Destination wedding photographers can run into all sorts of issues from inclement weather to gear malfunctions. But pros prepare, which, when combined with technical prowess and creativity, makes for great photography. Still, nothing could prepare Charleton Churchill for the tragic events of April 25, 2015, in Nepal and its neighboring countries. The Northern California-based photographer was trekking in the Himalayas to document a Colorado couple that was about to be married in one of the most dramatic locations on Earth when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck.
Digital Photo Pro: How did you end up in Nepal to do a wedding shoot?
Charleton Churchill: We were trying to go to Everest Base Camp. I had been planning to photograph a wedding there for a few years. This one couple, Jen and Erik, were avid hikers from Colorado who did the fourteeners quite often as well as other mountains and loved my work and were excited by the idea. We clicked immediately. They wanted to go with a trekking outfit that slept at Base Camp so we teamed up with a group from Mountain Madness.
The concept of doing a wedding shoot in the Himalayas came from my initial idea to climb Mt. Everest in 2011. I had to drop that after breaking my tailbone coming down Mt. Hood in 2009. But I thought the ideal unique adventure-wedding shoot would be at Everest Base Camp with Everest in the background.
What equipment did you bring with you?
CC: Minimal gear since we were trekking in. I had the Nikon 810 and Nikon 750 bodies.
I left the 24-120mm lens on the Nikon 750 most of the time for documentary shots. I also carried the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm primes. I left the 70-200mm f2.8 at home. The Nikon 750 is a really popular camera for weddings because it has a great dynamic range even up to ISO 10,000. It’s great in extremely low light. With the Nikon 810, I don’t like the noise at high ISOs. I also packed in the powerful Profoto B2 for the bright snow conditions along with a Profoto OCF 2’ Octa Softbox and an umbrella, just in case I wanted to get some soft lighting for night shots with the newlyweds at Base Camp.
But the forces of nature got in the way of those plans.
CC: We were in Namche Bazaar on the Himalaya Trail when the earthquake struck.
The town is located on the side of a hill. I sprinted out of the hotel to an open area, which wasn’t very open but good enough to get a panoramic view of my surroundings so I could jump or run if I needed. The trekking group had about 20 customers plus the leaders and 36 Sherpa and 26 yak. Everyone was OK physically. The group leadership made the decision that it was best for everyone’s safety to hike back to Lukla when the trail opened back up, then fly to Kathmandu rather than continue to Everest Base Camp.
At first Jen and Erik didn’t want to get married because of the trauma and tragedy all around us, but after some discussion the idea to turn tragedy into triumph or rather, rubble into redemption, emerged. The guide suggested a monastery about a quarter of a mile off the main Everest Trail between Namche and the airport at Lukla. Since the wedding couple didn’t bring any guests—it was more of an elopement— everybody became part of the wedding group, an extended family. They were all clapping, cheering and crying. It was very emotional.
How did you document the wedding?
CC: I had no idea what was going to happen at the wedding…nobody did. We were in a tiny room with everyone crammed in like sardines. I couldn’t move. Two windows were pushing harsh light in our direction, with Jen and Erik sitting in the center of those two windows. It became a challenge to photograph them, even with the Nikon D750 since no flash was allowed in the monastery, and there was no artificial lighting or electricity. Because it was pretty dark inside I took off the 24-120mm lens and used the 50mm f1.4 on one camera body and the 85mm f1.4 on the other to get the exposures I needed.
Since it was a midday wedding, and lighting is always challenging, the Profoto really helped for the exterior shots. I just used the bare flash since we were short on time. I asked one of the Sherpas to hold my B2 and aim it at them. Without that strobe it would have just been a white sky, so I needed to bring the ambient light down to get some detail.
Where are some of the other exotic locations you’ve worked in?
CC: Last November I traveled to Alaska. We hiked in a snowstorm to an ice cave with a couple for their engagement session. It was seven miles round trip with a short window of light. We captured some icy-blue cave images, as well as some epic blizzard style shots. BHLDN provided an amazing dress and accessories. We had a makeup/hair stylist hiking in with us as well. It was a personal project I planned within three weeks. I told myself, get out and shoot something brave and creative.
What goes into the decision-making in terms of a location?
CC: I share with couples my background and style of photography. They tell me where they’ve been and what they desire. I challenge my couples with locations and say something like, “Why not?” A couple I talked with last week told me about their trip to Denali, where I’ve actually hiked to the summit and led a team. They had flown into base camp. I said it would be awesome to do their engagement session there. They said, “Really?” That’s where the “Why not?” comes in.
Some of these more exotic shoots I’ve done as an investment to catapult my adventure wedding photography niche. I do many weddings all around Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, places like that. Sometimes we’ll shoot the wedding on Sunday, then on Monday we’ll go hiking for a shoot. I might take them to Half Dome or another cliff, depending on their skill level. One has a 4,000-foot drop. Pretty epic. But I’ll keep most couples to the wilderness and away from danger. Safety is my utmost concern for anyone. If they’re a bit clumsy or awkward in their posture or hiking I’m going to gauge what’s safe for them. I don’t mess around.
How did you get the shot of the couple on the beach in Kauai with the stars?
CC: It was an eight second shot at midnight after the reception. I told them I had this vision in my head and to trust me. They were tired, but agreed. They loved the end result. We drove an hour to the location and I took around eight photos and we were finished. I first tried it with the flash facing them but it was too strong, so I ended up experimenting, firing off the flash four times in that eight seconds facing up and slightly backwards, which brought in just enough light. I was at 4000 ISO.
I use a lot of fill light for weddings using the Profoto B1 and B2 for family photos and creative couple shots. For outdoor shoots, I’ll sometimes use a bare flash, an Octabank, an OCF 2’ Octa Softbox, or a Profoto Beauty Dish. If I’m in the wilderness I’m carrying the Profoto B2, as it’s only 3 ½ pounds and very powerful with HSS capability. If I’m at a wedding in town I’ll use the more powerful B1. An assistant usually holds it. During the reception I’ll use Speedlights. I just started using the MagMod setup, which is magnetic. It pops on really quick and gives a bigger spread. I’m still experimenting with it, but so far I like it.
What are your typical settings for indoor reception shots?
CC: It changes often, but usually I start at 1600 ISO and go up to 5000 ISO on my Nikon 750. I’ll shoot around 1/125th usually, or down to 1/60th to get more ambient light. I always carry two cameras. At the reception, one is with a fixed 35mm and one with an 85mm (or 70-200 if I want to remain anonymous). I’ll use the 16-35mm if I want get in closer and include more. I shoot both fairly wide open. If it’s a first dance, I’ll have an assistant holding a light on the other side of the room to get some backlight or I’ll set up three or four Speedlights. Other times, it’s just a Speedlight on my camera. I’m always changing it up, trying to do something different at each wedding.
What’s your price range for weddings?
CC: I start at $4,000 for smaller weddings around my area, and couples can expect to pay around $14,000 for my upper end packages. I shoot around 40 weddings in a year, plus engagement sessions and many other add-on sessions. I’m already nearly booked up for this year. Tahoe and Napa are popular locations for destination weddings.
How did you get into photography and then focus in on weddings as a specialty?
CC: I was training to climb Mt. Everest and got into photography because I wanted to be able to skillfully photograph the mountain as I climbed it. I did a lot of photography on Denali in 2007 and 2008. In 2008 I also shot a few weddings with a friend and then threw myself into it full force. I started getting phone calls and it quickly evolved into a thriving business and I started shooting everywhere. My love for the outdoors and wedding photography is the perfect marriage.
What were you planning to do as a career up until that point?
CC: I was involved in working with high school and junior high students, trying to make an impact with teens through our local church. I have been involved with campus life and youth groups since the end of high school. My wife is an amazing second grade teacher and I have three beautiful girls. I still have the idea of starting an outdoor program for teenagers in my area. I had a challenging upbringing as a teen and there were people around me who helped me so I want to give back. As for the outdoors, my dad is a huge wilderness man—fishing, hunting, backpacking, camping and hiking. He dragged me everywhere. When I went to college I decided to take on mountaineering, hiking high-altitude mountains. I’ve climbed quite a few mountains: Rainer, Shasta, Mt. Hood, Baker, Denali, to name a few. Yosemite is 2.5 hours away from me, so I’ve done the 17-mile round trip hike to Half Dome over 40 times.
You recently received the 2016 Sony Impact Award at the WPPI in Las Vegas for your work in the Himalayas.
CC: The award was for giving back to the Nepalese people through photography. The Sherpas on our team lost their homes, but instead of going back to their villages they stayed with us. A father showed me around the villages where homes were crushed and I was able to capture their story and be a voice for them back here in the States. As a group we raised $90,000 through a gofundme account set up through Mountain Madness. The money will be used to help rebuild homes destroyed in the earthquake. We felt it was important to help the local Nepalese people.
To see more of Charleton Churchill’s work visit charletonchurchill.com