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R.J. Kern, With the Assist from Rembrandt

If you're going to steal from someone, you should have the class to steal from the very best. Which is why photographers so often return to Rembrandt when it comes to nicking someone's light.

Such was the case with Denver wedding photographer R.J. Kern, who we join today for a quick BTS of the portrait above…

We place our lights up and over so automatically these days, we sometimes don't even consciously think of the reason why. That triangle of light on the shadow-side eye is pure Rembrandt (who we were lucky enough to interview a few years ago, BTW).

As it happens Kern is no stranger to the Old Masters, knowing that anyone with a look that has held up for 350 year has probably bested Instagram in the long run. Kern studied the Masters in college, and finds visiting museums to be the quickest way to avoid burnout.

"Circling back to the Old Masters yields a limitless supply of inspiration," he said, "especially in a saturated industry of sameness."

But light alone does not a wedding photo make. And to my eye the special sauce for this photo is the combination of the bride's camera-conscious look and the groom's devotion to her. Kern puts a lot of thought into the internal relationships in his photos:

My goal is to create an honest portrait of the couple, being natural and not overly posed. The visual story starts with people skills. Yet they need a bit of direction since most really don't know what to do in front of the camera. 

I spend time with my clients on their engagement session to really get to know them—their relationship, down to the very nuances of chemistry and what makes them click. What's their love language? What makes them feel loved? I try and show that in my photographs. I consider myself one part photographer, three parts therapist. That's 50% of the recipe.

The other 50% is pushing himself creatively, he says. I.e., not being comfortable—even to the point of not scouting locations. (That'd sure keep me from being overly comfortable.)

Kern continues:

While the photograph is about the bride and her details, the adoration from the groom is equally important. Avoiding the cliche, I wanted them to blend into the environment, I think the lighting really helps with the narrative. Put people in good light and give them something to do, and there's your shot.

One Light, Big Chip

For this shot he had the wedding limo driver pull over near some railroad tracks. The limo driver originally thought he was nuts. But the couple was on-board, and before it was over the driver ended up being his voice-activated light stand:

Kern has recently opted to go medium format, which he characterizes as an "important financial and strategic decision" for his business.

Several factors (stands out from the 35mm crowd, technical advantages, the "look" of MF, etc.) helped him along, but in the end he felt that it was 16-bit image quality that trumped them all. He bit the considerable financial bullet and bought a PhaseOne camera, two leaf-shutter lenses (80 and 55) and an IQ140 back.

The "leaf shutter" part critical, allowing sync speeds of up to 1/1600th of a second. (Kern chose a 1/400th for the shot at top.) Sync speed matters. As we have said before, that sync range makes your flash much more useful. Because of the higher shutter/wider aperture combos available, you can choose to soften the background or drop to a much lower power setting on your flash for quick double taps.

Or you can just just revel in the new raw power of your flash. A 1600th sync makes a 640ws flash as functional for overpowering daylight as a 4,000ws flash would be at a 250th of a second.

Which brings us to curiosity, as Kern uses his high-end PhaseOne camera with a modest Alien Bee monobloc. Not your average allocation of resources. (He used an AlienBees 1600 and a 47-in. Octabox here.)

I asked him about the combo and he said it was mostly about where he was in his various relative upgrade cycles. (For future reference, even just moving to an Einstein with its fast t.1 times, will buy him much more usability on the high end of the power range with that 1/1600th sync.)

For now, he says light is light and that he is happy with the results from the combo. Plus, he is in no hurry to re-buy all of his mods if he swaps light to another brand. (Ed note: Again, Einsteins a logical choice for R.J. here. But if he does change brands, just swap out the mods' speedrings to save big bucks.)

Check out R.J.'s website to see his other work (including many more photos from this particular wedding and some beautiful light painted portraits). But also take a moment to see how he uses video to introduce himself to prospective clients. (Also: anyone who wears shorts in his "about" page cannot be all bad.)

And of course, R.J. adds, if you are planning a wedding he would very much like to talk with you . . .


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