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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Wedding Warriors

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Several years ago, "George," a commercial/editorial photographer, told a friend and colleague who shot weddings exactly what he thought of her job choice.

"I'd never shoot weddings," George sniffed, almost literally looking down his nose.

Guess what?

Now George shoots weddings.

Guess what, too?

His website now gushes about how much he loves doing them and how he loves getting to know his clients and helping them to capture their special day.

The charitable thing would be to assume that George has had a road-to-Damascus conversion and really does enjoy photographing brides and grooms, their nervous families, their hundreds of guests, their out-of-control nieces and nephews, their loud bands.

The more realistic view would be that George's other work is drying up like a prune in the desert and that, like everyone else, he is scrambling to make a buck.

I can sympathize. Judy and I have been shooting weddings – as well as lots of other commercial work – for more than 20 years. And it is work. It's tough on the knees, the back and the ears, to name just a few of the body parts that come immediately to mind. And there is no doubt: the wedding market is getting tighter.

We got into weddings almost by chance. While we were dating, Judy mentioned that she was shooting a friend's wedding out in the country. I said why don't I tag along with a camera and help you out? [That's right; our first joint wedding actually was a date.] Since that time, we have become a small industry, having shot more than 600 weddings over the past two decades.

When we started out, shooting 35mm color exclusively with portable on-camera flash [and giving our clients their negatives] we were in a very small minority. Most conventional wedding shooters back then shot in medium format, often had an assistant tagging after them lugging a second, slave-powered flash unit – and would sooner saw off their right arm with a rusty blade than ever give up a negative.

Changing demographics, not to mention the digital revolution, and a sundered editorial photography market, have changed all that – rarely to the benefit of the photographer – and not always to the benefit of the consumer.

Arguably the main reason the old-style wedding shooter occupied the lowest link of the photographic food chain was that he (or she) was viewed as a hack huckster more interested in selling individual, formulaic pictures to a gullible client than in doing anything out of the ordinary or even remotely creative. Suffice to say the average old-time shooter photographing a wedding at a country mansion during a thunderstorm would stick to the shot list, using as little film as possible to keep costs down and not, as I did under the same circumstances, set up a separate camera with a fisheye lens on time-exposure so I could make spectacular minutes-long shots of nature's fireworks bracketed by two of the mansion's white columns, distorted by the fisheye into two huge parentheses. (The clients loved these shots.)

The other knock against the traditional wedding shooter is the post-wedding hard sell to make you buy a hell of a lot more than what you had agreed upon in your "wedding package."

These "packages" – then and now – actually are loss leaders. The photographer makes the real money selling individual pictures above the number contained in the package. That's why so many brides have bad memories of photographers pushing 16x20-inch wall prints on them, or urging them to make their album "truly elegant" by doubling the number of prints in the basic album.

Early on, Judy and I decided we didn't want to be a wedding cottage industry and chose to give our clients their archivally sleeved negatives, along with the numbered 4x6 prints that came from our custom lab. I can recall several "traditional" wedding shooters telling me with exasperation (and sometimes with anger) that we were making things bad for everyone and that giving up negatives was "just unprofessional."

Guess what? A lot of these people are now doing just that.

Part of the reason is the influx of more shooters like our colleague George – actually magazine and newspaper photographers – who are facing tougher times and who are used to surrendering their film. In fact, a fair number of wedding clients expect this now.

The infusion of news shooters into the ranks of wedding photographers did add new blood. But the client didn't always benefit if the newsie's idea of good service was to shoot the event, then hand over the film. [I have done wedding albums for people who worked this way with their photographer, then found themselves high and dry when it came to albums.]

In addition, there is the problem that Judy and I faced when our son Dan was married. We hired an ex-magazine shooter for the wedding and he did a fantastic job. But because our friend was used to covering the President and all sorts of other luminaries, he concentrated on the bride and groom and got comparatively few pictures of their family and friends. [By contrast, when we work, we ask for detailed lists so we not only know about group pictures – but also get to know the key players beforehand. Should Judy and I have paid more attention to the list at our own family wedding? Sure. But this time we were busy greeting guests – and remembering our toasts.]

Another sea change in the wedding world has been digital and the lessened control the wedding shooter has over his or her work product. Even photographers shooting film face this problem, especially when they hand over wedding "proofs" – actually the same 4x6 or 5x5 machine prints that the wedding lab would make normally.

In the old days, the only way one could copy a "proof" without a negative (i.e.: without the photographer's knowledge) would be to photograph it and lose significant detail. Today? Just stick it in a home scannner and who's to know?

Which is why so many traditional wedding photographers today have taken to posting their wedding pictures on special websites in which pictures are displayed in low-resolution, sometimes bearing watermarks, to thwart free downloading.

Such is the state of the art today. Given all this, I'm just as happy shooting film, having the best lab in town process and print our stuff, and giving our clients hundreds of great pictures and negatives, so that Judy and I are free to pursue all of our other (non-wedding) work. And in these areas, I should add, we never surrender copyright unless the client agrees to pay a substantial increase in our fee to buy the rights he or she needs.

But I have to admit: at weddings I do shoot digital now. Just a little bit, mind you, on a separate camera, to create what I call an "executive summary" of the event. When we get home, I burn a CD of, say, 50-75 pictures and ship it to the client immediately.

This way I'm a hero, the clients can do whatever they want with the images (I really don't want copyright to wedding pix) and best of all, nobody's on my neck asking when the "real" pictures are coming back from the lab.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Portability and good reflexes (as well as good equipment) make the difference when shooting a frenzied hora at Jewish weddings. I always work inside the circle shooting up. Since my 35mm camera and flash are all in one unit, I can move quickly to make the shot – and get out of harm's way.

©Judith Goodman
Judy's tender portrait of this bride typifies the new school of un-mannered wedding photography. But the rules of good composition and lighting still apply. Note how the railing leads you to the bride. Fill flash, though hardly noticeable, opens up shadows.

©Frank Van Riper
With the right digital equipment, you can mimic the same effects you get with film cameras. Here, during this couple's first dance, I set my PowerShot to aperture priority with flash, knowing that the shutter speed would be slow, but that the flash would freeze my subjects.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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