Pro's Choice: Nels Akerlund’s Weddings: On The Job With An All-Around Pro

“My dad won a Nikon FM at a company-sponsored event when I was 12, and, the moment he handed the camera over to me, it was love at first sight,” Nels Akerlund recalls. Six months later, he’d built a darkroom in his basement and that love affair with photography has not abated. It carried him through the Rochester Institute of Technology, an internship with a White House photographer in the Reagan administration, and assignments for the National Geographic Society, The New York Times, and photo shoots worldwide. He shares this passion with his wife Anna, who is also his business partner and fellow shooter. Aside from weddings, Akerlund shoots architecture, food, small products, and of course portraits in his studio and on location. He and his wife operate a spacious, two-story, 2000-square-foot studio behind their home in Rockford, Illinois.

Reception Hall, Dominican Republic

“We try to do a dusk shot with every bride and groom, and capturing that Magic Hour blue was especially important here. Otherwise we would have been looking out into a colorless void.” Nels Akerlund arranges these shots in advance with the couple, taking advantage of a tiny window of time. Two exposures were involved: one where two assistants held small softboxes (each with a 580EX II flash) on poles on the stairwell to illuminate the bride and groom, a second (bracketed series) by available light, without the couple—to be later composited, with the assistants retouched out. The camera remained in a fixed position on a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod. And he had a flash behind them as well, for a touch of rim lighting.
All Photos © Nels Akerlund

Akerlund enjoys shooting away from the studio for the engagement portrait, however, feeling that a fresh environment adds a certain vitality to the shot. Weddings especially give him an opportunity not only to get out of the studio but also to travel to some exotic destinations, such as Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. (For more on Akerlund’s wedding work, visit www.nelsakerlundweddings.com.)

Akerlund made the switch to digital within the last 10 years, and with the advent of the first Canon full-frame camera (providing the needed real estate for cropping) he adopted the Canon EOS system. “Currently, I’m working with the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D,” with the new 1D X on order. He has also worked with the 1Ds Mark III.

Bride Riding A Horse

“The bride wanted to do a shot seated on a horse, so we shot this in a barn we found locally.” Akerlund special-ordered a huge swath of black cloth from Denny Manufacturing to use as the backdrop, sweeping into the foreground for the horse to walk on. After setting up the background, he positioned four studio strobes inside softboxes so that they surrounded the set. Because the horse was uncomfortable standing still, the handler had to walk him in circles, which gave Akerlund time to make two exposures for each circuit.

Bride In Doorway, Dominican Republic

With any wedding, whether local or a remote destination, Akerlund builds in time to scout. In this instance, scouting led him to a delivery entrance that happened to have an ornate railing and large bay doors. This was shot entirely by available light, with the intent of having that wash of light outside envelop the bride in an angelic glow.

“I try to crop in camera as much as possible, but every situation is different,” Akerlund notes. “In the wedding industry, you need a little wiggle room in your crops, so you can print different sizes.” The most popular display print sizes range from 5x7 to 11x14, while 8x10 remains the most popular. Occasionally he sees requests for 16x20 prints and 30x40 canvases. Akerlund used to do the printing, but he found it’s more efficient to work with an online print service, www.collages.net, for albums as well. “We leave the framing to the client, because over the years we’ve learned: do what you do best, which is photography.” Retouching and compositing are performed at the studio.

On The Job Gear
He shoots with two cameras at each wedding. On one body he keeps a Canon 24-105mm IS lens; on the second, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II. He manages both with the aid of a BlackRapid dual-camera strap (www.blackrapid.com), which lets him carry the two cameras on opposite sides of his body, with all the weight supported by his shoulders. “It’s been a lifesaver for me.” His wife mainly uses a 24-105mm with her EOS, switching lenses as needed. Other lenses include a 16-35mm, 100mm macro, 400mm, 17mm TS, and 24mm TS, along with his 50mm and 85mm f/1.2 optics.

All capture is in Raw.

“We spend an enormous amount of time tweaking our gear and the layout of the gear in the carrying cases so that we are ready to roll.” Akerlund carries backup camera bodies and other essential gear, because, as he points out, you can’t reshoot a wedding—especially far from home. And to keep everything organized, he employs a large Tamrac roller. He also brings a Pelican case full of gear, which he usually leaves in the car. Stands and tripods also make the list.

Spring Bride In The Park

Akerlund scouted this park on an early spring day in a nearby Chicago suburb and almost gave up trying to find a suitable spot when he eyed this grove of trees, noting that the budding tree in the foreground, contrasted against the large, dark evergreens, was perfect for what he had in mind. He made the exposure largely by available light, with just a touch of fill coming from the left side—with a 580EX II. He had waited for a gust of wind to lift the veil before releasing the shutter. Akerlund notes that he times such shots with the position of the sun, for which he has an app on his mobile phone. “Before this, I needed to bring out my sextant for this kind of information,” he said jokingly.

Bride In Cave, Hawaii

Left: Scouting led Akerlund to this lava tube for this bridal portrait. An opening in the cave admitted ambient light but the surrounding walls were too dark on their own. So he added light from two 580EX II strobes to reveal more of this naturally intriguing setting.

Runaway Bride On Chopper

Akerlund shot this as a self-promo. The biker is someone he met locally, while the “bride” was a woman he and his wife met at a wedding. Akerlund is traveling on a flatbed trailer being pulled by a pickup matching the speed of the custom chopper (which was traveling maybe 25 or 30 mph). The trailer also had a 4-foot softbox held steady by one assistant, for fill, with a second vehicle in front of the bike and another assistant holding a strip light to open the shot up just a touch—all controlled with RadioPoppers. Exposure was based on the ambient background. “We left a little vignetting in the shot and desaturated a bit.”

Available Light And Flash
The lighting is tailored to each setting. Available light plays a key role, but so does the Canon 580EX II, powered by external Canon battery packs. “A big game changer for us in the last couple of years has been RadioPoppers (www.radiopopper.com), allowing us to control the light output from the camera,” Akerlund remarks. “We use the RadioPopper in eTTL, manual, and high-speed sync modes, switching modes as the situation demands.” Akerlund also switches camera shooting modes on the fly, going from shutter priority to manual and back again.

“Occasionally—and it depends what we’re shooting—I’ll have a couple of softboxes assembled and ready to go. I keep them in the car.” These are Calumet and Westcott, as are the umbrellas (primarily shoot-through, but also silver) which he also carries.

“You’ve got to move fast at a wedding so it’s important to have your gear really dialed in. Sometimes, if an umbrella is not working for the shot, I’ll shoot through a Lastolite diffuser (www.lastolite.com) to get that same quality—it folds up quickly.”

Akerlund supplements that lighting with yet another, somewhat unusual light: a Brinkmann MaxFire Dual Xenon Rechargeable Spotlight. “I’ll use these flashlights if I don’t have time to deal with the flashes and I want to gently introduce a little more ambient-quality light into a scene.” And he adds, “It’s great also to have at the end of the night, when checking that you have all your gear.”

Bride And Horse, Orchard Ridge Farms (Rockton, IL)

“You can’t get great shots just shooting at eye level all day long,” Akerlund observes. Both he and his wife take along a change of clothing, knowing they’ll encounter such situations. In this instance, it was raining intermittently and Akerlund was lying on the ground to capture this low viewpoint. “We used at least three 580EX II strobes on the bride because one alone did not provide sufficient light for this high-speed sync exposure for the sky at 1/500 sec.” The flashes were zoomed out all the way to focus the light on her and supported on poles held by an assistant.

Bride On Chair, Dominican Republic

Akerlund framed the bride’s face so that the shadow falling on the wall would not cross her face. The interior lighting was ambient for this exposure, but from outside a 580EX II poured light into the room, creating that intricate latticework on the wall.

Keeping Pace
“Depending on where I’m at during the day, I’ll do rapid sequences. For example, with the bride and her father coming down the aisle, because it’s a very important part of the day and it happens so quickly. So I need to make sure that I’m getting all that.”

This sequence could be shot by available light or flash. “If I use flash, I’m well aware that I need to reduce my power to get the required recycling times. There’s not one recipe that we use for every single wedding. Churches may be very bright and airy, or they may be gothic and almost gloomy. One thing: we always go to the rehearsal. That’s a very important part for us, so we know what we’re getting into. And we know what kind of lighting we’re going to need for game day.”

Akerlund also noted one special bridal shoot. “Occasionally the bride will want to do a ‘trash the dress’ session. That’s usually for our destination wedding clients. The day after the wedding, the bride will wear a second (usually less expensive) dress in which she could be seen walking or running along the water’s edge at a beach resort or even taking a dip in the ocean. We’ve shot these at weddings in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Hawaii.”

When shooting outdoors, Akerlund will employ available light, flash, and Lastolite collapsible reflectors as necessary, showing a marked preference for mixing his light sources. Doesn’t that mix of lighting wreak havoc with color balance? “Usually we shoot in AWB, but I have tons of filters that I use throughout the day. Mainly at the reception, we’ll use CTO (warming) gels to color balance on the flash so that we can match the white balance to the ambient setting. But sometimes I like to leave it alone, as a mix of the warmer background with what appears to be a cooler, key strobe light.”

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