Creating A Balanced Brand

by Harrison Jacobs

It's Bliss Photography

This image shows one way a varied gender bridal party can be arranged. The image is on the cover of Capturing Love.

June 03, 2013

This month, the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the  Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Prop 8. If these bills are struck down in court, it will open the door for same-sex marriage recognition across the nation and, with it, extend the rights of marriage to millions of Americans—and according to a 2009 Forbes article, a $9.5 billion boon to the wedding industry if half of the nation’s same-sex couples tied the knot. As a photographer, it may be time to rethink the ways in which you will accommodate potential new clientele. We spoke to industry experts to give us advice on the ins and outs of photographing same-sex weddings, whether it’s your first or 50th time on the job.

A New [Wedding] Frontier

Both Kathryn Hamm, the co-founder of GayWeddings.com, and Thea Dodds, a wedding photographer who has worked with many same-sex couples, saw the potential in guiding photographers on how to market their work to the same-sex community. That led them to collaborate on Capturing Love, a recently released guide to same-sex wedding photography. Dodds summed up the situation for photographers succinctly: “This is the last frontier in wedding photography,” she says. “Never again are we going to get new couples…this is beyond wedding photography. This is history.”

While love has no boundaries, the way the wedding is approached from couple to couple is always different. And up until the last decade, images of same-sex weddings in photographers’ portfolios were few to none.

Because same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia (with an additional eight states that have legalized civil unions), the approach to this type of wedding is new too. “Ten years ago, the primary difference was that same-sex marriages weren’t legal so the marriage part didn’t exist,” explains Hamm. Of course, Hamm is referring to the first state to pass same-sex legislation in 2004: Massachusetts.

While some couples favor more traditional wedding elements, other weddings may have two veils, two pairs of stilettos or two bowties. In other words, there’s no guarantee that a wedding ceremony will be traditional in its approach, either.

As a photographer, “You may be doing a legally recognized ceremony, you may be doing an unlicensed wedding ceremony, you may be doing an elopement for a couple that’s coming in from out-of-state…There is no uniformity in marriage equality,” says Hamm. “Same-sex couples have all sorts of different combinations.”

Many of the same-sex couples getting married now may have been together for years and may have previously had some sort of commitment ceremony. The traditional dating, engagement, marriage track was not an option for many same-sex couples in the past. However, because of the more established legality of same-sex marriage in states like New York and Massachusetts, that trend is changing, and more same-sex couples are following the “quicker, more natural progression in their relationship,” explains Hamm.

Another wrinkle to same-sex weddings is the level of family involvement. According to the Gay Wedding Institute, 16 percent of couples have zero emotional support from parents and 36 percent have no wedding attendants (groomsmen or bridesmaids). For family members who are present, they can run the gamut from reluctantly supportive to incredibly supportive, says Hamm, and that is an important issue to understand when approaching a same-sex wedding. In addition, good friends or especially supportive members of the community often take on the role of what Hamm calls “chosen family.”

When it comes to wedding attendants, same-sex couples are leading the way in mixed-gender wedding parties. No longer is it appropriate to refer to the bridesmaids or the groomsmen. In many cases—and Hamm notes this trend is appearing in straight weddings as well­—brides’ attendants feature men as “bridesmen” and grooms’ attendants feature women as “best women.” This can be an interesting challenge for photographers who are accustomed to more traditional weddings—no one wants to make one of the bride’s attendants look unintentionally like the groom. It’s important to understand and speak with the couple about how they envision their wedding party,” says Hamm, so photographers have time to think about photographic solutions.

Understanding Your Subjects

While Thea Dodds has photographed over 200 weddings, when she began shooting same-sex weddings in 2005, she found herself unprepared. The wedding had no groom, no white gown, and the couple’s marital kiss was the first time their family had seen the two lock lips. She tried approaching the wedding as she would any straight wedding and she wasn’t happy with the results. Her traditional “wedding toolkit” (her go-to poses), produced unpredictable results.

“What I was seeing was a lot of photos that made the couples look more like friends than lovers,” says Dodds. “Worst of all, some made them look like siblings.”

It was for that reason that Dodds contacted Hamm about creating Capturing Love. To both of them, it was clear that there was a distinct difference between what was authentic for same-sex couples and straight couples. There are a number of challenges in conveying romanticism and connection when there are not the traditional gender-roles of a bride and groom. One of the biggest issues Dodds and other photographers who she talked with encountered was hesitancy in couples to display affection publicly.

According to Hamm, one of the photographers she spoke to for the book relayed spending four hours trying to get a male couple to kiss. They were older, and it was only after the shoot that the photographer realized that the couple wasn’t comfortable with kissing in public.

“They came up in a time when, especially for gay men, you have to worry about your safety,” explains Hamm. Photographers, according to Hamm, sometimes need to find other creative ways to demonstrate closeness. The photographer concluded that had she done the engagement session with them, she would have figured out their personalities earlier and would have been able to adjust for the wedding day.

Hamm and Dodds emphasize spending time getting to know couples first. This is good advice for any clients, same-sex or straight, but it has particular importance in the same-sex community, where assumptions about personalities or gender roles can stray into the offensive. By spending time with the couple, says Hamm, photographers will get a better sense of how they interact, what language they use to refer to each other and more tangible factors like what style of photography they like and what they are going to wear.

The question of dress is especially important with same-sex couples. Often, two brides wear light-colored dresses or two grooms wear tuxes. This can pose particular problems because photographers can no longer rely on the traditional black/white contrast provided by a dress and tuxedo combination. If photographers are not careful, the photos can make two brides look like siblings rather than lovers or two grooms look like they are sitting for an executive portrait.

To alleviate this potential, Dodds often suggests to two brides who want to wear white dresses, to instead wear sashes of opposing colors to differentiate themselves. With grooms, she suggests that one of them move their boutonnière from the left lapel (the traditional side to place it) to the right.

On the other end of the attire spectrum are two brides, one of whom will wear a dress and another who will wear a tux. “It’s tough to not be fooled by what people are wearing and then assign them to the gender roles that we’re used to,” says Dodds.

While examples of modern poses for same-sex (and straight couples) abound in Capturing Love, Dodds believes that a few simple rules can keep a photographer on point when photographing same-sex couples. Dodds believes that you must communicate femininity when photographing women and masculinity when photographing men. That said, should members of a couple present themselves differently, be open to this identification.

“That comes down to capturing the authenticity of the couple and not trying to plug and play, popping them into a heterosexual pose,” says Dodds.

Catherine Hunsberger, a photographer who often shoots same-sex weddings, echoes Dodds’ sentiments. “I’m not putting anyone in the traditional male or female role,” says Hunsburger. When shooting, however, she gets rid of poses altogether and instead puts couples in attractive light and lets them get comfortable.

“I’m going to adjust the pose so it looks good for the photo, but they put themselves there so I feel comfortable taking that photo and feeling as though that’s an accurate representation of them as a couple,” says Hunsburger.

Catering to Your Clientele

GayWeddings.com recently partnered with Wedding Wire to create a single directory. By Hamm’s count, there are around 52,000 LGBT-friendly wedding vendors in the directory now. Same-sex couples have more choice than ever and it’s no longer enough to advertise yourself as “gay friendly.” According to Hamm, you now have to be “gay wedding competent.”

“It’s important that a photographer do his or her education, his or her background research, thinking about how to fold same-sex couples into their language and business materials,” says Hamm.

There is a difference between going after same-sex clients because that’s “where the money is,” as one vendor told Hamm, and doing so because you genuinely want to serve the market. Some of the ways to show you are authentic in your intent to reach same-sex couples may seem obvious, but it’s astounding how few photographers who market themselves as specializing in same-sex weddings fail to follow them. “Couples want to see themselves in the photos. If you don’t show same-sex weddings, I don’t know how you can attract same-sex couples,” says Dodds.

In addition, photographers need to be sure to use gender-neutral language in contracts, on their websites and when talking to clients. In general, when it comes to the wedding industry, professionals talk about “the bride, the bride, the bride.” More appropriate for same-sex couples is language such as “Partner 1/Partner 2” or “Fiancé/Fiancée.” Photographers should replace language such as “bride and groom” with “couple” or “partners.” Hunsburger agrees, noting, “People look for those specific things. That’s what I would be looking for if I were getting married,” says Hunsburger.

In the end, according to Hamm, change may be coming, but it’s not immediate: “It’s going to take some time [for the wedding industry to change] just like it takes City Hall to change its form from bride and groom to partner and partner.”

Capturing Love’s Same-Sex Wedding Essentials

The following tips, excerpted from Dodds’ and Hamm’s new guide to same-sex wedding photography, Capturing Love, reveal considerations a photographer should take when photographing a same-sex wedding for the first time:

1. Understand gender expression. Look beyond the attire selection, but be prepared to embrace it. Photographers must visually respect gender expression by embracing how the individuals (as individuals and as a couple) self-identify. Do not presume that in every same-sex couple one partner is the ‘masculine one’ and one is the ‘feminine one.’…Take the time to get to know the couple and their relationship and how they are comfortable expressing themselves to better understand how to pose them organically.


2. Be creative with group shots. Same-sex couples typically have some sort of a wedding party but the attendants assembled can vary widely from tradition. There are mixed-gender wedding parties; no wedding parties; imbalanced wedding parties; costumed wedding parties; family as wedding party. Learn more about who your clients want to feature and how they want to feature them before the event, and use that understanding to create meaningful and authentic group shots.


3. When there isn’t contrast, create it! It can be challenging to create contrast and visual appeal when photographing two grooms in matching tuxedos or two brides in white dresses… A simple request to have one groom hold his jacket over his shoulder creates a nice contrast between the men, and it allows plenty of room to play up the traditional wedding colors: black and white. For brides, try to encourage one or the other to wear a color sash to differentiate them.


4. Don’t forget about the family A wedding is as much about celebrating friends and family as it is about a couple solemnizing a lifelong commitment. To be sure, it’s an emotional experience for any parent to see a son or daughter walk down the aisle, especially one with its own “coming out” backstory. Don’t neglect the opportunity to include the emotional responses of biological and chosen family during the moments that count at the ceremony and reception.


5. Use details for unique shots Photographing a groom’s cufflinks comes straight (ahem) from the traditional playbook. That classic shot can be reinvented to illustrate the point that this is a gay wedding. Photographers can also play on the grooms’ pairing of ties, shoes, boutonnieres, wedding bands, cake tops, pocket squares and doting mothers!

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