My Gear & How I Use it to Create Emotion
Photography is a game of emotions. Think about some of the most powerful images that you’ve ever seen. The ones that have left a lasting impression on you. Sure, they might have gorgeous tones, light, or composition, but the reason they have stuck with you for so long is probably the emotion or mood that the image evokes. Our job as a photographer is to control those moods and to decide which emotion we want our viewer to feel.
I know, that last sentence sounds like I want you to go out and craft these fake moments just for the sake of emotion. Don’t worry, I’m not into that but but if I see a happy energetic moment happening in front of me, you better believe I’ll be shooting it with a lens that I know will emphasize that mood. Why in the heck wouldn’t I? That’s what this article is all about. Scroll on to read all about my gear, and why I make the choices I do when I’m using it.
(Published in Aglow Magazine)
FILM OR DIGITAL
This is the question for the ages. Over the past 5 or so years, there has been a huge resurgence of film shooters in the market and I think that freaking rocks. Not because I think film is better than digital, but because I love variety. I love seeing people using whatever medium they love the most to create things they’re proud of and that others can enjoy. Some of us love shooting our respective medium for its aesthetics, others for the price, and some of us may have just chose one and stuck with it. My suggestion for all of you is to not feel locked down to one or the other. The truth is that film and digital are both awesome and if we learn a bit about them both, we can use each of them to benefit our shoots in different ways. Hammers and screwdrivers are both great tools but you use them for completely different things. Both mediums (film and digital) can be great tools but each of them has it’s own strengths.
When shot well, film is just gorgeous. Everybody knows it and almost everybody loves it, but is that enough? Should we just learn that little fact and move on? Film deserves much more than we give it credit for. In conveying certain moods, film can give your images that little something that digital just can’t (unless you’re willing to put in some extra work in post, which even then it’s tough to make it look right). For example, if you are looking for a serene, intimate mood, film can take you there. Film tends to be a bit softer and less “glossy” or “polished” than digital which is why it lends itself so beautifully to those more subtle, calm moments. In addition to being a bit softer, film also has natural flaws (light leaks, scratches, dust, grain, etc) and that texture can also play into that less polished look. Lastly (and arguably most important) is the feeling of nostalgia that film can bring out in a viewer. Most of us grew up in the film age. We grew up in a time where not everybody and their sister had a digital camera. This means that when we look through our old vacation photos or family photo albums, we’re most likely looking at film. We’re seeing our favorite memories of mom and dad, that summer when we learned how to swim, or a shot of us and our best friends before we hit middle school captured on film. Because of this, the tones that we see in film subconsciously make us feel nostalgic because we’re so used to seeing it in association with our old family and vacation photos. This can be a huge asset to bring into a shoot if that’s the emotional response that you want your viewer to feel. In a nutshell, film is my go to when I am looking for a bit more of a calm, or nostalgic image. That doesn’t mean you can’t hit the opposite side of the emotional spectrum on film, I just find it suits the other side better for my own work.
As for the more technical side of things, film tends to retain a WAY more details in the highlights. In fact, most photographers you who shoot film (especially with certain stocks like Fuji 400H) tend to overexpose their images by up to 3 or so stops. Doing so produces a more airy, pastel look as the film soaks in the colors and contrast without loosing much detail. On the other end of the spectrum, underexposure is where digital has a bit more of an advantage because film tends to lose detail in the shadows.
I love the images I make with with my Contax and I love how it feels in my hand (that’s what she said). I’ve shot with a few over the years (Mamiya 645 Pro, Mamiya 7II, and some others), but the Contax 645 feels like the one that I wish all of the others were.
UPDATE: I’ve sold my Contax system. I loved it but am trying to be a bit more minimal.
It’s nuts when you think about it. Digital cameras were just some guy’s lofty idea at some point, and now they’re a MASSIVELY important tool. I shoot digitally for 90% of my work. In fact, I usually only shoot film for personal work or unless it’s requested specifically for a project. I’m a huge fan of experimenting and sometimes, the immediate feedback that digital can give me is a crucial part of that. Other than the more obvious aspects (no film/processing costs, instant feedback, etc), digital can be a huge asset to to a shoot. If you are looking for something a bit more polished (less grain, no imperfections, etc), or at least the option to keep it polished or add in the imperfections later, digital may be your tool of choice.
From a technical stand point, shooting digitally will open up more possibilities for low light shooting, shooting faster (no switching rolls or winding film), and will give you a bit more latitude in post with color adjustments. Digital is also a bit more forgiving with underexposed images (as long as you’re shooting RAW, which you should be), since it retains details in the shadows better than film does. If the mood calls for it, I’ll actually shoot a stop or two underexposed on purpose and push it back up in post to introduce a bit of subtle grit to an image. Examples below:
The 5D III has been everything I need for the past few years. I haven’t even thought about switching cameras once since I got it. The low light capability is perfect for what I use it for, the files look great, and it’s never really given me any issues. Another small (but also huge) reason I love it is because it records images to two cards at once. Ahhhh, peace of mind.
In addition to all of that, the 5D III has a full frame sensor. DSLR’s have two different types of sensors, one is a “full frame sensor” and the other is a “crop sensor.” The crop sensor means that the actual sensor that the image is being recorded on, is smaller. That turns a 35mm lens into the equivalent of a 50mm(ish) lens. To be honest, it’s all technical mumbo jumbo that I don’t want to weigh this post down with but luckily there are TONS of great articles about this. If you want to understand it further, here is a great one! The reason that this matters to me, is that a full frame sensor allows me to be closer to my subject (which means the depth of field is shallower because the closer you are to your subject, the shallower the focal plane will be) while still capturing a good bit of space around them. This means I can shoot a wider shot, with a shallower depth of field on a full frame sensor than a crop sensor. I know, all boring stuff, but it’s important to know.
UPDATE: I’ve upgraded to the 5D IV! I’m a huge fan of the 5D III still but I prefer the dynamic range, low light capability, and the grain texture (finer, and with less color variation) of the 5D IV.
Imagine a scene with a a huge desert landscape and a runner. The sun is behind you leaving nothing but the desert sand, a well lit athlete and the deep blue sky. The question now is what emotion do we want our images to convey. Do we want to show off the dynamic energy of the athlete? Maybe a more relaxed, calm mood? What about something that looks a bit more cinematic? We could even draw out a bit of drama to show the concept of the runner’s battle between his mind and his body. We can steer our images in any of these directions through the lens that we decide to use. This is exactly why your lens choice is one of the most important choices that you need to make when it comes to your equipment. If you don’t believe me, go watch some movies. Focus on the moods conveyed in different scenes and how their lens choices emphasize those moods. Don’t only think about which lenses they used, but think about how different the scene would feel if they used something different. For example, if they used a longer lens to draw in close to their subject, how different would the scene feel if they used a wide lens instead? Would it lose it’s power? Would the mood change at all? These are all things that directors consider and lens choice holds just as much weight for photographers. It’s beyond important to not only know the technical aspects of your lenses, but to know how each lens affects the mood in your images and how to use that to your advantage.
Wide angle lenses typically range from 16mm-35mm but there are a few more extreme lenses out there. Okay good, now the boring technical stuff is out of the way. Back to the good stuff. If we insert these lenses into the scene with the runner in the desert that I mentioned earlier we can accomplish a few different moods depending on how we compose the shot and how close we are to the runner. Let’s imagine that we want to create an epic scene showing of the drama of the landscape and the solitude of the runner within it. Using a wide lens to shoot from a distance will do just that. It will make the athlete into a tiny part of this grand landscape and will emphasize his solitude by showing the vast emptiness around him. Go ahead, imagine the shot. Blue sky, seemingly miles of desert dunes, and a tiny dot of a runner in the middle of the frame. Shooting a wedding in a mountain range (well aren’t you lucky)? This is a perfect way to show off the magnitude of where you are! That distance between you and the subject can often create a stronger emotion in your viewer because they are looking into a scene instead of feeling like they’re a part of it (I know, it seems counter productive). If the feel like they are looking at a scene that shows the struggle of a lone runner with nothing but miles of sand around him, they start to feel for him. They see and feel his solitude from the outside. In another example, imagine the wedding image in the mountains. A vast sweeping shot of cliffs and mountains with nobody around except for a newly wed couple embracing each other with closed eyes right at the bottom of the frame. Since the viewer is removed from the scene (because of the distance between you and the couple), they are looking into an intimate moment. They see the quiet and powerful connection shared between two people who need nothing around but each other. I’m not saying that this is the only way you should be shooting, but having shots like these mixed in with closer shots, its a great way to give emotional variety to a set of images.
On the other hand, if you get in close with a wide angle it can inject the feeling that the viewer is right there in the scene and create a dynamic sense of energy. Because of the perspective you get with a wider lens, when you step in close it can make a small stride look like a giant leap by stretching out the limbs. The wide angle of the glass literally elongates the edges of the frame. I typically use that bit of perspective for fun, energetic lifestyle shots although it can be used beautifully in things like fashion editorials as well for a more dramatic look.
I know what some of you might be thinking: “I heard you’re not supposed to shoot up close with a wide lens.” From here on out, take every photography “rule” you hear with a grain of salt. Sure, there are reasons that it’s a “rule” in the first place (and it’s important to know those reasons), but F rules. You do you. The reason for the rule of not shooting up close portraits with a wider lens is because it can cause distortion that might elongate certain parts of the frame (towards the corners). This elongation is the exact reason that it can create a more dynamic frame but it can look funky up close. If you want to fight the distortion, you can correct it in LR with the click of a button. All you need to do is click on the “Enable Profile Corrections” in the Lens Corrections panel of Lightroom. Easy as heck.
Hot dang. That sucker is a hell of a lens. This was the first L-series lens that I owned and it became an instant favorite. For the look I love, it’s perfect. Wide perspective without being too extreme. This is my bread and butter lens at weddings. I love the “in the moment” documentary look that it gives and the energetic feeling it can evoke when the couple is running by me holding hands, dancing together, etc. This has been glued on one of my 5D III’s at every shoot I’ve done since I’ve owned it.
The most popular lengths for medium length lenses are 50mm and 85mm. Okay, boring numbers, done. These lenses don’t portray any noticeable distortion of perspective like some wide angles and they tend to be most used in portraits. These lengths (my favorite is 50mm) are spectacular for moments that are calm and still. A soft portrait of a bride before she walks down the aisle, a close shot of a couple kissing, even an editorial shot of a model wrapped in glowing light and peering into the camera. Not only can they bring out a beautifully cinematic feeling (thanks to the shallower depth of field blurring the background), their angle of view is closest to how they human eye sees so it can make the viewer feel as if they are in the frame with the subject as opposed to noticing the influence the camera has cast on the on the frame. If we were to use this lens in the scene with the runner in the desert, it would be a great lens to isolate the runner in a full body portrait, or a closer head shot (by blurring out the background) while still keeping the context of where the runner is. What we would be left with is a shoot that looks like we are looking at the subject with our own eyes as opposed to through a camera. That introduces a bit of intimacy and a stronger personal connection to whatever is in front of us.
My Canon 50L is by far, my most used lens. If I could only have one, this would be it. It’s the first one I pick up when its time for a calm, intimate portrait but that’s not all I use it for. Since it doesn’t distort the perspective at all, it acts like a chameleon and lets whatever is in front of it do the talking. What I love most about it visually is the separation that it gives me between my subject and the background. Since I shoot at 1.8 just about all the time, this gives me a crisp area of focus with everything in front of, and behind the focal plane in a soft creamy blur. I also own the Canon 85L II which is an amazing lens as well but I would use the 50L over it anytime I could. I actually only use my 85L at weddings when I need the extra reach.
Telephoto lenses for use in the lifestyle, editorial, and wedding worlds typically range from 100mm-200mm and serve two purposes. One of them is obvious, if your subject is far away and you need to get in close without getting physically closer, these lenses will help you do that. Aside from that, telephoto lenses can help you isolate your subject from the background by throwing everything else so far out of focus that it becomes unrecognizable (this is because longer lenses will have a shallower depth of field). This can be a great option if you’re shooting an a less than photogenic location but to be completely honest, telephoto lenses aren’t really my thing. The longest lens I ever use is my 85L.
If we brought one of these lenses into the runner in the desert scene that we mentioned earlier, we would likely end up with a portrait of a runner against an unrecognizable blue background or if we shot from a good distance away we would see something called “compression” that happens with longer lenses. This is when everything in the frame seems to be flattened out as if it is all on the same plane. Again, it’s not really my thing as I would rather be physically close to my subjects to create the intimate mood that I love but there are some amazing images to be shot with longer lenses like these.
Macro lenses range in length but share one common trait, they can focus so close it makes your brain hurt. Need to see your reflection in that grain of sand? No problem! While these are definitely considered a specialty lens, they can bring out some really great moods. In the runner in the desert scene, these could create a bit of drama by focusing close up on the hot sun shining on the beads of sweat rolling down the athletes skin as he looks up the dune in front of him. This shows the struggle that he’s already exerted and the determination in his eyes as he wills himself to carry on. Coming in close can draw your viewer into an extremely focused and dramatic moment. These can also be killer for things like detail shots of rings, nature, etc.
If I have ever used one, I’d give you a recommendation but, just like telephotos, these aren’t really my thing. If you have one you love, feel free to let me know in the comments in case someone else is looking for one!
Sure, the camera gear is important (to an extent), but there are some other bits of gear I use that play just as much of a role in my shooting and in bringing out certain moods. I listed some of my most crucial ones below!
Say hello to your new best friend. If I could only give you one tip to loosen up a couple or model on set, it would be to play music. It’s really that powerful. I have a few different bluetooth speakers that I use (some portable, some are bigger, etc) depending on the shoot, and how light I need to pack.
There are two huge reasons that I play music on set and the first one is to help bring out a mood. If I’m expecting a model to give me an energetic happy vibe, why not play something faster that she can dance around to? Why not play some fun, loud music to flood the room with the mood you want her to bring out? On the other side of the spectrum, if you are trying to hit a quieter, more serene mood it may be helpful to play something soft and soothing so your subject can easily fall into that mood. I actually have a few different playlists on my phone that are ready to go depending on which mood I’m trying to hit. Reason number two, it kills the awkward. Silence can be awkward. Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite traits in a person is being able to be quiet with someone without feeling like the have to say something, but the truth is that not everyone is as comfortable with silence. Music helps fill that gap. Aside from that, if you ask them to laugh out loud, the music drowns out the laugh that they might think sounds awkward. It even allows your couple to talk to each other and be cute without the fear of you hearing it. Music has some sort of magical power to bring out the natural in people and I love it.
WHAT I USE: HAVIT Portable Bluetooth Speaker
This thing packs a punch. It’s loud, its waterproof, it clips on to my strap or belt, I can change songs/volume right on the speaker, etc. It’s exactly what I need and it’s cheap as heck.
PIECES OF MAGIC
Yep, I call these my little pieces of magic. In reality, they aren’t anything more than ziploc bags, broken cups, or little crystals but when I shoot with them, they do magical things for me. About 7 years ago when I was shooting portraits of a friend under a tree, a leaf fell in front of my lens and started my love affair with shooting through things. The leaf left a soft blur over a portion of the frame that created this gorgeously soft, dreamy mood. I still use leaves every now and then but now I prefer to use clear or translucent things (like the items pictured below) to get funky reflections, catch light in a different way, or just to create a dreamy blur. To use these, I literally hold them right up against my lens hood and peaking into the frame. This creates a soft washed out blur, perfect for adding to the dreamy mood of an image or just adding a bit of visual interest.
The fun of shooting through things like this is that it’s always different and there are so many variables that can change the look completely. What I’m saying here, is to experiment. Each lens will capture this in a different way. Shooting through something on a wider lens (like my 35L) will leave a more defined shape in the frame while a longer lens like my 85L will leave more of a haze in that portion of the image. The longer the lens, the less recognizable the shape becomes. Personally, I love how it looks the most on my 50L because it’s still a clear shape, but it has a bit of that soft, hazy blur to it.
Aside from adding to the mood of an image with this trick, there is another HUGE reason I use these for. Imagine that you’re shooting a bride getting ready, but right behind her is a table full of clutter. Starbucks cups, old food, etc. Ideally, I’d clean the table but if time doesn’t allow that, frame up your shot, place your glass piece over the cluttered area, and watch it fade away into a soft blur. Win! I use this pretty often in situations like that, or even if I’m shooting portraits and need to simplify a busy part of the image. It’s honestly a lifesaver for people who crave minimalism.
WHAT I CARRY
What I have in my gear bag and what I actually carry with me on the average shoot are very different things. I wanted to give a quick break down of what I actually have on me at shoots and weddings as well. I always carry two bodies (yay backups!) on my trusty Holdfast Moneymaker straps one with a wide lens, and one longer. At weddings, I have my 35L and 85L. That’s it, all day. I’m a big fan of simplicity so I never switch lenses and I just carry what I need. At pretty much every other shoot (engagements, lifestyle, editorial, etc) I have the same setup but with my 35L and 50L. If I’m shooting film as well, I’ll bring that along in a little satchel bag. Yay simplicity.
THE GEAR LIST
Something you may have noticed in this article is that I’m not a gear nut. Not even a little bit. That’s why my equipment choices aren’t based on numbers, which lens is ever so slightly sharper than another, etc. Instead, they are based on emotions, moods, etc. Either way, I know some of you are here to see what I use (since I get so many questions about it), so I listed it out below:
CANON 5D III (x2)
Full frame, great tones, great in low light, etc. It’s everything I need. I have two bodies so I don’t have to worry about switching lenses at all during shoots or weddings. Yay simplicity!
CANON 5D IV (x2)
Updated to these from the 5D III’s. Same camera but with better AF, low light capabilities, dynamic range, and grain texture!
CONTAX 645 (w/ Portra 400 or Portra 800)
I’ve had a few film cameras before picking this one up but my biggest hang up on all of the others was how it felt in my hand. As soon as I shot with a Contax, I knew it was my camera. It feels so familiar to me and that’s hugely important to the way I create. I want to fidget with the scene, not with my camera. Having a body so similar to my 5D III’s meant I didn’t have to get used to something new.
UPDATE: I recently sold my Contax system in favor of only keeping a minimal amount of gear.
POLAROID LAND CAMERA 195 (with Fuji 3000B or Fuji 100C)
I recently picked this one up (a day before the film was discontinued) after having someone shoot me with one while I was speaking in Spain. I’ve only shot a few frames with it so far but it’s so fun to create on something so instant and tactile.
UPDATE: I recently sold my Land Camera in favor of only keeping a minimal amount of gear.
CANON 24L II
Dynamic, elongating, quirky. This is my most recent lens and I’m LOVING it.
Hello, gorgeous. This was the first lens I fell in love with. Something about this length feels so real, and lively to me. It pretty much never comes off of my camera.
This one has been slowly edging out the 35L over the past few years. I’ve heard that there are less sharp copies out there (google will help you figure out what to look for), but I didn’t get one and I couldn’t be happier with this lens. This one only comes off of my camera when I need more length (in which case I’ll grab the next lens).
CANON 85L II
Love it, but I rarely shoot it. In fact I only shoot it when I need the length (wedding ceremony, etc). Other than that, the 35L + 50L are glued to my cameras.
UPDATE: Sold this one because I just don’t need the extra length anymore.
Loud, small, and let’s me change things without digging into my bag for my phone. Win!
If rain ever stopped me from shooting when a couple was up to brave the elements, I’d feel like an idiot. This thing is simple, but perfect for what I need.
PIECES OF MAGIC
Glass, plastic and ziploc bags. If you’re into creating weird blurs/light artifacts, apparently shooting through trash is the way to do it.
That’s it, friends. I hope this was helpful for you all. Equipment is absolutely not the most important part of creating beautiful things but it can play a huge roll in helping you draw out certain emotions or moods in an image. Play with your gear, do some research (AKA, watch movies and see how they use certain lenses), and learn how you can use what you have to your advantage. If you want to dig into some more education there is plenty of free education on my blog and there are classes/etc in the Education section of my site! Knowledge is power.
Lastly, be good to each other. We’re all in this together.