The Las Vegas- and Melbourne, Australia-based U.S. Nikon Ambassador Jerry Ghionis has been furnishing his clients with lifetime memories for the past 25 years. He’s able to bring out the most in his couples with the eyes of a fashion photographer, the awareness of a portraitist and the storytelling ability of a documentarian.
While the 2016 AIPP Australian Fashion Photographer of the Year’s projects include beauty portraits, fashion assignments, boudoir sessions and speaking engagements around the world, we explore his approach to his work in the realm of the wedding.
Digital Photo Pro: Your style has been described as vintage glamour meeting contemporary fashion. Wedding photography at its best requires a wide array of skills across many photographic genres.
Jerry Ghionis: Anyone who has ever photographed a wedding knows that wedding photography is one of the hardest genres to master because you’re photographing so many different genres at one time. For example, you’re essentially shooting wedding, portrait, boudoir, landscape, streetscape, product, fashion, jewelry, documentary, in the constraints of a day with the pressure of different cultures and family dynamics. It’s definitely not an easy genre to master.
DPP: You’re also working with amateurs rather than the professional models you work with on a fashion shoot. How do you get the most out of “real” people?
JG: People are going to want to laugh with you before they cry with you, so it’s all about building trust. I build trust with my empathy and humor. That starts way before the wedding in terms of building a rapport and relationship with the couple and the family. They book you for the very reason that they get along with you and then you manifest that relationship, so then on the day of the wedding, things are a little bit easier. Obviously, on the wedding day everyone is getting distracted because so many things are going on. It’s the little things that I say and do to disarm my couples and families. More often than not, I’ll crack a joke or say something funny, or sometimes just remind them of the importance of the occasion.
DPP: How many people do you bring in to work with you?
JG: It’s just my wife, Melissa, and myself. She will often shoot the behind-the-scenes videos for my wedding photography training site. Sometimes she’ll shoot stills during the ceremony and at the reception as well. I believe that a wedding photographer should have a story in their mind, and build that story and design the album as they photograph. I might get a photograph from a second shooter that might be great, but where would I put it because it might not relate to the story?
DPP: Sometimes people are dressed in period outfits or following a specific theme. How does that come about?
JG: Every so often, a couple will walk in and theme their wedding, whether it’s a vintage theme, has a fairytale aspect to it, a Moulin Rouge theme, anything like that, and we go from there. I might see a couple with a particular sense of style, and I might throw out some suggestions in terms of where to go to photograph or what accessories to wear and things like that, but it has to suit the couple.
DPP: What’s your photographic approach to a wedding?
JG: I tend to shoot very simply. Typically on a wedding day, I will have a Nikon D5 and a Nikon D850 and sometimes a Nikon D500, and I can push their ISOs to 12,000 without much problem. Obviously that ability has changed the way I photograph. Most of the time, at a ceremony in a dark church, for example, I don’t shoot with flash. I started my career in 1993, and my first professional camera was a Mamiya RB67. I used UV filters with varying degrees of nail polish on them when I wanted a softer look. One had a thin layer of polish just on the area where I placed the bride’s face. I shot with 400 ISO film and a Metz flash. I learned with that flash how to bounce it in a way that made it less flash-obvious and more natural and directional. And I still use that technique to this day. It’s a way to light your scene without making it look like on-camera flash. At a reception, for example, where you have mixed lighting, a flash can help to clean up the light on the people.
DPP: Is there a go-to lens you typically work with?
JG: The NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8. I love the compression of it. I like to shoot closer rather than farther away. Capturing faces and expressions is a lot more soulful than the good old landscape with little people. I love the new NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4 lens, and I’m also a big fan of the NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 Macro.
DPP: What about for artificial lighting?
JG: I carry two speedlights, two of my Ice Lights and an Omega reflector, and that’s it. I don’t want to get bogged down with large equipment, especially on a wedding day. It’s cumbersome, takes too much time and requires extra assistants. I’d rather be photographing more than setting up lights at every turn. I’ve taught many thousands of photographers over the years, and there’s a continuing trend toward bringing strobes on location, especially at a wedding, but I find that the work starts looking the same because you’re using the same light source and setup for each portrait. If your strobe is your main light source, then every single image is going to have a similar look and feel to it. Some might say that’s a blessing, I would say it’s a curse because it looks a bit stagnant, and all of your work blends in together. If what’s available works, I’ll use it. If that light source is not good enough, then I’ll add light, whether it’s a Speedlight, an Ice Light or a reflector.
DPP: How did you come up with the idea of using Ice Lights?
JG: One of my favorite light sources is window light, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to bring window light with you everywhere you go?” At the time, the closest thing that resembled window light was continuous daylight-balanced fluorescent. But it isn’t really feasible to carry fluorescent around with you because the tubes back then were glass, they mostly are these days as well. LED lights were coming out, but most were square or circular and emitted just one quality of light. So I partnered up with Westcott, and we created the Ice Light. It looks like a glorified lightsaber. It’s a continuous daylight-balanced light source weighing 20 ounces and has a 1740 lumen output.
Having grown up with “Star Wars,” a cylindrical light source seemed to be quite obvious. If you hold it vertical to the subject, it’s quite sharp in terms of contrast. It’s like walking into a dark room and drawing the curtains open a bit to get a sliver of light. When you hold it horizontal to a subject, then you get a softer light because it’s larger in proportion to the subject. It’s like opening up the blinds. I have since created a reflector with Westcott as well, the world’s first 15 in 1 reflector, called the Omega Reflector. Most people have a 5-in-1 reflector. This one has a hole in it, which means that you can not only use it as a normal reflector, but you can shoot through it. So all you need is a subject with the light behind them, and you get this soft, even beauty light bouncing right back at them. It’s reminiscent of a beauty dish, with the catch light of a ring flash. You can also use the mini reflectors that are the holes in [the] doughnut, as I call them, independently. The Ice Lights can be handheld or put on a stand. You bring out the Ice Lights, and the groomsmen want to play with them.
DPP: Your relatively small equipment list makes it easier for you to hop on a plane for destination weddings.
JG: It was never my intention to focus on them, but things have evolved that way. When I was grounded in Melbourne, I would drive to every wedding and shoot around 100 weddings a year. As I started to work and live in the States then my availability and price point eliminated a lot of potential clients in Australia. I lived in Los Angeles for six or seven years. Now we have a base in Las Vegas with a large studio converted from an RV garage. Most of our weddings are destination weddings now—mostly within the United States, and some overseas as well. We also do our online educational broadcasts from there and also have a dedicated teaching room for the wedding and portrait world.
My business has organically grown to have a good number of destination weddings a year. I would encourage newer wedding photographers to establish themselves in the markets where they live, though. Most people who shoot destination weddings do not charge what they should be charging. They charge their normal rate plus return travel. If you can’t shoot a second or third wedding on a weekend, then you’re losing that money and you’re wasting a day traveling each direction and have jetlag. Typically when someone books us for a destination wedding it will be for a price that’s worth the investment of time. A destination wedding is normally $15,000-$20,000, and then we upgrade from there depending on what they want.
DPP: Is it all spelled out on your wedding website?
JG: We want to speak with our potential clients. If you give them too much information on the website, there’s no reason for them to call you. Couples should book you based on your personality first, then your quality, and then the value. Normally when people don’t know you, they’re shopping on price because they don’t know any better, they don’t know what to ask. That’s why the price question normally comes up first. We quickly divert that question to, “Hey, get to know me first, buy me a drink—metaphorically. In other words, let’s chat a little bit. Let’s just see if we’re a good fit. Let’s hear a bit about your wedding” and so on and so forth. I want them to picture me in front of them all day on their wedding day.
Our standard price will include a collection of photographs and an album. Then, depending on the quantity, they can upgrade, which they often do. The biggest upgrade that people normally do is extra sides in their album. They also upgrade on wall art and parent albums. The paper I’m really loving at the moment is the Rives BFK paper. It renders color and contrast beautifully.
DPP: What are a couple of weddings that stand out among the countless ones you’ve photographed?
JG: I did a five-day wedding in Rome. It was a beautiful Lebanese family that lives in Dubai. Every event they had was more exotic than the other. They had lunch events, evening events, they got married the day before Valentine’s Day, so the day after the wedding there was a Valentine’s Day affair where everyone wore red. The locations in Rome were amazing, to photograph in those places was incredible. It probably is the most memorable wedding that I photographed other than my own.
DPP: Isn’t that a bit like a doctor doing surgery on his or herself?
JG: I told Melissa that I was going to photograph the bride’s coverage. I said, “I’m in love with you and I’m a photographer…so who’s better to photograph you?” I did her coverage, then I ended up photographing us together in a mirror. It was lots of fun and a beautiful experience.
DPP: What initially drew you to weddings?
JG: I was given my first camera at the age of 15 and quickly became obsessed with photography. I photographed anything and everything, from landscapes to sports, as a high school hobby. Then I worked at a few camera shops just to be in the game and signed up for a four-year photography course. After a year I quit because they were just teaching photography out of a textbook. I wanted practical street-smart knowledge. I knocked on the door of a popular studio owned by Peter Barlow in Melbourne and basically said, “I love your work, I want to carry your bags and be your assistant.” They said yes, and I did that for the following year and a half or two years with no pay, and then ended up becoming their main photographer. “Why did I choose to knock on a wedding photographer’s door?” At first, I had wanted to be a fashion photographer and be around pretty girls, but then I thought, “Most people get married, so photographing weddings would be an easier way to make money.” And also I realized back then that this would be the best “school” to learn my craft. You’re always problem-solving when you’re shooting weddings. I consider myself a photographer, not a wedding photographer. I photograph people. That includes weddings, portraits, fashion, boudoir, anything where I direct the subject.
DPP: How are you dealing with post-production?
JG: I believe as a business owner, we shouldn’t be doing our own Photoshop. I teach photographers about business as well. You’re wasting a lot of time because anyone can do it. People will say, “Well, no, nobody can do it like me.” Yes, that’s true. Of course, no one can do it like you, but with direction and some handholding, the work will be beautiful. My Photoshop is actually very simple. All I ask for is skin retouching and color correction. I gravitate toward a fashion magazine look to the skin, where you can see all the pores but the skin is flawless. Sometimes a little bit of nipping and tucking. You don’t see over-the-top Photoshop in my work. I don’t do vignettes, filters or actions. Some wedding photographers use a Gaussian blur on the bride, and she can sometimes look like a Barbie doll. I want my signature look to be done in camera. So that’s the way I pose, the way I light, the way I evoke emotion. That’s the soul of the image.
A wedding is one of the most important, if not the most important, days in a person’s life. It brings families together even when they’re not always united in their normal lives. To capture someone at their most excited state or at their most vulnerable is quite beautiful. There is such a rich story in front of you. A wedding is a real event. It’s made up of real moments, but it’s a beautiful fantasy world.