It’s not every day that you see a photographer quickly create a striking black-and-white portrait of a model standing in the entrance of a parking garage that rivals many portraits shot in professional studios. But that’s exactly the kind of magic that participants experience at a wedding and portrait photography workshop with Nikon USA Ambassador and WPPI Grand Master Jerry Ghionis. His signature style involves a flawless blend of finding the most perfect light a location has to offer, carefully thought-out posing and creative in-camera cropping, which has attributed to him being regarded as one of the world’s top five best wedding photographers. Working as a team with his wife, Melissa, the duo were warm, welcoming and lots of fun to spend the day with at the recent Nikon School workshop, just steps from the beach in Santa Monica, California, where we learned more about the wedding, portrait, boudoir and fashion photographer.
Digital Photo Pro: You received your first camera at age 15 and have said that you became obsessed with photography from that point on. How did your style develop?
Jerry Ghionis: I was an avid hobbyist from the age of 15 when I first received my camera until I turned 20 years old. And during that time, I had no real bias toward a particular genre. I tried everything and anything—from photographing people to landscape to sports, etc. When I decided I wanted to become a professional photographer, I thought about going into fashion photography since it felt very glamorous to me. But then I decided that wedding photography seemed to be a more realistic way to make a living as a photographer. And being a wedding photographer would also give me a more well-rounded experience because you’re actually photographing multiple genres of photography in one day while under pressure. My style developed pretty quickly because I understood early in my career I was a proactive photographer rather than a reactive photographer. By that, I mean that I was impatient to wait for a moment and I was happy to help create the moment when it was needed. So my style was and still could be defined as glamorous and natural. I create images that combine the beauty of a great pose with the natural feel of a candid moment.
DPP: What inspired you early on compared to what inspires you now, 20 years after launching your professional career?
Ghionis: My biggest source of inspiration has always been movies, fashion and the music industry. One photographer who I began aspiring to early in my career is Herb Ritts. And I can still see his influence in my work. I’ve always loved his simple, clean, dynamic portraiture and his use of strong light.
DPP: At your workshop, you covered five steps to better photographs. Would you discuss the importance of each step and how to achieve them?
Ghionis: There are five steps that I follow in this order when creating a dynamic portrait:
- Light. First, you must find the light. Unfortunately, many inexperienced photographers will choose the beauty of location instead of finding a scene with beautiful lighting.
- Location. Once I’ve found the right light, I then choose my location or background. I allow the background to help guide me in finding a pose or action for the photograph.
- Pose. It’s at this point that I create a concept for my subjects. I loosely pose my subject in a way that takes advantage of the lighting and location that I’ve already found. I then roughly set them up in a position. If I want my couples to look natural, I give them a reason to be there, such as whispering in each other’s ear or perhaps sharing a romantic kiss.
- Exposure/Technique. Before finalizing my pose, I get my technique right. That means determining the ISO, aperture and shutter speed based on my environment. I always shoot in manual so that I have complete control over my exposure and so I can get it all right in-camera.
- Expression. Now that I have a correct exposure, all I need is an action or reaction. Remember, I’ve already placed my couple in the best possible light, and I’ve roughly positioned them in the scene. I know what I’m looking for from the couple because I’ve conceptualized the image, but at the same time, I’ll also allow for spontaneity.
DPP: In addition to those steps, one message you repeatedly conveyed while your workshop attendees were shooting was to slow down and perfectly set the scene so you can nail the shot the first time, which proved to be a challenge for many of the participants—myself included! How do you practice this, especially when under pressure or in a particularly stressful situation as a wedding can sometimes be?
Ghionis: The act of slowing down while shooting is a muscle memory that I developed early on in my career because my first professional camera was a Mamiya RB67. I took every photo while using a tripod and with a Metz flash. I was lucky enough to have a 220 back, which means that I was able to take 20 frames before having to change the roll of film. So, it conditioned me to create and capture my images methodically.
DPP: You shoot weddings photojournalistically by creating spreads that tell a story. How has this become an important style that helps your work stand out?
Ghionis: I tell my couples that I like to capture the magic that’s there and help create magic when I need to. I describe capturing the magic that’s there as shooting photojournalistically, at the ceremony and at the reception, for example. Then, my formal portraits are when I help to “create magic.” The reason I like to make images look glamorous and natural—as if I happened to be at the right place at the right time—is because they then blend in seamlessly with the photojournalistic moments.
DPP: While you seek out the best light and guide your subjects in posing to get the best shot possible, how do you help make potentially nervous subjects feel more comfortable and confident so that it shows in your images?
Ghionis: Slowing down is the key because couples will always feed off your energy. If I’m calm, then they’re calm. If they’re frantic, but I remain calm, then they’ll soon reflect that energy. Building trust with your couples is incredibly important, and that happens way before the actual shoot. Couples need to laugh with you before they cry with you. If you have confidence and empathy and can show that to your clients, then it will go a long way in getting them to feel more comfortable with you.
DPP: During your workshop, you shared some images that looked like composites, but were, incredibly, done in-camera. You also demonstrated capturing a reflection portrait on the hood of a hotel van, proving that you don’t need an incredible setting to make incredible images.
Ghionis: Believe it or not, MacGyver has had a huge influence on my photography career. Everyone in the ’80s was obsessed with the TV show, MacGyver. One of the best parts of the show was that he’d always make something out of nothing. And I’ve often asked myself, if MacGyver was a photographer, what would he do? It makes you think differently. Also, I often say that you photograph the way you are as a person. I believe that I’m a very positive person, which means that I can walk into a room that many photographers would ignore and I’ll see the positive aspects of it before the negative. All I need is a pocket of light or some elements that can make my photographs interesting.
DPP: It makes sense for photographers to develop products for other photographers since they have a deeper understanding of what may be lacking on the market. What led to the creation of your Ice Light and Omega Reflector?
Ghionis: I created the concept for the Ice Light after finding myself being frustrated at the various features in the video lights that were available on the market and just not being totally happy with any of them. When photographing my couples at night, I often used illuminated street signs or storefront windows as my light source. But I didn’t always have access to those locations. The problem was that there was nothing on the market that could create that type of lighting and that I could take with me to any location. So, I worked together with Westcott, and I’m very proud of the Ice Light. It’s now the only continuous light that I carry with me while photographing on location. We’ve seen photographers use it for headshots, newborn sessions, it has been used in music videos, on television for interviews. It’s also a great light to use for boudoir sessions—it’s very easy to see exactly where the shadows are falling when you’re using a continuous light.
With regards to the Omega Reflector, I’ve always used reflectors in my shoots and enjoy their versatility. As I’m sure many photographers will agree, I often want to have the vantage point of the reflector while I’m shooting, but of course it always gets in the way. Sometimes I’d even have my subject face the wall at the corner of a building. The sun behind the subject provides hair and backlight, and then the sunlight bounces off the wall and creates a flawless look on the subject’s face. But I’d often wish that my camera was facing my subjects front on. I started cutting holes into my reflectors and soon realized that I could create flawless beauty lighting by combining a traditional reflector with the effect of a beauty dish and a ring flash. I’ve just released the second version of the Omega Reflector, called the Omega Reflector 360 that features a round hole in the center so now subjects have beautiful circular catchlights, a flawless beauty look with the world’s first 15-in-1 reflector.
DPP: In addition to leading workshops all over the world, you also have a subscription-based photography training website called The Ice Society, so education obviously is very important to you. What inspired you to teach others?
Ghionis: I believe it’s a responsibility for more experienced photographers to teach a new generation of photographers. It’s the only way our industry will continue to grow. The Nikon School has been leading the way for over 35 years by offering incredible education and inspiring photographers from all levels with affordable photography classes across the country. I presented my first seminar in 2000, and I realized that many photographers just needed to learn how to see, let alone still understand the technical aspect of photography and very much still needing to learn the art of communication. I’d like to consider myself more street smart than book smart, and I’ve been invited to many parts of the world since to teach my perspective on photography. I have to say, though, that one of the highlights of my career was when I was asked to be a Nikon Ambassador. To represent such a global brand that’s committed to designing workshops, seminars and inviting beginners and enthusiasts of all camera brands, seemed like a marriage made in heaven because I’m also committed to the same things. After a while, when I realized I couldn’t teach everywhere and reach everyone and still maintain my studio, I then decided to design an online educational experience. So, in January 2008, we launched the Ice Society, which stands for Inspire, Challenge and Education, coincidentally similar words that Nikon also uses in their mantra. I’m proud to say that on April 1, 2017, the Ice Society will be relaunched as Jerry Ghionis Photography Training and can be explored at jerryghionis.com.
DPP: In your opinion, what are the keys to a successful photography business?
Ghionis: Success in wedding photography and especially in performing on the wedding day is more about your communication skills and your listening skills and knowing how to read people. That will go a long way in making you a great photographer and will be more effective than trying to become technically brilliant. The ability to have an endearing and attractive personality and the ability to work under pressure while still being technically proficient is especially important. You almost need to be like a chameleon in the sense that you need to know how to be relaxed and more down to earth at a casual wedding and at the same time be able to carry yourself professionally when you’re at a high society wedding.
I encourage new photographers to be as passionate about their business as they are about their photography. Consider yourself a businessperson first who happens to be a photographer. As a business owner, ask yourself, “Am I working in my business or on my business?” Surround yourself with great people—your studio is only four walls without good staff. Stop being a control freak and get some help. Educate yourself. Seminar and workshops can change your life. After all, knowledge is power. Don’t be too precious about the work.
When it comes to marketing your new business, you should work on marketing that costs you nothing by first asking your clients and vendors for referrals and maximizing relationships with people who can help you. Also, try a same-day slideshow at the reception. It’s the best direct marketing you’ll ever do, and you can also charge good money for it. If you’re going to invest in advertising, don’t think about the advertising dollars you’re parting with and think instead about the return. Whenever an advertising opportunity presents itself ask yourself, “Is there a better way I can spend this money?” And, finally, don’t forget to consider yourself a brand. Build it, and they will come.
Finally, I have always believed that if you put an extraordinary effort into anything, you”ll get extraordinary results. Being in your comfort zone has never been synonymous with artistic expression.
DPP: What does the future hold for you, Melissa, and your business?
Ghionis: We’ve recently relocated from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It was partly a lifestyle decision and partly for business reasons with the ability to present live-in workshops in a city that’s easy to travel to and has affordable accommodation with incredible locations.