Wedding Photography. So many new photographers decide to shoot weddings because they think it is a sound money making genre. So many wedding photography businesses fail quickly because said photographers had no idea how much work is actually involved in shooting a wedding and running a wedding business. It takes a special person to not only be good at wedding photography, but also to be able to make it a full-time business that supports a family of 4.
This was not the case for my guest Mr. Joseph Ellis. Along with his wife Stephanie, Joseph has shot over 800 weddings in the last 20 years after transitioning to weddings from his early career as a photojournalist. Together, the couple owns and operates Big Wall Family Photography studio in Dallas, Texas.
Joseph shared some great advice for new wedding photographers and lots of details about how he works with wedding couples and the gear he uses.
20 Years and Over 800 Weddings Photographed With Joseph Ellis
Joe: [00:00:00] Joe Edelman here, and you are listening to The TOGCHAT Photography Podcast.
Wedding Photography is a genre that MANY new photographers try out, and it is a genre that MANY new photographers ultimately fail at or run from. It takes a special person to not only be good at wedding photography, but also to be able to make it a full-time business that supports a family of 4. My guest today is one of those people, and I am confident we can learn a lot from him. Stay tuned!
DJ: [00:00:34] You’re listening to the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast. The only podcast dedicated to the HOWS and WHYS behind creating consistently great photographs. Here’s your host, Joe Edelman.
Joe: [00:00:47] My photography thought for the week: Is a question: What song did Cinderella sing to the photographer? Some Day my prints will come! Now, you know why I’m a photographer and not a singer.
DJ: [00:01:08] Next up is a TOGCHAT exclusive interview.
Joe: [00:01:11] Wedding Photography. So many new photographers decide to shoot weddings because they think it is a sound money making genre. So many wedding photography businesses fail quickly because said photographers had no idea how much work is actually involved in shooting a wedding and running a wedding business.
This was not the case for my guest Mr. Joseph Ellis. Along with his wife Stephanie, Joseph has shot over 800 weddings in the last 20 years after transitioning to weddings from his early career as a photojournalist.
Together, the couple owns and operates Big Wall Family Photography studio in Dallas, Texas. So let’s dig in — I know there is a lot we can learn here.
Joseph Ellis, it has been a while sir, thank you so much for joining me on TOGCHAT today. How are you?
Joseph Ellis: [00:02:03] Doing great. Thanks for having me.
Joe: [00:02:04] You know, I’ve had quite a few requests to interview a wedding photographer and I picked you for a couple of reasons. Obviously, your work is outstanding. But in addition to your outstanding work — you’ve been shooting weddings for over 20 years, and you do it full time. You run a studio in Dallas, Texas, and you support a family of four with your photography.
So I want to jump right into the deep end. What does it take to be successful as a wedding photographer?
Joseph Ellis: [00:02:32] Ooh. You know, I’ll tell you, here’s the one that’s been on my mind recently around the time I started shooting weddings, there was a big transition going on. I’m sure you remember that wedding photography back in, let’s say the eighties and the nineties was this very canned set of photos. It was like the guy who was going to come in, he had his list of pictures, and it was like, can I get these 25 photos?
And that’s your wedding photos. Around the time that transition over into digital happened, so it was right around the turn of the century, 2000ish timeframe was the time I was coming out of newspapers and photojournalism and started shooting some weddings. And so that’s been 20 some odd years now.
And the funny thing about that transition was there was a market move at that moment to go from your very posed into more of a photo journalistic style or a documentary style, because now we can take thousands of pictures at a wedding. And so we could concentrate and shoot everything that we saw in a way that could reveal some more of those more storytelling moments. And so the context of wedding photos, the way that we saw them change pretty dramatically during that time period. And it was also right in my wheelhouse. Because I was training as a photojournalist. And so they’re like, people want photo journalism.
I’m here for you. Here we go. Rock and roll. What anything is that, like all good trends in life, what goes around, comes around. What’s interesting to me about your question is it, was, it takes to be successful, is that I think it does take understanding your market and understanding how you need to change, because as I get to 20 years in business, the hardest part for me is not to get too stuck in my ways. So this is the right way to do it. This is what we must be doing. It went from very photo journalistic and I got into doing a bunch of photojournalistic work and was really having a great time. But then I paused, and I said to myself, what is it about the people who came before me that they were doing really well?
And how can I embrace some of that to make sure that I’m honoring the tradition of wedding photography and giving my clients the best possible work. And so I really took a lot of time to stop, pause, and learn how to light and pose and work with people so that I could give them a mix of those things.
Right. That’s when my work really took off, it went from a young, very energetic photojournalistic wedding photographer to somebody who was really more multi-faceted could handle larger events, could produce what mom and grandma want and make really beautiful portraits of families. And I could also embrace what was new and interesting in photojournalism.
And now as we move into what is current, there are two trends that I see that I think are fascinating about wedding photography that I’m trying to embrace. The first one is that we made a move from Photojournalistic to I still call it lifestyle work. And that is where it’s like guided photojournalism in a way, which is true photojournalists would be like, “No, don’t do that”. But at weddings, brides and grooms are looking for professionals to come in, who understand the day, understand the moments. So they can help them through that process and make a really beautiful set of images that are storytelling, but in a slightly more scripted way
When I started it was hilarious because, we would go in as photojournalists, like “Don’t pay attention to us. We’re not really here. We were like photo ninjas standing in the corner”.
Now I’m like, well, there’s a beautiful light across the room. Why don’t we go over there? We’ll get you dressed over there and let’s make sure your mom’s here and let’s put her in the scene so that we get some of those pictures. If I’m really being honest with myself, there’s something beautiful in that I am helping them in a stressful moment, make sure that they get beautiful photos, and they get the right people in the pictures and things like that.
And the way that I keep my photojournalism alive, I’m sure you’ve probably made this comment to people before, but shoot through a moment, don’t put your camera down as soon as you think you’ve nailed a shot because it’s the next one’s coming. It’s that reaction. It’s the thing that happens just after. It’s what happens in the off moments. When you can still put your stamp of photojournalism on your wedding photography and embrace this idea of how can I deliver really beautiful photos that are storytelling photos, not just portraits. In a way that helps my clients get really beautiful work. So that’s the first thing I think has changed quite a bit in the last few years.
And so I’m trying to embrace that even though, I mean, tell me if this is true for you, but is there things about now that we’ve been around for a long time, that you’re like, it’s hard for you to change? Do you feel that way too?
Joe: [00:06:29] Of course. I think that’s human nature of the whole idea of getting set in our ways is I think very normal, the challenge as photographers and creators are we able to push through.
Some people do and they continue to be creative. I know the older I get, the harder it is to be uniquely creative because the older I get, my brain has a lot of “been there, done that” going on. So outcomes are rather predictable. So the challenge is to get to the point where I can find those outcomes that are not so predictable that are going to surprise me.
So I’m with you all the way.
Joseph Ellis: [00:07:05] That’s one trend that I’m seeing in wedding photography that I would certainly, if anybody was thinking about getting into weddings, it was really understand how that process works, how your storytelling is going to evolve throughout the wedding day and how you’re going to help piece that together.
And then the second thing is that every young wedding photographer that I’ve met almost to a T almost a hundred percent is now doing both photo and video. And a lot of them are either doing it either or, or they’re doing, trying to do it combined. And I have to say, over last few years of really diving in and learning how to do video, how do storytelling and video that that’s actually been an education that has really brought me along. I’ve learned a lot in that process.
Storytelling, visual storytelling has so many things that crossover between the two of them. And there are so many techniques that you can bring from one to the other and cross back and forth. And I think that that has been really great. And I also think of something that’s going to be embraced even more as we move on.
So yeah, learning how to do storytelling through audio, learning how to do transitions and things like that. And video has definitely been an education I’ve really enjoyed. And it’s helped push me forward. Hopefully past those been there done that’s. I think that’s a great way to put it is that if you’ve been doing something long enough, you’re like, no, this is the right way to do it.
This is the way that we do it. And so yeah, looking at it from fresh eyes and I can carry this idea over from video and like, look how beautiful and interesting that is in the photography sense.
Joe: [00:08:24] I want to go back to the transition between the photojournalistic style and the idea where you’re manipulating — I hate to use that word, but you are manipulating moment. You see the bride about to get dressed, and you realize there’s really gorgeous light coming in through a window. So you’re going to suggest that they move. That also indicates to me that your job as a photographer isn’t just to record the day, but it’s also to create the story that the bride wants to remember for eternity. How much of your job as a wedding photographer comes down to psychology, and what are the real challenges that you face in those of stressful moments?
Joseph Ellis: [00:09:02] One of the real beauties of being a photojournalist before I became a wedding photographer, is that I already had the mentality that had to come home with a photo.
I knew what it took to make sure that I wasn’t scared about camera settings and making pictures and like having a goal, a lot of people, when they get into it, they get real nervous about that because they really need these photos that turn out it’s a once in a lifetime event. When you’re a photo journalist, everything you do every day of the week, once in a lifetime only have one shot at it, got to come home with a photo, or you might not have a job the next day. Right? So I already had that skill in my bag. So I think that really brought with me into weddings, a very calming presence for people, because I knew number one, I could solve any problem that was coming my way because I earned it. I understood everything technically that there was to know in terms of shooting a wedding. On the psychology front. . . I would say the number one thing that I’ve learned in weddings is… This is going to be really hard to explain how to do to somebody, but unless you get in the flow of it, but it’s how to be reinforcing and positive with people without being cheesy and overworked. You don’t want to be the guy that’s just “Gorgeous baby. Gorgeous. Just yes, more, more”. You don’t want to be that guy, but you do want to say you look gorgeous. That’s perfect. Turn there. That looks amazing. Hold still hold that beautiful go. Those kinds of things, those positive reinforcements is part of what makes a day enjoyable for them. And if you can come at it from an authentic standpoint, like you’re excited about your work, but you’re also sharing that enthusiasm with them.
That’s probably the best way I could say that you can do it. That positive reinforcement, that psychology is really important to getting the right emotions out of your couple. If you just tell them to wander across a field and do whatever they want, that’s going to be a far different photo than if you’re like, “Dude, you got to tell her story, whisper in her ear, take her in your arms, have fun with this.” and give them coaching and give them guidance and then give them positive reinforcement.
You get a whole different set of photos than you do with the other. In terms of photojournalism. It’s like back in the day, if she’s getting married, I always had this feeling in my mind. I don’t want to change the day because there’s an opportunity cost. If I tell him to go across the room and get dressed over there and the beautiful light, and her mom’s not present. She’s run off, fixing some problems somewhere else. Well then somebody else is going to step in. There’s going to be a different moment that happens there. And maybe that’s greater. Maybe that’s a better photo than the one that would happen in the first place. But in point of fact, at least where I’m at right now is that I do want to give them some of that advice because I’ve had too many brides and grooms that have come back to me and said, oh my God, I’m so thankful that you found my mom and that she was in some photos with me, because if she wasn’t there, I would have been devastated that they weren’t, she wasn’t in my wedding photos.
So every photographer has got to pick and choose what is important to them. And the most important thing you can do with your clients is to just communicate what your approach is so that they understand what’s going to happen, how you’re going to deal with those things. If you’re honest with them, and you’re upfront, and it works for you, and it works for them, then that can be perfect. That could be your niche. But if you go in, and you have a set of photos that show these beautiful moments and these window lit pictures and a mom and daughter, having a moment together, clients are going to expect you to deliver those photos to them. So have that conversation, make sure you’re honest with them and really understand what your approach is and what you’re willing to do with them.
Joe: [00:12:16] You talked about shooting through the moment when something happens. Even in your portraits, you have loads of images with beautiful emotional moments. Now that I am hearing a bit more about your workflow. Are you mostly observing what happens and shooting it, or have you mastered the art of being able to prompt a lot of those moments with little cues or little suggestions? I ask that because I see a lot of younger photographers especially on TikTok sharing suggestions like having the groom lean in and whisper something funny in the bride’s ear or having the bride stick her tongue in the groom’s ear and then basically record the reaction. On one hand I think that’s a great idea, unfortunately, I also notice it becoming a trend and as I look through the work of these photographers, it actually kind of becomes rather predictable. So while it worked great for them, once — it worked only okay for them most of the time. How do you come up with these images that have this real emotion that is so engaging?
Joseph Ellis: [00:13:20] I would say that’s one of the double-edged swords of the internet, right? Is there’s this problem of sameness, because people get the same idea, they copy of the same idea. And then all of a sudden you see a million of the same variation of something, and it’s sorta like, you’re photocopying.
It’s like the second one’s not quite as good. And then by the time it filters down, t’s like really lost the essence of the original photo. I would say I don’t prompt in a way where I’m shooting for a specific reaction. I’m not like “Put your tongue in his ear”, and I’m going to fire off 47 frames of that, and we’re going to pick the best one. It’s more like putting them into a mindset and putting them in a place and then allowing them to be authentic with each other. I think that it produces more natural photographs.
Also, the older I get, the more I look at some pictures and I go, is that overworked? Is that overdone? Is that pose a little too far? Is that, does it have any naturalness to it at all? Classic one in wedding photography is the dip photo. Everybody’s seen a picture of a bride being dipped over and there’s a certain way a guy might hold a woman that he loves, and it’s a little bit of a dip. He’s got her in his arms. He’s holding her and embracing her. That feels natural. And then if it goes another three inches, now it’s like the photographers, tell him to bend them over. I’m trying to work in that space. You know what I’m saying? I’m trying to find what feels natural.
The other thing that I’ve really learned to do and love to do is that when I go out and shoot engagement sessions with couples, I really watch them, because every couple that you meet touches each other and embraces each other in specific ways that will look like them. If they look at it, they’ll go, oh, he does that to me all the time. And in point in fact, I do it with my wife, and I’m sure you do with yours. It’s just human nature. Right.
So when I watched some on engagement session, like what feels comfortable to them? What does he do with her? How does he deal with her on the off moments when they’re just there waiting for stuff to happen? And then I will translate that into wedding photographs later on. And that I feel is natural to them.
And there’ll be no bigger compliment to me in the world than if a bride were to say, “Oh my God, I love this photo because this just reminds me of us”.
Joe: [00:15:18] So if we go back to your start with weddings, having been a photojournalist and taking a photojournalistic approach to your weddings, I think a lot of new photographers may interpret that as show up and shoot whatever happens. And maybe that’s what you did back then. But if I’m a betting man, there’s a lot more prep involved for you today than what there was when you first started doing weddings. Share a bit of what happens before the wedding day so that you can wake up the morning of a wedding and feel like you’re ready to nail it. You’ve got everything lined up. You’re ready for a great day. What does your prep for a wedding involve?
Joseph Ellis: [00:15:55] Well, my better half is not on this podcast today, but my wife, Stephanie helps run our business. And I would say that she’s the right-hand side of our brain, and I’m the left-hand side. And so a lot of the prep that we do falls on her, but I would say there are two pieces to it. And what I already alluded to, and that is the pre-wedding shoots like engagement shoots, and bridal shoots, where I’m really thinking artistically about the couple and how I’m going to it, photograph them and understand them. But on the more logistical side, the big upside for me as a wedding photographer here in Dallas is that after 20 years, I’m very familiar with all the venues.
I’m very familiar with how the light works. I’m very familiar with the cadence. I know a ton of wedding coordinators and how they run their schedules and how much time I’m going to have. So that feels very not stressful to me at this moment. So that’s a big part of prep, but that’s just a leg up that I have just from having done this for many, many years.
Then beyond that, I would say it’s communicating with your client, understanding the schedule. Those are the two pieces that you can really do. So when people come in to meet us for the first time, they’re looking to book a wedding photographer, we go through a lot of learning process. And I always tell people that I want it to be very back and forth.
I want to learn about you guys as much as you learn about us so that we’re prepared to understand what you guys are like on the wedding day. And then we have a questionnaire. I think every good wedding photographer should have a questionnaire that they’re going to sit down and talk on the phone.
We prefer talking on the phone, which maybe it’s old school these days. I don’t know, but we’ll get on a conference call with them, and then we’ll just talk through all the different parts of the wedding day and things that we need to be aware of and things that might be interesting or different or unique to their wedding.
And you will never know what you would have missed if you don’t sit down and talk with them and the couples, because it’s their first run through on this whole thing. They don’t even know what they haven’t shared with you. Like my best friend from my is flying in from Paris, and she’s coming in for my wedding, and she’s going to be there, and she doesn’t really have a job in the wedding, but I really want a photo with her.
That’s a really important thing to know. Yeah. I’m going to sew a little patch inside my wedding dress. That is from my grandmother’s wedding. And it’s really important to me that this little thing that’s in there as a part of my wedding day. Well, you got to know that if you don’t know it, you won’t have a photo of it.
So learning those little things is really a big part of the storytelling process. I have frequently said that wedding storytelling is a little bit — well it’s not a little bit. It’s 50% details and 50% I would say moment driven work. The details are all the things that they’ve gone into the planning process.
The flowers they’ve chosen the venue that they’ve chosen everything down to, like I said, some little sentimental things wrapped around her bouquet or, oh, like one time we were in Chicago shooting a wedding and on the backside of the little table, place cards were little gifts to everybody in the wedding.
They were in a little pocket, little hidden pocket on the back of the escort cards. And we had to know that ahead of time, but that little detail was an important part of the storytelling process. And that’s what you learned during your interview. So we typically do that about a month before. Between that, our initial interview and then going through pre-wedding sheet with them, hopefully if possible or an engagement shoot, we’ve learned enough about them and understand them as a couple that were really prepared for the wedding day.
If I’ve never been to a venue before, like flying to another city. I always go in early. I always tour it. I always try and see it in the same light that’s going to be in the next day, because I want it to be prepared as possible for the directions and things that I’m going to be needing to think about.
Joe: [00:19:16] Between yourself and your wife, how many hours or how many meetings would you say that you have with an average couple before the wedding day in this process of getting to know them and getting to know what’s important to them?
Joseph Ellis: [00:19:28] I would say between the initial meeting and the prep meeting and their shoot and whatnot, and Steph might say more, because she goes back and forth with them on email, more than I do. I am probably not even aware of all the things that she gets back to them on, but I would say it’s probably three or four hours of time with them that we have really gone in and tried to learn and listen.
Joe: [00:19:46] Do you attend rehearsal dinners to get to know the rest of the bridal party?
Joseph Ellis: [00:19:48] You can get hired for a rehearsal dinner to come shoot it. And that does happen semi frequently. When it comes to the wedding party for a long time in my life, I would show up to actual rehearsals just to watch people walk through and say hi to everyone. And these days it’s a little less common.
I think it’s not a bad practice if you are feeling, I like to get some nerves out. I’d like to know who all the major players are. So that’s really, it depends on your personality and how you’re feeling and how much crap you feel like you need to have. It can be a big benefit. But at this point in my career, I don’t usually do that unless I’m hired to come in.
Joe: [00:20:19] Your wife also works with you as a second shooter is that correct?
Joe: [00:20:21] That’s correct. Yeah.
Joe: [00:20:23] Between the two of you, what kind of gear are you taking out, how many bodies? What are your go-to lenses? Do you work with zooms or do you like to work with primes? What’s your kit like?
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Joseph Ellis: [00:20:36] Okay. Well, let me answer a question. You didn’t ask first. Just because I think this is semi-interesting. I’ve always been a belt and suspenders guy when it comes to weddings. I’m a two camera shooter, so I definitely have two cameras on me at all times. And I usually have a wide angle and a telephoto.
I think that’s pretty easy, or it could be a 50mm, but it’s mostly a wide angle and telephoto. And for prep work, it’s usually primes. So if it’s Olympus cameras, it’s like a 17mm and a 45mm F1.2, and that is a great way to approach and be quick with your work. I always have the same camera on the same hip.
I always have my cameras set sort of a semi-automatic mode so that I can whip it up to my face and make a photo as quickly as. When it comes to ceremonies, I typically will use zooms depending on how low the light is like a 40mm to 150mm Olympus lens for ceremonies is just incredible. Back before that, I used to carry around a Canon 300mm F2.8 which weighed like 6 pounds just to have that focal length is really brilliant for weddings.
And then the second is usually an ultra-wide, so that’s something that’s going to be able to capture the whole church and do processionals and things like. Now that whole thing may fall apart if the light levels are too low. So I always have a 75mm F1.8 for when it’s really dim in there. If it’s candle, it’s a candle, you know what I mean? We have to be prepared.
And then I also have my primes, but the basic kit is this. I would say it’s like 17mm, 25mm, 45mm, all F1.2 primes. And then it’s a 7mm to 14mm, 20mm to 40mm, 40mm to 150mm zooms. Those are all F2.8. Those are my six basic lenses. And then the other one that I just feel like you can’t live with that in the Olympus world is the 75mm F1.8.
And so that kind of rounds out my kit. I don’t carry a macro lens because 12mm to 40mm has pretty great macros. It’s good enough macro for wedding work. And then in terms of strobes, that’s a wild world into itself. I have a number of Godox strobes that I work with. I do love the Olympus flashes for example, and normally I’d go with OEM. But in my work, I’m often triggering lights externally to my camera in conjunction. So I have strobes in the reception room that are firing on radio frequencies. And I like the Godox system to be able to turn those off and on and deal with their power or ratio without having to run around and deal with them individually.
Joe: [00:22:56] Are you using AD200’s or which of the Godox strobes do you use?
Joseph Ellis: [00:23:00] Yeah. So I have on cameras, the V862’s, and then the AD200’s as my off-camera lights. And then I have a studio downtown, which has bigger lights in it, but I don’t generally take those out on location.
Joe: [00:23:10] You know, I kind of have this thing about so many people feeling they need to get that big, heavy and expensive 600 watt second strobe. I looked through your portfolio, and you’ve lit a lot of really big reception halls. So just to confirm that, two hundred watt seconds is more than enough to get the job done.
Joseph Ellis: [00:23:29] Yeah, absolutely. I normally fire those on 128th power. They’re not even taxing. The main reason have AD200’s is if you want to fire off five frames of a first dance, that’s the main reason to even have that power of strobe.
I am a big proponent in all flash work. If I can add this, especially at this point in my career, I want the flash to feel as invisible as possible. The main reason that I light dance floors is that I don’t like the look of super dark backgrounds. What I want to do is add a bit of fill and a bit of backlight into the picture.
I’m not trying to overpower everything that’s in the room. One of the things that if someone spends a hundred thousand dollars on flowers and lighting for their wedding reception, they don’t want you to come in and beat it with a strobe. They want to see the ambiance that they created.
Joe: [00:24:16] I’m assuming that you’re using a lot of the ambient light in those shots?
Joseph Ellis: [00:24:18] Yeah. I’m trying to color correct the strobes as much as I can to match the ambient so that they disappear. Now, the one caveat is that you never know if you have a video team coming in the video teams these days, believe it or not are more Interesting than the photographers. When we first started, it was the reverse, like the photographers were bringing in all these big strokes and pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, and, and the video guys were just there with their little handheld cameras. The whole situation. Completely flipped over, but now I’ve got video guys coming in. They might bring in four light stands and have big lights coming into the dance floor. In which case I can dial things back. I can’t tell them to stop. They need to be able to create their product, but I can go ahead and use their light.
And I’ll just use less of what I brought. So you have to be able to balance those things out.
Joe: [00:25:02] Let’s talk about running a business with your wife. It sounds like the two of you have been very successful at making it work. On the day of a wedding, with your wife being the second shooter, how do you guys divvy up the responsibilities?
Joseph Ellis: [00:25:15] Well working with your spouse is something we get a lot of questions about, and most people are just incredulous about the whole thing. Like you guys spend everything every single day together all day. I mean, it works for us. So I guess you have to know yourself too, if it’s going to work, but she always says, that I’m a boss only one day a week and that’s on the wedding day, the rest of the time she’s in charge.
We have very defined roles, on the wedding day. And I think this is really an important thing to think about and clarify before you’re, before you get there. And she comes in as a second shooter, not as another first photographer. But I think that her contribution to what we can provide in wedding photography is something I could absolutely never get as the primary shooter.
She does some jobs that as the primary person, you just don’t have time to go and do. It’s the second angle on the ceremony. It’s the reverse of where you are in the prep time. So if you’re with a bride she’s with the groom or vice versa, and then the other job than my wife does, that’s so critical. And I would share this as a tip for anybody getting started in wedding photography. Is that she shows up to the cocktail hour before the guests arrive. And she not only photographs the spaces for me really quick. And if I have a chance to do it again, I will, but she is the first one there when it’s untouched. And then she spends a good amount of time photographing the guests during the cocktail hour.
Which sounds very mundane and boring, but you wouldn’t believe how important it is to brides and grooms to have a representation of as many people that showed up to their wedding as possible. And this is the best moment to do it. They’re not sitting down, they’re not eating. We have a hard rule about not taking photos of people when they’re eating.
Nobody likes that, but you can catch them during cocktail hour. It’s such a brilliant time she can run around now and she’s very efficient. 15 minutes. She can have 85% of the people at the wedding photographed. And then we have that as a way to say, look, we covered all the people that showed up. It’s not just the people who showed up on the dance floor. It’s not just the wedding party. We’ve got photos of a lot of the people that came to the event. And then at the reception itself, if it’s a speech then one of us is covering the speaker and one is covering the reaction. If it’s cake cutting, one’s doing the cake cutting. One’s watching the reaction, or it’s an exit she might be coming from behind while I’m standing in front.
So we’re just trying to give people more context and more storytelling, more angles on those big moments of the wedding day. And, in point of fact, after 20 years, we don’t even talk about it, we just do it because it’s our main way of working, But I wouldn’t imagine doing it without her just because there’s like those such key things now that I think are hallmarks of what we do in terms of deliverables and how we service our clients that she is responsible for.
And as the primary guy, you are very busy during certain moments of the wedding day, doing one job. And she’s doing a lot of other jobs during those moments
Joe: [00:27:59] If a new photographer is looking at getting into weddings. Would you encourage them to start out by working as a second shooter?
Joseph Ellis: [00:28:05] People give that advice a lot, and I think if you could find somebody who’s willing to do that with you, and that could certainly be a great way to learn the ropes. It’s also a highly competitive industry, and I know that there’s a lot of photographers that probably wouldn’t entertain that idea. I don’t entertain it all that often because honestly, bringing a new photographer into a wedding that I’m doing, it’s just adding a layer of complication to what I’m doing. I don’t get a lot of benefit out of it. If you could find someone who’s slightly ahead of you, like, let’s say someone who’s a year in who could really use a second shooter who doesn’t have one and you guys can learn and grow together. Then that would be a way that I think would really.
If you go to a very experienced wedding photographer, one of the top wedding photographers in your town, and you’re like, I want to go second shoot for you. You have to think yourself. Well, very little benefit to that person going. I want to teach you everything I know and bring you up and give you all this experience and knowledge. Why? There’s not a lot of reason why they would want to do that.
And remember. They’re going to get a lot of those calls during the year. So even though you might be a great person and really fun to hang out with and whatnot, they might get 20 of those calls in a year, and they can’t say yes to all of them. So don’t get too upset with them or think that they’re bad people.
It’s not really that at all. Join WPPI go to Vegas to learn some of the basics and from some of the really greats out there, get your skills done that way. And then maybe if you are looking to get in weddings, find somebody who’s starting out and help that person. So you guys can help each other would be a piece of advice that I would give.
Joe: [00:29:36] Hopefully I’m not putting on the spot with this question, but if you had to choose between one of the two for a new photographer, PPA or WPPI?
Joseph Ellis: [00:29:44] WPPI although I think both of them are, I would do both, but WPPI is just an opportunity to go and sit down in those classes and really, really learn a lot of hands-on stuff quickly.
And if you are looking for a crash course on anything, any aspect of wedding photography that you’re just flummoxed by. You can go get it done at WPPI in Vegas during that week, I just have so much respect for the educators that are there that people put in on the line. They don’t hold back. There’s nothing, you’re not going to be able to learn there.
So if you could go and really want to get a crash course or something, that’s how I would do it. PPA is an awesome resource, a great organization. And I would certainly join that as well. And so I would highly recommend as soon as you can to join both.
Joe: [00:30:26] Let’s talk about the deliverables from a wedding. For an average shoot, and I know this is going to fluctuate depending on the events of the day. But what’s an average shoot for you on a wedding day in terms of number of frames between you and your wife?
Joseph Ellis: [00:30:39] This does vary wildly among wedding photographers, but without trying to sound like this is crazy or not, we average around five to 7,000 frames at a wedding and that’s for a 10-hour day.
And for some people that’s going to feel like just an absolute, enormous number and everyone else’s going to be like, oh yeah, that sounds pretty good. And there’s like 1% people would be like, you didn’t shoot enough. For us, that’s kind of where it’s at.
Joe: [00:31:03] How does that translate in terms of deliverables with your packages? I noticed on your website that you’re actually giving the couples a preview of their images within a couple of days and then doing deliveries later. Explain to me how you’re making that work.
Joseph Ellis: [00:31:16] The actual deliverables is very, very consistently about a hundred pictures an hour. So if it’s a seven or eight hour wedding its 700 or 800 photos plus, or minus 10%, I didn’t plan on that. It’s not like I’m shooting for a number. I always advocate with people and oh, maybe you’re the same way, Joe. But like when I’m editing, I edit “in”. So when I’m looking through a set of photos, I’m looking for the winners. I don’t ever think about the rejects. Some people, when they start out and their new photographers, they’re going through “I don’t like that photo don’t like that photo. Do I sort of like that photo?” That’s a mentality that takes three or four passes to get through images in my mind. If you go in, and you just look for winners. You’re like tap, tap, tap, tap. Winner!, Winner! Tap, tap, tap, tap. And so I let it be very organic in that way and still very consistently around a hundred pictures an hour.
Okay. Sneak peek. This is the golden age of everybody wants it right away. Right. So we do a couple of things. One of the capabilities our cameras have is to be able to send photos to our phones. So right on the wedding day, I tend to Wi-Fi over photos to my phone. I try and post one or two photos on the wedding day.
Usually try and pick that photo when I’m having a bite to eat during dinnertime. I’ll pick a photo and post it, but then beyond that, I do want to get a chance to download, look through them, pick a few favorites, tell a little story. And so, one or two days after then I’ll pick about 20 twenty-five photos somewhere in there.
And I’ll go ahead and work those up as I normally would and post them as a sneak peek. And by and large, that represents a lot of this social sharing that my images will get in some total because when they get their wedding photos back three or four weeks after the wedding, it’s a big group of photos. It’s seven or 800 pictures.
And at that moment, I think they tend to get a little overwhelmed, plus if I’ve done my job on the 20-25 favorites, I’ve already picked some of the winners, the really amazing photos from the wedding. And those are the ones that get shared around the most. And having that share, believe it or not, it works in very strange organic ways to get you additional clients and things like that is that, some cousins or something, and then they’re getting engaged, then you get the call.
So paying attention to that and being able to meet that need of having the bride and groom be able to blow up their own Instagram and be like, Here we got the good stuff. That’s an important thing to be able to do.
Joe: [00:33:33] Aside from the sneak peek images, how are you delivering the wedding? Is it in an album? Are you delivering digitally? What’s your workflow?
Joseph Ellis: [00:33:41] Since day one, believe it or not. This is some 800 weddings later for every single one of my weddings I go through, and I pull the top photos and I put them into a slideshow and that slideshow becomes the thing that we premier to them right before they see all the photographs. On an average basis, it’s a hundred to 150 photos. And those are the ones that I go through. There are different levels of Photoshop, right? So there’s RAW conversion, which some people would call it editing, where you’re balancing color, and you’re cropping, and you’re dealing with, maybe even some dodging and burning in a photo, but when you’re a high volume wedding photographer, and you’re dealing with a thousand photos that you’ve got to get through, there’s only a certain level of that, that you can manage and still meet your deadlines each day.
Right. So that’s a basic edit just going through Lightroom. Well for 150 photos or something like that, I want to go through, and I want to give them everything I’ve got. And so that edit that artistic edit becomes the slideshow. And I try and do it in a way that tells the story of the wedding day, that touches every moment on the wedding day, and also pulls out all the photos that I really love.
That set of images that goes into that slideshow is also the ones that I go to work, designing an album. Now, in terms of albums, over the years it’s varied quite a bit, but I would say about 50% of our couples, 60% of our couples order an album upfront in the package and the other ones do not.
Some of them come back to us later. Some of them make them our own. It’s still pretty defacto standard in weddings to go ahead and give couples the files. So when they get a delivery from us, it’s all on a website, and then it has a download link, and then they can download all the pictures and share them. I think that’s actually the way I prefer it.
I charge upfront so that I cover how much I need to make on a wedding day. I’m not needing to make post sales and weddings, which in comparison to portraits is. But I want them to have them share them, use them. And I think it’s so important for wedding photographs. I don’t ever want couples to not have their wedding pictures, but I also am a huge proponent of wedding albums because everything that’s on your phone and on your laptop is so ephemeral. It can just disappear in a moment, and then you may not be able to get access to it again. And so I don’t know how many, how big is your archive? How many, how you keep stuff around forever and ever, and ever, or are you the kind of guy that cleans it out.
Joe: [00:35:55] I’ve got about twenty-five terabytes of data on a network drive and then backed up in the cloud
Joseph Ellis: [00:36:00] Okay. So I have just to my left here in my office, 130 4-terabyte drives full of photos from weddings, but hard drives wear out. Right? So I don’t want to keep reusing them over and over and over again.
It’s just simpler for me. When I fill one up, it just goes into the archive, and then we’re onto the next. But I have clients that have come back to me. 10 years down the line, there was a flood at our house, and we lost our wedding photographs. Do you have them? And I’ve gone back and gotten them. It’s things like that — the reasons that I keep them around.
It’s not that I’m going back to them going well, I’m going to put in my portfolio this year. No, that’s not really the case, but I’m why not? This is part of my workflow.
Joe: [00:36:39] You mentioned something there that I think is an added benefit — correct me if I’m wrong, but the time that you’re investing to do that slideshow — taking that group of 100 or 150 images into Photoshop, doing some extra work on them — I am sure you are building that into your pricing, but that also gives you the best of the best from that wedding that you’re then going to use for your marketing on your social media, on your website, your blog et cetera.
Joseph Ellis: [00:37:04] You’re exactly right. Yeah. Those photographs and those slideshows are, I keep in a separate folder and those are always the ones and probably the only ones that I’ll go back to for my own personal uses. But it’s also just about impressing the client and also putting your best foot forward. I think it’s a mistake to throw 800 photographs starting with a picture of the shoes on a website and go, “Here’s your wedding photographs”. It’s very hard for them to see the forest for the trees there, by doing the slideshow. You’re also giving them a chance to say, here’s the breadth of what we did. And I’ve organized it in a way that’s really easy for you to understand. When you want to go back for an album, you want to write an article, you want to submit to a magazine, you want to find stuff for the portfolio for the next year. Those slideshows come in super handy. It’s your five-star photos. And that just makes life much easier to sort through and find it.
Joe: [00:37:49] Early on, you mentioned trends and indeed photography has gone through many trends over the years. And I think that thanks to social media, a lot of trends are actually being created on the consumer end, which then pushes a lot of photographers into following them as well. Do you find with today’s brides that you get a lot of people coming to you with images from Instagram or images from Pinterest and saying this is really what I want to make sure that we do? Or are you fortunate enough, given your eight hundred plus weddings that people are coming to you with a pretty clear picture of what you do and that’s what they want?
Joseph Ellis: [00:38:26] The answer is hardly ever, but I have everybody runs across a bride who printed off her list from the internet, from the Knot and here’s the wedding list of pictures and, can you get, so you’re going to deal with some of that. And I have had brides print off pictures and be like, can we do this? And I always tell couples that if you’re working strictly from a list of photographs, and it’s a big and complicated list, that there’s an opportunity cost there that is uniqueness. It’s that if I’m doing that, I’m not doing something else.
I’m not paying attention to what makes your day different from everybody else’s. I have to go and deal with the details of exactly what this looks like. So again, that comes back to communication. So if that question comes up, I always say, I’m dealing with a ton of experience here. You don’t have to tell me to get a picture of you and your dad walking down the aisle.
You don’t have to tell me you get the Groom’s reaction. Those are the things, the parts of the story that I absolutely understand. And all of those things that you would have expectations for, I will get, what I need to know from you is what’s unique. What’s. What do you guys need me to understand about who you guys are as a couple? What your families are like and what makes this day different from everybody else’s. If you can have that kind of communication, then you’ll be fine. If you do get a Pinterest picture or a list of photographs, I always tell people, look, let’s take this as inspiration. We’ll just be like, let’s do our own variation of it.
Let’s find some way to make it different and make it ours. If someone’s paying you. Five or $10,000 to shoot their wedding. And they want a picture of all of themselves lined up in a field, holding hands. Then you’re going to go do that photo. It’s one photo out of it of a long day in her long career. Don’t get too bent out of shape about it.
Joe: [00:39:56] Another trend that I see happening is people talking about the concept of posed versus unposed. In fact, just today I received an email newsletter promoting an article about Newborn portraits, Posed versus Unposed. So there seems to be a push towards this, and you’ve described a shooting style that doesn’t seem to have a lot of, “hold this pose”. Are there any points in the wedding where you are doing traditional poses? Maybe the formals with the whole wedding party or are you even looking for ways to make them look more unposed and casual and relaxed.
Joseph Ellis: [00:40:29] Okay. Alter returns, pictures where they just got married, and you’re going back up to the front of the church to do family photos. Those are as scripted, basic as the length of time. Like I’m not trying to recreate the wheel there. So you’re going to get them up there that you need to pay attention to the details and the clothing, the people are positioned correctly. Nobody’s got their eyes closed. You’ve got to pay attention to the details, make sure those are done correctly.
The other thing that I personally take a lot of pride in is making sure those are lit properly. And you have to remember that those photographs are, those are the ones that get printed. The most. Those are the ones. Are going to stand the test of time, no matter how much you wish it’s going to be your favorite picture of them afterwards at their reception where the bride’s upside down, she’s being flipped over and there’s, everybody’s exploding with laughter.
Like I would hope that they would print that picture as big as their wall, but the long and short of it is. Someone’s going to order some 8×10’s or 11 by 14’s of the family. And that’s going to get framed and that’s going to be around for a hundred years. They’re really important photos, but I want them to take the minimum amount of time.
I want them to look correct. I want them to be lit correct, and then the next, and that’s all the brides want. They want that time to go quickly and easily. But in terms of trends, like you talk about baby photography and I do newborns, quite a few of them just because so many of my clients have started families.
And so let’s talk about it from that perspective, just for fun. Personally speaking, I do not like babies in baskets. I do not like prop driven kids photography. I don’t want to do Easter bunny photos, but I think that people do them really well. There are people that specialize in that, and they were incredible pictures. Some of them. I would even describe them as art. Like just the way that they put the whole thing together and lit it. It’s incredible. But my approach, my sensibility, me personally, and I think it’s important to be authentic to you who you are when you’re a photographer, is that I am more “in the moment”.
I would rather be at home with mom and dad when the baby arrives and get pictures of them changing him and hanging out with him or her, them on the bed with the dog and that kind of thing. And I still believe in having pictures. Where everyone’s looking at the camera, there’s this mentality that you’re going to be one thing or the other.
When I go out and shoot family portraits, I still really want to have photos where people are like the whole family is doing the right thing, looking in the right direction, the next family portrait. But then I also want to have unscripted pictures where we’re just hanging out and being together, and I’m putting together photographs and that semi scripted side.
I wouldn’t say a hundred percent. I’m just like, I’m just going to sit you on the couch. You guys just do your thing. I’m just going to take photos. That’s not entirely what it is. It’s okay, let’s talk about this process. Here’s something that you guys do often. Let’s go photograph that, and then I’ll make little subtle changes
Joe: [00:43:08] You mentioned a minute ago the idea of shooting family portraits and still liking to do the shots where people are looking at the camera in addition to the unscripted moments. From the standpoint of print sales, especially when we’re talking about those prints that are going to get framed and hung above the fireplace in the family room. Are you finding that customers today are going with less of the traditional images and more of the unscripted moments for those big images? Or do those big prints still tend to be the more traditional shots?
Joseph Ellis: [00:43:36] Yeah. Here in Texas or in the south, I don’t know different anywhere else, or maybe it just varies by family. But I would say if it’s a big print, it’s one of two things like I do a genre of prints. I think this is common to a lot of photographers these days, where you have little tiny people in the big landscaping, I call them sort of big wall portraits. In those images. I might have a family walking, interacting, dancing, twirling, doing something fun and interactive that picture.
I will sell a lot of those that are 20″ by 30″, 30″ by 40″ 40″ by 60″. So really big prints for a wall. And I love them because I always tell clients that from across the room, I want it to feel like a beautiful landscape photo, and I want people to get immersed in it and then realize it’s actually a family portrait.
So there’s that genre of picture. That’s a large wall picture. But if you’re talking about pictures that they frame them, give them away to family as gifts, they put them above the mantle. For example, those are almost a hundred percent the smiling at the camera photo. And I really believe that the unscripted photos, those do really well. If you want to sell family albums, if you want to create a story. And I think that they work really well for that too. So I think it really does depend on who you are and what you’re selling. I think there’s lots of families probably that put those larger, less scripted photos on their walls.
But for my clients, most of the time, if I can nail a picture, like we had this family out the other day as a doctor and his wife and their three little boys it’s chaos, the kids are running everywhere, and it’s just like, oh my God, how are we going to get any photos? We had to spend some time with them, wait for them to calm down. And then we finally started to get some photos where I got everybody looking at the camera. The moms are so appreciative of that. And that is such a classic sort of a want that a mom might have to have a picture of her whole family where everybody’s behaving and doing the right thing.
If only because it’s a picture of that she can’t possibly get herself. That become a one that they’re going to frame and use for a lot of different things.
Joe: [00:45:27] Joseph, I got to tell you, you have shared some awesome information today, so I’m going to ask you for one more piece of advice. If you were speaking to a new photographer that’s interested in becoming a wedding photographer. What’s that one piece of advice that you’re going to give after having done more than 800 weddings over 20 years? What’s the one piece of advice that you think can help somebody that’s just getting started out to make sure that they’re headed down the right path?
Joseph Ellis: [00:45:54] I’m going to give two, I hope that’s okay.
Joe: [00:45:56] Go right ahead.
Joseph Ellis: [00:45:58] The first one is. It’s all about getting to know your gear and knowing the gear, but it’s also not about gear at all. So the first piece of advice I would give you is that don’t get caught up in thinking that you need every version of the best thing in the world to be a wedding photographer, you do need certain pieces of gear, and you do more than that.
You need to know how to use them. You need to get out and be making tons of photos. The first 10,000 wedding photos you make are not going to be your favorite ones, 10 years down the road. Yes, it’s about gear, but it’s also not about gear. It’s really about being quick and agile and understanding your gear in a sense that it just becomes second nature.
You should be able to pick it up and use it and know it and understand it innately. That’s when you’ve reached a point when you’re ready to shoot weddings and I wouldn’t start out shooting weddings first, I would talk about, I choose and family portraits. I would shoot some events. I’d find some way to do something in a little less pressure situations so that you can.
And the second piece of advice I would give you is that your education is more important than your. Like spending time learning from people, whether you’re learning from books or you’re learning by going to WPPI, or you’re learning by showing up at your PPA and just taking classes and really trying to hone your skills that is going to pay off so much more even I would go triple for the fact that you need to be in some marketing classes.
And that’s not a skill that you can learn and forget either because that isn’t ever-changing. So I would invest in your education. And yes, gear is important, but being a really well-rounded, well versed photographer in terms of being able to really know and understand your gear and that really quick and, fast-paced wedding is more important than having the latest, greatest prime or the latest greatest body.
Joe: [00:47:42] I think that’s excellent advice, Joseph. Again, thank you so much. There’s a lot of gold in this conversation, so I really, really appreciate it.
Joseph Ellis: [00:47:51] My pleasure. Thanks, Joe.
Joe: [00:47:54] WOW, I spoke with Joe for over 50 minutes, and we barely scratched the surface.
I promise to line up more wedding photographers in the near future. I wanted to begin with Joe simply because in addition to really admiring his work, you won’t find too many photographers shooting weddings — that have over 800 weddings under their belts, 20 years of experience, and they still clearly love what they do and push themselves to continue to grow and create.
In other words, if you are considering becoming a wedding photographer — Joseph Ellis is a great example of someone who has done it right. Be sure to follow him. As always, I have the links to his websites and all of his socials in the show notes.
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