Welcome to our second-annual roundup of the best wedding photographers in the world.
There are more wedding photographers offering services to brides and grooms than ever before. Wedding shooters are asking for -- and getting -- bigger fees than ever before. Indeed, the fastest growing cost of weddings is the photography, which has shot up more than 100 percent since 1999. Perhaps that's only appropriate, since a great wedding photographer must be masterful at shooting architecture, still lifes, and, of course, people -- all the while dealing calmly with anxious brides, grooms, and parents.
Here we offer our second-annual roundup of the best wedding photographers in the world. This year we cast our net wider and farther by asking for nominations from dozens of experts, including photographers, wedding planners, and bridal magazine editors. From those nominations, the editors of American Photo chose finalists that, in our opinion, represent the state of the art in wedding photography. Some of these photographers specialize in "wedding photojournalism," while others focus on fine-art and fashion styles.
We've also added new features to this year's look at wedding photography. For brides, there's a guide to picking the right photographer. For photographers, there's a tip-sheet on creating Website that get noticed. And to top it off, we've included an interview with Denis Reggie, one of the world's best-known celebrity wedding photographers.
Location: Santa Barbara, California
Jose Villa has always shot film and resolutely says he always will, a stance that sets this Santa Barbara, California-based photographer apart from his competitors. "There's probably only one out of 100 photographers who shoot film," he says. Being different has turned out to be a good marketing move for Villa. Brides who want pictures with the particular look of film have begun turning to him for images that are saturated with vivid color and formally composed. While digital photographers may shoot thousands of photos at one wedding, Villa never shoots more than 800, due to the production costs of film. The restraint forces him to think carefully about his shots. "I compose my images, rather than just snapping away," he says. "Staging" shots may have a negative connotation, but Villa embraces the aesthetic; his goal, he says, is not to "cover" weddings like a photojournalist but to create the kind of elaborately produced images that appear in bridal magazines. "Women say, 'I want to look like that,'" Villa explains. "So when they look at my work, it has that [same] lifestyle feel to it." It's no surprise, then, that Villa's photography has been featured in those same bridal magazines, including The Knot, Martha Stewart Weddings, and In Style Weddings.
|| |---| | | © Ben Chrisman| | Click photo to see more images| BEN CHRISMAN
Location: San Francisco
Ben Chrisman's offbeat style has attracted a clientele that is exactly like him -- young, successful, and a "little odd," he says. Early in his photographic career, Chrisman aspired to be a war photographer. That idea never worked out, and he grudgingly began thinking about shooting weddings. "I got into wedding photography not liking wedding photographers, thinking they were pretty lame," he says. "So I decided to do the opposite of everything they did. I only shoot what I would want to see myself." His dedication to photographing nuptials with a witty eye for detail (a groom taking a smoke break in a parking lot while his decked-out bride sits on a parking barrier) has attracted a steady stream of "charismatic, energetic" clients from all over the United States. "Sometimes I have to convince my clients to do the traditional portraits because I know their parents would get mad at me if I didn't take those shots," he says. Often, his connection with a bride and groom outlasts the wedding day. One couple he photographed ended up inviting him to their home for Thanksgiving years later. "I get to meet really interesting people on the happiest day of their lives," he says. "And they look fantastic."
|| |---| | | © Jim Garner| | Click photo to see more images| JIM GARNER
When Jim Garner was in art school, he had a telling exchange with a professor. "I asked him, 'What sort of film would you use to shoot a wedding?' And the teacher said, 'Well, why would you want to shoot a wedding?'" Garner remembers. "I was shunned for wanting to be a wedding photographer." It's a story many successful wedding photographers can identify with. Garner eventually became a commercial photographer at a Seattle dotcom, shooting weddings on the side. He went out on his own full-time in 1999, along with his wife, Katarina, who manages the wedding-photography business. Almost a decade later, Garner has carved out a niche for himself in Seattle: He's known for his album packages, which are grouped by "story" rather than individual shots. For example, there might be a series of photos that document "the champagne story," which transitions into "the limousine story," "the arrival," and so on. He captures these moments by beseeching his clients to slow down. "Your wedding day is going to be a whirlwind, how about we just have some fun?" he says. "Let's have champagne at the bar. Everyone is so caught off guard that they relax into it. I set the scene and the moments unfold like you can't believe." His approach has paid off, and Garner won WPPI awards in 2007 and 2008 for Best Album. Garner's success has allowed him and his wife to cater to a higher-end bride. But, as Katarina is quick to point out, every bride receives high-end quality. "It can be the simplest location or the simplest couple, and you can still capture that art," she says. "Rain or shine," Garner adds. After all, it is Seattle.
|| |---| | | © Karen Wise| | Click photo to see more images| KAREN WISE
Location: New York City
For Karen Wise, there was little possibility of falling victim to wedding photography convention; before her career informally began with a friend's wedding, she had only been to one in her entire life. "At the time, I really had no idea about the traditional wedding rituals," she says of her first assignment. "The first dance, the cake cutting, and all that. I think not knowing the conventions helped me to take interesting photos. It made my shooting very photojournalistic since I was discovering a lot of wedding traditions as I shot." She was armed, however, with a fine-art degree and extensive experience photographing food and still life, which came in handy in her matrimonial endeavors. "I found I had to take all of these skills and speed them up in order to capture everything I wanted to get," she says. "I found that to be exhilarating." Her colorful, detail-oriented style has attracted numerous clients in the New York area, where she is based; but she has shot weddings as far away as India, including one in which a baby elephant was given as a wedding gift, popular musician Abida Parveen performed in the garden from Monsoon Wedding, decor was coordinated with guests' outfits, and famed shoe-designer Christian Louboutin hand-delivered the footwear. "A photographer couldn't ask for a more inspiring setting in which to create beautiful photographs," Wise says. "Everywhere you looked was beautiful and photogenic." But she once again had to learn on her feet about traditions she was unfamiliar with: those of a full-blown Indian nuptial extravaganza.
|| |---| | | © Elizabeth Messina| | Click photo to see more images| ELIZABETH MESSINA
Location: Santa Barbara, California
Nine years ago, Elizabeth Messina did a favor for a friend and agreed to photograph her wedding. At the time she had no idea the experience would resonate so deeply with her. Messina had spent three years after college shooting editorial work, but the sentimental nature of the wedding struck her. "I feel as though it brought two sides of my personality together," she says. Despite the intense connection, Messina didn't pursue wedding photography right away; instead, jobs came to her. At one point she ran into a woman who was looking for a wedding photographer. Messina showed her the photos from her friend's wedding and the woman booked her on the spot. After two years of sporadic wedding work, Messina decided to put all her energy into a full-time wedding business. She has since cultivated a consistent look, characterized by its romantic, tinged-with-age aesthetic: red velvet shoes haloed by soft focus or a gauzy corset bathed in an ethereal light. And now Messina's wedding photography has brought her back to editorial work, as her images are regularly featured in magazines such as In Style, Town & Country, and Elegant Bride, which are drawn to her lifestyle aesthetic. Frequently she even takes those exclusive celebrity-wedding photos for US Weekly. Messina believes there are new opportunities for wedding photographers, and considering that she's been featured in numerous publications, as well as on Oprah and The Fine Living Network, she just might be right.
|© Cliff Mautner|
|Click photo to see more images|
After years of shooting weddings, Philadelphia photographer Cliff Mautner has come to grips with the tensions that come with the job. "The responsibility placed on a wedding photographer is the weight of the world," Mautner says. That means a lot coming from a former Philadelphia Inquirer photojournalist who stumbled into wedding photography after 15 years on staff and 6,000 assignments. "Sometimes you need to be a sports photographer for some of the action shots that are involved," Mautner muses. "You have to have a versatile skill set." While photojournalism is in his blood, he has "no problem setting the stage for the moment to take place" by optimizing the conditions. In particular, he brings action into favorable and interesting light -- what Mautner considers his specialty. "I'm able to take bad light and make it good light by creating texture and mood," he says. "If the light is very harsh, I'll use it in such a way to create drama." Potential clients now seek him out, and many find him via his highly successful blog. The blog has become an integral promotion tool for Mautner, who posts a smattering of photos from each wedding, proving his consistency to potential clients. When he became the first wedding photographer to use the Nikon D3 camera (Nikon is his sponsor) and posted the photos on his blog, he received 250,000 hits in one week. In this new media age, where most wedding photographers have their own blog, Mautner believes it's necessary to constantly show fresh work. "You're only as good as your last wedding," he says.
|| |---| | | © Curt Littlecott| | Click photo to see more images| CURT LITTLECOTT
Location: Orlando, Florida
Curt Littlecott may be the only wedding photographer in the world who was once a professional water skier. More than a decade ago, the Englishman came to Orlando, Florida, to pursue the sport, but he soon realized that, as he says, "it wasn't going anywhere." Luckily for him, Orlando was at the time becoming the target of British tourist agencies, and there was a dearth of suitable photographs for the sunny locale. Littlecott, who didn't even own an SLR camera at the time, began making images for travel brochures. He later transitioned into the burgeoning destination wedding market that was growing in Orlando, and in 1994 wedding photography became his full-time profession. Today he has a studio in the heart of the downtown nightclub district, which has been integral to the success of his business: The bottom floor of the three-story studio is a wine bar gallery that's open on the weekends for photo clients only. Littlecott believes the intimate interaction at his studio helps him form connections with his clients -- connections that allow him to be an "insider" at the weddings he shoots. "We get to see the bonds between family members," he explains. "[For example], we had an NFL football player who was raised by his grandmother from age two, and I never would have known that had it not come out through this communication."
|| |---| | | © Gene Higa| | Click photo to see more images| GENE HIGA
Location: San Francisco
Gene Higa had been shooting weddings in the San Francisco Bay Area for several years when he realized that there was a niche in the field that nobody else was filling. "Photographers would say 'available for destination weddings' but no one was really doing it," he says. "No one was focusing on this kind of work in a major way." Higa quickly moved to fill the gap. "Every destination wedding we've done, it's been published," he says, as he rattles off the countries "hanging" on his office wall. Most recently, one of his photos was both featured on the cover and inside the Destination Weddings "World Wide Guide." His new focus has taken him to Mexico, Italy, India, the Philippines, Greece, Peru, Thailand, Spain, Barbados, and Jamaica -- "locations that no one else in our industry has," he says. Paradoxically, this focus on exotic locales has simultaneously raised Higa's "perceived value" in his base city, San Francisco, where he shoots about 30 weddings a year. Higa brings his own stylistic touches to the job, as well. Whereas most photographers take a plethora of shots of the blushing bride, Higa likes to focus on the groom. "I always try to get the cool groom shot. I try to work on the opposite of what everyone else is doing," he says. Higa's Website features a number of strong, solo portraits of grooms alongside his work motto, "Dare to be different." All promotion strategies aside, however, Higa is in the industry because he loves it. "I'm made for this business. I'm very sentimental, I love the art, the dresses; I love every aspect of it. I love the parties, I love the details, I love the client interaction," he says. "I found my calling."
|| |---| | | © Jessica Claire| | Click photo to see more images| JESSICA CLAIRE
Location: Orange County, California
"I love being able to figure out what it is that the person you're marrying loves about you," says Jessica Claire, an Orange County-based photographer. "I want to make that real." Claire's portfolio includes plenty of action shots: couples dancing in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., or jumping wildly off an apartment landing. "It's taking what I see and making it look cool," she explains. "And making other people see it." She also believes in vivid color: "My style is definitely bold, colorful, and eclectic," says the redheaded photographer. "I'm not the type to shoot in all black and white or sepia and have it be all moody. When I got into photography, I wasn't interested in that at all. I wanted to see color and bright things, and it made me stand out from what other people were doing." Claire's photos nearly buzz with energy, and clients seek her out for her "outgoing and over-the-top" look and demeanor. It seems fitting that she was invited to shoot a wedding in Greece , a country whose bright aquamarine waters fit perfectly with her palette. With Greece under her belt and South Africa planned for next year, Claire is looking forward to the opportunities wedding photography provides. "I hope that I can find a way to see the world by shooting great weddings," she says.
|| |---| | | © LaCour| | Click photo to see more images| LaCour
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
The four founding members of LaCour -- a wedding photography studio in Atlanta, Georgia -- have very different visual styles, but they are united by one common goal: to be quiet observers. "Our approach is to quietly allow the day to unfold before our cameras, minimizing our impact on the scene," says Andrew Niesen, one of the four LaCour photographers. "If one of our clients looks at a photograph and has any memory of me, then I have compromised the authenticity of the moment." Considering this intense dedication to the ethics of documenting, it's not surprising that Niesen, his wife Rachel LaCour Niesen, Mark Adams, and his wife Erin Reed Adams, all began their careers as photojournalists. (The Niesens began shooting weddings when Rachel bartered her photographic talents with a friend who in turn designed her wedding dress). "Photograph a riot like a wedding and a wedding like a riot," Rachel recalls a college mentor once telling her. "[This] meant two things to me. First, approach every assignment with the same honesty and intensity. And second ... always look for unique, storytelling moments, whether you're at an opulent wedding or a gritty news assignment." Despite being based in Atlanta since 2004, the photographers travel for 70 percent of their weddings. In fact, during the month of June, they'll be in their hometown for only a handful of days -- perhaps a sign that the group's maxim has successfully found the right audience. "LaCour clients want subtle moments artfully recorded," Rachel explains. "[They] seek authenticity in their photographs ... because when you have tender storytelling moments happening naturally, why would you even want to fake them?"
Check out our Top 10 Wedding Photographers of 2007.