American Photo: The Top 10 Wedding Photographers of 2011

What was once a conventional practice is now an art of creativity, adventure and individualism

For decades, wedding photography was stilted and conventional. But recently, an adventurous spirit rising in both couples and photographers has shifted the rules. Individuality is now key, whether that means bringing in landscape photography techniques, photojournalism or hipster style. No matter how edgy they may be, though, wedding photogs still need to get a shot of Nana dancing with her 7-year-old grandson. We’re proud to present the 10 best wedding photographers of the year—individuals all.

Marcus Bell
Studio Impressions
Brisbane, Australia
marcusbell.com

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Marcus Bell only got this “Plan B” photo because the yacht he was supposed to shoot on didn’t show. “My experience has shown me that it’s not the location that makes the image, it’s always the couple.“

Though Marcus Bell started shooting weddings as an unpaid assistant, he was in it for the money. And as he carried bags for experienced wedding shooters in exchange for a chance to learn how they operate, he noted they mostly relied on formulas. When Bell struck out on his own, he followed their lead and reserved his true passion for personal projects—the landscape work and street photography that first attracted him to the medium. All that changed one day when he asked a couple of commercial photographers when they found time to do the work they really loved. “They said, ‘This is what we really love. It just happens that we get paid really well for it,’” Bell recalls. “It was like a light bulb went on.” Since then, Bell has been applying his landscape and street talents to create vivid, textured images of the events he’s hired to shoot. The change brought him both more business and more pleasure. “Now my wedding photography is what I love doing the most,” he says. His best tip for getting great pictures: Stop listening. “I cut out all the noise,” he says, “and just look at the body language, the eyes, the hand movements, the gestures. They speak louder than the words people are saying.”

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Bell used a 200mm f/2.8 lens to achieve the compression he wanted in this image. “To get the composition and setting right,” he explains, “I needed to be on the other side of the lake, some 300 meters away.”

Yervant Zanazanian
Yervant Photography
Docklands, Melbourne, Australia
yervant.com

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“As her great grandmother whispered good wishes to the young bride, their hands said more than their faces.”

Ask Yervant Zanazanian why he likes shooting nuptials and he’ll answer, “Each wedding is a theater in itself.” But the business he entered 28 years ago lacked drama. “It was all static,” he says. “People would stand up and look at the camera and you’d tell them not to move. There was no expression, no feel.” By the 1990s, though, as soon as he felt established enough, he began shaking things up. He switched from medium format to 35mm and then to digital. He started taking couples for casual shoots in the city instead of posing them in typical garden scenes. He even offered to photograph weddings gratis in exchange for creative free rein. “It took almost a year,” he says, but once he was able to build up a body of work in his new style, the clients poured in. Colleagues took notice as well. His natural yet artful look has influenced a generation of wedding photographers. Today, Zanazanian’s studio is one of the most prestigious in Australia, and his contributions to the industry are recognized in the form of warm admiration from his peers. “It’s such a great industry,” he says. “We are now a big family working together, not following formulas and not working against each other.”

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“During a shoot in Prague, the bride caught the eyes of several men.”

Nate and Jaclyn Kaiser
The Image Is Found
San Diego, CA
theimageisfound.com

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A bride bites the bullet in Joshua Tree National Park.

The story of The Image Is Found began when Nate and Jaclyn Kaiser found each other as teenagers with a shared interest in photography. A few years later, they were married and had embarked on a life of taking pictures together. Wedding photography wasn’t their original plan, though. “We wanted to be fine art photographers who took pictures of urban decay and somehow got paid for it,” Nate says. “That probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.” Serendipitously, Jaclyn’s sister asked them to shoot her wedding, and they were pleasantly surprised with the experience. Soon the urban decay plan was scrapped and they had dedicated themselves to learning from the styles of prominent wedding photographers. While this broadened their skill set, their success was limited until they started applying their own unique style and viewpoint—an approach that emphasizes portraiture over storytelling and breaks many conventions of wedding photography (not to mention the standard aesthetics of romance). “It’s kind of rough around the edges,” Jaclyn says. “It’s not polished, it’s not high glamour.” Instead of trying to elicit displays of affection from a couple, the Kaisers look to capture the broad range of ways couples express their feelings. It’s an approach that has expanded their visual vocabulary as well. Now that they’ve found their own place in wedding photography, they’re creating images they love and attracting the kinds of clients they want—people, as Nate says, “who are comfortable in their own skin.”

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“This was one of the best grand exits we’ve seen,” says Nate of this Australian countryside wedding. “They were walking through a snowstorm of bubbles and thrown confetti.”

Rocco Ancora
Ancora and Bell
Melbourne, Australia
roccoancora.com

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“They were all excited, running around, with shoes coming off,” says Ancora of the girls who were waiting with the father of the bride for a portrait session. When one of the girls saw him coming with his camera, she hopped onto the couch. “I love her suddenly proper expression,” he says.

Rocco Ancora stumbled into photography while studying architecture. “One day we had to take some photos of buildings,” he says. “I picked up a camera and it was the beginning of a love affair.” That torrid romance soon led him to abandon architecture to devote himself to lenswork, first as an assistant learning to make prints in the darkroom. He quickly became a pro, and by 2004 was running his own studio. “I love the whole idea of shooting a wedding,” he says. “I love that it’s an unrepeatable event and there’s so much going on, so much emotion.” Ancora’s style reveals his grounding in film and darkroom work, emphasizing carefully previsualized images with a broad palette of tonalities that can easily become fine art prints. While his event shots make skillful use of available light in a documentary style, Ancora’s portraits have a more painterly look shaped with a combination of natural light and strobes. “I like to take the light source away from the camera and create as much modeling and mood in the image as I possibly can,” he says. Ancora’s influences in portraiture sometimes lie outside the field of photography. “I draw a lot from Renaissance art and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and from Rembrandt and Vermeer,” he explains. “I’m fascinated by the way they used light.” Ancora’s aesthetic and his printing mastery have won him many accolades. Now he guides other photographers as creative director of the international XSiGHT studio group. “More and more couples are looking for that creative difference,” he says. “They want to put something on the wall that is truly beautiful.”

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_“Even though there were people everywhere, this moment of solitude presented itself just before the bridesmaids followed her up the stairs."{C}

Parker J Pfister
Asheville, CA
parkerjphoto.com

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“A groomsman struck this pose taking a picture of the couple. I dove through the driver’s window, zoomed to 16mm, and fired this one shot.”

A student of spontaneity, Parker Pfister treats each wedding like a new adventure. During his career he’s cultivated a photojournalistic style that’s notable for its personal feel and visual variety. But his quirky eye wasn’t always welcome when Pfister started shooting weddings with his father in the small town of Hillsboro, Ohio. “The way I like to shoot was seen as just playing around,” he explains. “Many brides want that style now, but back then they didn’t at all. Ever.” The disconnect led Pfister to abandon weddings and turn his attention to large-format landscape photography. But when he returned to wedding photography in 1999, tastes had evolved (as had his skills). He says one of the most important elements of his work is getting to know his clients and building a rapport before the event. Just don’t try telling him where to shoot. “I work best from the hip,” he explains. “When the venue’s management says, ‘This is where you can shoot the bride and groom, this is a great spot for the wedding party,’ those places are immediately off-limits for me. I want to give my clients something different. That’s why they book me.”

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_“I was told Mandy got her spice from her grandma, so I kept an eye out for that. I got this shot with on-camera flash, paparazzi-style, dragging the shutter to one-tenth of a second.”__

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Jonas Peterson
Brisbane, Australia
jonaspeterson.com_

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“I told Marco and Daniela where I wanted them and then simply waited for the right moment,” Peterson says. “I very rarely tell couples how to pose; I tell them to focus on each other. The pose almost always comes naturally.”

My mantra in life is ‘keep it simple,’” says Jonas Peterson. It’s a lesson he learned before he ever picked up a camera, from, of all things, the poetry of Charles Bukowski. “I realized that simple words can produce strong emotions,” he says. “I’ve taken that understanding with me into my photography.” Peterson discovered his affinity for wedding photography after being asked to shoot a friend’s ceremony and reception. He soon started filling his weekends with wedding work, eventually abandoning his career as an advertising copywriter to work with his camera full-time. Peterson attributes the distinctive look of his work to his reluctance to categorize what wedding photos should look like. “I started shooting without looking at other wedding photos,” he says. “I just went in thinking, ‘this is how I’d like to do it.’” For Peterson that means keeping things technically simple, using mostly prime lenses and available light. He takes a minimalist approach to setting up portraits and framing shots and is unafraid to break classical rules of composition to achieve his spare, contemplative style. Which doesn’t mean he couldn’t follow the rules if he wanted to. “I know what a ‘good’ photograph should be,” he says. “I know you shouldn’t cut off heads. What I do is a bit of a rebellion against conventions.” We’d like to think Mr. Bukowski would approve._

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“I grabbed this through a window without Nick and Surya knowing. I only got this one snap before they noticed me.”

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“The couple wanted something not too ‘weddingy,’ so I decided to have them stand in the two blue kiddie pools. It’s also heavily processed with several textures, something I rarely do."

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Camille and Chadwick Bensler
Jonetsu Studios
Vancouver, Canada
jonetsuphotography.com

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_This epitomizes the pure moment available to a wedding photographer immediately following a ceremony. Had the guests or couple been camera-aware, the image would have lost its charm,” the Benslers say. _

We look at ourselves not so much as image makers but as revealers of what’s there when people can be themselves,” says Chadwick Bensler of Jonetsu, the wedding photography business Camille founded in 2000, before the two met. Jonetsu means “passion” or “love fever” in Japanese, and when the fever spread to Chadwick, he became both Camille’s husband and her partner in photography. “I was inspired by her perspective,” he says. Chadwick continues: “We consider it a tremendous blessing to be able to work together. Our goal is to create unique environments for our clients where they can express themselves and allow us to capture it.” Camille puts it another way: “When somebody is holding an image in their hands later on, we want to make sure they feel themselves in it. We want them to feel that image from the inside out.”_

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Dina Douglass
Andrena Photography
Los Angeles, CA
andrenaphoto.com

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“The residents told me that no other photographer ever brought a bride and groom out into the village. Hundreds of children and villagers came out to watch.”

Los Angeles–based Dina Douglass has built a reputation for working with a variety of cultural and religious traditions. She’s especially well known for her work with South Asian weddings, where hours of preparation often go into colorful, elaborate outfits and settings. The events find a perfect match in Douglass’s style, which emphasizes vibrant colors, a polished look and skillfully lit portraiture. “We travel heavy,” she says. “I don’t think anyone should be afraid of gear. It enables you to control situations rather than having them control you.” Douglass has followed clients to such far-flung destinations as India, Indonesia and Ecuador. “Being a student of the world and trying to understand the backgrounds of my clients is something that has helped,” she explains. One of the keys to making sure she meets everyone’s expectations, she says, is “understanding what’s important to the bride and also what’s important to the family—because they’re usually very different things.” The couple often wants documentary-style and fashion-forward shots, but their families tend to want group photographs and important moments in the ceremonies. “Those crucial details can happen in the blink of an eye,” she says, “and if you miss that, in the parents’ view, you will have ruined the entire wedding.”_

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“I positioned myself and waited until she looked up. The light hit her face just beautifully.”

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Greg Gibson
Greg Gibson Photography
Washington, DC
greggibson.com

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Gibson used a fisheye lens to capture this sweeping shot from the balcony as the wedding ceremony began. “By taking this position,” he says, “I was able to tie all the elements together. You see the beauty and architecture of the venue, the bride coming in with her father, and the waiting groom in the background. It tells the whole story in one frame. This is what I strive for in all my images.”

In 2002 Washington, D.C.–based photographer Greg Gibson was already a successful photojournalist with a couple of Pulitzer Prizes under his belt. But he was burned out on the relentless competition in the world of high-level photojournalism and disenchanted with covering political scandals. After encountering a former colleague doing beautiful wedding work, he tried it himself, thinking he had the right skill set and that it would allow him to spend more time with his family. “When I was a journalist, if you had asked me if I would ever be a wedding photographer I would have laughed at you,” he says. The job turned out to be far more satisfying than he’d expected, however. The switch not only broadened his technical skills and gave him a new appreciation for portraiture and lighting but also allowed him to create images as meaningful to a private audience as his journalistic photos had been to a public one. “They’re not just trite, pretty pictures,” he says. “You can make something that has real impact and meaning to the people you’re working for. I try to photograph a wedding in the same way I used to cover news events. You’re telling a story. You’re trying to capture moments that have meaning and that are spontaneous and real.”_

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“I stood on a chair so that I could get sharp focus on just her eyelash.” Shot with a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens wide open.

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“At every wedding there’s at least one of these guys doing something crazy on the dance floor. I used off-camera flash to the rear for highlights and separation and on-camera flash for front fill.”

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Jesse and Whitney Chamberlin
Our Labor of Love
Atlanta, GA
ourlaboroflove.com

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Jesse used a 45mm tilt-shift lens to grab this evocative picture while the couple waited in a parking lot.

The founders of Our Labor of Love have complementary strengths. “I’ll make them laugh a little bit,” says Whitney Chamberlin, “while Jesse will make them smile.” The Chamberlins share a dedication to capturing the personalities of a couple as they unfold throughout their wedding day. As Jesse explains it, they strive to “give them a body of work that is a constant reminder of who they are, no matter how times may change.” The Chamberlins long ago dispensed with the typical routine of taking a group photo at each table of reception guests. Rather, they invented an unmanned photo booth system called the Smilebooth. It serves as a miniature studio where guests can spend as much or as little time as they like taking pictures together, using a wireless release to trip the shutter. “It gives us moments that you never would be able to get if a photographer were part of the equation,” Jesse says. Equally leery of the conventional when behind the camera, the Chamberlins have an inventive style that draws inspiration from outside the traditional domain of wedding photography. As Jesse explains, “We want to create something that’s seen as a piece of art, not necessarily as a wedding portrait.”_

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"I shot this through a plant to give the image a dated, filmlike effect," Jesse says. _

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