Q&A: Car chases and cherry blossoms with Greg Samborski (Victoria, BC)

December 14, 2020

Greg Samborski is a photography polymath: the kind of lensman who pilots drones as deftly as he rides a motorcycle, shoots weddings as comfortably as street photography, and cut his industry chops in Korea working for the likes of Dior, Netflix, Google, and... well, just about anybody with a gig.

"I cast a really wide net in the beginning because I had to to ensure I could keep my wife and daughter fed, clothed, and housed," the British Columbia native recalls.

What started as a personal challenge while teaching English abroad — create a photograph every day for a year — grew into a source of fascination, then devotion, as the hours spent creating concepts and editing photos soon dwarfed the ones he was putting in at his day job. Everything became an experiment: flash lighting, long exposure, recreating the steam from a dumpling. Along the way, Samborski's profile grew from family shoots to multinational corporate clients. What remained the same throughout was the photographer's enthusiasm.

"I frickin' enjoy it," he says. "You're always learning something new."

Now based in Victoria, British Columbia, Samborski is looking to bring his creative approach to a new clientele — one on board with something outside the ordinary. We caught up with him to talk about getting started, the keys to street photography, and what he's learned from working with high-profile clients.

This interview has been condensed.

I want to start with a story. Who is Blossom Man?

GS: [Laughs] I moved to Korea to teach English in 2007. I was on my second Pentax Optio WP point-and-shoot camera which I ended up drunkenly falling on and breaking one evening. So I decided to go out and buy a larger, more expensive [Canon] EOS 350 DSLR thinking it might force me to be more careful.

It was around this time I stumbled upon David Hobby on Flickr, back when Flickr was huge. David would go do these local [photography] assignments for his newspapers about Bob the bee keeper and such, and the images jumped off the page and were so creative in concept and execution. I just remember thinking as I looked through his work, 'What is that? What’s giving this image such a surreal look?’ That’s when I discovered the power off-camera flash.

Blossom Man came about via a 365 Project where I took a self-portrait every day for a year. Part of what motivated that project was using off-camera flash, because that was like the perfect level of geekiness and tech combined with art and creativity. I was always looking for something in my Korean life to document, and I noticed how these cherry blossoms would just litter the roads like snow come springtime. So one day, I shovelled a bunch of blossoms into a garbage bag, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna figure out a way to use these.’

Photographer Greg Samborski watches as cherry blossom petals fall to the ground in Korea.
Day 130/365. Photo: Greg Samborski

Probably the first idea was, ‘Let’s throw them in the air’ — something pretty normal like that. And then I thought, ‘I wonder if I can stick these to myself.' So I went and bought a bunch of Korean corn syrup and smeared my body down in it. Then I dumped the blossoms onto my floor and rolled around in them.

I’m still not happy the technicalities of that image today [because] the lighting is off and I had to push the shadows which made everything grainy, but I like the story. And I'm proud of the effort, which I think showed how dedicated I was to trying to create something weird. I like a little weird.

Let’s go back to the earliest days. What’s your first memory with a camera in your hands?

GS: I remember my grandpa gifting me my first camera. Probably when I was eight or nine. My grandpa was always a Polaroid guy. We didn’t see him very much, because he lived in the Prairies, and we lived in BC. I still remember he would shoot shots, and he would give me the photo to expose, and I thought it was so cool. But I’m not one of those photographers who picked up a camera at four years old and started making art.

When did you get hooked, then? Or was it something that just caught you by surprise over time?

GS: It was a slow build. I took a lot of photos when I was in the army. I did six years in the reserves, and I would always carry that camera with me and try to convey what army life was all about. Then I traveled Thailand and Laos and Cambodia for six months as a backpacker. That’s where I had the Optio WP thinking it could withstand some abuse. It actually broke completely; the circuitry got all corroded from the humidity halfway through my trip. I printed all the shots I took in Bangkok and pasted them into a photo album / scrap book while waiting for three days in the airport (that’s another story).

Photos: Greg Samborski

It was the 2009 365 Project where photography turned from an interest into an obsession. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m addicted to this now.’ I’d go home in the evening, spend four, five hours creating a concept and shooting it, and then spend four hours editing it when I wasn’t teaching English.

What sparked your interest in doing that 365 Project?

GS: The 365 Project came about from being a part of the Flickr community. Aaron Nace, who runs PHLEARN, was on Flickr at the time and did really crazy, dreamy, amazing Photoshop stuff — which he was tagging #365. I wondered what that meant, so I started looking at this 365 challenge thing everyone was talking about and I thought, 'That sounds like fun.'

The nice thing is, there was a big, broad group with probably hundreds of thousands of people, but [I joined an offshoot group] — it was just us, focused on 2009. So it felt like a community of maybe 1,000 people or smaller, and everybody left comments, and you got to know each other. There’s a lot of people that I still know, and I’ve followed their trajectory, and they’ve gone amazing places.

100/365. Photo: Greg Samborski
What was your first paid photography gig?

GS: My first paid gig was in a city called Gwangju where this couple had seen photos I did of my best friend Brandon. He had met this girl named Kim, and they were expecting a baby. So I did maternity-style photos with them. I was like, ‘Dude, let’s go to the fortress in my city; it’s really beautiful out there.’ So I took him out and took these shots in the golden fall sun, and then I guess one of their friends from the university that they were teaching at saw it and said, ‘Hey, would you come take photos of us? We’ll pay you.’ And that was my first gig.

How do you go from there to teaching photography at the university level?

GS: I suggested it. I ended up going through the ranks of schools, as a lot of ESL teachers do, eventually working full time as a professor at a private university. I suggested to the dean at the time, ‘How about we create an English class around photography?’ She pretty much gave me free rein over the curriculum and implementation [after that].

Once she saw the course was going well, and the clients I was working outside of my teaching hours, [the university] invited me to come teach photography in the visual arts department.

It’s often said about teaching that the practice of teaching ends up teaching you. What have you learned from teaching photography?

GS: I think the students often gave me a fresh outlook, because they weren’t doing it as a profession. I think any person who has a passion for art worries that if they turn their hobby into a profession, it might become diluted and mainstream and all the rest of it. And I think I was already starting to kind of fall into what I thought the client wanted, as opposed to what I wanted to create, in some cases. And so, seeing their photos with a totally new take on something that I hadn’t thought of before was refreshing.

You’ve called photography the “master key that opens doors into people’s lives.” Tell me about that.
A dreadlocked man smiles as he's asked about his proudest accomplishment from the year.l
Photo: Greg Samborski

GS: One day, I was at a skatepark with my wife and daughter who was learning to rollerblade like everyone else out there. Then these American military guys — young guys who were in the armoured brigade, new recruits — showed up and were doing proper tricks. You don’t see that often in Korea; the skate culture there isn’t that developed. So I walked up to them and said, ‘Hi, I’m a photographer. Would you guys be into making some portraits one of these days?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, sure, totally. When?’ They texted me about [it] all week; they were so excited.

I always thought after that point, I’m sure an accountant has never walked up to a stranger and said, ‘Hey, can I file your taxes?’ And I think there’s so many jobs like that where you just don’t really [interact with the outside world]. When you have the camera in your hand, it somehow gives you this allowance to just step into anybody’s life and record it.

Making portraits of strangers became one of my favourite pastimes. It wasn’t easy. I was nervous — as nervous as most people would be asking [someone cute] across the street for their phone number. But it was such a rush! You could watch a stranger open up and reveal some part of themselves and their life to you and capture it all in under three minutes.

A young woman poses for a street portrait in Seoul, Korea.
Photo: Greg Samborski

I’m a big systems and analytics guy — I like to always figure out how I can improve something that I’m doing. I learned I could rank photos with stars in-camera and then tell [my camera] to only play back my best shots. So after each session with [someone] on the street, I would star one favourite photo.

Eventually, I had a mini portfolio of six standout images to share with the next stranger I approached. It was much easier to open the conversation with, 'Hello, have a look at this project I’m working on.' Sharing the best the best images helped me gain their confidence and trust, because they could see the direction it was heading.

One of the things that makes you unique is your family ‘day in the life’ sessions: getting right into a family’s home and capturing them in their routines. What draws you to this approach?

GS: I’m not a big fan of studio shots where you place the family against the white background and then pose them all cute. I just feel it’s kind of inauthentic. I have this weird thing where I like a fusion of candid and directed. What I find usually happens is I see something a family does that I like — the child starts sliding across the floor, and I say, ‘That was a really cool slide! Can you do an even further one on this carpet? I’ve never had a child say no to this kind of request, and now I’ve led them into better light — and have a background with more depth!

Photo: Greg Samborski

I enjoy the fusion of both worlds, where I have the freedom in that situation to get inspired by candid moments, but then the creative part of me, and the part that likes to direct, allows me to go in there and manipulate a little to elevate the image. It’s a weird kind of hybrid.

You’ve worked with a long list of global brands (Google, Netflix, Airbnb). What do you learn from shoots like those — or is the approach the same as any other shoot?

GS: It teaches you a lot. Probably one of the best examples of that was my time with Four Seasons, because we spent a year working together on a contract basis, and it was really valuable. You’d shoot, it would come up on the laptop, and they’d be like, ‘No, that’s not working. We need to move these chopsticks a millimetre to the right.’ It really forced me to up my game — to just keep improving.

Photo: Greg Samborski

We had a trial shoot — like, ‘Yeah, we’ll test you out, and if you’re good, we’ll hire you.' They led me into the swankiest speakeasy where we had to photograph a new beer they just released. The label was all black with gold writing. I arranged, lit, and shot the bottles on the gold tabletop, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, but we can’t see the text. It needs to stand out more.’ I [kept adjusting my lighting], and I’m like, ‘f--k.’ Lighting it doesn’t help.

Finally, I figured it out. I went home after that shoot, and I got a bottle with foil and put it on my counter. I spent two more hours after a full day with them figuring out how to solve the problem. I discovered [the] gold writing was reflecting what was below it, so if you put a sheet of A4 paper under the bottle, the label catches the reflection and turns vibrant gold. You can edit out the paper in post.

A tray of beer bottles catches the light.
Photo: Greg Samborski

It’s that kind of thing that I learned from those commercial shoots. They are always thinking about brand consistency, and [so] you have to be able to create their vision, not just your own. You have to turn out really polished work, no matter how challenging the circumstances.

Another time, we had to shoot dumplings, and I needed to capture the steam off the dumpling. But they were fairly cold when they arrived; you couldn’t really see the steam, so I went home and cooked up my own dumplings, put them on a chopstick with a black background, photographed that to get the steam, and then superimposed my steam on top of their dumplings. Those are the technical challenges I feel like you don’t often get in the world of shooting families, couples, weddings, and engagements.

Aside from being a photographer, you’re also a motorcyclist. Where did that begin for you?

GS: I always wanted a motorcycle. I was the kid who had the hockey card taped to his spokes and made motorcycle noises when I was riding it to school. I always dreamed of the day when I would be able to get pulled up the steep hill to my home by an engine.

Photo: Greg Samborski

I got my first motorcycle when I moved out, because my parents weren’t really down with the idea. I got an ‘81 or '82 Suzuki GS550 — a bit of a sport bike. Super cheap: $2,000 or something. And then it just went from there.

I’ve noticed a lot of motorcyclists like photography, and I think it’s the perfect vehicle for a photographer — especially if you’re into doing landscapes or travel photography, because so many times, I’ve seen something as I’m passing by it, and if you were in any other kind of vehicle — a train, a bus, even in your car — you wouldn’t bother to turn around and go back. But on the motorcycle, it’s just so easy to do a U-turn, go back, and get your shot. And that’s what I love about it.‍

Tell me about your Bike & Rider Project. How did that start?

GS: I’ve always enjoyed photographing my motorcycle adventures, and I often needed to be in my photo to tell the story, but it becomes really challenging to do it all: position the bike, set up the camera, position the lights, hit the 10-second timer, run in, pose, review, adjust, and repeat. It’s like six times the effort of a regular photo. So honestly, what initially inspired was wanting to simplify the process.

The project started in Korea. The first subject, Natalia, lent me her BMW GS800 and took me on a ride right up to the DMZ. When I got back here [to British Columbia], I pitched the project to the riding community I’ve become involved with here. A few riders volunteered to be a part, and as I shared these new images, the interest compounded. Now, I’ve got about forty people on the sign-up sheet.

A female motorcyclist poses for a photo in an empty road tunnel.
Natalia on her BMW motorcycle. Photo: Greg Samborski

The more I get into it, the more I realize how enjoyable it is to spend time with other riders and figure out what drew them to motorcycling. Instead of going for coffee with a stranger, it gives you something to do while you’re talking, so you get to know somebody in a much more natural way. I’ve gotten more job connections through the motorcycle community here than anything else, so it’s really cool how it all comes full circle.

If you were to look back at your younger self, what advice would you give about the photography industry?

GS: Keep personal projects alive, for sure. Because I know I let them fall by the wayside, and I really do think they help build you as a photographer. The 365 Project is still the body of work that I’m most proud of, even though it’s so old now. Sometimes I feel like the guy that’s like, ‘Back when I was rookie of the year on the football team…’ It was a body of work just for me. I wasn’t trying to please any clients or make money from it. It went a year long, and it’s cohesive. I think you’ve gotta keep doing projects like that to fulfill that other side of you — the personal side.

And I think when it comes to the business side, the best thing I ever learned — and I wish I’d done a little sooner — is when you’re negotiating contracts, I always factor in four things: does this excite/interest/challenge me, would I be proud to have it in my portfolio, will it create a valuable connection/grow my network, and finally, how does it pay? And if I can cross off all of them, that’s ideal, but even if I can only cross off two of the four, I’m generally happy.

A mother and daughter shovel snow in Victoria, BC.
Photo: Greg Samborski
What’s in your camera bag on any given shoot?

GS: The bodies I carry are a Canon 5D Mark IV and EOS R, both of which I really like. I kind of have everything, because I shoot everything. I’ve got an assortment of Sigma ART prime lenses, which are my absolute favourites for doing event work, because they’re super fast and dreamy. For the commercial stuff, probably the most exciting lenses I have are my tilt shifts. I’ve got a 24 and a 90mm tilt shift. And then my lighting kit, which I carry around. That usually goes with me everywhere.

How often are you bringing the drone with you?

GS: Oh yeah. Any chance I get to use the drone, I’ll use it. I keep meaning to put together a showreel. I’ve got terabytes of drone footage — really interesting stuff, too. Like, flying through buildings in Seoul, and all sorts of places where I probably couldn't fly now due to changes in the laws. While I’m not ready to fully commit to video production yet, I’d be very happy doing cinematic drone work.

What’s your favourite place to shoot on Vancouver Island?

GS: I haven’t found one yet, because I feel like I’m still so new here. I guess it would be the single track — the trails I ride on. I love the scenes I find out in the bush when I’m riding motorcycles: big, mossy rock slabs and sunbeams filtering through fog-filled forests and all that iconic west coast stuff.

A motorcyclist descends a rocky slope on Vancouver Island.
Photo: Greg Samborski

I had so many favourite spots in Seoul, but that came over eight years of shooting. As cliche as it is, one of my favourite places in Seoul was the palace. Even though I was kinda like, ‘Ugh, another palace’ at the time, I realize now, it offered such a unique background. It didn’t feel exotic to me when I was there, but now when I look at photos my friends are doing, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s different.’ You don’t see that anywhere here.

And also, if it rained, you always had shelter that you could use, which is handy. You could play with the light there. On the flip side, you often had to contend with smoggy air and 3,000 other people walking behind your couple/family in the frame, so sometimes, you’d have to wait for that split second where nobody was in the scene, or even have your assistant hold traffic for a second. If all else failed, you could always spend an hour with the clone stamp in Photoshop.

What is your most memorable photoshoot?

GS: There was this supercar rental agency [in Singapore], in the bottom of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. I got the job via an engagement couple that I shot in Seoul. He happened to be doing stuff for this company, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to Singapore and shoot our supercars?’ [They had] a Ferrari and a couple Lamborghinis. This was early in my career, so I was like, ‘Holy crap.’

Two Lamborghinis cruise down an empty tunnel in Singapore.
Photo: Greg Samborski

I look back at the quote and production schedule and realize just how inexperienced I was — I just wanted any opportunity to shoot abroad. We had to guerrilla shoot everything; we didn’t have permits — which is an especially big NO NO in Singapore! It was getting towards evening, and we were waiting until the tunnel [traffic] quieted, so that we could run these three cars through them as fast as legally allowed without hitting a traffic jam — which is the normal state of traffic in Singapore. I was hanging out the side of a Ferrari shooting these two Lamborghinis chasing us, thinking, ‘I’m getting paid for this!’

What continues to excite you most about the work you do?

GS: The new people I get to meet, and the stories I get to tell. The West Coast is an entirely new scene for me: it’s new people, new backgrounds, new industries, and it’s really foreign to me, but I’m excited to learn how to conduct business here, and I’m excited to help local, national, and international businesses communicate their brand with strong imagery.

I love the diversity we have in Canada and that people here are not afraid to show their character. I’m excited to capture and share the unique stories this region has to offer.

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