Smoke on the Water

wedding photography

The wedding photography profession can involve putting out metaphorical fires. Sometimes I have to put out real fires too.

You may know them from the famous scene in the movie Tangled. They’re sky lanterns–paper cylinders that act as luminous little hot air balloons. The translucent paper is closed at the top; a lightweight wire skeleton keeps the the bottom open. Ignite the flammable square at the base, and the glowing lantern floats out of your hands and ascends into the night, wherever the wind takes it. Release several at a time, and they speckle the sky with soft light. It’s a thoroughly dreamy, romantic image.

Unless you’re a fire marshal.

These days it’s hard for me to romanticize fire when I think about the recent cataclysmic wildfires in Australia and California. Countless people and animals have died or lost their homes because small flames got out of control. The sky lanterns are beautiful, but look past the romance and it’s easy to see why lighting a bunch of little flames and releasing them into the air with no steering mechanism could be disastrous.

Think back to a more innocent time: 2011. An absolutely charming, easygoing couple, both active in the performing arts, held their September wedding at a picturesque lodge in Michigan. Built in 1909, the lodge remained intentionally quaint. It stood in a rural wooded area on the lakefront; there were no televisions or telephones in any of the guest rooms.

This lodge included something unusual in its wedding package. After the reception, guests could walk a few hundred feet from the reception tent and enjoy a bonfire in the woods. Lodge staff would build and stoke the fire, and guests could sit around it to drink and toast marshmallows. The wedding couple loved this idea, and they asked in advance if I would make sure to get some photos of it. I happily agreed.

The late afternoon ceremony went to perfection. It took place outdoors on a wide wooden deck overlooking Lake Michigan. Afterwards, we retreated to the tent for champagne and toasts. Shortly before dusk, I got word that the groom’s father had brought some flying paper lanterns as a surprise. He invited everyone to migrate back to the deck where we would release the sky lanterns over the lake.

My partner Michelle and I were skeptical that they had permission to do this. Still, we didn’t want to be wet blankets, so we hustled over to the deck, pulled out our cameras and shot fast and furiously while the groom’s father started lighting one of the lanterns. No one from the lodge staff tried to stop him.

A soft wind was blowing out toward the lake. Between the deck and the water was a steep slope (almost a sandy cliff) thick with brush. Tall trees flanked the hill on either side. I don’t drink while I’m working, so I was conscious of the dauntingly narrow path that the lanterns would have to travel to get out over open water. The wedding couple and guests all had glasses of champagne in their hands. The opening must have looked wider to them.

The groom’s father launched the first lantern. It lifted off triumphantly before veering left, promptly getting stuck in tree branches above the deck, just out of our reach. The tree clung to the lantern despite the rising hot air inside. Ah well, the guests said, let’s keep trying. They lit more lanterns.

After a couple of successful launches, another lantern failed to lift entirely. The wick in the bottom must not have produced enough heat, because instead of rising, it floated straight out at deck height. It doddered horizontally for about 10 seconds, then sank pitifully down onto the bushes. A dud, it rested on the foliage, still lit and burning. (I wonder if this happened to any of the royal lanterns in Tangled.)

In spite of the limited success rate of the lanterns, guests kept at it. A few glowing cylinders had finally made it past the trees and out over the lake. They were picturesque against the dimming blue sky. The lantern that was caught in the tree continued to burn without moving; the one resting on the hill brush gave up and extinguished itself. 

At the edge of the deck, one of the guests held his lantern sideways as he put his lighter to the wick. There was very little clearance between the lighter and the sagging dome, and the paper caught fire while the lantern was still in his hands. Rather than dropping it and backing away, as I would have done, the guest held onto the metal ring while the paper burned, giggling and admiring the blaze. The edges of the paper glowed orange, shedding sparks and ash. 

Another guest helpfully tried to put the blaze out by pouring the remains of a bottle of champagne onto it. This was ineffective. Finally the giddy guest dropped the ring and what was left of the burning paper over the railing of the deck and onto the bushes below.

People leaned over the edge of the deck, smiling and laughing as they watched the fiery paper on the ground sway in the breeze.

Michelle and I, professionals that we were, kept shooting throughout. I wanted the shutter clicks to drown out the voice in my head yelling, “Stop this before we burn the deck to the ground!”

I looked up to check on the lantern that had been stuck in the tree. It was gone. At first I thought it had escaped the tree and made it airborne. Then I noticed a flicker on the hill directly below the tree. The lantern had drifted to the ground, and now the wick rested against a bush. To me, it looked like it was about to ignite.

I’d had enough. I lifted the camera straps off my shoulders and set my gear under a wooden bench. I stuck my legs under the deck railing and dropped down onto the sandy hill. Walking down toward the sad flame, I did my best to keep my balance. If I tripped on a root, there was very little to stop me from tumbling all the way down to the beach.

I reached the lantern and stamped out the fire with both feet. To be on the safe side, I kicked sand on it too. 

I turned and looked at the people on the deck. Everyone seemed to have lost interest in the flames on the ground, and they were celebrating the successful launches of a few more lanterns. I trudged back up the hill and kicked some sand on the laughing guest’s champagne-soaked lantern for good measure.

Pulling myself up onto the deck wasn’t as easy as getting down, but I managed. I strapped my camera gear on and got back to the job of wedding photography. I can’t remember if anyone thanked me, or even acknowledged that I’d put out the potential bushfires. Maybe the danger was in my head and there was never anything to worry about. No one else seemed at all concerned. Guess I ended up being a wet blanket after all.

A few hours later, after the reception, the remaining guests gathered around the bonfire in the woods. As I shot pictures of people relaxing and cooking wieners, I was poised to spring into action if so much as a cinder were to land on a dry leaf. None did.

In hindsight, I have no idea how this lodge survived for more than a century. Since the management was cavalier enough to permit sky lanterns and they facilitated bonfires at every wedding, who knows how many other near-infernos had been started by tipsy revelers over the years. Maybe close calls like this were typical.

The lodge ran out of luck 15 months later. In December 2012, the main building, uninhabited during the offseason, burned to the ground. The deck and most of the trees on the lakefront went with it. It took 77 firefighters to put out the blaze. No one knows what caused it, but I have been assured that my wedding couple and their fire-enchanted guests were all at least 200 miles away. 

Your fiance will see you now

wedding photography

The unrestrained romance of the First Look.

To see or not to see? Every couple getting married has to decide whether they want to see each other before the ceremony. Tradition says no: save it for when you’re walking down the aisle. I’m not especially traditional, but I understand this line of thinking. If you regard the wedding ceremony as the culmination of your sacred story, then seeing your partner beforehand is a kind of spiritual spoiler. So I don’t mind when couples decide to wait, if that’s what feels right to them.

Supposedly the tradition began with arranged marriages, when the young bride and groom might not have met before the wedding day at all. If you caught your first glimpse of your betrothed on the morning of the wedding and didn’t like what you saw, you’d be less inclined to show up at the altar. 

In these modern times, a great many couples meet first, then decide to get married. And many of these couples want amazing, creative photos of themselves and their loved ones on their wedding day. Why not? You went to the trouble to hand-pick a soul mate, so you might as well get photos that reflect what’s unique about the two of you. 

The problem is, if you wait until after the ceremony to take pictures together, you either have to cram the photo shoot into a few frantic minutes before the reception, or you have to make your guests wait an eternity for their meal.

(Note: the cocktail hour was invented to keep guests busy while photos are taken. But many wedding couples want to participate in their cocktail hour. By design, they can’t. This means that the whole time the couple is being photographed, they feel like they’re missing out. Even if they grab some bacon-wrapped shrimp to go, they grumble through the whole shoot. Nice try, cocktail hour.)

The First Look. What an ingenious idea. It lets couples see each other hours before the ceremony, yet it retains the excitement of the big reveal. The First Look comes complete with nervous energy and suspense. It also entertains the bridal party with the cloak-and-dagger game of hiding the couple from each other until the cameras are in place.

It can happen anywhere–a staircase, a vineyard, a bridge, an elevator–so long as the couple gets dressed up in their finery to dazzle each other before the ceremony starts.

One half of the couple waits out of sight of the other. They haven’t seen each other since getting dressed. Bridal party members stand nearby, often acting as human blinders to preserve the surprise. Photographers station themselves so they can see both fiances’ faces. Then the hidden member of the couple steps into view, and the two embrace in a quasi-private moment, admiring and enjoying each other. Cameras click.

Keep in mind, the First Look is about more than a photo op. Hearts pound. Adrenaline pumps. The air is thick with Here We Go!

First Looks tend to happen in three phases: anticipation, revelation, and… well, whatever happens next. Once the big reveal is complete, the couple’s euphoria can take infinite forms. Some people simply kiss and hold hands. Many couples parlay their elated energy into a moment of celebration. Smiles can’t be contained. Hugs are long and vigorous. People in dresses have been known to twirl.

This is the real opportunity of the First Look. The romance of the moment doesn’t have to be restrained. The couple can wholeheartedly express their affection.

Contrast this with the traditional reveal during the ceremony. The walk down the aisle must be dignified. If there’s a veil, it must be lifted with steady hands. Hearts may be pumping hard, but the couple maintains their outward poise. Be cool… All of our relatives are watching… There’s an ordained and/or government-licensed official standing right here…

A First Look isn’t exactly private, but it is completely free from ceremonious expectations. The couple can show how they feel. The formal ceremony is still hours away–they have time to dance like nobody’s watching.

I’ve shot dozens of First Looks on staircases. They start out with the same formula: one person waits on the stairs, and the other descends to meet them. What happens next depends on the couple. If they’re silly, they can get silly. If their dogs want to celebrate with them, then hey, send in the dogs. It’s a free-for-all.

…becomes this.
…becomes this.

Once the reveal and reaction are done, the remaining hours before the ceremony are bursting with potential, both photographic and romantic. Often the giddiness of the First Look carries over into the rest of the photos. The couple has time to play for the camera, and they can enjoy the relief of holding hands with their favorite person during the hours leading up to the big event.

Whether they’re walking through the park or posing on public transportation, at that moment the couple is unburdened. They’re beautiful, they’re well-dressed, and they’re free to feel excited and relaxed at the same time.

Yes, this couple and their bridal party took the train to their wedding.

I haven’t measured this scientifically, but I think couples who get pictures done beforehand tend to have a more enjoyable experience during the ceremony. They carry less tension with them from the outset. The affection is already flowing. By the time they start saying their vows, happiness has overpowered suspense.

First Looks are lovely, but they’re not for everyone. You may prefer to wait until one of you is walking up the aisle. You may not care for the big reveal at all. Whatever you decide, make it true to you. Not just for the photos. Do it for yourselves.

“My phone takes amazing pictures!”

adapt, reduce stress for others, wedding photography

Phone cameras are a great way to cultivate talent in hobbyists and irritate the daylights out of professionals.

We all know that smartphone photography has come a long way. In 2019, anyone with a phone has the tools, if not the training, to take a decent picture.

What hasn’t come a long way: the etiquette of wedding guests with smartphones. The fancier the phone, the more likely that a guest will feel entitled to use it in a way that undermines the official photographer.

I witness this sense of entitlement at almost every wedding. For instance, when I’m getting a family arranged to take a posed photo under a tight time crunch, frantically trying to command the attention of 10-12 people, including a sleepy 2-year-old niece and a sulky 15-year-old cousin, the last thing I need is for people to be standing on either side of me with their phones, yelling “Taylor! Taylor! Look over here!” 

It’s not that I dislike phone cameras. I own one myself, and I can’t live without it. I shoot with my phone whenever I don’t feel like carrying my SLR around, which is most of the time.

While we’re praising these glorified point-and-shoots, I’ll admit that I’m thrilled with how they have democratized photography. When I spoke to some middle school students at a recent career day, the number of aspiring young photographers impressed me. All of them use phone cameras–no surprise there. The eye-opening part is that they’re taking terrific shots. 

Their phones accelerate the learning process: they can shoot as often as they like, and they can analyze and learn from their experiments right away. (I started out shooting film. I think of how few pictures I actually took because of the time and expense involved. I nursed each roll of film for 36 pictures and waited a week to print one.)

Phone cameras let photographers get their reps, and as a result, some of these 12-year-olds are doing professional quality work.

Sure, the phones do the heavy lifting when it comes to focus and exposure. And yes, these young shooters haven’t exercised their editing muscles at all. Still, their compositions reveal a clear intention and point of view. Their phones aren’t choosing the subject matter. Their phones aren’t finding these eye-popping angles. It’s not the phones that are inspired; it’s the kids.

With a smartphone, anyone has the chance to develop their eye. This technology is a gift to the young artists of 2019: it enables them to act immediately on creative impulses.


When a guest at a wedding reception thrusts a phone into my hand and says “Can you take a picture of me with my phone?” 

When guests’ phones clutter the margins of my pictures while the wedding couple is walking up the aisle…

When a bridesmaid or groomsman–or even a bride or groom–won’t quit taking selfies when they know I’m standing right there with my camera…

It’s beyond annoying, but I’m always polite. Sometimes I have to resist the urge to politely chuck the phone into the chocolate fountain. I try to respect that they’re having fun, and I try not to think about the extra time I’m going to spend editing the phones out of my pictures.

Yes, I understand the instant gratification that comes with a phone camera. When you get married, it’s not easy to wait a month or more to see pictures. (Ask anyone who got hitched before 2002 how long it took them to see their wedding photos.) And instant gratification isn’t very gratifying when the guests’ phone pictures are mediocre. That’s why I give couples a large handful of shots within a day or two following the wedding, so they can see some professional-quality pics in short order. I comb through the photos to give them something quick and good.

Some people don’t care how good the photo is, as long as it’s in their own device. That gives them license to elbow the professional out of the way. Even major newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Daily News have devalued image quality, laid off their entire staff of photographers, and now settle for photos taken by reporters with phones. When I see the mediocre results, I think “How could they do that?”

Thank God she got this picture.

But for every person like me, there are a hundred people with iPhones who look at a professional shot and think, “I could do that.”

Modern camera phones are giving people a false sense of expertise. The phone does everything for them, so they think they did it all themselves. It’s a symptom of our culture of shortcuts: people gain a little experience with something and immediately think they’ve mastered it. Like my four-year-old, who told me after her first swimming class, “Dad, you can let me go in the water by myself. I know how to swim now.” 

(I’m as guilty of this as anyone. For instance, I recently read about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and here I am making sweeping generalizations about it in this blog.)

Ahem. Where was I…?

All I’m saying is, there’s a time and a place for phone cameras. Shoot with your phone when it’s the best option. When there’s an experienced shooter on hand, maybe trust that the professional’s photos will be good, and keep the phone in your pocket. 

And if you’re a photo enthusiast who’s really serious about photography… Commit to it. Get an SLR and learn to use it. Get Lightroom on your computer. Take a class or two. Hone your craft. Your phone is only the first step.

The Rumble

wedding photography

What happens when two wedding parties collide?

I’ve always wanted to get a photo of two wedding parties going head to head. I don’t really want to start a fight–but I deeply want to capture the image of rival wedding parties squaring off, bare-knuckled, about to throw down. 

It’ll probably never happen. There’s no reason for competition between two sets of strangers who happen to be getting married on the same day. 

Unless one wedding couple wants to occupy the same space as the other. When that happens… there can be only one.

A bit of history: my own wedding was delayed because another wedding party went WAY over time taking their formal photos in the space that we had reserved for our ceremony. We were supposed to have the conservatory to ourselves at 4:30, but at 5:15 the other group’s photographer was still herding their bridesmaids around. It was an anxious wait for us and our small group of guests, since we had been told that the building would be closed and locked at 6. We didn’t want to be evicted in the middle of our ceremony because another bridal party had been hogging our space.

(As a photographer, I get it–you have to do what it takes to get good shots. But come on. Respect the schedule.)

Thankfully, the security guard was kind, and we didn’t get kicked out. But you can see why, in my mind, bad blood between wedding parties wouldn’t be so unthinkable.

What would a wedding rumble look like? Can you picture it? Two immaculately dressed groups of revelers with claws and teeth bared, staring each other down. Each side has two leaders decked out in their finery, backed up by their color-coordinated attendants, about to launch into a battle royale. The Wedding Planner meets West Side Story. Better yet, Bridesmaids meets The Warriors. I’ve imagined the photo on many occasions.

Twice in my career, the wedding party I’ve been working for has arrived on location to take their formal photos at the same time as another wedding party laying claim to exactly the same spot.

Both standoffs occurred in popular locations for pictures in Chicago weddings. The first time, the disputed territory was the lawn of the Adler Planetarium, a spot that offers a gorgeous and expansive view of Chicago’s lakefront skyline. The second time was in front of the Green Mill, the historic jazz club and speakeasy whose vintage marquee sets the standard for old-school class.

In both cases, I believe I was on the side of the wedding party that was morally superior, more interesting, and more deserving of the spot in question. And in both cases my wedding party was also the nerdier of the two. (I’m including myself in that number.) So if we actually had picked a fight, we almost certainly would have gotten our butts kicked.

To be clear–I wouldn’t really want anyone to get hurt. I don’t go into wedding shoots hoping for them to turn into smackdowns. I just want some playfully cinematic pictures.

I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if, instead of the traditional posed wedding photos, you could show your grandkids something like this?

people in suits crouching like opposing football teams
This photo from Signal Ensemble Theatre’s play MOTION is the closest I’ve come to staging a brawl between wedding parties.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. At the Green Mill, Ron and Micah and their party took the high road and agreed to pose for their photos in a slightly different spot than the one originally planned. The other wedding couple didn’t even acknowledge us. Still, I think our pictures turned out well.

This isn’t the best photo we got in front of the Green Mill, but I’m posting it so you can see the other couple in the background.

At the planetarium, Sylvia and Ryan weren’t going to settle for some other spot. But the other couple got there just before us, so we let them have it first. (We were taking our formal shots after the wedding, so we weren’t in as big a hurry.) The other party was huge, and they took forever. With gritted teeth, I flashed back to the hour before my own delayed wedding ceremony. 

As we waited in the cold lakefront wind, it occurred to me that I might be able to make the faux fight happen for the camera. I asked Sylvia and Ryan, and they were one hundred percent on board. I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask the other couple. I waited for them to finish their umpteenth setup, then went over and politely asked their wedding photographer if they’d be interested in staging a rumble for the camera.

Sad to say, this couple was way too uptight to pose for a photo like that. So all we could do was wait until they were done, and then make our own fun without having the wedding parties in character as rivals.

We got this spot without having to resort to fisticuffs.

Someday, though. Someday I will be working for a wedding party that’s daring enough, and we’ll cross paths with another couple who gets the joke. And then…?

Oh, it’s on.

Don’t Put Me in This Position

wedding photography

Sometimes my camera frames a story I’d rather not have to tell.

When I shoot a wedding reception, I try to get photos of everyone there. If a group of people look like they’re having a good time, I take their picture. When there’s a nice moment going on, I catch the moment before it changes. Don’t ask–just shoot. I want to give the wedding couple a true picture of the day. 

Sometimes people decline to have their picture taken, and when they do, I respect their wishes.

On this occasion, though, I wish this particular couple had refused. This man and woman were sitting at their table, chatting and making dreamy eyes at each other. It was a dimly lit reception hall, and they didn’t make any effort to avoid the camera. Cute couple, I thought. 


Later, on the dance floor, the same two people were swaying to a ballad. I moved around and shot from a distance, to avoid flashing the camera right in their faces. They kissed right as I pressed the shutter. I moved on without a second thought.

After a wedding, I don’t immediately post the photos on my website or social media. The wedding couple are the gatekeepers. I always send them–and only them–a quick handful of photos within a day or two after the wedding, and later I post the full proofs in a private gallery. Only the wedding couple can share the gallery link with others. I won’t give the URL to guests, family members, or vendors. 

There have been times when couples have been slow in getting the photos out to their guests, and relatives of the couple have nudged me for the photos for weeks. But unless I have the go-ahead from the wedding couple, I don’t give them the key.

It’s because of photos like this.

Turns out the two people snogging hadn’t come to the wedding together. Both of them had spouses, neither of whom was in attendance that night. 

Who knows what they were thinking. Probably a combination of alcohol and the romantic atmosphere of a wedding conspired to push them into some bad choices. And either they forgot I was there with a camera, or they were too wrapped up in each other to care.

It’s not my job to judge. But it is up to me to try to make life easy for the wedding couple.

When my clients saw the photos in their private gallery, they were shocked. They decided they would spare their friends’ spouses the misery of seeing these moments. I don’t think they wanted to be responsible for starting a scandal, and neither did I.

The groom asked me to remove the photos from the gallery, and I agreed. I’m a photographer, not a private investigator. I don’t want my job to become a lower-stakes version of Rear Window. I wish I hadn’t taken the pictures in the first place, but how could I have known? My camera doesn’t come with an affair detector.

I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get a photo like this at some point. If you give a hundred monkeys a hundred cameras and tell them to shoot a hundred weddings, one of them is going to catch some people messing around.

This bit of awkwardness reinforced my belief that the wedding couple should be the sole gatekeepers of the photos. Nothing goes public without their say-so.

And a quick aside to guests at weddings: if you must make out with someone who’s not your partner, please avoid the camera. Better yet, don’t do it at all.

The Bride Without a Game Face

wedding photography

Letting the couple be their private selves on their most public day.

Wedding photos are a kind of performance, and not just because they’re posed for the camera. We’re performing for the people who will see the pictures, including our future selves. 

When we look back at our wedding albums, the images should help us remember what happened and how we felt. The pictures call forth our memories of the day.

As time passes, something else starts to happen. The pictures don’t just help us remember. We grow closer to the images and further from the moments that actually took place. Over time, the pictures become the memories.

For people who are comfortable having their picture taken, this isn’t a problem. When they look at photos from their wedding, they see themselves. But what about someone who’s not at ease with the camera? Will the pictures bring up memories she wants to relive?


I’m standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, surrounded by five affable guys in tuxedos. The bride is on her way. 

I have taken the groom and his mates out to the downtown streets, to the spot where we’ll meet the bride for the first look photos. So far, we’ve had a grand time taking shots of the guys goofing around.

This couple is a lovely pair of artistic visionaries. Both work in theater, but they’re not the typical theater couple, if there is such a thing. The groom is tall and outgoing, with a quick wit. He naturally clowns for the camera. The bride is tougher to read–she’s quiet and elegant, with large, dark, perceptive eyes. 

When I checked in with the bride getting ready in her hotel room, I could see a hint of concern in those eyes. Not fear or regret–I wasn’t worried that she’d call off the wedding. But I didn’t see the game face that brides-to-be often wear.

Her hair and makeup weren’t fully done yet, so I had no problem waiting to take any photos until she was camera ready. Still, she seemed more apprehensive than the average bride with me being in the room.

So now I’m in position for her arrival. The groomsmen retreat, the groom stands at the ready, and I try to get a good angle on the bride crossing the street. There’s so much pedestrian traffic on this beautiful day, I have a hard time getting a clear look at her. When the crowd in front of her clears, I can see that she’s lovely in her gown, but she still hasn’t put on the game face. 

When she and the groom see each other, she finally reveals an effortless smile. She walks to him and they clasp hands. They look into each other’s eyes, and she seems to find a peace that has eluded her until that moment.

I realize she’s finally feeling like herself. 

Until now, she’s been a bride preoccupied with all the pressures of the day. She’s gone to great lengths to put on makeup and a gorgeous dress, to plan locations, hire a photographer, and invite a hundred people to be a part of it. She wants to create and enjoy a beautiful, personal experience with people she loves. But she doesn’t feel like herself when she’s conscious of the camera.

At that moment, I remind myself: Not everyone is comfortable performing on their wedding day. Because I’ve done a lot of theater photography and actors’ headshots, I’m fairly well connected in the performing arts community–I’ve shot weddings for performers of all kinds. For most of them, yukking it up for the camera comes naturally, or at least serves as a comfortable photo front.

Not for her. 

When she walked across the street toward me, I could see the tension in her eyes. The few times I asked her if she’d like to pose for a photo, she went stiff.

She’s at home acting in plays and giving formal speeches. How can it be that she feels awkward having her photo taken? 

Quick side note: This may seem strange to people who don’t know many actors, but a lot of them are much more comfortable in character. When they have a script, the confines of a stage, and a well-rehearsed set of character traits, it’s easy to face the audience or the camera. These folks are much more vulnerable performing as themselves.

I think about the concern I saw on the bride’s face in the makeup chair, when she was getting ready to go “on.” She was about to dive into a day that requires her to be agonizingly public, and she has to face the cameras without a script, without a stage, without a persona other than her own.

Being comfortable on camera isn’t something you can just switch on. She’s trying, but I can see that it’s a struggle.

As I shoot, I do my best to give her space. I try to let her be herself without making her feel like she has to perform herself. We take some traditional group photos, of course, but I keep those setups brief. I spend much of the day finding angles where I can shoot unforced moments between the bride and groom. When the bride is alone, I avoid asking her to pose. 

The ceremony is cozy, and the reception is full of humor, style, and warmth. At the reception, the room is full of people who love to play to a crowd. The bridal party puts on fake mustaches and does a sketch. The photo booth has an array of masks and props. There are plenty of opportunities for the bride to ham it up. And she doesn’t. It’s not her thing.

My efforts to shoot with discretion pay off. When the bride forgets about the camera, she comes alive. The shots in which she’s lost in the moment at the reception are lovely. Her husband remains a goof, and I give him plenty of chances to put on silly photo fronts, but only when his wife is socializing in another part of the room.

When the bride and groom are together, I observe with my camera from a distance, and I see their real affection and tenderness for each other. Their chemistry is beautiful; I’m relieved that in quite a few photos, I figured out how to capture it without destroying it.

Joy takes many forms. For some people, it’s posing for a big group photo, champagne glasses held high. For this particular couple, I think the photo that’s true to them is quieter. It’s a gentle moment in which both of them are walking away from a crowd, neither aware of the camera, and the groom puts a coat around the bride’s shoulders. That’s where they live. That’s their joy, pure and unperformed.

I keep this couple in mind when I’m getting to know potential wedding clients. I realize that years from now, each couple will look at their wedding photos and refresh their happy memories. I hope they’ll get to relive the personal, genuine moments as well as the big, showy ones. If the pictures are going to shape their memories, then I hope the pictures and the memories will be true to each other.

The Off-Duty Dilemma

wedding photography

The one night I think I’m out, a wedding pulls me back in.

The ceremony’s almost over, and she hasn’t moved. The official photographer—the woman who’s being paid to shoot—is sitting in the back, looking almost bored. Once in a while she halfheartedly lifts the camera to her eye and takes a shot. 

What is she doing? Should I do something about this?


Vance and Lindsey are great friends of mine, and both have delightfully theatrical tendencies. When they invited me to the wedding, I knew I was in for a marvelous time. They asked me if I wanted to be the official photographer, or if I’d prefer to come as a guest. Without hesitation, I chose guest. I wanted to enjoy this evening without having to be “on.” Besides, I told them, I might bring my camera and take a few shots for fun.

Anne and I haven’t been out on a grownup date for a while. The day of Vance and Lindsey’s wedding falls right after our daughter starts kindergarten. I want, for once, to enjoy my wife’s company at a wedding without having to set up lights and round up guests. I’m never good company when I’m working. Too much to do.

But tonight, dammit, I’m going to do it right. I resolve to keep my camera away from my face until somebody specifically asks me to take a photo.

As we walk into the small, stylish restaurant, I notice the official photographer. I remember that she took Vance and Lindsey’s engagement photos at a park, and they turned out pretty well. I don’t immediately clock her as the official shooter. She looks about 17 years old, and she isn’t carrying much gear. I ignore these red flags, find a seat, and settle in to enjoy what I hope will be an entertaining ceremony.

Lindsey and Vance don’t let us down. The ceremony starts with a dance flashmob – bridesmaids clapping, nailing their choreographed moves to Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” An adorable floppy-eared dog trots down the aisle as the ringbearer. There are laughs and tears and playful tension—all the moments you want from a wedding. And I’m loving every moment of being a guest.

Yet as the ceremony comes to a close, I can’t help thinking I should jump up and start shooting. The official photographer is parked in the back corner, in no position to get a good angle on anything. 

She’s carrying one camera with a 50mm fixed lens. She has no way to zoom in. I can tell from the angle at which her flash is pointed, it has to be picking up a blue-gray hue from the painted ceiling—it’s bound to look horrible on everyone’s skin tones. There’s no way she’s getting good shots. Either she doesn’t know what she’s doing, or she’s not even bothering to try.

As much as I’m horrified, I also feel bad for her. I remember the early days of my event photography career, being in over my head like she is now. Flash in hand, no clue how to use it, praying that by some miracle the pictures will be up to snuff.

I’m certain that when Vance and Lindsey see this woman’s photos, they will be crestfallen at best. Homicidal at worst.

But I keep my promise to Anne. I stay seated, hands off the camera (except for a few quick shots of Lindsey with the ringbearer dog).

The canine ringbearer.

The maid of honor, Lindsey’s best friend, is also a professional photographer. She hasn’t been shooting either, since she’s been heavily involved in the ceremony—she’s the one who started the flashmob. In the receiving line, our eyes meet. We both glance at the official shooter and shake our heads gravely. I ask, “Do you think we should say something to Lindsey?” We both agree it’s probably not a good idea to bring our concerns to her attention right now. (Principle #2: Reduce stress for others.)

I motion to my camera. “I think I might take a few pictures of my own,” I say. The maid of honor puts her hand on my arm, opens her eyes wide, and says, “Yes! Please do.”

I catch up with Anne at the bar. She’s just gotten herself a drink when I discreetly explain what’s going on with the official shooter. She understands. She knows what I’m going to ask. 

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I can’t not work.”

Anne nods. She shoos me away to get some shots during the cocktail hour.

After a few minutes of sneaking around, pretending to shoot just for myself, I bite the bullet and commit to working the wedding like a professional. I start openly asking people if they’d like a picture. I take photos of Vance and Lindsey (especially Lindsey) any time it looks like they’re enjoying themselves.

The bride and her father.

I make a point of avoiding the official shooter. I’m not looking to make an enemy. And the truth is, I feel bad for her.

As the cocktail hour ends, I put away the camera. I decide I can safely return to being a layperson. For once, I’m glad that every guest has a camera phone and they are all collectively documenting the reception.

I sit down at our banquet table next to Anne. By now, most of the romance has fizzled out of our date. “Did you get anything good?” she asks. 

I nod, give her a kiss, and thank her for lending me out to our friends. The rest of the evening is absolutely lovely.

My wonderful wife Anne on the night of Vance and Lindsey’s wedding.

As expected, the official photographer’s photos turn out to be… unsatisfactory. I give Vance and Lindsey my photos and my condolences.

Part of me wishes that I’d accepted Vance and Lindsey’s request to be the official photographer in the first place. It’s a crime that they ended up without a single decent shot from their glorious flashmob. Still, I’m glad I could give them a gift of unexpected pictures. I took some unexpectedly meaningful photos of other people that night as well.

And I’m glad I had a chance to take my wife on a date. Even if I spent part of it on the clock.

Barefoot and wet on the busiest day of their lives

wedding photography

Does the stress of the wedding day give some couples the courage to kick off their shoes and get soaked?

On three separate occasions, I have seen wedding couples walk barefoot, on purpose, into a body of water on their wedding day.

On each of those days, the couple also had family members or members of their bridal party remove their shoes and get in along with them.

In none of these instances were the wet feet premeditated. No one had a plan for what to do when they stepped, dripping, back onto dry land. No one had a towel handy.

I love it when couples have a spirit of adventure on their wedding day. But after they’ve spent hours getting dolled up, why give in to the urge to go wading like five-year-olds, and take their equally dolled-up loved ones in with them?

I think it may have to do with how people respond to stress. Let’s face it, a typical wedding is about the most stressful happy occasion there is.

Let’s quickly put the stress in perspective: Take the whole concept of marriage out of the equation. Imagine it’s an ordinary weekend. You’re off work, and the moment you wake up, someone hands you a To Do List with everything that wedding couples have to manage that day:

  • Supervise and approve the work of a bunch of independent contractors
  • Get yourself and a group of people to several locations (sometimes without being seen by the person you’re closest to)
  • Be on time to each location–if you show up late at any point, people may be frustrated with you and/or assume that something has gone horribly wrong
  • Visit with every one of your relatives, and their plus-ones, in the span of a few hours 
  • Let photographers and videographers follow you around all day
  • Get dressed up in formal wear and/or elaborate makeup; maintain your pristine appearance while taking care of everything on this list
  • Stand in front of a large group of people while they watch you have a series of personal, tender moments
  • Host a party attended by many people whom you love dearly; talk to all of them because you may not see them again for years

On any other day, just one of those items would be a significant source of pressure. And on top of it all, you’re going to make an official lifelong commitment to your soul mate.

Everyone deals with wedding stress in their own way. Looking at that list, it’s easy to understand why most people stay focused, follow the plan, and don’t even consider getting wet.

But for some, the wedding fills them with a sense of opportunity. A license to act on any whim they like. For these people, the buzz that accompanies the wedding day is about two drinks’ worth of “what the hell, let’s do it.” 

I’ve seen all kinds of reactions to wedding day pressure. I get them. I get every one. But I sigh with admiration when I see people who can turn that stress into a spontaneous barefoot celebration. For these adventurous souls, the question is “Why wouldn’t we wade into a lake on our wedding day?”

If you’re that kind of couple, then God bless you. I tip my hat to you, and as a photographer, I absolutely adore that you give me great moments to shoot. I’d just like to offer one bit of advice:

Bring a towel.

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.