Catching Up With Past Rising Stars

by Harrison Jacobs

Ben Blood

November 13, 2012

Last December, our colleagues at PDN ran their Rising Stars of Wedding Photography issue in which the editors culled hundreds of nominations down to 20 of the industry’s most shining up-and-comers. A lot can happen in a year, especially when you’re on the verge of the next big leap in your career. And while this year’s, just-announced winners are featured in this issue (p. 65 to be exact), we decided to catch up with last year’s stars here and ask them how the past year has treated them, and what it takes to become—and stay—a notable wedding photographer. 

Taking the Leap

The last time we spoke with photographer Corbin Gurkin, she was globetrotting around the world, making a name for herself as the premier American photographer for European weddings. Her specialty was Italian weddings, though she has now expanded into France, Australia, Asia and, of course, the States. While destinations remain her bread and butter, Gurkin has found that being an established name has its benefits—she’s started to pick up projects that, though they are situated beyond the realm of wedding photography, are still in the same vein. “I’m finding that my work is going not simply [in the direction of] weddings, but more in the direction of fashion and some editorial,” Gurkin says. She just finished shooting a look-book for up-and-coming bridal designer Carol Hannah Whitfield, who was featured on Project Runway, and completed an editorial wedding shoot for Martha Stewart Weddings (which will run in early 2013). “That definitely, for me, was a big moment,” Gurkin says. “They’re looking at my photography and how I would shoot a wedding for a client of my own, and saying ‘that’s what we want for our magazine.’ ”  

The Jetsetters

If there’s one thing it seems wedding photographers love, it’s the ability to travel. One would think that if you were KT Merry, who splits her time between dueling vacation spots (Miami, Florida, and Santa Barbara, California), you wouldn’t be trying to get away. But that’s exactly how Merry makes a living, shooting glamorous destination weddings around the world. This year, Merry has expanded that goal even more, finding herself in exotic locations across Europe; this past summer, she shot in Ireland, Tuscany, Provence, California and New York. “That’s really what we wanted to be doing,” she says. “It’s a big jump from last year in the amount of destination weddings and bigger destinations in that sense.”

Sean Flanigan, a former photojournalist based in Seattle, is no stranger to the travel grind. Flanigan shot 38 weddings last year with only four of them local to Seattle. That means a lot of traveling, sometimes even hitting two cities in a single weekend. Flanigan loved the opportunity—before wedding photography, he had never traveled outside of North America. Now he’s gone as far as Luxembourg, Paris, Spain and Italy. However, by the end of the year, he was worn down. This year, his goal has been to develop himself regionally so that he can spend less time in-transit and more time shooting. For Flanigan, who likens photography to a sport that one has to constantly work at to perform at a high level, it makes sense that he upped his local weddings from 4 to 8 this year; he likens it to an athlete giving himself a little extra time off.

Making a Transition

Diversification is a theme among last year’s Rising Stars, who are finding new ways to fuel their creative development even as they court clients and wedding magazines and blogs. Ben Blood said that the main difference between this year and last year is a realization that in order to stay fresh in weddings, he needs to pursue personal projects. “I want to take on fewer clients in order to do the best work I can for them and also to give myself time for more creative growth,” Blood says. To that end, he has begun a personal project shooting studio portraits of musicians in Seattle and has also set his sights on photo essays with a humanitarian or social focus. “[Doing photography for my personal enjoyment] definitely has helped me be more creative with my weddings…” he says.

Blood isn’t the only shooter who felt the need to adjust in order to maintain his creativity. Max Wanger, who shoots wedding, editorial and commercial work, has found that the struggle for him is finding balance and staying relevant. “It’s finding new ways to challenge and push yourself. You want to stay…new and fresh,” Wanger says. “You see all the same things out there and it pushes you to think of different ways of doing things.” Because Wanger’s style is influenced by an editorial approach to wedding photography, it makes sense that this year has seen him expand further into that genre. He is currently in the midst of a re-branding, separating his editorial/commercial website from his wedding photography website in order to better position himself for clients. The other half, for Wanger (who runs his business with his wife), is finding a balance in life. “We’re blessed to be able to travel a lot and work,” Wanger says. “[We want to] make sure we balance our time.”

It would be hard to find photographers making a bigger pivot than Holly Everett and Britney Smith of Louisiana-based Magnolia Pair. Both photographers are new mothers juggling their newborns with suddenly burgeoning wedding photography careers. According to Smith, 2012 has been the year in which the pair feels as though they have finally figured out “what we want to be about, what we want to portray.” A main part of that discovery is the realization that the pair will begin shooting solely film in 2013. “Film goes with what style we love and want to portray…” Smith says. “It’s definitely something that sets us apart,” says Everett. The pair are hoping that moving to film will free up the time they usually spend in post-production; time that they can better use servicing clients and spending time with their families.

Getting Noticed

Making a name for yourself in the wedding industry is about more than just taking good photographs. Like any business, it’s about making relationships and getting your name and face in front of the right people. Last year’s Rising Stars proved adept at navigating the tightrope of marketing their talent by taking notice of what strategies produced tangible results for them in the form of clients and editorial work. 

For many, blogs were the choice form of marketing because of their direct interaction with potential clients and their hip, on-the-pulse reputations. Flanigan went so far as to say that if he had to choose between getting images in a high profile blog versus a high profile magazine, he’d go with the blog. “As much as I love to get images in print…the return on that isn’t as good as a blog post,” he says. “Brides can just click that link and be on your website.” 

The key is targeting your clients. As Wanger put it, it’s not just about getting published on the blogs, but getting published on the right blogs. “You have to go after the people you want to see your work,” Wanger says. “If there are certain types of blogs that you love, you have to get your work in front of those people.” According to him, that means seeking out alternative blogs that cater to your ideal audience (for him, design and art blogs). 

One of the main benefits of using blogs as your marketing tool is that it’s free (and more effective than expensive promo products). Magnolia Pair found that using other free tools like Pinterest and their own blog were excellent for connecting with potential clients. Though they have been posting images from their weddings on their blog for some time (and labeling when and what film they use to educate clients), they have recently been putting together weekly “inspiration boards” on Pinterest to help clients understand their style. While other photographers are putting up walls around their content to make it “unpinnable,” Smith and Everett have swung the other way, making their site easily shareable and fully embracing the Pinterest ethos. “We recognized that…we needed to get on board with [Pinterest] because we were seeing how many people utilize it,” Everett says. “Hopefully, they’ll understand Magnolia Pair better by seeing what aesthetic we are drawn to…”

In many ways, getting noticed can be simply about being willing to take a risk: Merry recently finished shooting a wedding editorial for Confetti, an Irish wedding magazine, as part of an effort to expand her European reach. While that may seem like a no-brainer, Merry noted that for most editorials you have to cover many of your own expenses. To that end, she decided to put the money that she would have put into traditional marketing into traveling. “It’s taking that leap of faith,” she says. “In our experience, it’s always really paid off.” Magnolia Pair executed a similar risky move, putting together a series of “inspiration shoots” with local vendors. Those mock wedding shoots established a relationship between Smith and Everett and many vendors local to Louisiana. While potentially expensive, the pair found that the move paid off. “Those same vendors are the ones that are referring us now,” Smith says. 

The Next Step

For newcomers looking to make their mark in an industry, looking back on those that have already done it can be a good education. Wedding photography is expanding, but so is the number of wedding photographers. As Merry noted, there is a lot more competition for those starting out now than when she started. “You’ve got to even quicker find a way to distinguish yourself…” she says. One of the scariest parts of that increased competition for Flanigan is the realization that these new upstarts are as hard-working as any of them. “I think that everybody is getting good and that is scary,” Flanigan says. 

As far as advice goes for young photographers, our Rising Stars kept it simple. “Too much energy can be spent trying to keep up with industry expectations and maybe not enough energy spent on doing what you love,” Gurkin says. Blood echoed the statement, saying that he rarely looks inside the wedding industry for inspiration; he finds it elsewhere. As far as what makes a successful wedding photography business, Magnolia Pair pinpointed customer service. “Going above and beyond, making the extra step, people really appreciate that,” Everett says. “That helps you stand out because you realize really quickly how many people aren’t focusing on that…”

Harrison Jacobs, a recent graduate of Tufts University, is a new Rangefinder contributor. Reach him on Twitter@harrisonxjacobs or learn more at about.me/harrisonjacobs.

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