Interview with Destination Wedding Photography Nathan Welton

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We have taken time to chat with Nathan Welton, a magazine and newspaper photojournalist who is the man behind the wedding photography company Dreamtime Images.

First off what’s your camera gear?

I generally have two camera kits for weddings: one for destination weddings, and one for Colorado/local weddings. My destination package is two days, and often covers events like boat trips or golf outings, and it’s super handy to have some long zooms for when I can’t really zoom with my feet.

I always shoot with a pair of 5d Mark III bodies. I wear a Hold Fast Money Maker camera strap, which allows me to have two cameras hanging from me at all times. Generally one body is fitted with a wide lens, and the other with a longer lens. This way I’m prepared for everything.

Inside each body is a 128 gig CF card and a 128 gig SD card, and I write RAW files to both of them. I like the small form factor of the 5d series, and I think it’s a great all purpose camera for weddings: good in low light, good autofocus, great colors. I would not want to use the 1D series because they are so gigantic.

Depending on the wedding, I might wear a Think Tank modular belt system with a few lens pouches so I can swap lenses, though it really depends on the wedding, the logistics, and where everything happens. I like the Lens Changer 50s the best since they can hold pretty much every lens but a long zoom without having to fiddle them in.

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Since I tend to outfit my bodies with a 35mm and an 85mm most of the time, I’ve started to stow a Fuji X-T1 in a Speed Changer belt pouch with a 35mm f/1.4, which has the equivalent field of view of a 50mm. The whole camera/lens combo is lighter than my Canon 50mm f/1.2L and I don’t have to swap lenses to use it, so I find it to be pretty handy. I’ve used the WiFi features of the camera to get images onto Instagram immediately if the wedding has a hashtag, and brides and their friends totally love it.

For destination weddings, I’ll bring the following lenses:

  • 16-35 f/2.8
  • 24-70 f/2.8
  • 70-200 f/4
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 85mm f/1.2

I’ll shoot most of the wedding day with the 35 and 85, and will use the zooms for other activities as I mentioned before. I also like having the redundancy in case of a lens failure. I do have a 70-200 f/2.8, but I don’t bring it that often because the f/4 is plenty sharp and way smaller, and most of the time I’m shooting that big lens outdoors during the daylight. If I’m trying to isolate my subjects by shooting wide open, the difference between f/2.8 and f/4 at 200mm is pretty minimal.

For local weddings, I’ll bring

  • 24mm f/1.4
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 50mm f/1.2
  • 85mm f/1.2
  • 135mm f/2

Most of the day I use the 35 and 85, but revert to the 24mm in crowded reception venues or small bridal suites, and use the 135mm during the ceremony. I use the 50mm (of my Fuji) for details quite a bit.

Spotlight: Nathan Welton - Dreamtime Images

For group shots, I rely heavily on the 85, 85 and 135, and tend to shoot with a very shallow depth of field, being careful to organize groups in such a way that everyone will still be sharp.

By far my favorite lens is the new generation (Mark II) version of the 35mm f/1.4. It’s insanely sharp and the colors and contrast are jaw dropping. I use it for 40% of the shots from a wedding day, followed by the 85 (30%), and then the rest of my lenses about equally.

As I’ve evolved as a photographer, I’ve moved away from shooting my ultra fast primes wide open — I think it breeds complacency and lazy compositions, and frankly the images wind up being boring to me because they aren’t layered and don’t tell as good a story. But, I have those wide f-stops when I need them, and I do need them at every wedding from time to time (eg, for family portraits). I just don’t rely on them.

For flashes, I have four 600EX Speedlights. These units were game changers when they came out a few years ago and are super solid and reliable. I generally shoot two off camera and then have one on each body as a master. I use Canon CPE4 battery packs on my strobes for fast recycling times, and use rechargeable batteries that I condition about once every month or two during wedding season too keep working well.

I tend to pack everything in a ThinkTank Airport Accelerator backpack. Wheelie bags are awesome, but most of my venues have lots of sand, dirt or mud.

One thing that nobody talks about regarding wedding photography gear is shoes! These are clutch. Your feet will often be screaming at the end of a long wedding day. I run, jump, climb trees, lay on my stomach, and generally consider my job to be very athletic. I need sturdy shoes. Most last half a season before the midsole wears out. I love Blundstone boots — they’re Tasmanian work boots that look great with slacks, and I can walk miles with lots of weight on my back and my feet don’t hurt.

Spotlight: Nathan Welton - Dreamtime Images

How did your career begin and where did you passion for wedding photography start?

I have a really weird career path. I actually have a master’s degree in science and health journalism. I wanted to spend my 20s being outside as much as possible, and I figured writing about it would be a great way to do that.

I was completely wrong! Once I got my degree, I worked in newspapers, and I actually rarely went out on assignment. I spent a lot of time in the office waiting for sources to call me back. But, I did illustrate the stories I was writing, and that’s where I got to be out and about and on my feet. I had taken photojournalism electives in grad school and worked as an assistant for my photo professor.

I wound up landing a lot of photography assignments, to the point where sometimes I was doing more photography than writing, and eventually decided I liked it a lot more. In 2006 I quit the newspaper world and decided to pursue photography full time, so I moved to Colorado and found whatever photography work I could get.

I quickly fell in love with shooting weddings because it reminded me a lot of being in an newsroom: it was fast paced, hectic, unpredictable, and very real. I could observe, anticipate, and tell stories, and the entire process was very gratifying because what I created meant a lot for my clients. I loved being faced with challenging lighting conundrums and having to figure out how to manage them, and I loved running my own business.

I’ve been shooting weddings full time for 10 years now, and I enjoy it more with each passing year.

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Where do you find your inspiration and are there any other photographers that inspire you?

I used to look at a lot of other photographers’ work early on for inspiration, but I do it less and less these days.

I think this is pretty common — when we don’t have a clear vision or idea of what we want to create, we look elsewhere for inspiration. But as time passes and we get more confident in our own vision, we look inward.

That being said, I really love looking at great, award-winning wedding photography from organizations like Fearless, WPJA and ISPWP. I’ve been participating in their contests since I started and I am continually blown away by the depth and skill out there around the world.

I honestly thing wedding photography is the most challenging style of photography out there, and I can’t believe the stuff people pull off knowing how the deck is stacked against them on a wedding day.

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How would you describe your general style?

I tell stories about connections between people and about how families begin. I guess it’s a mix of reportage, fine art, portraiture, landscape, and everything else out there.

I’m pretty lucky in that I live in Estes Park in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and shoot destination weddings in beautiful locations all over the place. My clients put a lot of effort into picking a location to get married that reflects their story. Most of the time it’s outside, and most of them are deeply connected to nature and beauty. I think this is super important, and I try to document it as best I can.

There’s this thing called the biophilia hypothesis put forward by the ecologist EO Wilson, who basically said that humans have a deep, instinctual need to connect with nature. Humans have spent the vast majority of their evolution being close to nature, and, at least in my life, being outside makes me happier and more content.

My clients obviously share this and choose to get married in insanely beautiful places, and I make it a point to incorporate a sense of place into my wedding photos.

Join me on Instagram or pop by my website to get an idea of my style.

What are looking forward to most right now?

There aren’t very many weddings in Colorado during the winters, so I spend my off season traveling, rock climbing, and shooting destination weddings. This year I didn’t have any winter bookings, so I’ve been in Greece since late October on a small island called Kalymnos.

My wife is a professional climber and I’ve been climbing since I was 19, so we’ve been here climbing and shooting her climbing for her sponsors.

We quasi-adopted a Greek kitten along the way, went to Norway for a few weeks, and returned last week to find our kitten on a hilside with a compound fracture of her rear leg. We took her to a vet and she had the leg amputated, and I think we’re going to really adopt the kitten and bring it back to Colorado with us when we leave.

Right now I’m most looking forward to seeing her adapt so she can hunt and lead an awesome life despite having 3 legs.

As an expereinced wedding photographer how have you seen the industry change over the years?

I think the most obvious change is that the barriers to entry have decreased dramatically over the last years, as the prices of camera bodies have dropped. The result is that more and more people become wedding photographers.

Clients have a great variety of amazing photography to chose from now as they hire a wedding photographer. This is abundantly clear if you look at the wedding photography awards these days — they’re simply stunning.

In general, I think the influx of new photographers is a great thing! The bar has increased a lot, and wedding photography is now something that can be taken seriously as an industry.

Ten years ago, photographers could often just drop out of photography and make a decent living selling products and services to other photographers. Often times, those products or services weren’t that good because they didn’t have to be that good — there simply wasn’t anyone else offering anything similar.

But because wedding photography is a legitimate thing now, there are tons software solutions, post production companies, proofing options and more that make my job tons easier and make my clients tons happier.

This innovation has been cool to see, and probably wouldn’t have happened if camera prices remained as high as they were 10 years ago.

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What is the best advice you’ve ever received about being a photographer?

There’s so much great advice floating around, but I’ll take it old school with this question: “F8 and be there” is what the street photographer Arthur Fellig advised. I think he is spot on.

These days, wedding photographers get way too caught up in shallow depth of field. I find a lot of wedding photography to be pretty cliche: a bride and groom in a field, backlit, framed dead center at 50mm, f/1.2, with a sun flare. There’s not a lot of layering or story telling in these frames. These images are often colorful and beautiful, but kind of meaningless.

A few years ago I switched to Nikon for a season and then switched back. People called me crazy, but it was a great experience. First, I can switch to Nikon at any time and feel fluent. Second, the process required me to slow down a lot as I re-learned all the buttons and knobs and wheels.

When I slowed down, I thought a lot more about composition and framing, and it required me to be predictive instead of reactive. I had to be a few steps ahead of the game in my head and I had to know what was about to come in order to be ready with the right exposure.

What happened is that when I slowed down, I started to see lots more inside a frame. This led me to spend about six months during the off season shooting everything at f8. It was a great lesson in composition because I couldn’t just open up my lens to get rid of something distracting. Instead I had to figure out how to incorporate that element, or frame it out entirely.

What tips and advice would you give to photographers starting their career?

I think the single most important thing for newer photographers to do is shoot a lot. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. Every single day, shoot shoot shoot. Second shoot as many weddings as you possibly can, and do it with someone who’s been around for at least a few years so they can guide you.

A lot of people hop into wedding photography without the fluidity that it requires. It’s an extremely complex job and the best way to get good fast is to be fluent with photography in the context of a wedding.

The quicker you know your gear and know what to expect out of a wedding day, the sooner you’ll be a few steps ahead of the action and will be able to execute a vision instead of react to something happening. This to me is the difference between good and great.

I’d say let all the business stuff fall into place later on, and just get good at the photography part first.

Other than photography, what are your other passions or hobbies?

I’ve been rock climbing since I was 19 and that’s one of the biggest driving forces in my life. I have traveled all around the world to go rock climbing and met many, many wonderful friends through it. I love the unique mix of mental and physical challenges it presents. I do quite a bit of rock climbing photography when I’m not shooting weddings: http://nathanweltonphoto.com and http://instagram.com/nathanwelton.

I also love road and mountain biking, trail running, making music (I play guitar and bass guitar), and espresso. A few years ago I got into home roasting coffee beans, which is pretty fun.

Lately I’ve been getting into video and film, which is pretty inspiring and is certain to become a great creative outlet.

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What has been your most interesting or outrageous wedding so far?

Hahaha, where to start! Let me just say that the thing I enjoy about weddings is that they are unpredictable. Nothing ever goes perfectly to plan. They are big, organic events that seem to take on a life of their own, which is probably because my clients are unique, highly spirited, fun loving, and sometimes choose to get married in unusual places.

So, I remember the time when…

  • Guests deliberately doused the dance floor in beer and turned it into a stomach-first slip and slide. People loved it.
  • One of the largest hotels in the state ran out of vodka as a party raged until 3AM, with a band that looked like the characters from Revenge of the Nerds. It was the craziest reception I’ve ever been to.
  • A guest picked up a bride and accidentally body slammed her over his shoulder in the middle of the dance floor. She was fine and was laughing hysterically.
  • A best man was unhappy that people were eating in a hotel restaurant adjacent to the ceremony site, so he walked through the restaurant and asked everyone to leave until the hotel called the police. That’s… love?
  • A driver drove a van full of family and wedding party members up a dirt road and nearly off a cliff, and we found them all emerging from the woods nearly in tears. This was no bueno.
  • A venue in Mexico lost electricity and tried to charge the bride and groom a rental fee for a generator. When they refused to pay, the venue wheeled away their beer kegs. LAME!
  • A bride walked down an aisle that was built just above water level in a pool. Epic!
  • The couple asked every guest to hold to his or her heart a small bag containing the wedding rings during the ceremony. It was at the top of a mountain, a guitarist was playing Bob Marley, and the guests were asked to look at the couple and connect with them for a little bit before passing the bag on. It took nearly 10 minutes. Everyone was crying, including me.

One Response

  1. Jorge Villalba

    Hi Nathan, I really enjoyed your interview about wedding photography. Your experience and passion it is inspiring. I like the part when you talk about Arthur Fellig’s advise. It reminded me an argument with other photographer about using less depth of field. He was the main photographer and I was the second, so I tried to please him all the day. The problem was that he wanted me to shot at 1.4 every single time. As I was still learning I changed I bit my style during that wedding. He complained about some of my photos for being too dark inside the church (without post-edition). He didn’t understand why I hadn’t used the lenses wide open all the time. I told him that didn’t wanted to isolate the bride, but to include the groom and the priest as well. Otherwise it would be a portrait inside the church that could be made in any other place. I was really upset about the argument, until a few months after the wedding the bride chose a couple of my photos as favourites for her Facebook profile and background. That make me feel much better. Event him choose some of my photos for his blog (after adding his own logo).
    As you explain I can see a tendency here as well to over use fast lenses in its maximum opening. I guess that the important thing is to develop your own style and be less impressionable for trends.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Jorge

    Reply

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