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Holy crap. The time has arrived. I’m blogging here today thanks to Matt Kloskowski, who stumbled into my Photo Plus seminar last year. During the presentation, Matt was amused by my ramblings, texted Scott multiple times to come take a look, and presto, I now find myself in unbelievable company teaching for Kelby Training. I was asked to be a guest blogger last fall, but my wedding schedule was out of control – so I asked Brad if I could delay it a bit. Truth be told, I had no idea what to write. Truth be told, I still have no idea what to write, but I suppose I’ll figure something out along the way. When I blog, I blog photographs, not words! I find it pretty darn funny that when someone tells you that you can write about anything you’d like, writer’s block sets in like rigor mortis.

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I suppose, the first step would be to quickly let folks know who the heck I am, and why I was given the honor of guest blogging for Scott. I’ll work on the former… I’m a wedding photographer in the Philadelphia region, and I’ve been shooting professionally for a whopping 29 years. I’m only 48, so if ya do the math, I started getting “paid” for this stuff when I was a 19 year old college kid. 29 years in professional photography… there’s got to be some conversion we could do – sort of like dog years, only photographer years. It’s just about the only thing I’ve ever done for a paycheck, with the exception of the swell jobs my dad used to get me loading trucks in a meat warehouse in Newark, NJ when I was in college. Man, those jobs sucked, but I learned a ton about life.

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After 6000 assignments during a 15 year career with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and after 750+weddings (haven’t really counted), I’ve never really looked back, until recently. I’ve been pretty damn fortunate to have made a living pushing a button for all these years. While I was certainly no star in the PJ world, I did get to meet people, see places, and experience things I’m incredibly grateful for. I loved photojournalism, and while you can take me out of photojournalism, you can’t take the photojournalism out of me.

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When I first started at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1985, the staff was ridiculously talented. I used to sneak peaks at the negs of some of those I admired most- Larry Price, Sarah Leen, Akira Suwa, Michael Viola, John Filo, Tom Gralish, and so many others. The Inquirer staff was like a Pulitzer factory.  So many great people to learn from, and be inspired by. My beat, generally, was the suburbs of Philadelphia- specifically, South Jersey. Elliot Erwitt once said, “You can take good pictures anywhere, you can even take good pictures in New Jersey.” I’d love for Mr. Erwitt to come to Deptford, NJ to shoot. He may change his mind. However, every once in a while….I’d make a picture I’d really like. Elliot Erwitt remains an inspiration to this day when I’m reminded that sometimes there’s a picture to be made just about anywhere.

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I cut my teeth shooting local news, sports, politics, and features that were incredibly eclectic. Some were fun, some were dumb, some were hard, some were easy, some were sad, some were inspiring. Yet collectively, all were part of a learning process – a cumulative experience that I still call upon. Well, with the exception of the assignment I had in Audubon, NJ… “Cliff, there’s an odor in Audubon, we need art for B-1 tomorrow, go make something, here’s the address”…. Um, huh? A photo of an odor? As assignments go, it wasn’t as bad as my friend Dan Johnson’s assignment when he had to photograph a controversial purple house out of place in an historic district… yes, they ran it in B+W. But I digress.

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In 1998, after 15 years doing what I loved, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Newspaper Guild had, well, a little disagreement, and I found myself one of the odd men out. So, I did what several self respecting out of work photojournalists do – I shot anything I could – corporate events, ad work, public relation events, grip and grins, product shots, brochures, and just about anything else for a buck- including a foray into the wonderful, wacky world of wedding photography.

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I first began shooting weddings with a massive chip on my shoulder. I thought weddings were a bit of a joke, and to some people – maybe those who’ve never shot them – they still are. However, I quickly learned that besides the fact that they were NOT a joke. The moments I was able to capture for my clients were incredibly satisfying to both the client, and myself. It didn’t take very long before I was able to plant my feet firmly on the ground from a business standpoint- developing strong relationships with venues, floral designers, musicians, and other photographers – all of which are essential to the success of anyone in the wedding biz. However, I felt like it took some time for me to evolve photographically.  I mean, I was pleasing my clients, and I was making some money, but it wasn’t until I began to learn how to use light that my style began to evolve.

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Evolution! That’s what I’ll blog about! It only took me several paragraphs of rambling nonsense, but I’m on it. Now, I’m the first to admit that some wedding photographers take themselves, and their work, way too seriously sometimes. Nonetheless, it’s still an important genre to those who need us most- the families we work for. When I first began shooting weddings, I thought I was doing pretty good work. I’d pick out 15-20 images from a wedding and included them into whatever marketing attempts I was making.

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A year or two later, I was selecting fewer and fewer images to include into my portfolio. As the years passed, it took so much more to make the cut. A few years after that, I found myself selecting fewer and fewer images from each wedding to include into a portfolio. Jump to today. It takes quite a bit to satisfy me now. I work my ass off each and every wedding. However, I may only LOVE a few select images in an entire year. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I completely suck, you must first understand that as time passes, as your work evolves, and as you become more critical of your own work, your standards are set by what you’ve accomplished in the past. This, in turn, makes you better, and more consistent as a professional. The few images I make per year that I love are what keeps me going in this business. If I can make one or two during the year, I’d consider it a pretty good year.  Just the feeling I get – the spine chilling sensation that occurs every blue moon – is more than enough to remind me that I thoroughly continue to LOVE being a photographer.  I don’t care whether you’re a commercial shooter, portrait shooter, or product shooter, the feeling is the same. The feeling that you just created something special. I mean, that’s why you’re even reading Scott’s blog to begin with – the passion we have for the craft.

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With this mantra, hopefully, the level of work I produce continues to evolve. I strive to reset my standards week in and week out. In essence, if I became completely satisfied with my work, I’d never evolve. The lesson here, in a half serious tone, is to hate your work sooner, rather than later! You’ll evolve faster, I promise.

Now, please don’t interpret any of this to mean that I hate everything I shoot. That’s not my message. On the contrary. It’s more about a search for the photographic holy grail – something you’ll never find. If you do, it’s time to quit. That’s my message, in a nutshell. I’ve selected a few wedding images below that I still like quite a bit, and hopefully that some people will even remember.

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Evolution of style means so many things to so many different photographers. In my opinion, the only way to develop your style is to make sure your technical abilities and fundamentals are completely, and utterly innate. Your camera needs to be an extension of your mind’s eye. If you’re too concerned with F-stops, shutter speeds,  ISO’s, focusing, and achieving accurate exposures, you’ll NEVER develop a style. If you find yourself struggling with the basics, you’ll struggle even more with composition, and other elements that make up your style. And, don’t even get me started on the subject of light. I mean, heck, light is everything. Joe McNally, a man who I admire a great deal says it best when he talks about “the language of light”. Talk about inspiration… Go see this man speak, BTW. Anyway, light is just about everything in photography. That is, everything AFTER you’ve taken care of the small stuff – exposures, lens selection, composition, and all of that other insignificant stuff. I try to create texture, dimension, and mood with my lighting. That’s what I find compelling. That’s what I try to teach.

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My goal as part of Scott’s online training team is to help empower photographers with the skillset needed to go after a style of their own. The wedding photography industry is chock full of homogenized work, and if you’re going to survive in this business, it’ll take more that a fancy blog and social networking to keep paying the bills. My friend David Williams, terrific photographer and educator from down under, preaches “skillsets before action sets”. I developed my Lighting and Skillset Bootcamp to teach just that. I’ll be sharing whatever I can with the Kelby team to drive that same message home.  I hope I’ve connected with at least a few of you out there, and I can’t thank Scott enough for the opportunity he’s given me.

You can see more of Cliff’s work at CMPhotography.com or keep up with him at his blog. And if you’re a Kelby Training Online subscriber, check out his class The Essentials of Wedding Creativity that just went up a few days ago!