The Situation

So many choices…..

I wrote this post a MONTH ago, then decided not to post it. But, things kept happening and I thought I would share my experience. My goal is not to bag on the wedding industry because it is one of the strongest industries left in photography and has become refuge for thousands of photographers who can no longer support themselves in their native genre(And if this allows them to create their own work then fantastic). There are many positive things about the wedding photography world, including some great photographers, social media pioneers, workshop pioneers, branding and marketing pioneers, but with these have come the vast homogenization and capitalization of the business. I think this is only natural. Anytime someone ramps up production, it is nearly impossible to maintain initial quality.

A friend sent me an email……

“Hey, I’m getting married next summer, have some ideas for the photography, you think you can do it?”

Well, not sure I can, but let me check around for other photographers in the area,” I said. The area my friend lives in is a familiar one to me, and I HAD friends in the area. I wasn’t sure any of them were still there, but I figured I would be able to quickly go online, search a few things and find a direction for my friend to move in.

Thirty one photographers.

I looked at thirty one different photographers online. All of them local to my friend. I thought maybe I would have to search three or four, check some of my old friends and quickly find a good match.

Thirty one photographers later I had to send an email to my friend saying, “You can’t hire any of these people.”

Now before you go thinking I’m a hater I need to clarify a few things. First, I did not expect this AT ALL. Again, I figured I’d go online and bingo, find a good match. Second, I’m not looking for photo-Gandhi here, just someone with a point of view who has a recognizable style That’s it. Again, pretty simple.

But here is what I found.

1-Almost all the work I found looked EXACTLY the same. It was made with the same lenses, the same cameras, in the same angles, with same tilts, and the same backgrounds and on top of it…all the same post-production filters. If anyone is using that faded, old photo look, PLEASE stop. EVERYONE has the filter, which in essence takes away any interesting residue that filter had in the first place. It’s a filter. It’s a button you push, and it does little to nothing to make the images interesting.

2-All but ONE of the websites were of the same design.

3-All but ONE of the blogs were of the same design. And, the blogs were not blogs they were simply areas where more images were posted, all the same images, at the same size and in the exact same fashion, and the blogs told me NOTHING about the photographer.

4-Photographers that used to be good had traded good for volume and THEIR work now looked like everyone else. (I found this painful). I see the upside to this folks, the upside that is an upside native to ONLY the photographer. Everyone else has to endure the idea of conformity.

5-ONE photographer had a recognizable style. This is a GOOD things folks. Only problem, his style was a perfect blend of Larry Fink and Taryn Simon(two REALLY good photographers), so if you KNOW either of these two people then the idea of wedding photos looking like this…well, it feels a little second hand. And, I realized when something is THAT stylized, how is that going to look in ten years? How about 50? Frankly, I think it is going to look like 2010. Now, this is debatable, and again, I give this photographer props for at least blazing their own idea. Would have loved to see more pioneering looks, but alas there was JUST one.

6-There was a MASSIVE amount of phony talk and quotes and sayings. Everyone was saying all the right things, only problem was their work all looked the same. Blogs carried most of the phony baloney. Don’t use the word love, it’s redundant. Don’t call your work “Art” that is for others to decide. In 41 years I’ve never been to an art gallery and seen wedding work.

7-Ninety percent of the “wedding photojournalism” was posed. And I mean REALLY posed. The description “wedding photojournalism” has little value any longer. Nothing wrong with posing but just call it posing.

8-Two of the sites crashed my browser.

9-Too many sites had MUSIC. Why? Why for the love of God do wedding photographers put music on their sites? You realize of course I’m either listening to Pandora or iTunes so when your wedding tune comes blaring in it is suddenly mixed with Metallica or Audioslave and sounds like the end of world. Just go ahead and take that off please, and I’m speaking for %99.9 of all humanity.

10-It was apparent to me, very apparent, that the vast majority of the wedding sites I found were created by photographers who have never studied photography. Now, again, I can see both sides of this. First, this could be a great thing. “Hey, no need to study, I’m getting work and shoot all the time.” Photography is now open to ANYONE. There is ZERO barrier to entry so if you tell people you are a wedding photographer…then you ARE a wedding photographer. Okay, the flip side. This is total BS. When you don’t study photography, or understand it, or have vision, or a style…the problem is…it shows in YOUR WORK. Hence me looking at THIRTY ONE DIFFERENT SITES. Folks, studying photography, learning photography, isn’t a bad thing. It’s a GREAT thing. And fun. Just because you are getting work doesn’t mean you SHOULD be getting work. Think about photography and ask yourself, “Am I aiding this business or watering it down?”

11-Branding is out of control. First of all, most of the sites were branded and stylized to the tenth degree. Again, branding…a good thing, but people you GOTTA be able to make pictures, and I mean GOOD pictures, not the exact same thing that everyone else is doing. And let me stress this again. THE EXACT SAME THING. Your ultimate brand…is your photography, not your letterhead, logo and packaging materials. I see this in all worlds of photography, but nowhere as much as wedding/portrait. Again, logos are cool and I’m a sucker for a great box, package, etc, but man, what is INSIDE the box is what is gonna last.

12-Being a destination photographer was being used as some “badge of honor,” but the work looked EXACTLY the same as the work made at home. EXACTLY. Look, if you are going to Thailand or Greece to shoot a destination wedding, well, why don’t you MAKE something that looks and feels like Thailand or Greece? Let’s think about Greece…..hmmm, let me see. I think cliffs, DEEP blue sea and lots of white. So why the heck would I use the old faded photo filter?? People?????? Am I going insane over this stuff?????? YES, the answer is YES. You flew halfway around the world and used the same filter you used at the local bowling alley back home??? WHAT?????? And look, this is 2010, I’ve taught workshops where I was the ONLY person in the room who hadn’t been to Everest base camp…EVERYONE travels. Using this as a sales tool is a little 1918. When it took 3 months on a ship to reach the motherland…now THAT was travel.

13-This is only going to get worse. With equipment prices falling, many folks looking for second jobs, and the quality bar reaching the Earth’s core…the days of the visionary are nearing an end. Photography and fast food are nearing critical mass. Lucky for photographers, Americans eat fast food, on average, twenty times per month.

14-Not a film shooter among them. This could mean something or nothing depending on your view on the “old ways.” You know me, I prefer the stone age over the space age, and when I see RAMPANT blown highlights, including many of the wedding dresses, combined with that embalmed skin tone I begin to lose it. People, this is basic photography and exposure. And yet, there it is, all over the place. A few sites had major splash pages void of highlight detail. Glowing skin tone highlights with fringing, banding, etc. Before you condemn the “old ways” just know that NONE of this would have been accepted before the advent of the “new technology.” Look, I know how tricky it is to keep highlight range when you are moving fast and shooting digital. Many times I’ve sat down at the computer to begin a “salvage op.” I see a lot of this sloppiness covered up with….what else…filters and post production, but again, that is like trying to hide from a missile strike by standing behind a tree.

So, I wrote my friend and said, “You can’t hire a wedding photographer.” Yep, I did. “You have to look outside the wedding industry, find a real fine-art shooter, someone who will look at your day with NEW eyes and not INDUSTRY eyes.” “They might only shoot ten frames but at least you are going to get ten interesting photographs.”

People, I’m puzzled by all this. I’m still amazed at what I found. I keep finding myself thinking, “Go back and look again,” and then I see pages of purple, clicked on sites and know I don’t want to. I fear that wedding photography has been commoditized to the point of no return.

Now for me, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got ONE more wedding to do and then I’m done. Moving on. But I think for anyone remaining, do what I did, pick a city and take the ride. Great work takes time and I don’t think much of what we are doing these days is given the time it needs to excel. And if you are shooting 30-70 weddings per year, how are you able to give the time you need to create something unique?

And I’m as guilty as the next person. I sometimes make bad photos, prints, books and decisions, but I know now the only thing that really matters is I give those images the best chance of success and by success I don’t mean exposure, branding, packaging or distribution. And, I learn from what I did wrong, correct it and make sure it doesn’t become an accepted part of my practice.

I also found myself wondering, “Who is hiring these people,” and by the looks of it… MANY people are. But again, as a photographer, if you are comfortable hanging in the 80% range, okay I get it. For me, I want to be in the 8% range, otherwise…I feel like I’m wasting everyone’s time. If anyone can do it, then why should I? If I have nothing to say, then why say anything at all?

Now, this entire post can be, and maybe should be, dismissed by saying, “Who cares?” If people are getting work and their clients are happy then who cares? In this case, I do because my friend is in the middle of it. Like I said before, I’m done with shooting weddings, have a single mission left on the books, but I do care about what goes on when my amigos are involved. In the past few months I’ve found myself as a rep of sorts when the phone rings, the email pings, when clients call about weddings. “I’m not able to do your job but let me find a photographer for you,” I hear myself saying. I just can’t stand the idea of a good shoot going to someone who is part of the mainstream mass manufacturing of wedding imagery. And I have to say, my referral list is very, very short.