Mudan Wedding: Fallon and Andrew

To use modern Internet parlance, this wedding was so full of feels. I could have created a blog post entirely of Top 50 Best Heart-Wrenching Sobbing Moments, but that would have edged out the possible Top 200 Best Hysterical Laughs. It’s what happens when you take two incredibly sweet people, one of them a wedding photographer herself, and throw them into a day with numerous ceremonies, from the quiet and reflective to the raucous hardship the groomsmen faced at particularly inventive door games. It’s what happens when family gathers from all over the world to ignore the heat and celebrate Andrew and Fallon. And it’s what happens with a wild group of friends — I don’t show photobooth photos on the blog for a few reasons, but we’ll just say that things got particularly creative and many guests walked out with a pretty good cardio workout.

I was thrilled to be joined on this wedding with Tatiana and Michael Stavrinos, even though all the good photos made my editing job much harder. It’s a challenge I’m happy to take.

Jen Selter

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As mentioned previously, I’ve switched to a new Web host that should keep everything here running smoothly even at high traffic times. I figured there is no better way to test that than with some photos from my shoot with Instagram Queen Jen Selter — with 335,000 followers on Instagram, countless Tumblrs and reflags and pins and so on and so forth, this should wake the servers up.

Jen caught my attention, and not for the obvious reasons. In the age of the Internet, things that were in some ways private behaviors — being a photographer, or enjoying exercise, for example — have become cults of personality in different ways. Having built a great business over the years that comes with what I call “microcelebrity,” I’ve had a peek behind the curtain of social media stars, and I knew there’s more that goes into it than you think. There are countless scores of attractive women out there whose photo collections have 335 followers, not 335,000. I knew that getting there so fast required a great deal of savvy, and doing a lot of hard work while making it look like you’re just taking things in stride. How fast? We did this shoot a month ago, and she had 100,000 fewer followers at the time!

I was about to share a bunch more, but it turns out we might shoot again soon as part of some secret projects we’re both working on, so I’ll save that for a computer-melting megapost. But I’m happy to show that there’s more than meets the camera phone’s eye when it comes to Jen.

Thanks to my incredibly talented cousin Andrew Sutphen for the hair and makeup.

(Ok, one more … for the servers’ sake. More to come…)

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Camera: Canon 6D
Lens: Canon 50mm f/1.2L

The Mill at Spring Lake Heights Wedding: Nicole and Kyle

Thanks to a long string of luck, my clients tend to make description of them a bit difficult. “Extremely nice,” “deeply family-oriented,” “handling stress with cheer and grace,” — on the streets of New York you could pick someone out of a large crowd with just those descriptors, but I’ve been lucky to have this be common threads of the people that hire me. So to describe Nicole and Kyle, you take these and add the deep respect and camaraderie of Kyle’s military family, breeding West Point officers. You stir in the deep bond with his brother, who, in words I thought I’d never write, produced a hilarious, heart-wrenching PowerPoint display for his speech.

And then you add a gorgeous day, the heat that would later scorch the area just poking into the territory of a nice warmth. Finish with a bunch of friends and family ready to spring into the party, and you have a good day. Thanks to Robert Piangozza for assisting.

(Note: If you’ve noticed that this site has run slowly for a long time, blame my old Web hosts and, apparently, my popularity. I’m with new hosts now who have great customer service and the ability to handle the strain of lots of people looking at lots of photos. There are still a few kinks to work out, but if you can see this post, you should be in the clear.)

Hempstead House Wedding: Maggie and Jonathan

Maggie is a decisive person. When she first met with me, not long before her wedding, she was just in for a couple days from her home in China, and I quickly realized that this was not the traditional “Convince me why I should hire you” meeting, but rather “This is why I’m hiring you.”

Weddings are hard enough to plan when you have plenty of time and are able to keep checking in the venue — it’s another story when you live almost 10,000 miles away and with just a matter of weeks to put the major details together, but she handled it with grace and all sorts of style, for example putting a modern twist on Chinese cultural traditions by ending the reception in a killer (Western-style) red dress.

As the thermometer pushes 100 degrees this week, we forget what a short time ago that it was cold and windy, but the wind whipped so hard during the ceremony that for a bit I was sure I was going to be documentarian of disaster. But clearly Maggie’s decisiveness included some very strong tents — and of course, no winds are going to bother the sturdy Hempstead House.

Thank you Pieter Sienatra for your help on this fantastic, blustery day. And thanks to Maggie and Jonathan’s friends and family for making it such a fun day — not every groomsman out there would dress themselves up in toilet paper and re-enact the proposal just so the groom could earn the right to see his bride. And we won’t discuss the body hair collection part.

Liberty House Wedding: Regina and Jerry

Whenever my fantastic wedding photographer friends fly in to New York to help me shoot a wedding, I like to give them days that might be well outside their norm. It’s an old magazine photo editor trick to bring a fresh sort of vision to a given story, and gives a different sort of accent to my standard “work my butt off and tell the big story” style. For example, when Sara K Byrne came in fresh from her open-air, rural, hipster Idaho weddings, I had her help with a quintessential high-class Manhattan wedding in the opulent cavern that is the Metropolitan Club.

But what could be fresh to my friend (and fellow Moment Junkie co-founder) Kyle Hepp? She’s based in Chile but spends most of her time in or around airplanes, shooting and traveling all over the world. What can be fresh to someone who was in her third hemisphere that week?

“OK, Kyle, this wedding is going to be fantastic. The couple is extremely nice, I love the Liberty House, the day ends at 4…”

“Four a.m.? Cool! That’s pretty standard in Chile, though I don’t always stay the whole time…”

“No … four p.m.”

That did it. Of course the biggest challenges of daytime weddings are that sometimes it’s hard for people to feel the same sort energy at tea time that they would at mid-night, but with Jerry and Regina’s friends and family there was no need to worry about that. A cold mist turned the dramatic NYC skyline view into an impressionistic panorama, and inside the Liberty House the day was marked by deep convictions — convictions to friends, family, religion, and each other.

While the day was almost entirely culturally Western, the energy was helped further by the deep sense of fun of Asian-style reception games. I am sure Jerry has forgiven Regina by now for mistaking the arm of a female guest for that of her new husband.

Thank you both for letting me share in this day, and thanks to Kyle for doing a great job more than 5,000 miles from home.

The Green and the Gray

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One of the hidden benefits of using so many advanced panorama and compositing techniques to quickly do the otherwise impractical or impossible is that it takes you back to the film days where you can be pleasantly surprised by a photo much later. The result of this tilt-shift pano of Central Park’s urban/pastoral view is exactly what I had in my mind, but it was great to see it take shape.

Lens: 45mm f/2.8 PC-E, 9-image panorama
Camera: Nikon D4

Four Seasons Wedding: Kartika and Varun

I’d been dying to go to Vancouver ever since the Winter Olympics showed off its beauty, and thanks to the Canada Photo Convention and Varun and Kartika’s wedding at the Vancouver Four Seasons, I went two times in a month. Of course, given my schedule this time of year, that means that my grand total of sight-seeing for both trips was about 15 minutes.

But I had so much fun that I’ll have to come back. Varun and Kartika aren’t just incredibly nice, they’re absolutely hilarious. I’m a softie — usually when I’m thankful for autofocus it’s because something touching has made me tear up a bit. But I had to spend most of this day photographing through the laughter. Of course a bit of door games started that off right — wedding days drive brains crazy, so when Kartika left a complicated mathematic clue about where she was hiding, I forgive the groomsmen for coming up with “somewhere on the 271st floor.”

Eastern and Western traditions have very different expectations for wedding receptions, and it was fascinating to see the Indian/Indonesian/Chinese/Canadian cultures mix with the quirkiness of Varun and Kartika’s own friends and family. Who needs a garter toss when the groomsmen can toss swords around and do a lucky Dragon dance?

Thank you both for flying me out to document this beautiful, hilarious day. And thanks to Rachel Pick for helping on the day and being my local Vancouver liason.

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!”


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. 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.