Kevin Kuster takes a photo of a newlywed couple on Ilin Island in the Philippines. Image provided by Kevin Kuster.

Veteran photographer Kevin Kuster has accomplished what may be a mobile photography first by photographing 40 weddings in a single day with a smartphone. He also captured each bride and groom in a portrait using his DSLR. 

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A professional photographer for more than 20 years, Kuster recently reinvigorated his passion for the medium when he began shooting with his iPhone 4S. So it felt serendipitous when the charity Watts of Love approached him with a unique documentary photography project that seemed to perfectly "marry" Kuster's photographic abilities and his newfound mobile photography skills. 

In mid-February Kuster accompanied Watts of Love volunteers as they carried out their mission to bring safe and sustainable solar-powered lighting to Ilin Island in the Philippines. In addition to documenting the charity's efforts, Kuster arrived to the island along with visiting Catholic priests. The first clergy visit to the island in years meant that there were dozens of couples awaiting a proper marriage ceremony. Kuster saw an opportunity well-suited to a more mobile camera, as we shared in our preview story earlier this month

Kuster described his boat ride to Ilin island: "Everything up to that moment was familiar, but when I saw the first boat, I was like: 'OK. Now this is an adventure.'" All photos by Kevin Kuster.

Two cameras are better than one

Kuster’s mission with was to tell the story of the people of Ilin Island the best way he could—regardless of his photographic equipment.

Our last article about Kuster generated quite a few comments and spurred much debate over Kuster's hardware choices. In addition to his iPhone, the longtime photographer also brought along his DSLR, a Canon EOS 7D. 

“It was never my intention to not bring my DSLR,” he said. “My intention was to push my limitations of mobile photography. If I couldn’t shoot the whole thing with my phone, I was going to switch.

“But, for 90% of it, the best way was to use the iPhone.”

With more than 8,000 followers on Instagram, Kuster wanted to post photos to the social network every day so he could share his journey with as many people as he could. While it is certainly possible to post images remotely from a DSLR to Instagram, Kuster wanted to keep things more mobile.

However, Kuster did end up using his DSLR to capture the wedding portraits of each of the 40 couples who were wed. Originally, Kuster had hoped to use the Canon Pixma's Air Print capabilities to send photos directly from his iPhone to the printer. Once on the island, he discovered that printer model that had been donated could not accept images from his iPhone. This, combined with the quickness of using multiple SD cards that were sent to the printer, made his DSLR the best choice for the portraits.

A great adventure

Kuster’s 36-hour journey started with a cab ride from his Chicago home and then a series of planes, automobiles and a boat brought him to Ilin Island, 47 square kilometres of land in the Philippines.

“Saying I didn’t know what to expect would be an understatement,” said Kuster, who after working all day taking photographs, would then stay up late chasing a cell phone signal in order to upload photos to his Instagram feed (@kevinkuster). 

The spotty cellular service made posting photos a huge effort, but it forced Kuster to self-edit and choose only his favorite shots to upload. For Kuster -- a photographer who loves to shoot, edit and post photos on the spot -- the effort of fighting for a signal alone in the dark with nothing to look at but his images was very emotional.

Kuster snapped this photo on his iPhone during an hour and a half long hike one night from where the charity was working to where volunteers where staying.

Let there be light

By giving the islanders a clean, free lighting source, Watts of Love hopes to reduce their dependence on expensive and dangerous kerosene lamps.

“I have never in my life experienced darkness like I did there,” described Kuster.

Low-light situations are a huge problem for mobile photography—the iPhone’s smaller sensor can’t accomplish the same the clean, high ISO images of large-sensor DSLRs in low-light situations. Overall, Kuster said he had few problems shooting with his smartphone at night and in one case, his iPhone saved him in the dark.

After dropping off a solar light at a home far away from where they were staying that night, the Watts of Love team ended up walking back as the sun went down. With only a couple of flashlights available, Kuster used his iPhone’s LED flash to light his way for an hour and a half.

“It got so hot, I was afraid I was going to destroy my phone,” he said.

Kuster took environmental portraits of a few couples before the wedding.
The wedding was during a Catholic mass; all 40 couples were married in one ceremony.
Kuster was granted as much access as he needed during the ceremony.
Kuster gave the brides and grooms a printed and framed photo of themselves after the wedding.

Going to the chapel

The first visit by Catholic clergy to Ilin Island in years meant that there were dozens of couples awaiting a proper marriage.

For many islanders, marriage is too expensive: most do not have the money to travel to a priest, pay the license fee, buy the traditional marriage clothing or provide the culturally expected feast. When Kuster left for Ilin, he was expecting 50 couples to be married but due to travel and paperwork issues, only 40 couples ended up getting hitched.

Watts of Love partners, the Missionaries of Mother Mary of the Poor, bought each bride a dress and veil, and each groom a shirt, slacks, shoes, belts and socks. They also gave each couple their wedding rings.

During the ceremony, Kuster was granted access to shoot wherever he wanted. Because he was able to get as close as he needed, his iPhone’s zoom limitations were irrelevant. With help from Watts of Love and Missionaries of Mother Mary of the Poor, Kuster took and printed portraits of the newlyweds while they waited.

Kuster believes that using a smartphone instead of a DSLR helps puts his subjects at ease.

The benefits of mobile photography

Kuster had many expectations of how shooting with mobile would define his experience with Watts of Love, but he encountered some surprises.

“One thing I didn’t anticipate going around to these really poor people was that I was self conscious with my DSLR because everyone knew it was of value,” said Kuster.

Things were different when he was using his iPhone: “It made me feel more comfortable because I wasn’t holding this big, expensive piece of equipment in front of people who have nothing.”

Another perk of using an iPhone is that it challenged Kuster photographically, forcing him to walk in and get close to his subjects instead of just using a telephoto.

Kuster’s previous experience with mobile photography in the U.S. was that subjects were more relaxed and less posed in front of a smartphone instead of a DSLR. The same was true on the other side of the globe.

“People let their guard down,” Kuster said. “They were all used to seeing phones. Some had one even if they couldn’t charge it in their homes.”

Because of the limitations of printing from his iPhone, Kuster ended up using a DSLR to take the wedding portraits. 

The limitations of mobile photography

Not every photographic situation on the island allowed for iPhone photography. One of the biggest components of Kuster’s photographic mission ended up having to be shot on his DSLR: the wedding portraits.

Even though Kuster took environmental portraits of the couples before the wedding as well as candid shots during the ceremony, when it came to taking formal portraits of each couple and printing them as soon as possible, it ended up making the most sense to capture the photos on his DSLR and run the SD card to the Canon Pixma Printer he brought with him, alternating cards so one was always printing and shooting simultaneously.

Kuster also ran into major issues with lens flare. He was constantly trying to find new ways to block the sun from his shot.

The biggest disadvantage to mobile photography in a place without consistent electricity was the iPhone’s limited battery life.

“I had battery in shirt pocket, and used Camera+,” Kuster said. “I would use the volume trigger to fire with my left had. And with my right hand, I focused, exposed and shielded the lens flare.”

Despite the iPhone’s limitations, Kuster is firm in his commitment to mobile photography.

“Going back, I would have no hesitation just bringing an iPhone,” he said. “I would just want a second iPhone as well. And a wrist strap. I wanted a wrist strap so bad!”

In total, 40 couples were married on Ilin Island during Kuster's visit. Each of them received a framed portrait after the ceremony.

Next time

Kuster hopes that this was just the first of many trips with Watts of Love. Next time, he probably won’t have a massive wedding to shoot, but he will be taking mobile photos no matter what.

“With mobile photography, I am never bored,” said Kuster. “I always have the opportunity to shoot, create, edit and post. The power of mobile of photography is that it always has me keep looking, creating and sharing."

If any photographers or videographers (mobile or not) want to volunteer with Watts of Love, you can contact Kuster on his website.