Match made in heaven
Gurvir Johal never thought of becoming a wedding photographer. Now he’s one of the best in the world
Gurvir Johal had no plan or desire to be a wedding photographer. As a young graphic designer he was provided with a camera – a Nikon D60 – to take pictures for the studio he worked at. When his sister’s friend asked him to take pictures at her wedding he turned her down. “I said ‘Look, hire a professional for your wedding photographs and I’ll just be a guest with a camera’. So I went to the wedding and from that moment I fell in love with photography.”
Over the last decade Gurvir’s distinctive, painterly style and eye for composition has seen him win multiple international awards for his work and become one of the most in-demand photographers of Asian weddings in the UK and beyond.
Asian weddings are not small affairs. Whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, guest lists are almost always in the many hundreds, rituals and ceremonies can take place over a period of months and the big day itself can be up to 18 hours long.
“The majority of them start a good four or five days before the actual wedding,” says Gurvir, “with rituals and ceremonies leading up to the main day. Some clients want me to cover them all, some just want the wedding day and the reception. Some want me to cover the engagement party, which takes place six months before the wedding. That’s a great way for me to get to know everybody. It also makes the process a little easier on the day when you have 500 guests and need to know who to make sure you shoot more than others!”
“I have clients who have booked me two or three years in advance and we’re communicating all the way through this process, exchanging ideas on what they want and how to achieve it – every client is different,” he continues. “Some want more traditional portraits and some want very different things – one couple wanted to be King and Queen on a chessboard, whereas there are some who don’t want to be a centre of attention, even though it’s their wedding – so there’s a lot of planning and discussion that goes into that side of things.”
Of course, weddings are also about capturing emotions and that caught moment, and with weddings so large this obviously presents something of a challenge. “The reality of weddings is that about 90 per cent of the day is actually moments. It’s me photographing, taking a step back, not controlling and just observing everything,” Gurvir says. “I always have someone working with me on the day to ensure that we don’t miss anything. That’s the thing with weddings, often everything is happening at the same time. The groom and the bride are both getting ready, going through rituals, in different places, so we split up in the morning and then come together for the main ceremony and stay together for the rest of the day. On the rare occasion when there are 1000 people I’ll have a third with me just so that we don’t miss anything. Myself and my second will be on the dance floor doing the bulk of the coverage and the third will be mingling around the venue, ensuring the coverage is as wide as possible.”
For long-time Nikon user Gurvir, the Z 6II is the latest addition to his bag, bringing advantages that are both physical and artistic. “With traditional English weddings they last maybe eight hours, possibly ten. Asian weddings are 16 hours plus – sometimes 18 – which is a long time with heavy equipment. In the past I’ve been driving home from long weddings barely able to hold the steering wheel. So the first time I got my hands on the Z 6II I was like, ‘Where’s the rest of it!?’ so obviously the reduced weight makes a huge difference. But the main thing I noticed was that I was shooting a lot more with mirrorless, because I wasn’t concentrating on focusing. Because it grabs the focus so well, I can spend more time being concerned about the composition and framing. Usually I would shoot 2500 to 3000 images at a wedding and I think this year, when weddings return, I’ll probably be shooting 5000 or 6000 simply because of the reliability factor. It’s going to be so much fun,” he says with a smile.
With that many images, editing down can be an issue, but there’s one thing Gurvir is pretty adamant about and that is how the final selection is presented: “I really believe in the wedding album and I edit and design it from beginning to end for the client. We’re the most photographed generation and yet the least printed and I think we lose something from that. I’ve had a few people in my family pass away over the last year due to the pandemic and now I’m going through old photo albums, seeing them, taking out individual pictures and holding them – that’s something I don’t think you can get from a purely digital experience.”
Gurvir’s next move is toward video, but on the other side of the camera, passing on his skills. “I’ve been doing workshops for a few years now and I get just as much buzz out of teaching people as I do out of shooting weddings,” he says. “I’ve been opening it up on my website with tutorials and now I’m planning to make some videos about my process, which I’m really looking forward to. I think it’s important that if you have achieved a certain amount of success in your field it’s not a case of closing the door so no one can come in behind you. It’s about keeping that door open and pulling as many people as you can through it.”
I’ve been using Nikon since I started in photography. As well as the cameras being fast and reliable, I prefer the colours, how they render the files. When I look at the back of the camera during a shoot I know what I’m getting out of it. That suits my style because I do very little post-production work. People assume I do a lot but the reality is about 90 % of my images are as they are taken.
I carry two Z 6II bodies and a wide variety of Z lenses so I have everything covered. These are 14-30mm f4, 24-70mm f4, 70-200m f2.8 VR, 35mm f1.8, 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8.
A Z 7II and the NIKKOR 58mm f0.95 Noct. Honestly, if Nikon was a woman I’d probably have a crush on her.
NIKKOR Z 14-30mm
NIKKOR 58mm f0.95 Noct
Final preparation at home for the big day
D750, NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 VR @80mm, ISO 1600, 1/640 sec @ f/3.5
The bride prepares to make her big entrance
D750, NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 VR @70mm, ISO 2500, 1/125 sec @ f/3.5
“This is a Sikh bride with her sisters during the ‘Doli’, a ceremonial goodbye to family and she embarks on a new chapter”
D750, NIKKOR AF-S 24-70mm f2.8E ED VR @ 24mm, ISO 2000, 1/160 sec @ f/3.5
Couple at the Amalfi Cathedral, Italy
D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR @45mm, ISO 200, 1/400 sec @ f/5.6
Finding a frame
D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR @ 29mm, ISO 250, 1/160 sec @ f/8.0