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Feature: Crisp light, great moments typify the wedding photography of Cliff Mautner  
Thursday, March 31, 2011 | by Eamon Hickey
Cliff Mautner
No Boring Pictures: Photographer Cliff Mautner (Photo by Susan Stripling)
Recent years have been good to Cliff Mautner. Among several honors, in 2008 American Photo magazine named him one of the top ten wedding photographers in the world, and in 2009 he received a Grand Award from the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) trade association. He is also the official wedding photography spokesperson for Nikon.

All this is a tribute to Mautner’s distinctive style, which he may owe partly to his previous life as a photojournalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. At the Inquirer, he shot more than 6,000 assignments in a 15-year career that started when he was 19 years old.

Because of his newspaper background, Mautner had not been indoctrinated in the style of carefully posed wedding formals where you “run to open shade and make boring pictures,” as Mautner puts it. 

Using whatever light is available

“One of the things I had to do very early on was use whatever light was available,” he explains. “If we had a ceremony at 1:00pm in July, and I was stuck having to take photos of the couple outside in some silly park, I figured I better learn how to use that light to my advantage.”

The result is that Mautner’s work includes more undiffused, noticeably directional light than has historically been typical of most wedding and portrait photography. “I began to see that I was able to create texture, dimension, and mood with this type of light. Once I got a grasp of that, it really influenced how I used light in every way — even indoors or with window light.”

His work sometimes includes silhouettes but more often, when he uses heavily directional illumination, it’s edge or rim light, he says. All this can produce the kind of contrast levels and tonal extremes that many portrait photographers shy away from. “I’m not afraid to blow out a highlight here or there,” Mautner says, “and with the way I use shadow there’s gonna be spikes everywhere [in the image’s histogram].” These things don’t worry him. “If the photo looks good, it is good,” he says, simply.

Wedding photojournalism, with a practical twist

Although his work is sometimes classified in the genre known as wedding photojournalism (the WPPI, for instance, has given him awards in that category), Mautner is careful to note that he is also looking to give his clients “the best of the traditional elements of wedding photography. What’s paramount is the moment,” he explains. “If I can get wonderful light and a wonderful moment, I get a wonderful image. That’s my Holy Grail. But I would never call what I do wedding photojournalism in the strictest sense. The true essence of wedding photojournalism is a completely hands-off approach, which, to me, is impractical. In certain situations [if I can] improve on an image by putting subjects in better light, or in a better composition, I’ll do so. I’m not gonna create a moment, but I might have my input on where it unfolds.”

Exposure is the key to his type of light and, by extension, his style. “When I’m shooting for that edge light, I’m exposing for the highlights,” Mautner says. “You predict the exposure before you even shoot, not after. I’ll do a quick chimp [i.e. check the image on the LCD]. If I’ve missed, I’ll do a quick adjust and shoot again. I think it all boils down to instinct — to the technical elements being completely instinctive. I’m not thinking about f-stops and shutter speeds and all of that crap. Until a photographer gets to that point, it’s impossible to develop a style. It took me 10 to 15 years to develop a style. If I had learned on digital it might have taken me half that time.”

Mautner has used Nikon cameras since he first began shooting. He’s now using the D3s, the D3, and the D700, and he loves their high-ISO image quality and low-light autofocusing abilities, particularly when coupled with a lens like the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G. “My entire mindset has changed,” Mautner says. “I don’t just make pictures I couldn’t make before, I think about pictures I never thought about before. It boils down to the quality of light versus the quantity of light. Just because light is at a very low level doesn’t mean it’s poor light.”

A very large gear bag

The D3s and D3 bodies are Mautner’s main tools when shooting a wedding, with the D700 on hand for “when I get a little tired”. In addition to the 85mm f/1.4, his evidently very large gear bag usually also contains the following:
Despite Mautner’s evident expertise with tricky ambient light, he’s happy to use flash when it’s the best solution. “I think the use of speedlights is becoming a lost art,” he says. “Too many people are relying on ISO performance, using available light in a poor way to begin with when the use of a speedlight properly could have enhanced the image.” Although he is “toying” with the PocketWizard ControlTL system coupled with automatic flash exposure, “I’m a big believer in shooting with good ol’ manual flash because of its reliability,” Mautner says. “[For me], the jury is still out on TTL.”

Mautner shoots more than 50 weddings a year, a pace he has maintained for more than a decade. Part of his secret is to delegate some of the workload. His two primary responsibilities are handling every aspect of the client relationship and the actual shooting of the wedding. He also downloads and backs up the photos — somewhere in the range of 3500-4500 images for a typical wedding.

After the shoot

After they are downloaded and backed up, the shoot is edited by one of his assistants, Nikki Albertson. “Nikki printed my film for twelve years. Nikki knows what I’m looking for,” Mautner says. She uses Camera Bits Photo Mechanic to edit the full take down to about 800-900 selects. At that point, Mautner’s “invaluable” studio manager, Noelle Andrews, imports the selects into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom where she adjusts each image. Andrews may also take a subset of the images into Adobe Photoshop for additional editing, as needed.

When all the selects are prepped they are sent electronically to ProDPI, a processing lab in Colorado, which makes a 4 x 6-inch proof of each image. Mautner is adamant about sending out only finalized, fully edited images to his clients, and he wants them to see prints first. “A very smart photographer said to me years ago, ‘don’t let anything out of your studio unfinished’,” Mautner says. “Before a wedding goes out [to the client], we finish our images. I really believe that one of my best marketing tools is the proofs themselves. When [clients] get this box, and pour themselves a glass of wine, and sit down in the evening with family or parents, they’re blown away with still being able to hold a picture. I don’t want problems like, ‘oh, we look green’. The prints look fantastic from the start, as opposed to some shitty color on a web gallery.”

As a secondary alternative to the prints, for geographically dispersed family members and others who might not be able to see them, Mautner does also provide clients with online proof galleries using the PickPic online proofing service.

For the final wedding album, Mautner uploads the selected photos to his album supplier, Leather Craftsman, which prints and binds the book. Noelle Andrews works closely with the clients on this step, walking them through the entire process from selecting pictures, to designing the album and each of its pages, to selecting cover materials.

Final thought

“One of the things we concentrate on as much as the images themselves is customer service,” Mautner concludes, “because without the customer service, the images don’t mean dick, and you can quote me on that.”

Gallery

What follows is a small collection of Mautner's photos. To see more of his work, check out his website and blog.

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Steps: Nikon D700, ISO 500, 1/800, f/3.5 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Pause: Nikon D700, ISO 400, 1/1000, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Tear: Nikon D3, ISO 1250, 1/160, f/3.5 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Veil: Nikon D3, ISO 2000, 1/125, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Dress: Nikon D3, ISO 1600, 1/500, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Flower: Nikon D3, ISO 1600, 1/320, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

cm_07.jpg
Joy: No shooting information (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Couple: Nikon D3, ISO 250, 1/640, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Reflective: Nikon D3S, ISO 3200, 1/400, f/1.4 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

cm_10.jpg
Grin: No shooting information (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Emotion: Nikon D3, ISO 200, 1/3200, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Sunset: Nikon D3, ISO 160, 1/1000, f/2.8 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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Eyelash: Nikon D200, ISO 125, 1/200, f/1.4 (Photo by Cliff Mautner)

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