Once in a while a photographer emerges to change the style of shooting a particular subject. Award-winning photographer Jeff Ascough is just such a photographer. He is now widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest wedding photographers thanks to his documentary-style approach to shooting those special happy days. John McDermott spoke to him about how he developed his stunning, intimate photographic style.
You might think that a wedding photographer whose hero is renowned war photographer James Nachtwey, and whose early inspiration came from the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado, had somehow taken a wrong turn. In the case of Jeff Ascough you’d be wrong. The British wedding shooter from Derby, recently named one of the world’s ten best in his specialty by the US monthly magazine Popular Photography & Imaging, has developed a thriving high-end business by bringing the values and techniques of black and white documentary photography to a field generally associated with posed, often over-lit, medium format colour pictures. And these days he is doing it all with a Canon digital camera.
Jeff’s parents operated a high street portrait studio in the university town of Loughborough, in the Midlands region of England. While Jeff was studying for a degree in criminal psychology they asked him to lend a hand in the studio and eventually his growing love for photography won out over a career in the criminal justice system. “I found I quite enjoyed it,” he recalls, “and as things go, our customers began to ask us to do their weddings. After three years I moved about 20 miles up the road to Derby and opened my own business. I decided to concentrate on weddings because I felt it would be easier to market myself and to get work in. And the overhead is lower as well since you’re always working on location.”
In 1993 Jeff came across the work of the well-known American photographer Denis Reggie, whose photojournalistic approach to the high-profile nuptials of people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John F. Kennedy Jr. was changing the look of wedding photography and the image of the wedding photographer in the United States. “I didn’t take a huge amount of notice of it, frankly, but it was always in the back of my mind,” he recalls. “Then I was asked to do a few local commercial jobs in a documentary black and white style.
Those went very well and I really enjoyed working that way. So I thought ‘why not transpose this over to weddings?’”
At the time Jeff says he was “heavily into Cartier-Bresson” and his personal taste is firmly rooted in the documentary tradition. In fact, the home page of his website gives a strong hint of his style with the introductory headline “If Cartier-Bresson shot weddings…”. That’s a bold statement by anyone, but one that seems entirely appropriate when you look at Ascough’s portfolio.
Armed with a growing belief that there was a market in the UK for this new approach he bought a Canon EOS 100 and started shooting journalistic images to complement the posed medium format work he was normally called upon to produce. “When we would get our sample albums together to show prospective clients I started to leave out the formal portraits and just show the clients the journalistic stuff,” Jeff confides, “and we began to find that people really liked it. We started to win a few awards, which led to some national press, and then everything just took off from there.”
Jeff soon abandoned medium format cameras altogether. “The photographers whose work I really liked looking at - Cartier-Bresson, Salgado, Nachtwey and others - were usually using Leica rangefinder cameras,” he explains, “and those Leica images had a look that you couldn’t get with an SLR. One year I decided to go and buy a Leica with a 50mm f/1.0 lens, just to see if I liked it. I began using it alongside the Canon EOS-1V SLR at that point. It took a while to get used to, but eventually the Leicas took over completely for about the next four or five years.”
Jeff’s evolution from rangefinder-toting black and white film photographer to digital SLR shooter initially came about for purely commercial reasons. “I was shooting 10-15 rolls of 35mm film at each wedding,” he says. “As the labs began to feel the impact of so many people switching to digital they started to lay off staff including the people who were printing my work. The labs went to machine processing and the prints just weren’t coming back the way I needed them to be.” He adds: “They told me they could still do what I needed but that it would now cost three to four times what it used to. We just couldn’t continue with film and processing costs spiraling out of control. You can only put your prices up so much. So we made the decision to change.”
“When I went digital,” Jeff emphasizes, “Canon was the obvious choice. Before I started using the Leicas I was working with the EOS-1N and the EOS-1V film bodies. So I still had all my Canon lenses and I knew the ergonomics of the cameras. Initially it was a bit of a challenge because I had to get used to composing through the lens again instead of through a rangefinder, and also the viewfinder going black at the moment of exposure. But I could now shoot everything on one body. I used to carry three or four cameras, one for colour, two for black and white, and a back-up in case the film ran out.” Another benefit of working digitally is that he can now take advantage of Canon’s L-series zoom lenses. Jeff speaks from experience when he cautions: “If you have too many lenses, too many bodies, it becomes confusing and you can miss a shot.” So for someone whose style has leaned heavily upon normal and wide-angle lenses, it’s not surprising that Jeff’s favourite tool these days is the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM zoom mounted on an EOS-1Ds Mark II.
Jeff’s style is based on working unobtrusively. Today he works with just one EOS-1Ds Mark II body with a wideangle zoom attached and three or four fast, fixed focal length lenses in a small shoulder bag: “A lot of photographers these days tend to look like SAS troopers or Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, dressed in black with rucksacks and utility belts. I don’t know why but that seems to be what people think a wedding photographer should look like now. I just try to wear what the guests are wearing - if they’re wearing tuxedoes, I wear a tuxedo. I want to blend in, not stand out.”
While many photographers have struggled with the transition from analogue to digital, for Jeff it was an enjoyable process. “I expected a big learning curve but I had some very good friends who helped me a lot,” Jeff recounts. “It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be. I’ve always done a lot of my own printing, both colour and black and white, and the theory behind it is not hugely different. You’re just working on a screen instead of in the darkroom. And the quality we get now is higher than it was with film - that’s really helped our business.”
Jeff points out that shooting in digital has another significant technical advantage. “With the Leicas,” he explains, “the fastest film I used was ISO 400, rated at 250, so I had to use faster, fixed focal-length lenses. Now I can just crank it up to ISO 1600 or 3200 and keep on shooting in really low light. And film doesn’t have the underexposure latitude that digital has. I reckon we’ve gained four to five stops overall in terms of digital sensor sensitivity and the ability to underexpose without too many problems with image quality.” In fact, Jeff tends to shoot everything at ISO 800 or higher, even outdoors in brighter light. “I just like what digital does at really high ISOs,” he explains. “It’s got a real journalistic feel, sort of a 1930’s look in its tonal range. It softens everything up and you get some digital noise that’s really cool.”
Jeff shoots exclusively in RAW, with about 30% of the final images printed in colour, a decision he says he makes at the time of exposure rather than in post-production. He does all his image preparation work in Capture One Pro, with printing outsourced to a specialist who knows Jeff’s requirements. He also says he doesn’t spend much time looking at pictures on the camera’s LCD while he’s shooting, finding it too distracting. “If Canon would just put a nice big histogram back there,” he suggests, “that would be fine with me because that’s all I look at to judge exposure.”
So, what would Jeff most like to see next from Canon? “It would be a dream come true for me if we could get a digital version of the EOS-1V. Who knows? The 5D isn’t quite it, but maybe the next version will be, a more robustly built body with, hopefully, two card slots for simultaneous in-camera back up of images.”
Some photographers embrace digital as a way to achieve a new look in their work that they couldn’t get with film. But Jeff’s pictures have a very distinctive film-look, something that was important to him to maintain using the new technology. “I wanted to match what I was doing previously, only better” he says. “Digital is too clean, too perfect if you like, and the tonal range too distinct.” To get what he needed Jeff developed his own unique Photoshop actions which he now makes available commercially through his website. According to him they are mainly to do with restricting the tonal range and adding grain to bring the digital files back to a film-like look. “It was a lot of trial and error,” he adds. “I’m still doing it now, still looking for that perfect solution.”
The documentary approach to photographing weddings has become extremely popular in recent years, attracting many freelance photojournalists to the field. And Jeff worries that quality is suffering. “It’s in danger of becoming a commodity rather than an art form,” he laments. “We’ve now got a lot of people shooting weddings who think you can just turn up with a digital camera and take pictures of people having a good time. If you want to take it to a level where it becomes a valuable form of art then it requires a higher level of skill and understanding of light, composition and technique. Doing weddings you have to be so many photographers rolled into one. A photojournalist might have a week to get 20 pictures to tell a story. We’ve got four to five hours to get 150 pictures that all have to be good. It’s a tough profession.”
Jeff takes a very pragmatic approach to the increased competition. “We just try and make sure our work separates itself from everybody else’s,” he states forthrightly. “Fortunately the type of clients we attract are very much into photography and they can understand why my pictures look different to other people’s pictures. Most of our clients have some relationship to the visual and creative arts - we seem to do a lot architects and musicians.”
Jeff’s clients receive a finished album after the wedding. And Jeff, not the client, chooses the images. “We don’t do proofs,” he explains. “We put up the selected images on our website and the client can ask that a picture be removed if they like. But basically we’re selling them a finished product, very much like a videographer would do. We’re telling the story of that day and our approach is very similar.”
Jeff will soon be making a major move, taking his family and business 120 miles away to Lytham, in the North-West of England, just up the coast from Liverpool. It’s not only a lifestyle choice, but also a well thought out commercial decision. “It’s quite a long way from London and the South-East which are the most affluent areas of the country,” he points out, “but it’s not a random move. We’ve done our homework. Aside from London, Lancashire and Cheshire in the North-West have the highest percentage of multi-millionaires in Great Britain. We also found that the farther North you go, even if they may have less disposable income, people are prepared to spend more on photography. Wedding venues down South can cost as much as £40,000 or £50,000 for the day. Up North it might be as little as £4,000 or £5,000, so obviously there’s a lot more money left over for photography. The last five weddings we’ve booked have all been in the North-West and they have all brought substantially more money to us.”
Wherever Jeff Ascough is, one thing is for sure. He will continue to be in demand as one of the very best shooters in one of photography’s most competitive specialties.
Jeff Ascough’s equipment:
3x EOS-1Ds Mark II
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24mm f/1.4L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
EF135mm f/2.0L USM
Canon Speedlite 580EX II
Canon Speedlite 550EX
Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2
Shootsac lens bag (dry weather)
Boda Dry lens bag (wet weather)
Apple Mac Pro
2x Apple 23” Cinema Displays
Apple G5 Power Mac
Apple MacBook Pro
Capture One Pro
iView Media Pro
Adobe Photoshop CS3
Biography: Jeff Ascough
After abandoning a career in criminal psychology Jeff began his photography career in 1989. By the mid-1990s he had developed a documentary style of shooting weddings in black and white. He has won a host of photographic awards and shot several celebrity weddings. The Washington Post dubbed Jeff: “A master at shooting by available light.”