Weddings are full of joy. Usually, it is the excitement of the couple that carries the day. As a wedding photographer, you learn to tap into it and let it carry you along and provide the energy and focus that the day demands.
Then you get the call. One of your close friends from way back when is getting married, and they want you to photograph the wedding. Then, it’s not just the emotion of the couple…this is an important person in your life, and you can share directly in that joy and celebration.
So it was when Tina got in touch several months ago. We were good friends back at Fairfield U, and I would have bent over backwards to get to photograph her big day. And since she now lives on the same road as the university, and was having the ceremony and portraits on campus, I was prepared to bend over backwards to photograph the wedding.
Other friends were also involved in the day. Kerry and Rebecca were in the wedding party. Sidebar: when Tina asked me to shoot the wedding, she insisted there would be no bridal party. Real small and simple, she said. She ended up with 12 bridesmaids.
And Kristie Kistner, another dear college friend who has a photography business in Connecticut, was able to help me out second shooting.
I loved it. Now that I am done with the photos, and the gallery has been delivered, it’s really pleasant to think about what I have contributed to a friend’s life. Decades from now, when her grandkids are looking at the photo album during some family holiday, they’ll be looking at the work of a good friend. That makes me feel good.
Plus, it was a great wedding. Congratulations to Tina and Brian, and many many many best wishes as they continue their lives together.
This beautiful country wedding is going back in the archives a bit, and for some reason it never came up in my blogging queue. Which is funny, because this is just the kind of wedding I love to photograph. I’ve been shooting so much in Philadelphia recently, and there’s lots to be said for working in the elegant Center City venues, but when it’s a beautiful autumn day and there’s a fantastic historical venue and a gorgeous couple, well.
So congratulations to Will and Luann! Their ceremony and reception, both held at the historic Anthony Wayne House in Paoli, PA, were the height of elegant, laid-back, all-smiles-on-deck joy. A heart-felt outdoor ceremony under a handmade wedding canopy. A walk along a rustic fence beneath full-blown autumn color. A tent reception on a perfect evening. A fire ring. And I’d like to call your attention to the photograph of the setting sun shining through the champagne glasses as the toasts approach.
Really. In so many ways, a perfect day.
As an aside, Luann’s makeup artist for the day was Kim, one of my brides who has appeared here previously. It took me awhile to recognize her, but I finally came around to it. Always great to see past couples out and about in the world!
mhallphoto Film, Photography, Wedding 35mm, bride, Bronica, F100, film, groom, Knowlton Mansion, Knowlton Mansion Wedding, Kodak, Nikon, Philadelphia, Philadelphia wedding, Philadelphia Wedding Photography, Portra, Tri-X, wedding, Wedding Photography 0
Emily and Vic were married at Philadelphia’s Knowlton Mansion, and even though the wedding itself was almost a year ago, I just had the pleasure of finishing up their album and seeing them again to hand it over.
Knowlton Mansion is such a fantastic venue–pity the ceremony couldn’t have been outside. The giant old house has all kinds of little nooks and crannies and intimate spaces that create great light, and the event space is also wonderful.
Emily and Vic themselves were also fantastic, a chill, slightly wry couple with a sense of humor and go-with-the-flow demeanor that is so enjoyable to work with. Detail of the day: Vic and his dad made the wine that was used in the ceremony and that was handed out as favors at the end of the night. Always lovely to see one of my photographs on a wine label!
Congratulations to this beautiful couple, and I wish them many years of happiness!
For those who want to know, many of these images were shot on film: Kodak Portra 400 and Tri-X, the two greatest films around these days.
Sometimes, a bride and groom and wedding day and venue and even the drive there are just perfectly right up your alley. In an ideal world, all of us photographers could pick our ideal clients and just work on weddings that tickle us pink. There is much to be said for working with a variety of clients in a variety of settings on a variety of celebrations, but boy don’t we all love it when things just click.
Katrina and Aaron’s wedding was one of those clicks. A smart, fun, funny, charming couple with an excellent back story, lots of outdoorsness, lots of details, perfect weather, a bluegrass band, a singing married couple. It all added up to a beautiful day. So many congratulations go out to the couple, as well as an expression of gratitude for asking me to shoot such a personal event.
The effectiveness of photography rests on a simple illusion: using two dimensions, height and width, to give the impression of three dimensions: height, width, and depth. When we look at a photograph, we want to believe that it is the world that we are looking at, and not some little piece of paper with ink or silver halides on it. We want that image to be real, and that means that we have to believe that the two dimensions on the paper can actually show three.
So the question is this: how do we show depth in our images?
Let’s think back to the last entry in this series, about the Rule of Thirds. In essence, the rule divides the height and width of the image into three parts: top, middle, and bottom, or left, middle, and right.
Let’s apply that same idea of three to how we look at an image starting from the front, and proceeding to the back. Just as a well composed image might have an off-center subject balanced by an off-center complementary element, a well-composed image will also have objects close to the front of the frame, a little ways away, and far away.
Of course, not every image presents the opportunity to compose this way. But it is something to look for.
Foreground: This is the element in the image that is closest to the camera, and thus closest to the viewer. It does not have to be the main subject of the image, but it should be something that locates us in space. The foreground is important because it creates, in a way, a boundary for the image. Maybe it is a surface for the subject to stand on. Maybe it is a line that frames the subject, or leads our eye into the composition. One way or the other, it helps root the viewer, and gives the image of sense of being within a real environment.
Middleground: Very often, the middle distance of the photograph is where the main subject is. Or, if the subject is in the foreground, the middle ground can give some kind of context for the subject. What is the subject doing there? What activity is going on? How is the environment interacting with the subject? The middle space of an image is especially important because that, really, is where the image lives. The middleground is our world, and it is where the viewer spends the most time. Make sure that whatever is there really belongs there.
Background: While the middleground is where the main substance of an image might reside, the background is not merely a neutral backdrop to fill up the empty space in the composition. Backgrounds add interesting textures to an image; they can define what kind of light we expect to see; they can draw us in toward the subject, or set our eyes scrambling around the frame looking for more information. And backgrounds can be challenging, because, even though we rarely pay direct attention to them, they can be distracting. There is nothing worse in a portrait than an unheeded branch emerging from the side of the subject’s head. There is nothing blander than a blank wall. There is nothing more distracting than a bright point of light (your eye is naturally drawn to the lightest part of an image…it should not be the background) or a pile of clothes in the corner or an errant carton of milk on the counter. Be careful with your backgrounds.
This is not to say that one element is more important than the other. In good compositions, everything plays nicely together and creates a deep, believable, textured, rich world that communicates to the viewer. Just as the Rule of Thirds keeps our eyes going around the frame, left to right and top to bottom, an image with foreground, middle ground, and background keeps the viewer going into and out of the world of the image.
I should mention one other related technique: flattening the image. Sometimes, as a matter of art, detail, or abstraction, we might not want to create a deep world in our images. Maybe we want the image to look unreal, or drawn, or like a created design. That can make great images as well. Shoot something two-dimensional, and really strive to make it seem that way.
Take a picture of something that is up close. Take a picture of something that is a little ways away. Take an image of something that is far away.
Now, imagine how these images might look if combined. What if your mid-range shot had your long-range shot in the background? Make that picture. What if your close-range picture served as a framing for your far away picture? Make that picture.
Pay attention to depth, and create a deep world.
A couple weeks back, when we were talking about always taking pictures as if you are using a camera even if all you are using is your phone, I brought up the concept of composition, or arranging the elements of your image purposefully to create an effect. There is a difference between a photograph of a beautiful thing and a beautiful photograph; it is quite possible for you to take a really boring picture of your totally adorable kids, and I have seen some pretty wonderful photographs of discarded banana peels on city sidewalks.
The difference between these is composition.
The first go-to rule of composition is called the “Rule of Thirds”, and it is an easy-to-follow, if somewhat misunderstood idea. The whole idea of deliberately composing your images is to give the viewer something interesting to look at, and that usually means having their eyes move around the picture from place to place. Not only do the eyes need a reason, they also need a path to take.
When using the rule of thirds, the image is divided into (wait for it…) thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Important elements of the image should fall along these lines. If you have ever wondered why some photographers have a habit of placing subjects off-center, this is the reason.
But it’s not quite that simple. An off-centered subject on a blank or blurry background is not terribly effective…it just looks affective. This is because there is nothing else in the image to look at. If, on the other hand, you compose your picture so that there is something else interesting in the frame, then placing your subject off-center, with a secondary element on the other side of the frame (and, preferably, diagonally across the frame), then you have given your viewers a reason to move their eyes around the frame, and this movement gives the impression that the picture is interesting to look at.
Even if you are shooting a straight portrait, though, with your subject right in the middle of the frame, the Rule Of Thirds can still help you. It is typical to place the subject’s eyes right about at the top third of the image. If there are two people in the picture, each one tends to fall about on one of those thirds lines.
Invariably, when someone brings up the Rule Of Thirds in photographic circles, someone who has a bad relationship with rules will croak that rules are meant to be broken, and then they’ll post an image of say a wedding couple, way down in the corner of an image, very small, against an enormous blank wall. Some people will comment that the image is real swoony. But I think about what the couple receiving that image must be saying: “What in the world did he photograph so much of the wall for? We wanted pictures of us, not pictures of a wall. That wall has no significance to us. It is literally just a wall.”
So do you have to be exact and mathematical about it? Of course not. Can you bend the rules to, and perhaps past, the point of breaking? Of course yes. In fact, good effects can be achieved by stretching the boundaries of the rule. Subjects that are outside of the thirds lines create tension and imbalance in an image, and sometimes that is a good thing. Subjects placed inside the lines, or even right at the center of a frame, make an image, and the experience of looking at it, more static, and again, maybe that is what you want. Say…what do you want?
A couple weeks ago when I wrote about using your cell phone camera as if it were a real camera, I encouraged you to slow down and think more about what you are photographing. Arrange elements in the frame, I said. This Rule Of Thirds thing is what I meant. It doesn’t do just to have anything offsetting your main subject. It has to be something relevant or complementary. Otherwise, it might just be distracting.
When you think about your composition, you are arranging things in space, and that, in a photograph or any other image, translates to meaning. You are not simply taking a snapshot of something that is happening; you are creating a relationship between elements that says something about how you see the scene. At the very least, this makes for prettier photographs. At the best, it makes for profound photographs that describe and suggest a way to see the world and the people and things in it.
I love shooting film because, even though the range of films available today is small compared to what it used to be, there is still enough variety to lend a sense of freshness to the task of shooting. If I get tired of how Tri-X looks, I can switch to another black and white emulsion…I’ve been shooting a lot of FP4 recently, for example. If I get tired of how color negative film looks, I can shoot some slide film. And there is always the option to shoot digitally.
But one way to be sure to add some excitement to your photography is to use alternative materials and processes. Collodion and daguerreotype are popular historical methods, but others have made images on wood or green plant material, discarded film containers, and more. There are many things in our world that are light sensitive, and anything that is light sensitive can be used to capture an image, so long as you get the process just right.
The other day, I was making lunch, and wanted some cheese. I rummaged around through the fridge, and found a slice of Kraft Singles cheese. The wrapper had been torn a bit, and where it was exposed, it had darkened considerable. Then it o-“curd” to me: If this cheese changes color and texture over time, I could maybe make a photographic image on cheese by figuring a way to accelerate the process.
The first thing to consider was whether I wanted to shoot on fresh cheese or expired cheese. Fresh would be better and more predictable, and expired cheese can lend a yellowish appearance to the images. So I got a fresh pack of cheese and set to work modifying a 4×5 film holder to accommodate processed dairy products.
It turns out that you have to dry the cheese first, or it is difficult to handle. Still, fresh cheese offers better exposure latitude, and old cheese can be fragile if mishandled.
My first exposure was not much of a success. As you can imagine, the ISO sensitivity of processed cheese is pretty low. I didn’t calculate it, but it’s low. The exposure time of 90 minutes just wasn’t practical. I needed something else.
Why didn’t I think of it before? Silver is the light-sensitive material in photographic film, so what if I could infuse some silver into the cheese? I know a little bit about making collodion, so I decided to play around. I had no silver on hand, but my parents had left some Centrum Silver at my house a while ago, and it turns out that it contains enough minerals that can be photosensitized to be useful as an emulsion. I crushed that up into powder with my mortar and pestle, and used some grain alcohol as a solvent. I gave the cheese a bath in the silver solution, loaded it into my film holder, and took another shot.
I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it was magic watching the image appear in the developer. There was a unique, one-of-a-kind image, forever etched onto a piece of cheese. I set it in my oven, again at a warming temperature (not so hot to melt it), and carefully dried the exposed cheese out. Only time will tell if it is archival, if it will stand the test of time and my occasional lapse in grocery shopping.
The possibilities are as endless as the variety of cheese out there. If you like your images sharp, a good New York Cheddar might be best. Do you love creamy bokeh? Try a full-cream brie or Camembert. Going for a funkier look? Stilton will help you break the mold by adding texture and dimension.
The technique isn’t perfect yet, but it was a fun experiment, and I’m milking everything I can from this technique. The trial and error is part of the fun of it; you have to figure out on your own what will work and what is just a silly, nonsensical idea.
Say “cheese” indeed!
I don’t ever do this. But all the images in this post were taken on my iPhone4, which, by the way, has an absolutely miserable camera. Most of the images were processed using the app VSCOcam, which you should get.
I am used to shooting with large, professional cameras. My Nikon D700 is large and heavy. My Bronica ETR-Si is even larger and heavier. My Mamiya C330 is a brick. The best camera I have ever used is the Mamiya RZ67ii, a giant beast, and who among us doesn’t sigh with admiration when they see a monorail view camera?
When you heft one of these machines to your face and lose yourself in the viewfinder, or, better yet, tuck yourself in under the dark cloth, you are aware that you are a photographer and that you are consciously and deliberatly making an image. The viewfinder blocks out the rest of the world, allowing you to focus only on the framing of the image and capturing the right moment. Real cameras are like a costume; you put them on, and you become the photographic process.
If cellphone photography has done one bad thing to almost all of us, it is that we now tend to photograph things by holding the camera up, looking at a screen, waiting while the camera gets its electronics in order, and then getting a picture, which we immediately look at to see if we done good. Which, probably, we have not. But, the thing is, we probably like the picture because it is of something or someone we like. And we take a thousand pictures where we used to take ten, and because we take so many, we end up overwhelmed at the idea of going back and finding that one perfect shot. So we leave the images there on memory cards and hard drives until the computer fails or gets stolen or the phone falls in the toilet, and they don’t enjoy much of a life. The images are not intentional; they are taken simply because cameras are everywhere, and hey, why not. The ease of digital photography has made it so that we do not, necessarily, have to pay attention to what we are doing. Which is a big problem.
No matter how you prefer to take your images, it is important to approach images as a photographer. A photographer is not simply someone with a camera who takes pictures. A photographer is someone who works at creating images that are as good as possible, someone who focuses on creating an image of quality and interest.
One big thing to work on is what and when you photograph. Many people are content to take posed pictures with people smiling. These serve the purpose of documenting appearances, but are rarely interesting. More interesting than basic appearances is gesture, or how people act. Try to catch a candid laugh. Try to capture a quiet moment or reflection. Try to capture people slightly unaware.
And arrange things in your image. This does not mean that you should pose or construct scenes, but, rather, that you should pay attention to where things are. Triangles look nice. Diagonals look nice. Then again, straight lines look good, too. This is a skill called composition, and we’ll get into it more later on.
But good pictures capture something. A mood, an expression, a gesture, a moment. It is hard to pin down exactly what makes a good photograph a good photograph, but it is easy to spot a good photograph (we’ll talk about this later, too).
So it boils down to this: Think. Look. Wait. Imagine what you want the image to look like.
Even if you are just taking a quick shot on your phone, shoot as if you are holding a $3,000 camera. Shoot as if you are lost in that viewfinder. Shoot as if that photography will matter.
A colleague recently asked in a Facebook group what other photographers do to stay fresh and to continue enjoying photography. Wedding after wedding after wedding can become a bit of a grind, portrait session after portrait session after portrait session can become a bit of a grind. It is what anyone who does the same thing over and over again has to come to terms with, whether in photography or in another profession or area of interest.
My answer: personal work. Photography that is not taken to practice my wedding or portrait skills, not taken to practice the skills I deliver to couples and families, just work that is about exploring the camera, photography, myself, and the connection between these three things and my environments. Personal work.
I have for the last several months been working semi-privately on a tumblr of personal work, and today I posted the 100th image. I think it is time to tell people about it. It is a loosely curated collection of images that have been taken mostly in the last two years, and that represent how I continue to explore everything that photography can be.
I’ll be working to make prints available in the next week or so, and of course I will continue to update with work.
Here’s the link: