Paul Robert Berman: A Focus on Candid Wedding Portraiture
by CHRIS GAMPAT on 02/08/2015
Paul Robert Berman is a wedding photographer who is based in South Shore of Massachusetts. He focuses on the modern vintage look and by telling stories through narratives. That’s why we’re so enthralled by his Candid Wedding Portraiture. He seems to have not necessarily a fly on the wall technique, but more of an ever present spirit admiring from a relatively close distance.
Paul’s secret: he tells us that you just need to let it happen and adapt your techniques as a photographer.
Phoblographer: What made you get into photography?
Paul: My first personal experience with photography was about 25 years ago. My mother was a photojournalist for a local newspaper and there was something about it that was really alluring to me. I used to fake being sick while at school so I could go drive around with her from assignment to assignment. I remember being fascinated with the fact that regardless of the story she was reporting on, the photographs always held a life of their own that made any subject interesting. To me, the words were pretty much irrelevant if the photos captured the subject properly. And to capture the subject properly requires a passion for what you are photographing. She eventually gave me a hand-me-down Pentax K1000 when I was about 15 and I went crazy with it. It helped that my high school had a great photography program and darkroom, so I spent as much time as I could learning things at my own pace without the pressure of it being forced upon me and taking the fun away from it.
Phoblographer: How did you get into shooting weddings?
Paul: I always felt a void when trying to attach myself to the photos I was taking. I just wasn’t making the connection that everyone else seemed to be making with their work and it really bummed me out. I would go weeks without even touching a camera and when I felt the need to do so, I just kept finding reasons not to as if I was talking myself out of it. I started to realize that the narrative aspect of what made me fall in love with photography to begin with just wasn’t there, so I started focusing solely on people and became re-inspired in a huge way. My appreciation for relationships then began to take hold and things just naturally and quickly evolved into weddings. Then one night, I was looking for inspiration online and I was stopped dead in my tracks by one photographer: Jonas Peterson. I was straight up speechless and in complete awe of the beauty, simplicity and originality of his work. That was the night that I decided to focus on wedding photography as a career.
Phoblographer: Tell us about your very first wedding as a photographer. What did you do wrong that you wish that you had known better?
Paul: The first wedding I ever photographed was for a good friend. I never did the whole second shooter thing and just dove in head first. I like to march to my own drum, so the idea of someone telling me what to do was just really not a good fit for how I learn. I put in a TON of research and prepped for weeks leading up to it. I visited the venue 3 times to get used to the lighting at different points of the day and I made my poor wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) stand in for countless shots. But with that said, I was still a complete nervous wreck. I was literally shaking at some points during the day even though the couple was well aware of my lack of experience. I had these awful nightmares leading up to it where my lenses would just fall off my camera body at random or that I would miss the first kiss. Luckily there were no disasters and everyone pretty stoked.
The biggest mistakes I made were not so much technical but more my approach. I had no voice yet and I walked into the situation with a set standard of how the day was going to go and I already had all the shots I wanted to take predetermined in my mind. Needless to say, that got turned on its head pretty quickly. From that point on, it was all about letting things happen organically and just being in tune with the flow of the day while knowing my subjects and how they interact.
Phoblographer: Posing a bride and groom at a wedding and during the portrait session is always very tough and needs to be done quickly. Do you talk to the bride and groom beforehand about what has to be done? What’s this part of the session usually like?
Paul: One of the first things I look for when I speak to a couple is whether or not it is a good fit. There has to be really great immediate chemistry in order to establish trust and there is a lot of stuff I will not do photographically. Not because I think I am above it or anything stuck up like that, but because I just don’t connect with certain types of wedding photography and I want the couple to get what they see on my website. When things are in sync between all of us, I am big on being clear about the day’s pacing. 99% of my couples do a first look, so when that is part of the wedding day, I fragment the sessions into 3 parts. Each of which are 10-15 minutes long. The first look typically last about 5 minutes. I try to make sure I give them a few minutes to embrace the emotions that hit them so I am not just rushing them long because its not about me, its about them.
After they recompose, I spend another 10 or so minutes photographing them nestled up with one another. I very lightly pose them but I focus more on environment and light while making sure they are in the middle those 2 elements. I don’t bother my couples after their ceremony because I prefer for them to be with their friends and family. At sunset I steal them for another 15 minutes in order to capitalize on the golden light and all the beauty their venue has to offer. At that point in the day, the couple is usually pretty stoked to sneak away for a few so we make it really fun. At the end of the night, I grab them again for 5 or so minutes to do some fun off camera flash work with them. At that point in the night, they’re at their most relaxed and the passion really pours out organically. Because of this, all I really have to do is focus on my lighting.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.
Paul: I recently made a full system jump from Canon to Nikon. My gear is:
Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G
Nikon SB 910 Speedlight x2
Eneloop AA batteries
Manfrotto light stands
Pocket Wizard Mini TT1
Pocket Wizard Flex TT5
Holdfast Gear Moneymaker
Ona Presidio camera straps
ThinkTank Airport International V2.0 (For weddings)
Ona Brixon Leather (for engagement sessions)
I edit on a 27” iMac w/ 5k Display and a 13” Macbook Pro w/ Retina when I’m on the road.
I’m huge on prime lenses. It forces me to see the environment from one single perspective which causes me to pay more attention to what is happening in front of me. I also love shooting very wide apertures and primes allow me to do so while having the sharpest results possible with minimal distortion. I do not shoot above 85mm for personal preferences. For me, I always feel as if I am being invasive when my perspective is too close to my subject. By visually stepping back a bit, I feel the distance leaves a lot to the imagination of the viewer and it also allows a visual unity for the couple with the environment around them. Kind of like “this is us in this moment exactly where we stand”. I shoot 2 cameras during the ceremony and for that, the moneymaker is KILLER. Otherwise I am typically shooting everything at 35mm on one body for prep and reception and 85mm // 58mm during formals.
Phoblographer: Your couples are always captured with a big sense of intimacy. How do you bring this out in your subjects when they’re all caught up in what’s going on at the wedding to begin with?
Paul: It all starts with the first interaction: their inquiry. Because of the chemistry I seek to have with my couples, I naturally get emotionally invested with them. This creates a relationship early on which gives way to a sense of comfort and trust. The engagement session is where it really begins to take flight. Everyone is always awkward for the first 20 minutes or so including myself. Once we get used to each other outside of email and phone chats, I study how they interact as well as kind of see how to approach them in terms of level of comfort with intimacy.
The big key is not to force it. Some folks are playful and active. Some folks are all over each other. After the engagement session, I try to make time for some coffee hangs so that we can get to know each other on a more personal level. I try to get them used to my personality and I think social media has been a HUGE help with that. When they can see into my daily personal life, they are more apt to view me as a friend rather than a wedding vendor. So naturally, come wedding day, they’re at ease in my presence and I already know the boundaries of the their comfort levels. So that golden hour portrait session just sort of naturally unfolds into a very intimate and loving series of moments because of the path we laid down to get to that point in time.
Phoblographer: Your work surely does stand out from others. How do you describe it and what has inspired you to fine tune it to what it is?
Paul: Thanks so much! I guess I would describe my work as wedding photojournalism and the tonality of it tends to be pretty atmospheric. Living in New England gives way to such a stark contrast between the seasons and my work definitely reflects those seasonal shifts. My photography in the Spring and Summer differs greatly from how I shoot during the Autumn and Winter. A lot of that tonality also fluctuates with my mood during whichever time of year it is. The style is pretty much always evolving and I think the moment it stops doing so would be a very bad thing.
“The big key is not to force it. Some folks are playful and active. Some folks are all over each other. After the engagement session, I try to make time for some coffee hangs so that we can get to know each other on a more personal level.”