Michele Celentano: Babies and Brides

January 1, 2012

By RF Staff

Once upon a time, Michele Celentano only photographed lavish, upscale weddings. She built her budding wedding business in Manhattan while managing a studio for children’s portrait photographer Susan Cameron. “Susan allowed me to meet wedding clients in the evening as she had absolutely no interest in photographing weddings and I had no interest in photographing children. It was a perfect match,” says Celentano, who spent 15 years as a top New York City wedding photographer.

“I loved [weddings] and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” Today, Celentano lives and works in Anthem, a suburb north of Phoenix, AZ, and is primarily a family portrait photographer. Her career, which spans some 25 years, was drastically altered by the birth of her daughter. “Like a lot of women, because I had a child of my own, I started photographing her,” says Celentano. “I decided I had the patience to do so. Before, I had plenty of patience for brides but no patience for children.” Celentano’s daughter was born in February 2001, shortly before 9/11. When it began taking her four hours to get into the city from Staten Island due to heavy security at tunnels and bridges, Celentano and her then-husband decided it was time for a change.

“I had family in Arizona, so we started looking there and fell in love with Anthem, a community designed around family living.” Almost immediately, Celentano found herself being encouraged by friends and neighbors to photograph children and families.  
Because Anthem was a new community and Celentano its only photographer, her business grew rapidly. Within a year, she opened a commercial studio location. Ten years later, Celentano has evolved from high-end wedding photographer to family portraiture specialist. She recently closed the commercial space and set up shop in her new, much larger home.

“Because I live in Arizona, there are pretty much 365 beautiful days with amazing light,” notes Celentano, who is also within walking distance of four to five locations where she mainly photographs outdoor family sessions. “I use all natural light and work outside in the later part of the afternoon with that sweet light. Even in the studio, which was designed with north/west-facing light, I use natural light. I do use reflectors,” she adds, “depending on the environment. I use background reflectors, kicker reflectors, etc., the same way a lot of studio photographers use studio lights.” Celentano’s main camera of choice for portraits is the Canon 5D Mark II with a 70 to 200mm image stabilizer f/2.8 lens.

“I love the compression and lack of depth-of-field I can get with that lens. Another favorite is the 85mm f/1.2, which I like for similar reasons. It’s a great portrait lens but it also offers me that f/1.2 wide-open look when I want it. Those are my two go-to lenses for portraits. For weddings, I use everything from a 15mm to 400mm and everything in between.”

Classic and Timeless
This past year, Celentano redesigned her marketing materials to reflect a more upscale image. “I’m like everyone else in the industry battling the newbies and the ‘I just got a camera for Christmas, now I’m going to start a business’ people. I really wanted to separate myself from the trendy and current—the bright colors, polka dots and heavy graphic design. I wanted my look to be classic and timeless, more of a high-end Tiffany’s. When people see my work they realize it’s top-of-the-line and they’re definitely going to make an investment.”

Celentano did not change her photographic style, just her presentation. “I’ve been pretty true to my style; I appreciate a more timeless, traditional look.” For Celentano, marketing herself as a professional with experience that knows how to make moms look good has been a winning strategy. “My target client is a mom in her 40s with children between the ages of 8 and 18. That mom wants a photographer that knows how to make her look good—how to pose her body and utilize the right camera angles to make her look younger and thinner.” She explains, “Families with older children spend more because they’re not worried about having another child down the line, which means having to replace the family portrait as the children grow. The family also is more established with more income.”

Celentano does engage in some traditional marketing—such as print work in local publications as a reminder for people flipping through the magazines—along with social network marketing through Facebook, and displays at businesses such as a pediatric dentist where lots of families visit. But the majority of her business, she says, is word of mouth. “Most people in the area know me as a premiere portrait photographer and when they’re ready to invest in a big family portrait, they come to me.” Though families are her main clients these days, she has not abandoned weddings altogether. “I don’t do as many weddings these days,” admits Celentano. “I will only take on a certain number a year and they are usually by referral. I have a daughter and two step daughters, and at this point I don’t really want to work weekends.” That said, when photographing weddings, Celentano says she tends to lean more toward the journalistic side of wedding photography while at the same time incorporating good portraits of the family and bride and groom.

WPPI: Live and Learn
Celentano says she has been attending WPPI since the mid-1990s, and has been a guest speaker for the past five or six years. First her programs were about weddings, then photographing children and now families. “WPPI is like going home,” she says. “Every year you meet more and more people that are so open and willing to share information. I’ve been attending since I was 24, and I’ve learned so much. It’s been quite a journey and I have grown and matured along with the organization. So many photographers try to learn online, but that can’t replace the camaraderie you get by going to the convention, meeting people face-to-face, sitting in for live lectures, enjoying the parties, etc. WPPI has the best collection of photographers you’ll ever see in one place at one time. . . and it’s Vegas!!”

This year, Celentano will give a Platform Class addressing what makes great family portraits; how to sell them; how to make shooting portraits profitable; and how to use albums to boost sales. “I cover everything it takes to make great family portraits so you have a great collection to sell from and create an album with,” she says. “One of my biggest product lines are family albums, which comes from my wedding background. I photograph every combination possible—mom with the kids, dad with the kids, mom and dad separately and together, etc. By the time I’m done, my families have 20 to 30 images they really can’t live without. They can’t hang 25 wall portraits, so the next step is an album.” Celentano adds that her goal for each client is to sell the wall portrait and an album. “I really think families are the moneymakers especially when you hit the right demographic and the right ages,” she explains. “My favorite client is the mom with a high school senior that’s heading off to college, and they don’t know when they’re coming back. So they’re really ready to spend on a portrait at that point.”

For more information about Michele Celentano visit:

Michele Celentano will be teaching the Platform Class “Creating Family Portraits That Sell BIG!!!” at WPPI 2012 on Monday, February 20, from 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and Tucson Visitors’ Guide.