A scene from PJ’s 2020 calendar.

PJ McCormack: photographing perfection

By Rico Biriah

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is a famous phrase that many of us will have heard at some point in our lives. It means it’s easier to show something in a picture, than to try and describe it in words. So, imagine trying to describe in words, how a particular tree in the middle of a South American rainforest looks like at sunrise? Or describe the view that you see from the top of a mountain that overlooks a river at sunset? Not easy is it.

Yes, you could draw or paint a picture if you are talented enough and until photography was invented, that’s exactly what people did.

PJ McCormack, who was born and bred in Athlone, has been interested in photography for almost 40 years. He is a well-known local wedding and portrait photographer who recently printed a 2021 calendar with some breath-taking landscape pictures. With both his father and brother in the Irish Army, it was inevitable that PJ would join too. He enlisted at 17 and progressed on to become an Instructor at the Command Training Depot in Athlone. He jokingly says that he had the same role as the drill instructor from the movie: ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ because he too was toughening up new recruits.

Business & First Wedding

When PJ was asked to shoot the photographs for a wedding, he saw an opportunity to embark upon a new career. “I set up my own business to do wedding photography on a full-time basis. It was strange when I think back at what I was taking on at the time with doing a wedding. The equipment that I had at that time was: one camera, one flash and two lenses. If anything happened to the flash, I had no backup and, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably in a little over my head! Now with a digital camera everything is instant and you can see what the picture is going be like before you press the button. I nailed the first wedding and they're still happily married!”

Wedding Photography – Then & Now

PJ explained to me he changed almost straightaway to digital when the technology became available and that allowed his business to evolve.

“20 years ago, when I started to shoot wedding photographs, it was using film and we were producing albums that had about 24 images in each of them. It was simple stuff. There was no bridal preparation and you started when the bride herself arrived at the church. You had a list of up to 40 photos that you took. When the wedding guests sat for their meal, I was finished. That has completely changed. Now there is bridal preparation; pre make-up and pre-hair; and you're taking photographs right up to the very first dance. Also, we now take between 1200 and 1500 digital images on the day compared to what we shot on film.”

The Instagram Effect

PJ tells me that he finds it hard to understand how younger couples are preferring to research and organise their wedding day photography simply by browsing Instagram or Facebook with very little human interaction at all.

“I get a lot of my business from wedding fairs but the millennials don't like that. They don’t want to talk to people, so now hotels have stopped doing wedding fairs. I prefer to actually meet and talk to a couple. I like to think that it's my personality that gets me the booking. By meeting with me they can see that I’m interested in photography and not just in taking their money.”

Covid-19

“When the first lockdown came on a Thursday, I had a wedding that Friday and that bride was given 18 hours’ notice to reduce her wedding numbers down to 90 at the church. We had a whole calendar full; it was our livelihood. In the photography wedding business, you're living a year maybe two or three years ahead. We went from having a full diary to having cancellation after cancellation. I’m now facing two years of little or no income.”

The wedding photography business relies on the ability of Irish people to be with other people. Irish funerals and weddings are big social gatherings. The average Irish wedding has upwards of 200 people. Currently people are being asked to go from having over 200 guests to 25 which is extremely difficult.

Landscape Photography Calendar

PJ explained why he chose landscape photographs for his 2021 calendar.

“Landscape photography was always my escape. For me, being out in nature gives me headspace. When you're breathing fresh air, you're also getting exercise because most of the landscapes are not at the side of the road. and they're not at the back door of the car. So, I love the idea that I've got to track somewhere. I could see a photograph of a tree in Scotland, go away and research it to find where the tree is. Then I would drive to the airport, go on a plane, hire a car and then go to locate the tree and take a photograph of it. I finally put my own twist on the picture I take. Landscape photography requires a completely different mindset to wedding photography.”

Teaching Photography

PJ teaches photography in Athlone at the training centre and also runs workshops which once again have been impacted by the pandemic.

“Photography is very popular in Ireland. People want to be taken to places to see how I take pictures. Photography is practical it's not just classroom based. One of the things I tell people is that you have to start from the very beginning. Picking the correct camera and lens is very important. I educate people by taking them to locations and showing them how to manipulate the settings on the camera to capture the image. If I do a course with people, I want people to walk out at the end of the course with pictures which they took and processed. We then print it; mount it and frame it.”

PJ believes that the problem with digital photography is that everybody wants to just show it to you on the phone. He believes that photographs should be printed and fears that photographs are dying out.

Next six months

“Re-educate myself is all I can do in the next six months. I changed my camera system. I went from traditional digital camera to a mirrorless system. And this downtime has given me the time to practice and move with the newer technology. It's fabulous the way that it's working in comparison to the older technology that I was using. Also, I’m constantly on YouTube re-educating myself. Photography is all about light, it's all about painting with light. The best light happens in the golden hour, the period of daytime shortly after sunrise or before sunset… most weddings are between 3-4pm!”

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