The problem with wedding photography has nothing to do with photography. It has nothing to do with exposure and f-stops and whether this looks like film or that works as a print. It has nothing to do with light and composition or even emotion or feeling on their own. The problem with wedding photography, in fact, is distinctly non-photographic.
The problem is Iceland.
This is an industry where there isn’t a week that goes by where the stakes aren’t ratcheted up a notch. Where the landscapes don’t loom a little more dramatic, where the couples don’t get a little smaller, and the compositions grow more impressive. A high stakes game being battled across the globe in locations near and far and so commonly settling in Iceland, as the hills sing with the sound of shutters clicking and couples trekking.
Each year, the light gets prettier, the cliffs become steeper, and the pictures are stunning – more than enough to satiate the wanderlust in every flip-phone toting, card-carrying, hipster heart. Raggedy-yet-graceful couples walking up hills, down hills, staring at oceans, and standing in forests.
But for all that, no matter how stunning and how impressive, the question isn’t about how well you take the picture. The prettiness may make it all go down a hell of a lot easier, but it will never be a replacement for what really matters: having something to say.
While it may be the age of unending fetish, no VSCO filter, no stock of Kodachrome, no place, no space – none of it means anything if there isn’t a point of view stirring inside the person who clicks the button.
Yes, pictures have improved. But as the haze lifts and the talent grows, what becomes clear is that the plague of the wedding industry isn’t its sheer crappiness. We’re finally starting to steer clear of that. It’s the pervasive sameness that has defined this industry from the start. Where craft is concerned, crappiness and sameness are worlds apart. But insofar as the art, heart, and soul of the medium goes, they remain one and the same.
This is a time of a thousand variations of couples center-framed, space-enclosed, holding hands, and looking somewhere, anywhere, and everywhere. And I’ll fess up now. I, too, am guilty.
What’s wrong with sameness? It sells. It’s sexy. It’s hot. Why not?
Because people are more. Couples are more. Because we are more. If you buy the party line – and this is a line I’ll buy hook, line, and sinker – that we all have something to say – that we all have something to offer – then sameness is most certainly a problem.
We are defined by how we are different. No one says you’re you because the things you do or the beliefs you have are just like everyone else. You are you, because of all the ways you’re different. That’s how it goes. We are our exceptions, not our conformity.
And we all have something stirring inside of us. Everyone has a way of doing things. But many never put it to use nor pay it heed, instead, chasing the chase, looking for better in all the wrong places.
You see it in the battles of the moment and the talk of the times. There’s the white hot fight to see who can produce the truest film emulation. The crusade for printing prints. The unending litany of discussions about the cameras we use. Do we stick to a DSLR or go mirrorless? Do we shoot digital at all? And what format, if we go film? Check out the Leica M Edition 60 if you want to see the ultimate conceit of the now. All digital, no LCD viewfinder. Get the hardness of digital and the limitations of film for $19K. Nice.
This all misses the point.
The question isn’t how good a film emulation is. It’s why you use it. I’ve seen many a conversation comparing film stock presets. I’ve seen all of none telling us why it matters. If you don’t have an answer why getting 98% of the way to Portra 400 is better than 96%, then who really cares about the rest? Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t matter, but that the question of why needs to come first, or else it’s the chase for the sake of the chase.
Authenticity is only valuable when you understand it well enough to let go of it. The moment we cling to the authentic for itself is the moment it loses its original purpose.
It’s not digital or film. Print or screen. It’s what you have to say with them. How you use them. And if the answer is only going to go as far as the mysterious beauty of the grain structure or how a different technology makes you slow down and think, that’s not even close to far enough.
Beauty for what? To say what about the world? About your subject? Slowing down and thinking, though great, did all of nothing to make every film photographer anything close to brilliant before digital hit the scene. Most people were just slow and bad.
Thinking about light, composition, and timing is one thing. Thinking about what life, love, and living is for is another. And that is the problem with Iceland.
Not that so many have gone to the ends of the earth and back to find the ultimate shot. That, in and of itself is fine. But that so many people wander through the mist and climb the hills – whether it be in Iceland, California, or across the street – only to bring back something so similar to so much without asking what their own private Iceland was. That we chase the look and not the meaning.
Great photographers find novel ways to show similar subjects. Sameness disparages the complexity and beauty of who we are.
Live life first.
Not through the camera. Not for the camera. But with the camera. Sit on a sidewalk and watch the people pass. See how you feel about them. Not what looks like some shot you’ve seen before from a hero of the past. But what YOU feel. Put that in your pictures.
Read a book and think about what people are. What is marriage for to you? What is love for to you? How does your choice of framing, composition, filtering, and camera make this opinion – this belief in your heart – indisputably clear? Step out of your role as the photographer and forget about what you’re supposed to shoot. Find what you need to shoot.
Be conscious of your possibility.
The world doesn’t need you to solve what’s already been solved. It’s waiting for you to solve what hasn’t. It’s waiting to hear what you have to say. Don’t check yourself in at the door. Don’t run from who you’ve fought to become. Wear it. Show it. And make that lead the way.
Einstein once said if he had an hour to save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution. What’s unfortunate is if you research this carefully, you’d find he probably never said that (I, on the other hand, did not research this carefully, but I did Google it and found this article).
What is fortunate is this makes for a great quote that reveals an essential truth about creative thinking: Answers are bad. Questions are good.
Read on, to see how it worked for Steve Jobs, how it stops photographers in their tracks, and why Jeff Goldblum can save your life.
FOCUSING ON ANSWERS BLINDS YOU TO THE OBVIOUS
Answers are only as useful as the questions they serve. Or, to put it another way, creative thinking isn’t answering questions. It’s asking them. Think about it. How many times have you thought to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because you know you could have. But the odds are the reason you didn’t see the obvious is because you didn’t ask the obscure.
Bad questions are stifling. Why? Because all questions are packed with assumptions –horrible, mind-numbing, headache-inducing assumptions – and until you can untangle this morass of evil assumptions, answers have limited value. Worse yet, bad questions are not only packed with the most assumptions of all, but they’re also the first questions to come to mind, so when we set out on solving a problem without taking the time to reframe it, we implicitly accept the status quo instead of taking a fresh look at the issue .
For example, the entire computer industry spent years in the early 2000′s trying to make the tablet work. Why did Steve Jobs get it done, when everyone else couldn’t? Well, yes, sure, because he’s Steve Jobs, there’s that. But the real problem was everyone was asking the wrong question.
The whole industry was asking “How do I stuff a computer into a tablet format?” That was insurmountable, because they had to figure out how to create a machine that could do everything without the physical tools (keyboard, mouse) and space (form factor, screen size) a full computer necessitates. Because of that, what they produced were slow tablets with clunky interfaces that plain sucked.
If Apple had asked the same question, there wouldn’t be an iPad. But that’s not what they asked. Instead, they asked what are the basic features people need when they’re on the go? By asking that, they could let go of all the legacy functions in a full-sized computer and create something that worked exceptionally well for a few specific purposes. Problem solved.
And so it goes in this industry, as well.
Do you need to give out close to a thousand pictures to your clients? And I’m not actually saying you should or shouldn’t. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – it depends on who you are. But here’s one thing I can guarantee. Asking how many pictures you should give, whether it’s a lot or not is a useless question. How do you even draw a conclusion to that? Research? Ask people? Do an a/b comparison for five years to gather data? Way too hard.
The types of things you’d want to ask is what matters to your clients and why. Or what makes people hire you? Or how you get the results you get? Or, even, if you’re going to insist on focusing on the numbers, then ask ask what types of numbers will get people’s attention and generate more business. Either way, quantity alone won’t get you anywhere without a reason behind it.
HOW PHOTOGRAPHERS SHOOT THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT
And it’s not just a business problem. In fact, asking good questions is the essence of creativity.
Look at the way people typically learn. They see a picture they like. They find out how to replicate it, and they spend the next year shooting everything they can to look just like that. Sometimes the next ten years. Sometimes, the rest of their lives. But asking how to achieve a technique, though a necessary part of the process, is also one of the least important questions to answer. If voice begins when differentiation begins, then asking the same questions as everyone else is the hardest way to get there.
A gaggle of photographers running around in an open field at golden hour shooting the same model might improve some portfolios, but it will do nothing to up their vision. Vision is not technique. It’s not ability. Sure, you need these to execute, but vision comes from somewhere much deeper. A place you find by asking better questions.
The whole reason the greats can run wild, break the rules like twigs, and trample over convention is that they’re solving different problems than everything else. They don’t just say, “How do I reproduce this picture?” They ask “What makes a better picture?” Better yet, “What makes people react?” And they know what their answers are. Ansel Adams was famously technical, but his command of the camera and darkroom always served a greater function – observation and ideas.
Good questions open up possibility and expand thought. They engage you and let you ask even more questions and become more interested. They let your brain make the essential connections to see the world differently. That’s voice. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “[They] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And that’s what’s essential.
Asking better questions isn’t just a theory to expand your horizons. Asking better questions is a necessity to stand out. It’s a necessity to keep yourself involved in your own business and your own art and your own life. It’s lets you become more, and it’s the activity that most people never bother to do, which means the advantages are vast. So before asking how to do something, ask what the value of that thing is. Otherwise, you wind up getting eaten by dinosaurs.
It’s Saturday morning.
Your stomach churns, your guts twist up in knots, and thoughts of what’s ahead pour into your mind. You stammer out of bed and screw up your courage, ready to put it all on the line.
You’ve followed Accuweather all week, you’ve got Dark Sky loaded, and your bag pulls like a ton of bricks with more gear than Batman and more cards than Vegas, because you’re ready to roll if the shit hits the fan, and you know what’s coming down the pipes.
It’s hard, it’s bruising, it takes everything you’ve got.
And you surely do know what’s coming, because you’ve cut out swaths of your life just to think about every single thing that could go wrong each step of the way. So much so, it sifts into your dreams and drifts into your head in the middle your days like a bolt from the blue. From the focus that won’t hit to the camera that could die. From filling your card right as the bride steps into the aisle to a flash running out of juice as the first dance kicks into gear. And despite that, something new goes wrong. Every. Single. Time.
Aimee Mann said it right:
It’s not what you thought
When you first began it
You got what you want
Now you can hardly stand it, though
By now you know
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
Your world spins in perpetual motion, steady and ready on the outside, at the edge of control within, and in every moment of the day and every second that passes by, you’re forced to make the call. The information is a torrent, hitting your senses without a break. When’s the kiss happening? Are the place cards in place? And how much darker can it possibly get? A mom tells you not to miss this, your gut tells you not to miss that, and no matter what you decide and where you point and shoot, there will always be more to think about, more to consider, and more you’ll miss than you can possibly get.
It’s true. It doesn’t stop. But if you’re in it and at it, you have to decide whether you’re really going to do it, because there are only two ways out. Either quit early and cut your losses, or you make your way through to the other side. Just don’t stand in the middle of the road, where traffic will plow you down.
And it’s not just the shot that’s on the line, but your reputation, your livelihood, and every ounce of integrity you have. And integrity is no exaggeration, because it can bleed out faster than you can ask a bridal party to jump in the air.
Who are you, what do you say, and where are going? There’s nothing but nothing that won’t define who you are, as you constantly search the depths of your soul. Are you going to play it safe? Are you going all out? There’s every reason not to do anything and no reason not to do everything. It’s all in your hands.
It’s the middle of the road where you sell yourself short. The middle of the road, where you can’t do more than fight to survive. And there’s nothing wrong with survival, but you’re built for more than taking the hits. When you find what you have to say, every moment is an opportunity, and every act is a chance for self-expression.
Every weekend you pit you against you against you in a match to the death, and only one person makes it out of the ring. It’s a high wire act with an empty stomach, a full head, and a once in a lifetime day every single week, where only one missed shot can send you into a tailspin.
This is a world where everything’s a pitch. Five tips for this. Ten ways to do that. A single secret to conquer them all. You’ll learn how to spend more time avoiding work than doing it, which is the surest way never to get anything done, because the more you run, the more you feel the hurt, and the more you feel the hurt, the more you run. You create a cycle of detachment that exchanges the brilliance and clarity of the possible for a duller, more lifeless version of the now. Temptation will tell you to check your vision at the door for the promise of heaps of cash and unending ease, but muting your voice so you can just suck up the pain is too much to give.
And it only gets harder when the week comes along. After 8 hours of standing and ten miles of walking, your feet are a wreck, your body is in shambles, and you still have the rest of your business to run. A slave to little, red notifications and emails received, you have blogs to follow, people to read, and the unending keep of your manicured digital front.
It’s never what you thought. It’s never what you’d hoped. Like love, reality is at its best and fullest when you take it for all that it is. It’s at its worst, when you can only wish it were something else. It’s never what anyone thinks, and that’s the beauty of it all. Only when you feel the texture of your life for good and for bad do you see how far you can go.
You blow through a day and get nothing done. A week passes by, and you forget what took place. You clean out your gear and sync up your clocks. You sort, you tone, and Friday comes around. You sneak out for some drinks, but you know just what’s in store. You pull out your phone and take a peek at the weather, and you brace yourself, so you can do it again.
Do it different. Do it fully. Dive right into the heart of it all, living and breathing every part of your life. Don’t focus on making more and doing less. Don’t think about just making it through. Steer into the skid, learn to love, and learn to find. Take problems out, leaving them down for the count, and don’t look for the answers you need. Answers curtail your options and limit your channels. Ask better questions, instead. Questions explode the possible, making the static, alive. If you’re chasing the dragon, the true high is never going to hit, but when you see the unlimited, you touch your purpose and feel your worth. Fun and fulfillment are the byproducts of a life fully lived. Live it all wholly and fully, and your Saturdays will never be the same.