Cliff Mautner: Analogue Guy in a Digital World

by Theano Nikitas

Cliff Mautner

March 06, 2013

A lot has changed since Cliff Mautner first began his career as a photojournalist 31 years ago. He opened his wedding photography business in 1998, eventually switched to digital cameras in the mid-2000s and, more recently, entered the world of social media. On the surface, none of these changes seems particularly traumatic, especially since many other photographers have gone through the same transitions over the years, but, according to Mautner, there was some “kicking and screaming” involved. (To read more about Mautner, see the December 2011 issue of Rangefinder and his website/blog: www.cmphotography.com.)

While moving from photojournalist and commercial photographer to wedding photographer was relatively seamless for Mautner, changing from film to digital was a little more challenging. “I felt like in order for me to adapt and evolve, I needed in some way, shape or form to incorporate digital into my workflow, but I wasn’t achieving the results I was after when comparing film images to digital—I cringed.” He started incorporating some digital into his wedding photography with the Nikon D70 and a Nikon D100, with mixed results and continued to rely “on my film bodies for skin tones.” At the same time, says Mautner, “I don’t think we had the processing tools to make those images look as good as film, so I kept leaning on film as a crutch.” It wasn’t until he shot with the Nikon D2Xs that he switched completely to digital. 

We all remember specific dates like birthdays and anniversaries, but Mautner has one more important occasion etched in his memory—October 14, 2006—the exact date of his first all-digital wedding. Earlier that summer, a client had requested digital files, so the photographer set a goal to have the ability to “shoot all digital, process the files and have them look good” by that time. He knew that he wouldn’t have the patience or technical skills to sit at a computer and process the files (to this day, says Mautner, “I have never sat in front of a computer and processed an entire wedding”), so he hired a studio manager. At the time, Mautner explains, “I had only dabbled [in post-processing] and not very well.” Shooting an all-digital wedding was “new territory to me. I was very insecure, I was very nervous. I didn’t want to give my clients anything less than my best but I was in very uncharted waters for myself. But I think that many photographers were in that same position.”

Once he got into the routine, Mautner says he, “became a little more comfortable with it.” He goes on to say that he was, “frustrated with ISO performance early on, frustrated with the cropped sensor, but there was [also] a liberation that I felt.” And, he was pleasantly surprised by the organizational advantages of shooting digital—a benefit he wasn’t aware of previously.

What really won him over was the Nikon D3. In 2007, he was the first to shoot a wedding with the D3, and, according to Mautner, the camera “changed everything. It changed photography as we know it today. For the first time in my career, I had a full-frame camera with ISO and low light capabilities that had never been seen before.” With the D3, says Mautner, “it became more about the quality of the light than the quantity.” This camera was truly a game-changer for Mautner, who currently shoots with the Nikon D4 as his “workhorse” and the Nikon D800 for portraits. (See our camera roundup in this issue for comments by Mautner and other photographers about the hottest cameras for wedding and portrait shooters).

As an “analogue guy in a digital world,” Mautner admits that he also didn’t enter the realm of social media willingly. “I realized that it was going to be a necessary evil for me to evolve; it was either evolve or die, metaphorically,” says Mautner. “It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve adopted any efforts in social media,” he explains. “And I still do it somewhat begrudgingly.”

Sometime during the early- to mid-1990s, while on assignment for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mautner remembers seeing someone on the Internet and was thrilled to report when he got home, “Hey, I was online tonight.” He also recalls his first email account with a 28,800 dial-up modem. He even hired someone to create a website for his wedding business in 1998.

But, says Mautner, “I think it’s a miracle I’m still in business. I didn’t even know what the word ‘domain’ meant. I didn’t do anything because I didn’t know how to do anything, I didn’t even know how to put up an image,” quips Mautner. “All I knew is that I had a website,” although it didn’t change for a couple of years. “The entire time,” Mautner recalls, “I was still fighting the move into the new age. I was still doing things in a very brick-and-mortar sense. I was still showing people prints on mat boards and telling them stories about those images when people would come to see me.” Still, he was booking about 50-to-60 weddings a year using the same method he had used since 1998. Back in the analogue/film day, Mautner explains, if you did a good job, growing a wedding photography business and building a referral base was all about “building relationships with clients, venues, catering sales people, florists/decorators and other professionals.” While he may no longer take out $16,000 ads in local wedding magazines each year, Mautner still prides himself on maintaining the same dedication to building relationships and delivering excellent customer service.
Perhaps the first time Mautner saw the benefits of being online was from his blog. As blogging became more prevalent over the years, Mautner realized “Yeah, I gotta do that,” but hadn’t a clue about how to move forward. Fortunately, in 2007, a friend helped him set up a blog—just in time to announce his first bootcamp workshop. That fall, Nikon gave him the new D3 to test, and Mautner benefited from the experience in a way that he hadn’t imagined. Once he posted those wedding images on his blog, the site was inundated with about 350,000 visitors in 10 days. “I was unnerved by and overwhelmed by the response,” he remembers. “It was hard to believe that so many people found my little blog and it was obvious to me that it was a powerful form of communication.” Today, his blog maintains a steady 1,500-2,000 visitors a day from people around the world.

Next up was Facebook, which he joined the following year, and he quickly reached his maximum of 5,000 friends. Although he didn’t use Facebook much until the past year, he credits fiancé and wedding photographer Susan Stripling for a lot of his digital integration.

“She uses it brilliantly and has been an enormous influence on my social media transition.” He has since added a business page on Facebook where he posts wedding pictures.

Yes, he’s on Twitter, but doesn’t like to tweet. He prefers to get information about sports, photography and politics from Twitter and considers any tweets he makes about photography, “infotainment.” “I don’t think that Twitter helps with a client base at all since my followers are mostly photographers,” says Mautner.

And he opened a Pinterest account at the urging of a consultant with expertise in marketing to millennials. “I pinned a couple of photos and haven’t been back since. I still don’t know what to do with it.” He also comments that, “I don’t like it when a bride sends you images from Pinterest saying, ‘These are the types of photos we want.’ ” Mautner’s gut response? “Well, why are you hiring me? I’m supposed to take my images and my style and mold them in the form of your Pinterest board? Why don’t you just hire the people who made up your board.”

While Mautner may have moved into the social media arena only because he had to (not because he wanted to), he’s still astonished by how much attention he has gained from the Internet. “I began getting comments and inquiries from around the world and shooting weddings internationally because of my profile being raised through the Internet. And people were appreciating my work in foreign countries—it’s incredibly flattering and intimidating at the same time.” Ironically, says Mautner, “for someone who despises social media, it’s benefited me a great deal. The digital age has benefited me a great deal. The workshop would not flourish the way it has without the Internet and social media and photographers’ reviews on their blogs and word of mouth. Not once have I sent out a mass email about my workshop.” And, the workshop consistently sells out.

He also sees the value in Facebook as a “wonderful indirect marketing tool. People see images on Facebook, clients will tag themselves, and their friends will see those photos and then, perhaps, inquire about a wedding. It’s an important process, although I went in kicking and screaming.”

However, to this day, his best marketing tools are still “word of mouth, customer service and treating clients well.” On the day I spoke with Mautner in January, he had received three referrals from previous clients so “that’s still the number-one marketing tool. Take care of the clients that are in front of you. In this day of Facebook and Twitter, the number-one way to market your business is to kick ass for the clients you have. Clients are still the most reliable source of good leads, and that won’t change.”

Of course, there are downsides to social media. It takes time and effort to use it well. And it’s not uncommon for photographers to find their images on other sites (including those of other photographers claiming them as their own work). On the other hand, technology makes it easier to discover those copyright infringements.

The bottom line is, as Mautner so eloquently states: “They can take my images, they can try to copy my style, but they can’t steal my eye.”  
 
Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 18 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, “how-to” articles and images have appeared in American Photo, CNET.com, DigitalCameraReview.com, DPReview.com, Imaging-Resource.com, Macworld, PC World, PDN and Popular Photography/PopPhoto.com. Although she loves digital, Theano still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras.

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