Cliff Mautner’s Delicate Balance

Growing up in New Jersey, Cliff Mautner has the kind of professional photographic experience no new shooters get these days. When attending college in Southern New Jersey, he answered an ad in the local weekly newspaper. The ad read, in part, “Award-winning weekly newspaper seeks photographer.” At nineteen years old, he was hired, “just because I had a pulse,” he laughs.

©Cliff Mautner

He worked Saturdays and Sundays for two years, not only covering local events in three counties, but developing the film shot by reporters during the entire week every Sunday night. He credits the latter task with helping to vastly improve his darkroom skills. “I had to process and print all that garbage. I learned how to print because these negatives were atrocious,” he says.

In 1984, The Philadelphia Inquirer began expanding its geographic reach, as many large city newspapers were attempting at the time. “They were infiltrating the suburbs and they needed an army of photographers,” recalls Mautner. He got a job working for the “Neighborhood” section of the paper, and ended up staying with the Inquirer for 15 years and logged over 6000 assignments. He left in 1998, and turned to shooting weddings full-time.

With approximately 800 weddings under his belt, Mautner displays an artistry unequalled by many shooters practicing in this genre. From his composition of subjects and framing to his post-work, Mautner never forgets his main tool is light. “Some people like to use light to enhance their subjects,” he says. “I like to use my subjects to enhance my light.”

©Cliff Mautner

For Mautner, lighting is what makes photos work or not. “If you accompany a great moment with great light, you’ve got a great image,” he explains. “For an image to be compelling, there has to be something to really make that image standout. Nine out of ten times, it’s going to be light. The moment is paramount, there’s no question, but when you can put a reference in that moment with great light, that’s a very rewarding feeling.”

©Cliff Mautner

Available light is at the core of how Mautner shoots. It’s his favorite type of light. “I use available light in many different ways,” he says. “The direction of that light is the key to creating texture, dimension and mode. However, when that light is not available, that’s when speedlights come into play. I think it’s a shame in the digital era people are relying too much on high ISO performance and thus, forgetting about the addition of the speedlight to enhance a scene. Just because you can go to 6400 to take a picture, doesn’t mean that the light’s good. It’s quality of light versus quantity of light.”

Mautner sees people confusing quantity and quality of light. “Just because you have enough light to take a photograph, doesn’t mean that light is quality light,” he says. “To create a compelling situation, speedlights are sometimes necessary and that’s where the PocketWizard units come in.”

The illusion of total natural light found in many of Mautner’s photos is accomplished by a seamless blending of existing light sources and speedlights. “If you overwhelm the scene and dominate it with your flash, it can be quite distracting. When it’s blended with the available light, that’s when it’s a much more natural situation—a much more pleasing look than something that’s just over-flashed. It’s all about balance.”

With his studio based in New Jersey across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Mautner has moved an increasing number of his hours into teaching other photographers how to up their ante. A generous and eloquent instructor who methodically demonstrates to make sure no students are lost, Mautner’s style is evident in a recently released a new video for PocketWizard, covering off-camera flash portraiture.

Feeling strongly about associating his name only with companies he believes in, such as Nikon, Mautner has much to say about the evolution of PocketWizards. “I’m not going to endorse or talk about a product if I don’t use and believe in it,” he says. “I used the older PocketWizard Plus II units for several years. When they introduced the new ones [MiniTT1 and FlexTT5], I was quite skeptical, but I will say the system is much improved. The thing for me is this: as long as I can get the damn flash off the camera and have a reliable firing method, I’m set.”

©Cliff Mautner

Excited about his improved workflow at weddings, Mautner continued to explain what had changed for him by upgrading to the new PocketWizard units. “These things are well-built. They don’t miss when you fire them. You don’t have to worry about a cord coming out.” he says. “The real game changer was the AC3 Zone Controller. If people aren’t using the AC3, I think they’re missing out. The ability to just reach up and adjust your flash compensation is as easy or easier as adjusting your exposure compensation on your camera. I don’t have to signal to my assistant to go up or down with the remote flash output. Everything is right there, at the flick of a switch. The new PocketWizards were a game changer for me because of the reliability, the control, and the ease in use. They’re just easy.”

On Mautner’s first indoor shoot using his new setup, he had one speedlight and FlexTT5 on a stand. His assistant had another speedlight on a monopod, adjusting her position as the shoot progressed. Often when shooting outside, as he demonstrates in the above video, Mautner has one assistant with one speedlight and FlexTT5 while he fires via the MiniTT1. By moving and constantly being aware of where his light sources are—both under his control and not, such as house lights—Mautner can achieve completely different looks just by changing his direction. “I’m getting some really interesting off camera looks with the speedlight because my direction has so drastically changed,” he says. “That creates really enhanced texture, dimension and mood.” Mautner calls the AC3 into play only when needed.

Along with his impressive portrait work, another thing which sets Mautner apart is his use of Nikon gear for his entire photographic career. A Nikon shooter since 1977, Mautner says, “I have Nikon hands and Nikkor eyes.”

Not only does Mautner’s work bear his signature, but like any artist with his or her own vision, he’s passionate about his methodology and tools. “I think the most important element with these new PocketWizard tools is it’s opened up an entirely new realm of ease and sophistication, allowing more and more photographers to get the flash off the camera. At one time it could be very intimidating for some photographers to do this, but with the ease of this new system, I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

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He’s equally passionate about what not to do when shooting at weddings. “One of the biggest mistakes in wedding photography is something simple and fundamental as formal family photos,” he cautions. “I see so many photographers trying to do family pictures with a flash on their camera. That means two things. Number one, they’re going to have horrible light because its coming from the plane of the camera. Number two, they’re most likely using an improper lens—probably a 24 to 70mm, and probably at its widest view, which is bad. You need to quote me on that.”

The problem Mautner sees with a 24-70mm lens in a wedding situation are multiple. “It’s view is too wide for family pictures unless you’re doing a large group and you don’t have the space necessary to get back far enough. Used that way, I understand the use of lens,” he says. “When people begin to understand what compression can do for a portrait, they will start using a longer lens, getting a little bit further away from your subject. A longer lens compresses facial features, making them look like they should. With an off-camera light in the right spot, you get some texture, dimension and mood. When they understand if the subject to light distance doesn’t change, the camera settings don’t need to be changed. Then they can just whip through family pictures. What happens too often is the photographer is trying to use TTL with flash on camera and a 24 to 70mm zoom. Bridesmaids get in there with light colored dresses. The camera’s TTL system is fooled and underexposes, and they have to shoot again and compensate for that. The guys come in with their dark jackets. Then, their faces get blown out and the photographer doesn’t know why. With their flash on camera and TTL, they’re all over the board. Once they understand the beauty of off-camera, manual flash, everything changes. With PocketWizards, you’re getting the flash off camera and the light’s looking perfect every single frame. It’s easier than flash on-camera.”

Mautner does the impossible with many of his wedding photos: they’re, in a word, moody. Subjects seldom appear posed, yet they often seem iconic. The bride and groom visiting a gravesite is beyond moving, but not maudlin. We know the groom is sad with loss, yet he loves his new bride beyond anything, and wants to share this day with people who can’t be there. She is his family now, and is helping him bear the burden. The effect is sobering, but full of hope for what is to come.

©Cliff Mautner

The tones in Mautner’s images are not the usual wedding album-fare. Duotones are common, but never in a greeting card fashion. The tones are rich, but never oversaturated. The blacks are very black, and edge lights often prevent primary subjects from drowning into backgrounds. These wedding photos make many others appear as victims of forced, staged happiness in Technicolor run amok. None of these photos have the grimness of a 19th Century photo, but they are mature. A bride and groom could imagine their descendants looking through their wedding photos in a hundred years assured no one will ask, “what was wrong with them?” or “why did the photographer do that?” Cliff Mautner creates artistic wedding photos of and for the real world.

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Written by Ron Egatz

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