I can’t believe it, but Moment Junkie, the wedding photojournalism blog I partner with Kyle Hepp and Chris Lin has turned one year old! To celebrate, we’re hosting a big contest for Photo of the Year (our photos were recused, of course).

Moment Junkie has been a labor of love all year. We haven’t made a dime on it, and now here we are, people who earn our living as photographers, doing everything we can to show the work of other photographers. Are we crazy? Yes. But we also believe in the power, the complexity, and the joy of relationships, and want to celebrate photographers who can capture that feeling.

Thanks to Matt Shumate for the modified logo (he also did the fantastic original logo).

Natalya sneak peek (and Workshops in Dallas and D.C.!)

120206 181728 58mm f1 2 3 images panoA

I’ve had a very fashionable week, with two, going on three fashionable portrait shoots as part of a new partnership I’m doing with CBS, as well as testing some rather fantastic gear on loan from B&H. This is a shot of Natalya, who is an excellent photographer herself as well as an amazing model. This one is a three-image pano with the Noct-Nikkor. Is that moonlight? Is that streetlight? No — it’s an Alien Bee and the handy fact that my studio wraps around a corner, so even on the 23rd floor I can fire from one window and into the other. See it in this surprisingly sexy set-up shot.

Intersted in learning tricks like that to solve photographic challenges? Luckily I’ve announced a series of workshops in Dallas and D.C. The Dallas one sold out almost immediately, so we’ve just added a second day! My workshops have been overhauled for 2012 — more fun, more shooting, more inspiration, more differentiation, just more. Read more here.

Hair: Chi Shay

Make-up:Andrew Sutphen

A Central Park Elopement: Katherine and Zak

One of the things I’ve forced myself to specialize in is getting good photos in terrible conditions, especially bad weather. Time after time I’ve been assaulted by rain or wind or cold or heat. I’m waiting for the cloud of locusts.

But sometimes you catch a break. When Katherine told me she wanted to spend three hours in Central Park in an amazing but not-very-warm dress in February, I said “OK, time to keep an emergency coffee thermos for her in my supply bag.”

It was SIXTY-THREE degrees. Or 17 degrees, since Katherine and Zak hail from Australia.

Absolute intimacy, absolute love, absolute beauty. I couldn’t think of a better way to start my 2012 wedding season. Also this is the first time I got to choose the ceremony location based on how it would look in photos. I think I did all right.

Hong Kong Four Seasons Wedding: Samantha and Gary

After a 16-hour flight, overcoming intense jet lag, wrestling a James Bond villain off a security guard, and happily eating many things that are used as contests on Fear Factor, I was ready for anything with Samantha and Gary’s wedding. What I got was an incredibly sweet and hilarious couple, an extremely elegant wedding at the Hong Kong Four Seasons, two giant banquets, misadventures traipsing around a Kowloon fruit market after dark, and an ache in my cheeks from smiling so much. The photos tell the tale of their personality — I mean, I couldn’t fit photos like this into the layout or even the genre of wedding photography, but I still laugh every time I see it.

Thank you both so much for flying me halfway across the world to document your love, your fun, your insane door games (the smell of durian sandwiches is still with me), and so much more.

View on the Hudson Wedding: Ryan and Siobhan

This was some good craic. It’s not often I get to shoot for another Ryan, and particularly with a couple whose speech and attitude toward life still drip Ireland at every moment. From Irish flags following us wherever we went to starting the day with whiskey, I knew this would be a wild time. I grew up with an Irish family that is known to do The Wave during wedding ceremonies, after all.

It was far from a letdown. Extremely strong family bonds kept every part of the wedding fresh and fun, from Ryan’s brother turning in a great set on the Bodhrán to a wedding band comprised of Siobahn’s uncles. It was a fantastic way to end my (American) wedding season. Thanks so much to Zack Delaune for coming along, helping out with everything from finding our way in the pitch-black darkness during the portraits to taking a few of the photos below.

Interview in the B&H studio

Before my recent lecture at the B&H Event Space, David Brommer took me in for a fun interview where we discussed everything from how I use light to what I’d do on a deserted island. Watch it below:

Fashion: Kristen Ernst clothing designs

It was 35 degrees outside. The winds were gusting past 40mph. And we were on the roof of a 27-story building.

Fashion ain’t easy, especially if you’re wearing gossamer clothing or trying to keep an octabank from blowing off the side of a rooftop and taking you with it. But it came together, and the team did a spectacular job showing off the stylish work of designer Kristen Ernst.

We used all sorts of light, from the sun to video lights to an SB-910 to a big studio light. We used all sorts of tricks — it’s not easy to do a panorama of someone whipping their coat around, but that happened. Mostly, though, we tried to stay warm. Each look was shot in under five minutes so poor Yulia could keep her fingers and toes.

120113 141159 58mm f2

120113 141229 58mm f2 1

120113 144105 45mm f2 8

120113 144223 45mm f3

120113 144852 45mm f2 8

120113 155935 85mm f1 6 3 images pano blog

120113 165631 58mm f1 2

120113 165903 58mm f1 2A

120113 171146 85mm f1 6

Shoot director: Aparna Dasgupta
Wardrobe: Kristen Ernst
Model: Yulia Panina
Makeup: Jiaying Wang
Hair: Chi Shay
Lighting assistants: Emily and Bobby from Emily Porter Photography

Merion Wedding: Amanda and Glenn

Normally I have to just tell you that a wedding rocked, and you have to just believe me. Did it really rock, or did it just look like fun for 1/250th of a second at a time?

You can trust me, but this time you don’t have to — I have proof. Chandeliers tell no lies, and Amanda and Glenn’s wedding rocked the Merion so hard the darned thing looked ready to come down.

Passionate, fun, and ready to tear the foundations off a building with merriment — these are my kind of people. Thanks to Dustin Finn for assisting the mayhem (and spotting the chandelier).

Coming soon: Amanda and Glenn

111119 175211 35mm f1 8 5 images pano

Just a reminder that, with all this talk of authenticity on the blog this week, I do still like a nice trick or two. And when you arrive in the chosen spot for wedding portraits and it’s pitch black, it’s nice to have a big back of tricks, literally and metaphorically. It took a flash composite AND a panorama to pull this one off.

Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s
Light: Lowel id-light

On Documentary Photography and Breakthroughs

Untitled 1

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.

Quick Review: SB-910

120113 144105 45mm f2 8

Specs and purchasing info

As a longtime Nikonian, it still seems a bit odd that Nikon is known as the “great high ISO camera company.” Back in my day, we had noisy ISO 800, and walked uphill both ways to the photo shoot! But that was OK, because we were flashers. Our Nikons had fantastic flash control, TTL metering that worked extremely well, and we made due.

And then everything changed. Along came the Nikon D3, and our SB-800s changed into SB-900s. Not everyone was a fan of this — the SB-900 was significantly larger but didn’t have more power — but I liked them enough to buy three. Fully rotational flash heads is a big deal to my bounce-loving self, and I never quite got used to the fact that you had to physically break the SB-800 to make it work properly.

So I had the SB-900, and everything was good. The output was great, the TTL worked well in those rare cases I wasn’t being a manual-using control freak, and I especially adored the ability to zoom the flash head to a narrow beam of 200mm. Because it’s a narrow beam, I can bounce strong pulses into the ceiling and not use much power, giving me more charge and better recycling time.

There were only a few quirks, some of which bothered me and some of which didn’t. The one that everyone talked about is that out of the box, the SB-900 has an overzealous Thermal Cut-Off protection program that, after a few strong flash pulses, essentially says “No! It’s too hot in here! No flashes for you!” This, I agree, is terrible — so I turned it off and never thought about it again. As someone who’s fired hundreds of thousands of pulses through SB-900s, my experience is that unless you’re using some super-jacked batteries or third-party battery packs, you’re not going to melt anything down. If you find yourself firing your flash at 1/1 all the time, you might want to take a hard look at your gear or compositional choices.

Other things that no one talked about much bothered me a bit more. The new gel system, which used coding to automatically change white balance, was pretty cool but a bit tricky to find and slide on in the field. There was that darned menu access, which was better than the SB-800s but still took time and some slight-of-hand to get to the settings. And the one that really got me is that the infrared AF-assist beam seemed to be mis-aligned in some ways, so that if you were shooting a shallow-depth-of-field lens like the 85mm f/1.4 on a dark dance floor, and using the AF assist on any focus point other than the center point, you were almost guaranteed to have your shot be out-of-focus.

So here’s all you really need to know: The SB-910 fixes all of these quirks. They use the same sort of snap-on gels as the SB-700, which are harder to pack but work great. The Thermal Cut-off gradually slows the flash down as it gets hot instead of getting all Soup Nazi with you. (You can see an oh-so-exciting video of me firing the SB-910 at full power here.) They even fixed the AF assist, which is attention to detail surprising even for Nikon. Awesome.

RKB 2495

It also adds some things like illuminated buttons (which will nicely match the Nikon D4 buttons) and a revamped menu system to be more like the SB-700. Illuminated buttons don’t matter much to me — after two days shooting with a piece of kit the buttons are mapped in my brain, no looking required. The dedicated menu button is fantastic for working quickly, but it has a downside: If you have a bunch of SB-900s, you will probably want to sell them if you’re tempted by the 910. These two flashes are so similar in basic form that you will never remember by simple touch which is which — and they have buttons in the same places that do entirely different things. Give your brain a break and try not to limit your time mixing these two in your system.

In the photos above, I wanted to use the tungsten gel given that it’s now easy enough to put on that I won’t say “Oh, forget it.” In both, I fired through a Lumiquest LTP softbox. At left, I got the double-diffusion softness and made use of a tight spot by skipping the light off a white door to the left. At right, the light from the right, combined with a tweak of the automatically cool white balance the camera knew to give me thanks to the coded gel, gives a more complicated and moody mix of warm flash and cool ambient. Is there any real difference in the light between this and the SB-900, or even the SB-700? No. But I probably would have never fished the delicate SB-900 gels out of my bag on a freezing cold day — so the real answer is whatever works for you. And the SB-910 works really well.

Back to School — Trapeze School behind the scenes

I’m good at being uncomfortable, so
I can’t stop changing all the time

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.