Wedding Photographers Deserve Our Respect.
I put a call out a few weeks ago to see if anyone would let me shoot their wedding in any way that I wished to. There’s a reason I want to shoot a wedding or two this year as an experiment. I’ll get into that in a bit but this blog post is more about several conversations this request sparked, both online and offline.
No. I’m not starting a wedding business. Just doing an experiment and having a bit of fun.
Let’s get in the WayBack machine and go ALL the way to 1999’ish. Digital was coming of age. DSLRs were now hitting the $5k and below mark on pricing and a number of photographers were jumping out of the film ship and into the binary seas. The photojournalism scene back then was dying and many daily paper jobs were being cut. Day rates for the wires were less than I was making as an assistant. Photojournalists were looking to the editorial world but rates there sucked as well. They still do. Anyway…
Let’s talk about wedding photography for a bit. In the whole of the photography industry, wedding photography has always had a tarnished reputation. Anyone shooting editorial, commercial, advertising, fashion, corporate, journalism, etc. would cringe at the thought of shooting a wedding. It felt like failure. It felt cheap. Not as in price but as in the quality of photography. Now, you can agree with that statement or disagree with it. I don’t care. That is what I’ve observed for years. I know I sure felt that way about weddings. I worked at one studio as an assistant where, if a photographer failed at something, everyone would joke they should just go shoot weddings. It was the bottom of the barrel. Most photographers I knew then, and many I know now, would flip burgers before they shot a wedding. Wedding photographers love wedding photography but the rest of the industry won’t touch it with a ten foot monopod.
Back to the journalism industry. Many were looking to flip burgers at the end of the 90s and into the early zeros. A few friends and mentors of mine in that industry had an idea. What if you shot a wedding as though you were on assignment? What if you approached wedding photography not as wedding photography but as story telling? What if all these amazingly talented photojournalists looking for work were assigned to shoot a wedding? Photographers who worked for the wires for $150 a day would probably jump at the chance to shoot for $1,500 a day or more.
Michael Schwarz and Alan Weiner started a company in 2000 called The Wedding Bureau (RIP). Through their network of photojournalists they had a roster of shooters that “those in the know” would kill for. You could get freaking Pete Sousa to shoot your wedding. He’s currently the official White House photographer. He’s sort of a big deal. There are some names you know in the wedding industry right now that got started at the Wedding Bureau or “saw the light” as Michael and Alan did and pursued weddings. Those two guys gave a lot of photographers encouragement to enter a genre they wouldn’t have before.
The early 2000’s saw a rise in the number of photojournalists entering the wedding industry. They brought a fresh new voice and vision into an industry that was, frankly, needing some visual help. There was this hope that weddings would finally get their day in the whole of the photography industry. I remember watching JVS’ early work and was constantly blown away with it. (still am) I couldn’t believe I was looking at “wedding photography.” This rise gave a lot of photographers the freedom to pursue shooting a wedding the way they wanted to. JVS’ early work was so raw and emotional and his lighting techniques were insane. Most of the wedding industry either had no clue about him or completely ignored him. I remember seeing posts on forums about him and how he wasn’t “doing it right.” His work then was probably some of the finest wedding photography I’ve ever seen. He’s still doing great work.
It was an exciting time but I know photographers who shoot weddings that are still apprehensive to say that in mixed company. Weddings still have a tarnish in every other genre of photography. I can’t figure out if it is the idea people have of what wedding photography is or if it is the industry as a whole that turns them off. Those portraits of brides and grooms masked over a pair of champagne glasses takes decades to delete from memory.
Photographers I know who shoot weddings and commercial and editorial photography work very hard to make sure their commercial and editorial clients do not know they shoot weddings. I made this statement on twitter a few weeks ago. Zach Gray piped up and said that they (the photographers) are insecure about their work. Not necessarily. I’ve heard a number of editors, art buyers, and art directors say that if they see a “weddings” gallery on a photographer’s site they are most likely going to move on. I’ve had PE’s ask for a referral for a photographer in another city and say to me, “Just don’t send me a wedding photographer.”
You wedding photographers are probably starting to feel your blood boil right now. Stick with me. Maybe it’s not wedding photographers – maybe it’s the “industry.”
Oh boy. I’m about to get burned at the stake. Here we go.
From inside the wedding industry everything seems pretty vibrant, open, and fun. From outside it looks like a weird cult. I swear it does. Note this is a guy who has worked a lot in the wedding industry. If it weren’t for Marc Climie putting a camera in my hands to second shoot at his weddings in 2003 I wouldn’t be a photographer today. I have weddings to thank for putting the paddles to my chest. I then continued to shoot weddings with him until last year. I’ve shot a lot of weddings. I’ve been to all the big wedding industry events and expos. I count a number of wedding photographers as close friends and colleagues. And get this… I only know one or two who are willing to admit they shoot weddings when they’re in front of an art director or photo editor. That’s the straight truth. Why is that?
Wedding photography is one of the hardest damn jobs in photography. Period. End of story.
They are emotionally and physically exhausting events to shoot. You have days of prep before and days, if not weeks, of work afterwards. You get one shot to do it right or blow it completely. You bust your ass on wedding jobs like no other job I know in photography. I figure the only harder job in photography is war photography because you have to do your job with bullets whizzing past your head. Think dealing with divorced parents of the bride is tough? Step on a landmine and compare. Yeah, war shooters get the “hardest damn photo job” award for sure. But I think wedding photographers, in terms of hard work and expectations are at the top of the list. I’ve shot or worked in just about every genre of photography*** and weddings are the hardest things I’ve ever shot.
That all sounds so admirable doesn’t it? So why in the hell do many of us cringe when we speak of shooting weddings? What is it? Is it the stereotype of what wedding photography is (which is boring, faddish, sappy, and trite) or is it the larger view of the wedding industry? That would be cultish, ignorant, and amateur. And what happened to all the damn photojournalists? I know many are still doing it but the, dare I say, “fad” of photojournalism seemed to have died as quickly as it started. Portraits and detail shots led to amazing stories filled with personal moments and then got drowned out by portraits and details again. I can count on both of my hands, both feet, and some of your hands the number of really talented shooters who left wedding photography because… wait for it… they couldn’t stand the wedding industry. Really? Really. They just didn’t want to be associated with the industry.
I think the wedding industry is a lot like a boy band. You have a group of good looking, young, vibrant individuals that sing pop songs. You have a teenager who loves the band. You try not to be the grumpy old fart that complains about “music these days.” There’s no great life metaphor, no meat to be found in their music, but you bob your head to the beat and move on with your life. Then you take your teenager to one of their concerts and you’re surrounded by their fans en masse. OMG. Death cannot happen fast enough for you. 40,000 blabbering kids screaming these pop songs at the top of their lungs acting as though the messiah just returned. That’s sort of what the wedding industry is like. It’s bright, shiny, and completely devoid of substance. Wedding shooters hate me right now. I get it. I’m pushing buttons. Stick with me.
I had a photography teacher once show us some work by Duane Michals. He went on and on about how prolific his body of work was. He held Michals up as someone to admire. I sat there and couldn’t stand any of the photos he was showing. Being a bit of a hot head (who me?) I spoke up (who me?) and stated that I didn’t like any of his photos. I probably called them crap. He looked at me and said, “You don’t like them because you don’t understand them.”
I was pissed. I was so angry. How dare he say I didn’t understand them. They were shit art photos. I had every right to not like those photographs.
It was almost fifteen years after he made that statement to me that I nearly said it to someone else about another photographer’s work. Sumofabitch. My old professor was right. I didn’t like Michals’ work because I didn’t understand it. Some of you reading this post are going to think I’m a real jerk for saying the wedding industry looks like a cult. I’m going to say you don’t understand what it looks like from outside. You’re going to hate me for 15 more years. That’s cool. Ponder on it while looking at an image from Duane Michals.
I think wedding photographers need to individually step back and look at themselves and their industry and see how they can separate themselves from the masses and mature the industry overall. I think all the other genres of photography need to give wedding photographers the respect they deserve. A damn good wedding photographer is the peer of a damn good advertising photographer. End of story. Hear me? Good wedding photographers deserve respect and the rest of the industry should say that.
Wedding photographers would do well to spend more time learning from teachers in other genres. Learn how to light a portrait in sixty seconds flat from an editorial shooter. Advertising and commercial photographers should take a look into what is being done in the wedding industry. There are a number of business and marketing topics that are covered in depth that can translate to other genres. There’s some great talent to be found in the wedding industry as well. People doing real photography. Can you believe it? I for one would like to see wedding photography have it’s day in the limelight just like other genres of photography.
Check out John Dolan’s work. Especially the Oliva gallery. You’ll cry it’s so good. Thanks to Michael Howard for sending me that link. Andy Lee told me about a blog post by Jonas Peterson titled The Mason Jar Manifesto. It’s a great read. An amazing read. Check it out. When talking about this stuff on twitter recently, The Becker hit me with this video response. I totally respect what has has to say there. There are great photographers in the wedding industry doing good work and moving the industry forward step by step. Kudos.
Maybe if we didn’t talk down to other parts of the industry then fellow creatives, like art directors, wouldn’t snub our work if we dabbled in other genres, like weddings. Can’t we all just get along? No. Oh well. I guess it keeps everything interesting.
In all my travels teaching and speaking to photographers I’ve been talking about “If I was to start shooting weddings on my own…” I then lay out this idea I’ve had. This is how I’d approach it (personal). This is how I’d shoot it (B&W). This is what I would charge ($20k – $30k). This is what I’d deliver (albums & prints. Not disks.). This is how much input clients could give me (zero). With my recent rantings about certain parts of the photo industry that fall squarely on the wedding side of it I thought that maybe I should put my ideas into action. That’s why I put the call out to shoot a few weddings this year. Quit talking. Start shooting. #shutupandshoot
While I haven’t started a new website, marketed it, and put a $25,000 price tag on my wedding photography, I did put a call out to anyone getting married in the States this year that would let me shoot their wedding ANY way I want. I have one confirmed and two in the wings. (*****Editor note, this sounds past tense, doesn’t make sense. “I have one confirmed and two in the wings.” Shouldn’t you say something like, “I ended up confirming 3 different weddings, one of which I just shot this past weekend…” Something like that ’cause later on in the post it doesn’t match up.) They understand that I am going to shoot their wedding how I want to. The way I want to. I shoot what I want when I want it. I deliver an album that they have no choice in covers, paper stock, or layout. There will be no revisions. There will be no disk of highres jpgs. They can’t ask me to shoot a specific photo. They have to trust me.
(I’ve left Meg’s notes in the paragraph above because it shows you how awesome she is and how she proves, time and time again, that she’s the better 7/8th’s)
I’m asking these couples to trust me and I promise to deliver something beautiful but I’m asking that it be what I want to create. On my terms. Not what Martha Stewart suggests I shoot. Not what’s hot in the wedding industry right now. Not what won awards last year at WPPI. Not what’s on the bridal blogs. Not what wedding magazine editors want me to shoot. Or, and I’ve heard this one a number of times, what they want from some other photographer they can’t afford.
What a self centered egotistical jerk I am. Right?
Here’s what I’ve told everyone who wrote back saying they were interested in me shooting their wedding. “By me being selfish you get my best.”
Think about it. In a world saturated by photographers “capturing your special moments forever” how different is someone when they come along and say “I’ll shoot your wedding but on my terms.” A lot different. Loads different. Damn near offensively different. Yep. I think that’s sort of cool. Like John Michael Cooper sort of cool. JMC, BTW, IMHO, is the coolest mofo in the wedding industry. I digress…
Shouldn’t we always approach our jobs like this? In a perfect world, yes. But hang on, we are in the service industry. We get up in the morning and go out and serve our customers. If they want this or that then we should deliver on those requests. At the same time we, as creatives, have something we want to do instead of what has been requested of us. Many times we run out of time or resources to get “our” shot because we are doing what has been requested of us. That’s part of my job all the time. Some times clients tell me, “Shoot whatever you want.” A lot of times though I get directions like, “It has to be vertical. We need half the frame to have negative space for copy. We want the subject looking happy. We don’t want it dramatically lit. We want the background to have this or that or the other.” I don’t grab my pitchfork and rally the troops to burn the client’s office to the ground. I happily take the job and fullfil their requests. IF I have time for something else, I go after it.
So why not just have that same attitude for a wedding? I can’t count the number of times I’ve shown up at a wedding and was handed the shot list. Seriously. Look at this stupid shot list from The Knot. Also remember that Jane Q. Bride doesn’t deal with photographers but a few times in their life so give her a break when she hands you the list. Smile, say thanks, and throw it in the trash when she’s not looking. You need your clients to emphatically trust you. You don’t gain that trust the day of the job. You gain it from your first meeting. That first meeting sets expectations. Don’t want to be handed a shot list? Make that clear before you’re booked. Crystal clear. In writing.
*What about phrasing it like this? “Also remember that Jane Q. Bride doesn’t deal with photographers but a few times in their life so give her a break when she hands you the list. Don’t want to be handed a shot list? Make that clear before you’re booked. Crystal clear. In writing. You need your clients to emphatically trust you. You don’t gain that trust the day of the job. You gain it from your first meeting. That first meeting sets expectations. Have them walk out of that meeting confident that they don’t need to give you a shot list…” Or something like that. Saying, “throw it in the trash when she’s not looking” sounds pompous and unfeeling. This is the biggest day of her life and for women, having a list is important. Makes them feel better. Calmer. Organized. So be careful how you phrase this section. No, brides aren’t reading this. But they might. And you’re speaking to wedding photographers, many who are women. This doesn’t sound very “service” minded to me. Tread carefully.
Do you see how awesome my wife is? Do you see that? She’s totally right and makes a great point about “the list”. I’m not trying to be pompous and unfeeling. I want to be quite the opposite but if I don’t communicate my thoughts correctly then I’ll be misread. Meg loves lists. Dang it all. She makes a great point. She’s almost always right.
I’d much rather be given freedom at a wedding than a shot list. In a world of sameness I would want to stand out. That’s why you would never ever ever ever ever find me shooting a wedding reception with a LightSphere. Never ever. Why? Because so many photographers light weddings with LightSpheres. They all look the same. I want to shoot differently then what I see. I want to do it my way.
Will I shoot these upcoming weddings in ways never done before? No. Will I reinvent the genre? Nope. Will I begin a new trend? No again. A revolution? Hahahahaha! No. Will I most likely shoot many of the images on that shot list anyway? Yes. “Bride and groom together.” Really, The Knot? Really? You have to write that out on a list? Ugh.
I’m not trying to knock the wall down. I’m just trying to put a hole in it.
Will I be excited to shoot more than the shot list type of job? Yes. Will the freedom set me free? Yes. If given to my own preferences and style I will create something better than what The Knot suggests I should create. Will The Knot publish what I shoot? Most likely not. Do I care about that? Nope. Do I care about the couples who have trusted me? Yes. Do I care about the work I’m creating? Yes.
You know what? I can’t wait. I’m really excited. I’m excited to take an idea I’ve talked to others about and, at the very least, go out and make it happen. I already see the images in my head and I’m already building the albums in the garden of my mind. (Seriously – Check that link. Meg showed it to me a couple of weeks ago.) I’ve already second shot one (Thanks Egomedia!) and I have shot one on my own. Shot my X cams a lot. Some Polaroid. Some Phase. I’m playing. I’m having fun. I’m doing whatever I want with whatever camera I want… except my iPhone. Future posts to follow.
Tomorrow I’m making my final post about all this wedding industry / photo industry / photo system stuff and I’m going to tell you about my new Q&A tumblr if you haven’t already seen that. In addition to all of that, my buddy Ab8ta and I have designed a #shutupandshoot shirt that we are going to make a small run of to support a local art community. It’s kind of awesome. It’ll be up tomorrow!
***Meg here. Except for porn, right? It better be.
Yes Meg. Except for porn.