Of Workshops and Styled Wedding Shoots

Created by me at Aspire Photography Workshop's Wedding Bootcamp

I believe photographers, as any professional, need to educate themselves on a continual basis.  For photographers, there are numerous outlets - even the amount of free videos on the Internet is staggering.

Recently, I participated in two workshops, in one as an instructor/mentor and in the other as a student.  This blog post will feature images I took at the first, at Aspire Photography Workshop's Wedding Bootcamp, after I let the students take their shots and had time to jump in for a quick take  It was an inaugural event and some things were learned, including how many people who hope to shoot weddings - indeed, some actually had already been the primary photographer for a wedding - do not have a firm knowledge of the basics of photography or even their own camera settings.  

Now, this is not to say that everyone at the workshop was incapable of handling the photography for a wedding, but one thing that was stressed was that wedding photography goes beyond pressing the shutter.  It is about time management, people management, working on the fly, being able to adapt to changes in the plan, what to wear (yes, that is important, especially footwear) and knowing what gear to use - as well as what gear one MUST have (I think I must have said it several times, if you don't have a second camera body, rent one - you cannot shoot a wedding with just one camera).  

A full half-day of class time, and then we shot.  And the next day, shot all day, covering the parts of a wedding day one could expect.  It was a great time and a good opportunity for learning.  But not mastering.

Nothing can beat the real thing.  And my concern is that there are those who would do a two day workshop and now think they are ready to have someone give them hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to shoot their once-in-a-lifetime wedding.  And quite frankly, I don't think that is what a bride is expecting.  She is trusting someone to do it right and to allow her to hire you without adequate training and experience is a violation of that trust.

Liken it to combat photojournalists.  What kind of skill would you need to jump on a convoy heading out from Kabul into insurgent strongholds?  "Oh, come one," I hear you say.  "No one is going to die in wedding photography."  Maybe not - but someone could have their wedding day ruined and someone could be sued.

There is anotrher popular pastime with wedding photographers, both seasoned and new: the styled shoot.  That is a day of collaboration among wedding professionals where everyone contributes their expertise and walks away with images to be used for their portfolios and their marketing.  So a venue opens its doors, a florist makes up a bouquet, a bridal dress shop lends a dress, a model agrees to pose, etc., etc.  And everything is photographed by the photographer who shares their wealth of images.

There can be good reasons for styled shoots.  I did one recently simply to have some images at a spot in a geographic market I was targeting.  I will be doing another in May at the request of a venue for their marketing.  But let me say it here:  THAT IS NOT WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY.

Wait, let me say it again.  THAT IS NOT WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY.

What it really is, is commercial lifestyle photography, as if someone was arranging a shoot for the pages of a magazine.  Everything is "fake" in that it is not a real wedding couple, and care and time had been taken to do hair and makeup, set the tables, arrange the flowers, and time the shoot to take advantage of the best time of the day for the best light.  In fact, when you look at the images from a styled wedding shoot, if you were to substitute the models in everyday clothes from Belk, you can see there is no different than a commercial shoot.  Of course the pictures look great - everything has been planned and arranged to look great.

Oh, that ideal conditions were present on a wedding day!

But most of the time, they aren't.  Hair and makeup go over time, making the schedule slip.  The garden ceremony has to be moved inside where space is limited and the ambient is dark due to non-stop rain.  The bride finds the dress that looked great in the shop is not conducive to sitting down, much less use the toilet - and she really, really, has to go.  Both bride and groom are running on 3 to 4 hours of sleep due to nerves.  Relatives needed for the family formals have popped outside for a "quick smoke" and no one knows where they are.  The mother of the groom is upset because she spilled red wine on her dress and wants you to "photoshop it out" in every picture of her.  And no one seems to be able to get people lined up for the sparkler exit.

THAT is real life.  Styled shoots aren't.

A colleague of mine sent me a link to a business called "Styled Shoots Across America."  This is from their "About" page:

"What started as a  journey to compete styled wedding shoots in every state in America has quickly turned into an amazing community. A community of wedding pros who enjoy participating in styled wedding shoots to express their creativity. A community full of encouragement and support. A true place where you can ask for advice, show off your skills and connect with others."

Okay, I get it - if you're the type of photographer who wants to practice shooting scenarios that you are likely to encounter during a wedding and do not want to have to find other vendors, models, venues, etc., and are willing to pay money to avoid the work and the stress, then this is just right for you.

But I saw this on the website and I am concerned by it:

"As a newbie or even a seasoned pro - we all need fresh beautiful images of current trends and designs to show to potential clients. What better way to attract the client you desire than by having inspirational images that they are drawn to?"

A bride's inspiration is drawn from other weddings and magazine pages.  What a wedding photographer should be presenting to a potential client is there work from a real wedding or that they have arranged.  For example, there are images on my website from a styled shoot that I arranged with a colleague, but the work is mine: my pose, my lighting, my decisions as to styling.  And I tell potential clients that is so.  I have images from bridal shoots that occurred other than the day of the wedding, and I tell potential clients how that came about and talk about the benefits of doing that for themselves. 

I am not saying this company is perpetuating a scam on brides and they are not responsible for following up to make certain that there participants do not do so by passing off the images from the styled shoot as "a wedding they shot."  But I suspect most of the participants are "newbies" and lacking a portfolio will include these images as evidence of their skill - notwithstanding the fact that the image was set up by an instructor and likely even their camera settings.

So are styled shoots bad?  No, in fact they are good practice and any professional photographer needs to practice, practice, practice.  I am just both amused and worried about workshops that are meant to teach a new photographer how to do a styled shoot where that new photographer leaves thinking, "Now I can book weddings!"

If you're a bride looking for a photographer, do your homework.  You are not being difficult if you ask . . .

I like this picture on your website - where did you take it?

What was the hardest wedding you shot?  What happened?

And most important of all:

Can I see a full portfolio for one of your weddings?

That is not being a bridezilla.  That's just being smart.