What’s up, everybody? Got a special treat for you today. Legendary pro photographer, Jerry Ghionis — along with his ultra-talented wife and business partner, Melissa — sat down with us for an extended interview about his work as a Nikon Ambassador, wedding photographer, and Nikon School teacher.
You’re gonna want to take notes with this one because Jerry and Melissa are inspiration incarnate and his photos are STUNNING.
Before we dive into the interview, let’s talk about Nikon School, a system of in-person workshops and online courses where you can learn to master your Nikon gear with the help of WORKING PROS, and then get key insights about how you can grow across a variety of photography genres. Each Nikon School class costs around $15-50 for online seminars to $99+ for in-person lectures to several hundred dollars for all-day workshops (where you get to play with brand new Nikon gear).
Whether you’re picking up a DSLR for the very first time, or an enthusiast looking to learn a few new tricks, nothing beats the knowledge you’ll gain learning from professional photographers. I see so many passionate shutterbugs buying up expensive camera bodies and lenses only to skip out on mastering their gear and techniques. Even those that do bother to read the manual or read sites like ours, trying to get better on your own is a slow process.
If you want to boost your abilities quickly and have a great time doing it, classes with working pros are unbeatable — these people are knowledgeable, supportive, and their enthusiasm is completely infectious. (Meeting them is honestly the best part about my work here at Steve’s.) So if you have Nikon gear, or want to learn about Nikon gear, check out Nikon School.
And before anyone asks, no, we are NOT being paid to say this. This is my opinion based on meeting pros and advanced enthusiasts who shoot on all the different camera brands. Yes, Nikon School is fantastic — I saw the thrilled faces from dozens of students first hand — and this article about one of their teachers, but the techniques discussed herein, and my call for people to educate themselves, apply to everyone.
Find a class, attend a seminar, go on a photo walk.
After great glass, it’s the best photography money you can spend, dollar-for-dollar.
Now… onto the interview!
Steve’s Digicams: Jerry and Melissa, thank you so much for hosting us last week at your Nikon School Wedding and Portrait Workshop in Los Angeles. I came home exhausted, but also refreshed and energized and totally inspired. Well done. Jerry, you grew up with a curiosity for photography and went to school to study the craft, but dropped out after the first year to work as a photographer’s assistant. As someone who is a working pro and also a teacher, what portions of study/school vs in-the-field work experience do you recommend to aspiring photographers?
Jerry Ghionis: If I were to give advice to an up-and-coming wedding and portrait photographer as far as the best way to study, I would certainly encourage them to finish high school with a focus on the arts, devouring as much information and education along the way, whether it is online or in person. Then I would strongly encourage them to assist (not second shoot, but carry the bags) of an experienced photographer for as long as they can before they even take a single shot on their own. The emphasis in learning from experienced photographers should not just be on the technical aspects of photography but the business side of it as well. If your goal is to own your own photography business, then you should always consider yourself a businessperson in photography rather than a photographer in business.
What lead you to Wedding Photography?
I was given my first camera by my brother when I was only 15 years old and loved photography immediately. Like every young boy, I wanted to photograph pretty girls. But I soon realized that if I wanted to try and make money with my photography, then wedding photography probably the obvious avenue to pursue. And once I tried it, I really loved it. I loved the beauty of the bride, the celebration of the day, all of the emotion. And it suits what I am capable of doing creatively and also suits my personality.
What’s the first step for aspiring pros interested in Wedding Photography?
Success in wedding photography and especially in performing on the wedding day is more about your communication skills and your listening skills and knowing how to read people. That will go a long way in making you a great photographer rather and will be more effective than trying to become technically brilliant. The ability to have an endearing and attractive personality and the ability to work under pressure while still being technically proficient is especially important. You almost need to be like a chameleon. In the sense that you need to know how to be relaxed and more down to earth at a casual wedding and at the same time be able to carry yourself professionally when you’re at a high society wedding.
You’ve just got to study the people who are successful in the industry. Soak in as much information as you can. I have seen hobbyists and part-timers attend one of my 5-day workshops and launch their business within a year and continue to be successful to this day.
What’s a good benchmark to know if one is ready for such a big responsibility? When do you know you won’t ruin one of the biggest days in someone’s life?
I mentioned earlier in this interview that the possibility of assisting an experienced photographer without taking a single photograph is one of the best learning experiences you can have. And that is because it helps to build a muscle memory of the shot that you should take at any given moment and the story you need to tell. There are also personal and technical challenges, time constraints and different cultures that a photographer must feel confident enough to work with when photographing someone’s wedding day. When I trained the photographers that worked in my studio, they would usually assist me for a year or two (holding my bags, lights, etc.). I would then walk through my images with them after the wedding so that they could understand not only the pressures of the day but the end results. Before they photographed their first wedding, I would give them a smaller responsibility such as shooting the entrance of the bridal party at a reception. Then I would ask them to photograph the cutting of the cake. Then perhaps some ceremony shots. When the results were consistent, I would then give them a short groom’s coverage. Then a bride’s, then a ceremony, etc. Once I thought they were ready, I would let them shoot an entire small wedding.
Is there any advice you’d give your 21-year-old self while setting up to shoot your first wedding?
An early piece of advice that I was given and that I still remember to this day is that a mediocre shot is still better than no shot. When under pressure, you just need to make sure you get the story. Do not leave the wedding until you have told that story and you have a handful of wow shots that your clients will never forget. Also, very important – wear comfortable shoes.
How did you become a Nikon Ambassador?
I grew up shooting with Nikon gear and at one point switched to another system. I was then seduced back to the Nikon system when I won a European photography competition, and one of the prizes was a Nikon D3s. It is with that camera that I believe Nikon surpassed all their competition in the photography world. I soon switched to Nikon exclusively, and after a couple of years of sharing my work publicly and on social media, Nikon began paying attention to my work. I was then invited to represent Nikon as an ambassador, and it is still one of my proudest achievements.
Melissa, how did you become Jerry’s partner-in-crime and do the two of you have any advice for couples who want to mix love and business?
Melissa Ghionis: I first met Jerry by going to a full day workshop similar to the ones that the Nikon School hosts! At the time I was a wedding and portrait photographer based in Boston, and I learned a tremendous amount of information at that one-day seminar and a workshop that I attended later on. It completely changed my business and the way I shoot. We became friends, and after we both had gone through divorces we reconnected years later and the rest, as they say, is history! We have a unique relationship because we were friends for a long time before we fell in love with each other. And to this day, we are truly best friends (as clichéd as that sounds!) and genuinely enjoy being together all the time. I know there are a lot of couples that are not able to work together, but we make a great team. We make all of the decisions together, but we each have specific tasks and jobs in our day to day work. Although we both owned separate studios previously and can run businesses on our own, now that we work together I actually prefer the more nitty-gritty aspects of running a business: the bookkeeping, the management of accounts and clients, the business side of everything. And Jerry prefers the more creative aspects of it: planning and designing new shoots, marketing and just creating. We have different strengths and work together really well. But the biggest part of what makes it work is that we trust each other completely. We don’t need to check up on each other or look over each other’s shoulder and if one of us makes a mistake the other will never say, “I told you so” or “I should have done that myself.” That can be so damaging to the trust you have built and doesn’t accomplish anything or change the outcome. It has to be a true partnership for it to work. And every once in a while I will still look across our office and think to myself, “I’m married to Jerry Ghionis!”
It feels like a lot of people buy a DSLR, but don’t bother reading the manual, let alone investing in schooling to advance their skill sets. Jerry, what do workshops and online courses like Nikon School provide that you can’t get on your own?
Jerry Ghionis: Nothing can compare to in-person training when a smaller group of students have direct access to an experienced photographer in the field. It not only teaches you the street smart of photography and cuts out the fluff, but it also makes it attainable to achieve the sometimes seemingly impossible thought of becoming a professional. Nikon School makes this possibility by inspiring photographers of all levels with affordable photography classes across the country no matter which camera brand they are using and has been doing so for over 35 years.
If a photographer can afford only a new camera body or a better lens… would you say one is more important than the other?
Assuming that a photographer has an entry level DSLR and an entry level lens, I would first start with a professional, robust lens such as the brand new 70-200mm lens. That is probably my favorite lens and my workhorse. The Nikon D750 is also an incredible camera that is still affordable and many pros use it in day to day work.
Our workshop’s most consistent piece of advice was SLOW DOWN — aka take less shots but make them better — which also characterizes your steady confidence gained from years of experience, and directly contradicts the modern tendency to workshop images in-camera. Is this a lesson you had to teach yourself or more something you noticed as film evolved into digital?
The act of slowing down while shooting is a muscle memory that I developed early on in my career because my first professional camera was a Mamiya RB 67. I took every photo while using a tripod and with a Metz flash. I was lucky enough to have a 220 back which means that I was able to take 20 frames before having to change the roll of film. So, it conditioned me to create and capture my images methodically.
Why is SLOW DOWN so vital for photographers?
Slowing down is the key because couples will always feed off your energy. If I am calm, then they are calm. If they are frantic, but I remain calm, then they will soon reflect that energy. Building trust with your couples is incredibly important, and that happens way before the actual shoot. Couples need to laugh with you before they cry with you. If you have confidence and empathy and can show that to your clients, then it will go a long way in getting them to feel more comfortable with you.
Your self-professed philosophy is to “shoot with the empathy of a Saint and the technique of a Master” — how do you balance creative instincts with craft and business and the pressure of capturing very emotional days?
It all goes back to the five steps that I taught during my Nikon School workshop. But even before that, building trust with your couples is incredibly important, and that happens way before the actual shoot. Couples need to laugh with you before they cry with you. If you have confidence and empathy and can show that to your clients, then it will go a long way in getting them to feel more comfortable with you. Once I have built that trust then I then go into a shoot or a session with a calm demeanor and the resolve to slow down, and I follow my five steps. Steps 1 through 4 are actually more technical (the first four steps are: lighting, location, posing and in-camera technique). The fifth, and arguably the most important step, is refinement which adds to the emotion of an image but the expression is where empathy comes in. Evoking expression in my couples can come from a subtle gesture, whispering my directions to them to get them feel a certain way or reminding someone of the importance of the occasion to evoke a powerful emotion.
You describe the 5 STEPS for creating a photograph as 1) Lighting, 2) Location, 3) Pose, 4) Technique, and 5) Emotion. Are photographers quick to forget about lighting and embrace location?
There’s no doubt. I see it all the time. I think it’s natural to be attracted to a beautiful location first. But many photographers, and especially inexperienced photographers will only look for a good location and will not look for or create good lighting in that location. Lighting is always the most important element. Good lighting is an essential element in a compelling photograph.
Are too many photographers afraid to pose subjects? And could you explain the importance of understanding the differences between feminine and masculine lighting and poses?
I guess most people are afraid of anything that isn’t familiar. It would be easy to loosely direct a couple and hope for the best rather than face the potentially intimidating task of directing and posing. But to turn a weakness into a strength, you must study it relentlessly. I believe that any photographer that specializes in photographing people should also master the art of posing. Good posing can be defined as either flattering and/or helps communicate the message that the photographer is trying to convey to the viewer. With regards to feminine and masculine lighting, it is quite simply a form of communication. I often encourage my students to ask themselves what are they trying to say with their photography. You certainly would not want to use split lighting (which is considered masculine) and strong arms folded across the chest on a feminine form. That pose would not flatter a female subject. So if you are trying to convey a softer, more feminine feel, then you might turn your female subject’s chin to her outer shoulder and bring her eyes back to the camera. Instead of crossed arms and clenched fists under the biceps, you might want her hands softly placed on top of her arms with her wrists and fingers curved. This would be a softer and more delicate pose. Simply put, there should be no contradictions in the message you are trying to convey and the body language and posing of your subject.
Why is technique so far down in the list?
All steps could be considered “technique” but in the list of 5 steps that I follow, I have technique as the third step (and that step includes exposure, cropping, composition, etc.). It is listed as the third step because your exposure, cropping composition, etc. is determined by the subject, the lighting, and the location. So, you have to determine your light and location and the pose before you work out what your exposure and competition will be. The last thing a subject should hear or respond to is the directions of the photographer. That will provide them with that last little finesse and evoke the emotion you are hoping to convey in the image.
What tips would you recommend for shy or introverted photographers looking for the tools and confidence necessary to build emotions in, and tell stories with, their subjects and photographs?
It comes down to empathy and the art of communication. Although some people are born outgoing or shy, the way of getting people to open sometimes is simply to ask questions and even more important is asking the right questions. For example, one of my favorite question to ask a stranger is, “What is the most interesting thing about yourself?”. Or I often will ask a longtime friend or an acquaintance, “What are you excited about at the moment?” It is human nature for people to open up when someone shows interest in them so you just need to make that effort and the relationship will develop.
You’ve recently been making the transition to Fashion Photography after a period where you felt burned out, creatively. How important is it for photographers to refresh their own passions by taking on new challenges?
Photography is usually a love affair that starts the first time you pick up a camera, and it never ends until you take your last breath. When your hobby turns into a job, though, sometimes the pure task of photography-on-demand, so to speak and being asked to do similar photography week in and week out can lead to a muscle memory of falling into a rut/ cookie cutter photography. Any habit that leads to mediocrity should be broken. Recognizing that you are in a rut is the first step, and one of the most important things a creative can do is schedule time to create personal projects. It not only refreshes the creative heart but it breathes new life into your day to day work.
Not all of your students will become working pros, but what do you hope every student takes away from your workshops, online courses, and the Nikon School events?
Photography can be incredibly fulfilling whether it is a hobby or whether it becomes a vocation. If I can inspire, challenge or education my students as Nikon School has been doing for over 35 years I will be very proud. I not only want to teach my students to expand their vision and improve their technique, but I want them to also become successful artists and profitable business people with a balanced lifestyle.
Palmer here again. Huge thanks to Jerry and Melissa for their incredible workshop and for taking the time to chat with us today. To see more of Jerry’s work, to take his online courses, or buy his gear, please visit https://icesociety.com/ or follow Jerry on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. To learn more about Nikon School, click HERE.