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Sansom Photography interview Dave Getzschman

OK, so any aspirations of doing an interview per week have gone out of the window – the truth is, it’s more difficult than I imagined fitting these in with everything else that we have to do for the business!

With that in mind the revised aim is one per month, spaced out nicely to give you all time to digest. I have to say, though, I’m loving doing this series – in all honesty, it’s a fantastic chance to have a chat with some of my favourite photographers. Dave Getzschman was right up on my list when it came to possible interviewees and I was stoked – to say the least – when he emailed back and let me know he’d be up for a quick Skype interview. As it turned out, that quick Skype interview escalated into a two-hour chat, during which time my respect and admiration for Dave only increased as I heard more about the way he sees the world and his profession.

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2010’s WPJA Wedding Photographer of the Year, featured in Photo District News 2011 ‘Rising Stars of Wedding Photography’ and named as one of American PHOTOs Top 10 Wedding Photographers in the World’ in 2012, Dave has an incredible list of accolades to his name. All of this on top of being an associate at the incredible ‘Chrisman Studios,’ not to mention having been a respected press photographer even before his move into weddings. Still an active photojournalist, Dave has been published in every major newspaper in America and in 2006 he took a now-iconic shot of a certain US Presidential Candidate.

I started by asking about a normal non-wedding day in the life of Mr Getzschman.

“I’m in a different situation than most photographers. Because I’m an associate, Ben and Erin – the owners of Chrisman Studios – handle a lot of the business; the marketing, even a lot of the client communication now. So I’m free to take other work, to go to the museum in the middle of the day. I still do my own post-processing, but at this point I’m realising it’s just kind of a waste of my time. Pressing sliders around in Lightroom just isn’t an efficient use of my time so this year, I’m going to try to find someone else to do that. I currently share an office with a director and an editor, and I’m trying to do more motion projects.”

Stephanie and Eric's wedding in Stockton, California

So how long is a typical wedding day?

“Our contract says eight hours. Typically the client will pay for more hours, or we do a few more because from our perspective, it just makes sense to have complete coverage to tell the whole story. If it looks like we’re going to miss some of the dancing, we would rather have that than just say ‘goodbye.’ So, sometimes we end up staying an hour or two more, but usually we try to get that locked down with the client – if they want 10 hours, they need to pay for 10 hours.”

“There have been situations where I felt like it was time to go, and I just said ‘Our time is up so have a great evening, and we’ll be in touch about the photos.’ That gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Will you stay?’ Then I can give them our rate per hour, and then if they want we can stay.”

I asked Dave about his workload and how many weddings he aims to shoot per year.

“It’s gone down recently, I think last year I shot about 10. It’s much more limited for me personally than other people in our studio because I do other work. The other guys are probably shooting 20-30 or more, and I’m trying to keep it under a dozen. As different as each wedding can be, I find them kind of repetitive, and I like to incorporate other work so that I’m not thinking, ‘This is the formula I use for weddings, and I’m just going to do the same thing I did last weekend.’”

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One of the fascinating things for us is looking at where our website and blog hits come from every week. Depending on where in the world you are, you may already be familiar with the many photographers who are part of a studio. Here in the UK, it’s not such a well-known concept, and although I’ve got the basics I wanted to know a little more about the system and how it benefits those involved.

“The history of our studio is that Ben, the owner, and I worked as staff photographers at New Mexico newspapers at the same time, so we were familiar with each other’s work. Six or seven years later, we both found ourselves living in San Francisco, and Ben needed help with some weddings, so I shot a few with him. He was getting more weddings than he could handle, so he just started sending them to me. This was right about 2008/2009 when the economy was crashing and some of my other work was going away, some of my newspaper editors had been canned due to cutbacks, so I said sure, I’ll take some weddings. I think it was 2009 that he decided I would be an official associate of the company. I believe it was that year that Aaron Morris and Mauricio Arias joined us as interns. They were strictly supposed to be post-production interns, but they developed to be really great photographers, so because we had developed into a family, I think Ben decided that he really wanted to hold onto all of us and turn it into a company where we were all benefiting from reputation that he had built.”

“The benefits to us as associates are that Ben has an existing reputation. Even when I started shooting with him in 2007, he was on his way to becoming well known for his distinct style. If I’d started on my own, going from photojournalism to weddings, it probably would have taken several years to develop a clientele, to get a website looking good – to get the whole infrastructure of a business together. Because Ben had already established all of that for himself, he could just put up another portfolio on his website and say, ‘if I’m not available this guy is.‘ Ben and Erin handle a lot of the things your typical photographer is not trained to do – business, marketing, sales – and they actually like doing all of those things.  I don’t enjoy those things at all, and prefer to only be shooting. They receive a percentage of our bookings, we get a notice saying we booked a wedding, we go shoot the wedding, we do the post processing, then turn everything over to the client and fulfil the relationship. I’ve found it’s really beneficial because I can manage two businesses at once, weddings and editorial. I can continue being a freelance photographer, taking corporate, editorial and commercial assignments while also receiving the occasional email saying ‘hey you’ve booked a wedding.’”

“Because there’s five of us, our referral base is stronger. Our associate Aaron Morris may get a referral from a wedding he shot, and he’s not available on that date, so I’ll get that wedding. Or I’ll get a referral and not be available, and our associate Mauricio Arias will book it. We all shoot in a similar way, so a client can look at a portfolio and say ‘Ok, this guy shoots in a similar fashion, and I can trust him because he’s part of this well-established studio.’”

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It’s probably worth mentioning that one of the things that makes Chrisman Studios so unique is the fact that three of the five members have been listed in American PHOTO magazines World’s Top 10 among a host of other accolades. I mentioned this to Dave during our chat.

“Honestly, if I had been left to do things by myself, I don’t think I would have earned those honours. When you’re getting established in this business, you do a lot of low-end weddings that don’t necessarily yield beautiful results that you see reflected in contest winners. Because I got to take advantage of Ben’s reputation and his clientele, that helped jump start my career. Sharing a website with Ben doesn’t hurt. From where I’m sitting, his style revolutionised wedding photography in a lot of ways, and I’m really lucky just to be able to piggy back on his reputation and what he already established in his business.”

For someone with a skill set as varied as Dave, I was really interested to hear about where his inspiration comes from, what training he’s done and how he progressed as a photographer to reach achieve the success he has done thus far.

“When I started with Ben, I had already been shooting for 10 years, so my inspiration comes from all over the place, not just wedding photography. My dad was a photographer, so from an early age I was seeing American PHOTO magazine come to our house. I started looking at that because there were fine art nudes – as a kid, obviously that’s going to interest me. Inadvertently, I began reading the text beside the pictures and developed an interest in the technical aspect of photography.”

“I was self-trained up until I graduated from college, when I went to the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Montana. That’s a three-month summer photography program which helped me fill some of the holes in my self-education. It was nothing like a Bachelor of Arts, but it helped me figure out a few things I didn’t know. I was able to get a job as a photographer at a small newspaper in New Mexico shortly thereafter. In 2003, after I’d moved to a paper in California, I was invited to attend the Eddie Adams Workshop – an annual workshop where 100 young photojournalists in the first three years of their career are selected to participate. They’re trained by some of the best photojournalists and editors in the world – Pulitzer Prize winners, employees for Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, etc. That was really beneficial for me as a young photographer. In 2007, I took a workshop from David Alan Harvey who is a National Geographic photographer and a Magnum photographer and James Nachtwey who was previously a Magnum photographer and is considered the best living photojournalists. I can’t understate how important that was for me. It was crucial for my understanding of how you have to treat the job as a professional. The standards that those guys hold themselves to are incredible. They push themselves in ways I didn’t think were possible, and the main benefit to me now is just having their voices in my head while I shoot, saying ‘It’s not good enough, you’re not close enough, you’re not trying hard enough.’ I try to think, in any given situation, what would these guys do?”

Obama in Missouri

It seems like the pertinent question to ask any photographer, especially passionate ones like Dave, ‘If you could just use one camera and lens, what would it be?’

“I would probably use a Chinese-made, plastic Holga film camera or an iPhone. I don’t like digital 35mm equipment at all. I think it’s weight is mostly to blame for my back problems, and I would instantly throw it all away if I found a lighter alternative. It looks like the smaller mirror-less systems might be presenting a solution. I’ve not yet seen a wedding shot on one, but I’m eager to retire the 35mm. That said, if we’re talking digital 35mm equipment, I use Canon 5d MKIIs right now, and I would probably chose a 35mm or 50mm lens. For story-telling, a wide-to-medium lens is vital.”

“Honestly, sometimes I find myself wishing my heavy digital SLRS would get stolen! In addition to the lighter weight of the smaller cameras, they permit you a discretion which is not always available to you with the big 35mm equipment because your camera and lens are so and obvious to your subjects. That’s why I would say if I had to have one, I’d go for the iPhone or the Holga because you can really use those in any situation and get really natural-looking photos without people being aware of what you’re doing. For the type of documentary work I want to do, that’s paramount.”

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If you’ve not already done so, just open up a new tab and go and have a look at some of Dave’s work – its incredible stuff. One question I like to ask photographers whose work I really like is just how much of their work is staged or set up.

“Very little is set-up. But a wedding is very different from newspaper photojournalism, where you have to follow a specific code of ethics or street photography where you’re trying to go unnoticed. Wedding photography, at the end of the day, is commercial work – you’re under pressure from a client that’s expecting a certain number of photos. They want to look good, and they want pictures that match the work advertised on your website. So, it’s a lot more demanding than working for yourself or working for a newspaper where the expectation is just a handful of photos per assignment. If I were shooting a newspaper assignment, I would be working under the code of ethics I signed, for example, when I agreed to freelance for The New York Times. It says I can’t instruct my subjects what to do unless I’m shooting a portrait, I can’t manipulate my photos beyond toning the colour, contrast and cropping, I can’t freelance for any companies where the relationship might affect my newspaper coverage of them (for example, if I shot something for Apple and then had to cover them for a Times story). But for a wedding, there’s no code of ethics. If I’m shooting a bride getting ready, and she’s just sitting there unemotional, and I’m just waiting for a shot to happen, sometimes I’ll try to make the bride laugh or make everyone in the room laugh or inspire some kind of emotion so I get a picture that has emotion in it rather than a picture of someone just sitting there looking bored. Emotion is the heart of any interesting photograph. A human audience responds to what is human in a photograph, and that’s emotion. Although my pictures are documentary in nature, I may cheat a little to make sure I’m getting genuine emotion from them as much as possible. ”

So just how different is shooting a wedding from photojournalism work?

“In addition to the code of ethics? Well, if I was shooting a protest on the street, I’m not under any obligation to flatter my subjects with my pictures. I’m trying to tell a story, independent of what anyone there thinks of me or my agenda or my approach. I can tune out the crowd and work to make the most faithful documentary pictures I can. I’m not going to do that with a bride because she’s my client as well as my subject, so I’ll be documenting her at times, interacting with her at others, but always trying to be flattering as well as truthful. Both women and men today are constantly looking at magazines and advertisements and seeing unreasonable standards of beauty which they want to try to achieve on their wedding day, and if I’m photographing them with a super-wide lens up close, then I’m acting against their interests because the distortion results in unflattering pictures. But in many ways, the documentary aspect is the same – you’re trying to find a really unique, story-telling frame each time that is faithful to the subject’s personality.”

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With all of that in mind just what is a typical wedding day like for Dave?

“I’ll try to negotiate for an hour or so for portraits during the day. I rarely get that, but I’ll look at the schedule and say, ‘We have eight hours, so let’s make the best use of the time that I’m here.’ I’ll usually show up an hour early (for my benefit as well as theirs). I’m the only stranger at the wedding, so it makes sense to arrive with some time to introduce myself and allow everyone to feel a bit more comfortable with my presence. From that point on, even though I usually have a schedule, I’m just trying to keep a camera to my eye to document what’s happening in front of me because things happen so quickly. Like with photojournalism, history is being made, and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to convey what happened. Usually, immediately following the ceremony, I have to transition into portrait mode, which is pretty typical of American weddings. We’ll do the group portraits and then have some time with the couple before the reception starts. Being more of a documentary photographer, I didn’t use to like doing the family photos because there’s not very much that’s artistic or creative about it. But I’ve started to really enjoy doing those because it’s an opportunity for me to introduce myself to the family. I’ll take what I’ve learned from showing up early and make sure I repeat people’s names back to them while I’m taking their pictures so they get a sense that I care about who they are and that I listened when they were speaking to me. That’s really one of the best opportunities during the day to gain people’s trust and to make them feel like I’m part of the group, so that when I’m shooting them on the dance floor later on, I can get really close and take pictures of them that are impactful without their feeling uncomfortable.”

“Following the group shots, we try to get as much time as possible for photos of just the couple until a co-ordinator comes to us and says it’s time for them to go to dinner. If they’ve planned the day well, that usually means we have them for portraits during sunset and twilight, and we try to make the best use of the fading light. If we shoot couple portraits earlier in the day, I’ll still come and get them at the reception when sunset happens and try to drag them away for 15 minutes or until the co-ordinator tells them they have to do something else. Co-ordinators can either be a benefit or a hindrance. But we try to work with them as politely as possible because they have a really important job to do as well. Our contract says that we should be fed in a timely manner, be served the same meal the guests are served, and be seated at a guest table. We ask that because we don’t want to be shuffled off into another room and fed a cold sandwich – we’ve been on our feet and shooting for a long time before that and need sustenance. It also makes sense to be interacting with the guests during mealtimes rather than sitting in a back room somewhere. It’s really hit-and-miss whether those requests are honoured, but that’s our preference. If we’re lucky, we get 10 minutes to scarf down food, then it’s back to documenting the dancing, or whatever’s going on, and we’ll shoot like crazy until the music stops. For us, the dancing is usually the most enjoyable part of the day. People have been drinking, they’ve dropped their inhibitions, and we can get pretty close and make interesting, candid images.”

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When I was talking to Dave, it was clear that he places a great deal of importance on interacting with the guests. I wanted to know a bit more about his attitude to this.

“You want to fit in with the people you’re photographing. We try to dress in nice suits that approximate what the guests are wearing. We want to be around them as much as possible so that they are familiar with us and not fazed by being photographed. I want my level of interaction with them to be so comfortable that they think I’m a member of the family or friend of the family. I actually want someone to say that to me by the end of the day – it makes me feel that I’ve done my job. The best way to approach a wedding, for me, is to try to seduce everyone at the wedding: the bride and groom, the family – even the vendors because it’s really a big collaboration. You need them to make great photos, and you need their co-operation. When I say “seduce,” I mean there’s an understanding and a willingness between you and your subjects, and they appreciate and support your intentions. If you can establish a relationship with them and make them comfortable with you, you can just rely on the talents you’ve already got to take the photos, and that relationship is going to allow you the intimacy to get the really impactful photos you’re looking for.”

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We already know how Dave feels about 35mm equipment but there’s no getting away from it when it comes to wedding photography. I asked him about his complete wedding day kit list.

“I always have a 5d MKII around each shoulder – one has a 35mm 1.4, the other has an 85mm 1.2 or a 50mm 1.2. Usually around my neck I have a Mamiya C330s film camera which is a twin lens reflex camera that’s about 30 years old. In addition to that, I have two Canon flashes, a 50mm close up lens. And as backups, I carry a 24-70mm 2.8, 70-200 2.8. I also have two video lights, pocket wizards, batteries, battery chargers. I use both radio poppers and pocket wizards for wireless flash, though I find them both pretty unreliable. Where possible, I prefer the video lights because I would rather see the effect of the light on the subject as I’m shooting. If you have an assistant holding a flash 10 feet away, they could inadvertently be casting an ugly shadow, or the assistant could not be paying attention, and you’ll end up shooting for a solid five minutes before you look at the pictures and there’s just some glaring error. Whereas if you’re using video lights, you can tell your assistant in real time to move or adjust something, to soften a shadow, to create a more flattering rim light, etc.”

Since I talked to Dave we’ve actually gone and bought ourselves a film scanner to digitise all of our old film without the need for outsourcing. There’s something incredible about shooting film, a passion that Verity and I bonded over back when we first met. One of the most valuable things I took away from talking to Dave was a renewed passion for our old analogue equipment (I’ve just taken delivery of a nice box of Portra 160 which I can’t wait to shoot!)

I asked about what Dave loves about film and why he enjoys shooting with it so much.

“There are a lot of things I like about the twin lens – I actually prefer square format to 35mm. I don’t like the 35mm frame. I think it’s too long, and the verticals are hideous with 35mm. It’s a good format for storytelling but it’s often hard to fill a 35mm frame. The square format is great to me because, by its very boxy nature, it forces you to focus on one thing. It’s great for portraits because there’s not a lot of extraneous information, your eye doesn’t have a lot of space to wander around the frame. I also find it a fun challenge to switch between 35mm and square. I shoot film because everyone is using the same digital cameras, and I think that makes it hard to distinguish between one photographer and the next sometimes. So it’s a competitive advantage to shoot with a different format and have a different look. I also shoot film because it’s fun. A lot of us got into photography because it was like Christmas waiting for film to be developed to find out what you got. Professionally, that can be disconcerting sometimes – not knowing whether you nailed focus or exposure. But you can shoot with a digital camera, see the exposure, then switch to film and feel fairly confident you’re going to get a photograph that is exposed properly. Digital has a disposable feeling that I don’t like, and I also think it encourages some irresponsibility from a professional standpoint because things are happening in front of you, and you’re just spinning dials to get the exposure as close as you can before the moment passes. Film requires you to slow down. In the case of the Mamiya, it takes a long time to focus because it’s an old, dusty, matte screen that you’re looking through. So as you’re cranking focus back and forth, it forces you to be more considered about what you’re doing rather than being haphazard, which digital can encourage.”

Meredith and Matt's wedding at Jacuzzi Winery in Sonoma, California

Developing and scanning is a crucial part of using film. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve taken the latter half into our own hands, but developing alone can be a very personal process. I asked Dave if he has a favourite lab.

“In Los Angeles, there’s a place called Richard Photo Lab. They do a really good job of processing and scanning. There’s also Photo Impact Imaging here. For the quality, I’d say they’re relatively inexpensive compared to other labs or to buying a scanner and taking the time yourself to scan negs.”

Part Two of this interview will be live on our blog next week so make sure you come back and check it out!

If you would like to view more on Dave then check out his website : http://www.chrismanstudios.com/chrisman-studios-photographers/dave-getzschman/

– Chris

Sansom Photography is run by husband and wife team Chris and Verity Sansom. Specialising in Wedding Photography Yorkshire but covering events throughout the UK and abroad.