How fake bridal photos got me real wedding clients, Part II

wedding photography

Fake brides, real love.

Read Part I here.

I wanted to create a world populated by elegant brides doing unbridal things. Passed out in a bathtub. Smoking by a graffiti-tagged wall. Dangling from a neon sign.

All brides. No glamor.

I shot six unbridal portraits within the first two weeks after the dresses arrived. By the end of that year, I had shot 30 of them all over Chicago. 

Sometimes I had to jump through hoops to get permission to shoot in odd locations. When I met with the owner of a steel foundry and asked him if I could shoot pictures of a bride pouring molten steel in a white gown, I didn’t expect him to say yes. But as I sat in his office with Heidi (the bride in question) explaining the idea, his eyes lit up with childlike glee. “Wear a silk dress,” he advised, “Can’t wear polyester or it’ll melt.” Then he added with a wink, “We’ll have to make sure we follow OSHA safety procedures, of course.”

Sometimes I just showed up and did the shoot guerrilla style. Riding the Chicago L train one afternoon, I saw a vacant lot in a dilapidated West Side neighborhood. It was an empty block full of mud, garbage, and ramshackle houses with boarded windows. On it sat an unattended excavator, a giant piece of construction equipment, parked with no one around. No construction was happening at the moment, and there was no fence to keep me out.

I quickly called my friend Sara, who lived not too far from there, and asked if she was free that afternoon. I got her dress size and hurried home, pretty sure I had a gown that would fit her.

We met up at Sara’s apartment. She put on the dress and a long veil, and we drove to the site. We slogged across the muddy lot to the sleeping yellow dinosaur. (I hadn’t asked Sara to put on heels, thank God.) Sara was fearless. She walked right up to the cold, rusty claw and climbed in. I backed away and started shooting.

After about five minutes, we noticed a black car with tinted windows circling the block slowly. It stopped and seemed to be looking at us. I don’t know who was in the car, but I’m guessing it wasn’t anyone working for the construction company. Sara and I decided to quit while we were ahead. We hurried back to her car. It occurred to me later that we may have been naive to be there, in that neighborhood, with an expensive camera and a very eyecatching dress. If I had it to do over again, I would have brought more people. But we got the shot.

Every now and then, the unbride photos would reach people I never expected. The shot of a bride dumpster-diving ended up getting a life of its own as the poster for an improv show. The dumpster she was digging in had been tagged with graffiti. About a year after I took the photo, I was contacted by the street artist who had done the tagging. He had seen the poster, and he wanted to know if he could have a copy of the picture–his street art had since been painted over by the city. I gave him a framed 16×20, and later he helped me out as an advisor on another Unbride photo.

So you may be wondering, how much did this project cost? More than I could afford, no doubt.

Sure I spent over a thousand dollars on slightly damaged bridal finery. Every one was a bargain. Anne and I didn’t have kids at that point, so the expense was relatively harmless. 

In fact, Anne was extremely supportive of the whole project. Along with making veils, she came up with props, and she lent me her editorial eye on many occasions. She was great at hearing my initial ideas and refining them, adding details. There’s no way I could have done the project without her.

She also was kind enough to tolerate the overflow of white poof that took over our bedroom closet.

There’s only one bride in the whole series who’s wearing her real wedding dress. It’s Anne. She’s carving a pumpkin by herself at a Halloween party. She’s pretty great.

After I showed prints of the unbridal photos in a local art show, several people approached me, asking if I’d be interested in shooting their weddings. This shocked me. I had assumed that this project would kill any further wedding photo inquiries. Surely no one would see these irreverent images and think, “That’s the guy I want taking pictures at my wedding.”

Turns out I was wrong.

I was thrilled to learn that many people getting married weren’t interested in glamorous, fairytale portraits. Some folks would rather brush off the glossy fantasy and have some fun.

So I began shooting weddings for real. Unlike before, I decided to be a professional about it. What I quickly discovered was that I really enjoyed working for people who dug what I did, and they let me do it without standing over my shoulder. I didn’t have to shoot real weddings with tongue in cheek, either. I could do sincere, romantic, even glamorous, as long as I was on the same wavelength as the people I was working for. 

And I worked harder for them because I liked them. I felt like they deserved wedding photos that would really represent their unique taste and style. 

So the Unbrides ended up being kind of a filter. People who saw them and still wanted me to shoot their wedding–those were my people.

Before I seriously considered shooting weddings for a living, I thought it would be the drudgiest of drudgery. But my expectations were all wrong. When I really started trying, I realized that wedding photography wasn’t a limitation–it was an opportunity to blow people away.

Now, 15 years later, I look back at the real wedding portfolio I’ve put together, and I think the photos in there reflect who I am as much as the anti-glamor unbrides. (See Principle #3: Stay Interested.)

More importantly, I think about all of the wedding couples whom I’ve grown to love. Somehow, taking the piss out of bridal photography has led me to a deeper appreciation of weddings. I’ve gone from an irreverent photographic goof to forming real friendships with some truly amazing couples.

See the Unbrides photos here.

How fake bridal photos got me real wedding clients

wedding photography
Note: not a real bride.

Part I: Fear of the Fake.

A bride dumpster diving.

A bride with her head in the oven.

A bride passed out at a construction site, sleeping peacefully in the claw of an excavator.

If you see these pictures, you might wonder if the photographer doesn’t care for weddings. You might think he has some cynical thoughts about marriage. I get asked that a lot.

The truth is, I love weddings. I’ve been happily married since before I took any of these photos. Anne’s and my wedding was a small gathering of family and close friends on a damp night in February. It was quiet, cozy, and funny. To us, it was just right.

At the time, the idea of shooting a giant, solemn wedding with hundreds of guests and breathtaking bridal portraits on a windswept mountain vista–I wasn’t ready for that.

I had only shot a couple of weddings professionally. They were both casual weddings for friends, and I intentionally undercharged–mostly because I wasn’t confident that I could do it well. The discount price was my preemptive apology to the clients in case I screwed up. I wasn’t about to go looking for work shooting weddings for people I didn’t know.

I wasn’t interested, either. I was terrified of working for a wedding couple with no sense of humor. I’ve never been a fan of the sincere, fairytale wedding. And I don’t understand the glamor-hungry, all-eyes-on-me bride.

When people whom I love decide to spend their lives together, it makes me so happy. But the wedding day itself–some people take that one day so bloody seriously.

I started taking photos professionally in 2001. For the first couple of years, I accepted any kind of job BUT weddings. At that time, the only real wedding photos I’d seen struck me as phony: posey-posed brides with pasted-on brideypoo smiles. Grooms and wedding parties who looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.

Bridal magazines circa 2001 featured a different kind of phony. The hair and makeup were perfect; the scenery was breathtaking. Yet all personality had been stripped from the model posing in the couture dress. Most magazine brides didn’t smile at all. Anyone who did was clearly a model. This was what brides aspired to?

And of course, same-sex weddings and weddings of anyone over 30 didn’t exist at that time. At least, not in magazines.

No bridal photography captured what I loved about weddings and marriage. They were missing the story, the relationship. The giggliness, the goofy exuberance. The joy.

But wow, the pictures were pretty. The fabric folding white on white. The structure of each gown creating its own crescendo. I had to admit, I was fascinated with the genre. Wouldn’t it be amazing to shoot knockout images like that? (I mean, minus all the phony.) I wanted to pay tribute to the genre of bridal photography while also pulling the rug out from under it. 

The first image popped into my head as I was leaving the grocery store one day. After transferring my bags to the back seat of my car, I pushed my shopping cart into the battered cart return. Suddenly I envisioned a stoic bride sitting in it. A magazine bride, posing dutifully in a white princess dress. Blank expression on her impeccably made-up face. Elegant in her own absurdity.

The first Unbride.

Before I knew it, I was on the computer shopping for discount wedding dresses. I was determined to create an alternate world in which only magazine brides existed.

Beautiful, out-of-date gowns were abundant on eBay. Some were used, but most were bridal store seconds. Elegant satin frocks with broken seams or scissor slashes through their billowing tulle.

I probably should have been nervous to tell Anne about it, but I charged ahead and asked for her opinion on the idea. She was totally game. She offered to help me out by making some veils and searching thrift stores for bridal accessories. We had a blast looking at used dresses online.

I called a handful of actresses I knew and asked them if they’d be willing to put on a wedding dress for me. Once I explained the premise, they were all in. 

Read Part II: Fake Brides, Real Love.

See The Unbrides photo series on my portfolio site.

What could possibly go wrong?

reduce stress for others, wedding photography

Disaster happens. It’s only a question of when. For me, a few seconds mean the difference between a close call and an irreparable failure.

The bride and groom are listening to the officiant with nervous smiles. The small ballroom is tightly packed, and the guests are quiet. Everyone knows the moment is almost here.

It’s a pleasantly dim hotel ballroom. I’ve got my flash turned off. I’m crouched at the back of the aisle, camera perched just below my eye. We’re approaching the moment when the officiant will smile and say, “You may kiss.” 

It’s tough to predict how long the kiss will last. This couple is in their late 20s – fully formed adults, content in each other’s company without having to be demonstrative. I’m guessing I’ll have a couple of seconds at most.

I do a quick gear check. All settings are go on my main camera.

It’s time. My 40-year old knees grumble as I rise from my crouch. 

Click-click-click-click during the kiss, then it’s done. Smiling faces and flushed cheeks as they turn to face us.

How it looks through the viewfinder.

Here they come, receding up the aisle arm in arm. Click, click, click, I shoot and pull back… The groom looks proudly into the camera and–


My viewfinder is suddenly blocked by a dark, diagonal rectangle. I press the shutter again.

Clunk, with a faint rattle.

The couple passes me and I pull the camera away from my face. My control panel flashes an error message. 

This is not happening…

As they exit to the lobby, I scramble after them, pulling my second camera up to grab a couple of shots from behind. All I get is backs of heads.

I hurry over to my second shooter. “My camera is dead. Stay with them.” She nods, wide-eyed, and runs after the happy couple. My heart is beating out of my chest.

I duck into an alcove, pop the lens off of my camera, and see that the shutter has come completely unhinged. It’s hanging at a drunken angle, like someone tossed it into the body of the camera as an afterthought.

Yep. It’s dead.

Fortunately my second shooter keeps her cool. She’s working the receiving line like nothing’s wrong. I switch my all-purpose lens onto my second camera, take a deep breath, and hustle over to join her. 

My second camera, that poor, maligned old beater with 700,000 clicks on its odometer, is a trooper and gets me through the rest of the night.


It wasn’t until I was on my way home that my mind started spinning around all the what-ifs. What if the shutter had broken 20 seconds earlier? I would’ve missed the kiss and the whole recessional. 

What if I hadn’t had a second shooter for the receiving line? 

What if the shutter had ricocheted like shrapnel inside the camera and damaged my lens? 

What if this had happened at any number of weddings early in my career, before I could afford a second camera? I would have been up the creek without a paddle – probably fired on the spot and punished with a bad Yelp! review. My fledgling photography career would have ended before it began.

But it didn’t. On this day, I was the luckiest kind of unlucky. The camera died right after I caught the must-have moment, and I had a dependable backup to get me through the rest of the night. It was a few seconds of freefall, but whew, it could have been so much worse.

The couple had a great reception. I never told them about the camera malfunction. To this day, I don’t think they know it happened.

Be prepared, friends. Control what you can control, and be a decent human being. Hopefully karma will be kind.

Damp, hungry, and stiff. Part III

wedding photography

Romance and rotator cuff injuries.

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.

By the time the formal photos are done, the ceremony and cocktail hour are over, and dinner is served, my back and shoulders are screaming. 

I’ve learned that if I don’t stretch at least once a day for the week leading up to the job, I pay for it. I spend most of the wedding day bearing the cumulative weight of two cameras, flashes, lenses, batteries, and sometimes a tripod or flash bracket. After the first 6 hours or so, my lower back has hardened like coal into a diamond. 

damp, hungry, and stiff - Johnny Knight Photo
I spend a lot of time on my knees in dress pants. Photo by Michelle Kaffko

In my early days of shooting weddings, I didn’t have a car, so on more than one occasion I compounded the physical challenge by lugging all of my cameras and lights on public transportation. Note to wedding novices: don’t do that. Not only will your shoulders and lower back burst into flames, but every other passenger on the train or bus will give you the stinkeye for blocking their path to the exit.

Uber and Lyft drivers don’t much care for clearing out their trunks to make room for gear, either. Rent a car.

I’ve experienced chronic muscle spasms and inflamed discs in addition to my increasingly long periods of soreness after each wedding. I’ve spent a lot of time with physical therapists and massage professionals. 

They have taught me some stretches to keep my hips, back, and neck from seizing up. I’m supposed to do these stretches every day, ideally twice a day. But come on. Free time doesn’t grow on trees.

So when I get a break, I disengage from my gear, find a quiet corner, and do five minutes of quasi-yoga. Sometimes while eating. 

This quick, clandestine stretch helps a little, but it’s no substitute for doing real yoga on a daily basis. You’d think with my history of stress injuries, I’d get a little more proactive about stretching. 


I dance with the grace of a stick figure. This kid didn’t want to be seen with me. Photo by Michelle Kaffko.

I know a slightly older photographer whose back is so excruciatingly tight after shooting events that he has to take prescription sedatives just to get to sleep. If I don’t get a daily yoga routine in place soon, that could be me.

Wedding photography isn’t for wusses. When you hire someone to shoot your big day, take a moment to respect how tough they have to be. Those beautiful pictures only exist because the photographer is willing to sacrifice their body. 

That said, I’ve never once complained about it to a client on the wedding day. (Principle #2: Reduce stress for others.) Even when I’m experiencing multiple levels of grossness and pain, my role is to remain outwardly dignified. 

And somehow, I still love doing it. Even after 8 hours, when my back is brittle concrete, it’s a cozy feeling to see the wedding couple slow dancing to the last song of the night. You have to admit, this is not a normal job.

Damp, hungry, and stiff. Part I

wedding photography

The soggy truth about summer weddings.

There’s a longstanding tradition of outdoor weddings in the summer. When you see beautiful wedding photos with backgrounds of lush green leaves and flowers in full bloom, remember that a lot has been edited out of those pictures. 

Perspiration, for instance.



In a way, I admire the optimism of people who have summer weddings. They are so in love that they think summer won’t affect them in the way it affects other humans.

This is how I feel after shooting a summer wedding.

Where I live, in North Carolina, a summer wedding may as well be Apocalypse Now. People in formal attire start to melt the moment they hit the humid air. Hair frizzes instantly and makeup dissolves. Guests must be issued paper fans to circulate the air and keep mosquitoes away. No guest feels romantic with their clothes sticking to the small of their back. 

Yet through the miracle of photographic technology, the wedding couple looks impeccable.

I, on the other hand, look like a Gatorade commercial wearing a tie. I know there are more physically demanding jobs than wedding photography – here’s a shout out to roofers, first responders, and professional wrestlers. But aside from maybe coaching college basketball, I think wedding photography is the sweatiest job you can do while wearing a suit. 

My jacket acts as a layer of thermal insulation, and the pull of the camera straps just intensifies the oppressiveness. I’ve chosen a profession that often requires me to wear layers, and my busiest season is when the earth is closest to the sun.

In short, working a summer wedding is not pretty.

damp, hungry, and stiff - Johnny Knight Photo
This is what I actually look like. Photo by Leigh Barrett

“Why don’t you take off your jacket?” you ask. Because the jacket conceals the wet suit that is my dress shirt. I once worked a July wedding in just a collared shirt with a t-shirt underneath – no jacket or tie – and by the time the ceremony was done, it looked like I’d taken a shower fully dressed. After the formal photos, the groom came up to me like someone approaching a wounded dog. His brow was furrowed as he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Are you okay? You can sit down if you need to.” 

Only later did I realize that I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen. So not only did I look like I’d just gone swimming in my suit, I was also sporting a baked-red face. Plus the humidity was making my hair kink up like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. I’m pretty sure he thought I was having a heart attack. 

The reward, of course, comes when I send the wedding couple their photos. When they see how lovely they look in the pictures, it more than makes up for my waterlogged summer day. 

Read Part II: Fuel.

Damp, Hungry, and Stiff. Part II

wedding photography

Framing the day around fuel.

Read part I here.

On an average wedding shoot, I go nonstop for 8 to 9 hours. To maintain my head of steam, I start the day with a cocktail of energy bars, vitamin supplements, caffeine, and Tylenol. (Principle #1: Be prepared.)

These lovely people have no idea how badly I have to use the bathroom.

Sometimes I have the cargo room to carry a water bottle, but I don’t like to drink too often because I don’t want a bathroom emergency at the wrong moment. I’ve had some close calls, believe me. It’s a very specific kind of tension you feel, trying to get a 3-year-old to stay in one spot for a group photo while your bladder is bursting.

Rather than drinking water throughout the day, I usually resign myself to getting dehydrated. Then, as soon as the bar opens at the cocktail hour, I cut the line and ask the bartender for a large glass of water with no ice. I chug it on the spot since I don’t have a free hand to carry a drink around. After the dinner and toast, I chug one more. Those two glasses of water don’t replenish all the fluids I lose, but knowing my kidneys as I do, sipping throughout the day is just too risky.

The other piece of the puzzle is eating. At every wedding, some well-meaning soul says, “You have to try the fried ravioli!” or whatever appetizer is at hand. Sometimes they offer to grab me a cocktail. 

On a few occasions, I’ve made the mistake of taking them up on it. When this happens, I’m inevitably in mid-bite or mid-sip when someone’s 90-year-old grandmother gets up to dance, and everyone starts waving at me to come take a photo of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. I pitch the rest of the stuffed mushroom I’m eating into a nearby plant, grab my camera with my greasy fingers, and hurry over to take a photo while trying not to choke. 

Me balancing two cameras and a paper plate of food. I don’t recommend doing this.

To avoid this, I usually save my appetite for my contractual dinner break. I’m a vegetarian, so if the wedding planner and caterer get their wires crossed and forget to order a meal for me, I end up having to fill up on bread and potatoes. I always carry an emergency protein bar, but it’s not ideal fuel for the marathon day.

If I’m lucky, dinner lasts an hour. More likely I get about 12 minutes. I sit down, unstrap my cameras and flash battery, and take a bite. Then a family member stands up to make a toast while I have a mouthful of broccoli. I hastily refasten my gear, shove one more bite into my mouth, and resume shooting. Break’s over.

Honestly though, there are harsher working conditions in this world than having to eat and drink at unpredictable intervals. It’s not too tough as long as I don’t let inertia set in: I keep moving, keep shooting, keep exploring. (Principle #3. Stay interested.) The time between fill-ups goes by pretty quickly. Plus, at the end of the day, when my memory cards are packed with photos, I usually head home with a piece of cake in tupperware on the passenger seat.

Read Part III: Romance and rotator cuff injuries.