A Conversation with David Ziser: Master Wedding and Portrait Photographer (Part I)
David Ziser is a famous wedding photographer who regularly lectures on the craft. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, David has photographed weddings for years, and was one of the first photographers to make a full transition from film to the digital world. Besides lecturing, David also offers lots of tutorials on his blog, Digital Pro Talk.
We had the opportunity to talk with the wedding great for a bit. This is Part I of his perspective on the photo industry.
B&H: You’ve been doing this (wedding & portrait photography) for a long time. What are the three biggest changes or turning points in the W&P industry that you’ve seen over the span of your career?
The first big change was the “look” of wedding photography. I remember when I first entered the business. I was just trying my best to get the event covered, aiming to capture all the important aspects of the wedding for my client. Then, in those early days, I started attending seminars from the top speakers at the time. One of the earliest influences in wedding photography was Bill Stockwell—the father of the Misty MadCaps, Buttercup, and the infamous double exposure. Any photographer looking back these days at those kinds of images would probably roll their eyes and say, "You call that wedding photography?" But nevertheless, Bill was probably the strongest influence on wedding photography back in the middle 70’s.
Looking back at the late 70’s and early 80’s, there were three major influential photographers teaching at that time. They were Bill Stockwell, Rocky Gunn, and Monte Zucker. Bill opened photographers' eyes to image possibilities that they never would've thought of before. Rocky Gunn introduced spectacular outdoor wedding photography to the wedding market. And Monte Zucker introduced the beautiful classical portrait to wedding photography. All three of these photographers’ influences could be seen throughout wedding photography from the late 70’s through the early 90’s.
My friend, Denis Reggie, introduced wedding photojournalism to the wedding scene in the early 90’s. Denis' view was 180° out of phase with the wedding shooters of the time. His approach was a completely “hands off” photojournalistic approach to wedding coverage. He made some great points, and garnered a great audience for many years.
The second major change that transformed wedding photography was the introduction of the reasonably-priced digital SLR. In the late 1990’s the only option was Kodak's digital camera, which cost around $25,000. It was late in 1999 that Fuji introduced their Fuji S1 Pro—the first reasonablypriced DSLR coming in at about $6000. Now, wedding photographers had a camera that could easily offset the cost of film, and they could get instant gratification from their wedding shoots.
Fuji was good enough to get me one of those cameras, and I began shooting digital in the third quarter of 1999. I remember traveling to the Photo East show in October/November of that year, with a beautiful album of all-digital wedding photographs. The president of Fuji USA came over to the booth where I was showing the album and proclaimed, “Wow, these images look better than our film images!" Needless to say, I agreed, and was quite flattered with his complimentary remark.
That was really the start of my film-to-digital transition. We were fully “digital” within the next 12 to 18 months. Interestingly enough, many photographers didn't begin their transition until much later—the mid-2000's. It's also interesting to note that when I speak to audiences these days, I ask how many have ever shot film, and fewer and fewer hands are going up. Needless to say, digital cameras have been the biggest game changer in our profession.
The third big change that we've all witnessed in the wedding profession is the fact that what used to be 80% male is now 55/45% favoring the female shooter. Wedding photographers, overall, have also become a much younger breed. Hey, that's a good thing. The ladies bring a certain sensitive perspective to their photography, and the younger photographers, in general, are not afraid to try something new, and are really bringing some very beautiful imagery and creativity to the wedding profession.
B&H: Who inspired you in the past, and does anyone inspire you now?
The earliest influence in my profession, I would have to say, would be Monte Zucker. He introduced me to a very classical look in wedding photography, and taught me how to make people look great in front of the camera. The other major early influence of my career was Rocky Gunn. Rocky showed me that I didn't have to get all my great photographs on the wedding day. Rather, I could create some amazing images when the time, light, and circumstances were perfect. With that in mind, I built my career making beautiful, pictorial wedding images.
Today we have some great shooters, too. Probably, my favorite wedding shooter would be Jerry Ghionis, hailing from Australia. Jerry has always had an innate creative sense that allows him to produce images that are striking, unusual, exciting, and beautiful. In fact, Jerry is presenting, and he's also doing a full-day presentation, at our upcoming PhotoPro Expo on February 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
B&H: What advice do you have for today's up-and-coming photographers who want to enter this very competitive field?
That's a great question. Back in the film days, you could easily support yourself and your family as a full-time wedding photographer. Anyone shooting photographs made a fairly large commitment to camera gear, film, and processing costs for each job. Sure, there were a large number of part-timers shooting weddings, but the monetary commitment made most shooters strive to do the very best for their clients.
With the film/cost limitation removed in our digital days, we've seen this tsunami wave of brand-new photographers entering the market. As you said, it's become quite competitive out there, shooting. My quick advice to someone entering this very competitive field would be, first and foremost: Be sure you have a passion for photography, and wedding photography in particular.
Secondly, I would advise not specializing exclusively in wedding photography. The number of shooters out there these days has really diluted the market. A lot of wedding shooters now offer additional photographic services as well. Two of my good friends—Bambi Cantrell and Lynn Michelle—offer boudoir photography, and are doing quite well.
And thirdly, I would say, "get connected and stay connected." Get connected to all your wedding vendors in the area, and let them know who you are and what you are about. Get connected with your buying public through blogging and Facebook. Then, once you're connected, be sure you stay connected via follow-up appointments, phone calls, blog posts, and Facebook updates. The only photographer that's going to make it in today's market is a photographer that works three times harder than the competition. Back in the day, we could “rest on our laurels,” and know we would still book weddings. In today's market, you’ve got to be adept at not just your craft, but also in your marketing and sales skills.
B&H: We know you are a W&P guy, but we see plenty of landscape and cityscape images on your blog, Digital Pro Talk. Is there a different thought process that goes into your making of personal images versus “business” images? Also, do you have a favorite place where you’ve taken photos?
I have to tell you, I just love shooting non-wedding-related imagery. I feature a lot of landscapes on my blog, Digital Pro Talk, but, if you'll notice, I also feature a lot of abstract images as well. For me, in “my mind’s eye” I see lines, shapes, forms, and colors, and I love tying all those elements together in my photographic compositions. When visiting Yosemite National Park, the "Ansell Adams" side of me starts to show itself. Yosemite National Park has probably been my favorite place to photograph over the last five years.
B&H: We see many of your posted images are taken with the Canon 18-200 lens. Do you have a favorite lens or piece of gear?
You're right, that Canon 18–200mm lens sure has been my lens of choice for many of the images I post on my blog. And I take a lot of flak for that. Folks are constantly questioning why I'm not using one of Canon's L-series lenses, or any of the other more-expensive optics out there. The answer to this is really quite simple. When traveling, the 18–200mm lens is simply my lens of choice because it gives me a full range of focal lengths to shoot with. The bottom line is this: It's just a very convenient lens to use.
You’ll also see me using this lens on my wedding posts. The reason for this is that I do a lot of teaching and, once again, the 18-200mm allows me to teach very efficiently. I'm not wasting time changing lenses to get a certain shot. It’s just very efficient and convenient for me when teaching my students. At that point, it’s about the image, not the glass.
My favorite lens when shooting a regular wedding? The super-sharp 24–105mm L-series lens by Canon. I use this lens for most of the important photographs, such as family groups, bridal portraits, and bridal pictorials. I'm also a wide-angle-lens fanatic, and really enjoy both of Sigma’s wide-angle optics. That would include the 8–16mm lens on my Canon 7D, and also their 12–24mm lens for my Canon 5D Mark II.
For outdoor portraits, there's only one lens I use: Canon's 70–200mm IS f/2.8. I shoot most of the time at f/4, which gives me great background separation from the subjects. And for reception candids, I'm going to be using Canon’s 18–200mm lens, because it makes it easy for me to capture the overall view of the wedding reception, and also gives me the ability to zoom in closely to get those "reach out and touch somebody" candids that I love to make part of my coverage.
Stay tuned, we'll publish Part II soon.
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