Are Stylized Photoshoots Hurting the Wedding Photography Industry?

Are Stylized Photoshoots Hurting the Wedding Photography Industry?

Every few years we go through trends in wedding photography. The latest trend seems to be stylized photo shoots. Though stylized photo shoots are gorgeous and ripe with portfolio-worthy images, could they be hurting the industry?   

If you’re not familiar with the idea of a stylized photo shoot, or stylized session, it's when one or more photographers partner with other vendors like florists, cake designers, dress companies, and jewelers to put together a decadent photo session, usually a mock wedding or elopement, to create portfolio images for all vendors involved. Ordinarily stylized photoshoots are ripe with gorgeous details that wedding publications eat up to display to their audiences.

I have been a part of a handful of stylized photo sessions and have walked away with great images. I also have many friends who are great photographers that arrange stylized photo shoots throughout the year for other photographers to grow their portfolios. However, as I assess the state of the wedding photo industry I’ve often wondered if stylized sessions, in the long-run, are setting our industry up for failure.

Stylized Sessions Set the Wrong Expectations

For brides-to-be, the internet is the go-to place to find wedding information and inspiration. Brides seek out wedding-related publications to find inspiration for their wedding and often stumble upon stylized sessions. Unfortunately, it is not often apparent or stated that photos come from a stylized session and therefore can set the wrong expectation with future brides as to what is and is not realistic for their wedding day and budget. Most of the details provided to photographers for stylized shoots are donated by vendors who want to display their best products and services in the hopes that they’ll receive future business from the photos that come out of the stylized sessions. Because of this, brides may be misled as to what is actually doable for their wedding.

pink wedding table decor

Stylized photoshoots often include expensive and abundant details. A double-edged sword, stylized photoshoots give inspiration while also setting the wrong expectations for photographers and brides alike. Photo by Ibrahim Asad via Pexels.

Stylized Sessions Keep Real Weddings From Being Published

As I mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of a stylized session is the fact that vendors provide some incredibly gorgeous details to photographers to be photographed. For wedding-related publications, details are extremely appealing as their readers are often seeking ideas for details for their wedding. But as any wedding photographer knows, great and abundant details aren’t always available during a real wedding, and less often available for a real elopement. This makes it hard for photographers with real weddings and elopements that they want to get showcased in wedding-related publications because those same publications are more prone to featuring stylized sessions with all the dreamy details included. Luckily, some wedding-related publications make a distinction between stylized sessions and real weddings, but the standards are being changed by stylized sessions, making it even harder for real weddings with real budgets to get featured.

Stylized Weddings Don’t Prepare Photographers for Real Weddings

For photographers who are aspiring wedding photographers, a stylized photo shoot is an understandably appealing option for growing their portfolio with gorgeous photos. Sadly, though, stylized sessions will only give photographers experience with lighting, posing, and composition, they will not prepare a photographer for the struggles and unique challenges of a real wedding day. And because of this, potential couples may be hiring photographers that are much more inexperienced than their portfolios make them appear. 

I’m not staunchly opposed to stylized sessions, but I do wonder if the growing trend will either elevate the industry or put us back a few steps. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Lead image by Leah Kelley via Pexels.

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22 Comments

Eric Salas's picture

I believe it depends on the outlook of the situation and the clientele you work with.

Yes, stylized shoots make your job harder as a wedding photographer because you may or may not have the time to accomplish those "OMG" shots during a wedding/before/after/during but at the same time, it pushes all of us to get better.

Stylized wedding shots are a sunofabitch when it comes to duplicating a look for a hard headed client that doesn't realize Joe's BBQ and DJ service with lazer lights and fog machines limits your ability to make a wedding "pretty". Not to mention, I'm not setting up a five light setup to photograph your centerpiece you bought at Publix...

Vent over, thanks for reading ;)

Leigh Miller's picture

LMAO thanks for that...my day was already going pretty good but that made it better :-)

Lance Bredefeld's picture

epic and lots of love for this post.

Michael Holst's picture

Loved the rant! haha very true

"I'm not setting up a five light setup to photograph your centerpiece you bought at Publix..." I'd do it if compensated appropriately but they'd know ahead of time what they're paying for and the opportunity cost of such a shot.

michael buehrle's picture

Publix has awesome chicken.

Lance Bredefeld's picture

Your first of the three major points is actually what I care about most as a photographer. Creating completely unrealistic expectations by the client is the worst end of stylized reception shoots. They have no idea what actually goes into staging some of the more complex shots, lighting them, and the timing involved. "Sorry I can't shoot that heavenly lit reception setting with no one in it because in real life you're dancing with your dad, cutting your cake, tossing a bouquet and oh, having a room filled with guests and loud music, etc etc etc... my fee includes great work, but not human cloning to be in 4 places at once." still, i manage to get some fantastic shots and bring in my own lighting to stage receptions with wireless TTL, but what they don't see in these fake shots is the lighting rigs and tripods etc etc.

Frankly, we should call "stylized photoshoots" what they really are: Promotional shoots touting brands and planners. Unless the bride is willing to spend into the six figures or more, these shoots are to real wedding shots what the National Examiner is to journalism.

Matthew Saville's picture

This has been a problem for as long as I can remember, and that is back to the earliest days of DSLRs, 2004 or so. As soon as "everybody" had a Canon 10D / 20D or a Nikon D70 / D80, the styled photo shoots started. I managed a HUGE group on Facebook that ran the first and largest styled photo shoots for Southern California, actually.

At every single shoot, I made this exact point very clear. These shooting opportunities are for you to practice and expand your creativity in a no-pressure environment, they are NOT meant to prepare you to handle an actual paying client, let alone a no-redo wedding day.

I first started hosting the shoots because I had already been a full-time photographer for a few years, and all of a sudden I realized that I had not had a chance to shoot "just for myself" in a year or two. Yes, the attendees were all mostly beginners, and yes, some of them may have gotten into trouble by just throwing over-the-shoulder images in their portfolio and then disappointing a paying client with lesser quality final products, but that is on them, and for the most part in my opinion, people learn their lesson.

It all depends on how the hosts approach the subject, and what the attendees are therefore led to expect to get out of the shoot. And it is entirely possible to go about it the RIGHT way.

Of course, I'm talking about photo shoots that mainly focus on practicing posing with models, and only have a few "pretty details", not the types of hosted events where it's 99% beautiful details that various vendors just want free photos of, and a couple experienced, super-hot model brides who can't take a bad photo. That, I guess, would be a different scenario...

Jim German's picture

Anyone can make something from a pot of gold. A true craftsman can make a silk purse from a sow's ear. We should be teaching more of the latter.

Lance Bredefeld's picture

this reminds me of the comparison of ISO on a d2xs and a D4s. When I started, you were SOL past ISO 800 so you really had to learn lighting, you still need to learn it to make great work, but the difference is now, so much more is passable by amateurs shooting at iso15k even though it looks nowhere near as good as a properly lit and exposed scene. I am sure there are a million photographers complaining about advancement of tech allowing so many debbie digitals to have more passable work and thus more competition, but I get around that by increasing price until clients that would consider a DD are no longer considering me. this isn't a response to your comment so much as a mental vom of what it spurred in my mind. I'm basically agreeing with you in a lot more words.

WINSTON BRACKEN's picture

Man, I'd say learn image making first and foremost. When doing weddings I'm thinking the decisive moment quite a bit.

Rob Davis's picture

At least be a second shooter on a wedding a few times before you start trying to market your wedding photography services with stylized shoots. Everyone has to start somewhere and I don't think it's possible to be truly prepared for your first wedding. You either survive it or it eats you, and possibly sues you.

Very good post and really couldn't agree more.

Scott Goh's picture

agreed. this is completely a marketing tactics targeting to brides. photography is secondary. Scott from Scott Goh Photography

While I've never done one of these, I have certainly seen them. I agree that they are not "real" and to mislead a couple with the images (by not telling them) is a disservice to them.

I sure would love to go to an actual wedding reception and have all the time in the world to set up and test lighting with gear all over the place (if needed), but that is only in my dreams. Nice post!

Jeff Gillisroy's picture

Stylized photos shoots...for if you're a psychopath who doesn't care about your family and friends.

Stylized shoots don't and will never hurt the industry. A pro photographer must have realistic talks with their clients. Couples expectations for their wedding pictures must reflect on a timeline that allows that to happen. I've photographed weddings at not so glamorous places and made it magic for clients. It's all a matter of transparency, creativity and experience. Keep it real.

Neil Pho's picture

It's "styled" not "stylized". I'm afraid using the wrong word made the article too hard for me to read!

BubbA Gumphy's picture

That first period is misplaced. It should be within the quotation marks. After seeing that - I couldn't read any more of your post.

(He said with tongue firmly in cheek.)

Neil Pho's picture

I have adopted the Oxford full-stop.

They are advertising shoots.
Why even associate the word wedding with them?

Explain to the bride that,like any advertising or editorial shoot for a magazine the pictures represent an artificial situation that can not be replicated on their wedding day.

Complaining that editorial and advertising photography is wrecking the wedding photography industry is a bit niave

Nic Hilton's picture

I find it no different than simple advertising for vendors other than photographers. However, photographers can amp up their portfolio with these shoots all they want, but their true skill (or lack thereof) at a real wedding will show eventually.