Learn From The Experts: Marcus Bell

learn from the experts: Marcus Bell

Finding top quality experts is difficult enough as is, to find such an expert that is also a celebrity, can be even tougher. For this edition of Learn From the Experts we are fortunate to have caught up with both in Photographer Marcus Bell. Marcus was gracious enough to grant us an interview just before flying off to Bali to shoot his next wedding master piece.

Marcus Bell is a renowned wedding photographer and runs Studio Impressions in Brisbane, Australia. In addition to weddings, he also specializes in Fine Art photography with a special focus on digital workflow and printing. Marcus was just named in the “The Top 10 Wedding Photographers” by American Photo.

Interview with Marcus Bell

1. So the latest news is that you were named Top 10 Wedding Photographers in the world by American Photo — apparently this means you are a pretty good photographer… but seriously CONGRATULATIONS! That’s like an Academy Award for photography — how does it feel?

Marcus Bell: Pretty amazing. I always want to do the best job I can & work hard to be a better & better photographer. To think that other photographers that I admire, think this highly of my work when I’m just doing what I do for my clients blows my mind a little.

2. While this isn’t the first prestigious award you have received as a photographer, it might be the highest honor you have yet received. How does this award feel different than the others?

MB: All the awards I have won are really special. They represent career milestones and are the ways I test and push myself. This one is different though. Often with other awards, you have to enter or submit your work for assessment, so you choose your very best work & you do it with that award in mind. In this case, American Photo have sought out the best & assessed a huge body of my work – not just a few images. They are also comparing me to people that I think are the absolute best in the industry. So in a way they are assessing me as a photographer and the consistency of my work over a period of time, instead of just assessing a few of my best or favorite images. To even be nominated is pretty exciting, but to make it on the list is like a validation of my own vision for wedding photography.

3. Earlier we had blogged about your Brisbane Flood Relief work. We wanted to follow up and see how it all worked out?

MB: We had a fantastic response and I really have to thank Breathing Color for all your support in helping my local community. Through our personal fundraising and the support of organizations like Breathing Color we were able to raise over $5,000 toward the Premier’s Flood Relief Program. Brisbane is back on track, but unfortunately there are still many, many people who went out of business or are still unable to live in their homes, so fundraising is continuing here.

4. Please take a moment and introduce our readers to your business, Studio Impressions. Tell us how you came to start this business, what your focus is, what differentiates you,and any different products/services you might want to mention.

MB: I started Studio Impressions back in 1998. My wife & I decided to take our savings and blow it on a trip to Europe for 6 months. I spent the entire time photographing and one night, after a few too many, I rang my employer (a bank in Brisbane) and quit my job. It kind of forced me to make my photography work. We spent the last 2 weeks of our trip in Santorini Greece, writing a business plan together and Studio Impressions was born. Back then there were few local photographers offering photojournalistic wedding photography and good service, and there was a market for wedding photography that wasn’t to a formula. I saw this in the images of my friends’ weddings at the time. To put it simply, I wanted to provide couples with photography that told a story about the couple and really reflected them, their day and their family. I wanted to show not just how pretty everything and everyone was, but how meaningful it all was too. That is still what Studio Impressions is about. Uncompromising quality and exceptional but understated service were always paramount. They still are.

5. Ok so let’s talk equipment. I have just hired you for a serious wedding — 300 people on the guest list at a beautiful island resort. How many shooters will you bring out?

MB: Gee I better check my availability! Seriously, 300 people – well I would have at least 2 shooters (me & another).

6. Alright now that the wedding is finished how will you handle the re-touching? Do you do it all yourself? Do you outsource the work? Spend a minute if you would talking about your digital workflow post wedding.

MB: Our digital workflow post wedding is a very rigorous process. It goes like this:

  1. I download my images to two hard-drives simultaneously. Back up and image data security is paramount in our business.
  2. I select the images that I feel best capture the day. There are always so many that I need to cut down the number of images because it is quality not volume that I want my clients to see. They still get somewhere between 600 and 1200 quality images to look at, so cutting it down is a help to them.
  3. Backup.
  4. Have the senior digital artist in my studio process the wedding under my direction.
  5. Backup
  6. Detailed work on a selection of images that will be the “signature images” from the day and will get used in a sneak peak slideshow for the client and possibly on the blog or for magazine and blog submissions if appropriate.

We do everything in-house to ensure a high degree of quality control. I have created a number of RAW presets that carry the quality and consistency through to each wedding. It has been consistency with quality that has differentiated us throughout our 10+ years in business.

7. On your website you offer a number of plugins and presets for sale. Can you talk about those products and how they help to achieve your final results?

MB: Our presets simply came out of our own selfish need to spend less time in front of the computer. I have been heavily involved in digital workflow for over a decade, and I understand what it is like to be a sole photographer doing all the work yourself and how spending literally days in front of a computer instead of in front of your clients can be detrimental to your business. As my studio started to grow, improving production turnaround times became critical financially and so, with the help of Adam who has worked with me since the early days of Studio Impressions, we created some shortcuts. A couple of years ago I realized that what we were using in-house was better than some of the new products on the market, so I decided to share the same solutions, workflow shortcuts, RAW Presets and Photoshop actions that we use in Studio Impressions with other photographers.

8. What about printing? What type of printer(s) do you use? Do you print the majority of the work in house for your wedding clients or outsource the work?

MB: I use the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 exclusively and print in house.

9. Recently on our blog David Ulrich wrote a post about mastery and the craft of print making

” Learning the craft, learning to print, is all too often a forgotten art in today’s digital, wanting-to-be-quickly-gratified, artistic climate”

Do you agree with that sentiment and do you feel your work at the craft of printmaking enhances your skills as a photographer?

MB: Definitely. I’ve probably preached this many times but printmaking really is an art. I am a true believer that taking the image is only part (although a big part) of creating the art. How you work the print and importantly how you print it is equally important in seeing your vision come to life. I learned this when I first started in photography on film (yes, film….I am that old!). I took the time to learn dark room techniques that I still apply in the digital world today. Some of my biggest influences have actually not been photographers, but the master painters of old. From studying their work I have learned about composition, lighting and the choice of medium. I use these concepts not just when I shoot, but importantly when I print. For me the craft of photography isn’t just thinking about how you take the image, but also what techniques you use to express yourself within the image, down to what paper you choose to print it on to bring the image to life. Even in wedding photography. There is beauty in every wedding and in the life of every person I get the privilege to photograph. It is my duty to treat this as art.

10. As a regular visitor of your website and blog we are constantly blown away by your negative space photography. Your fine art work in the genre regularly has me completely forgetting it’s a photograph — totally enveloped and lost in the magic of the scenes. I have noticed that you have also been utilizing this technique in your wedding photography. Can you talk a little about your work with negative space photography?

MB: Photographers are ultimately story tellers and I find using negative space enables me to better tell the story of the moment. A quote that has always stayed with me is from legendary photographer Paul Strand, “Too many photographers have nothing to say”. I’m always asking myself “What are you trying to say” and then trying to incorporate my thoughts into the framing of the image to tell a story or just to lead people to the centre of interest. Even on a location shoot at a wedding, there is a story to be told about the couple and their bridal party, so I just apply the same thought process.

11. As a follow up how did you get into negative space photography? Are your influences painters or photographers and who? What advice would you give to those that want to get better at genre?

MB: As I mentioned in an earlier question, I’m certainly very much inspired both classic painters like Vermeer, De Hooch and modern painters like Jeffrey Smart. Of course there are also many photographers that influence me. I was introduced to the Magnum nearly 20 years ago when first picking up a camera and looking back now all the images that I love are often wide shots that incorporate the environment into the story. My advice – seek inspiration everywhere. Look at what others do that you like, in different mediums and in different genres and ask yourself how you can incorporate that into your own work.

12. In addition to your receipt of many awards it seems you are also in the business of being given monikers

“…his unique style has lead industry professionals to coin a new term for his wedding photography – wedding-scapes.”

Talk to us about “wedding-scapes”

MB: I laughed when I first read this, but then I figured it is actually kind of accurate. This was one journalist’s way of describing the way I blend landscape and wedding photography. It is no secret that I’m a lover of big landscape shots with the couple as a feature within the landscape. There is something about big beautiful landscapes that to me seem to reflect the certain kind of natural rawness in the emotion you see on a wedding day. Plus some of these weddings take place in the most beautiful settings – that is why the bride & groom chose that location – and when I first started shooting like this, very few photographers where taking any images of the location. It was all just the bride & groom & bridal party. I really wanted to say something about the strength of the love between the couple. And I just like photographing landscapes!

13. When sitting down with a new client for the first time, what questions do you ask them to ensure that you best capture their special day?

MB: Tell me about your wedding? I ask them a lot about them, their family and their plans for their day. Then I just listen. I pay special attention to who they talk about – it will be important to get photos of those people – and what they talk about – it has meaning to them and should be in the photos.

14. Considering all of the weddings you have shot, how do you continue to find inspiration and new ways to be creative?

MB: Every wedding is different. Every couple is different. Every family is different. I just look to the interactions between the people on the day & before you know it, the story just emerges.
I also find inspiration in the environment. It might be the grand landscape of where they are getting married, or the way they have styled the event. Sometimes it is just how the light changes or the clouds move. I can remember one wedding where it absolutely bucketed down with rain. Then it just stopped & the most amazing double rainbow opened up. I grabbed that couple & took advantage of the moment & got some of the most special shots of their day. What a perfect omen for a long marriage! My advice – just open your eyes – inspiration is everywhere!

15. Tell us more about the equipment you use to shoot and print.

MB: There is so much to say about my equipment. I’ve actually just started a series of blog posts on this very topic because I get asked about it so much.

16. What do you consider to be your greatest strength as a photographer?

MB: Passion and drive. I always think I can do better and I always care about giving my clients the very best.

17. Who are your most profound influences as a student photographer?

MB: Doug Spowart. Mark Gowlett. Who else?

18. What do you think are the main factors that have contributed to the success of your photography business?

MB: Passion; and smart business advice; providing not just great images but great service before & after the day and; a commitment to providing the highest quality products which means I spend a lot of time seeking out the very best materials to use in my studio. And maybe a good dose of luck.

19. What business advice do you have for the aspiring photographer?

MB: Write a business plan. Don’t think good photography alone will make your money. Be prepared to do long hours, work hard & go through some bad spots. Hang in there, stay true to your dream, take good advice and it will pay off.

20. How important of a role does the printing process play for you?

MB: It is critical to the final product. What is the point of producing beautiful images and then printing them on paper that destroys the colour and detail in the image?

21. Tell us more about the types of media you use. Is it primarily canvas? Fine art paper? Photo paper? Can you tell us how your business benefits from this?

MB: I use all of the above, depending on what the client would like and what would work best for the image. For example, some of my family portraits look great on canvas, but some of my wedding images look better on fine art paper.  Breathing Color’s  new Vibrance Rag truly takes me back to the darkroom, for the first time it replicates, or should I say even expands from a true, hand-printed, darkroom fine art print.  The feel and look is truly masterful in quality.  I now have two favorite papers that I use exclusively now that Vibrance Rag is available.   For years I was only ever printing on Optica One smooth fine art paper, as I felt it was the only matte paper available that just seemed to go beyond in tonal range over anything else I have tried in a matte paper stock. Working with Breathing Color has been the perfect partnership for me as a photographer and as a high-end studio owner.  I know that I’m delievering the best quality product to my clients and as an artist I know my work is being presented in the best possible way.

22. How important is print longevity to you, and how often do you discuss this with your customers?

MB: This is part of the guarantee we give to our customers. How many of us have photos of our grandmother’s wedding hanging on our wall or in our albums (even if they are faded or torn)? These images really will form part of your family history. They should last long enough for your great great great grandkids to be able to talk about you and learn about their family history. That is why you pay for a professional wedding photographer. That is why I won’t compromise on quality.

Have a question or comments for Marcus? Leave one below…

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