Photos by James Kittendorf
The man behind Chicago studio JK Photoworks, James Kittendorf is a Lincoln Park-based wedding and portrait photographer whose breathtaking pictures capture everything from the formal ceremony to the reception and all of the candid, personality-drenched moments that happen in between. Modern Weddings sat down with the photographer to talk about his beginnings in the field, avoiding ‘fake’ smiles, and how to take a picture that will be treasured for years.
How did you get your start as a photographer, and what keeps inspiring you to keep shooting?
I started taking pictures when I was about 14 years old. My mom got me a Kodak Cameo 35mm film camera for an eighth grade class trip to Washington D.C. I shot for the yearbook in high school. In college I studied abroad in London and took a point-and-shoot digital camera with me to document the trip. After I finished school I shot mostly for fun then started shooting weddings for friends to fund the hobby. Now that I’ve shot my fair share of weddings I keep shooting because I enjoy the different challenges every new wedding brings and the couples’ reactions when they see great memories of their day captured.
Some couples have a shared idea of what they are imagining for their wedding photography; others have a combination of contrasting styles. How do you work with your clients to shape a plan of action for their special day?
I like to meet with my couples at least once in person before the wedding to get a feel for what they are looking for in their wedding photography. On the day of the wedding I try to chat with the bride about any additional shots she definitely wants me to get. From there, I spend the big day shooting everything we discussed plus any candid moments I see. Occasionally I’ll use a shot list, but most of the time the client trusts me to capture their day on my own.
One of your strengths as a photographer is shaping skylines and venues into stunning backdrops that enrich, but don’t overwhelm, your subjects. How do those architectural details inform your work?
A city skyline or interesting mural on a wall can make a great background for a photograph, as long as they don’t take away from the subject. I often use a shallow depth of field or change my camera angle to use the background to my advantage.
In addition to shooting weddings, you also are a portraitist and have a lot of experience with street photography, as documented on your blog. How do your skills with street photography, which is, by nature, often candid and happenstance, translate into your wedding photographs, where there is usually setup and a certain amount of planning?
While it’s true that quite a bit of planning goes into shooting a wedding, often some of the best photographs from the day come from catching a candid moment between the bride and groom. I’m always moving around at a wedding. If I kept track I would probably say I walk several miles each wedding just moving around keeping my eyes peeled for that moment.
You have said that “there is never a ‘fake’ smile when you’re shooting a wedding,” and indeed, your clients consistently look relaxed and comfortable, never posed. How do you encourage people to open up and stay natural?
One of the best ways to get a “fake” smile is to ask someone to smile for a photograph. So, I try to use humor to get a more genuine reaction. I take my shot right when they begin to laugh, that way you capture a real, natural emotion.
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your experience as a wedding photographer?
It’s always surprising to me that I can take a hundred technically great pictures of a couple, where I’ve nailed the composition and the lighting is just right and their favorite shot can still be one that I just happened to grab of a moment where the light was off or the composition wasn’t exactly right, but it was their moment.
What do you enjoy most about being a wedding photographer and working with such a wide array of people that are all linked by that common life event?
My favorite thing about being a wedding photographer is knowing that long after the celebration is over and everyone has gone home from the party the pictures I’ve given to the couple, their family and friends are the one thing that will allow them to relive memories of their special day for years to come.