From touched to terrified to thrilled in 60 seconds

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Oh, Varun … you mentioned me in your reception speech, saying that my work had made you start loving your work as a photographer again, and I teared up even as I blushed furiously (“I’m a documentarian! No one is supposed to notice me!”) And then you threw me a curve ball, “And now I’d like Ryan to take a really cool shot! Everyone get out your cameras!”

The idea was what you see here … a stylized take on the Uncle Bobism of a photographer’s wedding. But how do you make a bunch of flashes go off when they’re all from different manufacturers … and most of them are camera phones?

Very carefully.

Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Wedding: Tracy and Dan

This spring’s cold weather was a double-edged sword. Tracy and Dan were married in May, a bit after the traditional peak of the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Palm House. But thanks to a late-to-arrive spring, they exploded into color just at the right time. The coordinator surprised them with the idea that they could have the ceremony right out in the middle of them, and thank the photo gods that it all worked out.

Of course, the cold hadn’t quite stopped snapping. Want to creating a bonding experience for a group of bridesmaids who don’t know each other that well? Have fantastic light, flowing dresses and a ceremony in the low 50s. By the end they were huddled together, and instant friends just in time for a wild, beautiful party. I tell ym couples that cold is romantic — it makes you want to be closer together — but I didn’t realize how broadly this can be applied.

Thanks to Braham Rhodes for helping out!

Sometimes the best way to use a tool is not at all.

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Yesterday I lectured and taught at the WPPI Online Road Show in Atlantic City. As always it’s an honor to work with these folks, and I liked the set-up where I could talk about concepts in the morning, and then show them hands-on and let people try it for themselves in the afternoon. I was tasked with teaching techniques for working with speedlights, and we went through everything from reception shooting techniques to how strong your flashes can really be when you use them right (lighting a subject at ISO 100, f/29 at 1/8th power!)

But one of the most important lessons I taught is when to ignore me. Or specifically when to ignore the plan and the tools you’ve set out for yourself. In a lighting class, we’re going to overshoot and overlight — that’s how teaching works. But start simple and if you make a setup more complicated, know exactly why you’re doing so. Don’t use tools just because you brought them. Because even when you’re teaching a class on flash, it’s a crime to ignore a good sunbeam.

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

Marcus and Kathy’s Central Park (surprise) elopement

It’s not often that I have a wedding date marked off on my calendar six months before the bride does. But Marcus and Kathy’s story is not your average wedding.

Marcus and Kathy are from Germany, and Marcus is a fan of my work, so he said “Hey, you know what would be fun? Let’s go to New York City! And while we’re there, Ryan can take some portraits of us.” Kathy loved New York and was working on improving her English, so it sounded good to her.

But Marcus had much deeper plans. He wanted to propose. So we planned together where the perfect spot would be, somewhere beautiful and as secluded as you can get in Manhattan. I would lead them in, taking portraits along the way and getting them comfortable. And then, when I said “Oh, look at this, this is the perfect spot!” Marcus would pretend to tie his shoe, kneel down to tie it, and pull out the ring.

Everything was working great. It was a beautiful day, as perfect as you could want. The park was green and lush, but not packed with people. I took them on a meandering path as we took photos, and came to a beautiful, secluded glade.

“Wow,” I said. “This is the perfect spot.”

“Yeah, it’s great!”

I waited. Nothing. “Ok, let’s take some photos here, and then I know an even better spot down the path a bit!”

“Well, look at this, what a spot! This spot is just perfect!”

Nothing.

Now I was getting a little nervous. Was the plan worked out well enough? I know that even the most enthusiastic proposal is such a huge leap, there’s always a moment like before you’re going to jump into cold water on a hot day. There’s nothing you want more, but you pause. I know this, so we continue walking. Last year I’d taught a workshop in this area, and some of the students said they found an amazing glen with a waterfall, stonework, all sorts of things you don’t expect to find in Manhattan. But I was busy and never saw it.

We kept walking, and there it was. The perfect spot. I set them up and said “Ok, guys, I want to to give a big hug.” And they did, and it was beautiful because they’re so in love. But really I wanted them to hug so Kathy couldn’t see me as I wandered behind. I signaled Marcus wordlessly.

Here, right?

Yeah, I got this.

He got down to his knees and said … well, it was all German, but it sounded very romantic. Tears, instantly. Joy, laughter, disbelief. Even bigger hugs. I absolutely love photographing surprise engagements just to be a part of this crucial moment.

But Marcus’s plan went deeper. He gave it a while, let the whole “I’m marrying this guy!” thing set in, and then he asked the real question: “Will you marry me … Wednesday? Here? In New York?”

She considered it, “Marcus, I’d love to, but I can’t get married without my parents here, they’re so important to me. And your brother, he’s traveling in Spain, it would kill him to miss it.”

He smiled. “Yes, we should ask my parents. We’re in luck! They’re here. And my brother? He’s not in Spain. He’s here.”

Woah. Marcus had planned it all out. He’d actually hired me six months earlier not just for the portraits, not just to capture the proposal, but for the wedding as well. It was all set … it just needed a bride.

She agreed. And that set about a whirlwind of emotion and shoes and dresses and more emotion, going through the entire process a bride usually goes through in six to 12 months in just a few days. So when we met on another glorious Central Park day, all of it was raw and powerful and beautiful.

It was an honor to tell this story and a pleasure to spend this time with Marcus, Kathy, and their families. And thankfully for the wedding day I brought along my own German, Stefy Hilmer, to help shoot and translate. I think I may need some more of this Germany experience, but more on that later.

Kelsie’s story: Young, Beautiful, Alive.

Note: Things move pretty fast in the social media world. When I started shooting weddings, having a LiveJournal as your blog was a perfectly appropriate thing to do, even if you weren’t Russian. Now we have Facebook pages and Tumblr and Google+ and so much more, and the way we communicate as people and businesses keep changing. Ryanbrenizer.com will always be my most important space because, hey, look at the name. But this year I am going to reserve it primarily for telling stories and the occasional equipment review. Random pretty photos will primarily be added to my Facebook page. Nearly all of these stories will be of weddings and couples because that’s where a big chunk of my time and my heart is. (The other biggest chunk, my girlfriend, prefers not to be mentioned here for SEO reasons. Now that’s a modern relationship.)

But this is not a wedding story. Kelsie most likely has a lot of other stories to live through first. (I’m sorry to all other photographers, but when it happens, I call dibs.) But this is a story that I feel needs to be told, because it is harrowing, because it has consumed a big part of me recently, and most importantly because I think Kelsie’s spirit and incredible, soulful singing is something the world needs to know about. Also, there are lots of photos waiting at the end. So with her permission, here we go.

Warning: Some of what I will describe is fairly graphic, although I will leave out the worst bits. Also, further down there are some pictures of a model in her underwear, though largely obscured by focus or artistic lighting. If either bother you, skip the rest and go straight to her singing, and make special note of the top comment. Otherwise, continue on…

When I was a kid, I didn’t really know how the life of a professional photographer worked. All I knew was what popular culture told me. I pictured it like an agent, looking through head shots and saying “My god, who is that? I have to photograph her!”

But it never really works like that, at least not for me. What keeps me excited about going to work every day — and in a photographer’s case, “every day” tends to be literal — is telling stories about real things. How people relate to each other. How we react under the forces of joy and love and stress. Who we are at any particular moment. Out of the shoots I do every year, 97 to 98 percent are with people completely untrained in being in front of a camera — and that’s great, because it’s easier to see the real person there, even if they start out as a nervous real person.

In July, the [FRAMED] network flew me out to Boise to film a show about how I do some of the things that I do. I was eager to escape the 90-degree-heat of New York, only to find it replaced with the 106-degree heat of an Idaho heat wave. I was staying with dear friends and fellow photographers Sara and Dylan, and while we were getting ready for the show we were watching some previous episodes of their shows. They do such a great job with production that I just sit back and let myself be entertained for episode after episode.”

Somewhere around the third episode we watched, a fireball of hair and smiles and charisma bounced onto the screen, and it finally happened.

“My god, who is that? I have to photograph her!”

“Oh, that’s Kelsie,” Sara said. “She’s my friend, and she’s amazing. Want me to see if she can come out for a shoot?”

At this point, I had just photographed six weddings in eight days, and flown out to find blistering heat waiting for me. I needed some rest. I needed to not pick up a camera until the next wedding. I needed …

“Of course! Let’s shoot!”

Never mind.

Who is Kelsie? From the photos below you might think that she is constantly sensual and sophisticated, pensive, aloof and longing. But that’s just because I photograph real stuff 97 percent of the time, so when I get to that three percent of sitting down and making a picture I want the photos to be an unanswered question, to make you linger.

But here’s Kelsie as I see her:

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There is the wild determination of someone who said “My dress is getting tangled while we shoot underwater … do you have any scissors?” There’s the fun and energy she showed when we taught each other how to Dougie. And there’s that laugh. The photo on the right is, to me, the real Kelsie.

You can probably tell that I love this girl. But not like that. I’m in the midst of my own love story that is so fierce I make my friends both delighted and a bit nauseated. Also, when Kelsie was born, I was eagerly awaiting my first day at high school. Friends are the extra family that you choose for yourself, and right from the start I had the protectiveness of an older brother. The photo at the top was photoshopped to mask the ways that she was being firmly held to the ground. When Kelsie begged to stand on the ledge, I went to full-fledged Dad mode: “If you so much as put your foot on the ledge I am putting my camera down and not picking it back up again.” I might as well have added “Young lady!”

The world is a better place with Kelsie in it, and if I can help her navigate it safely, all the better. Which is what makes this next part so hard.

Kelsie was back in Idaho with her family, planning her next steps, making recordings, resetting herself after some global travels. She was up in the mountains, soaking up the sun, fresh air, and cool water. “My day couldn’t be any more peaceful,” she wrote.

If not for an incredible series of circumstances, that page would have been her memorial.

On her way back, driving down winding mountain roads, the car suddenly spun out of her control, careering off a cliff. She saw sky and ground and no road at all, and she floated off of her seat, and she knew she was going to die.

She had time to think “Please God don’t let this be it. Please don’t let this be my time.” And then the car hit the ground. Everything went white. “This is it,” she thought. “I’m dead.”

And then she was ejected out the back window. Somehow she made it through the window alive, but deeply gashed all over by the glass. One piece had missed a nerve that would have caused permanent brain damage by less than an inch. She somehow landed sitting upright on the back of the car, like she was lounging with a good book.

I do not want to share the full extent of her injuries here, despite her permission. But when a mutual friend got to her hospital room and heard the full rundown of injuries, she immediately passed out. “Really? You passed out?” I asked her, and then she told everything to me. I felt faint and had to lie down.

So as you can imagine, she was losing blood fast, sitting at the bottom of a ravine, completely invisible to traffic above. She realized that she had survived the crash but would quickly bleed to death. Somehow, that wild persistence of hers gave her the strength and presence of mind to make her shirt into a tourniquet for her arm, but she wouldn’t have long.

“Hello down there, are you OK?” a woman called. She’d been driving in a car full of people and said “I thought I saw a car drive off the road. Did you see anything?” No one had, but she stopped anyway. From her vantage it looked like the girl sitting upright on the edge of the car must be fine, but she wanted to check. Kelsie screamed for help.

Help was there. One of the people in the car was a lifeguard. They scrambled down the cliff and helped stabilize her long enough for a rescue team to come by helicopter. She would live.

Here’s another thing that’s important for the story: Doctors are heroes. The worst cut went straight over one of Kelsie’s eyes, but in overnight surgeries the medical team managed to save it. Even after multiple surgeries she had major cuts all over her body and on her face, and a broken foot would keep her unable to walk.

Even with all this, the first worry she told me about was that she’d lost her car, so how would she get to work? There’s the determination.

Thousands of miles away, I didn’t find out all of this until the next morning, when her friends posted on Instagram and Facebook. No, no, no! I pestered our friends, even though they were shooting a wedding. What happened? What hospital is she at? What can I do?

The flip side of being a problem-solver is that I can’t not solve problems. Being unable to help, unable to make things work, is my greatest frustration. I even found myself saying “5 on AP Bio, 800 on Bio SAT IIs, why didn’t I become a surgeon?”

Oh, right, because when her injuries were even described second-hand I almost passed out.

I did all the normal things — I got her flowers, I spoke to her on the phone. For the whole call, she was relentlessly upbeat. She remembered everything, she remembered staring down death, so even being battered and broken and scarred, all that mattered was she was alive.

I had to do more. Weddings are in full bloom so I couldn’t go there. But I wanted to make sure she knew that people cared, that her dreams were still within reach, I wanted to do something that, if even just for a moment, would make her forget the long road of recovery ahead.

Wait. Lana Del Rey. One of Kelsie’s idols. Known to my parents as Lizzie — the name she went by when they taught her in high school. Our families know each other well. Even just a quick call would be that “Holy s***” moment. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s what I could do.

I threw a Hail Mary, going from my mother to hers. I’ve been put in a sort of state of micro celebrity by my photography, and I know how much stress and feeling of constant obligation there can be even for me — I cannot imagine what it all feels like for a rocketing “real” celebrity like Lana. She was going through a grueling promotion schedule for Gatsby in Cannes, which only sounds fun until you really think about it. I thanked everyone involved for being so kind, but it didn’t look like we’d be able to get through.

After a few days, Kelsie came home, and sure enough, she went to work. She’d had one of her first studio sessions a few weeks before, and had first seen the video of a cover she sang the morning before the accident. She watched the video again, and the words struck her in new ways.

Will you still love me
When I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me
When I got nothing but my aching soul?
For those of you in a pop culture cave, it’s a song by Lana del Rey. I didn’t know Kelsie had recorded it — and man, she’s so good.

By this point I figured Lana was unreachable, but I sent a note on. “Hey, thank you so much for everything. I won’t bother you again, but I just wanted you to see this.”

I figured that was it. But the next day, I saw this:

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It was the holy s*** moment. Kelsie flipped out. Our mutual contact told me that it was definitely written by Lana, not her publicist. Thank you Lana, they raise ‘em right in the North Country. It is going to be a long time until Kelsie is back able to dance the Dougie with me again, and any trauma will leave physical and emotional scars. But no one makes scars look so good. In every way, Kelsie will continue to be beautiful.

This is the longest story I’ve ever written on this blog several times over. But it’s not over yet. That’s my favorite part — Kelsie’s story is just beginning.

Westminster Hotel Wedding: April and Rich

I always love Filipino weddings, because I feel that the culture has its priorities in the right place — deep family ties, celebrating these ties through dancing, and, of course, documenting all of this through photography. B&H doesn’t have as many DSLRs as a large Filipino wedding reception.

April and Rich had deep connections to both sides of the Hudson river, so the ceremony was at the Fourth Universalist Society church in Manhattan, and they decorated the space at the Westminster hotel to meet a classy, modern design for their reception.

The emotions were on the surface, as Rich’s tear ducts had a good workout. In this case, there was no metaphor behind the idea of forming a new family, as tender moments with Rich’s daughter and April showed. Thank you again for letting me (and assistant Braham Rhodes) tell this story.

A New York Story

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I try to be a storyteller, but it’s an amorphous thing. We all have a story, sure, but what was the story of your today? Was it just some stuff that happened? Was it something you learned? Something you felt? What will the story be when you look back on it later?

They aren’t simple questions, and that’s just a random day … a Wednesday, even. How do you tell the story of a place like New York? There have been thousands upon thousands of attempts, and they scratch just the surface’s surface of the complexity and the dynamics of this crazy town. Last night I saw a beautiful woman walk by openly sobbing. That, I thought, was a New York story. In the small town I grew up in, we keep our tears and our strangers separate. In New York, people’s pain is in your point, and the pain itself is part of the point. The grind of New York life is perhaps the most pervading part of the story, a rock that we dash ourselves against and that either whittles or breaks us. There’s a reason that if you make it here you can make it anywhere, or as a more recent muse put it “8 million stories, out there in the naked city. It’s a pity, half of y’all won’t make it…”

There are reasons that shooting hundreds of weddings in New York have turned me into a problem solver. We have problems. It’s stressful enough just living here, even when you aren’t planning a wedding.

Or when you’re just trying to get around. Kate and Andy were married at the Top of the Rock today, and while the rain parted for their ceremony, it returned with a vengeance just after, right in time to deal with epic New York Rainy-Day Traffic. The limo driver, who had a habit of leaving us several blocks from our destinations in the pouring rain, also decided to drive right by Times Square and put us in the modern-day Bermuda Triangle of Lincoln Tunnel traffic (for out-of-towners, picture a parking lot, except with fewer moving cars). This is when it’s good for us to remember that you might not always be having fun when a photo session starts. Not only do you have the natural nervousness of being in front of the camera, you might have had to plan a complicated day, get waylaid by a limo driver, have to walk several blocks on shoes you swear are medieval torture devices … and then be happy?

But then you find your place. You hold on to the partner you crossed an ocean just to declare your love and devotion to. An iconic New York taxi drives by and reflects the American flag back into the camera. And then, at incredible odds another one drives by at just the right place as well. Yellow and red and blue all sorts of love cutting through the gray, rainy day. And you remember the most important part of the New York story: New York is hard … but man is it cool.

Thank you Kate and Andy for letting me share in your story today.

Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

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

Ryan Brenizer Workshops: Early 2013 recap

I realized sometime last year that I no longer really have an “off season.” I do, however, have a somewhat sane season, and that is soon coming to an end. Even then, though, it’s hard to stay idle for one simple reason: I really like my job. I get twitchy if I’m not telling stories, creating images, and trying new things, and the winter and early spring are perfect time to take some of that energy and share it with others through workshops.

In February I had my first international workshop in London — I figured it would be a bit tricky to host a workshop abroad, so I figured a hop across the pond would be the easier than starting in translator territory. And we had a great time even though there London was in a freezing spell and the studio manager, apparently unaware of basic principles of convection, put the heater on the ceiling. But we kept our coats on and had wonderful experiences, from working with the fantastic Claudia Nallely to competitive foosball matches after each workshop.

I also learned I have so much in my head from shooting 325+ weddings that eight hours is a staggeringly short amount of time. The perfect length for a workshop, I think, is either 20 minutes or six months. So I’ve strengthened a lot of the free continuing support I provide to participants with separate portfolio reviews, continued online help, direct access to raw files for some of the trickier techniques I use, etc. This continued networking also allowed me to use feedback from members of every workshop I’ve ever given to create an even better, more formalized structure, one that I believe in more than ever, dividing the overlapping worlds of being a better photographer and being a better professional into two days. I debuted this at a workshop this past weekend at the studios of InFocusNYC Photography, and it went better than I could have hoped for. The studio was the perfect space for the group (and properly heated!), studio managers Pete and Daria were incredibly helpful, and I had an all-star cast helping out, from my studio manager Wendy lending her perspectives on the business day, to amazing past couples of mine I was thrilled to see again: Elizabeth and Anthony, Ariana and Eric, and Chika and Andrew.

Much like I learn to be a better photographer from every wedding (which is why I shoot so many!) I learn to impart the hard-won lessons I’ve learned the more I teach, and I enter 2013 more excited and confident than ever about future workshops. Now, of course, I just have to figure out when and where these new ones can fit given the beginning of crazy season.

I also highly recommend the InFocusNYC studio for other events, and for those looking for studio shares. I believe they still have a spot or two open.