It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny late summer day and while many of us have been taught not to shoot under these bright conditions, there’s no running for the open shade in Cliff Mautner’s Lighting and Skill set Bootcamp. In fact, according to Cliff—an award-winning wedding photographer named by American Photo magazine as one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world and the recipient of the WPPI 2009 Grand Award for Photojournalism—there is no such thing as bad light. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that when shooting a wedding, you can’t choose your light so you must learn to work with it. Cliff not only works with any light but actually seeks out harsh light and creates amazing images under the most challenging conditions.
I had interviewed Cliff in 2007 for a profile piece and was really taken by his images, which were strikingly different than other wedding pictures I had seen, as well as his obvious passion for what he does. I’m not a wedding photographer, and probably never will be, but the way Cliff uses both natural and artificial light was so impressive that I jumped at the chance to participate in his workshop.
Cliff started out as a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer with more than 6,000 assignments to his credit and an impressive list of commercial clients as well. After he left the newspaper, his freelance work and the experience of shooting a few weddings for another photographer eventually led him to his current career. In 1998, he officially opened Cliff Mautner Photography and has specialized in wedding photography ever since, shooting more than 750 weddings.
For the past few years, Cliff has been conducting workshops and seminars, generously sharing his knowledge and techniques. The Lighting and Skillset Bootcamp is offered several times a year at Cliff’s beautiful studio just outside Philadelphia.
The workshop takes place over the course of 2.5 days plus a meet-and-greet the evening before the Bootcamp begins. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the first evening’s event but immediately felt welcome when I arrived the following morning as I was greeted by Cliff and met the other attendees who came from across the U.S. and as far away as the U.K and South America.
Limited to no more than 15 students, the group was surprisingly diverse. There was a mix of professional wedding photographers, advanced amateurs who wanted to pursue wedding photography and others who simply wanted to enhance or develop their photographic skills for portrait or just general photography. Most agreed, though, that they wanted to learn about light and a few came to the workshop specifically to advance their use of off-camera flash. Throughout the 2.5 days, Cliff ensured that everyone, regardless of experience level, understood even the most technical aspects of the subject at hand and addressed all questions—from basic to advanced—with equal attention.
The workshop is intensive—days are 12-plus hours long. You’ll be tired but you’ll never be bored. Cliff is energetic, engaging and clearly loves to teach. And I’ve never attended a workshop, seminar or meeting that was so efficiently yet flexibly run and where the attendees were so well taken care of.
Each day started between 8:30-9am with an amazingly delicious hot catered breakfast of freshly made coffee, pancakes (with warm syrup on the side), eggs, bacon along with bagels, fresh fruit and other healthier alternatives to prepare us for the day. Juices, water, and soda were available from the fridge at all times and beer and wine was stocked for the evenings.
Mornings were spent talking about photography. We were treated to an in-depth presentation by Cliff, talking about his work and how he developed his unique style. The presentation then transitioned into guidance about how to develop our own styles, followed by a “tech talk” section with tons of additional information that addressed both the technical and creative aspects of photography.
With the caveat that “what I talk about is not the right way, it’s [simply] my way,” Cliff addressed important topics such as exposure modes. He tends to shoot aperture-priority when he’s moving around so he can be ready to shoot at a moement’s notice. Shooting manually would take too long to change both aperture and shutter speed. But, he emphasized, it’s important to “choose the best mode for you.” On the other hand, he does shoot in manual exposure mode when the lighting conditions are consistent.
A loyal Nikon shooter who only switched to digital in 2006 (thanks to the results he achieved with the Nikon D2x), Cliff’s gear bag for 2013 includes:
Being able to shoot at high ISOs with low noise is a real bonus with the latest Nikon cameras and Cliff has no trouble pushing the ISO to 10,000, if necessary.
Of course, Cliff emphasized that lens choice is critical, not only for lens speed (f/stop) but focal length as well. His lenses include:
Of those lenses, he makes good use of the 70-200mm at 200mm for great compression. The 35mm and 85mm are his favorites when photographing the bride getting ready. He’s especially fond of the 85mm f/1.4 for its shallow depth-of-field and will manually select the focus point to isolate the bride’s eye, eyelashes or even the veil.
On the lighting side, Cliff has:
He’ll set the Speedlite manually if he’s using it off camera, e.g., on a monopod. But if it’s connected to the camera, he’ll use Auto or TTL mode. Cliff highly recommends using off-camera flash when shooting formal portraits, though.
For natural light when photographing the bride in her hotel/bedroom, he’ll use the window light directionally or shoot directly into the light.
During the presentation Cliff also addressed creativity, working within the wedding environment and much more—all the while using his photographs as examples. His many years as a photojournalist have, of course, influenced how he shoots so he doesn’t set up shots. Rather than asking Mom to zip up the bride’s dress, for example, he might suggest to the bride’s mother that she go over and talk to her daughter. He’ll then capture the natural interaction between the two.
Cliff will also arrange for the bride and groom to see each other before the wedding. He’ll take the bride to a location and photograph her while his assistant brings the groom to surprise her. Cliff is perfectly set up to capture the bride’s expression when she sees her groom and these images add an extra dimension to the couple’s memories.
The presentation was probably the most formal part of our time spent with Cliff, but, like the rest of the workshop, there was plenty of interaction, questions and open discussion throughout. Cliff is extremely willing to share his knowledge and was very open to talking about anything related to photography, including how he runs his business. In fact, once you take the workshop, you have an open invitation to call Cliff anytime for advice. Talk about a value-added bonus!
After morning discussions and technical demos, it was time for lunch. Sorry to bring up the food but, again, it’s an indication of how top notch this workshop is. Menus from a local deli and ordering sheets were passed around so each student picked his/her own lunch, which was delivered and clearly labeled with the appropriate person’s name. Very efficient (and the food was good, too).
After lunch on the first two days we went into the field to shoot. Transportation was provided, as were male and female models, with styled make-up and hair and outfitted in full wedding attire. The models were great—from their professional demeanor to their ability to take direction (with a special shout-out to Amber, who you see in my images here).
Cliff took us to a couple of different parks that offered typical and unusual settings so we could practice shooting in bright sunlight, as well as experiment with off-camera flashes. We split into groups of four and went off to shoot with our models. As someone who usually shoots alone, I was concerned about shooting with a group but everyone in the workshop was easy to work with and generous with their help.
What was even more astounding was Cliff’s ability to have one-on-one time with each student on location. He was everywhere, moving from group to group, person to person, answering questions, providing suggestions and demonstrating different techniques. He’d shoot with his camera (or with one of the students’ cameras) and then make sure that everyone saw the images he shot, always providing explanations and tips along the way.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no running for the shade when you’re photographing with Cliff. In fact, we were encouraged to put the subject between the camera and the sun. (This would especially shock a lot of parents who insist that the sun should be over the photographer’s shoulder. No wonder so many family albums have pictures of squinting children.) Cliff gave us tips about exposure, encouraged us to try different angles and to “resist the temptation of flash fill.” The results were gorgeous, with golden sunlight haloing the models’ hair and faces. We also used flash-on-a-stick (monopod) to provide backlight as well as angled lighting with off-camera flash.
On the second morning of the workshop, each of us presented a few of our images from the day before for critique. It’s sometimes hard to hear what other people have to say about your work but Cliff delivered his critiques with sound advice and constructive suggestions on what would have made the images better. He wasn’t stingy with praise, either and, as one would hope, we all walked away with good ideas for the next shooting session.
While the parks we visited were lovely, with interesting backdrops, perhaps the most exciting location shoot was at the Eastern Penitentiary, where Cliff has arranged special access for his workshop students. The Penitentiary was opened in 1829 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Designed with a wagon-wheel (radial) layout, and formerly “home” to Willie Sutton and Al Capone, the Penitentiary is a dark complex of tiny cells, crumbling stone, high ceilings and skylights, which provide a unique and dramatic setting. Shooting there was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the ideal setting to test out some of our new lighting skills.
After our afternoon shoots, we headed out to dinner as a group—a fun and relaxing time to get to know one another and talk about the day’s experiences. Then it was back to the studio for more discussion and flash demos. On the second evening, we observed a faux first meeting between Cliff and a potential wedding client. The original couple was unable to attend, so Cliff’s girlfriend and colleague—wedding photographer Susan Stripling—and one of the male students (also a professional wedding photographer) role-played. Wow. Talk about insightful. Cliff shared a wealth of information of the business side of wedding photography and you’ll come away feeling much more capable and confident about growing and running your own business.
The final day started with breakfast and finished with lunch. In between, there were more discussions and a helpful trip upstairs to visit with Noelle, Cliff’s Studio Manager, to learn about the studio’s post-production workflow. This wasn’t a Photoshop or Lightroom how-to. Rather, Noelle—whose responsibilities and talents range from assisting Cliff at weddings to designing clients’ photo albums and everything in between—walked us through what happens after the wedding. From downloading, organizing, labeling, managing and backing up the images to editing, applying special actions, ordering proofs and, in the end, designing albums, the studio is incredibly organized and efficient. At the very least, you’ll pick up some excellent tips about digital asset management but, more likely, you’ll also get quite a few ideas about how to improve your workflow.
From start to finish, the workshop—and the technical and creative skills I learned—exceeded my expectations. I still have no plans to be a wedding photographer but if you shoot weddings professionally or would like to, I highly recommend Cliff’s workshop. Be sure to register early; the workshops fill quickly. For more information about the workshops and to see some of Cliff’s work, go to: www.cmphotography.com (click on Blog for workshop info).
Original text and images ©2009 Theano Nikitas.