Double Vision: Photographers Balance Parallel Businesses

by Jack Crager

September 27, 2013

Often, photographers have more than one labor of love. Shooting in different genres, they switch hats and even seem to inhabit more than one professional identity. And some find it useful to keep it that way.

“In the photography business, it’s all about making great pictures and getting them in front of the right people,” says 
J. Aaron Greene, who operates as a commercial photographer on most weekdays and as a wedding shooter on weekends. “The right people in these genres are very different and have to be reached in different ways.”

For Greene, this differentiation means separate marketing strategies. His commercial work—primarily editorial and advertising—is publicized through his website, jaarongreene.com. His wedding work, in conjunction with studio partner Jeff Hall, is showcased at jeffhallphoto.com.


Photo © J. Aaron Greene

“It’s my feeling that the art directors I’m trying to get my work in front of don’t care about my wedding work, and my potential wedding clients don’t care all that much about my commercial work, so I’ve separated them,” says Greene, who lives with his family in Greenville, South Carolina. “But each area has its own creative challenges and rewards.”


Photo © J. Aaron Greene

Beautiful and Meaningful
Greene says he primarily shoots weddings for personal satisfaction. “I want to make images that people care about, and that happens a lot more on a wedding day than a commercial job,” he says. “I mean, people care about the work in advertising or publishing—but not in the same way people will cherish what you made for them on their wedding day; we’re talking several generations of caring about them. And I like the creative challenge to make something beautiful and meaningful in whatever circumstance a wedding day might put me.”

While Greene shoots all his work in his own personal style, he also says that it’s hard to separate yourself from that. He approaches the genres differently. “On a commercial shoot, in a lifestyle situation, you have to create the moment to capture,” he says. “To achieve this, I have to mold the scenario in which I’ll work: models, wardrobe, location, hair, makeup, time of day, etc.


Photo © J. Aaron Greene

“On the flip side, I try not to create anything during a wedding day shoot,” he adds. “The most I’ll do is help the bride and groom plan out their day if they ask for my input on what time things should happen. At weddings, I try to direct as little as possible. Instead of creating the moments, I wait for the moments.”

These varied approaches involve different kinds of gear. “I’m shooting the standard digital whenever on lifestyle and editorial jobs,” he says. “At weddings, I shoot about 85 percent with my Leica rangefinders, and I often do the formal portraits on medium format. I don’t shoot 100 percent film at weddings, but it’s my preference. I also try and shoot by available light on wedding days, which is certainly not the norm for, say, a portrait session.


Photo © J. Aaron Greene

One of the attractions of a dual career, of course, is a two-fold revenue stream. “Weddings allow me to live in New York City and have the financial freedom to pursue my art projects,” says Christopher Lane, who also shoots portraits for editorial and advertising clients with help from his wife, Jasmine. “And to be honest, we have a lot of fun at weddings.”

Lane maintains separate practices online as well—his portrait work is on view at christopherlane.com and his wedding work is at 
wedding.christopherlane.com. But he believes all his work has a stylistic cohesion. “One common element is to show as much humor as possible,” he says. “I think people want to be creative in their choice of wedding photographer, and thankfully in the majority of my weddings, the couples want to push the boundaries.”


Photo © Christopher Lane

He adds that one reason to market the genres separately is to target different clientele (through “old-fashioned mailers” sent to magazines for editorial work, and using The Knot, WPJA and referrals to advertize his wedding work). “Unfortunately there is snobbery in the photo industry about wedding photography, in some cases rightly so,” he says. “But many wedding photographers are highly skilled. And interestingly enough, a big creative director just hired me to do her wedding. Usually, though, there’s not that much overlapping between the work.”


Photo © Christopher Lane

Lane says that while most of his commercial work is shot digitally, “I still shoot at least one roll of film per wedding to give a more vintage feel.” At ceremonies he operates as an observer. “I tend to treat it like street photography: I let things happen; it’s nice for people to let you into their lives for a day and feel totally at ease being photographed,” he explains. “When I am pursuing my personal work, there is more of a deliberate thought process and often a social commentary underpinning the work.”


Photo © Christopher Lane

Love and Care
Sometimes a photographer has to know when to say when. “I operate my wedding photography business pretty much by referral only, and I only do a few per year,” says Elizabeth Leitzell, a Brooklyn-based documentary and portrait shooter. “One year, I shot a lot of weddings—while also juggling other work—and it was just too much! I was losing track of what made each couple special, forgetting their parents’ names, etc.”

Leitzell keeps her practices semi-separate, with her documentary work at edlphotography.com and her wedding images at edlphotography.com/weddings. “The thing about the way I work is—and this may sound strange to people who only shoot weddings and are in a steady groove with it—I really document each wedding with love and care,” she says. “I have to have some personal love for the couple. That means I need to get to know them before the event and really understand who they are.”


Photo © Elizabeth Leitzell

She adds that she prefers this approach in all her work. “My practices for documentary work bleed through here: I want my subjects to trust me, and that takes time, no matter how you cut it,” she says. “I’m not into the whole business of running into a complex situation, stealing images quickly, and selling them for a quick buck. You’ve got to be accountable to your subjects.”


Photo © Elizabeth Leitzell

That also goes—maybe double—for wedding clients. “Your wedding day is this emotional, stressful, crazy day,” Leitzell says. “You’ve got to trust the photographer deeply for the photos to turn out well. That means, to me, meeting up more than once to plan and to understand these people and their story.”

Time management is a key challenge for Leitzell. “Shooting weddings means you are blocking off a particular day up to two years in advance. That means if you’re working on some other story or assignment when the wedding date comes up, you might miss something crucial in your other story,” she notes. “I’ve been working on a project about a homeless encampment and affordable housing for two years. Last June, I was out photographing a wedding on the West Coast and I found out that while I was away, the head of the encampment was arrested and there were threats of eviction. I felt something big in the story was about to happen and I wouldn’t be able to capture it!


Photo © Elizabeth Leitzell

“At the same time I was at this beautiful ceremony of two wonderful men, and that was an amazing story to bear witness to all on its own. Because the homeless project is long-term, it didn’t matter that I missed out on one dramatic piece of it. I went back and interviewed folks about what went down. It’s just a matter of making choices about what the priority is at a given time.

Keeping dual schedules can also lead to workaholism. “One day I’m at a wedding, one day I’m in Alaska, one day I’m at home editing,” says the photographer who is also incorporating DSLR video into her repertoire. “I’m constantly being told I work too hard. But I can’t imagine my life without the weddings or the documentary work. They fuel each other, and they fuel my passion for work.”

 

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