New year always causes me to reflect on my business and as I enter into Farm’s 6th year, I am looking over this side of what I do as much as my own photography business. I’ve now encountered hundreds of other photographers looking for training and support and I’m in quite a few online groups of photographers.
Something I’ve increasingly noticed in the last year has been wedding photographers calling themselves ‘Artists’. Now if you do and you run your business as an artist would and it is working for you, then I’m happy for you and would love to hear about how you make it work. However I really struggle to see how it is possible to have an artist’s mindset and maintain a career as a wedding photographer. Artists create art for art’s sake the majority of the time, they work to their own brief and create as a reflection of their own unique expression or as a reflection of society. Wedding photographers have clients to please, a brief that needs fulfilling and a huge amount of expectation on what they are going to deliver. Go into that with an ‘artist mentality’ and I believe that you are setting yourself up for trouble.
Would Da Vinci have created something as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa for a fussy bride? “Make sure you get my best angle, I don’t like my arms, can you fix my chin?”. Would Van Gough be able to create Art in front of 100 wedding guests? Yes photographers can be artists, the Photographer’s Gallery in London’s walls are covered in fine examples of their work. None of them are wedding photographers though. The walls your work ends up upon are much more domestic. And that is totally fine. It’s an incredible privilege to photograph wedding days, to be the curator of that family’s memories from such an important day. The average human lifespan is 27,375 days and if you asked a lot of people to name their most memorable days within those then a large number will say their wedding days, so being the person responsible for recording it is an important role.
By all means, you can have an artistic approach to a large part of what you shoot. But I strongly believe that going into it being solely driven by your own passions isn’t good enough. Where an artist is perfectly fine to work selfishly, you should be collaborating with your client to produce imagery that is the result of the relationship between you all. It is an Artist’s Ego that believes they only need to reflect their own vision. You need to emotionally invest in a couple and their wedding day to reflect it back to them well. Your role is to do that with both creativity and integrity. Then there is fulfilling that all important brief. So working with your client before hand to pinpoint exactly what that brief is for that particular pair. That can be the timeline, the group shots, portraits and any additional shots they want. Yes within that there is usually space to have a creative approach and if time allows you can also shoot for yourself but that shouldn’t be your top priority.
I started out working as a music industry photographer. My very first magazine commission was to photograph a teenage witch and her parents …The show Sabrina the Teenage Witch was popular back then. I took the family to a woods near their house and did portraits of the girl but I struggled to shoot the whole family and ended up just doing one shot with them all at staggered distances. I was trying so hard to be creative that I failed to just get the straight up family shot and the magazine were not super impressed with me. I had not totally fulfilled the brief and that was the end of my relationship with that magazine. From then on, I always ensured that I did the straight shots, I precisely covered any exact brief or expectation and if time allowed, I would then take the creative shots. In fact, the creative shots at the end of a shoot are what we were all putting in our portfolios. Shoot for the client and then shoot for yourself if time allowed. Your portfolio shots are you flexing your creative muscles and showing what you can potentially produce. It is also pretty standard to shoot non-commissioned self motivated work for your portfolio or to push your creativity and I see the Wedding Photography Industry as being exactly the same. Shoot for the client and if time allows shoot for you. Fill your portfolio with those shots plus your self produced work.
And do continually shoot for yourself, it’s such an important element to maintaining a passion for it all. And yes maybe that part is Art but I also feel strongly that you will be the very opposite of fulfilled if you think you are an artist all the time, if you go to weddings with that as your priority. I’ve seen so many posts in photographers’ groups this year about clients being unhappy at the end of the process. Of course that might be for all kinds of reasons but could the main one be you? Dare I even say that maybe you are using the ‘But I’m an Artist’ line as an excuse? Did you honestly fulfil the brief to the best of your abilities? It might not even all be written down but there usually is assumption that you will deliver certain shots. If you don’t deliver a straight to camera shot of couples, it won’t take long before you get some complaints. Even if your client believes in your artistic vision enough to give you free reign, there are simply too many other people emotionally invested in most weddings, with their own expectations of what they will see in wedding photos. So I think having an artist’s mentality throughout will eventually mess with your mental health and that is my main motivation for writing this. I want to help you out and I just think you could be making it all tougher than it needs to be. Running a Wedding Photography business is friggin’ hard work, in fact the shooting is merely one element in many to make it all run well. And in the digital age, any one of us is only one poor online review away from a bad reputation, so we have to be slicker than ever. Think of yourself as a Creative instead, shooting to a brief and creating Art as and when you can.
We had Martin Parr teach a workshop at Photography Farm this year. He told us that he would like to shoot a wedding but he wouldn’t want to start coverage until 9pm. He said that this is when the most interesting photos for him would present themselves. Now I would be utterly fascinated to see what he came up with but I don’t think too many of our clients would be content with the idea. We also had Ryan Muirhead and Jan Scholz teach classes for us. Both brilliant photographers that I would consider to be Artists but they create the majority of their work without upfront commission and to explore their own unique passions.
Photography Farm is for Photographers by Photographers so I’m not out to put a downer on anyone else’s business. I find it all utterly fascinating and I’m so thrilled with how creative wedding photography is now. Seeing beautiful artistic images from other wedding photographers inspires me to want to get better and to always push forward. Just look at the standard in Junebug’s Best Wedding Images, every single image is deeply artistic or creative, but I just clicked through to a few of their websites and don’t see anyone calling themselves an Artist. We’ve now had some truly great wedding photographers teach at Photography Farm and I’ve been continually impressed by their humility and lack of ego. Being a Wedding Photographer is something you should be bloody proud of and if you are making a decent living from it then you are already doing way better than most Artists.
Lisa Devlin has been shooting weddings since 2000. She was awarded Wedding Photographer of the Year by The British Journal of Photography, was named one of the UK’s Top Ten Alternative Wedding Photographers by Stylist Magazine, is listed by Junebug as one of the best Wedding Photographers in London and has spoken about her work at B&H Photo in New York, for Hasselblad in London and at The Photography Show in the NEC. In 2011 she founded Photography Farm which aims to nurture wedding photographers in the UK through workshops and events.