By the time Maria Bernal started college at age fifteen, she had been born in Vietnam, raised in the south of France, and brought to Indianapolis the year before. Enrolled in Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) as a fine arts major, she eventually earned a B.S.E. in Mechanical Engineering and did graduate work in Industrial Engineering at Arizona State University. Somewhere in between all that activity, she began shooting a Nikkormat 35mm camera when she was seven, and developed her own film in a darkroom at the age of eight.
Bernal credits her father with fostering her love of photography. He purchased her original camera gear and built the darkroom the following year. A man who got much out of life, he did everything from speaking thirteen languages to taking his daughter sky diving when he was 66 years old. She also credits her mother with encouraging her to learn about the subject’s side of photography. A model and actress in Vietnam, her mother showed Bernal how to behave in front of cameras.
Currently running a boutique photography studio in Cedar Park, just north of Austin, Texas, Bernal is exclusive when agreeing to shoot a wedding. “I’m definitely not a high-volume studio,” she says. “I do love to do some magazine work. I’ve been expanding into bridal fashion a lot, which I’ve really enjoyed.” Magazines and designers are her biggest clients for this type of work.
Having shot product photography to landscapes, Bernal has one area she will shoot “until she dies,” she says. Calling herself primarily a portrait photographer, she feels this is where all of her passion lies. “I don’t want to just capture something that’s happening,” she says. “I want to talk to that person. I want to feel that person. I am absolutely 100 percent a portrait artist. I don’t think I would be happy as a photographer if I couldn’t do portraits. If I couldn’t do portraits, I would just not be able to do photography. I would just, I’d be miserable. Miserable.” Proving her love of this subject matter, she has taken Best Portrait at Southwest PPA two years in a row.
A Nikon user, Bernal shoots the D800. “It works great,” she says. “I know the new D4 came out. I’m looking to buy a new camera; but to tell you the truth, I’m a girl, and I’m half-Asian. I don’t have humongous hands. The reason I love my D800 so much is, number one, it gives me what I need. Number two, I can’t reach the button on a D3.” She does in fact shoot a Nikon D3, but prefers the D800.
Her favorite lenses are the Nikon 70-200mm and the 24-70mm. She prefers an 85mm at night, enjoys a 135mm prime, and uses a 14-24mm often at weddings. Citing Nikon’s photolithography, Bernal states, “Nikon makes some of the best glass in the world.”
“I’m currently using my Profoto ComPact 600R, but I’m going to move to the D1 soon. My ComPact 600R’s have been with me for many years, and frankly, they’re still awesome! I love my Profoto lights. I just think they’re the coolest thing on the planet. I think that they give me the exact warmth that I want. They give me the exact color temperature. Then the quality of the light coming out is gorgeous. I just love them.” Bernal is a fan of combining strobe lighting with continuous lighting. “I do that especially when I want to do the 1940s look,” she says.
PocketWizard radio triggers are used to trigger her Profoto gear. “A brand near and dear to my heart,” Bernal says, laughing. “I love my PocketWizards. I’m never going to get rid of those. I have the older ones, the Plus II models.”
“I use my Sekonic, the L-358,” she says, regarding her light meter. “You know what? It’s important to use a meter because you’re not going to get the same reading. If you’re going to send out a beam [from an in-camera meter] to someone, you’re only touching the light that’s being reflected back at you versus the light that’s actually hitting you. Why not just do it right the first time?”
Passionate about her lighting, Bernal wishes other photographers were as concerned so they could properly set up and calibrate their lighting gear. “A lot of people I meet put their cameras on ‘Program,'” she says. “They let the cameras tell them what the light is. They think it’s no big deal because they’ll fix it in Photoshop. As a working professional, I don’t want to have to spend my days fixing exposures, so why not just walk over there with your light meter, get the exact light which is hitting the person, and then take it correctly the first time? If you want to make any money you don’t want to sit at your computer every single day. If you’re going to do artwork — Photoshop is great for artwork, and it’s great for stuff like that, but I don’t want to have to sit and use Photoshop to fix my problem. That makes no sense to me. I just want to avoid the problems to begin with. That’s why I love my meter; and when I teach lighting classes, the first thing I say is, ‘Buy a meter.'”
Having shot film since she was seven, Bernal has an interesting take now that she shoots digitally. “I still use my digital camera like a film camera,” she says. “I don’t use all the fancy buttons. I change my shutter. I change my aperture. I work with my eyes. I use it all the exact same way as a film camera. The only difference is I don’t have to pay for film development. That’s it. I don’t use my digitals for all those fancy presets. I don’t do all that stuff. It’s on manual anyway. A camera’s a camera. I’m just not recording it on film anymore, but I’m doing the exact thing as I would have done with film. Get the exposure right with the light meter, and then take the shot.”
Aside from all the technical mastery and the tools she uses, there is something deeper in the art of portrait creation for this photographer. “My philosophy is pretty simple,” she says. “I believe as photographers, we are so blessed to be able to capture somebody as they are at that moment for them to remember for the rest of their lives. All I want to do is create an heirloom portrait for my clients that they will be proud to have today and 50 years from today. It’s a really big honor for someone to select you to be the one to photograph their family. We’re pictorial historians.”
Satisfying clients from San Francisco to Paris, Bernal travels from Texas to wherever she’s needed. She lectures at photography conventions around the world and is a well-known photographic educator. She is one of 20 Profoto Portrait Masters. The next five weeks will find her shooting in the Cayman Islands, Paris, Italy, Minnesota, Dallas, and in Florida at the PPA Convention. Catch her if you can at a lecture soon. Bernal makes art and then is off to her next assignment. She’s fast and knows how to get the look she wants. She has, after all, been doing it since she was seven.
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