Recently I traveled to sunny Rome for the Way Up North photography conference. If you get the chance I highly recommend going along. This was my second time as an attendee and both times I took away so much. Of course, the presentations are always inspiring but in addition, spending time with your peers and meeting people in real life is always such a welcome bonus.

If you follow me or Farm on social media, you might have seen the Five Minute Challenge Maciej Suwalowski set up when we hosted Thrive in Glasgow recently. He was creating content for his excellent YouTube Channel and the brief for all our speakers was to shoot the same couple in the same space within just five minutes. 

I went along to film clips for our Instagram, which was the first time I’ve managed to watch any of our presenters shoot at a conference – normally I’m way too busy. It was utterly fascinating to see all the photographers approach the shoots and I definitely picked up a couple of tips. So when Maciej invited me to take part in the same challenge but this time in Rome, I was flattered to be asked but also worried that I’d have to shoot alongside some of the presenters from the conference. Oh, I should also mention that the model couple was Canadian photographers Taylor Jackson and Lindsay Coulter. In case you’ve been under a rock, Taylor is a BIG deal on YouTube. The pressure!

Even though we were in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, we were restricted to shooting around the back of our hotel. It wasn’t exactly inspiring but that’s really the point of Maciej’s challenge. When photographers are restricted and under pressure what can they come up with. Let’s face it, that’s exactly what wedding photography is often like.

I went last so 6th and I was also aware that Lindsay and Taylor had posed for two other couple shoots on the same day. That’s a lot – they could easily have been totally over the whole thing. Waiting for my turn didn’t do much for my nerves – some of my favourite photographers were going before me and I knew that they would nail it. I had to have a word with myself. This wasn’t the time to try to be something that I’m not or to try to be too clever. It was time to do what I know I do well. That is helping subjects to tune into their emotions, you might call it ‘Centering’.

For me, what is possibly more important than what an image looks like is what an image feels like. I learned this so early on in my wedding photography career and like most valuable lessons, I learned it on the job. Here’s the story…

Like almost every wedding photographer, I fell into weddings by shooting one for a friend. My first year of ‘business’ was filled with weddings that I had booked by sending out the word that if any of my other friends or their friends were getting married then I was available to shoot their day.

A few weddings in and I thought I’d made it to the big time already. I arrived at bridal prep to see a beautiful Vera Wang frock hanging up. I knew it must have cost a bomb and then the bride opened her gift from the groom – a necklace set with row after row of precious stones. I later found out that it was worth more than my flat. After shooting her fully ready, I left for their ceremony at The Royal Pavilion. I assured the groom and the registrar that the bride was just behind me and would arrive at any moment. Except she didn’t. We waited and waited and there was no sign of her. No, she hadn’t run off, the driver of the vintage car she was in simply insisted on driving on the main road into Brighton even though it was gridlocked. The bride arrived over an hour after the ceremony was due to start. She was distraught as not only was she aware that another wedding would be due to arrive soon but also there was a good chance that the food would be ruined.

The ceremony was rushed through and we were granted just a few minutes in the gardens for photos. I tried rattling through the family groups as quickly as possible but the groom’s father decided it was the time to mess around and it took longer than it should have done. Then the guests got on a bus to the reception whilst I quickly set up couple shots with them. 

Under the circumstances, I thought I coped really well. To me, the portraits looked great, that amazing dress was shown off perfectly and they looked happy and in love. Job done right? Except when it came time to put together their album, they didn’t select any of these shots. Not a single one, I thought it must be a mistake so I called the bride. ‘I hate those photos’, she told me. What? I couldn’t believe it. She must have heard my disappointment and she kindly went on to explain that it wasn’t my fault. She could see that they were good images but said that in those moments she was super stressed and that is all she can think of when she looked at them.

Oh, well that kind of is my fault then because I should have picked up on that and I should have done something about it. This was the point in my career where I realised that their feelings at the time an image is taken are more fundamental in how they relate to it than anything else – that includes the light, the pose, or all the Vera Wang dresses in the world. 

I think of my own wedding photos and one of my stand-out favourites is of our friends all wearing goofy fake teeth. This was the sight that greeted us as we walked in for the dinner and it made me laugh so much. It’s not a great image but it was a great moment.

The lesson for me was that my role as the wedding photographer is to do what I can to ensure that what someone is feeling is as good as it can be at that time. What can I do to alleviate any stress? If they are thirsty, can I fetch a drink? If they are cold, can I bring a layer? If they are worried about anything, can I help them to put that to the side and be present for the photographs?

Pleasing your clients is as much about the experience that you give them as the images that you give them.

From that point on, I made this my approach. You can see a little of this in Maciej’s YouTube video. After a day spent posing for photographs, it would have been easy for Taylor and Lindsay to go through the motions with me. Instead, I wanted them to acknowledge how it felt to be there at the time and to feel connected to each other. To be aware of their feelings and their physicality, as well as being conscious of where they were in the world.

I think I took the least amount of photos out of anyone in the challenge but that is also from shooting medium format. When I shoot with a Hasselblad, I have to be slower and more considered and maybe this also gives me a chance to be aware of what my subjects are feeling.

I’m currently toying with the idea of setting up a day doing challenges like this with other photographers. Drop me a message and let me know if this is something you’d be into.