I might just be attuned to the theme, but I hear and read a lot about storytelling in photography. This, of course, is what photo essays are about - the narrative form perfected by Life magazine among...
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: Around 1994, about five years into my career as a
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
Finding and using natural light vs. flash
In my world, sufficient light means enough illumination to get a
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
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
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
out any sort of large light modifier just to do two or three formal
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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