Category Archives: documentary/photojournalism

The Moment Always Wins

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What we must remember as photographers that while we try our hardest to bring technical perfection to an image, there are other elements that are far more important: Emotion, storytelling, that perfect moment. At this moment, a groomsman was readying himself to jump into the groom’s arms on the dance floor. Connection, emotion, action.

This photo was taken at an adjusted ISO of 72,400.

I knew I wanted to get a lot of frames to tell the story of running and jumping, but I was shooting in a dark, hard-to-light area, so I knew my flash couldn’t keep up. I had my shutter speed at 1/250th to catch action, I had my aperture at f/2.5 so as not to be too shallow, so the only place to go up was ISO. I set my flash to a bit lower power setting to catch more frames, but still it had been working hard so it didn’t catch very many. And the adjusted ISO of the non-fired frames brings us to 72,400.

It’s a remarkable feat of the Nikon D4 and Lightroom that such an ISO even results in a recognizable photo. But of course there’s still plenty of grain. Did the guests mind? Does it ruin a moment between loved ones, an expression of years of fun and play and connection? Nope — whenever these shots came up on the same-day edit screen, people kept yelling “Guys, you have to see this!”

Yes, I’m a very technical photographer, and teach technique. Photography is both an art and a craft, and we do our best with both. But the moment always wins.

Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikon 28mm f/1.8G


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A Week with My New Family: Foundation Workshops

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So this is it: I’ve been named one of the world’s top 10 wedding photographers. Wedding photography has never been a stepping stone for me onto other things — I already have my dream job. So clearly I’m exactly where I want to be, and there’s nothing left to learn.

Ha. Hahahaha…

You never stop learning in a job like this, and that’s one of the things I love about it so fiercely. I love learning, and I love a job that forces me to constantly use my brain in new ways. So I made a vow to take at least one workshop or photography class every year, forever. I’ve seen photographers like Joe McNally do their thing; I’ve been through several excellent courses at the top-notch International Center for Photography, and more. I’ve been forced to leave my comfort zone in a hundred ways for classes — I’ve used new and exotic equipment, I’ve contracted pneumonia, and I’ve been stripped naked both figuratively and literally. But in some ways this was all preparation for the Foundation Workshop.

Founded more than 10 years ago by Huy Nguyen and newspaper photographers who had transferred into wedding photography, Foundation is an intense, grinding, transformative experience that seeks to ground wedding photographers in the modes of hard photojournalism, both as a shooter and as an editor. The wedding photography experience tends to be defined by people in tears saying “Oh my god, we love our photos and we love you!” while photojournalism is defined by a coffee-chugging photo editor yelling “Hey jerk, there’s a tree coming out of this person’s head! Look at this horizon … were you drunk when you took this?” A great photo editor can make you love them and hate them at the very same time.

Foundation is about change, and in many ways the defining experience is making wedding photographers — harbinger of tears that we are — break down in tears ourselves. The 8:30 mark of this video sums it up. But it’s too reductive to think of it as a place where people will try to make you cry by being extremely hard on you. That’s one reason you might cry, sure, and people do. But I’ve been through photo school and the newsroom. While learning, I’ve had people tell me that my photos made them physically ill. I knew I could take some criticism. But Foundation brought me to tears anyway. What did it for me was that magic mix of sleep deprivation and incredible waves of emotion. You are in a small room with many of the world’s best wedding photojournalists, and there’s just no ego in sight. Strangers become colleagues, and then friends, and then family. And then, when you’re at your sleepiest, your sappiest, they hit you with the results of the week, the incredible work of your fellow students. And at least one of the assignments — Mary McHenry‘s — had the tears rolling down my face.

There are so many emotions that roll through you — I spent portions of the workshop ecstatic, exhausted, even incredibly angry — but I started with terror. I knew this would be a tough week, but staff member after staff member kept coming up to me and saying “Ryan, we’re doing our best to figure out how to kick your ass.” Oh boy.

This speaks to the incredible level of individualized attention you get at Foundation. My week there were 25 students, and 27 staff members. I don’t know anything else in the wedding world that even approximates that. You can’t get away with slinking by and giving a half-hearted effort, there are too many people looking over your shoulder … literally. By the end of two days of shooting, hours and hours of tight editing and mentoring, every single student knocked their assignment out of the park. We aren’t allowed to publicly show more than two images for some very good reasons, but there are a couple assignments that I really wish could be released to the world, because the work is so strong about sensitive subjects that they are actually important.

But they staff had a different challenge in mind for me. They work very hard to tailor assignments to the specific students’ strengths and needs, and they knew that I would relish any emotional or physical challenge, that I’d be happy to roll around for two days in dirt or blood or fire for the shots. So instead they challenged me with tedium and familiarity. I was assigned a small newsroom, the kind I started my career in. With my experience, I already knew that absolutely nothing visually interesting happens in a small newsroom. My proposed subtitle for the piece was “People threw away papers, and sometimes took a smoke break.” But it allowed me to drill down on technical aspects I never had time to really focus on during the frenetic wedding day, working on skills in layering, filling the frame with relevant information, reducing visual clutter in an extremely cluttered environment, etc. I even shot most of my assignment with the 12mm on the OM-D so I couldn’t use shallow depth-of-field as a visual crutch.

I couldn’t imagine a better team leader in this than David Murray, with his decades of experience shooting for newspapers and newswires. And imagine a workshop where staff is as packed with excellence as Erin Chrisman and Daniel Aguilar are the secondary mentors. Each of them pushed me farther to make great images from the mundane than I ever had before, and I am bursting with energy now, waiting to tear into this wedding season.

Thank you to everyone in my new family. I said this to Daniel at the end of the workshop, but it also applies to David, Erin, “team mom” Cliff Brunk and so many others: “When this started I loved your work. Now, I love you.”

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Photo by Ed Atrero


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Heck of a First Kiss

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No matter how long we’re in this business, we should never stop learning and growing and pushing ourselves. One of the ways I did this in 2012 was to try to push myself to capture the first kiss in creative ways. There’s a good reason I hadn’t done this before, of course — this is an extremely important moment that really doesn’t need embellishing, so it’s more important to just capture it than to be fancy and risk not capturing it. But this is an outgrowth of using second shooters and assistants I really trust. When I see a shot that can benefit from a risky technique, I tell them beforehand “OK, your job is just to get the first kiss straight-up and close, keep it simple. I’m going to do something wacky.”

For Annie and Bill the wackiness was a tilt-shift to capture the overhead lights, as well as an SB-900 I’d placed behind the altar before the ceremony started, turning a very dark scene into this.

Lens: 45mm f/2.8 PC-E
Camera: Nikon D3s
Place: The Foundry


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The 67th annual Alfred E. Smith dinner, with President Obama and Governor Romney

In the middle of an important and extremely hard-fought campaign, two competitors who visibly dislike each other on personal and political levels came together to briefly put their swords aside, the mission of the Al Smith Dinner, which has been bringing candidates together since 1945. And yes, the moment was brief — one of the speeches seemed more biting than normal for an event primarily dedicated to self-deprecation — but it was there. President Obama and former Governor Romney met for the first time on friendly ground since 2004, the first sitting president to attend an Al Smith Dinner since 1984, and I was there, as the exclusive independent eye. They joked about Romney’s singing, they smiled in ways that showed exactly why they have reached the pinnacles of political life, and they prepared to bring the house down, raising millions for the archdiocese and marking the progress Catholicism has made in American politics. When Al Smith ran for president in 1924, the Klu Klux Klan almost managed to get an explicit anti-Catholic plank on the Democratic party platform. In 2012, both tickets have Catholics on them and no one even really notices.

It was an incredible honor in 2008 with Senators Obama and McCain, who as co-workers at the time were openly collegial throughout the night, but there is a unique thrill to photographing a current president, to tell the most powerful person in the world even which way to turn and smile.

I’d covered Presidents Bush and Clinton as part of press scrums for upstate newspapers, and won an award for coverage of Clinton when I sneakily broke away from the press pack with this crazy new device called a digital camera, but it’s hard to be fully prepared for an event like this. Even just maintaining sight lines for good compositions is a Herculean challenge when you are between the rock of not wanting to elbow aside a billionaire and the hard place of making sure Secret Service can keep a direct path to him at all times.

A challenge, and a thrill. One of the draws of photography is to spend my time doing something that will outlive me. I shoot weddings because these are images that people will value for decades. But to stand at a crossroads in history and witness the moment when these two candidates came together, shared each other a laugh, and called each other honorable men … thank you. Thank you for this.


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That Fleeting Moment: Romney, Obama, and Cardinal Dolan at the Al Smith Dinner

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Whew. I just got back from the Al Smith Dinner. I haven’t even download all of the images yet, but thanks to hyper-efficiency of the media world, this one has already been sent out to the newswires a couple hours ago. It was an amazing event and an incredible honor to have a near-exclusive eye on history, flanked only by two campaign photographers who have already made an incredible mark on history themselves: Eric Draper and Pete Souza.

Apparently, other than the debates President Obama and former Governor Romney haven’t been near each other since 2004. And they haven’t exactly been sharing a laugh during the debates. So it was a pleasure to be there for that brief moment where two fierce competitors put down their guard for a fleeting moment … and laughed about Mitt’s singing. (“It was pretty good!” according to the president).

More to come.

Camera: Nikon D3s
Lens: 24-70 f/2.8


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On Documentary Photography and Breakthroughs

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I took a photo I liked yesterday.

As I mentioned earlier, I went back to school this week, re-taking a version of a documentary photography course that I took more than five years ago. I did it even though it pushed this week’s workload from “busier than it should be for an off-season” to “absolutely insane” because I wanted to try to deepen and broaden my work, and connecting with a fantastic teacher and the sort of psychopathically devoted photographers who attend classes at the International Center of Photography is a great way to do that.

When you spend all of your time as a craftsman, honing and shaping exactly how you see the world, it can be excruciatingly hard to break your habits. On the job, if it’s possible to turn out 1,000 amazing images in a single day, then that’s what I want to do. To that end, I have sort of a Schroedinger’s Cat attitude — frantic and placid at the exact same time. I want to calm my subjects so much that they completely get over the fact that they’re being photographed, but I never, ever stop moving, stop looking, stop rocking and swaying and stepping back and forth. If someone stops me to talk, I’m likely looking through them or over their shoulder to make sure I never missed anything.

Whereas yesterday, with a documentary photographer hat on, probably the most important thing I did was to put my camera down and just talk to people for hours. I had to make some slight changes in how I composed a photo, but I had to make gigantic changes in myself. I wasn’t sure if I’d break through the crusty walls of a craftsman in just five days, but I did.

Starting a good documentary project is hard. Trying to do the whole thing in two days is virtually impossible, and almost doesn’t make sense. Is two days of shooting a documentary, or is it just a short magazine assignment? Amazing projects like The Ninth Floor are generally measured in months or years — so by that scale do you think Jessica Dimmock got a photo she liked for publication every day? Nope. While my normal pace has me thinking about “How good is the 500th-best photo I took today?” in documentary photography the story matters, and the subjects matter, and that’s it. Excessively beautiful photos can actually hurt the story sometimes. The deeper you’re into it, the longer these periods of just sinking in get — you can go weeks without a photo that would fit the final storyline.

It’s context. If I came back from a wedding and liked one photo from that day, I might jump out a window. When I came back from a day’s shoot yesterday and had taken a photo I liked, I was ecstatic. I’d been proud enough that I had woken up that morning with no idea what I was going to do, and by the end of the day had cut through red tape and gotten to a place few photographers would have access to. I set out to tell an uplifting story about overcoming obstacles and how we help each other along the way — and I did. But I kept myself open to surprise, and when the story deepened and the narrative became more complex I saw that, and I shot it, in what I believe to be a magazine-publishable image.

But I’ve also learned in this class that sometimes you have to keep the best images under your hat, or only allow them to be shown within the full and proper context. Because what really matters are the subjects.

Yesterday Andre mentioned a student who was really excited about getting clearance to go to Haiti after the hurricane devastated the island.

“That’s great,” he said, “why are you going?”

“Because I need these photos for my portfolio!”

If you’re gritting your teeth now, you’ll understand why I’m not showing the photo.


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Back to School — Trapeze School behind the scenes

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I’ve gone back to school. Many years ago I took a documentary course at the International Center of Photography. It was intense. In the land of the Internet, the average critique you get is about as deep as “Nice photo!” or “This has colors!” I was still getting my photographic feet under me in a lot of ways, but my head had already swollen with the weird world of Internet photography culture. People were favoriting my photos on Flickr! Someone recognized me on the street! Clearly I was big time. So it was a shock when someone said that my photos made them physically ill, when critique got so intense and personal that I dug my fingernails into my skin. It was exactly the shock I needed, and helped make me a much better photographer than I was then.

There are a lot of things that are amazing about the Internet culture of photography, and it has helped raise the bar on the industry of wedding photography astonishingly quickly, but there are a lot of photographers out there, and especially the very good ones, who would be helped by the occasional “This is a terrible photo and I hate you for showing it to me.”

I love weddings. I love them so much. I love the craft of them and the art of them. There are so many special skills that it takes to turn out good results every time that even many great documentary photographers and photojournalists don’t have at a high level. But to do that, sometimes you need a big bag of tricks, and those generally conceal far more than they reveal. Where’s the soul, man?

So I’m back, even though my schedule is way more crazy than I thought it would be by mid-January. I should be planning my own workshops right now, not taking one that crams 10 weeks of work into five days. But I refuse to ever stop learning. I happily still take classes and workshops, and will never stop. I love it when extremely experienced wedding photographers take my workshops, because they know that it doesn’t mean that I’m better than them, whatever that means, but that we’re all different from each other and we have some things we can learn along the way.

But I particularly recommend this course, “Passion and Personal Vision” by Andre Lambertson. I don’t use flower-child language like “beautiful soul” easily, but Lambertson has one, and you can see it in his work. I like to think I make people so comfortable I become invisible — and I’ve had brides and grooms say “Where’s Ryan?” when I was three feet in front of them — but we’re talking about a guy so invisible and who inspires such trust that he has photos of kids helping their mothers shoot heroin. His images have soul and patience, and he pushes past discomfort. And I know I have learning left to do on that front.

So yeah, I’m back in school. It’s nuts, and so are the other students. Picture being given two assignments — document a local business and get a stranger to let them into their house and photograph them — at 10 p.m. They’re due by 6 p.m. the next day. I gave the last assignment to one of my workshops and gave them weeks to do it, and maybe a quarter of them did. In those few hours, 85 percent of my class did it. That’s the sort of dedication you only get in art school.

First, my business assignment. I went to Trapeze School New York because it has an interesting story and I was seeking discomfort. TSNY is a second home for a lot of its students, and in a some way a first home for more than a few. They say the way to understand the character of Batman is that Batman is the real person and Bruce Wayne is the costume. And for a lot of flyers and aerialists, that’s exactly how it works. They are circus freaks, they just happen to wear the clothes of a lawyer most of the time. This is a place where a man can practice a strip tease act (the tricks, not the stripping), while 11-year-olds have a birthday party. Where a woman will climb up and wrap herself in silk 15 feet in the air — and just sit there and think for 15 minutes. A lot of the real story of TSNY is in the pauses in-between. It was something I could only begin to tell in my short time there, coming in cold with no prior permission, introducing myself and shooting.

I started with just my Fuji X100 on totally silent mode, trying not to interrupt the scene, to get people used to me, but I soon wanted more ways to tell the story. I felt myself get closer and closer to where I wanted to go, and I wonder what I could do if I had weeks to tell these stories, instead of minutes.

I don’t. Not yet. But I can already feel that yearning to shoot, to tell stories that are deeper and more comprehensive than the ones I’ve told before, even on wedding days. To answer the question “What’s behind that door? What’s behind those eyes? Who are these people?”

Exactly what I need.


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My Favorite Portrait (That Isn’t a Portrait)

My Favorite Portrait (That Isn't a Portrait)

Stephanie and Kevin’s wedding on Saturday was spectacular, whimsical and fun — and it was so sweet to see someone I had last known as a little girl in Sunday school grown up into a gorgeous bride. At the end of the night, everyone gathered out for the release of some very cool Thai lanterns into the sky, and as they floated away Stephanie excitedly turned into Kevin just like so.

This was total darkness. ISO 4500, f/1.4, 0.4 second shutter speed. I laid down in the grass to get a shot that couldn’t be made out by human eyes, and I figured they must have seen me, and had perfectly posed for it just like so. I went up to Kevin after and said “Did you know I was there? That pose was perfect!” He said “No … what do you mean?” I showed him the photo on the back of my camera and he started to cry … and I got halfway there myself.


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No … wait!

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One of my reasons for launching Moment Junkie was to affect the conversation of wedding publishing — that pictures other than stylish portraits and showcasing centerpieces were important enough to publish, since they are the heart of a wedding. I’ve had a number of photographers say “shooting for Moment Junkie” has changed their priorities, and I happily agree.

In this moment, the grandfather almost drinks out of the kiddush cup before it’s time, but the rabbi makes a timely intervention.

Lens: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II
Camera: Nikon D3s


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