So, 2017 marked my tenth year of shooting weddings full time, and it got me thinking about all the how’s and why’s of my longevity in business.
Ten years is a long time in any career, and I’ve photographed weddings almost my entire adult life. Was wedding photography my chosen career? No. Was there ever a conscious decision ‘I want to be a wedding photographer’? No. At the age of 18 I was asked if I’d shoot a wedding for a friend. I was studying photography at Exeter College at the time, with no real idea where, if anywhere, it would take me – it just seemed like a cool thing to do at the time.
I accepted the challenge without much thought. I should note here that I shot this wedding on film using my beloved Pentax MZ-50 and I, being me, obviously offered it as a gift. Well. I shot approximately 8 rolls of film and I got them processed into a huge stack of 5×7 prints both in colour and black and white at Jessops. It cost me about £250, maybe more I don’t remember exactly, but I know as a student in the year 2000 or thereabouts it was a lot of money and I felt pretty silly having offered it as a gift…..
I digress…. Waiting to get those prints back and then delivering them to the couple was incredibly nerve-wracking. Not to mention shooting the wedding and being expected to wrangle 100 guests for group photos I wasn’t really expecting to have to take (I’d never been to a wedding as an adult – I genuinely did not know what I was taking on). I was a student, I was clueless about weddings and I was incredibly shy – the whole thing terrified me, but the family had expectations, they treated me like I knew what I was doing, asked for my input and expected direction – and most importantly they expected ACTUAL WEDDING PHOTOS. I did not expect any of that, I just thought I was helping a mate out….
To not cut a long story short and actually have rambled a fair bit – the couple loved the photos, they complimented me on how I’d taken more than just the ‘standard’ wedding photos and I’d managed to capture the moments in-between that they’d otherwise have forgotten about. I didn’t approach that wedding as a documentary wedding photographer, I honestly don’t even know if that was a thing back then. I just turned up and I photographed the parts I felt mattered the most. I watched, I listened and I pre-empted. I didn’t know the right places to stand or where I should be when, I just went with my heart (and totally winged it).
I honestly believe had I not photographed that wedding, that I wouldn’t be here now. The feeling of pride when I received the feedback was such a wonderful sense of achievement. Knowing I’d gone into the wedding as a shy, utterly clueless kid who’d never even been to a wedding and in fairness wasn’t even very confident with my exposures, and that I’d somehow managed to pull it off felt pretty great. (Although it was at the time terrifying and I felt cross at my friend all day for putting me in that position, then even more cross at myself for agreeing to it).
Maybe 2 years or so after I photographed this wedding I decided I wanted to be a wildlife photographer, I went off to South Africa to study conservation and that was my career plan. When I came back from South Africa I had to earn some money to get me back out there and into a university course. At this time I hadn’t put much thought into the wedding I’d photographed and certainly hadn’t considered doing any more but somehow I ended up with those prints in a portfolio (poly pockets in a lever-arch folder) in the office of a wedding photographer, looking for work. I think I’ve always been a bit of a hustler and when I have a goal in mind I’ll do anything to get there. I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer, I just needed some cash.
I got a job as a second shooter. I shot my first wedding as a second at a total strangers wedding in December 2003 and I really loved it. I still had no idea what I was doing but I loved the feeling of being invisible and having that free reign to document whatever spoke to me. I also had a digital camera at this point, a lovely little Canon 350D with a kit lens, so I wasn’t in danger of losing money this time…. I received great feedback from the photographer I was working for and worked for that company second shooting a couple more times before I figured with all the confidence and optimism that a 20 year old has – that I could set up on my own – and Anna Rowland Photography was born. I made myself a portfolio by sticking my photos into a spiral bound book and somehow the weddings came in, via friends, friends colleagues and then eventually the friends of the weddings I’d photographed. My first little business went pretty well. I made many mistakes, but the feedback ALWAYS got me to the next wedding. I continued to document the parts I felt were important and I continued to learn as I went, slowly increasing my prices as my experience grew.
I never did become a wildlife photographer because I ended up falling in love with what I was already doing. Being trusted to document an important event and capturing these fleeting moments in time felt cool. It’s always seemed like a weird job for a shy and introverted person, but the feedback made me swell with pride and overcoming my nerves every time I photographed a wedding helped me gain the confidence to keep doing it.
I’ve often wondered how I’m still going. I’ve never really advertised, I just kept getting booked. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have photographed all the siblings weddings in several families, and whole friendship groups. I’ve been self-employed full-time since 2007 and set up Luna in 2009. One of the things I put this relative success down to is that I’ve always, always followed my heart and photographed what I felt was important. I’ve personally not followed trends in certain frames and edit styles and even when the documentary style of wedding photography became less fashionable – I stuck with it. I continued with a clean and true to life editing style when vintage was the thing. I’ve invested in learning, attended workshops and listened to the wise words of more experienced and well-known wedding photographers but I’ve always stayed true to my style. Much of what I’ve learnt from people has been incredibly valuable and helped shape and polish my work towards what it is now. When I go back over my old images (I have them all minus that first film wedding) I still see me, I just see a raw innocence in my work that has now changed into to something a little more polished encased in a neater frame (usually).
Don’t get me wrong, I have wobbles, I regularly have a crisis of confidence and I shoot weddings that I feel I could have done a much, much better job of – but I’m glad I feel like that. I’ve never felt complacent, I’ve never not tried. I walk away from every wedding I photograph wondering if I could have done more, and every wedding I deliver I still feel wracked with nerves until I receive that email confirming I made people happy with my work. Sometimes my feelings of inadequacy make me work harder, I thrive under pressure and I’m always trying to improve on my last delivered wedding – but this doesn’t mean my work from a couple of years ago doesn’t still make me proud, I just see it as i’m learning and growing from every single one I shoot.
Do I look at the work of other photographers and feel jealous? Of course. Do I think I’m at the top of my game? Absolutely not. Do I freak out every so often and decide I’m not as good as I want to be and decide to quit? AAALLLLLL THE TIME. Do I want to create more ‘wow’ shots and get kudos from my peers? For sure I do, but I can only do that if my couples want it too, and mostly, what my couples want is authenticity – that’s what my work shows and that’s why I still get booked. Most importantly for me I’m still in business and Luna continues to grow with no advertising and very little hustle. My work might not be edgy or trendy, but what I do have in my work is authentic emotion and story-telling. It’s honest and it’s timeless – and it’s work that my clients love. I still look at my images and I see so much room for improvement but then I remember all of this and I’m less hard on myself.
I think the longevity of my business is due to my love of it, and my love of documenting emotion and real life. I don’t worry too much about background mess as weirdly that’s part of the story and that crap in the background of a brides parent’s kitchen might one day be interesting (anyone else love looking at the background crap of old family photos? Just me?). As a person I’m not very emotional, I’m very private, perhaps documenting the open emotion of others is my outlet, I don’t know. What I do know is I have so much passion, even after all these years. Also I’m not ashamed to admit I have an ego that thrives on the feedback and drives me to make sure that keeps coming. I stay true to what I believe in. I follow the work of other wedding photographers, I admire it, but I still shoot like me. Possibly inspired in places on a subconscious level, but for me its all about people, it’s about personality, it’s about a moment in time that can’t be recreated once its gone and the pressure to make sure that is documented no matter the circumstances surrounding it – is what keeps me going.
So yeah, that’s why I think I’m still here, and I’m always here to listen to anyone who is at any point on this wedding photography career timeline of mine because I think despite the crazy competitive aspect of what we do, we’re all in this together.