Wedding photography is not just big business these days—it’s also a wellspring of creativity. For the third year in a row, American Photo set out to find the most inventive and accomplished wedding photographers working today. We’re happy to report that this year’s Top Ten list shows boundary-breaking innovations.
Nominations for this year’s list came from a variety of experts (listed below), including wedding planners, website directors, and photography editors. We also invited a number of wedding photographers who were featured on our Top Ten lists in 2007 and 2008 to name colleagues whose work they particularly admire. The editors of American Photo winnowed the dozens of nominees to the ten finalists.
This year’s winners come from throughout North America, but you could hardly call these photographers regional. Almost all rely on the web for much of their business, which comes from all over the world. Many of the names on the list have backgrounds (and side businesses) in other areas of photography, such as photojournalism, fine art, and travel work. While each is firmly established in the field, no less than half of them started their wedding-photo businesses within the past four or five years—about the time it takes to complete a rigorous course of higher education.
As you can see from their portfolio slideshows, they all share a blend of technical skill and aesthetic innovation. A few specialize in the kind of “wedding photojournalism” that has been a popular staple in recent years; others create iwork with the look of sleek fashion and travel photography. These days, it seems, more and more brides want to look like they just stepped out of the pages of a magazine.
The 2009 Nominators:
Digital Wedding Forum
Ben Chrisman Photography
Jessica Claire Photography
RACHEL LACOUR NIESEN
Lindsay Landman Events
Nu Visions in Photography
Cliff Mautner Photography
Elizabeth Messina Photography
Christian Oth Studio
Jose Villa Photography
Karen Wise Photography
Los Angeles, California
Apertura is a photographic duo that combines artistry and kinetic energy with a documentary style. "Great stories are made of a series of real moments and emotions," says co-founder Ray Soemarsono. "Since we believe that the images should be about the personality of our clients, we continue to push beyond complacency by trying something new at each wedding."
Soemarsono and his partner, Erwin Darmali, took up wedding work in 2005. "We discovered that we are both emotion junkies, and wedding photography is the perfect vehicle to take our passion to the next level," Soemarsono says. "We enjoy coming to shoot a wedding and being treated like close friends. As cheesy as it may sound, we love getting a big hug from our clients and their family at the end of the day!"
Their advice for newcomers: "Know your cameras-let them be an extension of your senses," Soemarsono says. "Sense, anticipate, and capture. It is a privilege to witness two families come together as one."
He adds that a wedding photographer's ultimate goal is to create a timeless document. "We are recording a slice of family history through a series of emotionally charged images," he says. "The impact may not be felt right away, but it will definitely grow as time passes by."
Brett Butterstein started his career as a photojournalist, but says he was "looking for more professional and creative freedom" when he founded his wedding-photo business in 2005. "I believe most wedding photographers are actually documentary photographers," he says. "Our work ends up serving as personal, historical documents for families for many generations."
With a focus on destination weddings, Butterstein serves clients on both U.S. coasts, in the Rockies, and in such travel spots as Hawaii and Mexico. He creates atmospheric, sometimes humorous imagery. "I don't have a sales pitch or try to force myself on people," he says. "Many times I won't even get to meet clients before they hire me, since they're from all over the country, sometimes abroad. All I need to know are the logistics. From there it's just being there and working hard."
Butterstein's main advice is to master the mechanics. "I learned photography first and business second," he says. "I can't imagine doing it in reverse order. People should master shooting manually in challenging lighting situations and working very quickly so that you can get beyond the obvious photographs."
DEL SOL PHOTOGRAPHY
Atlanta, Georgia and Riviera Maya, Mexico
Matt Adcock of Atlanta was already an established professional photographer when he met Sol Tomargo on the beach in Riviera Maya, Mexico, where Tomoargo was shooting a wedding. "The rest," says Adcock, "is a wedding photographer's dream."
The pair founded Del Sol Photography, an online connection to their two operations in their respective cities. With a warm but experimental style, they specialize in destination weddings, including many in Riviera Maya. "About 97 percent of our clients are coming to us via the web," Adcock says, "and they're planning from thousands of miles away. We size up their event based on questions we ask, and make sure we're on the same page in terms of expectations."
Adcock says Del Sol ends up forming tight relationships with clients. "We are totally surrounded by people on vacation having the party of their life," he says. "The best part is being in the heat of the moment as a storyteller and knowing you tripped the shutter on many frames that your client cannot live without. We find ourselves in the middle of raw emotion and positive energy on a weekly basis."
The key to success, he says, is networking. "We think every event is about the contacts established before, during, and after shooting a wedding. Nursing the relationship of these contacts will grow your business in a big way. Strong vendor relationships build careers too."
Adcock especially likes working with clients who try new things. "We seek out brides who really want to have fun with a photo session, setting hardly any boundaries for us. Now that's living!" He notes that "digital technology broadened creative horizons-for instance, more experimentation with off-camera flash-lighting concepts. Ultimately, we have lived vicariously through our clients trusting the vision of our brand."
Amy Deputy confides that after working as a photojournalist and picture editor for the Baltimore Sun, "I discovered my intention to save the world was flawed." Disillusioned with newspaper work, she shot a wedding as a favor for a friend in early 2001.
"The wedding day sparkled with color," she recalls. "And there was the bride shining bright as light, a symbol of hope, standing strong, offering herself as a gift, accepting her role as leader, standing in power, all eyes to her. I was smitten. Wedding photography had quietly tapped me on the shoulder."
Within a couple of years, Deputy had established a clientele in the D.C. area and garnered recognition for her documentary wedding photos. "My work is a style fusion. Moments delight me; portraits delight me," she says. "I love the delicate ritual of a bride preparing for her ceremony. I love the symbols of beginning and end. I love seeing a couple's first moments as husband and wife. I love kisses and first dances and toasts. And I love families and friends honoring the balance of two in a relationship."
She's quick to add, "I see my work as unending practice. I am a beginner-my 13-year-old son reminds me often. 'Remember to look at the space between the stars,' he tells me."
While consulting with clients, Deputy stresses service. "I ask them what is important," she says. "I brainstorm picture possibilities based on their responses. I create a thorough photo timeline before their big day-I check my notes and precise group lists, then tuck it in my pocket."
Then she focuses on the craft. "Photographs provide an opportunity to speak in a language beyond words," Deputy says. "They conjure memory and validate experience. They are a way to say, I honor this moment."
New York City
With a studio in the TriBeCa section of Manhattan, Brian Dorsey has a realist's approach to wedding pictures. "I want my images to reflect life as it is lived, not life posed," he says. "I'm there to immortalize a feeling or an experience, not a dramatic pose that the subjects have struck. For me, it's all about keeping clients relaxed, in the moment, and truly enjoying being themselves so that the process of creating photographs becomes invisible."
With a background in art and portrait photography, Dorsey came to wedding work in 2002 when a friend asked him to help shoot a ceremony. "I told him I had no interest in taking traditional wedding photographs," Dorset recalls. "He invited me to come and shoot whatever and however I wanted, so I did. And I was hooked! I absolutely loved the challenge."
Dorsey says wedding photography is "a problem-solver's dream."
"Weddings are filled with these wonderful moments swirling amidst a sea of chaos, and there's no greater challenge than trying to anticipate where and when those microseconds will occur and what the best vantage point would be to capture them from," he says. "There are no do-overs. You've got to deal with tricky and ever-changing lighting, deep blacks, bright whites, and all the while you're considering how you can get the best background and still maintain the most flattering angle for each person."
Known for shooting celebrity weddings in New York, Dorsey says he tries to simply respect the ceremony. "We tell prospective clients that the experience they have on their wedding day is a higher priority than the photographs," he explains. "Neither I nor any of my photographers ever disturb poignant moments or the sanctity of the event. We're invisible at those points. I don't even want the guests to know we're there."
We have three photographers working at f8," says Kym Skiles, "and while we have our own styles, all of us approach each wedding with a commitment to capture the couple's story with respect, humor, and joy. Our greatest strength is in the depth of our storytelling."
Skiles's background is in fine-art imagery, while her two partners at f8, Gary Donihoo and Huy Nguyen, have years of experience in documentary, outdoor, and travel photography. "Although we frequently document some of the nation's most exclusive weddings, we also love small, intimate backyard affairs," Donihoo points out. The studio's trademark look combines candor, playfulness, and elegance.
"Life happens in small moments," Nguyen adds. "On the wedding day, I enjoy the challenge of photographing real life as it happens." He says f8 Studio focuses on the individuality of clients and their families: "We try to keep things distinctive and fresh by staying free of trite, pre-conceived notions of conventional wedding photography."
San Francisco, California
Finding herself out of work after the dot-com bubble burst in early 2000, Ann Hamilton decided she was going to become a professional photographer. "My only experience was with a disposable plastic camera," she says, "but I think that subconsciously I had always wanted to be an artist."
Hamilton began assisting a Bay-area portrait photographer, and by year's end she was shooting weddings. "I photographed my very first ceremony in Mendocino on a bluff overlooking the ocean," she says. "It was the day I fell in love with weddings."
Hamilton has also made a niche for herself as a dog portraitist. "My logo displays a bride walking a dog," she says. "I've found there's a crossover of clients when it comes to weddings and dogs. I've had clients incorporate their dog into their wedding or engagement session, and then book me for a dog portrait session."
She brings a journalistic approach to her work. "I tell prospective clients that I shoot each wedding as if I were writing a story," she explains. More often than not, she says, the story tells itself. "I have a photograph that is slightly out of focus, but it's beautiful, as it depicts a moment between a father and daughter," she says. "The father sees his daughter for the first time in her wedding dress, and he's overcome with emotion. The daughter tries to console him and places her hand gently on her father's cheek. It's a moment that reminds me of my relationship with my own father, whom I lost two years ago to cancer. I tell prospective clients that if I had to pick one image that summed up why I am a photographer, that would be it."
San Francisco, California
Anna Kuperberg draws on her background in fine art to create unusual, evocative wedding images. "Everything is so pretty at a wedding, and it's very easy to take a photo with nice light and composition," she says. "The challenge is to find a meaningful photo, perhaps with multiple layers and a subtlety or sophistication that isn't obviously apparent."
With clients, Kuperberg says she spends more time listening than talking. "I ask how they met each other, I ask about their interests, and I try to get a sense of how they interact with each other," she says. "I don't do much planning before the wedding, except for the schedule and shot list I make. I work best with improvisation."
Kuperberg is another wedding photographer who doubles as a dog portraitist. She also does children. "I got interested in photography from a sense of curiosity and wonder," she says. "If you lose that excitement it will show in your pictures. You need to maintain a high level of concentration and avoid getting lazy or complacent. The client will not push you to raise your standards. You have to do it yourself."
Her reward is "creating heirlooms that will stay in the family for fifty or a hundred years," she says. "Collectively these photos are an archive of our culture."
Orange County, California
When asked what sets her wedding photography apart, Jasmine Star replies, "Laughter!"
"I might not have the abundance of awards that my peers have, but what I do know is how to make people laugh in front of my camera. I know how to make people feel like themselves. A couple is at their most beautiful when they're laughing, and I've been blessed with a gift in guiding people to this point."
Star actually came to the wedding-photo field via personal hardship. "In 2005, while I was in law school at UCLA, my mother had a relapse with brain cancer," she recalls. "My life flipped upside down. But I woke up one spring day and I decided to take a break from law school and stop living the life I thought I was supposed to lead and instead lead the life I wanted."
She was engaged at the time and had planned a destination wedding in Hawaii. "My mother, against all odds, went into remission and was healthy enough to walk me down the aisle to marry the man of my dreams," Star says. An avid amateur photographer, she decided to become a full-time wedding photographer. "My husband told me, 'I would rather see you fail at something you love then succeed at something you hate,'" she says. "And, with that, my journey began."
Star specializes in destination weddings. "One day I wake up in my Orange County home and the next day I'm waking up in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, for a wedding," she says. She keeps her schedule flexible, as well as her aesthetic tack. "I don't have an agenda, nor a list of shots I need to procure on the wedding day," she says. "I like the event to naturally unfold, much like an old quilt. Each wedding is unique. I simply show up to document it all."
New York City
Heather Waraksa' combines a fashion photographer's eye for beauty with a sense of whimsy and warmth. She says she got into the wedding business almost by accident. "A couple of friends were getting married and they asked me to shoot the wedding," she recalls. "They didn't want anything too traditional. I was able to shoot in a way that I hadn't before-a little fashion, beauty, still life, photojournalism, and portraiture. This kept me on my toes. Since then, I've found that there's been a growth of couples wanting a different approach-something fresh."
Waraksa suggests to clients that formal portraiture sessions be completed before the wedding day. "This allows the bride, groom, bridal party, and family to enjoy the rest of their celebration immediately after their ceremony," she says. "It also allows the clients and me to get to know each other a little more. I need them to feel relaxed and comfortable. I want them to trust me enough to be themselves on the big day. That's when I'm most likely to capture real moments."
She says there is an emotional payback from shooting weddings. "I love being there to witness the vows," she says. "I love the party and celebration; I love seeing the bride all done up and glowing and the look on the groom's face when he sees her. I love being able to experience all of the emotion of the day and then creating something tangible that people will be able to look at to remember."
Top Ten Wedding Photographers 2007
STEPHEN AND JENNIFER BEBB
ALISHA AND BROOK TODD