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It’s Time to Take Better Candid Photographs. Here’s How

Prime lenses are a start.

Paper Antler Photography

“In the college photography world, where it’s more fine art driven, wedding photography is kind of viewed as the bastard child of photography,” said Jonny Hoffner, co-founder, along with his wife Michelle, of Paper Antler Photography. “It was lumped in with taking photos of baby’s bottoms and puppies.” There was a stigma that wedding photography was only for photographers who couldn’t sell prints or book editorial gigs, Hoffner added. But that’s just not true. Not now, not eight years ago, when the couple started Paper Antler.

“What I’ve come to appreciate is that from a creative standpoint, it’s constantly challenging and forces you to become a better photographer technically, in every dimension.” It’s also about balancing the different personalities and moving pieces, all the while keeping things lighthearted and enjoyable. Those aspects, coming together, are why Hoffner loves wedding photography. It’s also why, by heeding some advice from a wedding photographer, you can improve your own photography, from candid portraits to vacation documentation.

Techniques to Master

How to Better Your Approach

Act natural. First and foremost, it’s important to make your subjects feel comfortable. In weddings, it’s about fostering what Hoffner calls “the couple’s experience.” Basically, coaching the couple (and the family and bridal party) on how to feel comfortable and act candidly. This process is a mix of staying hands off, and talking things out. Before ever wielding the camera, Hoffner talks to his subjects, reminding them that this is about them, not the lens pointed at them. He reminds them what’s important — being present in the moment, not smiling for the camera. He’s also fairly laid back, and creating a relaxing environment is key. If you just ask people to stand in the corner and act natural, it’s not going to happen.

“We hear from a lot of people that they’re not photogenic or they’re not good at having their picture taken, that they don’t know what to do in front of the camera,” said Hoffner, “so we really try to make that process enjoyable and fun.” In some sense, you have to trick your subjects into being candid — spontaneous. Hoffner said he’ll provide people with either games, prompts or ideas to focus on. That way they’re distracted from their photo being taken. According to Hoffner, a recent groomsman referred to this tactic as “plan-did” shots (planned + candid).

Don’t say cheese. “A very simple example of this is if we’re taking photos of the bridal party — this is one of our secrets — we’ll get them lined up and say this is a speed round where we’re going to yell out everything we love about [the couple],” said Hoffner. They all shout. The photographer steps back. As the bridal party’s starts talking and laughing and having fun, the photographers are getting the shot. This same tactic can be used in everyday photos. Instead of saying “say cheese” or prompting the subjects with a bad joke — which makes the photographer feel stupid and creates an awkward environment — ask them to engage with each other. It creates an experience that’s positive, genuine, and allows interaction between subjects.

Capture the scene. Part of the beauty of weddings, and family vacations (for those not getting married), is their unpredictable elements. Hoffner and his wife, who work in tandem at weddings, don’t work off a shot list. There are the set moments of the couple, the family, and the bridal party that need to be captured (along with the bride putting her dress on, the walking down the aisle, the procession, the ceremony and the kiss). But the Hoffners also make an intentional point to step back from the main action (the couple) to photograph the surrounding crowds and scenery. Often, turning around will land you the perfect B-roll shot. The action is sometimes more compelling from under the grandstands, than from in them.

Go macro. The details are also important. In a wedding it’s the colors, centerpiece, floral arrangements. They were all (presumably) selected by the bride and groom for a reason; they connected with it or found it beautiful. It’s the details that fit into the greater narrative and make documentary photography feel complete.

Stay lean. Hoffner and his wife each use a Nikon DF camera. They bring a Nikon D800, as backup in case one fails, and five prime lenses. They also, surprisingly, don’t carry any lights, flash or tripods with them. “We have a very stripped-down setup,” said Hoffner. “Intentionally.”

Prime works. The widest prime they carry is a 35mm. The highest zoom is a 135mm. “For most the photos of the couple, we’re more in the mid-range category,” Hoffner said. “More in the 50mm-80mm [range], for photos of the couple. It offers us a good kind of distance away from them to interact, but also to do a lot of different things compositionally.” Hoffner doesn’t like photographing people with the 35mm — they start to get too distorted. Instead he’d rather pull back with the 50mm.

The 135mm is almost exclusively for the ceremony, in a big church, where Hoffner has to stay in one spot (usually in the back center near the isle). The vast majority of the time Hoffner uses a 58mm lens. It’s his favorite. “I think you can shoot details super well. It’s wide enough that you can shoot immediate family photos, but then you can get enough information in it to have interesting landscape shots as well.”

Ditch the zoom. When it comes to equipment, there was a time when almost every wedding photographer talked about the Holy Trinity of lenses: you needed a 14-24mm zoom, 24-70mm zoom, and 70-200mm zoom. But that’s not true anymore. In fact, Hoffner said it totally stifled his creativity to have a zoom lens. It’s important for anybody starting out in photography to experiment with wide lens, zoom lens, prime lens. Hoffner’s camera set might drive other photographers crazy. But it’s perfect for Hoffner and his wife. “We’re able to compose things better when we have to move with our feet instead of moving with our wrist.”

Don’t flash. The main reason they don’t use flash: it’s distracting. Whether you’re an attendant, a guest, a family member or the couple, a flash that’s going off routinely can be disturbing. From an aesthetic standpoint, Hoffner also added that “flash largely serves to flatten images instead of creating the kind dimension or ethereal feel that we appreciate in our shooting.”

Jonny Hoffner and his wife Michelle, co-founders of Paper Antler Photography

The prime lenses they use also capture more light. “We have the ability to open up to f/1.4 and shoot low light,” Hoffner said. And if the image is still too dark — between your lens, shutter speed and extra ISO all working together — Hoffner said that’s not the biggest problem. “To me it’s more important that the image is in focus and captured than that it’s properly exposed. Because in post [Adobe Lightroom 5, for Hoffner] you can make something a little brighter, but you can’t make it all-of-sudden in focus.” If a person dancing is blurred out because the photographer is using a long shutter speed, there’s nothing they can do with the image. If the photo is slightly underexposed, however, and the photographer is able to use a faster shutter speed, that photo can be lightened up afterwards (if only a little) so that it’s usable.

Shoot in RAW. Although the photos you share will be in JPEG, it’s key to have the RAW files, for adjusting in post. “We keep the original RAW photo so that if, later on, the couple wants to see the photo in black and white or colored, we can make that adjustment afterwards,” Hoffner said. Also: never delete, always back up.

What’s in the Camera Bag

The Hoffners’ Cameras, Lenses and Bags


(2) Df DSLR Camera by Nikon $2,747
D800 by Nikon $1,369

35mm f/1.4 by Nikon $1,497
45mm f/2.8 PC-E by Nikon $2,047
50mm f/1.4 by Nikon $397
58mm f/1.4 by Nikon $1,597
85mm f/1.4 by Nikon $1,597
135mm f/2 by Nikon $1,392

Bags and Accessories
Diplomat Camera Bag by Satchel & Page $395
The Bowery Camera Bag by Ona $249

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