This weeks interview is with Cliff Mautner. For those unfamiliar with his work, Cliff has been rated “One of the top ten wedding photographers in the world” by American PHOTO magazine. He has 26 years experience as a professional photographer. He got his first camera, as a child, for a dollar from a street vendor while on vacation. His parents bought it to keep him quiet, though it never really did work. In high school, he’d photograph friends and family but never took any formal classes. He landed a full time job his senior year in college as a photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1984. There he stayed for 15 years before breaking out on his own. Since then, he has become one of the best wedding photographers in the world, a Nikon spokesperson, and he currently offers photography seminars and workshops to help photographers improve their skills.
From the interview:
What is your favorite camera and why?
With regard to my favorite camera, frankly, it’s pretty obvious that I’d choose the Nikon D3. I’ve used every flagship camera Nikon has produced for the past 28 years and this is the finest piece of equipment I’ve used yet. Between the ISO performance, auto focus capability, and full frame sensor, the camera has simply changed the way I shoot. More importantly, it changes the way I THINK about shooting. I can make pictures I could never take before. All that aside, the camera is rarely important.
The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera — Dorthea Lange
I love this quote and I believe it completely. It doesn’t matter what camera someone shoots. It’s just a box that lets in light. But to be honest, the D3 does make it a bit easier.
What do you think is the most important skill for someone starting out in photography to learn?
Skills … There are so many. Fundamentals are a forgotten art in this business today. Digital has allowed so many to enter this field without the need to become proficient in the craft. There is definitely not just ONE skill to learn. Learn to see, and understand light. The technical aspects are not hard to learn, but they do take time to become innate- which is essential.
What do you like the most about being a photographer?
I like that I’ve never made a paycheck from anything besides photography in 27 years now. I like that I don’t have a “real” job. I like that I love what I do and never, ever say “I don’t want to go to work”. I like that I’ve had longevity in this industry and have been able to evolve through these difficult times when technology could have easily passed me by. Photography has been quite a gift for me. I like that I “see” the world differently than some other folks may.
What do you like least?
Like Least?? I don’t like the time I’d have to spend at a computer if I didn’t have an amazing studio manager!!! There isn’t much I don’t like about being a photographer!
How did you become the photographer you are today?
One word … “Evolution”. My next platform program at WPPI might be called “evolve or die. Evolution is essential. I’ve been fortunate in that I recognized that as a wedding photographer, or a photographer in general, we can’t choose our times of day, can’t always choose our subjects, can’t always have everything our way. Given that, dealing with adverse conditions such as harsh light, bad light, and even no light, the need to “deal with it” has become my mantra.
My ability to see light, and utilize light, has enabled me to set myself apart. Light is everything. I laugh when I see a photographer hide in the open shade on a bright sunny day. The sun is the most magnificent light source there is. Learning to use it has enabled me to develop my style. I’m still learning and will continue to do so. Classes, seminars, workshops, are all fine. But I learned by doing. That’s it. The school of hard knocks.
If I had a mentor, it’d have to be Larry Price- a photojournalist who worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for a few years. I was there for 15 years working in the suburbs. This guy was incredible. Larry and I weren’t friends. He barely knew I existed. But, he took the time to speak with me for about 10 minutes back in 1989 when I was about to go on assignment in Liberia, West Africa. Larry had 2 Pulitzer prizes. He was one of the best photographers on the planet… Probably still is. I used to sneak looks at his negs, study his composition, his exposures, his focal length choices, and anything else I could learn from him. I was in awe of him and his work, and he took a few minutes to talk to me about what to watch out for in Liberia- where he won his first Pulitzer prize. Those ten minutes had an amazing impact on me. He probably still has no idea.
You can learn from anyone. My former editor, Bryan Grigsby, was also essential to my career. He pushed me, heckled me, blasted me on occasion, but also nurtured me into improving. He also became a great friend and was a major influence on me.
On the wedding end, I’d have to say Bill Hurter- editor of Rangefinder Magazine, who gave me an opportunity to share my experience with other photographers. Bill is an amazing man, and he’s had an enormous impact on my career.
Thanks go to Cliff Mautner for his honest, straight forward answers! In addition to his blog, you may be interested in some YouTube videos where he talks about the Nikon D3.