When Tim Zielenbach is planning to photograph a wedding, there's a step-often considered somewhat discretionary-that he prefers to include in his process whenever possible: meeting the couple-to-wed beforehand.
Zielenbach is a laid-back guy, fun, with an outgoing personality. He's not worried that he won't click with his clients the day of the wedding. Instead, Zielenbach, who has been a newspaper and editorial photojournalist for 15 years, sees it as obligation to his work.
"I feel strongly about meeting the couple beforehand. I think the strength of the picture is based in part on the trust of the couple. Trust and access are two things that make great pictures on a wedding day," he says. "You can't establish that trust without meeting them. In the type of very personal work that I do, I like building up the relationship."
Zielenbach wants to be free to focus on his work the day-of, and he believes the couple will be more willing to act naturally in front of him, considering his intimate style of photojournalism keeps him four feet away from the couple most of the day.
"It's so incredibly personal and emotional on the wedding day. If the bride and groom aren't comfortable, there's one additional layer of tension that could exist that doesn't need to," he says.
While he admits that meeting his subjects before photographing them might break from the die-hard tradition of photojournalism, he also points out that there's another very important difference. "In true photojournalism, the subject is never paying the bills. In wedding photojournalism, the person I'm photographing is paying me," he says
Wedding photographer Quin Cheung of DQ Studios agrees. "I don't think I ever approach a booking saying, 'Hey, I think there's a benefit to us not meeting before your wedding day.' I don't think I would be ahead of the game," she says.
Quin, who photographs weddings with her husband Dave, cites building trust as the key element to their work. For them, it's the component that allows them to take their photography to the next level, where they can capture photos of their couples being capricious-like jumping in the water or getting dirty-and all the way through the post process and album design. "We educate them, and we build a friendship. And that way, in return, we get complete creative freedom with our work," she says.
Other photographers feel differently, describing ill-prepared and judgmental couples who haven't taken the time to research the photographer's work before showing up to a consultation. These types of unproductive meetings, especially when frequent, can contribute to frustration and wasted weekend days-already a commodity for most wedding photojournalists.
"We found that meeting with too many people takes away from the work that we need to be doing," says Brian Tsai of Austin's Life Mosaics.
He talks about clients who come in to look at their portfolio and spend more time making comments about pretty flowers, bridesmaid dresses and nice color schemes, instead of focusing on the photography-or even him, as the photographer.
"If they're shopping around, they're not serious," he says. "When they are serious, they know who we are already-and if they like our work. The people who feel they need to meet us don't know what they're looking for."
And that doesn't mean that Tsai doesn't highly value the relationship he has with his clients. Although he doesn't necessarily believe that spending a lot of time with clients face-to-face is a critical part of the booking process, he still makes an effort to get to know his clients once they've booked-and feels confident that by the time the wedding arrives, brides and grooms feel very comfortable with him. "We do everything we can to develop a relationship before the wedding day," he says. In his experiences, he's been able to easily gather everything he needs (sharing timelines and details of the wedding, while getting a grasp of the couple's personality) over email and the phone.
Both Zielenbach and the Cheungs, who prefer to meet with their clients, take on plenty of destination weddings, often making face-to-face meetings impossible. It's never a choice, but when they have to, they both work to build a strong friendship with their clients via email and phone calls. "It's not like it's 1995 anymore. Everyone has email," Zielenbach points out.
Leading up to the wedding, Zielenbach makes an effort to keep a bride updated on his life and work, and vice-versa. "When I finally see her, it's going to be a giant hug. By then, a friendship has developed," he says.
"We really feel the way we capture our images and what's special about our images is the relationship we have with our clients," says Quin, even when they have to rely on email and the phone. "The more we know them, the better we'll be able to tell their story."
Turning the perspective, Tsai wonders if it's not more about the couple feeling like they need to know the photographer. "I think sometimes people feel like it's not enough to like your photography. They have to like the photographer, too." That's why he and his wife, also a photojournalist, are working on a blog to complement their work-based website. "Having a blog gives photographers another platform. You can be a little more informal and casual, which gives clients a peek inside our personalities."
In the end, it's the photographs that matter most. Every photographer has their own style and approach. And even the biggest proponents of face-time know where to place the most credit: "I think it's that the way I work with my client is from my heart. I'm myself, I'm not putting on my wedding photographer hat," Zielenbach says.
— by Meghan McEwen for The Wedding Photojournalist Association