Picturing the Big Day

Wedding Photographers Share Insights (And Lessons) From Behind the Lens

By April Bartel | Posted on 06.02.16 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Weddings can be a sacred rite, a family/friend reunion and a hootenanny all in one. Big weddings, with all the trimmings, cost beau coup bucks, and these are usually the choice of first-time brides and grooms. A wedding is a perfect storm of stress and emotional intensity. It can also be the best day of your life.

Whether the memories are heart-warming, hilarious or cringe-worthy, local wedding photographers have seen it all. They log more time at weddings and receptions each year than most people say they spend at the gym (OK, a low bar). But they do dedicate about eight hours on location per event, plus consultations, development, editing, delivery and continued client service. Multiply that times up to 25 wedding clients per year. Typically, a professional photographer will spend more time with the bride on her wedding day than she’ll get to spend with her groom. They’ll snap thousands of shots in a day, keen to the finest detail. This vast, insider experience gives them a unique perspective on what makes a wedding truly memorable, for better or worse.

We enlisted an expert panel of four local, full-time photographers to get the scoop: Jamie Turner of Turner Photography Studio; Mary Kate Battles of Mary Kate McKenna Photography; Engin Caliskan of Engin Photography; and Kelly Hahn of Kelly Hahn Photography. They share their stories of the good, the bad and the ugly to help readers smile, process personal memories, and get a handle on planning these milestone events.

The Good

Military uniforms at weddings make us cry, in a good way. It’s a poignant reminder of the sacrifice, honor and fidelity common to marriage and the military. Frederick’s Fort Detrick is an anchor of industry and employment, so military affairs often feature prominently at local weddings. Battles’ husband, Joe, served in Afghanistan, an experience that reinforces the need for flexibility. Her contract allows military members to move their date without additional fees, pending deployments and other last minute orders.

Lesson 1: Read your contracts.

Touching moments make enduring memories. Battles still gets choked up nine years later when recalling one bride’s dad and step-dad—a potential contentious relationship, if ever there was one—put aside differences to thank each other during a toast, proclaiming the mutual love and support they shared for “their” little girl.

Caliskan’s misty-eyed instance occurred recently while shooting a mother-son dance. He says the party mood was light and fun, but he could feel the energy change. “Later, the groom took me aside and told me that it was the first time he’d hugged his mother in 10 years.” Caliskan says he loves catching the seemingly-small things that trigger a flood of emotion. “Even I started to tear up.”

Lesson 2: Let the sweet moments occur naturally.

Some people hide from pictures. They’ll sprint from a camera in a heartbeat, but they are fair game at weddings. Hahn asks clients to note guests for special attention. “One bride mentioned that her dad was diagnosed with brain cancer and was going through treatment … or there may be that last living grandparent.” Even decades down the road, it’s bittersweet to look through an album and notice loved-ones who are departed. She says feedback from the families is particularly moving. “It means so much that they had these really nice pictures of them together candidly.”

Caliskan agrees wholeheartedly. Turning to photography helped him through his dad’s battle with cancer, but he never did a dedicated shoot with him. “Now that I look back on it,” he says, “It’s definitely something I wish I’d done.” His clients benefit from the hard lesson. “I tell people, ‘Photograph the people that you love and get prints made.’”

Hahn reinforces the thought. “These are the things people will treasure for a lifetime, and pass them down through generations.”

Lesson 3: Your hair looks fine. Get in the picture.

Bonus Lesson: Make prints in case of computer failures and power outages.

Pinterest interest can go either way. All our photographers agreed the “visual discovery tool” for searching and saving online links is a good springboard for honing your style. It’s popular for décor ideas, party favor crafts or hair and make-up tutorials. On the flip side, setting your heart on trying to mimic staged bridal scenes or trendy poses can lead to disappointment. “Bridal parties like to do fun things,” Hahn says. “Jump shots used to be common. Then it was popular to have the bridal party running from a dinosaur” via Photoshop.

Turner, a wedding photographer for 15 years, advises couples to take advantage of having a professional on their team. The sweet spot is finding a photographer who “gets” you and has the vision to tell your photo-story in a uniquely personal way, he says, “As artists, we like to be creative.” Aim to interview three to five professionals. When you find a style match, let them work their magic.

Lesson 4: Personal passion makes a difference.

In addition to regularly having his work in Frederick Magazine, Turner’s work has also appeared in national publications. He notes, “We photograph every wedding as if it were for a magazine.” The benefit for clients is a reinforced determination to do the best job. And, come on, it’s thrilling to see your special day in the spotlight. Just be aware that, in most cases, copyrights do remain with the photographer.

Lesson 5: See Lesson 1.

Toddlers are adorable. If they’re in your wedding party though, don’t expect performance on command. That said, kids can draw the most aww-inspiring moments. Caliskan beams a smile recalling a shy little flower girl who reached her destination but forgot to drop a single petal along the way. “You could tell she just wanted to curl into a ball, but it was such a precious moment. Everyone was laughing.” It’s a big task to lead the bridal procession when even adults get stage fright. For her part, Battles suggests letting little ones walk with mom or grandma and having a (quiet) treat on hand at the end of the aisle.

Lesson 6: Embrace the beauty in imperfection.

The Bad

Clarity is earned the hard way, too. Topping the list of potential catastrophes is Mother Nature’s wrath. Sometimes she cooperates. Sometimes, well …

Hahn says most of her weddings are outside, including three weddings in recent years that fell at the tail of hurricanes. “With the right attitude,” she assures, “you can still make beautiful pictures and have a beautiful day.” Heck, pretty rain boots in bridal colors add whimsy, and authenticity has its own loveliness. In the busy summer season, blazing sun causes dizzying headaches and other health issues. Here she advises, “Start hydrating a week before the wedding.”

One of Hahn’s cold-weather loving clients went for the gusto with an outdoor wedding in mid-January. Guests donned heavy coats and hoods for the festivities and enjoyed mittens and hand warmers as party favors. Around the grounds, fire barrels served as warming stations. “With the wind chill it was probably minus 2 degrees,” says Hahn, “but, that was her vision and they made it happen. It was a snow princess’ dream.”

Lesson 7: Attitude is everything.

Turner recalls one beleaguered bride scrambling to print place cards for the reception dinner, minutes before walking down the aisle. He still feels her frustration. “There’s nothing wrong with doing things yourself, but if you have the funds, hire a wedding planner. It will minimize your stress,” he says. Especially in a time crunch, professional planners have templates and processes for maximum efficiency. Enlist mom, sis or a best friend who’s good with details, if necessary. You deserve to catch a breath and savor the fleeting moments.

Battles shares a note from her blog. “Never put wedding planning ahead of your relationship. … After the food is eaten, the flowers are gone and the guests all return home, it will be just the two of you.”

Lesson 8: D.I.Y. shouldn’t be D.Y.C. (Drive Yourself Crazy). Ask for help.

The Ugly

Our lucky experts have avoided major mishaps, but they do happen. Battles looks at the bright side. “People usually act their best at weddings.” She says it’s rare for big drama, like a fight, to disrupt the day. “Maybe five events out of 300 have an issue.”

Abundant alcohol can fuel negativity, as in the case of a belligerent divorcee who reached his tolerance for love and happiness before the festivities really started. Inebriated guests fall asleep in dangerous places. Even blushing brides have tossed their cookies (and the previous night’s Jägerbombs) midway down the aisle.
The expert advice here is, if you are aware of a potential issue, choose someone to help you run interference. The comfort and safety of all your guests is important. And consider pushing refreshing, non-alcoholic drinks during the last hour.

Lesson 9: Safety first.

Hahn, also a 20-year photojournalist with national credits, says, “Of all the weddings I’ve attended, the worst stories are my own.” Her fairytale started with a proposing fiancée dressed as Prince Charming. (Bonus points!) Sweetly fitting, they were gifted with a castle-shaped ice sculpture for their sweltering reception. “Well, when the turrets started melting … ” she sighs, they looked like, well, phallic. “That’s what people remember.”

Lesson 10: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

What impressed our panel the most, is their shared experience of connecting with so many clients on a personal level. They’ve all been pleasantly surprised to find that their status as “insiders” often continues as friends. “The best part,” says Battles, “is when you meet a couple then get a phone call a few years later for maternity or newborn photos.” Watching their lives unfold is an extraordinary treat. Turner says he’s made lasting friends, too, “Sometimes we meet for dinner.”

In the end, remember, it’s all just frosting on the cake. The most important thing isn’t the dress, the gifts or your perfectly choreographed dance spectacle. It’s about the bride and groom and the start of their life together.

Even if it means being chased by a dinosaur.