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© Jeff Ascough
© Jeff Ascough
Born in Bristol, England, in 1967 Jeff started his photography career in 1989 in his family run business, initially as a portrait photographer and then as a wedding photographer. In 1993 he left the family business and started his own business in Derbyshire.
In 1995, frustrated with the traditional style of the day, Jeff began shooting weddings in a documentary style. Between 1995 and 2003 he won over 170 regional, national, and international awards for his work. In 2004 he became the first British wedding photographer to be featured in The Washington Post and in 2005 was voted one of the five best wedding photographers in the world in a BBC poll.
In 2006 Jeff developed his own Photoshop Actions software, which is now used by the wedding industry’s top photographers. The following year Jeff was voted one of the 10 best wedding photographers in the world by American Photo magazine - the only European photographer to make the list.
In June 2010 Jeff was one of 12 photographers who received the annual 'Lens & Light Honor' from a leading wedding photography website for his "stunning, modern, artistic imagery at the frontier of the field". In 2012 Jeff has been shooting weddings for a number of clients and pursuing his passion for photographing landscapes: all with the EOS 5D Mark III DSLR. For over 20 years Jeff has held a series of photographic workshops, some of which have attracted visitors from as far afield as India and Singapore.
If Jeff Ascough had stuck to either of his first two intended career paths he would have been a rock star or a criminal psychologist. The loss to the worlds of music and psychology has been photography's gain as this talented Englishman has carved himself out a reputation as one of the very best wedding photographers on planet earth. For someone who didn't even consider photography until his early 20s it makes his current standing all the more remarkable.
Like many teenagers Jeff fancied himself as a budding musician and played guitar with a few bands, without the slightest thought for photography. Did he not have any interest in picking up a camera at that time? "Not at all. My brother had an interest and my father was a keen amateur photographer who progressed to being a semi-professional, but I was more interested in music and played guitar," explains Jeff.
As he was growing up Jeff's family moved around England. "My dad was an aeronautical engineer and moved to many different airbases around the country. We finally settled in the Midlands when we moved to Loughborough," he reveals. The young Jeff Ascough still didn't have a clear career path in mind and recalls: "I did a lot of dead end jobs in banks and supermarkets and the like. I was going to go to Keele University to study psychology but in the year off between school and university I went off the idea."
Jeff's father was by then a lecturer at Aston University in Birmingham who harboured a deep desire to be a photographer. Ascough senior opened a photographic studio in Loughborough and wanted to go into the photographic business full-time but his university bosses wouldn't let him retire from his lecturing position. Jeff explains: "As he wasn't allowed to retire he needed somebody to run the studio for a bit. I ended up shooting portraits - all on medium format. Hasselblads and Mamiya RZ67s and the like."
Jeff admits: "Until I started as a pro I didn't take much notice of photography - I was thrown in at the deep end and found out I had a flair for it. Once I'd started I went to college three nights a week to learn the technical side of things - darkrooms, emulsions, developers and theory." Whilst at college he was inspired by a tutor: "We had a teacher who was a massive Cartier-Bresson fan and he really got me into his photography."
He adds: "Initially I was interested in portraiture and the very first wedding I shot was around August 1989. I can't remember exactly but almost certainly it was with a Hasselblad, with an 80mm lens and tripod. I didn't get into 35mm until two or three years later." This switch to using the 35mm format roughly coincided with his decision to leave the family photographic business to set up his own photographic operation.
The UK economic recession of the early 1990s was kicking in and Jeff admits: "I wasn't being paid particularly well so I decided to set up my own business in Derbyshire. I was actually more interested in fine art and documentary photography at the time but I didn't have a studio, so I went into weddings. It was purely a commercial decision and we started a specialised wedding service."
A combination of not wishing to conform to ‘the wedding norm' and a lack of bossiness began to shape Jeff's approach to photographing weddings. He reveals: "What used to happen with wedding photography was everything was shot in colour; posed; it took two to three hours and was the same - the ceremony, group pictures, the room setting etc. As a person I don't like ordering people around so I felt uncomfortable doing that but I could see these fantastic images happening all around me."
This awareness of other photographic opportunities outside of the conventional approach to shooting weddings meant Jeff began to shoot informal 35mm black and white images with his EOS 100 alongside the more staged wedding day pictures. He explains: "I felt like what we (wedding photographers) were doing at the time was like a stage managed photographer's idea of what a wedding should be - for me creatively that was a dead end."
He also began to deliberately show more of the black and whites to clients. "When people came in to see me to I showed them the albums with the 35mm black and whites - obviously my shooting style has changed since then but in terms of shooting technique I am self-taught."
His connection with shooting with Canon cameras has been almost unbroken since the early 1990s - using the EOS-1N, EOS 3 and EOS-1V amongst others - but he did make a move to shooting with Leica rangefinder cameras for about three years. He eventually made the switch to digital around three and a half years ago as a reaction to rocketing processing charges and the disappearance of personalised printing services in preference to machine printing.
Jeff recalls: "I had all the Canon EOS lenses, telephotos and flash so it made sense to stick with the system. When I got into digital I had two friends who advised and helped me." These two pals were the Australian wedding photographers Marcus Bell and Ian Wilkinson. "I found the switch from film to digital quite easy as these friends were great photographers and really proficient in the digital darkroom. It only took me a couple of weddings to get up to speed with digital - the initial impact on my work was fantastic as I had complete control over how my pictures looked," he adds.
"With digital I could get hand print quality without any cost penalty - that was quite liberating," reveals Jeff. "The downside was that I now spent a lot of time processing images when I could be doing something else. Over the past three years I've got the processing down to a reasonable timeframe, but being completely honest I think digital has revolutionised my business and my photography."
As well as getting advice from fellow wedding shooters Jeff is now a lover of photography. "I constantly study pictures by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Salgado and Elliot Erwitt. I don't study wedding pictures, just pictures."
Jeff reveals another key influence: "If we are looking at current photographers then there is just one name - James Nachtwey. I find it quite incredible that he can take such breath-taking images under the stress and danger that he faces. To me he is the epitome of a true photographer. His images are disturbing, moving and at times difficult to look at in terms of subject, and yet they satisfy the visual requirements of what makes a great picture."
As well as a love for images and admiration for other photographers his grounding in portrait photography has also helped to develop Jeff's his documentary-style of shooting weddings. "Starting off as a portrait photographer you get used to seeing how the light falls on a face. I tend to work with the available light as I'm not a fan of flash photography and only use it at night."
He adds: "In the summer I look for the light first - the direction and the quality. I'm always looking for things in the natural lighting environment. In a nutshell I tend to turn up and see what's happening. Whilst there are obviously some pictures you can't miss out of a wedding shoot, I'm fortunate in that my clients book me as they are 99% happy so the bulk of pictures are how I view the day. I always go on what I like and what I see - I very rarely interact with others and I very rarely speak." To some such an admission might seem odd but it makes sense if you think that it allows Jeff to shoot whilst people are barely conscious of the camera and thus a feeling of naturalness comes across in his work.
After 15 years building a reputation as a talented and unconventional wedding photographer in the UK Jeff's biggest break came in 2004 from the USA. He was the subject of a feature in The Washington Post newspaper. He laughs: "after that everything went ballistic and we took hundreds of thousands of hits on my website and Google. It really broke me and I then got known in the US, China and Australia for my documentary-style of photography."
The following year he got another unexpected career boost when an online BBC poll, through net forums etc, ended up with Jeff being voted as one of the five best wedding photographers in the world. Recognition was coming thick and fast and Jeff recalls: "In 2007 I was named one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world by American Photo magazine - it was a surprise. Initially I didn't realise how big the publication was and I was the only British photographer to make the list."
His decision to market himself via the internet has also proved to be a sagely choice by Jeff. "I was one of the early adopters of the internet, especially in my field. I recognised very early on that by gaining an internet presence my work could be seen by a bigger audience. I decided to spend a lot of time and money on improving my internet presence and marketing, and it worked. I couldn't ensure it would be successful, but I believe that if you don't try anything new then you'll never know if it will work or not."
As well as gaining worldwide recognition for his work the advances in Canon imaging technology have been a major help to Jeff in his career. "In terms of camera technology being able to shoot at fantastically high ISO and still being able to achieve stunning low noise images has been a major advantage to me. It opened up a whole new world in terms of available light photography." Jeff adds: "I would shoot all day with my EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens if I could. It's extremely sharp, has great colour rendition, and is very fast."
He has also recently added two EOS-1Ds Mark III SLRs to his camera bag. "I've been using the 1Ds Mark III for a couple of months now and in terms of camera technology and image quality this camera is phenomenal. Ergonomically the camera's design is phenomenal and the file quality is great for flesh tones etc," says Jeff.
He admits: "Professionally I have achieved everything I wanted to - there's not a lot else for me to achieve. However, I would like to see wedding photography in the UK improve as it's a comparatively poor standard when judged against the US and Australia." Jeff adds: " I want to take images that stand the test of time. I push myself to try to create images that are unusual in the wedding scene but could easily stand alongside any body of photojournalistic work. I really want wedding photography to become an admired and important genre of photography."
Having already achieved so much at the age of 40, what lies ahead for Jeff? "Personally I'd love to go away on a project - my daughter is partially sighted so I'd love to do something with a charity along those lines." He adds: "I keep being asked if I'm going to do a book but I don't want to do an instructional book. I'd prefer to do a coffee table-style book of just 50 to 100 pictures in the same way as you might look at a Cartier-Bresson book."
When quizzed on what future camera equipment he'd like to see from Canon, Jeff jokes: "I'd love a 16-200mm f/1.4 zoom, although the current line-up of lenses is great and I'm quite happy with what I've got. If the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom could have image stabilisation added to it that'd be great." He would also like a smaller version of the EOS-1Ds Mark III with the dual card option: "The camera is quite big and in certain circumstances it's nice to have something smaller and lighter, like a 5D with dual cards."
Despite a late, almost unplanned, entry into his profession Jeff Ascough has now established himself as a wedding photographer with a worldwide reputation for excellence and inventiveness. Almost modestly he says: "I like to think that in some small way I gave some credibility to wedding photography, to the point where other photographers could appreciate the importance and skill in what we do."
He adds: "Wedding photography was always considered to be the lowest rung of the professional photography ladder. Today wedding photographers are earning some of the highest incomes and are producing fantastic art, which is all good!" In his own way Jeff Ascough has done many other wedding photographers a favour by raising the bar in terms of picture styles and quality, not to mention the esteem in which wedding photographers are held.
What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?
"I am very excited by it. I think the exposure that Canon can give to different genres of photography, and in particular wedding photography, by launching a programme like this will benefit everyone involved."
Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?
"I think that by having world class photographers involved with Canon the product line can only get better and better, which will ultimately improve the quality of the photographic equipment available to us, which in turn will allow us all to take better pictures."
What got you started in photography?
"I was taking a year out from college - I originally wanted to be a psychologist - and was drifting from job to job, when my parents opened up a photography business. I was invited to join that - which I did. I then went to college three days a week to study photography and that was what really got me interested."
What does photography mean to you?
"Photography is my passion and my life. I can't imagine a life without taking pictures. I live, breathe, eat and sleep photography."
What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?
"By occupation I am a wedding photographer. However, my style is based on social documentary and photojournalism. I've just adapted it to the wedding field."
What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?
"No matter what genre of photography you wish to pursue, it's important to stay true to your heart and work on getting individuality into your pictures. Don't copy others or go with the latest photographic fads, but try and develop your own style that will make your images stand out."