What Makes a Great Wedding Photographer?

The rewards of being a successful professional wedding photographer are great—not only financially, but also in terms of community status. The wedding photographer of the new millennium is not regarded merely as a craftsman, but as an artist and an important member of the community. The following are a few qualities aspiring wedding photographers should possess:

Consistency. Consistency is surely one ingredient of greatness. Those photographers who produce splendid albums each time out are well on their way to greatness.

Likability. A common thread among the really good ones is affability and likability. They are fully at ease with other people and they have a sense of personal confidence that inspires trust. For example, acclaimed photographer David Williams says, “I just love it when people think I’m a friend of the couple—someone they just haven’t met yet who happens to do photography.” Maximizing these personal interactions allows the best wedding photographers to create animated, filled-with-life portraits—images that bring out of the real personality and vitality of the subject.

Cool Under Pressure. The ability to work under pressure is also critical. To be successful, wedding photographers must not only master a variety of types of photography but also perform them in a very limited time frame. The couple and their families have made months of detailed preparations (not to mention a considerable financial investment) for this once-in-a-lifetime event, and expectations are high. 

Couples don’t just want photographic “record” of the day’s events, they want inspired, imaginative images and an unforgettable presentation—and there are no second chances. This means that, aside from technical skills, achieving success requires calm nerves and the ability to perform at the highest levels under stress. This pressure is why many gifted photographers do not pursue wedding photography as their main occupation.

Up to Date. To stay on the cutting edge, the leading wedding photographers also scour bridal magazines, studying the latest looks in editorial and advertising photography. These magazines are what prospective brides look at and want to see in their own wedding images. Consequently, editorial style has become a huge influence on wedding photography. Noted Australian wedding photographer Martin Schembri calls the style of the contemporary wedding coverage a “magazine” style with a “clean, straight look.”

A Great Observer. The truly gifted wedding photographer is also a great observer. He or she sees and captures the myriad of special, fleeting moments that often go unrecorded. Through keen observation, a skill set that can be clearly enhanced through practice, the photographer begins to develop the knack of predicting what will happen next and making sure he or she is ready to capture it. The more weddings you photograph, the more accustomed you become to their rhythm and flow—but the sense of anticipation is also a function of clearly seeing what is transpiring in front of you and reacting to it quickly.

The Ability to Idealize. Another trait that separates the competent photographer from the great one is the ability to idealize. The exceptional photographer produces images in which the people look great. This means that the photographer must be skilled at hiding pounds and recognizing a person’s “best side.” This recognition must be instantaneous and the photographer must have the skills to quickly and fluidly make any needed adjustments in the pictures. 

Through careful choice of camera angles, poses, and lighting, many of these “imperfections” can be made unnoticeable. This is especially important when it comes to the bride, who must be made to look as beautiful as possible. Most women spend more time and money on their appearance for their wedding day than for any other day in their lives, and photographs should chronicle that.

Creative Vision. David Anthony Williams, an inspired Australian wedding and portrait photographer, believes that the key ingredient to great wedding photos is something he once read that was attributed to the great Magnum photographer Elliot Erwitt: “Good photography is not about zone printing or any other Ansel-Adams nonsense. It’s about seeing. You either see or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more.” Williams adds to this, “Good wedding photography is not about complicated posing, painted backdrops, sumptuous backgrounds, or five lights used brilliantly. It is about expression, interaction, and life! The rest is important, but secondary.”

Immersion. Another common factor in achieving success is total immersion. Wedding photographers involve themselves in the event and with the people. Celebrated wedding photographer Joe Buissink has described this as “being in the moment,” a Zen-like state that at least for him is physically and emotionally exhausting. Buissink stays in the moment from the time he begins shooting and will stay in that mode for six to eight hours. It’s interaction and communication, but also a little magic. (At the same time, of course, you cannot be drawn into the events to the extent that you lose your sense of objectivity or stop paying attention to what’s going on around you.)

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