Catherine Hall gives the same attention to detail to all her clients. Whether it’s a small, private wedding, or shooting editorial work for a Fortune 500 client, Hall watches the little things. Voted one of The Knot’s Best Wedding Photographers of 2010, she credits her attention to detail as helping her get shots people most comment on.
At 16, Bay Area-native Hall took a high school photography course. During one class exhibit, she overheard her teacher say to another parent, “Oh, yeah. She’s really good, but she would never make it as a professional.” Taking this defining moment as a challenge, Hall pursued what she loved, and hasn’t looked back.
Entering Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo as a Photography major, Hall discovered the “I’ll show you” attitude she had in response to her high school teacher was right on the money. “I literally fell in love with it more and more every single day. Every day that passed confirmed this was my passion. This is what I was meant to do,” she says.
Since graduating, Hall continues educating herself. “One of the beauties of this art form is you can always grow,” she says. “I was very much a natural light photographer.” Her formal education in college didn’t stress flash work at all. Hall resigned herself to only ever working with available light.
“As an art photographer, we can get away with just being a natural light photographer,” Hall continues. “If you’re an advertising photographer, you obviously have to know your gear.” When she began dating a film industry lighting designer, Hall thought about the possibilities of augmenting natural light.
“I was relying on natural light because I was actually scared of strobe,” she says. “I wrote about my lighting journey on my blog. It’s basically about the fact I was scared of strobe and used natural light as a crutch more than anything.”
Quick to point out she feels strobe isn’t better than natural light, nor vice versa, Hall believes every individual environment, situation, and shoot is unique. “To be the best photographer you can possibly be, you need to have all the tools at your disposal,” she says. Using artificial lights in ways she hasn’t before continues to revolutionize her approach, ability, and things she can do.
After college, Hall moved to Tahoe for three years. In a nearly-spontaneous decision, she decided to relocate to New York and work for Steve McCurry, the photographer she most admired. While in New York, she was exposed to many photographers who did amazing work and were regularly published in national magazines. Hall began to see how these photographers lived in their daily lives and tried to focus in on the style she’d like to shoot, along with the life she’d like to live. When she photographed her first wedding, she knew she had her answer. “It’s seasonal, so I can focus on weddings a certain part of the year, and then the rest of the year I can continue working on personal projects and doing editorial projects,” she explains. “It allowed me the luxury of not being concerned on making my net on those projects, because I had weddings to depend on.”
Now Hall also has advertising and other corporate work to help her bottom line. “I love photographing weddings but I’m not a wedding photographer,” she explains. “What I mean by that is, yes, I’m a wedding photographer, but I’m also an editorial photographer, and I’m also a lifestyle photographer. While my career launched in that wedding arena, I’m trying to break myself out of that mold, if you will, because I’m capable of so much more.”
With a wide range of subject matter and capabilities, a label won’t easily be attached to Hall’s work. “I’m not a traditional portrait photographer,” she states. “I wouldn’t say a studio photographer. I’m more of an environmental photographer, lifestyle photographer. I’m not a photojournalist. I’m more about figuring out who people are and capturing that. I like studying people. My way of doing that is through my camera. If that portrait means I’m studying a person and their environment is a big part of who they are, then I’m most likely going to incorporate their environment.”
What Hall does do is find a sweet spot between formal poses, such as at a wedding or formal event, and the chaotic energy of what is often called documentary-style wedding photography. She credits this middle ground with how she approaches weddings and portraits the same way. “I could be at a high?end wedding and I could be in the streets of Peru, and I would probably portray a subject in the same way,” she says. “I like to isolate, meaning that’s where I think the chaos comes away. I’m not going to be a photojournalist and just shoot it how I see it. I am going to stage the shot. I am going to move people and look for lighting and backgrounds. I am going to try to create an optimum environment for the subjects. I’m not going to do a formal pose. The goal is to get the subject and put the subject in the environment.” By combining these details into a cohesive whole, Hall has achieved a remarkable consistency to her work across multiple genres.
Hall has been a Canon shooter since she started. Her main body is 5D Mark II. Her light meter is a Sekonic L-758DR. Her lights are powered by Profoto D1 Air 1000 units. “I was going to get the 500s and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been grateful for the extra pump of the 1000,” she says. Most of her gear is stored and transported in Tenba cases.
Not content with engaging in multiple types of photography, Hall also co-hosts a weekly podcast with Leo Laporte on TWiT TV. The format of the show involves a new photographer every week who is interviewed by Hall and Laporte. She also speaks to young photographers at the Hallmark Institute.
“More than anything, the most important thing to me is shooting really inspired me again about the art of photography,” she explains. “You can throw me anywhere and as long as I have my reflectors and my Profoto gear, I can make any environment work. You can do such creative things. It just opened up this whole other side of me that was closed off because of fear, really.”
After overcoming her fear, Hall found shooting with augmented light easy. “The thing that’s amazing is the technology,” she explains. “That’s why I like using the error system. It’s so fricking easy. Honestly, there’s not even that much of a learning curve. You just start playing and you figure it out. It was like I was scared of nothing.”
This is a subject Hall returns to passionately for her students of photography, whether at WPPI or the Hallmark Institute or on her blog. “I think some students are not willing to take chances and are almost paralyzed by it,” she says. “It’s all the regular pressures of what do you want to do with your life, how are you going to make a living, how are you going to do all those things? Everyone wants to be a photographer and this is where the sabotage thing comes in. I think a lot of times people subconsciously don’t believe they can make it at something they actually love doing.”
Preconceptions we ourselves and others have built for us are the largest offender. “People think there just has to be some suffering somewhere. It can’t just be easy,” Hall says. “You get it in your head you’re supposed to be struggling. You know what? You can create your own reality. If you think you have to be struggling to be an artist, then you will be a struggling artist. I think people don’t realize you can pursue your passion, pursue what you love, create a good life for yourself and actually just be happy with it all.”
Expect to see Catherine Hall growing even further. Now that she’s fearless of trying new types of shooting and new gear, there seems no stopping her. Along with her attention to detail and her portraiture methodology, there’s no telling how drastically far off that old high school teacher was so many years ago.
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