5 Required Steps for an Excellent Wedding Photo, with Jerry Ghionis
Australia's Jerry Ghionis has a reputation for being one of the world's top wedding photographers, and he has a system of five steps to create the perfect image: Lighting, Location, Pose, Technique, and Expression. On behalf of B&H, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ghionis about his background, techniques, and upcoming US workshop tour. I also asked him to give me some unique insight into these individual steps.
According to Ghionis, some inexperienced photographers put too much emphasis on location, since lighting is the key to photography. "I answer the lighting question by going to [step] Number Two [location]. Most photographers who are inexperienced, arguably, will look for the location first and the lighting 'is what it is;' and dismiss the lighting. 'Go against that wall,' or 'Go against that backdrop,' or whatever it is. I'm looking for pockets of light and beauty of light."
He continues, "I either find the good light or create the good light, if the location attracts me before beautiful light. Number One, I always look for a beautiful little pocket of light and I have tunnel vision for lighting that is going to compliment and flatter my subject." When artificial light is needed, Ghionis often uses the Westcott ICE Light, a versatile tool, designed by Ghionis to enhance the lighting in a particular setting.
While he’s not one to shy away from a spectacular background, Ghionis says that it is not critical to a successful image. "As far as background is concerned, early in my career, I used to focus on the background quite substantially, even if there was good light in it. Now, I almost squint… to see what that wall will look like out of focus. Often these days, I am often getting my couple off my background so it is just a compliment and it supports my subject rather than being enveloped in it. It's really about the people, the faces, and the expression."
#3, 4, and 5. Posing, Technique, and Expression
Ghionis blends his final steps effortlessly, at least his description of them, into a cumulative process to create the final image. "I think of Number Three as the architecture. Because my style is glamorous and natural, the pose is first. I give them an excuse to be in a situation. I set up the architecture. No emotion yet. Then I go back and compose my image and get my exposure right. Then I make my final tweaks in that pose―I call that ‘expression,’ because of where the face is, the eyes, the hands―that is all expressive. Then I evoke the emotion and the expression." He offers this final thought, "A pose without emotion is just a pose. A pose with emotion is a beautiful moment."
Ghionis is best known for his wedding photography, but he has been doing a combination of wedding, portrait, boudoir, and fashion photography for well over 20 years and he has seen a lot of "trends come and go" while he has stayed, more or less, in the "fashion-style" of wedding photography. His love of cameras and photography started at a young age and, after assisting several wedding photographers for years, he started out on his own with a medium format camera and hand-softened, nail-polish-coated filters used to blur the edges of the frame. Jerry is able to laugh at himself when he looks back at his early work but he states that "what stays forever is classic, beautifully posed, beautifully directed, beautifully lit, beautiful storytelling, well-crafted photography. That will certainly never go out of style."
In today's developed world, almost everyone has a camera with them at all times; be it a point-and-shoot, SLR, or cell-phone camera. This has, according to Ghionis, "de-mystified the magic behind what we do." Because of the propagation of the camera into so many hands, he feels that there is an increased emphasis on making high-quality images that stand out from the rest by containing a beautiful storytelling element.
Keeping himself on the leading edge of the industry is a bigger challenge these days because of several factors. Ghionis sees a shrinking wedding-photography industry as he feels that there are now fewer weddings, more photographers, and fewer people willing to pay top dollar for a professional photographer. In his early days, he managed a studio of 15 employees that covered more than 300 weddings in a single year. Today, he likes to personally focus his craft on 20 or so really good weddings annually.
Ghionis also feels that not only has the accessibility of digital photography taken a little away from the "tangible results" of the photograph, but clients are spending less time appreciating the results of fine wedding photography as we are now in the age of "flipping" through the onslaught of digital photographs available on the Web and social media. He does not see himself as a trend follower, but he strives to maintain his position in the market simply by maintaining the highest-quality product: service that he can produce, coupled with a magnetic personality. "I believe your work is a reflection of who you are; in any art form. I am the most in love I have ever been and the happiest I have ever been so my work is very sensual, very passionate, and more sophisticated than it used to be. And, naturally, with every shoot that I do, it becomes more like that."
A lot of what Ghionis does these days, when he is not shooting, is helping others become better photographers. When it comes to advice for those just starting out in the fashion/wedding photography world, Ghionis first tells those trying to gain a foothold in the business to not "take shortcuts." He feels that the days of assisting and apprenticing have faded over the years and that there is a lot to be gained by "carrying bags" for a professional photographer instead of starting fast and gaining early experience on a paying wedding client instead of through "practice, experience, and repetition."
He also suggests that most photographers need to focus more on the professional business aspects of the business and less on the art. He considers himself "a businessman during the week and an artist on the weekend," and he sees where others have failed to focus on the business aspect of being a professional photographer and that has limited their success. Ghionis also has advice for veteran wedding and fashion photographers. Over the years he has seen many photographers in the business start out successfully, yet they fail to evolve with the market and then start to lose business to the "fresh, young, passionate, energetic, fearless young photographer who is willing to take all the risks and 'go for it.' " He encourages freshening your work and marketing to new clientele. Marketing, he says, is not a website and Facebook and Twitter feed, it is getting out and meeting clients and vendors and making one-on-one contact with potential business. To stay fresh, Ghionis says, "Don't revert to pose #23 with bride #47 with location #22. Why not try something different? Challenge yourself to create one different shot in every single location that you have never done before."
"He considers himself "a businessman during the week and an artist on the weekend," and he sees where others have failed to focus on the business aspect of being a professional photographer and that has limited their success."
Herb Ritts, Ghionis says, is one of his primary influences. "I love his style for its simplicity, its elegance, and its beauty. He didn't need much to correct an amazing photograph and that is something I strive for today."
Ghionis has said, in the past, that he draws a lot of his inspiration from movies, fashion, and music. As a fellow photographic artist, I wanted to dig deeper into how he draws this inspiration. "It's a weird thing. I have a constant inner dialog. Even if I am walking the streets and going shopping, I will see something which reminds me of something which reminds me of an instance into my life and I will tell that story in my head until there is a period to that sentence. And then I will see something else and tell that story." He continues, "It's exhausting in one way, but I have learned to live with it. I know we all have it to a certain extent, but I feel that my senses, in that context, are very heightened because it is like a muscle that you exercise."
He says that, even when he comes up with something he feels is new and unique, inevitably he will find that it actually came from a source of inspiration that he had been exposed to in the past. "Anyone who believes they are totally original and unique is totally ridiculous. You are a product of everything you've seen, everything that you've lived, you've eaten, you've touched; all of the senses combined. Whether you are conscious of it or not, we are all influenced by something. It doesn't mean that we don't try to be innovative, but it is recycling things that you have seen and adding your own flavor that gives you that interest." To stay energized and fresh, Ghionis often does personal shoots for his own creative benefit.
Ghionis never intended to be an educator, but fell into the role after asking to be a speaker at a seminar. I asked him to analyze where his newfound passion for teaching originates. "I realized, without being too deep, that once we are dead and gone, the only thing you leave is your influence and your legacy. I certainly do that with my photography, but I think [teaching] is a responsibility for those in a leadership position to teach a new generation and teach them properly and maintain the respect given to our industry. There is nothing better than waking up to an email that says, 'Jerry, last week's workshop changed my life because I am making more money, having a better lifestyle, I'm pleasing my clients more, I am being more creative; your energy has rubbed off on me, and I am off and running.' I mean, that is a beautiful gift that not many people can claim. I love the fact that I can make a difference."
Photography remains his first passion, and Ghionis feels that, in order to teach, you must stay active and current as a photographer. He also runs the ICE Society educational website. ICE stands for Inspire, Challenge, Educate, and the website features 81 chapters of instructional videos and information available to subscribers. Ghionis adds new content every month. He also offers the PicPockets Web app that showcases imagery from the world's 20 top photographers, along with exposure data and a back story on how they captured each image.
Ghionis is getting ready to share how he makes his magical fashion, portrait, and wedding images in a 9-week tour of the United States, covering 33 cities, this autumn. The workshops, sponsored by MZed, will feature a daytime session and a nighttime session on each scheduled day in the selected cities.
Ghionis is very excited about his upcoming tour and he emphasizes that it will be completely different than other workshops he has done in the past. This will be his first solo tour in the United States, and it will feature Ghionis shooting real models in front of people while tethered to a large screen so that attendees can see his images in real time. The workshop will feature studio and location shooting using natural light, artificial light on camera, off camera, and other lighting tools. Ghionis is excited that the students will see the images in their raw form right out of the camera while he illustrates his five-step process to an incredible photograph. The evening sessions of the workshop will include a segment on how to draw emotion out of your subjects and how he created and photographed a wedding in 3D. Students will don 3D glasses to see the images.
Ghionis concludes his interview with a teaser for us. On his US tour he will be releasing a "re-invention" of a staple of the photographer's tool kit, so stay plugged into Explora for a release announcement in the near future.