Nothing but the Truth

by Arthur H. Bleich

Ray Soemarsono

March 01, 2010 — Two guys from Indonesia come to the United States to study engineering and meet in college. Years later, bored with their jobs, they team up and start shooting weddings—not just “wedding” weddings, but weddings with an edgy, emotional and vérité style that enthralls clients who refer them to other clients and on and on until their company, Apertura, gets so well known that American Photo selects them as one of the “Top Ten Wedding Photographers of 2009”—just four short years after they began.

To Ray Soemarsono and Erwin Darmali, both 34, this is heady stuff. But it’s well earned; they both have a work ethic instilled in them by parents who encouraged them to leave Jakarta to study industrial engineering at Cal Poly Pomona, where they first met. After graduation in 1998, they took engineering jobs, eventually working together at a musical instruments company. But photography had both of them in its grip—each had brushed with it before.

Recalls Ray: “I took photography classes in high school in Indonesia, but only to have an excuse to go hang out past my curfew for the class assignments.” And Erwin’s dad was an amateur photo enthusiast. “I think he knew I’d be the one in my family who would have the same interest in photography,” he says.

Tired and fed up with the engineering grind, each reached out to photography again and took courses at local area colleges before fate brought them together once more at a mutual friend’s party. “We decided to do photography trips,” remembers Erwin, “mostly capturing landscapes around Southern California.” Their favorite location was Bodie, a ghost town east of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Several images they took there were published in a U.K. magazine. By shooting together and comparing results, they began to improve quickly. But something was missing.

“We were able to produce beautiful pictures,” Erwin says, “but nothing beats the human emotions that tell a story.” In 2005, one of their friends, a wedding photographer, offered to teach them the craft and began by hiring them as assistants and second-shooters. They quickly caught on. After just six months, they started their own business while still holding down day jobs and began to develop their own style. Says Erwin, “We believed in true, spontaneous emotion and reactions that make images strong and powerful.” Ray seconds that: “We don’t shoot perfect, glossy, smiley stuff. We love shooting a wedding as a live, unpredictable event.”

Obviously, their clients love it too. Comprised mainly of artists, doctors, lawyers and showbiz personalities, their clientele has eclectic tastes, pay for their own weddings and don’t want “smiley stuff” either. They want to cherish images that are shot as they were, warts-and-all. Ray explains, “They want their real story and emotions to be documented through our vision.” And their vision caught on. In 2009 they chucked their engineering jobs and became full-time wedding pros.

Apertura turns clients away if they sense the fit is not right. With 20–30 weddings a year now solidly booked, they can afford to make sure that philosophies match. “We tell our prospective clients that 90% of the time we’re going to shoot what we think will tell the story,” says Erwin, “and the other 10% will be for portraits.” Ray adds that trust is paramount. “If they trust us with their day, then we are free to do what we need to do.”

Shooting as a team during their first three years in business, they became finely tuned to the same wavelength and, as Ray puts it, “could cover each other’s back.” But it limited the company’s growth so they decided to change their business model. Now they work about 25% of the time as a team and 75% individually. Even when working alone, they usually hire a second shooter. “I instruct them carefully,” says Erwin, “because the one thing I don’t do is repeats. I want to make sure that there are no fake repeats just to get the shot. Clients hate that and I hate that.”

There’s no doubt that shooting in Apertura’s documentary style puts more pressure on a photographer already in a stressful situation. But both Ray and Erwin thrive on it; each event becomes a new challenge and cause for an adrenaline rush. Behind their seemingly-impromptu execution, though, there’s meticulous preparation—from zeroing in on their clients’ needs, to assembling and testing their equipment prior to the shoot, to arriving early on the scene. “I feel more comfortable knowing what things are going to happen and where,” says Erwin. “I also like meet the wedding coordinator and introduce myself to the vendors. I want to be prepared as much as possible.”
Still, as any wedding photographer knows well, the unexpected can happen. Ray recalls knocking over a four-foot vase full of water during a father-daughter dance. “It made a loud crash and soaked me, but I just kept on shooting.” Erwin remembers ripping his pants 15 minutes before starting his coverage and not having a spare pair. “I ran over to a nearby store, bought a new pair and ran back—all in less than ten minutes,” he laughs.

Apertura has done jobs in New York, Hawaii, California, Nevada, Mexico and this year will be shooting weddings on three continents. Not tied down with heavy equipment, they can travel light and still be prepared for whatever they face. They use Canon equipment: 5D Mark II cameras, 580 EX II flashes, and a small arsenal of prime lenses: a 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 50mm f/2.5 macro and an 85mm f/1.2. They supplement these with a 16–35mm f/2.8 and a 70–200mm f/2.8. There’s also the usual assortment of IR triggers, battery packs, CF cards and more.

During a typical eight-hour shoot, they’ll take 2000–3000 images at ISOs ranging from 50–3200 using available light that’s sometimes augmented with a lightstick—a monopod with an attached off-camera flash, triggered by a radio transmitter. Portable video lights are also used to allow them to see exactly how the light will fall when striving for a moodier look on low-light portraits.

After the shoot, their RAW files are transferred to Dell desktops and the best are selected using Photo Mechanic workflow software. These get color-corrected and edited in Bridge or Lightroom and final touches are made in Photoshop CS4 using custom actions along with Imagenomics Portraiture and Alien Skin Exposure plug-ins. Then a batch process is used to put 500–800 of the best pictures online through Apertura’s PickPic shopping cart. An album proof is also displayed.

Unlike many other wedding photographers, who want to rush proofs to clients as soon as possible, Apertura has developed a different approach. “To us, quality is more important than speed,” says Ray. “We don’t rush just to chase sales and we communicate our timeline during our initial meeting so our people understand the process. Part of the experience we offer is that clients don’t have to worry about selecting images.”

It takes six to eight weeks for clients to see their pictures and online album proof which is created using Lumapix FotoFusion. Apertura allows substitution of images and alteration of up to three album spreads, after which there’s a small change fee. After final client approval, Leather Craftsmen does the printing and binding. Print orders are processed through their lab, ProDPI, but that’s not where most of the profit comes from.

“Selling prints was never a big part of our business,” explains Ray. “It’s nice to have decent-sized print orders once in a while but we never really put too much effort into generating those sales. Albums are the best medium to retell stories of our clients’ wedding day.” In fact, 90% of their clients order albums, but only half buy wall prints. All of them purchase the files though.

Ray has begun to notice a shift in the business. “I see that convergence of video and stills is beginning to gain ground—with the new HD features of DSLRs. And film is making a comeback. What’s old is new and what’s new is old, but great photography will never go out of style.”

So just what makes Apertura’s style so great? Erwin says, “It just evolved when we decided to do something different compared to other photographers. For the longest time, we had no idea of what that difference was, but soon realized we just wanted to tell a story through our eyes and capture un-staged emotions and reactions to allow our clients to experience the same feeling they had on their wedding day.” Ray agrees: “We always look for emotion and story—the main ingredients of powerful images.

In looking at Ray and Erwin’s work, one gets the feeling that the world has lost two great photojournalists to wedding photography. But think of the gain to so many couples who want to experience the emotional gamut of that special day—and with the same intensity of “being there” again.

In an effort to share their techniques with others, they’ve begun a series of private workshops called Apertura 2-ON-1 in which they welcome photographers at all levels who want to learn their methods. They are generous in sharing information and take pride in seeing other photographers improve after they mentor them.

For now, though, they continue to do what they do best. Ray says, “It was a hobby that turned into an obsession. I love being able to create something meaningful from life.” And Erwin adds, “Almost all weddings touch me; they celebrate love and everything is special in its own way. Sometimes, we may think we are only shooting a wedding, but we are really recording peoples’ lives. That is a powerful thing.”

Apertura’s Web site is at: www.apertura photo.com. Email them at ray@aperturaphoto.com or erwin@aperturaphoto.com

Arthur H. Bleich (arthur@dpcorner.com) is a photographer, writer and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the United States and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at www.dpcorner.com and his workshop cruise site at www.dpcorner.com/cruise.

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