Two Mann Studios – Interview
Fearless Award Winning Photographers | International Wedding Photography
Photograph of Erika & Lanny by Abby Photography
Look through any wedding on Erika and Lanny Mann’s website or blog and I guarantee you’ll see a shot that’s either won an award, will win an award or should win an award. What first drew me in to their work was their incredible compositions, clean, bold editing and their creativity in using their surroundings, to create stand out shoot throughs, that amaze and intrigue in equal measure. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to get some time to sit down and chat with both halves of Two Mann Studios over Skype.
I started by asking just how they both started out in wedding photography.
Erika: We were actually originally called Two Mann Tent photography because we used to do landscape and travel and adventure photography. Then we had kids and stopped climbing, paddling, ski touring and mountaineering as much, to the point where we couldn’t really photograph it anymore. Around that time a friend asked us if we could shoot their wedding for them so we did, and hated it. It just snowballed after that, we grew to like it and now we love it! We were just so out of our element the first time, it was crazy.
Lanny: We went from shooting in pretty controlled situations, even though we were dealing with extreme weather and terrain with storms and mountains, but there was less pressure. It was our thing and we could make our images and shoot during the golden hour. So we were very much out of our element in weddings, there were rapidly changing conditions so we were just trying to adapt to all of that to get it right. We’d actually never shot with flash before either. But you know, it was a friend and we were paid accordingly. All of those reasons that we found it challenging to begin with are the same reasons we love it now. I really enjoy that, having to adapt and never stop thinking, it’s always different and you need such a versatile skillset because every situation is so different and rapidly changing. You can’t anticipate anything; you just have to take it as it comes.
With such a varied photographic background it seemed like the obvious follow on to ask if either Erika or Lanny shoot anything other than weddings now.
E – It’s strictly weddings, we’re lucky if we shoot pictures of our kids now! We shoot 15 a year but up until maybe a couple of years ago we were still doing family portraits, corporate, architecture and all sorts. Dabbling in a bit of everything and then we slowly started honing in just on the weddings exclusively. Even our engagement shoots are now only for our couples. We try to always do one if we can, it’s not always possible now that not all of our clients live near us. If we have the opportunity to meet up and hang out before the wedding it’s not so much about the photos, just chilling out together so we don’t seem like just ‘hired help’ on the wedding day.
L -They were pretty instrumental for us in the first few years because the engagement sessions are where we really cut our teeth on all sorts of different kind of ideas and techniques that we were trying to figure out before we applied them on the wedding day. We treated the engagement sessions as a training session for us to experiment and practice, then of course its good practice for the couple as well to learn how we work. We get to figure out what makes them laugh and see who they really are to help us portray that on the wedding day.
So what’s a standard wedding day like for Two Mann Studios?
E -Well there’s lots of bickering in between every section of the day (Under our breath bickering!). We usually start fairly early in the morning, so whenever the bride starts getting ready, the last wedding that was around 8 or 9. I always shadow the bride and Lanny always goes with the groom. We meet up at the ceremony (and have a little fight probably), we shoot the ceremony together then after that we have another disagreement, then onto portraits! We try to get all of the ‘safe’ portraits and family portraits out of the way as quickly as possible so we can get a bunch of time with the bride and groom.
L -Basically when we’re together which is from the ceremony on, usually one of us is playing it safe and the other is taking some kind of a risk. At no part of the day is there a ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ shooter, we both have equal creative input throughout, it’s just as the ideas come. Erika might have an idea and then she’ll go and do that while I’m scouting something else or we’ll work her idea together and I’ll hold her lights and coach the bride and groom while she’s shooting or vice versa. The vast majority of our shots are team efforts. We usually have to remind ourselves to get the standard shots where they are actually looking at the camera because that’s not what we’re inclined to do. For the speeches one of us will shoot the speaker and one of us will shoot reactions then we’ll switch it up, switch lenses, switch the lights. Sometimes, depending on the situation we’ll just have one shooter and one person holding the light. For the first dance usually one of us is safe one risky. The party dancing is probably our favourite part, you don’t have to force emotion, on the dance floor it’s real, everyone’s rowdy by then. We might be shooting party and dance shots for two to three hours so we’ll play around with different approaches. Sometimes we’ll be back flashing, sometimes we’re shooting right into the DJs lights. It’s definitely the most fun part for us!
Anyone who has spent time looking through Erika and Lanny’s portfolio will know that their work often features some incredible flash techniques. Every photographer I talk to has a different approach to working with flash and while there are plenty of photographers, myself included, who don’t focus on artificial lighting at all it’s hard not to be blown away by the stunning lit portraits on the blog and website. I asked what it was that drew the pair to working with flash.
L -I think when we transitioned from shooting in the mountains and extreme situations to shooting weddings we went from capturing images that were just inherently extraordinary just by virtue of what it is. Then the new challenge was trying to give our wedding images that same impact. For me it was images that had dramatic light, whether it’s natural or manufactured lighting. The ones that had dramatic light were the ones that drew me in.
E – Another thing we’ve always tried to do is to “shoot how it feels” which you can do with couples that express their emotion really well, but if they don’t, you have to use all of these different tricks that sort of give the image that feeling. So we started experimenting with all of these different kinds of flash to give an image a feeling instead of just capturing how it looks.
If you just capture how something looks at a lot of weddings that can be quite ordinary as an outsider looking in. But our clients don’t see it that way, they feel it. So by finding ways to use the light or interesting perspectives and compositions or shoot throughs, the goal is to find a way to capture that feeling. So in a way flash can achieve this.
L – We were scared shitless of it to begin with! I remember because we saw Dave and Quin from DQ Studios who were really good with off camera flash and we just started experimenting. We really had no idea but we’d just put the flash somewhere to see what it would look like. It was all accidental success; we’d just see what looked nice! There was no science behind it for us. When I talk to other photographers and they are like ‘yeah I’ve got my flash set up over there at f5.6…’ that makes no sense to me whatsoever! Still we have no idea, we don’t use a light meter or anything like that. We just look at the camera and say oh it needs a little more or a little less, maybe we’ll need to move it. There’s no science behind our flash work whatsoever.
E – It’s kind of like you taste the soup and if it needs more salt, more flash or less flash. Our approach with the photojournalism is to simplify everything as much as possible. So with the flash it’s not technical bullshit it’s just more light or less light.
So it always has to be asked, what’s in the kit bags?
L – So we have four 5d MK III’s, two each. We each have a 35, we share an 85, 24 and a macro as well as a 135 prime that we use occasionally. We do still use the 70-200 once in a while and we have a 16-35 that we use on the dance floor and which Erika uses for the bride getting ready. Then we have a fisheye which we were actually using on the dance floor the other weekend which was something new and different. People have to be very drunk to get that close! So that’s lenses and we now have four EX600 Speedlite’s with two transmitters, so we have one each and two flashes that we can be linked to either simultaneously or on separate channels. Then we have Magmods for each of the flashes. Basically like a little snoot to funnel the light. I’d say maybe 90% of our flash work has a modifier on it to shape the light. We’ve learned with flash that it’s not so much where the light is that really makes it sing, it’s where the light isn’t. So controlling it to only illuminate what we want has been key to our work. That and gelling the flashes as well. 90% of the time it’s just a subtle warming gel but occasionally if the light’s really warm inside we’ll contrast it with a blue gel or something. Most of the time we are balancing light to some degree but creatively we’ll push it to the extremes, maybe use an extremely warm gel on one flash and an extremely cool gel on another for opposing primary colours or something dramatic. We also take a tripod to use occasionally, and a gun light, we don’t actually use that for shooting, more to help us focus. It’s a very expensive piece of equipment to achieve focus! It’s not why we bought it but we ended up using it for that. We use it for rim lights sometimes in really dark situations.
Hearing just how much Lanny and Erika like to modify their flash made me question some of the assumptions I’d made before speaking to them. I already knew from following their work online that Photoshop plays a big part in their approach but it quickly became apparent that many of the bold bright colours in their photographs come from gels as well as natural lighting and editing. I asked if they could talk me through their process and how heavily they rely on the edit.
E – If we come home from a wedding with 10,000 images it gets culled down to about 10% for the clients, not because we’re trying for that, that’s just what it naturally comes down to. So then I do the editing on all of those thousand on Lightroom and Motibodo. Lanny does all the edits on all the images that the world sees.
– Since this interview Erika and Lanny have actually switched to the fantastic ‘Image Salon’ for this part of their editing and they are incredibly happy with the results thus far. Lanny still works on the blog images as detailed below.
Then we pick our favourites and those are the ones that Lanny works on in Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw and those are the ones that we show the world. The before and afters are very different but we’re not manipulating pixels, we enhance what’s there already.
L – Our approach to the post production is in many ways no different from our approach to composition, lighting, posing and trying to get emotion. When we shoot we’re going for maximum impact with the way we light and compose, the unexpected perspectives that we try to get. Then the post production is no different from any other tool of photography. Just like our cameras and our lenses, editing is a tool of photography. We’ve embraced that and we’re going for maximum visual impact when we process as well. Often when we shoot we have a vision for the final piece of art, how it will look after the edit, so we shoot accordingly. We try to get it as close in camera as we can but ultimately what we’re trying to capture in the file is all of the pixel information to bring it to where it needs to be. Basically it’s then just pushing the files as much as we can, I find the most time consuming part is figuring out ways to push the files as much as we want to, to have the visual impact we want to achieve without looking over processed.
With that epic culling process in mind (something we’re all familiar with right?) one of the things I was most curious about is just how Lanny and Erika go about choosing the incredible shots we see posted online.
E – That’s a big part of our process, picking the images. Lanny came up with this metaphor for a talk we did at a seminar in April and he likened how we pick our blog images, to choosing the songs that go on an album. One bad image can taint the whole blog post just like one bad song can make the whole album bomb. Less is more. But if you look back to our blog posts from two or three years ago we were including way more images but we’re getting better at trying to tell the story with less and realising it’s a stronger story when we tell it with less. The blog posts we do are for us, we do a slideshow that we give to the clients and they get all 1000 (s) images from their wedding but when it comes to the blog post it’s for us and for our marketing. That means we don’t have to have a first kiss shot in there, if all of the bridesmaids are coming down the aisle we can just have one. Just because it happened and we photographed it, that doesn’t mean we have to show it. If you don’t have a photo of the first kiss people aren’t going to assume you didn’t get it. Like they’ll see it and think ‘ah you totally blew it! You missed the first kiss!’ But for years we really thought that. We always went through and said ah we’ve got to have the bride putting on the dress, the laces, we have to have the processional. But then we realised we were doing all of that for the client yet it’s the one part of the process where we can show off and use it for our marketing. We take tonnes of standard shots on a wedding day but we’re not going to show that to the world. The client can if they want to do that but we try to hone in on the best of the best.
L – And that’s what defines our style, that half a percent that you show the world. I think it’s one of the most common mistakes that we see photographers making, showing too much. So we only show the best, still trying to tell the story but the images that catch our eye are the ones that are somewhat extreme or unexpected. One of the things that helps us achieve those really standout images is not being afraid to fail and to take really terrible images. Because we do, we take hundreds and thousands of really terrible photos at every wedding we shoot. But it helps us to embrace failure, if you’re swinging for the fences you’re going to have some misses right? Embracing failure is what’s helped us get all of those standout images, going out and saying ok, sometimes this might really suck, but it might be really cool! Some of our blog post images have taken 40 or 50 fails to get that one shot. There’s one on our blog where I shot the whole dance from outside. Erika was inside getting the dance but I was shooting outside for the whole dance and then they did that dip right at the end. I could easily have gone inside halfway through and said ok, this isn’t working, but I knew Erika was getting what she needed inside and I knew that there was a chance I might get something really killer. Thankfully they dipped and held it for more than a second, thankfully we had an assistant holding my flash and tracking the couple inside, and it all worked.
One of the things I loved most about chatting to Erika and Lanny was learning about how they work as a couple. From first-hand experience I know that working with your wife is incredibly fulfilling, but it can also be tough working out who’s going to go after that standout shot. I asked how this dynamic works for Two Mann Studios.
L – Sometimes Erika has to assert herself because I’ll get wrapped up in trying to get the shot, or I’ll get my next idea so Erika has to step in and say no, it’s my turn. But for the most part my mentality going into every wedding is ok, Two Mann Studios is going to work here, we’re going to create the best body of work we can at this wedding and capture the day as best as possible as a team. However that might happen doesn’t really come into play, it’s more a case of let’s just get these images into our cameras and see what happens. It just kind of works out that it’s 50/50 I think we rely heavily on each other because we have different strengths and weaknesses. For example I rely heavily on Erika for formal portraits because she’s better at coordinating the groups into poses and whatnot.
E – Spending the mornings apart, where he does his thing and I do mine, is nice because I get that time to be the sole photographer. I do need to feel like I’m not just a team, that I’m a good solo photographer as well, I don’t know why, it just helps my confidence. So I love having that time on my own for upwards of 2-3 hours with the bride is where I can get my own shots, I can fool around with the flash and get to know the bride. Just doing my own thing.
It seems obvious enough that Lanny and Erika must have progressed tremendously to go from hating their first wedding to shooting some of the most jaw dropping images in the world. I asked the pair if there was a particular turning point for them where they felt their work really move up a level.
L – There were a number of game changers along the way. One of the first ones, and this was only about three years ago, was when we started shooting in manual. Before that we were always in aperture priority so that was one of the first big ones for us. Also, setting ourselves up for success is key to our performance, being in the right place at the right time, knowing what to expect.
E – I thought for the first 20 weddings or so that we were just faking our way through it, to a certain extend I sometimes think we’re still just really good fakers. We’re just getting lucky. And then we realised about 6 months ago that we’re actually really good at getting lucky. There’s an art to it. It’s not just good photography, because we’re really not that great, we’re just really good at capitalising on luck.
L – The foundation workshop was big for me last year as a photographer and for my confidence. As Erika said it’s easy to attribute our success to other things like luck or editing or just showing the best. That workshop helped me appreciate that it’s more than that. I’m actually good with my camera as well so it’s just having that confidence. I think another big turning point for both of us was the Canada photo convention. That really came at the right point for us, hearing things from the right people at the right time. DQ studios, Ben and Erin [Chrisman], Davina and Daniel all spoke there and at the time those were all wedding photographers who were really inspiring us so hearing what they had to say was a really big turning point for us. It really pointed us in the right direction.