I'm Not a Wedding Photographer: A Conversation with Jeff Ascough
And I’m not a pioneer of any style: I am just taking the kind of photos I like to take, using the principles of composition embraced by Cartier-Bresson and the street photography style forwarded by Klein and Winogrand, and applying them to a wedding.”
Some may beg to differ—after all, the “Ascough style” is a phrase often thrown around, referring to his black-and-white documentary wedding photography, and he is often mentioned as being one of the best wedding photographers in world. He is one of the first to successfully embrace the straight documentary, available-light approach to wedding photography that is now as familiar to most as the traditional formal style that emphasized posed groupings of wedding parties, family, and friends. Furthermore, in my opinion, Jeff brings a rock-n-roll attitude to his shooting. Not a gonzo approach, just a decision to be who he is, to shoot in the style he loves, regardless of the conventions.
A pioneer or not, the above quote taken from our hour-long interview accurately demonstrates Jeff’s no-ego approach to his own work and reputation and, indeed, our conversation was so friendly that I would have liked to continue chatting for another hour. His northern English accent that reminded me a bit of George Harrison didn’t hurt either, but then again, what do I know of Scousers?
We are B&H—gear and education are our cornerstones, so let me start off by asking, what is in your shooting kit?
At the moment I’m running two Canon 5D Mark III; in fact, they’re the only cameras I tend to use. My main lens is the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM as well; and the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM, the fisheye zoom. They’re my three main lenses and then I have three prime lenses I use if the light starts turning bad, the 50mm f/1.2L, the 28mm f/1.8 USM—that’s just a standard lens—and the 85mm f/1.8, which is also a standard EF lens. That’s pretty much it. In the U.K., the light goes quite rapidly! In the summer, a certain percentage of the shots, usually the dancing, we shoot with primes.
And you see no noticeable difference in image quality between the primes and these top-end zooms?
Not now, there always used to be, but with the Mark II versions they are, in fact, better than a lot of Canon’s old prime lenses.
Have you always used Canon gear?
I started my career shooting Hasselblad; then I switched to Canon for my first SLR in 1994, which was the EOS 100, which in the U.S. I think was a Rebel or Elan or something. Then I progressed to the professional cameras with EOS-1N. Then I had some time, 4-5 years, shooting Leica rangefinders and, in 2005, I went back to Canon with the digital SLR.
And why did you take that departure to shoot Leica, was it a natural progression or just something that you always aspired to?
Well, it was a matter of necessity really. The fastest film I was using was 320 ISO and I was having trouble shooting my style, the documentary style, in low light without resorting to flash. The Leicas allowed me to handhold the cameras and the lenses were very fast. I was shooting f/1, f/1.4 lenses, so it gave me an advantage shooting film, but as soon as digital quality went up and up I just came around to it.
What was your first digital camera?
The 1D Mark II.
Do you still have it somewhere in a closet?
No, funny enough, I have every single film camera I ever owned but not the digitals. I tend to get rid of them once they become obsolete. I feel like I have an emotional attachment to the film cameras I have used, but not so to the digital. I still have all the lenses I have ever used.
And do you regularly send in your equipment for cleaning and refurbishing?
Every year! The thing is, I’m quite old-fashioned in some ways, I am not really a gear junkie. If the body is working, which they usually are—actually I’m more concerned with the lenses—but if the lens/body combination is working properly, I am very loath to change them. So the latest camera to come through has to give me something that I don’t have already. The combination that I have at the moment really serves me well, so I see no need to change.
And what about the new Canon EOS 5DS—are you considering it?
Fifty megapixels, for my job, is overkill. And the high ISO capability of the camera is not as good as that on the 5D Mark III. Also, with that sensor, any problems with lenses or with my camera technique are going to show up on that sensor. I’m happy with what we have. For a professional product shooter or a landscape or architectural photographer, or if I was shooting studio portraits, it’d be a fantastic camera. But my needs are more toward the higher ISO capability than the bigger file sizes.
Can you talk a bit about your accessories? Bags, hard drives, computers that you use…
Computer-wise, we’re all Apple people for as long as I can remember. I’m currently running everything through a 15" Laptop with Retina display. My main editing monitor is an old Apple 30" display that I just plug into my laptop. All the back-up hard drives are G-Tech drives with USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt. And I’m actually using a gaming mouse for my work; it’s called a Razer DeathAdder. Because it’s a gaming mouse, it’s very sensitive and very accurate when using Photoshop. It works well for me. I’ve gone through the tablets, have used Wacom tablets, but prefer the feel of the mouse, really.
This year I’m running a Think Tank rolling bag, but prior had used Think Tank shoulder bags and rucksacks. There’s been a lot of traveling this year, and it’s just easier. And I use the UpStrap camera straps, which are made of Kevlar with a rubber shoulder pad with dimpling and it never falls off. It’s a small company, but the guy sent me 10-15 straps to try. These will not move off your shoulder. We wear a suit in the U.K. to weddings and most straps always fall off the shoulders but these do not budge. There’s no distributor here in the U.K., but people like Steve McCurry use them. I love ‘em.
Can we jump back a bit in time to talk about your shooting history? You started by running a photo studio business?
Yes. My father was a university professor getting ready for early retirement and he wanted to prepare himself for his next business. He liked photography and wanted to run a portrait studio. So he went ahead and found the location and bought all the gear only to have the university pull the retirement offer when the U.K went into a recession. He ended up staying another 10-15 years and he had spent all this money on the business but had nobody to run it. At the time, I had just finished school and was getting ready to go to college and he asked me if I would be interested in running it. That was my first experience with photography.
Really? You hadn’t even played around or shot a camera?
No, I was into music. Music was my first love. I always wanted to be a musician. Photography didn’t have… photography was something my Dad did! It was really uncool to have a fascination with what your dad’s doin’. But that’s how it came about. I ended up running the place and learning very quickly. I went to a college to fast-track my knowledge of photography, where I met two tutors who were into Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, and all these great photographers. That’s where my interest in photography was piqued and that’s when I decided, yeah, I would like to do what these guys did. That was it.
You were shooting all portraiture then?
Yes, people would come in to have their portraits taken and the wedding stuff started because couples would come in for a portrait of the two of them and would say, ‘well, you took a nice portrait, would you be interested in shooting our wedding, too?’ At that time, wedding photography was really like an extended portrait shoot, maybe with the church in the background; two or three hours of formal portraits back in those days. The studio which we had, the landlord decided to double the rent, but I wanted to continue my own business and carried on with weddings because I didn’t have a studio and decided weddings would be the best way to market. So I started my business with about the equivalent of $75 and a 30-year-old Hasselblad. This was in Derby, in a really run-down part of town with high crime rate; a very industrial city.
And you were still continuing to shoot in the more traditional style of group portraits?
Yes, well, it was funny. About 1992-93, Denis Reggie came over to talk at a photo show and he had this Hasselblad that he would wind so quickly and was shooting all this photojournalistic stuff. At the time I was also getting pretty disillusioned with the formal photography; it was quite depressing really to be doing the same stuff at each wedding. I was heavily into street photographers like Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, and wanted to do something other than the traditional wedding work I had been doing. So when I saw Denis operate his Hasselblad almost like a 35mm, I went and bought a prism for mine and started shooting photojournalistic images handheld. Well, with the 2 ¼-square format it was OK, but expensive to process, so very quickly I got my first Canon 35mm with the kit lens that came with it, probably an 18-200mm zoom. And as soon as I got that…
We had people booked-in for the traditional coverage and I would shoot that but, in between set-ups, I had my 35mm and Tri-X going. That was over the course of a season and, the next year when potential couples would come in for a meeting, I left the formal stuff out and would only show the 35mm black-and-white work. At the time this was new in the U.K. and my business just took off.
But these clients were still just local folks who really responded to your work? These weren’t artists or cutting-edge documentary people?
No. That came a lot later. I look back on those early pictures and they were really quite crude, but they were a different way of seeing a wedding, and I was in my early 20s, and the clients coming in were really getting it, they liked the idea of doing something completely different.
Is it fair to say that this type of shooting fit your personality, too? Did you like and were you good at gathering and posing people?
Well, I think for me, as my wife will tell you, I get bored very quickly. And the desire to change my style came from… when August, the end of the season, would come and I looked back at the last five weddings I shot and they all looked exactly the same, with the traditional style. The only thing different was the background and to me it was just boring and it wasn’t even real photography. I felt it was this photography by numbers. There was no challenge. I wanted to be what I considered to be a proper photographer, a street photographer like the greats I mentioned. And I suppose I am shy in a lot of respects, not necessarily the type who will just go up and say, ‘hey, how are you?’
When did people start seeking you out for this specific style of work?
From 1994 to ’98 the work just got bigger and bigger. I would say in 1999 I shot 80 weddings, still fairly locally, within a 40-mile radius of where I live. Then I won a couple of competitions, which got me into the mainstream bridal magazines. And once I was in the mainstream bridal magazines with my work, people were calling from all of Europe, wanting me to shoot a wedding for them. We were quickly at a stage where clients whose wedding date was already booked would ask for the number of the other client and would offer them money to change their date. It was that insane; a ridiculous, ridiculous time. At that time there were not that many photographers shooting like this. I was one up here and there were maybe two in London. So demand was very high.
It’s fair to say that this was now a different type of clientele?
Absolutely. In the U.K., the distribution of the bridal magazines was heavily in the Southeast, around London, kind of richer areas. This was pre-Internet days, so magazines were really the only way the brides could see work other than what their local photographer could do. And we had a couple of black-and-white spreads, one in a photojournalism magazine actually, that just went absolutely crazy. So all these London brides or brides who had money, or their fiancés or families who had money, suddenly saw these pictures they could have on their wedding day. And that’s when it all started. The clientele went from very locally based to the more affluent parts of the country very quickly.
Even if they knew your style and sought it out, did you ever run into problems with couples or families who also expected the formal setups and were angry when they didn’t get it?
Well, less so then than now. In those days, because we were still shooting film, there was a big restriction on shooting large amounts of images. We couldn’t shoot two or three thousand images—it was financial suicide. So we used to make sure the clients understood exactly what were going to shoot and we built latitude into the coverage to do the pictures that they wanted. It was just a case of speaking to the clients and saying this is when we can shoot this, how does that work? And if you want formals, this is when we can do it. It wasn’t very loose, it was quite structured, how we approached it, because we didn’t want to come off a wedding having shot 30-40 rolls of film. So we structured in formals but it was only 15-20 minutes out of the day.
What films did you use back then?
At one time I was sponsored by Fujifilm, so most of my work was done on Fuji. The formal stuff, back in the day—the medium format—was NPH-400 roll film. Then I used to use Fuji Neopan black-and-white. And then Kodak brought in a C-41 process black-and-white film, I think it was called TCN, and I went over to that for quite a while. Basically because we were so busy I could give this C-41 process film to the lab to do. They could print proofs for us right off the color machine and it would be very consistent. We used that for a long time, then Fuji produced their own C-41 process film and I was using that pretty much until digital took over.
I know that you shoot with your wife now, but do you have another shooter or assistant with you?
Sarah only came in last year; before that I shot on my own. One of the things were learned during the recession (of 2008) is that lots of photographers panicked and basically started offering everything and anything in order to get the work. First it was giving over the files, then 14-16 hours of coverage, then it was two or three photographers; you know, huge amounts of spending and time just to get the work. And with all the wedding photographers that have come into the industry, it has just made the pressure all the greater and the upshot is that brides are now expecting to have more than one photographer on their day. In twenty-odd years, it had never been a problem for me, but over the past, let’s say, two years, brides are almost insisting on two photographers.
So we went down the road with the idea of getting a new photographer and went through some scenarios of trying to find someone who wouldn’t then try to take clients and start their own business. And Sarah has always done our printing and managed the albums and has handled and seen hundreds of thousands of my images. And she basically said, ‘Do you mind if I give it a go?’ I gave her a camera, set it so she could almost point and shoot, and the images we got back were incredible; it was like she had been shooting for ten years. So, she’s been with me just over a year and her work keeps getting better and better.
Have you noticed that your work has changed since shooting with her?
Oh absolutely, yeah man! You know, it’s one of those things that you kind of avoid, ‘oh I don’t want another photographer around.’ But when you have two photographers, all of a sudden there is so much pressure lifted off you. I’m able to experiment more, I’m able to indulge myself in what and how I want to take. It’s fantastic in terms of renewing a meaning and giving me a focus, partly to not channel her style into mine for me, I can literally go and do what I want at a wedding. It’s a very liberating experience.
I noticed that she normally covers the groom’s preparation while you cover the bride’s prep. In some cases, you are with the bride in intimate pre-ceremony moments. How did that work out?
That’s normal for us now. The thing is that, in the U.K., the groom’s preparation is usually very short, the guys put the flowers in the buttonholes and traditionally go to a pub or directly to the ceremony to have a drink with guests. So that’s Sarah’s job, she enjoys that. The bridal preparation is a lot more involved and important to the clients so it becomes a much bigger part of the wedding day. And that’s something that I still want to do—it’s important, and my style of unobtrusive, low-light photography is well suited to that. Sarah’s style works well with groups of people, getting involved with guests, and that. It works very well for us at the moment.
Unobtrusive is a word you use a lot to describe your style. But is it hard to maintain that when you feel a need to get involved in a moment or a shot? For example, a bride just walked through a spot with incredible light but passed through it. Do you ever ask her to step back just for second?
Gary Winogrand, who took so many photos, was asked what happens when he misses a shot, when he’s changing film and this amazing picture appears on the street that he can’t shoot. He was asked, ‘How do you cope?’ And his response was, ‘if I didn’t take the photograph then the photograph never happened.’ And that’s kind of our philosophy. If I miss a bride in beautiful light, then it never happened, you have to pass on it. Our challenge is to get those images without interfering. And I always felt once you start interfering with what goes on in front of the camera, you are deciding on what the wedding is going to be. And to me this is, well, let me put it this way: I have this project with the great Don McCullin, introducing him to digital photography, and he was talking about this idea of authenticity. If, at the end of the day when you are documenting conflict or anything that has historical value, you need to document first with authenticity. Anytime you interfere or interact you lose that authenticity and we feel the same way. In our mind, eventually these photos, these documents, will be important to the family and we want to feel that what we are giving the bride at the end of the day is absolutely true to what happened on her day. That’s just the way we are.
I totally appreciate that and strive for that in my own documentary work, but it’s a dogmatic approach, if you’ll forgive me. Don’t you think the bride would appreciate you asking her for that one moment if it created a great photo?
Well, the bride won’t know that that photo never existed. It’s funny because this is the question I get all the time at workshops. There have been times when the bride is getting ready and if you asked her to do something specific or if you had better access to the room you could get better, deeper photos, but where do you draw the line? If we ask to be allowed into that room, what is next? Do I ask her to walk down the aisle again? As a photographer, I want to know that I got the image using my skills as a photographer, not my skills as a director or stage manager.
Was there a moment earlier in your career when your confidence had grown and you said to yourself I’m only going to shoot in this manner, or did it evolve?
I think, back when we still included formal photography, I figured that that was enough. If we had some formal shots completed, I could do the rest as I saw fit. It was kind of a backlash against all the formality, I was young and going to do my style and that’s that.
For the formals that you do, do you have light setups?
No. We don’t bring lights. It’s all natural. I can shoot formal pictures at 3200 ISO if necessary and that’s better than messing around with lights. I can do it and I know about studio flash but I think lighting, it’s like I said before: it’s not authentic for me and if you have lights set up it’s obviously very difficult to stay unobtrusive if you have flashes going off. So I always avoid it. Also, if I am watching a group of people and a shot is evolving, perhaps I am taking several shots one after another, and I will pick and choose later which is the best. If I were to use flash, I only get the one chance before everyone turns and changes the moment. I find it restricting. As a result of that, I’ve learned to use other light sources for formals.
Do you scout around a venue looking for the best light?
Maybe, quickly. In general, the people who come to me don’t want to spend more than five or ten minutes on the formals, but invariably if they do ask, it’s because their parents want them.
Here in the US there are certain moments that you have to capture, the first kiss at the altar, for example. I assume the same there. Say that you are about to shoot the kiss and you notice this perfect shot of the grandma crying in the pews, do you take the shot of the grandma and forego the kiss or make sure you get the kiss?
I’ll try to get them both in the same frame! Why have one when you can get both? It’s also interpretation, as well. This reminds me of a question I had at a workshop. I have a photo of a bride and her father coming through the church doorway—heavily backlit and they are in silhouette, you can’t see their faces. And because you could not see the expression on their faces, the question was, ‘Surely, the bride was upset by this, no?’ My answer is that this is a photograph, a scene of them together, a moment, and that tells you so much more than their facial expressions could. My feeling is that a photograph has to be a photograph first, if that makes sense. To your example, if the crying grandma made a great shot and I had the couple kissing, even if they were dark or out of focus, that would be enough for me and better than two photos. If that moment was encapsulated it would be better than something regimented or ‘by the book.’
One look at your website and it’s clear that one is looking more at photos by Jeff Ascough than wedding photographs. I mean, some shots don’t even look like a wedding, they’re just great photos.
I don’t really refer to myself as a wedding photographer. I’m a photographer who happens to shoot weddings.
How do you avoid repetition? Do you meet more than once with the couple before the wedding?
I try to have no expectations, no set ideas on how a wedding will be. I think that produces unnecessary pressure. I’d rather just go in and go with whatever happens. With my style, I’m quite fortunate to be able to do something different each week. It’s rare that I will do the same coverage, something’s always different. There are rhythms and you can kind of predict how people will react in similar circumstances, so that helps me avoid similar shots.
I don’t tend to talk much with clients before. I probably speak on telephone or Skype with 60% of my clients and maybe actually meet with one or two each year before the wedding. The other 40% I will communicate by email and I’ll just show up on the wedding day and go with whatever’s going on. Clients have a trust in what I’m doing and my professionalism. And when they book, it’s very gratifying that they say the one thing we didn’t have to worry about was the photography. It’s a nice place to be, they trust your judgment. And it’s not that they don’t have an interest in photography, it’s the complete opposite, they are so interested in photography, they have done their research and hired someone they trusted.
And how many weddings do you do a year?
Depends, usually about 25-30. If you eliminate holidays and vacation, it’s usually one a week.
And are you booked years in advance?
Most of my clients book six months to a year in advance. We won’t book more than 18 months in advance.
Do you handle all the business end of it, you and Sarah?
Any advice on that side of it? Lawyers, insurance, contracts? I get the sense that’s not a priority for you, but you do need to protect yourself.
Well, we have a standard contract that has been checked out by a lawyer, but we are not too heavy with it. There are two types of photographers, those that I call the go-getters, who won’t leave a client alone until they have booked, phoning them up, chasing them down. And those like us who don’t try to force people’s hand.
And without going into specifics, do you get a general outline of the wedding and its time frame and location and then get back to the client with a rate?
Yes, pretty much so. Weddings vary so much in time from 2-4 days to 2-3 hours.
Do you turn down weddings for certain reasons?
Yes, we do. We’ve turned down a lot of overseas weddings. If it’s not good for the business, we will turn them down. Travel becomes a problem and we like to do things proper. We were asked recently to go to California for a Hollywood producer’s wedding and we looked at getting the visas and work permits and we could get them, but the time frame for organizing the documentation was too short. We could have just flown over as tourists and done it but what would happen at customs with 5 cameras, 6 lenses, etc.? We could have risked it but chose not to. So, yes, travel can be a problem and we have refused also for safety reasons to not go to certain countries.
Do you hear yourself being called a pioneer of documentary style, and what do you think of that and what do you think of the quantity of people doing a variation on documentary style now? Is it a trend? Is it generational or cyclical?
When I hear ‘pioneer’ it is a very strange thing because what I’m doing is just taking photographs. My work is based on compositional ideas that were introduced in the 1930s and ’40s. Everything that I have done has been done before. I just apply it to a different genre. The way that I shoot people is very much based on street photography. I’m not really pioneering anything, I’ve been called a pioneer loads of times but am just applying styles of photographers who I admire to a situation that happens to be a wedding.
I think also it is a generational thing. I remember going to the house of a client and seeing fifteen William Klein photos hanging on the wall; three rows of five street photos, all signed. What she said was that the pictures she wanted for her wedding could fit within this style. Now, of the new photographers, I think very few actually get it. Anyone in their 20s who wants to shoot weddings may come across my work, the work of Joe Buissink, Denis Reggie, David Oliver of Australia, and that’s what they base their work on, without going back and learning from the masters of the 20th Century. I think they copy ‘our’ work rather than go back to their own roots, their souls, and push that forward. There are people like Jonas Peterson who have definitely gone back and created something unique. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it is true and honest. I think that many photographers who I came up with did what was close to them and applied it to wedding work. I wish more photographers would do that, but I see many younger shooters trying to be someone else.
Do you shoot RAW or RAW + JPEG?
Everything is shot in RAW. I started in JPEG but once the RAW software became good enough to work on them in a reasonably fast manner, that’s what I began to shoot.
I read that you shoot about 30-40% in color? Do you know at the moment of exposure if the image will be color or black-and-white, and you adjust it accordingly?
And what about post-processing? Do you make contrast and color adjustments? Do you have rules in terms of how much you will adjust? Or is it case by case?
The thing with digital is that the dynamic range is just enormous and because we print our pictures on paper and want them to have as close as possible to a “film” feel. So the processing is changing the structure of the file to print more film-like.
And what management software do you use?
I prefer Photo Mechanic and I use Alien Skin’s Exposure plug-in.
Do you shoot in Manual mode?
I tend to shoot in Aperture priority, that’s just me. Sarah has a completely unique way of shooting, but I’ve always been comfortable with Aperture priority since starting with Canon SLRs. Sarah has a hybrid style with manual and auto ISO. It’s really weird, she uses ISO to keep her shutter speeds within set parameters and then she brings in the aperture she’s going to use. One of the reasons she does this is because she doesn’t want her photos going below 1/12 of a second. Everything is geared toward that.
Is she also with the 5D Mark III?
No, she uses the Canon 6D.
What do you end up giving to the client? Is it prints, a book, the files?
Well it’s a combination of all of the above. Initially, we will charge for our time on the wedding day based on the number of hours and travel. Then, once the photography is done, the client will see a gallery of images and it will be up to them as to what they want. Some have pictures on the wall, some have albums, some both, it just depends. One thing that has changed over the past two to three years is that the idea of presenting a set package has kind of missed the boat. Even with albums, people want very different, specific things—photo books, traditional leather albums, digital photo books, what have you.
And if people ask, you will provide it?
I’ll conclude with what is maybe a question you get asked often. Because your work is so applicable to other lines of photography, from documentary series to editorial and news, do you have a desire to apply your skills to other work and as a follow-up, what do you see yourself shooting in ten years time?
As far as ten years down the line, if I wasn’t doing weddings, I would say my second love is landscapes. I could see myself just shooting landscapes, but not traditionally, obviously; in a darker, more brooding style.
An editor once asked me why I don’t shoot for magazines, and I answered that during a wedding I get to shoot everything that I want in one day from documentary to still life to portraits. A lot of my best landscape work has come during a wedding. Many times I will conclude a wedding album with a wide-open landscape. I can indulge in what I want to shoot and I think that is why I still love it, because I don’t treat it as ‘wedding photography,’ just as photography.
To see more of Jeff Ascough's work, visit his website.