Wedding Photography Insight with Jeff Ascough
Jeff Ascough has been a professional wedding photographer in the United Kingdom since 1989. He has covered over 1000 weddings with a documentary photography style. Ascough emphasizes capturing the moment without any prompting or interference and using available light. American Photo voted Ascough as one of the ten best wedding photographers in the world.
He is also a Canon Ambassador and uses the Canon 5D Mark II’s due to the low light capabilities. Frank Van Riper in America’s Washington Post described Jeff as “A master at shooting by available light” and went on to describe his images as “…among the best I ever have seen—an absolute pleasure to see.”
Jeff took a moment to answer questions from photo.net members in the Wedding Photography Forum. Here’s the original Q&A thread.
To familiarize yourself with Jeff and his work, you may want to read an earlier interview Mary and photo.net members did with him in 2008 first:
I never tell my clients to do anything on the wedding day. I prefer to document what actually happens rather than what I think should happen. I also believe that once you give a couple some direction, they spend the rest of the day looking for more direction.
In terms of picture aesthetic, that is down to my skills as a photographer and the way I see the world. I honestly don’t believe a picture can be improved by interfering, because then the picture isn’t a moment—it is a photographer’s idea of what that moment should be.
Having this approach forces you to look for images. Controlling the situation would take all of my concentration, and would prevent me from seeing other, possibly better images that could be happening around me.
In terms of posed photographs, I usually cover six groups and a couple of bride and groom pictures. These are done right at the end of the drinks reception (cocktail hour) so the clients have the greatest amount of time with their guests, and I have the most time possible for taking my documentary images. The formal images take no longer than ten minutes to complete. I don’t worry about missing images when taking the groups, because if I don’t take them, they never happened.
I also don’t deal with the parents when it comes to the coverage, even if they are paying the bill. If they do complain, they do it to the bride and groom, and I rarely get to hear about it.
My main focus is on the couple and the closest people to them – bridal party, parents etc.
It is impossible to shoot everyone at the wedding without the coverage resorting to nothing more than snaps of guests, which the guests themselves are more than capable of doing. I’m not offering a complete, shoot everything that moves coverage; I’m offering more than that, and in order for me to get the images which my clients book me for, I can’t be concerned with shooting hundreds of pictures of guests. I don’t show lots of guests pictures, not in my sample albums or on my website. I don’t know the relationship with the guests that the client has, and it would be impossible for me to ascertain that relationship.
If a client wants a flavor for the quantity and types of guest at the wedding, then I will often incorporate a lot of scene setting images with lots of guests in those shots. If a client wants to see everyone at the wedding, then we suggest a big group of everyone. Obviously there will be times when the guests interact with the bride and groom and then they will be in the pictures, but I will never take a wedding on where the client expects me to go and shoot everyone at the wedding, because that client is after nothing more than a record of who was there on the day, and I believe my skills are worth more than that.
Overhead lighting isn’t an issue normally but if it is very direct, then like you say I will often wait for a moment when the lighting works with the subject. If it is a group of people, then I will often look for the bodies creating fill light if they have light clothes on, or subtractive light to create shape if they have dark clothes on. In any lighting situation there are always points where the light is soft and usually shaded, and I try to work in those areas. Even harsh downlighters will have an area right next to the main beam of light where the light is even and soft.
Being unobtrusive is simply a state of mind and a way of behaving. I shoot most of my weddings on 24 or 50mm. I wrote a whole piece on my blog about it which was highlighted on the Online Photographer. This pretty much explains everything.
I have covered weddings from various cultures throughout my career including Indian weddings. My approach is exactly the same as it would be for any other wedding. I will observe and document the day. The colors and lighting are simply part of the challenge.
I will be honest and say that I don’t get very many inquiries for Indian weddings these days. I get plenty of mixed culture weddings, but it’s rare that I am contacted by a couple where they are both Indian. I would dearly love to do more of them, as they are really fun to photograph.
When working alone it is quite easy to cover bride and groom preparations as long as logistics allow. Most of the time I cover just the bride and then see the guys at church. In the UK, most of the time the grooms are quite happy to let the bride take the limelight, so it never has been an issue. I refuse to work with second shooters as the more people there are taking pictures, the more intrusive the coverage becomes, and the whole dynamic of the day changes. Second shooters are really a product of the digital age and the wedding photographer’s obsession with recording anything that moves. When I started my career, photographers couldn’t afford the film and processing costs that came with second shooters, so we learned to cover the wedding properly by ourselves.
Oh god, my first four years were so tough you wouldn’t believe. No money, struggling to get my business off the ground, my wife earning a pittance and that money barely covering our bills. It was so tough. I think we turned our first profit around year five. A lot of photographers don’t realize how tough it is to start a business, even with the help of the Internet. The main thing that I learned was to learn from your mistakes. That’s pretty much it; and I made lots of them. In fact I still make them on a regular basis. I also believe that each day is a new day and whatever happened yesterday is in the past, in fact the only point of looking back is to learn how to deal with tomorrow. Be prepared to go through and hell and back with your business. There will be incredible highs and depressing lows. Awkward clients. Problems that need solving on a daily basis and a lot of hard work. It ain’t no picnic being a photographer.
In terms of what I did; I simply stuck to my guns and decided that if I couldn’t shoot in the style that I wanted, then I would go and do something else. By sticking to my style, I was able to improve my skills as I wasn’t distracted by other styles. I’ve always wanted to master my style, and if you give me another 20 years and I’ll be somewhere close to mastering it.
For my current workflow, which has changed since my previous interview on photo.net, I use Apple’s Aperture 2 along with Photoshop CS4. I create a new project for each wedding and use Aperture to import my CF cards into that project. Inside that project I create two smart albums: one is marked ‘picks’ and one marked ‘finished’. The ‘picks’ album is set to accept images of one star, and the ‘finished’ album is set to accept PSD files.
When editing the images I go through each image and tag the images that I like with one star. I ignore the images I don’t like. Aperture immediately puts the selected images into my ‘picks’ album. Once the editing is completed I open the ‘picks’ album and start working on the images. I do basic White Balance (WB) and density correction in Aperture and then open the image in CS4 directly from Aperture. I run my own set of Silver Actions on the image and save it. As Aperture creates a PSD when saving from Photoshop, the image is automatically placed in the ‘finished’ album. I then open the ‘finished’ album, renumber the images, and export them at the various sizes I need for the client, web, etc. That’s pretty much it.
I use managed files, so that everything goes to one library and this is backed up in vaults in two different locations.
My environment when editing photos I’ll explain briefly. In order to correctly assess color balance and density, you need to work in a subdued lighting environment which is ideally color managed. The monitor should be the brightest thing in that environment. If you edit in a bright environment, usually brightness and contrast of the image is affected as you compensate for the light hitting the screen. I tend to pretty much try and do all the selecting in one session (15-20 minutes) and then have a five minute break, then get stuck into the actual editing. I try and break every hour for a few minutes to allow my eyes to readjust. I will then go back over the last few pics that I did before the break to make sure fatigue in my eyes didn’t make me do something to the images that I didn’t want.
As far as my decision-making process goes for deciding which images are finished in color, I don’t tend to think about it too much, because I haven’t got to make a decision as to which camera I need to put to my eye, I just look for pictures. This is a good thing in one respect because you can just concentrate on the image; but on the other hand it can lead to second guessing as you mentioned. With film we made the decision before pressing the shutter and that was that, we didn’t even think about it.
What I have noticed is that I could easily keep all my images in color these days, because color is the most exciting thing for me at the moment, and I’m constantly working out colors in my head when shooting. The 5DII really helps here because I can get great looking color in really low light; something which I couldn’t get with film, or previous generations of DSLRs.
So I tend to start off looking for the strongest color images, in terms of color harmony and rhythm of the image, and keep these as color. Then I’ll look for those images which have a strong sense of line and geometry and look at these in B&W. The rest of the images will then be looked at in terms of flow through the wedding. I tend to know which images will look best in B&W or color so it’s quite an easy process.
I am offering a new set of silver actions, which are an upgrade to the old actions I used to offer. There are several actions which are designed to make use of CS4’s new functions. I use Aperture to get a basic color/density correction, and then drop the images into PS and use the actions to convert to b/w etc via my actions. Then they come back into Aperture for a final tweak if required. I have to say that I rarely have to do much in Aperture to get a decent image. Maybe an autolevels adjustment, and possibly a tweak in white balance. That’s about it.
Someone asked if because my actions are now available to the public, if I would be bothered that the “Ascough Style” would not be exclusive any more. I would like to think my style has more to do with my photography, rather than my actions! A poor image run through my actions will still be a poor image. The actions have been designed in such a way as to allow photographers to develop their own look and style. They are tools rather than effects or magic bullets that will suddenly turn a photographer into me. I like to think of these actions in the same way as choosing a film stock and developer combination. The possibilities are endless once you get to know and use them. Photographers like Josef Isayo, Matt Gillis, Paul Gero and George Weir use my actions and their work looks nothing mine.
Wedding Business Marketing
A few weeks ago I had a client visit me regarding her wedding. She’d seen a number of photographers who were all offering substantially more pictures than I was. I got a box of pictures out, opened it up and spread all the prints over the floor. I asked her how many images there were on the floor. “I’ve no idea but there are loads of them. It’s quite overwhelming looking at them all.” There were 150 images and she was overwhelmed with the quantity. So how do you think she would feel looking at 500 images, or even 1000 images. Needless to say she booked!! I educated her into why you don’t need hundreds of pictures to tell the story of the day. You don’t need second shooters, and that one photographer can work simply and effectively and get a great set of images for her.
Yesterday I was doing a seminar with my good friend George Weir. I showed 45 photographers a complete wedding. After the slideshow finished, I asked them if there was anything missing from the coverage. All of them agreed that there wasn’t anything missing. There were 148 images in the show. The point I’m trying to make is that once you get hung up on the idea that you have to capture everything, your mindset is all wrong for the great images out there that you should capture.
As far as managing my own success goes, while I have been shooting weddings for some time now, it was not my profession. Now it is—a bit late in life perhaps, but I went 100% last January after a long career in advertising. My difficulty is that to survive with enough weddings, I can’t seem to land enough of them in my more documentary style, and to survive I must take on weddings with far more structured requirements that take me away from documenting what is really happening. If I try to manage client expectations by limiting the more structured images, they sign with someone else, even reluctantly sometimes because they like my humanistic documentary approach more. Prior to going full time it didn’t matter as my income was from elsewhere. Now it matters.
I would think it has more to do with marketing than anything else. We market my business in a very deliberate way; it is all about the images. The albums, groups, packages etc are all largely irrelevant to my clients when they inquire. I believe that clients can either afford me, or they can’t and that’s the criteria for them. What they get for the money isn’t the main factor. It is interesting that when a client inquires with a list of things they must have from their photography, I rarely get the wedding.
Once you decide to focus solely on the images, then people book you for those images. We work in a very visual world now, and it is important to move people with your pictures, not what you are offering in terms of package, or anything else. It is all about the pictures.
To get those pictures, the clients have to allow me to do my thing. I tell them this from the moment they inquire, and reinforce it throughout every time we speak to them and so on. That’s how we manage their expectations. I’ve even given clients who want to restrict the way I work, the name of another photographer who would be able to help them, as I feel they will be a better fit.
The number of pictures I take per wedding varies depending on the coverage, but on average an eight hour wedding would result in around 150 images with approx 60-70% being b/w.
I’ve always loved 50mm lenses. My Leica Noctilux was my absolute favourite. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 was ok but I broke three of them, so I used a 35 f1.4L for a long time instead. When the 50 f/1.2L came onto the scene, I was able to get back to the 50 and that has been my favorite lens for ages now. My first L lens I bought was the 28-70 f2.8L and that was the lens I cut my teeth on, I had a tear in my eye when I sold it last year.
As far as using smaller cameras, rangefinders are the ultimate camera for me. If someone produced a small, compact, full frame rangefinder with image quality and high ISO like the 5DII, then I would certainly consider it. Unfortunately, that camera is still the stuff of dreams.
My current gear list includes:
- 3 Leica M7’s
- 2 Canon 1D MkII N’s
- 2 replacement ditto
- 2 1Ds MkII
- 2 1Ds MkIII
- 1 Leica M8
- 2 Canon 5D MkII’s
On the software front, I use iView, Photoshop, Lightroom, Photo Mechanic, Capture One and now Aperture 2.
As far as advice for budding photographers, you should stick with one lens and one body and get used to those before running a huge amount of debt on stuff they may not use. I started with one body and a 28-70 and that served me well for many years. You don’t need more than a couple of bodies and a couple of lenses to do this job well. My back up kit is just that, a couple of zooms and a dual card body.
If I was starting my business today, and funds were available I would buy a couple of 5DMKII’s, a 24-70L, and a fast prime. That’s all you need. It’s only when you get some experience and money under your belt that you can start looking at other options in terms of equipment as you refine your style. Good photographers continually assess where they want to be, what you are seeing with me is a continual development of a very experienced way of working and a constant refinement of my style. I swapped out of the zoom as it was making me lazy. I moved to 5DMKII’s because of the high ISO. As a result my images have improved.
In terms of software, as you get more experienced and do more work, you will find yourself looking for solutions to problems – in my case the problem has always been efficiency. I’m always looking for ways to streamline everything, hence the culmination of software over the years. To start off with, Photoshop CS4 is all you really need, as it has a browser, RAW converter and image editor all in one.
I basically take four lenses with me when shooting. 50/1.2L, 24/1.4LII, 85/1.2LII, 35/1,4L. The 24 and 50 are my main lenses. The 35 is used primarily as a spare if anything goes wrong with the 50 or 24. The 85 is only used when I can’t get close enough to the subject. If I know I’m going to be inside a big church, I’ll swap the 85 for a 135/2L just so I don’t have to intrude on the service.
I also have a 16-35/2.8LII in the car, and sometimes if I know I’m going to be shooting in decent light all day, I’ll use this instead of the 24 and 35, so that I can take one less lens with me.
I don’t use a handheld meter at all these days. I prefer to use the in camera metering. However, at my seminar with George Weir over the weekend, he extolled the virtues of using a spot meter, so I might try that. Interestingly, I always used spot metering with film, and I still have a Pentax Digital Spotmeter somewhere, so you never know.
I also don’t bring any flash kit to weddings any more. I think I have a 550 EX flash in my car somewhere, but I’m not sure if there are any batteries in it. I always use available light.
I no longer use an ST-E2 to assist in focusing in very low light as described in my 2007 photo.net interview. I prefer to manually focus as it’s less intrusive.
As far as a small compact street camera, I set up a Canon G10 similar to Gary Knight (watch this great video on how he sets up his G10), but I’ve got a Voigtlander viewfinder on mine. I also set the focus to manual and focus on 2 meters so that everything is pretty much sharp from front to back and so I don’t need to focus.
I don’t use filters as they significantly degrade the image, especially in low light. I don’t tend to use hoods unless I’m outside in full sun, as they get in the way and make the lenses look really intimidating.
Metering is pretty straightforward. I use evaluative metering in AV mode for 90% of situations. I use the [star] button to lock the exposure and point the camera at a neutral part of the scene to avoid any hotspots. If the lighting is really tricky I’ll switch over to spot metering and meter off the main subject (usually a face). I don’t have the LCD review switched on so I’m not distracted by it. I don’t worry too much about metering as the Canon is pretty good, and the 14-bit RAW files are so easy to do any minor exposure correction on. Evaluative metering, and spot metering when the light is tricky. All you can ask of any metering system is that it remains consistent.
I just take pictures that I like to take, and appeal to my eye. That’s really my secret.
I don’t use a tripod at all, so everything is hand held. I tend to use 24mm at 1/8th sec, and I’m happy to use a 50mm at 1/15th sec. The trick is to make your body as compact and stable as possible. So arms and elbows in, and press the camera hard against your face. Then watch your breathing so that you don’t jerk the camera. I don’t actually breath at all when I’m about to shoot around those shutter speeds.
Deliberately underexposing an image just creates a lot of shadow noise, which gets worse as the ISO increases. It is rare that I get in a situation on a wedding that demands 1/10th at f/1.2 at 1600 ISO.
In low light, contrast is the key to finding good focus. Either focus manually (which I do) or try and lock onto something in the same plane of focus as the subject, which has higher contrast.
Low light is not a problem if you consider three things:
- Noise has more to do with poor exposure than the light level. A perfectly exposed low light image at high ISO will have very low noise. So exposure has to be spot on.
- As long as the subject doesn’t move, you can get away with really slow shutter speeds. I regularly shoot at 1/15th and 1/8th sec hand held. It is a question of bracing the camera correctly and learning to breathe properly when shooting at low speeds. You aren’t going to have much success with fast moving subjects in really low light, although the latest cameras will help you, so I try to avoid them.
- Fast prime lenses require less work to control than zooms or telephotos. My slowest lens is f/1.4, so combine that with ISO 6400 and an ability to hand hold down to 1/8th sec, there isn’t any situation that I have come across where I have struggled to get images without having to resort to flash. I used to shoot with Leica cameras at ISO 320 and f/1 lenses, so these days it’s so much easier to get great images in low light.
Some people claim that the 5D MkII has inferior focus as compared to Canon’s 1 series cameras. In terms of AF using the center point, the 5D MKII is a match and I would say is marginally superior to the 1DsMKIII. Looking at the other peripheral points, the 1DsMKIII is superior as it has more horizontal/vertical points than then 5DII. When I first got the 5DMKII pre-production camera back in November last year, I was blown away by its focus accuracy in low light with the center point.
For stopping motion during dancing in low light, the ISO capability of the 5DII along with apertures of 1.2 that are available to me usually means I can achieve at least 1/60th sec shutter speed, which is normally ample for a first dance. Prior to the 5DII I would have used flash to stop the motion. I also try to shoot when the couple are lit by other lighting such as that coming off the stage, or from the disco.
ISO is always set manually to either 800, 1600, 3200, or 6400 depending on the light conditions. I have shot 12800 ISO and this is acceptable in certain lighting conditions.
For those who feel limited using a 16-35mm lens, to get the best from this lens you need to be in pretty close. Have a look at James Nachtwey’s work. A lot of his stuff is done on the 16-35. If you can get hold of a copy of ‘War Photographer’ on DVD, that’s perhaps the best schooling for using the 16-35 (or 17-35 in the case of Jim on the DVD).
I shoot in single shot and each press of the shutter is deliberate. I don’t burst shoot. It may take three or four presses of the shutter to get the image that I want.
I use the center focus point and I manually focus quite a lot.
Shooting journalistically is the hardest style of wedding photography. Many people think it is just a case of pointing and shooting. It isn’t. It takes years of experience, and an eye for a picture. If you are starting up, you need to practice and study. Learn about light direction – don’t just go for the flash gun as you won’t learn anything with that thing. Look how light direction affects the mood of an image; learn about quality of light and how that can enhance your pictures. Go out and shoot pictures; analyze them and see why they work or don’t work. Decide what you could have done better. Stick to one or two lenses and get used to them, so that you don’t have to even think about which lens you will use to take the image that you have in your mind’s eye.
I am still learning now, all the time. My head is constantly in books, exhibitions, stuff on TV anything to with photography I’m absorbing. I practice all the time. Practice, practice, practice. If I come back from a wedding and decide that something could have been done better in terms of the actual picture taking process, I’m like a dog with a bone until I have worked it out and practiced it so that it is second nature the next time I go to shoot.
Above all you should develop your own style. Don’t go with the latest fad or fashion because that’s what everyone else does. You need to stand out from the crowd. The only way you can do this is to have a look to your pictures that defines what you do. That is so important, and you should be working your way to that point.
I’m currently very happy with the pixel size of the 5D MkII. I think that I can never have enough pixels, especially as I shoot a lot of wide angles. The more pixels means more information and a smoother tonal range, and this is a godsend for wide angle images. In the past, because of the pixel count, a wide angle image that contained a lot of information would end up looking crunchy in the fine detail areas, now they don’t. Also the more pixels that we have available, the more we can do to the file without it breaking up.
I’m afraid one of the problems with digital photography is that people have become so anal about sharpness, to the point of it dominating everything else. Seeing an image at 100% on a 30" monitor is not living in the real world. The amount of wasted hours of rubbish spoken about sharpness across the Internet is bizarre. Maybe if people got out from behind their keyboards, and took pictures instead of whining about them, they would understand that sharpness is not just about a lens.
Admittedly, the current crop of sensors have immense resolving power, which will show up flaws in lens design especially at wide apertures. However, in the real world of prints and correct viewing distances, I doubt if anyone would argue that today’s cameras and lenses are just incredible tools, capable of producing amazing results.
Compare what we use now to what Cartier-Bresson had throughout his career. Or Capa, Winogrand, Brassai, Eve Arnold etc. We have never had it so good, and yet all we seem to do is moan about sharpness. Why?
I was at a Don McCullin exhibition yesterday with my good friend George Weir. A lot of DM’s images were ‘soft’ compared to what we try and strive for now. Did this softness make any difference to the power of the image? Not at all. Look at Capa’s work; camera shake, out of focus images etc. and yet he is one if the most important war photographers of the 20th century. A lot of Cartier-Bresson’s work is ‘soft’ but again who cares?? I don’t. It’s irrelevent unless you are simply looking at sharpness as a way of adding perceived visual value to your images. If as a wedding photographer you must have critical sharpness, and critical exposure, and critical flash exposure, etc then maybe you are missing the point of photography? Maybe you are missing the whole concept of what makes a picture? In my mind all that stuff simply distracts from finding images.
In the real world of prints, an image that looked soft on a screen at 100% will look beautifully crisp and sharp at 10×7, so what is the issue?
Regarding JPG vs. RAW, I don’t think it matters what you use, as long as you are happy using it. I’ve shot JPG in the past and now I choose to shoot RAW. Some of my peers still prefer to shoot jpeg. In an ideal world I would still shoot JPG but RAW gives me some latitude for error, and that is important especially with B&W work.
To me, even though JPG requires more discipline in actual shooting, that can be a very good thing. JPG also speeds up camera operation and post processing quite significantly. You don’t need as much storage, and everything just works more efficiently with JPG.
However, I use RAW because I can see the benefits of highlight and shadow recovery. Being able to pull highlight detail back, and open up shadows was important to my B&W work, and that is the deciding factor.
In terms of quality of output, I doubt that anyone on this board would be able to see the difference between an image taken on JPG and on RAW. I often scratch my head as to why people get so protective of the format they shoot in. Does it really matter?
If I was a traditional wedding photographer, studio portrait photographer, or I was able to guarantee the lighting situation, then I would shoot JPG without hesitation. I’ve often wondered about shooting JPG + RAW and just going to the RAW files when I need some extra latitude, but that would just complicate my workflow, which is why I haven’t done it.
RAW software is getting better and faster but I still find it a PITA sometimes. I would save several hours in PP by shooting JPG, but RAW just gives me that margin for any error and that is the pay off.
Detail Photoggraphy — I do them, but I don’t show them and I don’t like them. I don’t think they add anything to a coverage. I would prefer to shoot them as part of a moment where perhaps they aren’t the most significant thing in the shot, but it isn’t always possible to do this.
I tend to use a 24mm for close ups or an 85mm and come back a bit to get the detail images.
I used to scout locations when I shot traditional work, but that’s some fifteen years ago now. I never scout a location these days. I’ll find out where the locations are and the best way of getting to them, but I won’t walk about looking for the best places to take pictures. It’s up to my clients where they decide to go on the day; and wherever they are, that’s where I’ll take the pictures, even if there is a stunning location right around the corner.
I haven’t used flash at a wedding since October 2008. The 5DMKII’s high ISO officially made flash redundant as far as my work is concerned. I find flash to be incredibly intrusive. The only time I ever used it was to either stop movement during the first dance in low light, or for the occasional formal image in low light where I needed more depth of field than the available light would give me.
The way I work now has been a product of many years of trial and error. Some years I lost money because I didn’t get my product right. The problem with weddings is that people book so far in advance, and by the time you realize you got the product wrong, the year is booked out so you can’t change it. We always work two years in advance now. So to answer your question, no it hasn’t always been like it is now.
I normally go into an environment and look for the dominant light source first. That will dictate a lot of what I do. If that environment has a lot of structure in terms of lines and shapes, then my second thing will be to position myself so that I can utilize both the structure and the light. That will give me a framework to shoot in. If the environment doesn’t have a lot of structure, then I will concentrate on the light primarily as this can give structure to an image all by itself.
This all happens very quickly, maybe one or two seconds and I’m good to go.
Some people wonder what my thoughts are on stills and video convergence.
In my opinion, video is a distraction. To do it correctly, you need a tripod which draws attention. Pointing a camera in someones face for several seconds is intruding; that’s why a lot of my clients don’t have video at the wedding. The clients that do want video will hire a videographer that can do it properly. The amount of time you need to spend editing video is prohibitive, and not cost effective.
I think in terms of wedding photography, it is a passing fad that will probably die its death in the mainstream in a year or so. It’s largely unworkable for the majority of people. Furthermore, videographers have access to the same cameras as we do, and that is more of a problem. They can now take stills as easily as we do, and they have seen a potential gap in the market. I personally think that as photographers we would be better off spending our time working on our skills so that we can always create a demand for our stills work, which will always be ahead of anything that a videographer can do.
Great photography will always have more power and presence than video, so why water down what we are doing just because we have the tools to do video?? You have to remember that adding video to a DSLR was a result of news agencies wanting that facility. It didn’t come from the wedding industry.
I have everything printed by a lab and always on glossy paper. I am a great fan of Jorgensen albums and have a great relationship with SWPM (UK distributors) and Gary Jorgensen. I don’t use any other albums other than Jorgensen. The albums are predominantly square and I don’t ever crop the image when it comes to the album design. The images are converted to b/w or color depending on their content, and aren’t converted for the sake of album design.
The first thing I think about when starting an album design – a nice big mug of coffee 😉 Seriously, the flow of the pictures influences the design, so I just relax and see what images work best with others while keeping some sort of chronological order to the images.
I supply the finished album. The clients can choose which pictures they don’t want to go into it, but the design, etc is mine. They simply see the images online, and let me know if they are happy with everything going in or do they want to take some out. Those images then make up the album.
All printing and album construction is outsourced. It takes up way too much time which isn’t productive.
I don’t look for anything specific regarding album pictures, but I always look for three things when it comes to my images. Good lighting, good composition and good storytelling. To my mind, a good image will contain two of these elements, and outstanding image will contain all three.
Personal Style Development
I firmly believe that for a photographer to be successful they should develop their own style.
If I look at the development of my own style, I’ve always been interested in light, geometry, and rhythm when it comes to photographs, rather than the content. I guess I am firmly in the Cartier-Bresson camp here, whereby the construction of the image is as important as the content. If we take James Nachtwey’s images, many see the human condition, suffering, anger, depression, hatred, fear; I see lines, shapes, and the beauty of the construction of the picture. The content, while often harrowing, is largely irrelevant to me in terms of what excites my eye.
This love of geometry is transposed over to my own work, which just happens to be weddings. It could be commercial, portraiture, landscape; it doesn’t matter what I’m photographing, as long as what gets me excited visually is present in my images. As my understanding of photography increases through experience, so my style develops naturally and I see work from 10 years ago not being as well constructed as my work from this year.
I think it is important that a photographer finds the thing that turns them on visually in an image, and take that as their starting point. It’s easier to be passionate about something you like, rather than something that people say you should like. You may find that color is your thing, or movement, or contrast. It doesn’t matter. Simply take that element and make it work for you. Don’t be influenced by other wedding photographers, as you will end up developing a style based on what they like, rather than what you like. Then once you have taken your pictures, ask yourself if you like the image. That is all that matters. If you do, ask yourself why you like the image, and if it can be improved and how it could be improved. That’s how you start to develop your style. Experience will ultimately add to that style, and that is a good thing.
In terms of critique, I’m often reminded of Marco Pierre White’s comments when he returned his three stars back to Michelin. He said something on the lines that the Michelin inspectors knew less about his food than he did, so what was the point of having them? I believe that to be the case with my work. I haven’t had a critique for over ten years. When I did have a critique, the wedding photographers based that critique on their work and approach, often trying to shape my work into their mold.
Critique can be good if it is constructive and comes from outside of the genre you are working in. If you seek critique from within wedding photography, often ego comes into play and negativity can often put people off. It is not easy to critique, and it is more valuable if that critique is impartial. For me, the biggest critic of my work is myself. As long as I am happy with it, then I care not what anyone else thinks about it.
I don’t use handstraps or battery grips. I carry both 5D MkII cameras on my body, sometimes one around my neck and the other on my shoulder. Sometimes both on one shoulder. Sometimes one on each shoulder. It depends on what I’m doing at the time. The straps are set at different lengths so that the cameras hang at different heights. This prevents them from bashing into each other.
I didn’t start resisting any initial direction until 1992/1993. For the first couple of years of my career I was just excited to be a young guy taking pictures for a living. Once I started to understand what Cartier-Bresson was creating with his work, that’s when a light bulb went off in my head and I moved forward in a new direction. It took me maybe three – four years before I really understood what it was to be a photographer. I wasn’t really interested in architecture, it was always people that were my focus.
My thoughts on geometry and rhythm relate more to the construction of an image rather than physical objects such as buildings. An image has a rhythm when the eye is able to relax and look around the image with ease. You know if you hear a piece of music and subconsciously you tap your feet, because your ears and brain are relaxed with that music? To me it is the same with pictures. If your eye can just wander round an image without any discord, and without you being aware of it happening, then that image has a rhythm to it. Geometry in terms of physical or implied lines, shapes, composition etc is important to create that rhythm.
“I don’t worry about missing images when taking the groups, because if I don’t take them, they never happened.” Wow I wish I could get away with that. How do you educate your Bride and grooms to your style and what they should expect to get in the finished proofs when you are booking them.
It is all about managing client expectations. I truly believe that a lot of photographers are actually frightened of their clients. If I’m shooting groups how on earth can I be somewhere else taking pictures? It’s impossible. The clients know it is impossible, and if they want groups then I can’t be taking other images. So if I don’t see and take those images, they never existed. If you miss something minor, does it matter in the scheme of things. Will your clients be standing around taking notes of which pictures you took? No way!! They don’t want to; they don’t need to; and they should have confidence in what you are doing. The confidence comes from you, and how confident you are when dealing with them.
As an aside, I think wedding photographers are getting all hung up on trying to shoot vast quantities of images in an attempt to instill confidence in their product. A good caterer will supply beautifully presented, great tasting food in small portions so that they don’t overwhelm their clients. The smaller and more beautiful the portions, the more the bride will be prepared to pay. What a good caterer won’t do is supply a huge plate of tasteless stodge, because a bride won’t pay for it. Wedding photographers are becoming so hung up on quantity rather than quality that they are starting to produce great plates of stodge – mediocre images, with poor content and lots of them. Given the choice I truly believe that a client will always prefer 150-200 fabulous images over 2000 mediocre ones. The problem is photographers don’t give them that option anymore, and the floodgates have opened.
If you have to shoot that many images for your clients, when on earth do you find the time to actually look for pictures? You can’t physically do it, simply because you are shooting everything that moves without thinking. On a twelve hour coverage I will supply less than 200 pictures. I have never, ever had a complaint from a client over the quantity of the images supplied. I have hundreds of testimonials about the quality of my images though.
As far as composition vs. light, I look for light direction first, and then look for elements within the scene that I can use to construct an image from.
In an interview with BIG Folio, I mentioned: “My favorite place to go is France. I love the light there, it has a magical quality to it. No wonder so many artists and painters were inspired by it.” Someone asked me to elaborate on this. If you go to France you will know exactly what I mean. The light has a quality to it that we don’t have in the UK. It could be weather, pollution, thermals, climate. I’ve no idea what causes it, but it is softer than UK light. I like low diffused angular light the best, as this gives direction to the light, and is easier to deal with. In the Autumn in the UK, the sun never gets very high in the sky and is often diffused by cloud. This is lovely lighting to work with.
I am fascinated by people, and fascinated in particular by people on a wedding day. I do have a strong empathy with my clients, and I often get wrapped up in the emotions of the day. I guess I am quite perceptive to other people’s behavior.
I put in effort to not look like a photographer at a wedding so as to not cause people to stiffen up. It has nothing to do having two (albeit small) cameras, but how you behave in front of people with those cameras. If you behave in a way that attracts attention to you, it doesn’t matter if you have a tiny point and shoot, you will still be obtrusive. If you behave quietly and with respect, you can easily remain unobtrusive with four or five cameras, and people will not pay you any attention.
I photograph my clients sympathetically, and honestly, but I will never shoot anything that is unflattering to them.
The environment is ultimately a big part of the wedding story, so I don’t try to hide it. Obviously I don’t want it to distract from the images, but an environment can be used as part of the storytelling process. Part of what challenges me is getting images in situations where most photographers would give up.
I don’t do any mental preparation as in psyching myself up, but on the way to the wedding I do run over a few things in my head in terms of logistics. I like to be very relaxed and open minded when I start a wedding. Once I start shooting, I make sure that I stay hydrated and take plenty of small five minute breaks. This allows me to keep shooting for 12 hours or more. Last year I also started to take my health a lot more seriously, and lost 10kg in weight. That probably made the single biggest difference to me in terms of being able to shoot for longer. My stamina increased as did my alertness.
Marcus Bell has an excellent book on wedding photography, and some great DVD’s. Joe Buissink has a great DVD called ‘Defining the moment’ which is well worth looking at.
To be a good wedding photographer, you need to be able to be calm, patient, and respectful of the people you are photographing and the people around you. Being able to take great pictures helps too.
My current favorite books you should check out for inspiration. These are listed in no particular order:
- James Nachtwey – Inferno
- Elliot Erwitt – Snaps
- Cartier-Bresson – The Man, the Image and the World
- Eugene Richards – The Fat Baby
- Salgado – Africa
Antonin Kratochvil – Incognito
Steve McCurry – The Unguarded Moment
Alex Webb – Istanbul
Don McCullin – In England
Future of Wedding Photography
Someone wondered what I would like for the photography sector in the future.
Wow this is a tough question. I’d like to see a system like they have in parts of Europe whereby photographers have to undergo an apprenticeship for three years with another professional, before they are let loose on the general public, and photographers have to be registered before they can work.
I really would like to see album companies that profess to deal with the professional market, actually deal with the pro market and not just anyone with a camera and checkbook.
I’d like to see pro wedding photographers charge properly for their work, so that we can all benefit.
Ultimately I would like the world to see the wedding photographer in the same light as fashion photographers, photojournalists and so on, and not the genre of photography that most other genres consider to be beneath them. Some of us are making in roads, but the whole industry needs to wake up.
There are too many photographers selling a false dream to others, just to make money out of them and it sucks. I’d like to see that stop. I would also like to see an end to the ‘rockstar’ mentality that proliferates the industry. This must be the only genre of photography where we worship others in one breath, and spit venom at them in the next. For this industry to have any credibility, we need to start thinking about what is important – great images, at a good price, and lots of happy clients.