I’m going to be real here. When I first started taking photos, I never aspired to be a wedding photographer. But in life, one thing leads to another and all of a sudden – BAM! – you’re a wedding photographer (or at least a very good pseudo one).
My path to wedding photography hasn’t been a conventional one. I shot my first wedding in June 2010 without ever second shooting or assisting another photographer on any weddings. In those early days my clients had an unbelievable trust in my abilities knowing very well what my skill set and limitations were at the time. I barely knew anything about flash photography, nor did I possess the posing skills and on-the-fly adaptability that I have today. I owe those clients a lot for throwing me into the fire and shortening my learning curve dramatically.
Though I have been shooting weddings since 2010, it is really only in the last year that I feel as if I’ve turned a corner in terms of what type of images I want to produce and what type of experience I want to give my clients. Wedding photography accounts for about half of my yearly income, yet most people who know of my other work don’t even know I shoot weddings as well.
I thought it would be a valuable lesson to share how my path of not being a wedding photographer has helped me become a pretty good wedding photographer.
On Not Really Being a Wedding Photographer
I draw photographic inspiration from a lot of different photographers. Guys like Edward Burtynsky, Alex Webb, Joe McNally, Greg Heisler, Elliot Erwitt, and Andreas Gursky are among my biggest influences. What you won’t see on my list of favourites are any wedding photographers. It isn’t that I don’t like wedding photos; it’s just that I don’t draw as much inspiration from them. And I believe this is a good thing.
I can’t tell you how many wedding photographers I know who either don’t take any photos outside of weddings they shoot or don’t take photos for fun during the wedding season. I find this really unbelievable! For me, inspiration and ideas come from my exposure to these other forms of photography.
I did a commercial project last summer for the University of Toronto’s engineering department in which I re-shot images for their newly redesigned recruitment materials. In one particular photo, we had a student stand at a crosswalk with other students walking by them in a blur.
I took that idea and applied it to a wedding I had a few weeks later.
The couple loved the image and the photo ended up on the front page of Reddit.
The point here is that the idea may not have come to me if I wasn’t exposed to it while photographing something seemingly unrelated.
I never understood why people viewed diversity as a weakness when it came to photography. I try to leverage all the genres I love to photograph and use it to my advantage. When a client says they want someone who has a photojournalistic/candid background, do they really want someone who has only ever documented a wedding? Someone who has never taken a photo of a person candidly outside of a wedding setting? So what if weddings aren’t the only thing I photograph!
It is up to me to convince clients that my exposure to these different genres makes me a more desirable and capable wedding photographer.
On Core Values
I don’t follow wedding blogs. I’m not influenced by the trendiest ways of processing images. I won’t turn my images into some washed-out-vintage-VSCO preset-faux film-Instagrammy looking trash. I believe in continuously improving and not being complacent.
I never think that my images are great because I know they can always be better. I care and try harder than most. I want to create art. I want the couples I work with to be super excited to work with me! These are some of the core values that I have as a wedding photographer that I try not to deviate from.
And what’s funny about establishing and communicating my core values is that: I’ve been able to 1) attract the clients I want to work with and 2) attract more business. I’m at the point now where I feel comfortable giving up business if I don’t think it is the right fit. In these instances, I will always recommend other photographers that may be a better suited for their needs. I don’t believe I am the right person for the all the jobs that present themselves to me… and neither should you.
When I first started shooting weddings, everyone was more than happy to give me advice on how I should brand and promote myself as a photographer. They told me to create a separate presence showcasing only my wedding work. They told me to submit weddings to blogs to attract a certain (higher paying) clientèle. That was the blueprint. That’s what everyone does! That’s what I had to do!
Follow the herd, re-brand to a wedding studio, get exposure on wedding blogs, attract wealthier clients, and compete with all the other wedding photographers following the same blueprint.
Before I started shooting full time, I was a marketing manager for an organization that offered a specialized service to those in the publishing industry. I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I learned that it was important to differentiate yourself, even if you were more similar than different to your competitors. The advice to re-brand always rubbed me the wrong way because there was no point of differentiation.
If I look at my wedding and engagement work separate from my other artistic pursuits, it becomes evident that my stuff is really about 80% the same as every other wedding photographer. However, when you view these images in the context of other images in my portfolio, it begins to tell a much different story of who I am. The differences between me and my competition become more evident. These differences help communicate the unique value proposition I bring to the table at each and every wedding.
It amazes me when I meet with potential clients how many of them were drawn to my non-wedding work. In many cases it was exactly the fact that I was different; that I photographed more than just weddings that landed me the gig. It was important to them that I brought something perceived as being unique to the table.
I can’t tell you how many times couples have said it was my rooftopping or Detroit photos that really drew them to me. It is no accident that the gallery homepage for my website has nothing to do with weddings at all. It sounds weird and counter-intuitive to what the normal course of action is for photographers, but it has worked for me.
I was at a dinner prior to last year’s wedding season with seven other photographers. The majority of them spent that evening complaining that their bookings were down and that clients were much more inclined to try and negotiate discounts for their services. It just wasn’t as lucrative as it once was.
When I asked one of the photographers: “what have you done to make yourself better?” he paused and thought for a moment before listing a bunch of lighting gear he had recently purchased. Only one other person in the group had done any professional development within the last two years!
It’s not that I wasn’t empathetic to their declining businesses, but I knew they couldn’t just do the same old things and expect different results. In fact, in today’s competitive wedding industry, they couldn’t do the same old things and expect the same results as before because everyone else is hungry to take your business.
To me, there is something to be said about the complacent wedding photographer. I see this with a lot of the second shooters I hire: though all of them are extremely talented, you can see how much passion, creativity, and hard work separates the good ones from the amazing ones.
I’ve always been a believer in the power of education. I’ve been lucky enough to have completed a Magnum Photos workshop with Moises Saman focusing on photojournalism and storytelling, participated and guest spoke at number of Eric Kim’s street photography workshops (disclosure: I’m also his manager), and got to spend a lot of time learning from the likes of Zack Arias, David Hobby (Strobist), Joe McNally, Greg Heisler, and David Alan Harvey while attending last year’s Gulf Photo Plus event in Dubai.
Heck, I even attended wedding photographer Jerry Ghionis’ How to Wow tour! The point is that I haven’t been complacent in my hunger for learning. I want to soak up as much as I can from those who have achieved great things in this field. I take bits and pieces from all the workshops, lectures, speeches, breakfast clubs and bar nights and find ways to apply it to my photography business.
On Being Someone People Want to Work With
If you’re someone people don’t want to work with, everything I’ve said up to this point can be completely disregarded. What it boils down to is whether or not you are the type of person others want to give money to in exchange for your work.
Photographing weddings is much more than showing up to a church and taking photos. It’s as much about the experience as it is the final product. If they’ve enjoyed the day with you quarterbacking the image-taking, they’ll be more inclined to have favorable feelings about the photos you’ve taken.
A client of mine earlier this year emailed me the day after her wedding after she had felt very self concious of her appearance leading up to the wedding. She wrote “…most of all, thank you for making me look like the princess I had always wanted to feel on my wedding day,” it was only then I realized how powerful the experience of being photographed was. For her, it was probably more important than the photos themselves.
Simply put: be the person you would want to hire. Ask yourself if this is the service and behaviour you would want if you were on the other end of the table. Ask yourself if you would pay for the images and service your clients are receiving. If you wouldn’t hire yourself, why should anyone else?
About the author: Neil Ta is a full-time professional photographer based in Toronto, Canada, where he is the #1 rated photographer on Yelp. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, websites, and galleries in Canada and internationally. You can visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.
Image credits: Photographs by Neil Ta and used with permission