Photographing someone’s Big Day is a beautiful—and stressful—job, especially if you’re not a seasoned pro. This week, PopPhoto is serving up our best advice for capturing that special kind of joy.
Award-winning photographer Vanessa Joy has been photographing weddings for over 20 years and prides herself on making her client’s big day a fun and stress-free experience. Joy’s introduction to wedding photography came from her mother, who actually worked as a wedding photographer as well. Her high school photography teacher ran a business photographing weddings, too, and after Joy graduated she joined him as an assistant, where she worked for nearly five years. She started her own business in 2008 and has been capturing couples on their big day ever since.
She’s currently one of Canon’s Explorer of Light photographers—an honor that is only bestowed to five wedding photographers in the country. In the lead-up to her busy season, Joy took some time to talk with us about the pre-planning she does before a shoot, her favorite gear, and why she thinks second shooters are indispensable.
How have you seen the wedding photography industry change since you started shooting on your own?
Wedding photography has changed so much. With film, every shot was so planned and expected and you would set up for it by focusing your camera on a pew, and once the bride or groom, whoever got to that pew, that’s when you took the photo. With cameras like the Canon EOS R5 and the EOS R3, which have such impeccable autofocusing, you barely even have to think about focusing anymore. You end up taking a lot more pictures than you did back in the day—which leads to good things.
You capture more moments, you can capture them more easily, and more photos come out. But it also leads to a little bit more work, but then of course they get more images in their wedding albums. When I first started, wedding albums were, I don’t know, maybe 50 pictures. Now, most album designs are about a hundred pages and there are three or four pictures per page. With all of that, client expectations have definitely gone through the roof. I’m just waiting for my first couple to ask me to face-tune all their photos.
How do most of your clients find you these days and what is your process like for confirming jobs?
It’s usually either through a referral or Instagram. If they found me on Instagram or they found me through a venue, they’ve usually already seen my photos. Even if they haven’t, I usually go through some sort of description of what I do the day of. So they inquire, I give them a bit of a starting range for price, just to make sure we’re a good fit there—because there’s a wedding photographer for every budget and a client for every photographer. If I’m within their budget range, we’ll get on a call and I usually ask them a lot of questions. I want to talk to them about their expectations, their wedding, and figure out what they want. From there I can sort of tailor what I do to fit what they want—assuming it actually does fit. I don’t change styles with every wedding that I shoot, I’m going to shoot the way I choose.
I try to really stress the experience over everything else because they’ve contacted me, they already like my photos. The experience, on the other hand, that’s where I try to differentiate myself. Most people looking for a wedding photographer don’t know the difference between good and great photography, but they do know the difference between a good and great experience.
What sort of pre-planning needs to happen to ensure that great day-of experience?
I’m helping them write their family photo list. I’m helping them with their timeline or communicating with their wedding planner about their timeline. During the wedding, I try to be unobtrusive, even the stuff where I am posing them. It’s not your senior photo: it’s not tilt, turn, smile, it’s more fluid. And I can be more fluid because of the cameras that I use. I can put them in situations and let them move all around. They don’t have to stand still. My camera can keep up with anything that they do.
After that, I do a same-day edit on any given wedding day. Both the Canon EOS R5 and the R3 that I use have wifi, so I will go through the camera and I’ll just star the photos I like. When I hit my Canon Connect app, it puts all those starred photos right up front and then I can download them really quickly from that app, process them through Lightroom, and text them or airdrop them to my clients before I even leave for the night.
Getting couples some same-day edits is pretty impressive, why did you start integrating that into your day-of workflow?
For a few reasons, I’m a very impatient person in general, so if I have the photos and they’re fresh in my mind and I’m excited about them, I like to edit them then, before all the photos that my editors handle. I want to edit a few photos and I want to put my spin on them. Secondly, the thing that breaks my heart the most, is when I look at one of my couple’s Instagrams the day after the wedding, and they’ve posted a selfie—like an iPhone photo—and then that’s “the photo,” because it’s the first one that’s going to get the most attention.
I want that photo to be my photo—I want all the attention, for marketing. So, I like being able to give it to them that night. Plus it gives my editors a base to start with. They see what photos I like. They see how I edited them. And it gives them a base for editing the rest of my photos from that day. I also will print out a handful of photos, because it’s just fun. I use the Canon Selphy printer for that, which is a super small portable printer, so I can just give a little novelty album to the couple the day of.
What is your typical turnaround time for the rest of the images?
The proofs are usually ready within two to three weeks, although I tell clients three or four to give a little buffer. And I like to deliver a predesigned album. I’ll tell the story visually with every moment of the day and put it together in an album design. Then we will do a video chat going back and forth, and making the album exactly what they want it to be. It’s a good process. I don’t put the burden on them to pick out their photos, because they’ve never designed a wedding album and it’s such a horrible task for them, and they’ll never get it done. My clients get their wedding album within three to six months.
It sounds like all of the pre-planning that you do before the big day helps make sure everything runs smoothly the day of.
It’s exactly that. It’s not even just planning out timing and shots, and just making sure that time is correctly aligned, but it’s setting expectations too. Reiterating the things that you told them on the first phone call, but that they probably forgot. Or maybe it’s in your contract, but they didn’t really read that because they just skim that and sign it on the bottom.
What advice would you give to someone who has done some second shooting, but wants to venture out on their own and become a primary shooter?
As a photographer, you just have to be in control. Maybe it’s getting them in control by being funny, or getting them in control by being a little bit authoritative—because sometimes that’s necessary when they’ve been drinking too much. You just have to figure out whatever it is for you, but that happy ground has to be authoritative, but nice. There’s just a lot of smiling and nodding along the way. If I hear red flags about certain guests being a little bit high maintenance early on, sometimes I suggest hiring a third photographer, just to be there for that person. And that does happen every once in a while.
What’s your approach to working with second shooters?
I’m very picky with my second shooters. I won’t just hire some random person I found on Facebook that week. Most of the second shooters have been with me for over a decade. They’re people that can shoot in my style, but also understand what it’s like running a business because they run their own businesses. They understand the weight of photography, and wedding photography specifically. They also know how to be professional and mimic the kind of experience that I want my clients to have. They’re all extremely vetted. And most of them will shoot my associate jobs for me too—the weddings that I’m not on, that I sell as a slightly lower budget option.
What sort of little details are you looking to capture the day of?
I think it’s more about anticipating the little moments, especially the ones that the bride and groom don’t see. It’s definitely more of a second photographer job since the first photographer is having to direct and control and be in the forward-facing main action moments. The second photographer—which every wedding should absolutely have and I insist all of my weddings have one—is the one who’s pointing the camera in the opposite direction, and looking in the opposite direction of what’s actually happening to catch all those little moments that are super fleeting, but just special. A lot of times these are moments that the couple didn’t even see. So when they’re looking through their pictures, they’re like, “I didn’t even know this happened,” or “I didn’t even get to see this little design thing.”
What’s your go-to gear on the day of a wedding?
One of the best lenses for wedding photography hands down right now is the Canon RF 28-70 F/2 lens. It’s like three prime lenses in one. And when you think about it that way, it’s also a deal. Using it allows me to not have to change lenses, really ever. I’m also using the R5, a 45-megapixel camera. I can do a digital 1.6x crop on that, and now my 28-70mm lens reaches 112mm. It’s a lower megapixel image, but it just makes that lens all the more versatile when you attach it to the R5.
One of my old favorite lenses is the Canon EF 135 F/2. It’s like the secret prime lens that most people don’t even know exists, but it’s a beautiful long lens and just creates the most creamy bokeh in your background. Using it on the R5 with the adapter, you can do that 1.6 crop again, and it’s like shooting a 200mm lens, but it weighs next to nothing. I also bring Profoto B10s and Canon EL1 flashes to use on top of my camera.
Your outdoor nighttime shots are all really beautiful, can you share any tips about executing this style of image during a wedding?
It’s not as hard as you think—I will say that. I know people get very intimidated by doing that, but I do have a book, The Off-Camera Flash Handbook, that makes working with flash very easy. If you’re going to do a nighttime shot, go outside, go to a place where you’re going to place your couple, and take a picture as if you are taking a picture without a couple there. Those are your settings. Then all you have to do is add light. Put a flash behind them maybe, to get a glow behind them, and put a flash off to the side to hit just the two of them, maybe with a grid. So it’s really just the two of them. From there just trust your TTL for your light, figure out where your power should be based on how you wanted your background to look, and then make it darker or brighter from there.
See more of Vanessa Joy’s work here.