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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Blogger JS said...

There are no other comments as I write this, R.J. so suffice it to say... "You could have done everything differently, why did you do it your way?"

Now that that's out of the way, nice shots, sir!

September 25, 2012 9:38 AM  
Blogger Constantin said...

Great colors and mood but I think is a 1/6 of a stop too dark! Is it just me ? Rembrandt ? Easy to say it tough to do it!

September 25, 2012 5:31 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


September 25, 2012 6:00 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

Constantin, Rembrand tends to underexpose his paintings a touch.

September 25, 2012 6:56 PM  
Blogger Constantin said...

Trust me I know! I looked again from my home computer that's calibrated I like it more.

Rembrandt has indeed the tendency to underexpose most of the picture with the exception of a portion of a subject. Eyes, face, hands, etc.

This is a good example.

September 25, 2012 9:23 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Ya know... you think you have things kind of wired. You carry on doing weddings.. and they are turning out pretty well. Then you see R.J.'s images.

Back to the drawing board.

Great techniques and marvelous style. The learning cycle never ends.

September 25, 2012 10:29 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very unhelpful, but entertaining comments on the Amazon page for Hasselblad http://amzn.to/OpuusL , which is where I ended up after reading this post.

September 26, 2012 6:20 AM  
Blogger ModifiedPhoto said...

I do agree with Constantin, it's a tad dark for my taste, not to mention it would print even darker. Nicely lit otherwise.

I do have to say that the one long weed crossing her dress in the foreground is hugely distracting.

September 26, 2012 11:02 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

To those complaining about the tonal values of the photo, you *do* know that Photoshop (and every other image program) has sliders to adjust that the way you want it, right?

Which is what I would presume any photog would do before releasing the photo. Including R.J. Or, you, if it was your image.

Which is why those "is it me or is the photo just a taaad too dark" comments come off as incredibly pedantic.

Better: If you think YOUR OWN photo is too light or too dark, ADJUST it. That's your choice. But really, to armchair critique how other people adjust their photos is tantamount to complaining about how someone else salts their french fries. Seriously.

As for the weed, I think it makes the picture. It's a subjective choice, but (personally) I have long since grown past beating the hell out of every single imperfection in a composition.

Perfect is often boring. And it took me a lot of boring photos that were striving for perfection to understand that.

September 26, 2012 11:52 AM  
Blogger Jake Mueller said...

Rembrandt would have painted the weed in. Just as the lighting was not designed to "pop" the subjects out, the weed helps establish them "in" the surroundings. If it were me i probably would have made the mistake of PSing it out.

September 26, 2012 12:57 PM  
Blogger JS said...

I can just picture Rembrandt now...
"Man, if I only had that new f/1.2 white paint, I could have made that so much brighter! Some day, man. Some day!"

September 26, 2012 1:59 PM  
Blogger R. J. Kern said...

@JS - My way, or the highway. I've learned to closely guard my creative heart on the wedding day by giving myself creative projects along the way. No one knows about them until they're just about to happen. In this case, I usually explain to the entire bridal party a concept sketch what I'm going after (in this case, "Vanity Fair meets Rembrandt"). Most stare at me in obscurity, set down the beer can, and join in. I moved the railroad ties in place, guided the bride and groom what to do, allowing happy mistakes to 'happen'. Part of shooting digital MF slows me down, to the point where I begin to think critically- in 3 seconds or so- what to move or keep. In this case the weed is very important. Rembrandt used lots of circular leading lines. I needed a visual que leading back to the groom, which the weed does so well, along with the draping dress. Tiny details like this matter to me. Also, I was able to dodge the back of the dress so it appeared to blend in with her flowers... making it look she belonged (notice matching colors and tonalities).

@Constantin - Make no mistake, everything is dialed in to look stellar in print. Web vs print = no comparison. Especially 16-bit/ color channel capture. Subtle tonalities make the shot, no different than a painting. Everything is deliberate. Print competition is brutal and you have to think about these nuances, which matter. Judges can look at a print and tell what is deliberate vs. accident. I welcome the criticism.

@Larry - Thanks, man. That's what this learning platform is all about... helping all become better photogs. Just don't be too critical of your work. That's for your clients to judge.

@Jake - my thoughts exactly. In the Rembrandt school of painting, EVERYTHING is deliberate. Each detail was brushed by hand, including emotion and expression. Fortunately, in photography, we create that emotion with our personality. However, those details remain our responsibility to capture as part of the composition. Nuances like this help make the shot. For my A.D.D. shooting, MF digital is like Ritalin. Hand it to a layperson, they all hyped up on megapixels. Hand it to an artist, it causes pause forcing them to think.

September 26, 2012 7:20 PM  
Blogger rstone said...

The photo does appear a tad dark, even by Rembrandt's standards.

But.... It only seems to appear that way in the small size of the blog. If you look at the photo at RJ's website it is ~1/6 stop lighter and perfect Rembrandt. (at least on my monitor).


September 26, 2012 7:27 PM  
Blogger Bill Irwin said...

Hi, beautifully creative work here. Can I ask how you trigger the flashes? Reason being, I just moved to H4D Hasselblad which syncs up to 1/800th. I don't do much with studio lights but have a few AB800's and their old RFT1 wireless trigger, works fine with my dslr's. I also have PW flex/mini for use with Canon strobes. I'm trying to figure out the best way now to use AB lights with the Hasselblad, avoiding latency issues at high sync speeds. Any advice much appreciated, Bill

September 26, 2012 10:45 PM  
Blogger Jim in Huntsville said...

David, after going to RJ's site and seeing McNally, RJ, you and some young lady I didn't recognize, I went to the MPEX site, but they didn't have what I'm looking for. So, I have to ask: are there official Strobist shorts and where do I get them?

September 26, 2012 11:05 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

The only pair of pants you'll ever need:


Last forever. Pack awesomely. Dry fast. Comfy. Light. Get more rugged with age and washings. The "coin pocket" in front holds an iPhone inside your front pocket perfectly.


September 27, 2012 12:01 AM  
Blogger Charles Gervais said...

David, thanks for the recommendation for the shorts, but I find that the photo on the page you've linked to is a taaad dark on my fully-calibrated screen. Sorry, wouldn't wear them as is, I'd need to brighten them up a 16th of a stop.

@R. J. Kern, I can't praise your work highly enough, absolutely lovely!

September 27, 2012 12:24 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

While I can clearly see the darker tone of the photo is intentional, I feel like it does have a composition element that bugs me: the placement of the railroad tie between them.

Overall the photo, and particularly the placement of that tie, give the impression of separation or even farewell. I felt it subliminally the first time I saw the picture, but it took a while to really internalize what I was seeing. I think the light adds to this sense of separation, as does her more active pose versus his more static one.

In a lot of ways, this photo would feel more appropriate as a father of the bride picture, where the bride is moving towards the camera as the father stays behind.

This isn't to say that there can't be something physical separating people in a bridal portrait, it's just that when present, the message is usually one of obstacles to be overcome rather than a permanent separation.

September 27, 2012 1:08 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

On a related note, I think I'll just start going all Queer Eye For The Straight Guy on random people I meet on the street tomorrow.

They have probably been dressing themselves for years. Likely, many longer than I have been. But if I think they are sub-optimal, it is important for them to hear my opinion, whether they want it or not.

September 27, 2012 1:28 AM  
Blogger J. Gerald Gonzales said...

Not at a point where I can justify digital medium format, but for the same reason i've come to love my X100 ... high speed sync.

September 27, 2012 3:38 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

@Greg: if you want to drag themes of departure and transition in, here's another take on the railroad ties: she's past the first tie but not past the second; her husband is on the other side of the second, leading her over the threshold into their new life together. We don't know what it looks like yet (can't see the end of the receding path) but his face says it's going to be a fun adventure.

I love this picture and wish I had one of comparable intensity from my own wedding.

September 27, 2012 11:22 AM  
Blogger Jake Mueller said...

@Greg and @Nick: to me this feels like a final farewell from the bride. The light is fading after the wedding. The groom is leading her away. She turns to say goodbye. Perfection!

September 27, 2012 12:41 PM  
OpenID tameab said...

It's refreshing to see a wedding image that isn't completely blown-out, over processed or ridiculously high-contrast. This darker tone nicely conveys a sense of atmosphere.

September 27, 2012 4:05 PM  
Blogger David Graf said...

Excellent composition, exposure, and timing. For me you nailed it.

September 27, 2012 7:45 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

@Jake and @Nick- I think the two of you together nailed what the intention was. Now that I look at it again, the picture makes a lot more sense. I like the photo a lot more now. The key difference is that the couple is moving away from the camera, not towards it.

I still don't like the railroad tie in back. I think I would have put it on the ground, rather than on top of the other one. The message would also be clearer if that light area in the backgroud were visible between them, but I really like how it frames the camera right side of the bride's face, so the photographer made the right decision there.

The photo is beautifully executed, and I'm sure the couple found it fantastic. I really like the darker, less glossy feel.

September 28, 2012 10:07 AM  
Blogger R. J. Kern said...

Thank you to everyone for your kind words. I appreciate it.

@Bill -I ran into the same issue... #firstworldphotoconcerns I call it. Using faster sync-speeds (1/800th & 1/1600th sec) will pose signal latency issues. Pocketwizard II & IIIs max out at 1/400sec, the PW Multimax 1/500th sec.

This is the main reason I switched to a Profoto D1 250 vs. Einstein 640. The PhaseOne's vertical grip (V-Grip Air) has a built in Air Sync which can transmit to a Profoto unit up to 1/1600 sec.

This is hands-down the best option for a manual flash guy like myself. I'm tired of troubleshooting dead AA batteries in Pocketwizards, and this eliminates a single-point of failure.

Using your Hasselblad with to a monoblock like the Einstein 640 will pose similar issues. I suggest the Profoto Air Sync which I use to trigger my ABs with no probs, even at 1/1600th sec (flash duration is a separate issue).

A flash duration trick ==> stick with strobes with smaller capacitors (D1 250 vs D1000, for example). The small monoblocks dump light quicker than larger capacitors. You'll only use a fraction of the power with the faster sync speed.

@Greg - I like your concept. In fact, shared the above image last night with a father-of-the-bride for a wedding I'm shooting today. He teared up at the idea.


September 28, 2012 10:22 AM  
Blogger Valenciaenlaweb seo said...

very good photographer, great pictures, the lighting is amazing, regards

September 29, 2012 10:39 PM  
Blogger Veli Ojala said...

because of this post, I became interested in MF cameras.. damn you..

October 01, 2012 5:20 AM  
Blogger ABU.H.A said...

@Greg and @Nick: to me this feels like a final farewell from the bride. The light is fading after the wedding. The groom is leading her away. She turns to say goodbye. Perfection!

that sums it up perfectly.

October 04, 2012 4:12 PM  
Blogger Amy Dunn said...

Gorgeous. I enjoyed the under-exposed Rembrandt lighting. It's different than the light, poppy, and pastel stuff you usually see. :)

October 26, 2012 9:27 PM  

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