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How Wedding Photography has Changed Over the Last 16 years

Multi award winning International wedding photographer Bradley Hanson shares his insights into how wedding photography has changed over the last 16 years and advent of mirrorless cameras replacing DSLRs.


How has wedding photography has changed over the last 16 years?

The first thing that comes to mind is that 16 years ago everyone was shooting film and newspapers were just starting to transition to the original digital cameras.

16 years ago brides were reading their local wedding magazines. Now they are reading online magazines, print magazines, and getting dress/hair/makeup/decoration ideas from Pinterest.  They are definitely exposed to significantly more options than ever before. In 1999, very few people were shooting B&W or only shooting a little bit on the side. The photographic styles are significantly broader now, too. Around the time I started shooting, the movement was toward photojournalism and a more natural style, whereas before that everything was largely staged. It might be hard for new wedding photographers to imagine that! Once the movement toward documentary weddings was underway, there was no way of putting that cat back in the bag, and I am grateful for that!

When I started, everyone was getting 4×6 prints and albums that they could only share if their friends came over to see their album. Now people are getting websites that they can share with their friends and family all over the world. Couples are also asking for the files so they can make their own prints. This cuts into the main way photographers used to make money after the wedding: selling prints.


Do you think that new photographers see wedding photography as a easy option and why are they wrong?

I see wedding photography going through cycles, just like the economy. 16 years ago, I knew all of the photographers in Seattle. Now there are 600-1,000 of them. Part of that was because wedding photography was very traditional and the photographer was following a formula of staged shots. Once the door was opened that one could express themselves artistically in this venue, there was exponential growth in the industry. The next wave of changes happened around 2007 when several things were occurring at once: The US banks started collapsing and the economy went into a tailspin. This meant a lot of jobs lost (around 750,000/month) and people having to reinvent themselves in new careers. The transition from everyone getting a printed newspaper was already converting to online papers and web-based new sources, so when cities like Seattle lost one of their daily papers (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in this case), the market was also flooded with recently jobless news photographers looking to shoot weddings either full time or as a way to supplement their income.

It’s easy to see how wedding photography looks like easy money from the outside. It looks like you only “work” on weekends and that the pay is astronomical, especially compared to other career options because people focus on the cost of the package rather than all of the costs that go into running a business for yourself. The reality is when you break down the time shooting, editing weddings, meeting clients, answering email, arranging for advertising, blogging regularly, attending wedding shows, buying computers and software and going to workshops and tutorials on how to use it, buying new cameras every few years, etc, the real wage is closer to $10-$15/hr, depending on what one can charge in his/her own market. Photographers in NYC and San Francisco are going to be getting 4x to 5x what they would get in Kansas, for example, because it is in accord with the cost of living. The real work isn’t shooting, it’s everything else. It takes YEARS to get established and to get word of mouth going, which is the best way to get new clients. You have to do great work cheaply right out of the gate because no one will pay top dollar for a new photographer. Once you start making those people happy and they tell their friends, you can slowly ramp up your prices in accord with your experience and your value, because if you raise your prices too quickly, the referrals of the former clients can’t afford to hire you! It’s a sticky balance, but ultimately, photographers charge what they are worth in their market. You aren’t going to get an experienced photographer for $2000 just as you aren’t going to buy a BMW for the price of a Kia.

Because the real job is meeting clients, promoting yourself and editing existing work, not just having fun on weekends, photographers come and go, rise and fall. This provides incentive for couples to hire someone with experience because you’ll want assurances that the photographer you hire will be in business at the time of your wedding.


How do you see the wedding industry changing over the next  few years?

Part of what’s going on right now is really exciting, and that’s the advent of mirrorless cameras replacing DSLRs. This is not only inevitable, it’s happening right now. Just as the quality of the iPhone is replacing the point and shoot cameras, mirrorless is the present and the future of photography. The advantages are that the quality is the same and the camera is MUCH lighter and in many cases, completely silent. Being discreet is crucial to my style, and a silent camera that delivers high quality at ISO6400 (or above) is an easy choice. The reason cameras had a mirror (the cause of that hump called a prism on top) is to reverse the image so the photographer can see the proper orientation in the optical finder. Now that Fujifilm is leading the way with electronic viewfinders (EVF), they are delivering OVF quality with the advantages of an EVF: You can set the camera to show the image exactly as it will appear as a final image, see exact cropping and depth of field. I like to set my cameras to show B&W viewfinders with the effect of a yellow filter, which boosts contrast. This makes it easier for me to compose because it’s easier to see highlights, shadows and abstract shapes.

In addition to the cameras and lenses getting smaller, the image quality in low light is getting better, which is huge help for making beautiful images in dark receptions.

The biggest challenge for the industry in the coming years is to continue to provide value by creating meaningful, lasting images, and earning a living exclusively through photography. The middle of the market seems to be collapsing like the middle class. The high end photographers will always have a market and the bottom of the market is saturated with beginners and the Craigslist crowd. Photography in general has lost it’s exclusivity because of the ubiquitousness of cameras and cell phones. People from all backgrounds are making and sharing beautiful images online. It’s been said that more images have been taken in the past year than in the entire history of photography combined. Cameras are now very sophisticated, but it’s still the photographer that makes the images in the way he/she shoots and processes his images.


Any career advice for aspiring wedding photographers?

A lot of young photographers get swept up in the desire for equipment, particularly in online forums and they are vulnerable to the idea that having several bodies and lenses will insure that you always get the shot. I’ve found this to be the opposite: less is more. I now do most of my work with two lenses. The best way to develop your eye is to choose one lens and really get to know it’s perspective so you can see what the lens will see even before the camera is at your eye. I can and have done entire weddings with one lens, though I prefer to have the option of a wide angle and a telephoto for tight areas and for ceremonies when I can’t get close to the couple, respectively.

The other thing that I would emphasize is to not imitate the work of others, but rather develop your own style. Ralph Gibson refers to developing a personal style and the ability to recognize the style of others as a “visual signature.” Advertising people call this a “unique selling proposition,” something that makes you stand out from the pack. This is tough these days because there have never been more examples of what other people are doing. Wedding magazines also perpetuate this uniformity because they ask for and print the same style of shots repeatedly. Trends will come and go, but classic, timeless work will look just as good in 25 years as it does today. Fight the temptation to go overboard with post-production and avoid HDR all all costs.

Focus on understanding business, promotion, networking, providing good customer service and understanding how to present yourself and a consistent brand when you are marketing. Brides have never had more choices than they do right now: give them a compelling reason to choose YOU.

Shot on a FujiFilm X100s

Why has the FujiFilm X-Series been a game changer for you as a photographer?

First and foremost, because it gives me the quality I want in a much more portable package. It’s also the first time I’ve actually loved the results from digital. I have a long history as a film shooter and with the Canon and Nikon bodies everything always looked TOO digital and clean to me. Fujifilm’s color pattern over the sensor and the lack of an antialiasing filter do two things: the first makes the color more random, which more closely mimics the look of film. The lack of the AA filter allows Fujifilm to get FF quality out of an APS-C sensor. The physical layout and controls like a real aperture ring, shutter speed dial and exposure compensation dial all make the cameras work instantly and intuitively like the Leica M series and lenses, and like the Nikkor manual lenses I used to use. The X-Pro1 bodies are very quiet and my X100s is completely silent with it’s leaf shutter. I’ve used them for so long that it’s hard to imagine using anything else.

Fujifilm also does something that’s unique in the industry: they update their cameras regularly to add new features and improve autofocus, etc, even discontinued cameras. It appears that the X-Pro1 and X-E1 are no longer being updated, but a LOT of positive improvements were made in the process, ending with 3.40 on the X-Pro1.

Shot on a FujiFilm XPro1a with a 35mm lens

Zooms vs primes

Zooms vs primes: This “debate,” like RAW vs JPEG, seems as endless as it does pointless. It’s a matter of preference. I don’t care for zooms for a number of reasons, chiefly because I need the faster aperture that primes provide. F1.2 is a lot more useful than f2.8, especially at wedding receptions because it’s 2.5 more stops of light! Faster apertures also help offset the additional stop of DOF that you get using APS-C cameras by giving you more options to have selective focus and soften unpleasant backgrounds. With an APS-C sensor, apertures are the same as far as light gathering, but the effective focal length is 1.5x and there is an increase of 1 stop of depth of field because you have to back up to get the same crop you’d have with a “full frame” 24×36 sensor. I also feel that while zooms offer conveniences when the photographer can’t move, it causes laziness because the photographer just zooms back and forth to make the focal length work for the composition rather than the other way around. Every time I’ve tried a zoom, I only use the two extreme ends of it! Prime lenses are not only better optically, but they help you learn that specific perspective, which helps tune your eye and makes shooting more intuitive because you already know what you’ll have in the frame before you shoot. I know the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm perspectives extremely well because those are the three focal lengths I use for 95% of my work.

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset

What’s In My Bag

About 3 years ago, I switched from Nikon DSLRs and Leica film rangefinders to all Fujifilm X-Series cameras and lenses. I started with one X-Pro1 and the 35mm f1.4 lens, and then bought 2 more X-Pro1 bodies and the 18mm and 60mm lenses. I then added the X100s about a year ago, and use that in conjunction with the TCL-X100 because I no longer have the 35. I sold the 18/35/60 and now use mostly the 14/23/56 for wedding work. I have the 90mm on order, and use the X100s for personal work and landscapes because it is so portable and easy to travel with. Once you get used to the 35mm perspective (it’s actually a 23mm f2 lens on an APS-C sensor), everything seems to fit in the frame!

My favorite combination for weddings is still my X-Pro1 and the 56mm lens, so I’d say my favorite 3 items are the X-Pro1, 56mm lens and X100s. All of those are in heavy rotation and the X100s is with me at all times. Even when I go to the grocery store.


What’s you next purchase and what’s on your dream list?

I am looking forward to the 35mm f2 lens, which will be smaller than the 35mm f1.4, be weather sealed, and be internally focusing and more compact. I also want the 90mm f2 lens. It’s going to be great when I need the reach, but it’s not a day to day focal length for me. As far as my dream list, it looks like Fujifilm is addressing that with the X-Pro2, which has not been formally announced, but leaks and rumors have been pretty reliable lately. The expectations are for a 24MP sensor with all of the AF and EVF advancements of the X-T1 and X100T. I am also hoping that the rumor that Fuji is working on a 33mm f1.0 lens is true. That would be like a Leica 50mm Noctiluxwith AF!

Shot on a FujiFilm XPro1 with a 14mm lens