Working in Wedding Photography: a conversation with Laura Babb
With wedding season upon us we ask photographer Laura Babb how far wedding photography is moving away from its traditional roots. From amateur travel photographer to setting up her own wedding photography festival, Babb’s encompassing approach to the discipline gives her a unique position to discuss the genre. In this interview we ask her if wedding photography is becoming more accessible, how important its relationship is with social media and if we’re experiencing a revolution in the industry.
How did you initially get into photography? And, before photography what were you doing?
I’d never really owned a camera until I bought a little point and shoot to travel around Asia with. I guess that piqued my interest as around a year later I decided to buy a DSLR on a whim and then I enrolled for a part time Photography AS level. At the time I was a Social Housing Manager, working in the public sector managing estates and specialising in anti-social behaviour case management. That obviously influenced the pictures that I was taking at the time, as my images were almost always of urban landscapes and bits of the street scene. Having never really taken pictures of people, it was a surprise when a friend asked me to photograph his wedding. I thought I’d give it a go but I wanted to be prepared, so I spent six months reading books on wedding photography and I hired in the kit I needed to do the job to the best of my ability. I was that friend with a camera…. I really enjoyed it and decided I wanted to do more of it so I started advertising my services for free on Gumtree, so I could get experience. I basically learned on the job, so the first few years were a really steep learning curve. I think I probably did everything wrong, but I was honest and up front about my skill level and experience. A while later I had 20 weddings booked so I quit my job and I haven’t looked back.
Wedding photography can get bad rep, whether it’s too orchestrated or too demanding, after all for the bride(s) and/or groom(s) it’s a ‘one shot’ thing. How do you contest those presumptions?
It can be quite demanding. Most weddings are 10 – 12 hours of pretty much constant shooting, often in lighting conditions that you have no control over. Most wedding photographers I know absolutely love shooting weddings though and I suspect quite a few of us thrive on the adrenalin of a wedding day. I’ve built my business to attract really laid back couples who trust me to do my job, so client pressure isn’t really an issue for me and you get really used to the demands of a wedding day. Those first few weddings back after an off season break can be a killer though! I understand the argument that weddings are orchestrated and, dare I say it, formulaic. I don’t really shoot in an orchestrated way personally. There are a few set pieces – 30 minutes of portraits and 30 minutes of family group shots – but outside of that I shoot the day as it happens. The fact that the format of a lot of weddings are quite similar means you either churn out the same work week on week or you push yourself to be creative. I shoot at the same venues a few times a year and it’s always a good challenge to come home with something different.
Giving a sense of place and time must be especially important as a wedding photographer. Are there particular techniques or tricks you utilise to frame a moment?
I’m really drawn to landscapes and architecture anyway, so these feature as backdrops a lot in my work. I also shoot in London a lot and with busy street scenes going on around you it’d be a shame not to incorporate that so I embrace it wherever I can rather than presenting a more editorial version of events.
Colour is an elemental factor in your work, do you have to strike a balance between an unrefined image, which still ‘pops’, or do you have to do a lot of work in the editing room?
My editing is really low maintenance. I do increase saturation a bit to make colours pop but for the most part I’m always looking for colour while shooting.
While many of the images in my portfolio are curated with colour in mind, my over all image galleries, as presented to clients, aren’t so focused on colour as an element. While part of my job is creating those portfolio images that my couples book me for, I see part of it as being a family historian that documents the important people in their lives at a specific moment in time. I always err on the side of prioritising the subject matter (someone’s grandma, for example) over my own feelings about the merit of a shot.
How important is it for you to know the couple well before shooting their wedding? Have you encountered times where the chemistry wasn’t right?
It’s not really but I do enjoy the day more if I have got to know the couple a little, as I’m more emotionally invested in them and their wedding. I don’t think that actually makes a difference to my images and, in fact, I sometimes feel I take stronger documentary images when I am a little more detached. I wouldn’t say chemistry is an issue but trust definitely is. If a couple doesn’t trust me they won’t buy into the collaboration, which is an important part of working together. I do my best work when couples trust me to get on with it and they enjoy their wedding much more if they’re not worried about photography.
What’s the craziest wedding you’ve done?
I photographed a Peanuts-themed wedding last summer, which was fun. I’ve done quite a few really intimate weddings with just the couple and their immediate families and they’re always really laid back and enjoyable. One of my favourites from last summer was a self-officiated outdoor wedding on the coast in Ireland. It wasn’t crazy as such but it was quite unusual and the couple, Sarah and Daniel, had planned the whole day to be very personal and unique to them.
Do you think it’s possible to have an architectural approach to wedding photography or do you think it takes away from the intimacy of the event?
I think there is a real trend in wedding photography at the moment to be environmentally focused, whether that’s against an architectural backdrop or in a natural environment. There is a lot of commentary about couples being photographed in front of waterfalls or the like, and while I definitely take those kinds of environmental portraits myself, I try to balance that with an overall collection of images that are focused on other elements, like a strong documentary record of the wedding and portraits that also focus on the connection between the couple.
It’s interesting that a lot of photographers I know, who predominantly show environmental portraits with a strong editorial feel, also create really strong documentary images that they don’t show so much of. I honestly blame social media for this – images that you have to work harder to understand don’t gain the same traction as images of beautiful people in beautiful places.
How relevant is social media in creating an identity for your work?
I honestly don’t know. I book almost zero work through social media like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and and Twitter, yet I dedicate a huge amount of time to keeping these channels updated. On the plus side it does help me to engage with the wider industry and raises the profile of my work. I find the networks of photographers that I’m part of invaluable. I do have a real love / hate relationship with social media though.
What direction do you think social/wedding photography is going?
I think it’s really diversifying and becoming a lot less rigid. As a wedding photographer you can pretty much set your own agenda and as long as you can market that in a way that’s attractive to potential clients then it’s possible to make a good living.
Over the past decade the market has become flooded with wedding photographers, is that because it’s more accessible now? And, consequently do you think it’s allowed for the exploration of unique styles of photography?
I guess so. That’s basically how I ended up being a photographer, having never even thought about photography before I bought my first DSLR. I definitely thing wedding photography has changed in the last 10 years. 10 years ago you were probably either traditional or reportage, and now you can call yourself anything from ‘alternative’ to ‘contemporary’ via ‘fine art’ (which I personally think is a misnomer but that’s a discussion for another day). Ultimately, though wedding photography is about preserving memories, but the difference now is that many photographers find a way of bringing their own unique aesthetic into that memory preservation.
Do you think wedding photography is treated too much as a business and too little as a legitimate branch of photography?
I think wedding photography is, sadly, still the poor relation of the photography industry. Things do seem to be changing but we have a bit of a credibility issue still.
Those stereotypical wedding photographers do still exist, but there has been an explosion of creativity within the industry within the last five years especially.
It definitely is a business though and it’s a mistake to think otherwise, especially in today’s saturated market. Wedding photographers need to be good business people or they simply won’t be able to make a sustainable living.
Are there any photographers that have hugely inspired you or your photographic pursuit?
Well The Mango Lab’s very own Karl Grupe for one. I attended one of his workshops at the very start of my journey and have been on others since and it always gives me a massive creative boost. Karl is a brilliant teacher. In the wedding photography world I love Nick Tucker‘s work for it’s honesty and very defined documentary style, Jacob Loafman is always inspiring because of his passion for experimentation, I love the work of Citali Rico, and Kristen Lewis is an amazing documentary family photographer. There is so much talent in the wedding and lifestyle photography industry that I could go on and on.
You must have become exposed to different cultures and traditions with the work you do. Does that affect the approach you take to a particular wedding on a particular day?
I do a lot more prep if photographing a wedding outside of my own culture, especially if it’s a wedding from a cultural tradition I’ve never photographed before. It’s really important that I understand the key parts of the ceremony, so I do a lot of research in advance and make sure to get a thorough briefing from my couple beforehand.
Having said that, most of what you photograph on any shoot is down to you reading the mood and body language etc. but the difference from, say, Christian or Civil weddings is that I know the format really well so with weddings outside of that I definitely have to be more aware.
Aside from wedding photography, do you enjoy photographing in other genres?
I love shooting travel for fun. If I could endlessly backpack around the world and make a living from photographing my travels, that would be the dream.
I would just quickly like to mention SNAP. How did you come up with such an artistic approach to bringing the wedding photography community together?
Adult summer camps are popular in the US and in 2014 I attended a camp for photographers in California. Prior to that I’d looked at events like Phoot Camp and I’d always though the chance to step away from your day to day life, to play and to experiment is brilliant for creative development. I realised there was nothing like it in the UK and decided to create a version for the UK market. It’s part festival, part conference and part workshop with loads of camp fire hangouts, beautiful Welsh countryside and delicious food thrown in for good measure. SNAP is in it’s third year this year and it’ll see around 100 photographers from all over the world meet in West Wales for a week of learning and inspiration.
Lastly, what lies ahead?
I honestly have no idea. I’m not much of a long term planner, rather an idea pops into my head and I decide to run with it. At the moment I’m focused on SNAP and then we have our sister event SUMMIT in the Autumn. I’m also shooting 25 weddings this year and running lots of smaller workshops in between!
All photos thanks to Laura Babb