Weddings! It is remarkable how many photographers enter into the field totally unprepared. I don’t mean technically unprepared. There are a lot of excellent photographers, those who know their stuff much better than I do. No, I am talking about being emotionally, socially, and physically prepared. You can be technically phenomenal, but unless you are ready for the distinct challenges of a wedding, more than just mental preparation for an onery mother of the bride, you will not last. I’ll talk briefly about emotional preparation.
Most of the time weddings are dull affairs for a photographer, with a lot of difficult people and hard physical work. You can memorize the groupings and couples shots quickly. You can know the light ratios and what turns a good shot into a romantic stunner.
The most difficult thing about the rudimentary tasks is making certain you don’t pair families or individuals who would rather drink acid than stand next to each other. I have made the costly mistake of pairing up people who I thought were together when they actually came to the celebration with someone else and then got together. Oops. Awkward.
I have funny/crazy stories. There is the repeat customer story: The bride, church, minister, everything including me the photographer were the same, just a different groom. I was flattered and perplexed.
There is the enraged ex-girlfriend story: She sneaked over to the reception area and attacked the wedding cake, which we had to rebuild and cover with flowers to hide the damage. The bakery had delivered the cake. They were gone. So one of the bridesmaids, another guest and I quickly learned the art of cake decorating.
There was the wedding at Emory chapel. I was not allowed inside because of all the bad experiences the director had with wedding photographers. I was forced to shoot through the windows from outside, in the pouring rain with my assistant holding an umbrella over me. All the outdoor photographs we had planned got washed out. The bride and groom reordered flowers, got dressed, and we staged all those photographs a couple weeks after they returned from their honeymoon, this time without the dictatorial director.
There’s the story of the bride who was missing a hand. This is neither funny nor crazy, but it was unusual. She did not have the common prosthetic hand, but instead had a metal hook – it was not as big a challenge as one might think. She had remarkable dexterity. It was remarkable to me, because I was ignorant of such things.
There were downright creepy weddings. The cult wedding: The groom had planted a field of plastic flowers in unnatural colors, around his house, because the wedding was held there in the dead of winter. The ceremony was creepy too. It was very “dark” spiritually if you get what I mean; very little joy or laughter.
I photographed teenagers getting married, retirees getting married, people on their second and third time around getting married. (Actually the ones on their second or third try, the dreamers, seemed to have the most fun.)
I photographed one couple in an 1800’s church in Cade’s Cove. The bride wore a green velvet dress. Velvet is the “black hole” of photography, sucking up every bit of light, reflecting none. I photographed weddings for 3 out of 4 brothers. I photographed different religions’ ceremonies, from Pentecostal to Jewish.
How do you prepare yourself emotionally to be a wedding photographer? Is it even preparation or is it more natural inclination? We’re all wired differently. Some folks are just naturally gregarious while others are much more reserved.
I believe this is the single most important trait of a successful wedding photographer; the love of people. If you are in the wedding business you must enjoy them. Otherwise your photographs will be like mannequins, well dressed but lifeless. I always enjoyed the weddings. I enjoyed the couples and I would try to find out their history: Where did they meet? How did they arrive at this point? It helps to know who they are.
There were sad stories too. For example, there was the mother of the bride who had multiple sclerosis. The mom was determined to make her daughter’s wedding dress, MS not withstanding, but she just could not finish it. The women at her church literally pinned the dress together at the very last minute, at the church. I watched it happen. The bride was stunning. Miracles occur once in awhile.
I vividly remember the wedding in the photograph below. I’ll call the couple Anne and John. I won’t go into details. The marriage did not fail, but it ended sadly less than two years later. How do I know this? Because I try to stay in touch with my customers through the years.
Obviously, some want nothing more complex than the single wedding transaction. That’s great. However, I still have some of them contact me, both for photographs and to “touch base”. I am not saying that you have to keep close in order to build your business, but I believe there has to be a relationship of some kind built very quickly, and sustained at least for a couple of years after the wedding, if nothing else than to encourage sales of the photographs. Repeat business is to take photographs of their children. Sometimes repeat business is to take photographs of their next wedding. The people you photograph have to trust you and like you. I enjoyed my customers first, and the money came in.
Steve K. and his wife Laverne owned the photo processing lab where I had my film developed and printed. Steve was an excellent photographer himself. When I was just starting out photographing weddings, I asked him what I should charge. The prices in Atlanta were all over the place. He told me, “Charge whatever you want. The people you like to work with will find you.” Strange as it may sound, that was always true.
One of the saddest stories I had was of the bride whose father died the very day of the wedding. He had been sick for some time and sadly he could not hold on. His family decided to go ahead with the wedding! Now, let’s say you are the photographer. Uh, let’s just say I am the photographer. I walked in the door of the venue. The uncle of the bride took me aside and told me what happened. How did I handle it? The word “unprecedented” has been used to describe 2020, but never before, and never since that wedding did I ever encounter anything that would have prepared me for that, nor for anything in the future… except my core as a person. Put technical skill on automatic and try to focus all your energy on the couple, with empathy, on this the best day of their lives, and probably one of the worst days as well.
Empathy is a characteristic that separates us from animals. It is the reason we can appreciate suffering and joy without ever having gone through the identical experience as another person. Animals may express sympathy and grief. There is evidence of it. However, as far as we know, they cannot imagine what another animal is going through in the present or will go through in the future, in order to offer it comfort. Empathy is to express genuine understanding when you don’t really understand a thing. However what the wedding photographer should understand is joy, and sadness, and laughter, and our common humanity.
Sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I’m glad I am not doing it today.