Celebrity Weddings: Photographer Joe Buissink on Taking Risks, Making It Big, and Technique
Hey everyone! I’m Reese and I’m excited to be a part of the Fstoppers team. My segment, The FS Spotlight, is a weekly Q&A session with professional photographers who are at the absolute top of their field. The interviews are going to touch on everything from how they reached rock star status to their shooting style to what cameras they shoot with as well as their advice to all aspiring photographers. Recently I caught up with celebrity wedding photographer Joe Buissink and picked his brain a bit. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Joe Buissink is one of the most sought-after wedding photographers on the planet. The LA-based photographer boasts a long roster of A-list celebrity clients, including Christina Aguilera, Hilary Swank, Jennifer Lopez, Steven Spielberg, Stevie Nicks, and Brendan Fraser, and this week he checks in with FS Spotlight to tell us about breaking into the industry at the age of 45, shooting Annie Leibovitz’s sister’s wedding – no pressure, right? – what separates the pros from the amateurs, and why wedding photography is an art.
Fstoppers: Tell me a bit about how you got your start with photography.
Joe Buissink: About 16 years ago I was working on a PhD in psychology, and I took a photo of my son who was nursing on my wife. The image spoke to me in a way that made me abandon my PhD and pursue photography. I felt compelled to pursue this and see why it was so compelling. I eventually figured out that photography allowed me to express myself.
Fstoppers: Did you always know you wanted to do wedding photography?
Joe Buissink: No, I was just trying to figure out how I could make a living based on that photo that I took of my son nursing. It wasn’t until a few months later when I had been to two friends’ weddings that I just kept saying to myself, “I wish I had a camera in my hand.” While the person that they had hired probably did a great job, they spent two hours doing formals and missing the story that was unfolding. And that’s what should be photographed: the story unfolding. More than who was there, I’d rather see what was happening. That’s what makes every wedding unique. And at the time everyone was doing those white albums with the little pictures of the couple superimposed on the church steeple, and I thought, “There has to be something better than that.” They were all the same, and they were all cookie cutter. So I took the approach of documenting the wedding and making sure that way that every wedding is unique.
Joe Buissink: Because I was 45 years old when I started, I didn’t think I had a lot of time to build my portfolio and work my way into the industry through assisting and second shooting and working in someone’s studio, so I thought, “How can I make short cuts?” The short cut I thought of was going right to the high end. At the time my portfolio only had 10 images, 4-6 images from each one I’d shot, and they were were all black and white and I printed them 11” x 14”, matted them, signed each one – once you sign your work it’s art, right? – and I found a celebrity coordinator and decided to pitch my work to him. I actually showed up at his front door with ten prints in my hand, and he opened the door and probably thought, “Wow, this guy must be nuts or something!” Anyway, I got Kelsey Grammer’s wedding. Part of it is luck, right? But if you don’t put yourself in the way of luck, it won’t hit you. I take a lot of chances, and most of the time I fail, but every once in a while luck hits you.
Joe Buissink: Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Brendan Frasier, Kelsey Grammer, Christina Applegate, Robert Seneca, Steven Spielberg… I treat them like everyone else, and while they’re up there, I shoot a lot of non-celebrity weddings as well.
Joe Buissink: Kelsey Grammer was my first celebrity wedding. But if you want to back up a little, my first celebrity wedding was when Annie Leibovitz hired me to shoot her sister’s wedding. She was the maid of honor but she was also going to shoot it, and she was looking for a videographer and contacted me by mistake. When she realized I was a photographer, she said, “Nevermind, I’m looking for a videographer. I mailed her a brochure with my images on it and said, “I’d love to shoot this for you.” So she hired me! That was my most nerve-wracking celebrity gig, I think. Every once in a while she would look over to see what I was doing, and she could hear the shutter dragging when I was shooting on the dance floor and she said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” And I said, “That’s how I shoot!” She said, “If you’re going to do that, I want to hear that shutter go off every second.” So you know, a little pressure! I did well enough that she hired me the following year to shoot her cousin’s wedding in New York.
Joe Buissink: I shoot it the same way. The only thing is that there’s a lot more pressure shooting celebrity gigs because usually you have paparazzi and everything. That’s very, very difficult. You also have to try to satisfy the publicist and the business manager and the lawyer; you have different people trying to work with this client and they all have a different idea of who this person is and what their needs might be. It’s sometimes very difficult to satisfy everybody. I always shoot for myself though, I don’t shoot for anybody else. That’s how I pitch my work, I show my most favorite images and if they book me then that means we’re on the same page. I just have to make sure that I shoot that same way, which is from the heart and for the moments.
Fstoppers: Your photos have a very distinctive look, how to you describe your style?
Joe Buissink: I really don’t know that I could describe it. It’s not just about the moments that I capture, it’s also about how I feel at that moment. A lot of what you see in my work is me and who I am as a person. The most important thing about photography is who you are, and I can go into depth about the psychology of that, but there’s no way you can take a photograph and not leave your imprint on it. Every time you hit the shutter it’s based on who you are, that’s what makes you different from every body else. My style is that I shoot from the heart, to the heart. The images tend to be very emotional. I had a tough upbringing as a kid, and I missed a lot of things that a lot of people have had in life with parents, so I seek out that love at weddings and I’m able to express myself at weddings because I’m moved by the emotional content, the love, the beauty. That’s what strikes me.
Joe Buissink: As a clean slate. I’m a tabula rasa. I try not to copy what I shot the week before, and the thing for me to do is to be open to the moment and be part of that moment. If you force it and you keep looking for moments then you end up shooting what you think the wedding should look like rather than actual moments that are unfolding in front of you. My thing is to try and be as relaxed as possible, I get a lot of rest the night before, I leave everything on the table emotionally, and sometimes I do a little meditation. A few years ago I made a second shooter on all of my jobs and that saved me. The person that comes with me is actually my primary shooter. They’ll do all the formals and all the table shots if necessary, and I’m off the hook and I’m the guy in the background with the long lens grabbing little snippets while everyone’s attention is on someone else. I’m not longer having to be dedicated to mom’s needs and wishes. While they should still be addressed and taken care of, I have someone that does it for me.
Joe Buissink: I have one primary shooter and one assistant. And if I’m shooting film, then I need one assistant who is on my film bag and my camera bags while I hustle around the room with three cameras around my neck and different lenses on them. It makes it easier to switch depending on what my needs are. It’s easier than switching between lenses and camera bodies, I’d rather have all three things on me.
Fstoppers: What do you shoot with? What gear do you normally bring to a wedding?
Joe Buissink: I’m a Canon sponsored person, so my main my main squeeze is a Canon 5D Mark II. I have a couple of them, and when I shoot film I use a Canon 1V. I love shooting with a 70-200mm, that’s probably one of my favorite lenses. The 24-70mm is my main squeeze on the dance floor at the reception, and I love the 85mm f/1.2 and the 50mm f/1.2 and also the 14mm f/2.8. I absolutely adore that wide angle.
Joe Buissink: For an overall photographer not considering weddings, I would think it’s the skill to be able to tap into your passion and function from that place. For a wedding photographer, I think people skills are very, very important. I don’t care if you’re a photojournalist or traditional shooter, people skills are really, really important to wedding photography. If you’re shy, and I was definitely shy when I was in high school, it can be really difficult to get people to relate to you. If you’re holding everything close to the vest and they can’t read you, it makes them a little unsure of who you are and it can prevent them from being open in front of you and seeing those moments. But if they know who you are, and that’s why I utilize engagement sessions to get to know my clients, then by the time you get to the wedding they think, “Oh hey, that’s Joe!” That opens them up like books. That’s a skill I think people haven’t put a lot of emphasis on, and that’s people skills.
Fstoppers: The wedding photography industry has been flooded with amateur photographers. How do you think this has affected the industry?
Joe Buissink: That’s definitely affected the industry, but it’s not just that it’s the technology. It used to be that you had to go to school because you couldn’t see what was on the back of the camera when you were shooting film. You had to know what the heck you were doing, and for wedding photography you really had to know your stuff. Now that’s not necessary, but I do preach that: get educated.
A few years ago the whole buzz word was “shoot and burn” and people were offended by an amateur coming to a gig and shooting for 5 or 6 hours and burning and leaving a disk at the end of it. The client would get a disk of images that were junk. They weren’t color corrected, they were shot JPG, they were blown out; so they spent a lot of money trying to correct those images. Now we have what I call “spray and pray,” where people are shooting at 8 frame a second and thinking “Oh Lord, let me get one because I don’t know what I’m doing.” The post-production tools are so good now that a lot of people have in mind that they can just fix it later instead of knowing exactly what they’re doing and enhancing it later with editing. They’re thinking, “I’ll surely get something and fix it, and if I can’t I’ll just stitch the image later.” If it’s crap going into Lightroom or Photoshop, it’s going to be crap coming out. I want to say to people, “Look, this is still a vocation that’s highly regarded, and almost an art form for some. It’s a craft. It’s about the moments and the essence of the people in those moments.
Joe Buissink: Be honest, be true to yourself about the types of things that you enjoy shooting. What we all tend to do, and I did it a lot in the beginning, is shooting a lot of traditional stuff even though I hated doing it. Well, that’s the wrong attitude. If I don’t like what I’m doing, why would I keep doing it? I was pitching the portrait stuff because that’s what a lot of people wanted at the lower end: the brides all wanted to look like they stepped out of Vogue magazine, and the higher up I went in the social fabric of life and found clients with disposable income, those people want more of a photojournalistic approach. They want reality, they don’t want anything fake with all the guys jumping in the middle of the street with or without sunglasses, they just want their story told. I was pitching all this portrait work but then when people hired me, that’s what they expected of me. So I was forced to shoot most of my weddings in a very traditional way, and that’s when I realized if that’s what you want to do then that’s what you need to show. And you might not get hired by everybody but when you do get hired, they’re absolutely love what you do and you’ll absolutely love doing it. Get out of that frame of mind of trying to make someone else happy.