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Interview with Jeff Ascough, Wedding Photographer

a photo.net interview by Mary Ball, October 2007


Jeff Ascough has been a professional wedding photographer in the United Kingdom since 1989. He has covered over 1000 weddings with a documentary photography style. Ascough emphasizes capturing the moment without any prompting or interference and using available light. American Photo voted Ascough as one of the ten best wedding photographers in the world.

Ascough was asked questions in the photo.net wedding photography forum, moderated by Mary Ball. Mary Ball edited and reorganized the interview into the article below.

Ascough's development as a wedding photographer

Ascough: Around 1994, about five years into my career as a photographer, I started to be disillusioned by traditional wedding photography. I'm glad I first took a traditional approach, as it taught me a lot about lighting, face position, camera heights etc. However, it seemed to me I was being too intrusive on the wedding day.

Around this time, I switched from Leica rangefinders and bought my first SLR: a Canon EOS 100 and a cheap 28-80 lens. Between the formal images, I took candids, mainly for my own pleasure just to keep my interest going. What surprised me was the client reaction: they loved these informal images. I knew then I was onto something. I could satisfy my own artistic desires and please my clients.

His photojournalistic wedding style

My style is all about anticipation. Compared to others, I capture relatively few images at weddings. I like to see a picture, set the composition and angle relative to the light, and then wait for something to happen within that picture. I may take several frames to get the perfect capture. If something doesn't happen, I go and look for another image. I'm very deliberate and controlled in what I do, most of the time anyway.

If you ever get to see the film War Photographer (2001), with James Nachtwey, the way he photographs is very similar to how I do things. Nachtwey is very deliberate and takes his time over the image. I am drawn to the sheer aesthetic beauty of his images. Forget the content and just look at the use of his composition, the light and his understanding of the decisive moment. Nachtwey is a genius with a camera. In many cases, he has achieved fantastic images while being under intense stress, far more than you or I will ever witness with a camera. That is what is so special about the guy.

I will take several frames of each picture to make sure I nail the decisive moment. Unfortunately, I have to capture several frames with DSLRs as the view finder goes blank at the point of exposure. When I used to photograph with rangefinders, I could see the moment as it happened so my actual frame rate was lower. I position myself for the picture I want to achieve and go for it. I don't move around too much, nor do I blast away with the camera, as this is distracting to the subject.

Finding and using natural light vs. flash

In my world, sufficient light means enough illumination to get a photograph without too much subject movement. This could be 1/15th sec, f1.2, 3200 ISO for static subjects, or 1/50th sec, f1.2, 3200 ISO for slightly moving subjects. However, the light needs to be good as well.

If I'm completely in a bind, I will use flash to either clean up the light or to freeze movement. However, this is usually a last resort. The flash is always balanced for the background. The only time I've used flash this year (2007) was for the first dance at two weddings. During the summer, I don't use flash at all.

Find the rooms where the wedding will take place and look for the main light source. Get your assistant to move around the light source while you see how the light plays on the person. Look at the angle of light and how it changes as you also move in relation to the light and the person. You will then get a better idea of where to be in relation to the subject to take your pictures at a given time.

Great light and composition are more important to me than anything else in a photograph. Cartier-Bresson, one of my heroes, always looked for the composition first and then waited for the decisive moment. He enjoyed the mathematics of composition. I'm the same. If I can combine great composition, great light, and something interesting within the image, I have the makings of a great picture. I always go for composition and light first.

I follow my clients, looking for the light within the environment they are in. In some cases they may never venture into the best light. That's the way it goes-I won't ever ask them to move into better light as I'm not there to interfere.

If the light was bad, I would capture the image with a wide angle and make the subjects very small in the frame, allowing the rest of the frame to tell the story. That way the client would get their processional image, which would look great, and you wouldn't have to worry too much about the light on their faces.

Sample wedding photos illustrating using natural light

Regarding exposure and backlighting: I tend to overexpose by 1-2 stops to get detail in the faces. I then run my 'highlight paramedic' action to bring back detail in the highlights.

Similar lighting outdoors.

Side lighting with the bride's dress acting as a reflector.

3/4 lighting. As above but with the bride's face at 45 degrees to the light.

Good old tungsten light at the reception.

Tungsten light at the reception used as a backlight.

Bright sunlight outdoors--light reflected off the building behind me to light the bride's face.

Bright sunlight used as a spotlight in church.

As you can see, good light gives a great three-dimensional quality to an image. It can be hard, soft, or angular. As long as it lifts the image I'm happy.

Poor shadowy lighting. Some dodging has been done in Photoshop to lighten the bride's face. The eyes are still quite dark, but the expression and my relative distance from the subject allows me to get away with it.

Really strong full sun. This photograph wasn't possible when the bride looked up, so I waited until she looked down, in order that the poor light doesn't affect her face negatively.

Full sun again. This time I've included a lot of the environment in order to 'hide' the poor lighting on their faces.

The two things you have to consider when photographing in dim light are your focus and your shutter speed. Focus is fine as long as you can confirm it, and the camera has some help. To this end, I use a Canon EC-A microprism screen in all my cameras. It allows me to judge whether or not the subject is sharp in low light. It also allows me to manually focus if necessary. In really low light, I use a Canon STE2 Speedlite Transmitter on its own. This throws out a beam of light that helps the camera to focus. I don't try to photograph subjects that are moving about in dim light. That is the domain of the flashgun. If I can get a shutter speed of 1/30th, I'm ok. I can handhold a 35mm down to 1/8th sec without issue, but there will always be subject movement.

I always squeeze off three frames at a time. I can guarantee the second one will be sharper as I relax momentarily.

85mm, f1.2, 1/40, ISO 1600. It has a little softness to it, but I think that is part of the charm. I'm braced against a wall, and this was the third image in a continuous capture sequence. The B&W is done via my actions.

Some really, really strong backlighting. The rim light is fine on the groom's face. I had to wait for the expression from the bride. However, the lighting isn't the greatest on her face. By including more of the environment, I've hidden the poor light on her face. The expression more than makes up for it.

I don't own any lighting equipment other than a Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash (review) and a beat-up Canon 550EX (discontinued model). I certainly wouldn't be interested in bringing out any sort of large light modifier just to do two or three formal shots.

I wouldn't photograph formals in any place where I couldn't control the light. If the ceiling is too high or dark, I would move the couple to an area with a lower, whiter ceiling, even if it means sacrificing a slightly better background. If I have to do formal portraits in a high-ceiling environment and I need to use flash, I'll flip out the white diffuser on the top of the Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash (review), angle the flash head upright, and bounce into that.

Thoughts and methods regarding digital wedding photography

Digital has allowed me to make my product better. I have total control over everything now, something film never allowed me to do. However, my product is exactly the same as it was when I used film, just more refined and true to my own vision. Digital cameras allow more artistic expression through post processing, far more than film ever did. Photographers doing something unique with post processing will inevitably be copied, and then the post processing becomes a style. This is what is happening now.

My White Balance (WB) is preset to daylight. I leave it on that all day unless I am in tungsten light. Then I'll switch it over to tungsten or do a custom WB if I get the time. Since Photoshop CS3 and Aperture 4 have arrived, I could photograph an entire day using Auto White Balance (AWB) and do the WB correction later in the software.

Regarding actual pictures, I take around 300 composed images. This translates to anywhere between 1000 and 1200 actual presses of the shutter, given that I take 2-4 images in continuous capture mode for each composition. All finished files and original images are backed up to external drives. All finished JPEGs are backed up to Gold CDs.

My Canon EOS-1D Mark II N (review) is set to neutral and the contrast is backed off by one click. The images come out of camera pretty flat. I use one of my actions to boost the color and contrast. Most people use curves to do this but I find it blocks up the shadows too easily. My actions are set so the shadows don't block up.

I like my color images to look like film: my colors should be real as I'm documenting reality. I'm not into heavily saturated colors or too much contrast. I also like my flesh tones to be on the warm side, so I usually boost the WB a little to get this. I retouch blemishes in closeups only. I do a fair amount of work through actions on each image though. This is to emphasize different parts of the image rather than trying to polish it. In the future, as RAW software becomes better at skin tones, and camera resolutions become greater with better highlight detail, there will be more emphasis on subtlety and true color rather than the heavily saturated stuff that we see now.

Many photographers claim that photographing RAW actually speeds up workflow. I've always found the opposite. However, while browsing one of my favorite web sites, www.digitaljournalist.org, I came across an article on how photographing in JPEG actually makes you a better RAW photographer. In theory, JPEG photographers tend to get it right in camera. If they carried over their photographic technique to RAW, the images straight out of camera should require very little manipulation in the RAW software and should be ready to be converted to JPEG without messing too much with the files. The advantage here is that less time is spent adjusting JPEGs in Photoshop. I am constantly trying to improve this major area of my workflow.

Post-processing with RAW images

To make RAW work for me, it needs to significantly cut down the time I spend tweaking JPEGs in Photoshop. Aperture and Lightroom don't do that. I need an application that will give me the quality that I want, especially in the realm of skin tones, with absolutely minimal work required afterwards in Photoshop. Then I could take this RAW thing seriously as a solid workflow option.

I think I have found the answer: Capture One Pro. I had completely overlooked this program because of its price tag and its unique workflow. The user interface took some getting used to, but it does make sense. The noise reduction is excellent. High ISO images have never looked so good. I haven't gotten into the different profiles yet, but the black & white options look interesting.

The last three weddings I've captured in RAW and processed the images in Capture One Pro. I am delighted with the results. The colors straight out of the camera and into the software are beautiful. The files generally only need a quick contrast/exposure tweak and they are done. This is saving me so much time as I don't have to then load the images into Photoshop to process the images. I'm impressed.

Could this be the start of a new beautiful relationship? It's too early to tell. I am still learning about the software, but I have to say it's so far-so good. I'm still not convinced that the quality from Capture One Pro is better than from my JPEG workflow, but it's not taking as long to process my images. I'm sure the technical quality will improve as I get used to the software.

Lens choices for wedding photography

Usually, I have a 24-70 on my Canon EOS 1D Mark II N and a fast prime, most often a 50L on the backup body, same model. In the pouch, I have a 35L and sometimes an 85L. That's pretty much it for how I work. If I need to carry more lenses, I use a small satchel-type bag. My current bag of choice is the Lowepro Rolling Mini Trekker AW. I try not to work while wearing it, though, as it puts pressure on my back. For my spare kit, which lives in the car, I use a Lowepro Compact AW.

During the summer, I'll ditch all the primes and just use one body with a 24-70. That's my most preferred way of working, but I need a good sunny day to do that.

For more information regarding Ascough's cameras and lenses, please view his equipment page.

Black and white wedding photography

I love B&W images. It's what drew me to photography in the first place. Photography to me is all about light, shape and form: B&W allows you to strip away the distraction of color and get right to the heart of the image. With that in mind, I capture most of my images knowing they will end up being B&W. I rarely try a B&W conversion out on an image just to see what it will look like; I pretty much know which images will be B&W even before I've downloaded the cards.

Wedding photo albums and design

Album design is my sole responsibility. Clients don't have any input into it. It's part of the service we provide. I use Jorgensen Album Designer Software and Yervant's Page Gallery 4 for designing the albums. My albums are Jorgensen exclusively. The number of pages and album shape/design varies according to client's taste.

Some people have objected to having a completed album, but in all honesty they are very few and far between. Once I explain my philosophy behind my approach, they are quite happy with it. I photograph for the album, not to sell pictures after the event. The album is the vehicle for my work and I capture images accordingly. It makes a difference to me as an artist to have that freedom, without having to work within the constraints of taking pictures, which I have to sell afterwards.

The clients get their albums within six weeks of the wedding and they don't need to visit me, choose pictures, or even have to contact me again. With my clients' busy lifestyles, most of them appreciate this hassle-free approach.

If you proof your images, you are saying to the client, "I can't decide which are the best pictures from your wedding. I'm going to let you decide even though you don't have any experience looking at wedding photographs." Furthermore, if a client has to choose a set number of images, how will she do it? She'll look out for the pictures she doesn't like, implying that there are pictures in the set that aren't very good. In my opinion, that's too negative a standpoint to take. I would rather present my clients with an album compilation of only the best images.

We have a Skooks Shopping Kart available on my web site for clients to see their wedding pictures while the album is being made. It also allows guests to order prints after the wedding.

Also important is a relationship with a good lab: I have a good lab. We are fully color-managed and use the lab's recommended color space. The lab's printing profile is assigned to the images. My actions also ensure there is no color cast in the images before we send them to the lab. The prints we get are perfectly neutral and consistent over the whole wedding.

The occasional obligatory posed image

My formals are very simple. They are very quick to do and the clients appreciate that.

I tend to turn up to a gig with no preconceived ideas of how things will happen, or which images will materialize. If I do a few formals, I limit it to six photographs and that limit is clearly stated on my web site. I focus on capturing what happens in front of me, documentary-style. If I had to refer to a list of "must-have" images, my natural reaction would be to focus on completing the list, and that would hinder me as a photographer. My clients are aware of this when they book me.

Of course, I always get the key moments of *their* day, often different from the key moments many photographers think they should photograph. There are plenty of examples of illustrative images on my web site.

Advice for wedding photographers

The best thing to do is to practice with a model. Take images in different lighting conditions and see which give you the best images. That's how I started out. You should be looking for how the light molds the subject. Sometimes it's best to squint when looking at the light as this gives you a better indication of the light direction.

One of the differences that separates the talented pros from the rest in photography, is the photographer's ability to see light direction and quality. Try to second-guess what is going to happen. It might sound weird, but I have almost a sixth sense when it comes to photographing. I can see the image in my mind's eye before it happens. I suspect this is a result of many years of experience, though, rather than any special ability.

I know how and when to position myself for an image even before I bring the camera up to my eye. Once I'm looking through the view finder, I refine the framing and decide on what to leave in and what to leave out of the image. I then wait for the desired moment to happen. If all hell is breaking loose around me, e.g., the dancing at the reception, I'll go with my instincts and react to things happening. This manner of photographing is more haphazard though, and my success rate is a lot lower.

It's important to be as unobtrusive while photographing weddings. That said, you can be unobtrusive while less than three feet from the subject. It's all about how you behave when photographing. If you permanently have a camera up to your eye, firing off hundreds of images, the client is going to be very aware of you. Also, hiding in the shadows can be more intrusive than standing close to your subject, because odd behavior is noticeable. If you simply have the camera down at your side and just quietly observe, they will relax and start to ignore you.

Unobtrusiveness doesn't mean you can't be seen. That's a mistake many people make. For many clients, unobtrusiveness means that you are letting them get on with their special day without making them stop for photographs.

Jeff Ascough's equipment

The Main Wedding Kit

The Backup Kit

More


Text and Photographs © 2007 Jeff Ascough. Edited by Mary Ball and Hannah Thiem.

Article created October 2007

Readers' Comments


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Jillian Leiboff , October 24, 2007; 05:39 P.M.

Mary,

I read the Q.A when it was on the forum and now regularly read Jeff's blog. The article is a great read.

Congratulations!

Jillian

David Wegwart - Denver/CO. , October 24, 2007; 06:15 P.M.

Great and informative interview. Jeff has been a real inspiration to so many and Mary keeps finding great stuff for us to enjoy/learn from.

Thanks to both Jeff and Mary for the effort and time. Best, D.

Conrad Erb - Philadelphia, PA , October 24, 2007; 08:20 P.M.

what a surprise and a contrast to find a reference to Nachtwey in an interview of a wedding photographer.

Kari Douma - Grand Rapids, Michigan , October 24, 2007; 10:11 P.M.

Thanks to Jeff to take the time to do this for us, and thanks to Mary for arranging it. This will be a great resource tool!

Paul A. - Los Angeles, CA. , October 30, 2007; 01:22 P.M.

Thanks to Jeff for the insights and to Mary for bringing us the article. Paul

Cuong Tran , November 13, 2007; 04:22 P.M.

This is an excellent article. I love this series. Thanks to Jeff and Mary.

Chad Robinson , November 20, 2007; 12:39 A.M.

Thank you for putting this together, I have taken a great deal away from this article and will no doubt read it before all of my friends weddings. The advice given here will help me in all aspects of my ameture persuits. This is the reason I came to p.net, a learner trying to gain knowledge on how to see a great moment and capture it.

Matt Sherman , November 29, 2007; 04:39 P.M.

"For many clients, unobtrusiveness means that you are letting them get on with their special day without making them stop for photographs."

Exactly! This is the single most important thing I tell other photographers and they never believe me. For many of my clients, after the wedding this is almost more important than the actual photos. Mainly due to the fact that they were able to enjoy their day.

Thanks Jeff for a great article.

Jon Streeter , November 29, 2007; 05:18 P.M.

I clicked on the link expecting to spend a couple of minutes browsing, and then I saw the magic words: "Jeff Ascough." What a pleasure to see Jeff's photographs and read what he has to say about them. It's like a seminar concentrated into -- well, I was going to say a few minutes, but I'm sure I spent the better part of an hour, and that doesn't count the time I'm going to spend reviewing the entire presentation. Thanks so much for sharing your art and your wisdom, Jeff.

Randy Hathawy , November 30, 2007; 02:01 A.M.

Thank you for this. You help improve the craft.

saqib iqbal , December 13, 2007; 04:38 A.M.

if would u like to see my pics u cant imagen .your photographery is not compleated learn more on wedding photographery.

Image Attachment: 29.jpg

marTin Zuckermann , December 28, 2007; 03:45 P.M.


Just me

Dear Jeff (and also a billion thanks to Mary for her time),

Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, you have made such an impact in my short career as a wedding photographer.

I had always believed that the lack of flash-light was a good thing, but I always see big flashes everywhere, sometimes bigger than the camera. But I knew there was a better way and you have proven to me that natural light is ALWAYS best. I come from a background of landscape photography and found out that the wise use of natural light makes the difference between good and superb photos.

Your article here has deeply impacted my career and I absorbed every single word. Your time invested, like other photographers say, has made a deep impression in my life. Your pictures now have a special folder for reference sake.

Thank you and may the Lord keep blessing you with that incredible eye of yours,

marTin Los Cabos, Mexico

tee mard , December 29, 2007; 10:06 A.M.

many thanks for you,being inspire me alot and best impact from you to know more deep about wedding photography.. congratulation!

Angela Smith , August 31, 2008; 01:01 A.M.

I am a wedding photographer as well and these pictures are very inspiring. What a great eye! Wonderful article that has truely given me new inspiration!

Shannon Hollman , September 22, 2008; 09:17 P.M.

what amazing work you do. i'm glad i found this site and your work. beautifullly done.

Lena Messana , July 19, 2009; 12:33 P.M.

Jeff, I totally love your style, right down to you making the album! You are my hero! While I usually dont do weddings as the main photographer, I do my own thing for family and friends. I capture the images almost in a similar way you do... although, flash used to be my best friend. Once I got my Nikon D40x though, I have tried to learn how to use my camera without schooling, or understanding of the terms without flash. Sometimes with success, sometimes not. I admit, I should be going to classes to learn this. But, I am going to invest in a tripod though, and maybe a difuser. I also do not stand with the camera in my face! So many things you said, made sense to me, and how I already take pictures! If I were to get married, and lived by you...you would so be hired! :)

Simon Revill , November 21, 2010; 10:21 A.M.

Great information 

rodney somogyvari , January 13, 2011; 10:28 A.M.

good read and very honest....

Mathieu de Gironde , April 08, 2014; 02:52 P.M.

thanks Jeff

very interesting tips

here's a few pictures on my side

http://gironde.weebly.com/mariage.html

 


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