Capturing vibrant Indian and Southeast Asian weddings is no simple feat but Charmi Peña has managed to find the perfect balance between a rewarding wedding photography career and a memory-filled family life.
Full Disclosure: This story is brought to you by Imagen.
Throughout the 16 years Peña, from New Jersey, has spent building her career in the photography industry, she has also earned other titles — a Nikon ambassador, an industry-leading educator, an activist, a mum, and a wife. All of which have harmoniously helped shape who she is today.
As Peña put it in her own words, she is “obsessed with feelings” and displays it in her vast and award-winning Indian and Southeast Asian wedding portfolio. Peña’s photography features bold colors and poses, as well as delicate, intimate moments between people — soft touches exchanged between the couple and powerful emotions on the faces of family and friends.
“The weddings I shoot, there are very, very happy moments and very, very sad moments so you really are spanning the emotional range that humans are capable of,” she tells PetaPixel. “It’s fun.”
“I like to observe, I am a people watcher,” Peña continues. “Southeast Asian weddings give me all of that — I get to observe a lot of chaos, which I love because my brain is chaotic. And add to that a lot of feelings. I love that.”
But, with the high-energy weddings that each can last four days comes a cost: they can be exhausting and physically and mentally taxing. Peña used to shoot 30, four-day weddings a year but has made a conscious decision to slow down and reduce her wedding coverage to around 12 to 14 bookings a year.
“You are working for hours and hours,” she explains. “Even if I insist on a break because I am a human being, they are still really tiring. It’s a lot to stay emotionally engaged when your body is telling you it’s over. It is a challenge.”
Just last year, she shot 27 Indian weddings in 22 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic which brought numerous re-scheduled bookings, forcing her to fit two years’ worth of work into a single year.
“I was so overworked,” Peña recalls. “That was really stressful for me, it was too much. That’s not the life I want to live.”
Not just that, for the first time Peña had spent every summer weekend with her children while the lockdowns were in full force. It made her realize her kids are getting older and she doesn’t want to miss out on making memories with them before they grow into adulthood.
“I decided that summers belong to us now. Not to me, to all of us, this family,” she says. “I also lost my grandmother during Covid and all of that made me realize that while I love my career goals and being ambitious, and doing all the things I want to do, there’s also this whole life, relationships, and memories that I want to make. You get one life and there’s more to it than work.”
AI Editing App That Learns Your Style
Sometime during that time, Peña reckons she must have complained a lot about her workload because an Instagram ad for artificial intelligence (AI) editing app Imagen popped up. She wasn’t confident that the software would help, but decided to give it a shot nonetheless.
The standalone editing app works with Adobe Lightroom Classic and uses AI to learn the photographer’s editing style based on the photos already post-processed and then applies edits to fresh catalogs accordingly.
As part of the Imagen profile setup, users can pick to use a ready-made Talent AI Profile, based on an already established photographer’s editing style, or build their own personal profile. To create a unique personal profile, photographers have to upload at least 5,000 edited photos to train the software.
Doing so helps the AI learn how the photographer edits in different scenarios and allows it to deliver edits in line with the photographer’s current editing style, unlike presets that apply global adjustments irrespective of how the scene is lit or what’s in the frame.
Peña has spent 16 years fine-tuning her distinct editing style so immediately opted for a personalized profile. With that many weddings in her portfolio, it wasn’t difficult to upload the required number of photos.
“The first wedding came back 20 minutes after I sent it and my second shooter and I were looking at it and our minds were blown,” she recalls. “And this will only get better.”
Imagen has a fine-tune function that can be used after finishing every gallery to teach the software the adjustments made and to keep up with the photographer’s editing style which may organically change and develop throughout their career.
Getting Time Back for Things That Matter
“Once I started using it, it gave me all this time back in my life. I was already outsourcing some of my weddings before to an editor but even that editor couldn’t be inside my brain,” Peña says.
“It would take three weeks to get the catalog back and then I would still end up changing a lot because I wanted what I had in my head, and then Imagen made a software that has my brain,” she adds.
“The timing couldn’t be any crazier because what I wanted was this lifestyle where I am being all the people I am, including the photographer I am but not exclusively a photographer. I want time to be a mum, a wife, a woman, an activist, I do a lot and I want to be able to do all that other stuff. I take care of my parents.”
Ever since Peña introduced Imagen in her photography workflow, she spread the word among her industry friends, including Susan Stripling who has since joined Imagen as the foundation for one of the Talent AI Profiles other photographers can download and use.
Similarly, after one of Peña’s talks at the Wedding and Portrait Photography International Trade Show (WPPI), Imagen approached her and asked if she would like to join as one of the Talents, too, to which Peña agreed. Now, other photographers can use her editing style, “Cinematic Luxury,” as a starting point for their post-processing workflow.
“If using my talent can help people move on and live their lives better then that’s good,” Peña says.
Even though some photographers may feel vulnerable exposing the public to a part of their creative process, Peña believes her unique identity as a photographer stands strong with or without editing.
“Your voice is in the photo,” she explains. “Your voice is in your selection when you are culling. During editing, you form your voice and it can be repeated. I can edit one photo and someone can edit the rest and they will match, and it doesn’t take anything away from me as a photographer.”
“As much as editing is part of my voice, it is a more defined and less variable part of my voice. Giving it away doesn’t change anything because I am still the one who has to hunt for a feeling, I am still the one who’s deciding the composition, I’m still the one who looks at a set of ten images and picks the ‘one’.”
Throughout her career, Peña has developed lighting and composition skills to make sure that photos are “on point” for what she needs afterward. Peña’s confidence in her ability to capture the right moments the right way has also helped her feel comfortable reducing the hours spent manually editing and instead outsourcing it to Imagen.
“I have no backlogs,” Peña says. “My wedding from Saturday is already done. I don’t worry about deadlines. I am very paranoid about cards and don’t wipe them until I have sent the wedding. Now, I really don’t have to worry about that because it’s uploaded well before I shoot any other wedding.”
Taking Steps Towards a Balanced but Rewarding Business
In addition to reducing the number of weddings and freeing her weeks from hours and days spent in front of a screen editing, Peña has also introduced more corporate and studio maternity work as part of her services.
“I can make more than a wedding doing corporate stuff on a Tuesday from 9 to 5, and I can come home and be with my kids,” she explains. “That may not be my passion project work but it sure is lifestyle passion and the studio is right in my house.”
“Diversification has helped me live the life I want to live and that’s more important than just only being passionate about what I’m shooting all the time,” she adds. “We are so lucky, we already love our jobs. But, you don’t have to be passionately a hundred all the time.”
The recent workload changes have also helped make sure Peña avoids burnout and repetition as a creative. Instead, with the time she has gotten back to her life from using Imagen and doing fewer weddings, Peña can go to each new wedding from a healthy place — ready to be creative, full of energy, and able to deliver the best possible job, meanwhile knowing she will be present for her family after the work is over.
Image credits: Photos by Charmi Peña.