David Christensen and the Real Moments
Atlanta-based David Christensen had been into photography since he was a teenager, but it was while he worked as chief photographer at a junior college newspaper that he realized this was what he wanted to be. This was further reinforced when he attended a Georgia College Press Association banquet and heard guest speaker Dave LaBelle at the podium. LaBelle was a Pulitzer Prize nominee teaching at Western Kentucky University. This moment was the start of Christensen’s favorite type of photographic image.
“I loved seeing real moments—real beautiful photography, but real moments,” he says. “The basis of my whole career is that moment.” Heading off to Western Kentucky, Christensen got a degree in Photojournalism. This was during the early days of digital photography, and his minor in Computer information Systems was helpful. Although he kept pace with the emerging technology, Christensen learned on film.
After graduation in 1996, he worked for an advertising agency doing color correction, retouching, and similar postproduction duties, wishing he could work in the studio to use the cutting edge digital camera. “They were using the three-pass cameras,” he recalls. “They had the huge filter wheel on the front and you shoot the red, green and blue exposure. Then it would register it in the software and you’d have your image.”
While dreaming of using the toys belonging to the studio employees, the evolving technology helped spark something else for Christensen. Smaller point-and-shoot digital cameras began appearing for the prosumer and then consumer markets. “That’s when I discovered I could go back to my roots of photojournalism—editorial type photography—and shooting weddings in a way I was comfortable [with], in a way that wasn’t so old school and traditional,” he explains. His previous employment made him crave a new way of shooting weddings. “When I was in college, I did darkroom work for a portrait studio run by an older guy, kind of old school. He shot weddings with two-and-a-quarter inch format and you got a proof-book with a hundred proofs in it, and they were all posed pictures. That was the way of wedding photography at the time.”
Christensen bought his first digital point-and-shoot camera and took it to a friend’s wedding. Although he came as a guest, he shot a lot of relaxed, informal photos. “I gave the bride my pictures, and she loved everything I did more than the photographer she had paid to be there,” he remembers. “She had my pictures blown up all over her apartment and carried on about how great they were.”
Feeling he was onto something, Christensen thought to himself, “I don’t have to be that old guy. There’s a better way. You can make wedding photography fun and colorful and creative. It doesn’t have to be so stale, stagnant, posed.”
This cognitive and aesthetic shift was a turning point in his career. “That was the start of the wedding business, and I continued to work for the agency for a number of years,” he says. “I was shooting about thirty-five weddings a year on top of that, so it was an insane workload, but it was a very eye-opening time.”
Commercial freelance work still comes his way, and the skill sets are very much the same, Christensen feels. “It’s working in unpredictable environments and lighting conditions and being able to react quickly, make changes, and make beautiful images in less-than-ideal situations. That’s sort of what I’m known for—dealing with those types of unpredictable and unknown situations and coming up with real beautiful images.”
Considering himself a technical photographer, Christensen feels most photographers today don’t have the knowledge to get their images correct in-camera. “They try to compensate for that by cooking their images in Photoshop. I shoot RAW and I convert straight out of RAW. Those are my final files, but I don’t do any major retouching in processed files.”
Lighting is integral to controlling his exposures and getting his images as close to perfect in-camera, according to Christensen. “Lighting is huge, and I got away from that for about a year or so, but I’ve learned that was sort of my shtick: the thing not everybody can do,” he says. “It’s the thing that gives me an epic competitive edge, I think.”
Being certain of his strengths and abilities, Christensen also has strong feelings about trends in wedding photography. “I think all this tinting and overcooked look that’s going on right now in this industry is a fad,” he predicts. “I remember another fad that came about right when digital was coming around, and that was the selective color, selected tinted images. You would have the colored bouquet and the black-and-white bride, or whatever. That is such a dated look. If you see that, you know exactly what kind of person you’re dealing with.”
Although he built his knowledge upon the foundation of film technology, Christensen was never slow to adopt digital photography. After working with an arcane digital system in college, complete with a huge shoulder pack connected to the bottom of the camera by a thick cable, he knew it was only a matter of time before cameras got both smaller and more affordable. That day eventually came. “I found an old lady who paid me $1200 to paint her house and fix her porch,” he remembers. “I took that money and bought a Nikon D100. That was sort of the launch of my professional independent photography career.”
His move to digital photography was only the start of this photographer’s pursuit of appropriate gear. After beginning his digital professional career with Nikon, Christensen always goes with whatever gear he thinks is best. “I switched to Canon for a little while. Nothing [Nikon] came after the D100 for so long,” he remembers. “It was better than the point-and-shoot I had originally, but it still wasn’t great. The dynamic range was horrible. You have blocked-up shadows, blown highlights. It was just not ideal.”
Unfortunately, he began to feel a similar stagnation he had experienced earlier with Nikon. “The same thing—just nothing was happening with Canon,” Christensen remembers. “Their strobe equipment was archaic, compared to Nikon. I didn’t have PC syncs on my strobes, and that’s when I was trying to move to smaller light, things I could mount my PocketWizards to without having to ‘hotshoe afters’ and all that kind of thing.”
Everything changed for him again when Nikon introduced their D3. “I hocked everything,” he says. “I immediately started buying up a Nikon gear. I was in Tampa at an Imaging U.S.A. convention. I had all my Canon stuff, on eBay, and literally every day something would sell. I would go back to the convention floor and buy another piece of equipment. I basically turned over and bought all my new equipment the week I was in Tampa, at Imaging U.S.A. I’m still using the same cameras today, so I’ve not upgraded since I did that.”
Christensen is shooting three Nikon D3 bodies, and has duplicates of everything else in his gear bags. “I’ve got several 70-200mm zooms, 24-70mm zooms and 14-24mm zooms. They’re just phenomenal gear,” he says.
When asked about shooting with different cameras, Christensen has discovered a strong preference no matter which platform he’s using. “The biggest thing I learned, transitioning from Canon to Nikon and back and forth, was having consistent equipment,” he says. This became evident when using a variety of Canon cameras. “Those bodies were different. They were similar, but the menu systems would be slightly different. You would pick a camera up and something would be different about it. It was just not a fluid exchange to grab that camera and go back to this one. That’s when I learned I needed to have the same body. It didn’t matter what I was going to go with—I wanted to have all the same bodies.”
His current Nikon setup has solved this issue, resulting in better ease of use and increased productivity. “With the Nikons, I can actually copy all my settings from one camera and then apply them into the other one, so they’re all set up exactly the same,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what camera I pick up—all the buttons, custom functions, everything is set up exactly the same. It’s easy. I carry two bodies when we shoot weddings, so it’s easy to transition from one to the other. It feels the same. The buttons are in the same position. They all do the same thing.”
Using the same gear also saves him time on the backend in postproduction. By using the same profiles in each camera, everything is consistent, smoothing his workflow. Christensen also has his lighting gear similarly streamlined. “I’ve got five Nikon SB800 AF Speedlights and they all have PocketWizard Plus® II units Velcroed to the top of them, so they stay that way all the time,” he says. “I had some custom cords made for a custom link and with screw locks and everything on them. They’re always set up that way with PocketWizards, so I can set them on Manual, which is what I’ve been doing, which is using these manual remotes. What I love to do is shoot outside during daylight and I love to overpower daylight. I can’t do that with SB800s, but I have a Quantum T5VR, so I can use that with a PocketWizard and that’s my outdoor daylight flash.”
At weddings, Christensen will wear a belt with pouches holding SB800 units in it. His work style is fluid and adaptable. He will place a flash on the ground and fire it from there. He often uses a Super Clamp to affix flashes to a wall sconce or speaker stand. “I like to have the ability to drop extra lights here and there,” he says. “I’ve dropped it on the dashboard of cars. They leave the church going to the reception and when they pull up at the Ritz, I can turn that on and pop off a lot of really cool shots, leaning inside the car.”
With lighting, simpler always seems to work better for this photographer. “I think the biggest thing I learned was less is more and just trying to keep the gear simple and light,” he says. “The biggest part of this whole thing is the PocketWizards. I mean, they work flawlessly. Like I said, I can drop them in a car and I can shoot, and they’ll pop every single time. That’s just been huge for me. I think it’s revolutionized the look of my images. And like I said, lighting is what gives me a competitive advantage right now over everybody else, and so I just swear by those things. I was looking at the Quantum TTL Remote System, and I just couldn’t deal with it. It was clunky, it’s bulky, it’s expensive, and I think it’s very inconsistent. I never got a consistent experience with it. It was just all over the place. But PocketWizard Plus II units are so huge for me. They’re rock solid, they’re portable and, like I said, it’s just changed the way I work.”
Using the Plus II units with his SB800s and the Q-Flash, Christensen is exploring other aspects of PocketWizard technology. “Just a few months ago, I picked up the FlexTT5® system. I’ve integrated that into my workflow too, so now I’m using FlexTT5® units in addition to being able to shoot full manual on my Q-Flash and other strobes. That was another huge selling point with it—that I could integrate TTL into an already fully-manual setup I had. Now I can shoot full pop on my Q-Flash outdoors and use a little FlexTT5 with an SB800 just to pop a little fill in the front. It’s given me another dimension.”
With a PocketWizard MiniTT1® mounted on his cameras, Christensen is often able to get suitable exposures with just minutes left in a wedding. “Just before the church lady throws me out,” he says, laughing.
Christensen is also employing his PocketWizards on commercial shoots, such as interiors. “I can set that big Q-Flash up as my main light and just blast the back corner of a room and then drop my little SB800s with the FlexTT5 receivers on them, around the foreground, just to add some chill,” he says. “It’s probably cut the time it takes to do those shots easily in half, if not more. Like I said, that’s money. Being able to switch from Manual to TTL on the fly and have it integrate with all my manual strobe equipment—it’s just unbelievable.”
Because he gets his exposures accurately in-camera, there’s not much to do in postproduction when he runs all his images through Adobe Lightroom. With just a bit of white balance and the occasional dodge or burn, his photos stand on their own. Christensen estimates one-half of one percent of his shots gets tweaked in Photoshop to remove small areas of noise.
Finding commercial clients who are more inclined to experiment has kept him from getting bored. Christensen has also shot many celebrity events and celebrity weddings. The balance between commercial work and weddings he sees as a way to keep his shooting fresh in all areas. He estimates the workload split almost 50-50 at this time.
With two distinct and accomplished portfolios, a love of technology, and a willingness to travel anywhere for clients, David Christensen shows no sign of slowing down or remaining staid in his approach to creating photographs. His streamlined workflow has enabled him to do what he loves most: take pictures, and at a staggering volume of jobs each year. Be sure to visit both his sites to see more of what he does so well—finding the real moments and capturing them forever.