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Cliff Mautner: A Photojournalistic Approach To Wedding Photography

How this photographer uses photojournalism techniques to document nuptials
A Photojournalistic Approach to Wedding Photography
Mautner shot this photo during a Bedeken, an element before a Jewish ceremony where the groom veils the bride. “It’s literally the moment where the bride and groom set eyes upon one another on their wedding day,” says Mautner. “The bride’s name is Shira, the groom is Jake, and it was taken at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia.”

Mautner shot this photo during a Bedeken, an element before a Jewish ceremony where the groom veils the bride. “It’s literally the moment where the bride and groom set eyes upon one another on their wedding day,” says Mautner. “The bride’s name is Shira, the groom is Jake, and it was taken at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia area-based Cliff Mautner is well into his fourth decade as a professional photographer. During that time, he’s not only effectively transitioned from film to digital, but he’s also changed focus from working as a photojournalist to a wedding photographer. Plus, he’s taken on a variety of corporate and commercial work.

But just how did this photographer, who’s a Nikon Ambassador and two-time WPPI Grand Award Winner for Photojournalism, successfully make the leap into the highly competitive and ever-evolving arena of wedding photography? Mautner credits his broad background and finely tuned skill set. But perhaps most of all, he admits that he needed to adjust his approach to photography.

Digital Photo Pro: What are the main differences between a photojournalistic approach to wedding photography and a traditional approach to the big day?

Cliff Mautner: It can mean different things to different photographers. The [photojournalistic] purist would ideally document a wedding day in a truly reportage style. This would mean that the subjects would be completely unaware of the camera.

Cliff Mautner: A Photojournalistic Approach to Wedding Photography
“This is Bobby and Amy,” says Mautner, “seconds after they walked down the aisle at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, placing flowers at the gravesite of Bobby’s grandparents, who raised him.” This image won WPPI’s Grand Award for Photojournalism.

For me, that’s simply not feasible. My clients expect some of the traditional elements of wedding photography. Meticulously lit family photos and stunning dramatic portraits are a part of my coverage. These are moments that are obviously not photojournalistic in nature, but they’re a necessary element of just about every wedding day.

I was a photojournalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, shooting 6,000 assignments in my 15-year career with them. I transitioned to weddings in 1998 and haven’t looked back.

However, although it’d be easy to think that the skills from photojournalism would enable me to just jump right in and excel as a wedding photographer, in truth, that transition wasn’t seamless.

What adjustments did you have to make?

While the ability to anticipate and react to moments were certainly there, I lacked the know-how and the assertiveness to make people look their best. These were skills that I needed to learn. However, I did acquire them over time. I needed to evolve as a portrait artist, and I also needed to create beautiful images rather than just interesting images.

Cliff Mautner: A Photojournalistic Approach to Wedding Photography
“Erika, the bride,” says Mautner, “made it very clear that one of the most important elements of her day was when her dad saw her for the first time. This is Erika coming down the stairs as her dad, sisters and niece look on.” This image by Mautner won him WPPI’s Grand Award for Photojournalism.

At first, I was uncompromising. I tried not to interfere with the moments in front of me. But it was frustrating when the light wasn’t coming from the direction I desired, and I slowly began tweaking the scene.

I wasn’t satisfied with what I was getting initially when I knew the images I was producing could be improved with just a simple adjustment. By having a bride move toward or away from some window light or closing blinds to create more directional light or turning off overhead lights to get a better quality of light, my style evolved quickly.

I came to realize that if I could place people in good light and good compositional scenarios, my work would be drastically better than if I’d settled for less-than-ideal conditions. I’d just call it “setting the stage for moments” without staging the moments.

Also, my approach has evolved over time. At this point in time, I shoot in the following manner: There are certain portions of the day where I control the light and composition, but I never control the moments. The moments are all about the client. 

So, while the basic approach is still journalistic, you’ve incorporated techniques from other genres (portraiture, lifestyle, etc.) that would be out of bounds by the rules of photojournalism photography.

You might consider this a hybrid approach. There is still an enormous portion of the day where I’m truly a pure photojournalist.

Cliff Mautner: A Photojournalistic Approach to Wedding Photography
Liz and Nicole during their ketubah signing. “This was one of the first legal same-sex weddings in the state of New York,” says Mautner. Photographed at the Onteora Mountain House in the Hudson Valley.

Those are moments when it would be completely inappropriate for me to manipulate anything. The wedding ceremony and the reception, for example, are portions of the day where I still apply strict journalistic ethics. There is literally no interaction with anyone once a ceremony begins. The reception is also hands-off.

But the compromises might rub purists the wrong way. I understand that. However, we need to remember that this is wedding photography, not a story for a newspaper or magazine. I have a job to do, and that’s to tell the story. But it’s also to make my clients look and feel their best.

How do you ensure potential clients understand this style of wedding photography before signing any contracts?

I carefully explain that while I’m going to be as unobtrusive as humanly possible, I’m also going to capture the best of the traditional elements of their day, along with an artistic interpretation of their wedding. I make sure they understand that while I have a photojournalistic background, I’m also a portrait artist, and my job is to combine these approaches for the best of both worlds.

What type of clients are a good fit for the photojournalistic approach?

I believe that all clients would benefit from a hybrid approach, frankly.

During a first meeting or phone conversation, there are those who tell me they want a candid approach.

I tell them that the photography revolves around the day, the day doesn’t revolve around the photography. I’ll explain that my intent is to provide both stunning, evocative portraits with dramatic light, along with timeless moments. That puts them at ease.

But the most important adjective I can use is “organic.” I want them to feel as though the day is simply flowing, rather than feeling that the day is being directed and posed. Painting this picture for them allows me to earn their trust, and I can employ my approach while they know exactly what to expect.

Cliff Mautner: A Photojournalistic Approach to Wedding Photography
Newly commissioned naval officer Sam Simeon moments before heading to the church on his wedding day.

What are your go-to cameras and lenses for your wedding assignments?

I’m a very proud Nikon Ambassador and have been a Nikon shooter for my entire career.

The Nikon Z system has changed my wedding workflow, and I’m enjoying making pictures more than ever because of the new mirrorless system. I bring about eight NIKKOR lenses with me to each wedding, and I’m quite partial to the NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4 E ED lens.

I’ll often shoot in situations where there’s so much going on, and I want to eliminate background clutter. Isolating my subject with extremely shallow depth-of-field really adds dimension to my portraits.

Even wide open, I have tremendous confidence that the images with the 105mm will be tack-sharp. In the past, I relied on my 70-200mm f/2.8G for portraits. But now I find the 105mm to be my preferred lens for the bulk of my portraiture.

What other lenses and accessories are in the bag?

Nikon’s FTZ adapter is an important tool that allows me access to all of my “pre Z” lenses. I’ll begin the day with the NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E on my Z 7, and my Z NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8 S or Z NIKKOR 24-70mm f/4 S (the latter of which will soon be replaced by the f/2.8 version) on the Z 6.

These are my choices for photojournalistic coverage during the wedding preparation.

For family portraits, I’ll choose my NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G or my NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G, depending upon how much space I have. I prefer to shoot longer to compress my subjects, but sometimes space won’t allow for that, so the 24-120mm is terrific for that.

I’ll also carry a NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4 for tight reception dancing photos, a NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G for grip and grins, and a NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G for overall room shots of the reception.

Cliff Mautner: A Photojournalistic Approach to Wedding Photography
Bride-to-be Alicia during the wedding preparation with her nieces at Oheka Castle on Long Island, New York.

Are you bringing any artificial lighting or lighting accessories with you?

I use Nikon SB-5000 AF Speedlights whenever the quality of light is lacking and almost always some off-camera flash for family portraits and, of course, the various elements of the reception. My modifiers of choice are Rogue Flashbenders and MagMods.

But one of my favorite accessories is my Light & Motion Stella Pro 5000 continuous LED light. It has a range of 1,200-5,000 lumens, is shockproof, waterproof and I can have unlimited control of the dispersion. It’s an incredible tool that I utilize at every wedding—often for some fill for portraits or even as a main light for portraits.

Foul weather is always challenging, but my knowledge of light allows me the comfort of knowing that I’ll be able to overcome nearly any situation. The couple will also feel at ease knowing their images won’t suffer because of challenging situations.

Everything, in my mind’s eye, begins with light. If I have the right light, I don’t worry about much else.

What do clients receive at the end of a shoot?

We provide an online gallery of passcode-protected images. These files are meticulously refined in a rigorous workflow by Heather Bilek, my incredible studio manager. I couldn’t do what I do without her. She completes my vision. She also designs stunning custom albums for our clients.

What do you try and keep in mind when you—to use a sports term—step onto the field and put your game face on?

I try to remember that while it’s my 1,100th wedding or so, it’s most likely my client’s first. What may be “old hat” to me is new and unique to them. It’s also important to emphasize that these moments are the client’s moments, not the photographer’s. The moment is paramount, and the goal is for them to be organic and timeless.

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