Wanna experiment?

Shock it to Me

This entry is directed at my current clients and clients-to-be for 2009, but I won’t mind if you listen in. It contains a really good idea you can steal. After all, I stole it.

John Michael Cooper, who is 10 pounds of awesome in a five-pound bag, gave a fantastic lecture at the Digital Wedding Forum. From light-painting subjects to complicated Photoshop layering to use the same flash countless times in the same picture, he sent everyone there scrambling to their notebooks for techniques to copy. But the thing that really held my attention was a throw-away comment: “I ask my clients for 10 minutes to try something that may or may not work.”

Brilliant.

I’ve been struggling with a dilemma for pretty much my entire career as a wedding photographer. The best photographers don’t just push the envelope, they push beyond it — which means they fail, quite a bit. But when it works, it really, really works. Generally speaking, though, that’s not the best way to shoot a wedding. “Sorry guys, I tried this great technique, but it didn’t work, so there are no photos from the ceremony. I hope that’s OK.” You have to play it safe. Now, I’ve spent thousands of hours working to make sure that I can do some pretty crazy things and still know that I’m going to get photos exposed exactly the way that I want. But I’m absolutely at my happiest when I take a wedding photo different than what I’ve seen before. My bokeh panorama technique has been great for that, since as far as I know no one has ever used that at a wedding before … ever. But I practiced and practiced it until I knew I could make it work on a wedding day, and now it’s a fairly safe part of my repertoire. Gotta keep pushing that envelope.

So … will you give me 10 minutes at your wedding? 10 minutes to try something that could be fantastic, or could totally fail? I’ll spend the rest of the day working and pushing the envelope, but give me 10 minutes to bust out of it and play around in the mailbox. If you do, you could get some great shots that look nothing like your friends’ photos. And you’ll be paying it forward … the crazy stuff that I can make work on a wedding day will quickly move from “experiment” to “part of the repertoire.”

So … will you give me 10 minutes?

Emily and Jeffrey: 11.23.08

View the slideshow here!

You know, most couple are lucky enough if they have a fabulous wedding, surrounded by loved ones, laughter, and great food, but Emily and Jeffrey got to do it twice in the same day! The marriage ceremony was at the fantastic River Cafe in Brooklyn on a freezing November day. Apparently this is the best view of Manhattan anywhere, because even despite the cold we saw seven or eight other wedding parties wander by! Without a doubt ours were the most fun, though, especially the ladies who were willing to freeze in their dresses for good photos! This is when being able to work quickly comes in handy, but I couldn’t resist a little “OK guys, just hold that pose for … twenty more minutes…”

After that, the wedding party headed to Queens for a giant Chinese reception, complete with Emily’s outfit change and course after course of delicious food. On the way in between, I designed a slideshow of the wedding ceremony, which allowed the 80 percent or so of the reception guests who weren’t there to experience the full day. I was sore but ecstatic after two separate ceremonies, but not nearly as much as the couple.

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A New World

The Groom's Secret Service

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An ever-changing world

Just in case my blog didn’t have enough typos already, I’ve discovered the WordPress application for iPhone, which I used to give appropriate credit to David Williams in my previous post. I may use this space for fleeting photography-related thoughts that are not quite fleeting enough for Twitter.

I’m on my way to two client meetings now. I have a nice little space in my office to greet clients properly, but a lot of the couples I work with are nose-to-the-grindstone New Yorkers, so I come to them when I can. While packing, my old RAZR phone fell out of a drawer,and I realized something: the ever-changing tech world drops values more than we may realize. While it’s shocking that a phone that, just a few years ago, was a super-expensive luxury item is now too cheap to bother selling, it gets worse. How much would someone have to pay *me* to go back to just a normal cell phone, even a sleek one? North of $1,000, for sure, given how useful smartphones are for small businesses. How much would someone have to pay me to shoot weddings with my old “Frankencamera,” the Fuji S2? I shudder to think.

How quick people are to adapt to their environments. I did fine with that old camera, which churned out great files for its time. Before long we’ll all wonder how we could have shot anything without ISO 5 billion, as we watch the burgeoning field of “inside a closed refrigerator” photography.

What piece of tech would you never, ever part with, even though you were decently happy before it existed?

Alexandra and David: 12.6.08

View the slideshow of this wedding!

This wedding couldn’t have come at a better time. I recently got back from a seminar where I heard the great Australian portrait photographer David Williams talk about the importance of families, and of photos in our own personal histories. At the end of the day, what we wedding and portrait photographers do isn’t about equipment or Photoshop actions or textures … it’s about documenting the stories of friends and families, and shaping memories. And I felt that so keenly at the wedding of Alexandra and David.

You see, once upon a time, there was a bride named Marisa. New Yorker through-and-through, as you can see below:

Giving the (ring) finger

I shot her wedding in May 2007, and had an absolute blast. Marisa had a sister, Natalia, who was getting married in November. “I LOVED your photographer,” Natalia said, “but I want to get married in Miami. Where can I find someone like him down there?”

Marisa said, “you know … I don’t think Ryan would mind leaving New York for Miami in November.” And so I shot Natalia’s wedding:

Kiss by Dusk

It was an especially great compliment to be flown down because, as of the last census, South Florida has 156 wedding photographers per square foot. It felt like a personal reunion as much as a wedding, and I left with a glow, loving life and my job.

You can probably see where this is going. There was a third sister, and her name was Alexandra. With the help in particular of her amazing mother, she was able to plan her wedding all the way from Singapore, where she and David live. It helped, of course, that she saw what had worked and what didn’t for her other sisters … and hiring me was a foregone conclusion. Our first client meeting basically boiled down to … “So, do you book the flight or do we?”

It has been such an honor to shape so much of a family’s history, to walk into a home during bridal preparations and see prints of my work hanging on a wall. It’s times like these that even a 14-hour day doesn’t feel anything like work. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that the wedding was at the fantastic Red Fish Grill in Miami, not a bad place to be in December).

I’m only sad that I’ve run out of sisters.

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Greetings from Miami

Lifeguard Off Duty

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Sharon and David: 11.29.08

View this wedding’s slideshow!

You want to talk intimidation? How about shooting for a family of surgeons where they joke that the Harvard-attending world-class fencer is the underachiever? How about a groom who’s a top-notch, award-winning cinematographer? How about trying to do justice to a gorgeous ceremony at New York’s prestigious Yale Club?

In fact, though, every moment of shooting David and Sharon’s wedding was a joy. They are warm, fantastic people, and there’s nothing quite like shooting for a room full of cinematographers. Every five minutes or so someone would come up to me and say, “Hey, that shot you just took? That was a great frame!” Above all, the emotions were heart-felt and vibrant. Eventually people stopped even trying to wipe away tears, it was just no use. And guest after guest lavished praise on the couple. As the best man said when it was his turn to speak, “I know there have been a lot of long speeches already about how great Sharon and David are … and this one isn’t going to break that mold.”

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Stephanie and Jerry: 11.14.08

View the full slideshow here!

What a wonderful couple Stephanie and Jerry were. I feel like I’ve known them for years. Oh wait … I have.

I’ve known Stephanie and Jerry for more than 10 years, and all that time Jerry has been crazy Stephanie. Most of the time, she returned the favor. I knew right away that their wedding was going to be something I didn’t want to miss, but they also really wanted my photographic vision to cover their day. Since Jerry is a television producer, I figured he knows what he wants. So I did double-duty on this wedding, photographing all the great moments while also getting to break into a Kid N’ Play routine on the dance floor. As you can probably tell, I had a blast the whole night.

Stephanie is a foodie (her father noted she carries maple syrup around in her purse in case she ever runs into a pancake), so it’s no surprise the food at the venue was fabulous, including a specially-made cake that was basically a giant three-color cookie. The ceremony was at our alma mater (and now one of my favorite corporate clients), Fordham University. It was cold and rainy, but that just made for a beautiful, colorful scene, and in about 15 minutes in the rain we did one of my favorite formals sessions of the year.

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Michael and Nadia: 10.18.08

View this wedding’s full slideshow!

I’ve always appreciated irony, so I love it that probably my most Manhattan wedding of the year, that just dripped that intimate, cosmopolitain feeling, was that of San Franciscans Michael and Nadia. How intimate? The wedding, a stylish affair in the gorgeous SoHo House, had seven guests. With just the closest friends there, everyone was comfortable and at ease. Also, one of the big advantages of a wedding that size is that you can have the reception under a normal reservation at the amazing Japanese restaurant Morimoto. This isn’t your father’s wedding food.

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Review: 135mm f/2 D DC

Specs and purchasing info.

135mm sometimes seems like the forgotten focal length. Dead-smack in the middle of the 70-200 range, most professional shooters have replaced this lens with more versatile and f/2.8 zooms. But a prime lens still has some advantages — it’s twice as light-sensitive wide-open, and much smaller and lighter to boot. Below, here is the 135mm flanked by the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms:

Not only is it lighter than even the normal-range 24-70, it has a built-in lens hood, so you don’t have to deal with bulky reversible hoods. But this is a double-edged sword — the smaller built-in hood is much less effective at reducing flare and protecting the lens element.

So is this lens any good? Yes, it’s great … in some ways. In some others, this lens, which has been essentially unchanged for 18 years, is sorely in need of an update.

BUILD QUALITY: It’s solid metal, with the great crinkly focus rings of other pro Nikon lenses from the 90s. It has the vaguely annoying AF-MF switch because it’s a screw-driven lens, but everything operates well. It has an aperture ring, so it will work on pretty much any Nikon SLR ever made for the past 50 years, but it’s not going to autofocus on the D40 or D60. It’s light enough to be well-balanced with all but the smallest cameras, but not too light for the D3.

DEFOCUS CONTROL: The 135mm, like Nikon’s 105mm f/2, has a special trick called "Defocus Control." What this essentially does is use multiple focal planes to give your subjects a hazy glow without being exactly out-of-focus. Here’s an example at it’s most extreme. First, without the effect applied, and then one at the maximum setting:



Nice, contrasty and sharp



I am zee sexy, no?

Let me get this out of the way: I hate this effect. It’s an artifact of 80s and 90s portraiture that hasn’t aged any better than parachute pants or Vanilla Ice, basically a high-tech way to smear Vasoline on your lens. It had some use when everyone was shooting film and it was a good way to soften the wrinkles on older subjects. But computer retouching can do a much better job these days without, say, hazing someone’s flesh tone over their eyeball. So I find the very thing that makes this lens unique more of an annoyance than a feature. The good news is that when you switch this feature off, it makes a pretty darned good fast telephoto.

OPTICS: It’s fairly sharp (not as sharp as my sharpest lenses, but sharp enough to count the eyelashes on your subjects even wide-open) and has smooth bokeh. I had hired a model to show off the bokeh, but she stood me up, so you’re left with this ugly mug:

As you can see, this is a good focal length to take fairly tight portraits without distorting someone’s features. The disfigured bokeh on the edges is normal for fast lenses. You can choose whether or not to care that you can see greenish chromatic aberration in the highlights even at this tiny size.

It was meant to be a portrait lens, and it works well as one. It will focus more closely than either the 70-200 or the 85mm f/1.4, making it easier to get close-up shots or tight portraits of children, like so:

Its color transmission is consistently great, right up there with the best Nikkors:

AUTOFOCUS: It’s a screw-driven lens, so it depends on your camera’s focus motor. On the D40 or D60 there’s none at all, on a big-motored camera like the D3 it’s pretty zippy, faster than the 85mm f/1.4 since it has a smaller front element to move around. I shot a few high-school basketball games with it as a favor for some relatives and it kept up OK — the initial focus acquisition is very fast, but it’s a bit sluggish at tracking a subject. Perhaps not coincidentally, this means it works very well in focusing for portraits, which this lens was made for, but is middling for sports:



Burned!

CONCLUSION: If you really love the speed and depth-of-field of f/2, or hate the lack of close-focus and weight of the 70-200mm f/2.8, this may be a good lens for you. It’s a great lens for portraits, and 135mm paired with a 24-70mm covers a lot of situations on full frame. On DX cameras, it functions like a 200mm, which may make it less useful since that’s more of a sports focal length, but in the end that’s up to you. It would be nice if Nikon could update this into something similar to Canon’s 135mm f/2, which casts aside all the Defocus Control stuff to just be a fast, tack-sharp lens. Even better would be going to 135mm f/1.8 to compete with the Zeiss lens for Sony’s mount, but don’t hold your breath for either of these. Nikon hasn’t been too keen on updating general-use primes, and really needs to fill their fast-wide gap first. In the meantime, this current lens is a solid performer, great at some things and merely good at others.

Photo of the Day: Surprise!

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I don’t do many kids’ photos professionally … though as more and more of my wedding clients start having children, that may change. I have always loved babies, and the girl above was ludicrously adorable, but they certainly do present new and interesting challenges. Usually a couple will not cry through 95 percent of a shoot.

The Year That Was

New Beginnings

Well, it’s been quite a year. I got married, I cut my final staff photographer strings and went 100 percent freelance, and my business exploded. I photographed people from Barak Obama and John McCain to Brooke Shields, Kathie Lee Gifford, and the president of the Dominican Republic, just for starters. I won top 10 awards in all three quarters of the prestigious Wedding Photojournalist Association awards that I competed in. Exactly one year ago I found an in-stock Nikon D3, and thus spent the year with cameras that constantly astounded me and never got in my way. And, of course, I met countless wonderful couples and was honored to photograph some amazing weddings.

Having been married this year, I realized a few things about what people should want from a wedding photographer other than “takes really good photos.” Communication, comfort, and constant attention to details throughout the entire process are key in ways that are hard to foresee. I recently expanded my business, hiring a business manager to make sure that every last detail has another pair of eyes on it, which is a tremendous step. But I’ve also thought about something else. What a couple really cares about when they look for a photographer isn’t what they did for someone else; it’s what they’ll do for them. There are good ways and bad ways to answer that question. Just looking at the few photos on a portfolio site isn’t enough — not only are they just a few photos, but they could be models, from a workshop, etc.

A frequent piece of advice people get is that you should always see a large number of photos from one wedding. That’s good advice, but I said to myself, “Wait a minute. Which wedding are photographers going to show?” The perfect one. The one where the weather was amazing, the couple loved the camera, the kids were cute, the day was long and varied, there were fire dancers, who knows. But weddings aren’t always like that. This year I’ve seen an outdoor ceremony get rained out, an indoor ceremony be inaudible thanks to overhead rain (those were the same wedding!), an outdoor reception in 100-degree weather, a 50-mile an hour wind knock over EVERYTHING (those two were also the same wedding, and I won an award for the shot). I’ve been given five minutes for formals where it should have taken an hour. I’ve shot weddings in severe pain after falling, I’ve gotten into car accidents on the way to weddings.

And that’s life. What you really want from a wedding photographer is someone who can shrug all that stuff off and take great photos anyway. So I’ve started showing slideshows from EVERY wedding in 2008 to my couples, including all of the weddings above. The last thing someone wants is a photographer who has done great work in the past but just decides your wedding is something to “get through.” One of my second-shooters told me that at her wedding, her normally fabulous photographer decided to shoot almost everything with a fisheye. Ugh.

So here, to end the year, is the list of slideshows. It’s not complete, because slideshows tend to be the last thing I do in delivering photos, and because some couples have told me they didn’t want their photos linked to on the Internet. But it’s still a pretty good look over the Year that Was.

Missy and Charlie, 3/8/08

Manda and Luke 4/5/08

Jennifer and Scott, 5/3/08

Jen and Chris, 5/16/08

Kirsten and Evan, 5/30/08

Dana and Wes, 5/31/08

Chelsea and Garrett, 6/7/08

Erica and Nathan, 6/21/08

Christina and Sebastian, 6/22/08

Brooke and Jessvin, 6/28/08

Heather and Noam, 7/3/08

Katrina and Nick, 7/5/08

TJ and Michelle, 7/11-17/08 (five-day cruise)

Rachel and Dave, 7/18/08

Korie and Jesse, 7/26/08

Justina and Adam, 8/2/08

Jamie and Patrick, 8/9/08

Caroline and Yee, 8/16/08

Mike and Gosia, 8/23/08

Yelena and Wassim, 8/24/08

Michael and Jill, 8/29/08

Eve and Dan, 8/31/08

Laura and Keith, 9/6/08

Nikki and David, 9/26/08

Shante and Akili, 10/3/08

Eva and Cris, 10/4/08

Michael and Nadia, 10/18/08

Annie and Howard, 10/26/08

Jon and Jerry, 11/1/08

Stephanie and Jerry, 11/14/08

Courtney and Greg, 11/22/08

Emily and Jeffrey, 11/23/09

Sharon and David, 11/29/09

Alexandra and David, 12/06/08

Stephanie and Kenny, 1/18/09

Freada and Mike, 2/21/09

Timoria and Bob, 2/28/09

Courtney and Greg: 11.22.08

View this wedding’s slideshow!

All you need to know is that I had more photos from Courtney and Greg’s wedding than I’ve ever shot on a single day before.

OK, that’s not all you need to know. How about why? How about the incredible amount of friends and loved ones: 300+ guests and a wedding party roughly the size of the cast of Ben-Hur? How about a willingness to do fun outdoor formals even though it was twenty degrees below the normal late-Novemeber in Allentown, Pa? How about the great work of my second-shooter Dave Zaveloff?* And how about a dance floor so crazy that probably no one who attended the wedding should ever run for public office? All in all, and with a fantastic couple to boot, it was a recipe for a great wedding, and the 10 images below can barely contain it. You gotta watch the slideshow.

*As always, since I use these for promotional purposes, all of the images below and in the slideshow were taken by me. But Dave got some great shots, too.

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Spread 'em!

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Jon and Jerry, 11/1/08

View this wedding’s slideshow!

You may recognize one of the guests there — she was the bride in my previous post, and sister to one of the grooms! As you’ve probably picked up from that and the title, this was my first gay wedding, and it was a beautiful experience. I know that this is a hugely contentious issue now with intractable beliefs on both sides, so I’d love it if someone’s wedding photos weren’t weighed down by a bunch of political comments on either side of the issue. That said, this was probably the most emotional wedding ceremony I’ve ever shot. It took me by surprise, actually — if stereotypes were true, a wedding without a bride should be relatively casual, right? But weddings are pretty important things to me, and it struck me that while many people grow up dreaming about their perfect wedding, Jon and Jerry had to grow up thinking “Well, that’s not for me.” They and their parents had spent years thinking that this would never come, and it came out with intensity and joy and relief.

It was a great Boston November day, and apparently the perfect day to get married, since the park was filled with roaming wedding parties, photographers in tow, like herds of migratory animals — Jerry even ran into a bride that he knew! The ceremony and reception hall were beautiful — refined, but still open enough to let people dance like mad.

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A Long Day's Night

Jen and Chris: 5.19.08

View this wedding’s full slideshow!

Here’s one from the Wayback Machine. Jen and Chris are friends of mine, and I was honored to shoot their wedding at a gorgeous French restaurant in Upstate New York. The springtime was in full bloom and the grounds of the venue were absolutely gorgeous … which, of course, meant torrential rain. They weren’t upset and, since they know where I live, just decided it would be better to do most of the formals at some other time. “Some other time” ended up being four months later. So here they are!

The wedding was an intimate affair with fewer than 30 guests, an elaborate dinner party with unbelievable food and a (I timed it) seven-minute wedding ceremony performed  by another friend of mine. Jen and Chris had the first (and only) dance to the musical stylings of Jen’s friend, who decided to sing along with the string performers.

A Cinderella Story

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Rainy Day Memories

Take a Long Kiss on a Short Pier

Laura and Keith: 9.6.08

View this wedding’s slideshow.

I was honored and flattered to shoot Keith and Laura’s wedding right from the start. One night quite a while ago, I picked up a call from an elated woman. “Ryan! My son is engaged, and we want you to shoot the wedding!”

“Great!” I said. “When is it?”

“We don’t know!” She replied. “They just got engaged an hour ago!”

The wedding ended up being in the couple’s home town in southern New Hampshire. I traveled up the night before to meet the wedding party and shoot the fantastic rehearsal dinner … at which point I already knew this was a fun, lively crowd.

Well, I don’t know what they put in the New Hampshire water, but this wedding had some of the most outgoing, craziest dancers I’ve ever seen (and boy have I seen a lot). The ceremony was a formal affair at their beautiful local church, and then the reception continued strong until 1 a.m. As you can see from the last picture, taken right at the end, Keith and Laura were still glowing after everything.

Don't let go, kid.

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Maria and Ray: 8.30.08

View this wedding’s slideshow

Winter means it’s time to blog about some of the wonderful weddings I missed when things were at their craziest. Maria and Ray had a wonderful, touching, delightfully geeky wedding. Every little finishing touch showed care, such as the place cards derived from media like classic Spider-Man covers and Amelie, and of course the amazing cake with the Super Mario Goomba touches. After a full Catholic mass, the reception was a laid-back, fun dinner at the Dinsmore Golf Club in the Catskills — laid-back, that is, unless you were one of the score of adorable, energetic kids. If you don’t like cute kids, you may not want to see the slideshow — from their energy to the clear care that Maria and Ray had for them, it was one of the most child-friendly weddings I’ve photographed.

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No children were harmed in the making of this photo.

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