© MATTHEW MAY PHOTOGRAPHY
A destination wedding photographed by the duo behind Matthew May Photography.
Matt May and Suzanne Ricca, the highly praised wedding photography duo behind Matthew May Photography and members of the SanDisk Extreme Team are answering PDN's reader technical questions this month. You can see their answers to questions on safe and secure image storage, backing up files, problems with cloud storage, getting around airline restrictions and why you need a good contract with your clients.
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Specializing in international wedding photography, they have shot in locations such as China, Europe, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. To capture one-time-only wedding moments, May and Ricca have refined working together as a team. While one shoots close, the other shoots wide. When one captures the action, the other captures the reaction, and they both move quickly, keeping their camera in burst mode and capturing hundreds or even thousands of images at the end of the work day.
We'll continue to select questions from readers and posting Matt and Suzanne's answers all this month.
Question: We are here in Namibia on a Digital Archiving project and it has been taking us out to many different locations. It is very bright here, and majority of the people here have dark skin. I am trying to create a good lighting balance very quickly. A lot of the photography I have been taking is quick, and I don't have any time to adjust. Do you have any suggestions on how to create clean crisp pictures under pressure?
Utah Valley University
Your predicament (shooting dark subjects in bright sun, and quickly) is a common one. It may seem counter-intuitive, but your best answer for shooting in these bright outdoor situations is to shoot with flash. Given that you don't have fancy lighting gear available, and as you said, you need to work as quickly as possible, your best bet is to use an on-camera flash in TTL mode for flash fill. In very basic terms, your camera will expose for the ambient lighting, and your flash will expose and light up the subject and shadows. A fill flash will throw some local / near light to fill in the shadows and/or bring out detail in people with darker skin tones.
You are basically competing with the sun, so you'll need a rather powerful flash and a good amount of batteries if you need to shoot a lot in these conditions. Modern flashes are very sophisticated when paired with modern, sophisticated cameras, and their communication systems (known as iTTL or ETTL, depending on the brand) do a lot of the heavy lighting calculations these days. However, that being said: know your equipment! There is always room for human adjustment, and nothing but practice with your equipment will help you know how and where to meter, and really dial it all in perfectly. Once you are comfortable with this, try getting the flash off the camera. Off-camera flash opens huge creative doors, and you can do it just as quickly, once you practice a bit. Of course, off-camera flash requires off-camera triggering gear, which might not be readily available to you.
There are even quicker, low-tech, no-budget tricks that might help (also great for after your batteries die). Not sure what camera gear you have access to in Namibia, but if you can find one of those fold-up, circular reflectors, they are a great, low-tech piece of gear to have handy -- and they often come in different reflective colors. If needing to be lower tech than that -- find anything reflective (white shirt or sheet, tin foil wrapped over something, etc) and have someone hold it off-camera and angle in some light on your subject. Even those car windshield heat reflectors are great - but again, might be hard to find where you are.
One of the best web sites on this type of subject is strobist.com. It is great reading.
Question: I want to explore doing exotic, location weddings. I was wondering what sort of prep you do for a location shoot in a country/place you have never been to? Specifically I am worried about having equipment/gear or logistics problems in a country I've never been to, especially one where English might not be the native language.
Sincerely, C.H Rinker
Before heading out to shoot a wedding in a foreign country, we do a lot of homework. Our first stop is the couple: from talking to them, you can gain all sorts of valuable information about the location they have picked. For locations off the beaten path, it is usually because the couples have a close personal association with the location. Further, it is important to understand why this couple wants YOU to photograph their wedding when there are likely local photographers who could do a decent job. They hired you because there is something you do differently than other photographers. You need to know exactly what that is, so you can tune your work for what they are seeking. For example, one of our couples hired us to shoot in Asia because they specifically did NOT like the style of wedding photography done in their home country.
The next research step would be more traditional: reading about the location and customs, reviewing what other photographers have said and seen about the location. Look up sunrise and sunset times, and sync with the couple's schedule. And, use Google Earth or Google Maps to get a birds-eye view of where you are going. Seems odd, but we’ve used satellite imagery, incorporating some of the shadows you can see, to determine some probable shooting locations and where the light would likely be falling. Review any and all images of the venue, the town, the local hot-spots and landmarks. Connect with whoever is the main events contact (if possible).
From a business standpoint, you’ll need to do your homework on what the permits and/or legal restrictions are for working in a foreign country (if any), and/or what the local venue restrictions are for bringing in an outside photographer (if any) and talk to your couple about all of this. There may also be limits on how much photographic gear, or value of electronics, you can bring into the country. We cannot give advice here. You’ll need to do your own research, consult your local consulate or lawyer who specializes in this. Even if you were not working, you’ll of course need to understand the general travel needs (passports, visas, shots, etc). Educate yourself on the current state of political affairs of the destination country. A good source is the US Department of State website at http://travel.state.gov/. And… know the weather! Are you heading into the path of hurricane season?
From an equipment standpoint, bring all your electrical plug converters, your own power strip, far more batteries then you think you’d ever need, more than one battery charger, a few extra common computer cables, etc. Overall, try to eliminate any one SPF (single point of failure)… which of course includes bringing multiple cameras, as any professional would to any wedding, anywhere. Never count on being able to “run out and get some batteries” much less “if my one lens breaks, I’ll just buy another there.” That is a death wish and you’ll be out of business before you know it.
Question: The thing I most worry about in travel photography is backing up my images. Can you recommend an easy and safe workflow for securely saving images on the road? Do you do any online back-ups?
-- MaryLynn T.
After the shoot, the most important piece of gear you have is your memory cards, and this is why we use nothing but the best: SanDisk. You simply cannot skimp in any way here, particularly if you are subjecting these cards to all manner of unknown and frequently changing atmosphere conditions – which is your typical destination wedding. If, in a worse-case scenario, you get back to the States with nothing but your intact memory cards, then you will still have a career in photography.
Of course, you must have multiple levels of data redundancy. First, we never erase a memory card (ever) until we absolutely have to. Therefore, we assure we have a large quantity of hi-capacity SanDisk memory cards so that we can shoot 4-5 weddings before we circle around and re-use any CF card. Second, immediately after a shoot, we back up the memory cards onto multiple portable hard drives. We then Fed Ex one of those drives (or DVDs) home to ourselves. Once we have the data on multiple devices, we never put all those devices in one location. We split the hard drives across multiple pieces of luggage. We also “wear” the CF cards home - they are always in our pockets immediately after being filled at the shoot and never leave our sight. This way, any one piece of luggage could get lost and we’d still have the data readily available.
We don’t use cloud based storage because the size and quantity of files we are dealing with far outstrips the fastest internet connection speeds available. Also, in some remote places, the internet can be slower than dial-up, and incredibly expensive, if it exists at all.
So overall, there are many variables to consider when deciding to
shoot overseas, and there are many steps you can take to mitigate
risk. But it is never 100 percent foolproof -- unless you do
not accept the job – so you must explain this to your clients and
have a very strong contract. For example, we’ve been requested to
shoot in some parts of the world which are not exactly on the US’s
holiday card list. Researching the obstacles we could face, we
risk-assess and determine if we have to tell couples that we simply
can not accept what would essentially be gambling with their
wedding photos. It is a tough business decision to make, but
sometimes the best business decision is to decline business.
Question: Matt and Suzanne, what gear do you like to pack when you are shooting destination weddings? Is it different from packing to photograph a wedding near home?
--Holly Stuart Hughes, PDN
The gear we take for overseas weddings is not that significantly different than gear we take to local weddings -- it is almost more a matter of shuffling and sharing than anything else. Whether a wedding is local or across the planet, we purposefully pack as light as we can, to be as portable as we can at any wedding. We can shoot a majority of our weddings using only one (large-ish) camera backpack each. Further, our backpacks are specifically chosen to be able to fit into overhead storage bins on most airlines, so we can use the same backpacks for weddings near or far. Also, we intentionally have duplicate gear, for not only convenience, but for safety / back-up.
Shooting a local wedding, we can be more relaxed with what we bring. Aside from our main backpacks, we'll usually have an extra small backpack of gear in the car, perhaps some travel lightstands with compact-folding lightboxes, a few other lighting odds and ends or specialty lenses, and we grab these extras as we need them. For overseas weddings, we team up to pair down the duplicates. For example, we might bring one 85mm lens instead of two, and share it. This saves us room that is needed for bringing additional computer gear that is required for overseas weddings -- extra hard drives, USB hubs, cables, etc, that is needed to make back-ups on location as opposed to a local wedding where we could drive home and do all this work that night.
We can't bring the "second backpack" overseas, so any extras are put into our normal travel luggage with our clothes. With this, we have to keep mindful of the ever repressive airline luggage weight restrictions. This means we also have to focus on our clothes themselves, such as choosing lightweight and wrinkle-free travel clothes, use compression packing bags, and, for example, choosing one pair of shoes that can fit any occasion in order to save space and weight for camera gear. And lastly we bring only SanDisk Extreme CF cards. From experience, we know the SanDisk cards are near indestructible and have always prevailed in any harsh situation we put them through (heat, humidity, etc). And, we bring higher-capacity cards than we typically use locally. While we have backups, we “wear” the CF cards in our pockets until we get home to San Francisco, to avoid the lost-luggage nightmare. Larger cards mean fewer of them in your pocket, which also keeps TSA and custom agents less suspicious.
So overall, working as a team of two does make things easier. We can split the gear load to a degree. Shooting overseas means we do a lot more sharing of gear, and if you see us wearing the same shirt three days in a row, don't worry -- we wash them in the sink!