New Workshop: Photographing Group Portraits!

susan-stripling News & Insight

Susan Stripling WPPI 2011 – Taking Your Work to the Next Level

By Christopher Lin on March 7th 2011

Recap and Review by, Lindsay Chavez, a wedding and portrait photographer based out of Southern California. View her site and blog at Be her friend on facebook

I am now embarrassed to admit that truth be told, I didn’t know who Susan Stripling was before walking into Room 311 at the MGM conference facility. I was drawn to the description of her platform class. Next to her portrait in the WPPI Program Guide was the question,

“What do you do when you want to improve your work, but feel stuck in a rut? 

“Hmm, that’s me,  I thought. Yet, how could I be “stuck  and bored with my images if I’d only been in business a couple short years! Ack! This class was definitely for me.

It said, “Susan will truly help you bring your work to the next level.  Perfect!

With excitement and anxiety in my stomach, I listened as Susan recounted waking up after about five years in business and realizing, “I’m not really all that good at this!  Excited because, I thought that if someone at such a high caliber could feel this way, it somehow justified my own photographic insecurities. Anxious because I thought, if she felt this way at five years . . . I’m doomed!

What Susan shared in a mere 2 hours of fast-paced speech, were the actions it took her to go from then [blah] to now [woohoo]. What she realized were specific problem areas that she needed to address within herself:

  1. Incorrect lens selection
  2. Fear of talking out loud – she was afraid of talking to a bride and asking her to move or do specific things.
  3. Pretty bad at lighting
  4. Simplistic composition – too basic
  5. Action & reaction on a wedding day
  6. Just plain fear in general – she didn’t trust her vision and skills

Yes, many photographers get by on their charming personalities. Yet, for Susan, her personality was not up for sale. Her pictures needed to be good, damn good, good enough to sell themselves.

First she addressed “Lens Selection.  Coming from Southern California where everyone sees the world of weddings and portraits at 50mm 1.2, it was a shock to hear Susan say that she has a hate/hate relationship with the 50mm lens.

“What?!?! Susan! Why?!?! 

Susan admitted that she didn’t understand why she was using certain lenses. [Umm, let’s see, I use certain lenses because majority of the photographers I admire swear by theirs. Is that a bad reason?] But Susan justified her abhorrence of the 50 by talking about how our lens selection should stem from an understanding of flattering focal lengths, thereby asking us to consider lens compression. Showing us by using examples of the errors of her own ways, such as Susan circa 2002 using a 24mm on a portrait of a bride, or using the 50mm on a bridal portrait of the couple.

“You are doing the client a disservice by using the wrong lens,  explained Susan.

Susan circa now, showed us how flattering using a longer lens can be, the 85mm, being her Ëœgo-to’ bridal portrait lens, followed by the 70-200. With examples from her current repertoire, she demonstrated how long lenses show off more flattering angles, make the background appear much closer, and don’t distort bodies and faces. She challenged us to use a long lens for a first dance, for goodness sake! And you know what?! Those images were breathtaking!

Now don’t get her wrong, the wide-angle lens is an asset to your arsenal! Strong in storytelling and showing the vastness of a setting or landscape, Susan showed that there is a time and a place for these lenses. Her advice? Use different lenses for a REASON! Know what picture you’re trying to shoot and choose a lens based on the look and feel that you are going for!

Her lens selection discussion continued to her determining what aperture to use and when.

“Just because you have a 1.2 doesn’t mean that you have to shoot at 1.2,  said Susan.

Gasp! Blasphemous? No. Refreshing! Thank goodness someone spoke those words aloud. Not because I’ve been thinking it, but because I’ve never heard that it was ok to do so.

Susan clarified that the wide-open aperture has a time and a place as well. She enjoys using the 85mm or the 70-200 at 200mm for bridal portraits, and she often shoots brides and grooms at f/4 or f/4.5.

Her next big realization was that she was pretty darn bad at lighting. Susan admitted that she went for the Ëœsafe’ light: open shade. Her first step in correcting this problem was to look toward experts in light: Zack Arias, Marcus Bell, Cliff Mautner, the Chrismans; some natural light and some using artificial light. What she realized that the key was to understand the rules of light first then breaking them to improve her photography.

She broke it down in such simple terms, it made me wonder why in the world had I been battling with light for so long. She discussed various lighting conditions, natural light indoors, natural light outdoors, using artificial light indoors, using it outdoors. Her own work was peppered throughout the lecture to show us the good, the bad, and the amazing.

Susan’s advice is to find a nice stream of directional light, one. Two, take your client, put them between you and the light source (sun). Three, put yourself in the shade so as not to fill your lens with light. This makes for an interesting and darker background.

Some quick tips:

  1. Turn off florescent lights in a room and let window light shine through.
  2. Look for reflective surfaces.
  3. Close shears in hotel windows.
  4. Don’t be afraid to overwhelm your subject with light.
  5. If raining, use window light.
  6. And if light doesn’t exist . . . make it!

Susan likes to use off camera flash on a monopod, or video light. She suggests using it at an interesting angle to create shadows. And my favorite tip of all, “Don’t be afraid to darken it down! 

At this point, we only had about ten minutes left of the class. Wait a sec! What about composition? In lightening fast speed, also because she promised to show us her “I nailed the shot  happy dance at the end of the talk, she covered what we as photographers need to think about when setting up a shot. Background awareness, telling stories clearly, and layering textures. She also advised us to anticipate actions and reactions by waiting for things to happen and not going “machine gun crazy  on our shutter.

Susan’s talk was so much to take in for new and veteran photographers alike. I appreciated her saying that it’s ok to emulate images until we can make them our own. I know for sure that I left that talk ready to become a better photographer. Her Ëœno-nonsense’ approach was refreshing and very much valued.

Susan, I am so glad I attended your class. I am doing the happy dance for myself because I learned so much!

Favorite Susan Stripling Images

Here are a few of SLR Lounge’s favorite images of Susan Stripling. More of her work can be found on her photograph blog here.




Co-Founder of SLR Lounge and Photographer with Lin and Jirsa Photography, I’m based in Southern California but you can find me traveling the world. Click here to connect on Google +


Please or register to post a comment.

  1. seb

    This is a great recap, I was bummed I couldnt make her class but this is the next best thing!

    | |
  2. Feuza

    I heard her talk was the best! she is awesome, this is such a GREAT RECAP, thank you so much

    | |