Emily Abay is a leading Australian commercial fashion and advertising photographer whose images have appeared in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, and numerous other lifestyle and trend publications. We caught up with Emily to chat about how she got into photography, the gear she relies on and her process for creating high-end fashion images.
With her mother also a photographer, Emily unconsciously learned to read light and appreciate its qualities long before she picked up a camera. Naturally connected to art from an early age, Emily was initially drawn to creative endeavours like painting and sculpture. It wasn’t until she took photography as an elective in high school that her interest in photography emerged.
"I didn't even realise I was learning at the time. She (mum) would point things out to me while we would be driving in the car, like “There's dappled light on the wall”, or she would stop and say “Look how beautiful this is”. I didn't realise what she was appreciating until I got a bit older, and I wanted to learn how to shoot film."
Under the guidance of her mum, Emily fully immersed herself in the medium. She had access to a fantastic range of cameras and studio equipment and a home darkroom at her fingertips. Emily eagerly began shooting and developing rolls of film, which laid the foundation for her career as a photographer. From high school, she went on to study photography at university, where she was able to round out her learning.
Working predominantly with natural light, Emily plays with shadows, highlights and flare to masterful effect. Her considered approach to composition, colour tones and texture work seamlessly to bring focus to the subject and features of interest. Often opting to add grain and reduce distracting saturation, Emily’s images are infused with a sense of nostalgia while still retaining a look that is fresh and contemporary.
Emily’s style exudes a carefree, feminine sensuality which sees her shooting campaigns for fashion labels such as KYHA, Monday Swimwear, and Kookai. Years of experience built upon innate instinct underpin her ability to anticipate and control light expertly. Perfectly balancing tones and contrast to accentuate beautifully luminous skin and celebrate women’s bodies; their lines, shapes and movement.
Having relied on the Canon EOS 5D IV and its predecessors for much of her career, Emily resisted switching to mirrorless. She has since picked up the Canon EOS R5 and hasn’t looked back. The lighter form factor is a huge advantage, and the camera’s ISO performance has really impressed her. Often shooting in pre-dawn and post-sunset light, being able to crank the ISO while retaining image integrity means her images can easily be enlarged without issue.
"There is not a grain overload; I can still see the image perfectly clear."
Despite having a whole host of prime lenses in her kit to work with, Emily predominantly shoots with the RF 24-70mm f/2.8 L IS USM and the RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM. The flexibility of the zoom allows her to work much faster and deliver greater variety to her clients. For detailed work such as fine jewellery, she will grab the RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro lens, which also doubles as a beautiful portrait lens.
"I don't really have a lot of time to stand there and set the shot up perfectly with a prime; I need to be able to get a full-body, a three-quarter and a headshot quickly."
While natural light is her preferred choice, Emily keeps a range of Broncolor flashes, continuous LED lights, reflectors and diffusers on hand to ensure she is prepared for any lighting scenario. She also has a selection of crystals, prisms and coloured gels in her kit for when the scene needs a little something extra.
"Even if the client says we're just using daylight, my car is completely packed full of equipment at all times."
In earlier days, Emily would scout for locations by driving around and exploring on foot. Now, after years of shooting in and around Sydney, Emily has built up a bank of gorgeous backdrops and knows how they will look at certain times of the day. Location scouting services help find the perfect spot when there is a specific shoot requirement or when working away. A few of her favourite campaign locations include the iconic Sheats–Goldstein and Stahl houses in Los Angeles and the intricately detailed Samode Palace in India.
Emily enjoys collaborating with a creative team to shape ideas and bring them to life. She finds working together with hair and makeup artists, stylists, and other creatives allows for a unique combination of elements to come together. Regarding assistants, strong photographic knowledge is essential. Still, Emily notes good working chemistry as the most important thing she looks for - having an assistant who is on the same wavelength as her and can preempt her next move is invaluable.
Having cut her teeth on film, Emily edits within the limits of what she would be able to do in a traditional dark room. Predominantly working in Capture One, she uses the photo editing software to add grain and desaturate colours, much like choosing a particular film stock to achieve a specific look. Or, if converting an image to black and white, she might adjust the RGB channels to lighten or darken tones, akin to dodging and burning in the darkroom.
"I try to keep everything as true to camera as possible, just because I grew up on analog photography. So anything that I could do in the darkroom is definitely okay in the digital darkroom."
In the nearly two decades since graduating, Emily has finessed her style and built a stand-out editorial and commercial portfolio. Her career has taken her around the world, and she has recently become a Canon Australia Master.
To find out more about Emily and her work, check out the full interview here.
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