Fearless wedding photography
It’s an odd name for an international directory of wedding photographers but I guess it is intended to describe the spirit behind the photography it promotes. Set up by former wedding photographer and photojournalist, Huy Nguyen, in the States, it’s declared mission statement is as “a directory of more than 2,500 of the world’s boldest wedding photographers for couples who truly love photography”. I joined Fearless in 2011. Like all directory sites there is an annual fee and quarterly competitions to gain awards. I currently have three awards. But I haven’t won an award on Fearless for two years. Many of the same images submitted in that time have won elsewhere, in similar big international quarterly awards and other wedding photography competitions. My three fearless awards so far, are for completely non-setup, natural (B&W) reportage images – they are in my portfolio. Don’t win a recent award, you drop down the search list in the directory – clients no longer find you, the listing loses value. Is the $149 annual membership fee worth it just for the google juice, regardless of any awards? But why nothing since?
There is some great work on Fearless but there is also some very mannered, contrived imagery that wins awards and gets copied again and again. The question for me is how does it fit in with the documentary approach? How does it fit in with how I want to shoot or even how my clients want me to shoot? Now some documentary wedding photographers will not shoot any portraits – I don’t agree with this. But clients who really want the documentary approach don’t want to pose for hours – regardless of how ‘awesome’ the resulting portrait-in-a-landscape shot is. They want storytelling. Many don’t want any group shots or maybe just one or two. But then as a business can you afford to be too purist about this? You have to sell a style but your style has to be true to you. I use the words ‘honest’ and ‘natural’ for a reason when describing how I shoot. I want clients who like what I shoot and want me to tell the story of their day. But do I need to change? Does my work need something else? Probably.
I don’t shoot for awards.
I shoot for my clients and for myself. Every wedding photographer is award-winning is the joke within the industry. Every wedding photographer’s website says so. Even this one. It’s another element to give reassurance to prospective clients I guess – that you know what you are doing. (Only photographers can really judge the value of these different awards or ‘finalist’ badges). It would be a lie to say that there is not the competitive aspect of wanting to gain some recognition for your work, so why nothing since? Is it my work, my style of shooting? What am I doing wrong as ‘Fearless’ sees it?
Now, before we go on, I am not lying awake at night over this. My current membership runs out at the end of 2016 (on my wedding anniversary as it happens) so maybe there’s still time? If I don’t, I don’t. But Fearless very much favours a certain approach to wedding photography – bold, epic, ‘wow’ and my least favourite word in the English language, ‘awesome’. It’s a seemingly ‘American’ style that is gaining favour with some photographers in the UK too. I am trying hard to be unobtrusive rather than ‘awesome’ (read, often contrived?) in my wedding photography. So is my work the wrong fit?
Each photographer has their own eye and they need to fine tune that eye each year, bit by bit. You can’t just change your style overnight, if you really could. You have to be true to your vision and remember that these clients, in the new wedding season, have booked you based upon the work/style you did before. That doesn’t mean you don’t change, or should I say evolve? The question for me is how I fine tune the way I shoot? To evaluate the weaknesses in my work and improve upon it. It is something I’ve been looking at for years. So when Fearless announced a two day conference to be held in Bucharest, Romania (held at the end of March) it seemed like a good opportunity to see what I could learn from some big names in the industry – who shoot differently to me (and charge megabucks) – and get to see a city and a bit of the country, that I’ve been interested in seeing for years.
I flew out to be Fearless…or not? 😉
It started with a loud high-five!
Sat at the end of a row, at the back, I got a hand slap from Huy, much to the smirking amusement of some other UK photographers. America was here! Some of the presenters seemed to have their own headphone/microphones. They had the flow, the patter, this was part of their tour. Often high energy, it was wedding photography mixed with a little bit of showbiz. There were slideshows, image analysis, keynote presentations, ‘amusing’ graphics, videos, charts, diagrams, sketches, laser pen pointing things…more slideshows, lifestyle and business coaching and a lot of upbeatness. Speakers included Huy himself, Sergio Lopez (Arizona) Candice Cusic (Chicago), Todd Leffler (New Jersey) Anna Kuperberg (San Francisco) and representing Europe, Carlo Carletti (Italy) and Whitesmoke (Poland). Some I had heard of, some I hadn’t. ( I didn’t know any wedding photographers until about four years ago) The headline act were a couple who seem to dominate American wedding photography currently, Ben & Erin Chrisman (San Francisco). So amongst that I believe you have two of the highest paid wedding photographers in the States, if not the world, the holder of the most lifetime Fearless awards and a lot of work that is very different to mine. So what did I learn?
I won’t go through the two days in too much detail, but it was an opportunity to see this ‘American way’. I’m not being disparaging, it’s just different. You could see the difference when Carlo and Whitesmoke showed their work. But it is a style being copied by many photographers in Europe and the UK. So, the difference? Partly how weddings are over there. Partly the approach and an emphasis upon ‘creative’ shots. So, ‘first looks’ – an hour or so of portraits with a couple before the ceremony. Two shooters, always, it seemed? An assistant even, as well as a second shooter. Clients that will stand on top of buildings for 4o odd minutes to get a shot, a ‘wow’ shot and the processing has a lot to do with the ‘wow’! An imaginary two foot rope between the camera and the client – being unobtrusive through submission perhaps? The continual use of out-of-focus wine glasses, beads, shiny things, iphone screens to ‘enhance’. This is becoming so copied now.
Then there was tilt, lots of tilt. Now I don’t have a complete anti-tilt stance. Even the American photojournalism examples had lots of tilt and you see this in the World Press Photo awards too. You just don’t see it so much in UK photojournalism. When done well, you don’t notice it, because it is an integral part of the composition. But often it just jars and used too much becomes formulaic. This work has a definite formula. Big landscape, get tiny people to walk across it in a certain, exaggerated way, for example. I’ve pretty much driven out the ’tilt’ from my work, here it still wins awards. The processing of images is very heavy – deep contrast and very highly saturated colours. You see a lot of photographers mimicking the Chrisman style and this is where many fail, overdoing the colour saturation. A lab processes their images I believe? There is a formula of expose for the bright light fittings then set the couple against something bright for a silhouette in the corner or pop in some off camera flash. Or stick your 85mm up close against something shiny and again maybe light the couple – the out-of-focus colours will pop up in processing. Watch the Fearless awards, you’ll see a lot of imitation. The focus is to enhance the glamour, the showbiz of a wedding but from what I could tell (and I may be wrong), not the storytelling of the actual event? This isn’t realism. It also seemed to be portraits after portraits. Any genuine documentary? Brides were told where to put their dress on, details were rearranged and placed. Wedding rings photographed placed upon pictures in books, etc. Even a semi-fisheye shot of a wedding group, shot from a stepladder.
But there was nice work too, some strong images. Not all of it setup. Funnily enough, the work I liked the most wasn’t the wedding photography shown. Anna’s documentary work with kids in St Louis(?), her dog and child work and Ben’s intimate reportage of an American couple adopting a very young child from India – which I had seen before. No need for ‘wow’ or ‘awesome’ setups/processing here, the photography spoke for itself. Beautiful work.
Then there were the critiques. We were all invited to submit ten images from which one would be chosen by Huy to go up on the big screen and be critiqued by Sergio, Candice, Todd and Ben. Hand on heart, I did not recognize my shot when it appeared. It’s just below here BUT it had no blacks, none, it was seriously washed out and you could see little detail, especially in the mirror. I would love to know what happened to the file? Being at the back my iphone snap is not much use to show how it was so badly displayed. (There were some technical issues, Carlo’s work was displayed too bright also). No surprise then that Ben Chrisman dismissed it as just an exposure test shot and had no ‘moment’ or merit. In fact he expressed surprise when Todd said he saw any moment. Todd was actually more complimentary, but throughout the critiques, he was the most constructive of the group.
I’ve done critiques myself and you have to be careful not to apply unrealistic ‘should-have-been-done-this-way’ comments when examining images. Candice thought the moment had yet to happen, that I didn’t spend long enough watching. (A typical photography tutor comment, from someone who wasn’t there. It prepares you for the comments picture editors can make when you go into the real world). So apart from the lousy technical setup and it not being shown properly – I checked the file when I got home, it’s here, it’s this one here – is this image no good then? No moment? Not being a ‘Fearless’ moment, does it lack value?
Well I like it.
It’s a quiet image, a moment between a bride and her mother during bridal preps. Not a ‘wow or awesome’ moment, so probably not a Fearless moment ever. It wasn’t setup, it was seen and captured. It also didn’t take two hours to capture/construct, involve any prisms, iphone screens or wine glasses. I have mentioned this critique to wedding photographers since I got back to the UK. Some like the shot but say it’s too quiet for Fearless. Others think there is too much space, don’t like shots using mirrors period(?) or don’t find it ‘epic‘ enough – back to that Fearless approach again. Clearly it is tempting for some! I’m sure some don’t like it either.
So I thought I’d ask the bride and groom…..the client. I didn’t mention Fearless, just asked them what they thought of the image?
The groom first:
“I love this photo.
Emotionally it really captures the relationship between Helen and her mum, Kate. And, I wasn’t in the room, obviously, but I feel like it gives me a really good sense of what they were feeling. A turbulent combination of tears and giggling.
I’m an enthusiastic photographer rather than a good one. But to my untrained eye, it looks technically spot on. I think the composition is lovely – the contrast between the bright scene in the mirror and the darkened corner it sits in is great. The out of focus table has a still-life quality. And it’s nicely balanced by the light from the window on the right.”
and the bride:
“It’s actually one of my favorite photos from the day. I have no memory of what we’re talking about (or even any memory of you taking the photo), but I think it captures a really special moment.
I can’t comment on the technicality of the shot, but I do really like how it seems to offer a window into the morning. I like how the room is out of focus, and the photo is centered on the reflection. Retrospectively, I think I can say that it’s the people that matter on the day, not the venue/weather/food etc. This photo really echos that sentiment for me.
I know my Mum really likes it too (I think it helps that we’re both smiling)!”
So this post. It’s not meant to be negative, it’s more my own reflections upon my work and how I can improve it. ( I welcome suggestions. 😉 ) Fearless has some really great work but there is a definite tone to many images. Whether some of it is the ‘best’, well it’s a definite approach. Looking at other people’s work should inspire you as a photographer. (Personally I find it more inspiring to look at work outside of wedding photography. Not all my favourite wedding photographers are even on Fearless). A benchmark is if you see a shot and wished you had taken it yourself. That’s enough. Seeing other approaches can push you to try to shoot the same way or it can push you to develop your own style with more determination. I think I came away from the Fearless conference in Bucharest thinking the latter. Real inspiration seeps in unnoticed, rather than going straight out and looking to deliberately copy. There is too much of that in wedding photography imho. Now it’s just a question of putting it into practice and see where it takes me? In a few months I’ll see if anything seeped in. But I won’t be concerned about shooting for awards, but for my clients and for myself. You see too many self conscious images where the photographer is trying too hard to be clever with his angles and approach. I prefer the natural approach, recording the wedding day as it was.
Sounds Fearless enough to me?
To finish, here are few snapshots on my little Fuji X100T – just simple tourist pics – in Bucharest and on a brief day trip out of the city.
A ‘Fearless’ road sign.
The Peoples Parliament, Bucharest
Poster masquerading as a mural, from a film shot here pretending it was the Vatican