Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Cliff Mautner

Cliff Mautner

Wedding (U.S.A.)

Love, Light and Magic

Tapped as one of the world's top ten wedding photographers by American PHOTO Magazine, Cliff Mautner's professional career spans 29 years. For the first 17 years, he worked as a photojournalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he handled approximately 6,000 assignments. For over 800 weddings and counting, Mautner uses his unique insight and perspective to photograph one of the most important days in a couple's life together, which has resulted in numerous prestigious awards such as the Grand Award of WPPI.

From photojournalism to wedding photography

In my 29 years as a professional photographer, I have experienced just about everything in this business.

Back in 1981, I started as a photojournalist for a small newspaper, where I stayed for two years, then spent 15 years as a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I shot around 6,000 assignments during my time there, and then left around 1997. I've shot around 800 weddings since then, and was named one of the top ten wedding photographers by American PHOTO Magazine.

From posing to telling stories — the shift from medium format to 35mm digital SLR

Wedding photography has changed tremendously over the past couple of decades. It used to be a very stagnant form of shooting. It was formulaic, and based on simple recipes: a bride and groom looking at the camera from behind a big tree, for example, or a gazebo shot. As the technology changed from medium-format cameras to 35mm cameras, and with the advent of photojournalism, there emerged a demand for more candid photography and it became less staged. It became more about a story and capturing moments.
To me, the moments are paramount as a photojournalist. I think nothing is more important than the moments themselves. The emotions, the relationships people share and the evolution of wedding photography are incredibly important when talking about what wedding photography is.

Today, it is about the love a couple shares, about the relationship of mother and daughter, the relationships of the groom and his family, and telling the story through the day in a candid fashion that contains real moments, these are the intricate parts we capture today. In a nutshell, a wedding photographer creates an artistic interpretation of the day. Some of the best traditional elements of yesteryear — family portraits, bride and groom in full length, a bride looking at the camera — some of those staples are still involved, but it's more artistic than it used to be.

Establishing a unique style

If I had to explain what makes my work different, it would be the style that I bring to the table. For the lack of a better word, it's the skill set that I think I have acquired: the very specific way that I use light, lenses and cameras. It's how I manipulate light to create texture, dimension and mood with that light to create more drama in these images. I try to take a moment that may be very nice to begin with, and then incorporate beautiful light to create a beautiful image. So, the combination of my photojournalistic instinct and ability to use beautiful light in photographs is perhaps the difference that people see in my work.

However, I also think a lot stems from an understanding of the equipment. The technical elements have to be innate. Otherwise, it's impossible to create striking images. Technical elements come first, and then the creative process. When you combine them, that's when you achieve beautiful imagery.

How to cope with given light

As a wedding photographer, I don't get to choose the time of day when I shoot. I don't get to choose the time of year or the kind of light. This is the environment in which I learned my trade. If I have a portrait session at 2 o'clock on a July afternoon, I need to be able to do that. I can't tell the mother of a bride to change the time of the ceremony from 11:30 to 4 o'clock just to accommodate my light. So I learned a long time ago that I had to take that bad light and make it good light. Otherwise, I would be running for open shade and hiding in this very simple, flat condition that quite honestly I don't like.

So, I learned to be perfectly at home in uncontrollable light. That is my studio. The sun is the most fabulous studio light that we have, and I am able to incorporate that light at various times of day, depending on where I can place my subject and my camera. I find quite beautiful images by manipulating position and equipment for difficult light. It was really a matter of necessity to learn how to use that difficult light, and now I am at home with it.

My friend, Joe McNally says that I am a problem solver, and that's what I do. When I find myself in a difficult situation, I try to solve the particular problem, work around it or use it to my advantage. That's exactly what I do with harsh light.

Wedding photography and high-resolution cameras

The D3S is my workhorse camera right now. What will be my workhorse camera tomorrow? I don't know, but I can tell you that after being introduced to the D800, with its image quality and impact, I am impressed. Impact is a key word here — the impact that these files have just blows me away. The image quality, the sharpness and the resolution are unprecedented. We can now shoot with such confidence that these images are going to hold, and that they are going to be unbelievably sharp no matter what size we print them. There is no doubt that this will be my go-to camera during certain portions of the day.

Back in the day, when weddings were predominantly photographed with medium-format cameras, I remember when 35mm began influencing the wedding industry. The quality was nearly as good as it is today, but 35mm allowed us to do things medium format could not do, for example the speed at which we were able to work. However, with this type of camera, there is no more compromise. If you want to shoot an entire wedding on this camera, you will have medium-format quality from start to finish. Personally, I will be incorporating the D800 with my D3S for very specific areas such as portraits. There is no substitute for high resolution in many situations, so I think it may recall the medium-format days, but without the same sacrifices to speed and ISO performance. People used to thumb their nose at 35mm, but here we have an amazing piece of technology that gives us medium-format resolution.

One of the things I've always wanted to do, but haven't had enough time for is a side business solely for portraiture. This camera would be the perfect portrait photographer's camera. Now photographers have at their disposal a medium-format 35mm portrait camera. Medium format was the choice before. The D800 will be the choice from now on.

Will there be any difference in my preparation for a shoot?
The answer, honestly, is no. It's going to be a seamless introduction to my workflow, and how I work during the day. It's not something I have to think about. I will instinctively know when I need to use this camera.

Discover more about Cliff Mautner's world of photography