So there’s that, an illustration of Death Valley in California, blinds that I sometimes open, an inverted-cross (for my company The Arbourists) that I find myself leaping to quickly tear down right as the Zoom meeting starts so I don’t look like an inciteful dick, and a giant framed posted of The Fight of the Navigator. I have a full mini audio-production studio at my desk too, so in the odd break from editing wedding images I can dabble in making either death metal or piano jazz before getting back to things. I ran a co-working studio 5 years ago which was fun, and I kinda miss that environment, so might look at getting out of the home office at some point again. So, that’s my studio. Oh, and dust. Lots of dust.


What does a typical non wedding workday for you look like?

So much of my time lately has been spent building A Strange Atlas, which has been a bit of a labour of love over lockdown. It’s taken longer than I thought, but we’re trying to do things that are quite new in the education space with it, so naturally that has taken time to construct, test and validate those ideas. Plus, building your own platform just takes a long damn time! So I’ll work on that here and there, but every day somewhere I’ll grind and make a couple of chemex pour-overs, which is usually my biggest serotonin hit for the day as much as it is a caffeine hit. I’ll also do a 15-minute kettlebell EMOM each day, because that’s about the maximum I want to be exercising. Better to move and work the body every day intensely for 15 minutes, than a couple of 45 minute sessions every other week. Doing a bit of research over our 18 months of lockdowns here led to that fabulous discovery and I’ve never been happier flipping the bird to the gym. Plus since it’s so habit-forming, I can now justify my loaf-a-day bread habit. All that and of course all the other stuff that comes with running a small business: admin admin admin.

What is a typical wedding day for you?

I photograph every type of wedding under the sun. One week I’m in hot-pink short-shorts and a singlet on an island in Canada photographing wedding guests sitting in their canoes mid-ceremony while I try and jump from canoe to canoe without falling in the drink, and the next it’s a sleek city wedding in my home town of Melbourne. The one running theme is that I get couples that love the craft of photography and the sense of fun in my brand, and it’s always a joy that I’m super grateful for. 

How do you go about getting couples to relax in front of the camera?
I feel like I should have a complex measured answer for this, but the truth is that I just try and look like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and have a good time with them. It’s that simple. The first one sounds kinda bad, so let me elaborate. I’m not really interested in tricks or memorising cues to ask them, I just want to be a human and actually show interest, and then make spaces for them to break from the process: so if I’m shooting with my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad 500 – these beautiful, old-world pieces of gear – I’ll just pretend I’m messing with it and changing some setttings, and tell them to just chill out. In that moment they think they’re “off the job” and go back, I guess, to talking about how awesome the wine is, or musing on whether their dog has pissed on the couch at home. That’s all I need to then begin sniping them, and they’re too deep in their own conversation by that point to worry about me. It’s that simple. I’m not interested in complicating things anymore and they just want to feel safe, not overwhelmed. Humans that are photo-hesitant or photo-resistant just need one reason to feel like they’re not in the anxiety inducing performance-mode, and then – there they are, in all their beautiful natural glory and it’s marvellous.


Can you list the camera gear you bring to a wedding?

I use a couple of 5DIV’s, and a couple of L series lenses, as well as a bucket of analogue gear. If I had to choose one lens on the 5D’s, it would be the 24mm, all day. I love it. Brilliant for portrait, landscape, all of it. As well as that I use my Rolleiflex TLR and Hasselblad 500, as well as some nifty other weird analogue gear. More than more I’m putting the digital away, and in 2022 the aim will be to just have one in the bag as a backup and shoot entirely on analogue, a goal I’ve had for years and am excited to put in place.

What is your process for culling and editing your images?

I’ve used several brilliant editors over the years – we really have so many awesome options. Over the last 9 months, I returned to outsourcing my initial editing, and had a strong vouch for local crew Wildernis. I’ve been trying to get all my suppliers local to Australia, and Wildernis are based up in Queensland. They’ve been brilliant. They get me about 85% of the way there, although I could comfortably deliver what they provide. They take care of all the initial pre-work for me: culling, and the first edit. It’s essential that any editor does the same job I do, so there’s a pretty thorough process in making sure they’re acting as my second set of eyes and meticulous layers of feedback to get there. Once I receive it, I have the main story in place – and I do my final dusting of magic over all the image, and also cross-check eveything in heavy detail. What I deliver needs to be my work, even though I’m getting some help on the front-end. From there I export, do a further dusting of special-sauce in Photoshop if need be, and do final spotting/dodging and burning via Photo Mechanic on the final set. All of my editing presets and brushes are free inside my MESMERISE wedding photo editing course, available on A Strange Atlas.

How do most of your couples find you? What marketing do you do for your business?

Most couples find me through word of mouth, a select group of vendor bandmates that kindy share my name, and my massive SEO campaign that I did during lockdown one over here. I spent a few days building a 3 month social media campaign in 2020 and it was pretty interesting to see that have a dramatic spike in enquiries too. 


What has been your best business purchase in recent years? 

Studio Ninja CRM, and Flothemes website platform. My brain isn’t made for administrative stuff at the best of times – Studio Ninja makes sure I get paid, and makes sure my couples get looked after. Fabulous! While we’re here: hiring a good accountant, and buying good advice, ie financial creatives. Flothemes is simply the best website platform out there. I was a WordPress naysayer for a while, but once I got my head around it have been blown away by how flexible it is. It eats all of the other competition alive in terms of usability, design flexibility, and future-foward website building. Once I built one on it, I immediately moved two more of my sites over to it.


Comparing your business from when you started to now, what has been the main thing that allowed you to succeed?

Steering well clear of people and communities that value numbers and followers ahead of the human and craft side of things. When I was in design 15 years ago, there were no socials, no followings, no cult of personality. It was all about the work, and good work travelled. I’m super grateful for that background because it makes it easy for me to focus on the good stuff. I reckon for newer photographers entering the space, there is so much more noise they have to navigate, and so much outside muscle pulling them in other directions and telling them that being great at their craft and connecting with people properly isn’t enough. 

What do you consider the main differences between those people who have been successful in the industry and those who have failed?

I’ll twist this question around and suggest that I don’t have any idea what someone else’s success looks like, and I reckon a lot of people would benefit from asking others what their version of success looks like, because it can and does look different from person to person, and inevitably in conversation now it’s mostly tied to this crazily boring financial and followers metric. 

What’s the best piece of photography business advice you’ve ever been given?
I love that you’re asking this as I’ve literally built a resource to get the “one best bit of advice” from as many wedding photographers over the world as I can. It’s called MORSEL (https://strangeatlas.co/morsel/). For me, I can’t think of any advice specifically, but I’m always drawn to Morganna Magees way of creating, who quietly makes genius work that matters and flips the bird to the algorithm machine. 

What’s the most common rookie mistake when it comes to starting a photography business? What advice would you give them?
It’s so difficult to take advice when you’re starting out, because it’s always experience that drills home concepts. Advice is useless unless implemented, and there’s no sense of urgency on taking action with advice, unless you’ve experienced first hand what it’s like to not gain from that very advice you’re being given in that moment. So my answer here is that a common rookie mistake is people not taking their advice from a diverse enough number of viewpoints, or not making sure that the views they are consuming have their own best interests at heart. If you ask a “success coach” for their advice, they might give you some recycled ideas pulled from the Gordon Gecko playbook that work, but if your own idea of running a good business means doing more nuanced, specific work for a harder to reach audience, then there’s a good chance that person is actually in no position to help you. So I’d say get advice from a diverse number of people, take it all with a grain of salt while experimenting with as much of it as you can, and let what feels right to you naturally surface itself. Oh, and get Studio Ninja before you do anything else, separate your bank accounts, and take 100 people in your industry out for a coffee. It’ll be the best $500 you’ll spend on your business.


What are your top 3 wedding venues or destinations that you have photographed?
Joshua Tree, California
Thousand islands in the middle of a lake, Canada
Antarctica – it wasn’t a wedding nor have I got any desire to shoot one there, but it’s the most spectacular place I’ve ever been


Do you have any bucket list locations you want to shoot?

I always feel bad not sharing the same excitement of shooting in say Iceland. “Good on you, I’m genuinely glad you like that, but I’d probably be just as happy doing the couples shoot in a dingy carpark”. I’m the guy that literally shoved sitcom icon Nate Richert into a broom-cupboard for my project Mannequin, because that’s where the best light was in the studio. So I’m pretty location agnostic, and I don’t really think about bucket list locations. I’d love to return to Antarctica to shoot Antarctica! But the idea of finding a spectacular location and putting a couple on it just because, is something I find kinda nauseating. Yay! A landscape photo with a couple in it. One of my favourite places is actually Twentynine Palms, just outside of the spectacular Joshua Tree, and Lone Pine, outside of Death Valley. I find those kind of more urban environments I love to bits, and I’m always interested in what’s to the side of “the main event”. Anyway, that’s not to sound all pointlessly subversive and it’s such a wild treat being ferried around the world to do this job, it literally blows my mind and it’s been such a treasured few years of doing it and making memories all over the world. But for me I haven’t thought much about bucket list locations. I’ll go anywhere I’m told to and kick some ass for them.


Best places online to view more of your work?

A Strange Atlas: my photography education site: www.strangeatlas.co & instagram.com/astrangeatlas
Briars Atlas: my wedding photography: www.briarsatlas.com & instagram.com/briarsatlas
My regular work: www.olisansom.com & instagram.com/oli.sansom
My arbour styling company: www.thearbourists.com & instagram.com/thearbourists
My interview project: www.mannequintalks.com