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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.

Joe Buissink, wedding photography, Reese Moore, fstoppers

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, fstoppers, Reese Moore, wedding photographyFstoppers: Tell me a bit about how you got started shooting celebrity weddings.

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, fstoppers, wedding photography, Fstoppers: Who have been some of your biggest clients?

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.

Fstoppers: What was your first wedding like?Joe Buissink, wedding photography, fstoppers, Reese Moore

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, wedding photography, fstoppers, Reese MooreFstoppers: How is shooting celebrity weddings different from other weddings?

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, wedding photography, Reese Moore, fstoppersFstoppers: How do you approach wedding photography?

Joe Buissink, wedding photography, Reese Moore, FstoppersJoe 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, wedding photography, fstoppers, Reese MooreFstoppers: How many assistants do you normally work with?

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, fstoppers, Reese Moore, wedding photographyFstoppers: What do you think is the most important skill for a photographer to have? What skill is most important as a wedding photographer?

Joe Buissink, wedding photography, fstoppers, Reese MooreJoe 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.

Joe Buissink, wedding photography, Reese Moore, fstoppersA 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, wedding photography, fstoppers, Reese MooreFstoppers: What’s your advice to aspiring wedding photographers?

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.

Joe Buissink, fstoppers, Reese Moore, wedding photography

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Tomek Fryszkiewicz's picture

Welcome, Reese! :)

Thanks for the post! Joe Buissink happens to be one of the people that inspire me the most :] 

Anonymous's picture

Hey Tomek!! Thanks for the feedback! :)

NIgel King's picture

Thanks Reese. I love Joe's work - all ways have. The article gives me an insight to why i love it. Cheers!

Great interview thanks Reese :) (btw Paragraph 2 is missing the question) and thanks to Jo for his time for Fstoppers readers :)

Kurt Stevens's picture

I saw Joe speak at a Pictage meeting in Denver about a year ago.  Life changing event, hes a brilliant fella who's got more than a lifetime of great advice and stories.  He definitely speaks from the heart.  Love his work.

Anonymous's picture

I totally agree. I shoot weddings as well, and this was the most inspiring thing for me. He absolutely approaches wedding photography as an art, and there's a lot to be learned from that approach.

Mark Celeus's picture

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Anonymous's picture

Thank you for this.  For me, it's just Joe Buissink...that's all I need to know.

This was an excellent read. Very inspiring, thank you

great interview! Go Reese!

Anonymous's picture

That was a great interview Reese!!!  Thank you so much Joe for sharing what's in your head and heart when you shoot.  I think that it is exactly what makes you such a fantastic photographer. 

Excellent Post. I love the insights. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks Reese !!! : )

Anonymous's picture

Thanks, Fernando! 

Anonymous's picture

I paid to sit a seminar with Joe speaking all day in Manchester, Best money i ever spent,i normally fall asleep half way through these things but i didn't want it to end, he was inspiring, captivating, absolutely fantastic.

Alexander Gardner's picture

Ups and downs, but that's it at end of the day isn't it?  Just shoot from the heart and love what you do.  Thanks for the interview. :)

Anonymous's picture

One of the most enjoyable reads on FS for me and i don't even shoot weddings... Great blog Reece, keep em coming!

Howe's picture

I'm not sure I've every seen such a well known photographer with such terrible work.  I'm completely unimpressed by his images which frankly, look extremely ammeter.  I respect his work ethics/drive but have no idea how he landed these big clients.  His post processing alone is obnoxious! 

Anonymous's picture

ZING! Haha, thanks for sharing your thoughts, Howe. Who are your favorite big name wedding photographers? Do you just prefer minimal post-processing, or is it just a personal preference thing? I'd love to hear back! :)

Patrick Hall's picture

As primarily a wedding photographer myself, I feel completely inadequate after looking at Joe's work.  They all seem doable if you had a game plan and just needed that one image, but then you are reminded that they were taken with limited time and on an extremely busy day.  The 2nd to last image blows my mind away...was everyone standing in perfect light?  That never happens!

Shannon Wimberly's picture

I for one just shot my third wedding by myself this past saturday.... dealing with all the florescent  lights, lack of interesting venue, the fatigue factor, keeping my camera in submission...... I felt like Jake Sully in Avatar riding the Echlon (you know, the big bird) for the first time...... you barely have time to breathe, let alone make every shot perfect..... I marvel at Joe's work and think it is completely amazing, a true master.....hey... but to each his own.... and if Annie Leibovitz hires you to do, count them, two weddings..... you have to be doing something right.

And as for too much post processing.... I would bet you there is little processing in the above images...wide angle lens, natural light, to two flashes..... oh and one picture desaturated and toned some.... but I don't see it really.

Chet Meyerson's picture

I too was blown away by that image! Amazing light on each have to be good to actually see that moment happen during any event, no less a wedding. An amazing photo!

Anonymous's picture

I agree with the above poster only on the account that a few of his photos have a little bit too much post processing for my tastes.

Björn Terlegård's picture

Wow I love what Joe said about not taking the photos other people want you to take but to do it your way. I am around the corner of shooting my first wedding and I hope that my photographs will tell a story and not look like everybody else's photos, and that the couple will love the photos too of course!

Anonymous's picture

This article needs to be proofread...but still interesting and inspiring!  I've never heard of Jon but he just jumped to the top of my list.  Great questions and honest answers.  Love interviews like this! Enjoyed it Reese-

I found the interview and Joe's philosophy very refreshing and even reassuring.  I'm a little confused by some of the comments though... Was I looking at the same photos?  Horrible/too much post production?  I was struck by the lack of obvious post work ...  Do they all look like they came straight from a high budget studio?  Of course not... but to me, that was the entire point of the interview.  His passion is capturing and expressing  the emotions and connections occuring at an actual event rather than creating some fantasy world for his clients...  

Jason+Gina Photographers's picture

Go Joe!

William Jason Wallis's picture

What an awesome interview -thanks again Reese!

LOVE LOVE LOVE Joe, had the pleasure of following his work for years.  My highlight with Joe was a couple years back when he showed up as a speaker at our San Francisco PUG (Pictage User Group) Meeting!  I laughed, I cried and I was touched by this man who not only holds a camera, he embraces it with his SOUL!  Just look at his images.  Thanks Joe for moving me and millions of photographers around this globe.

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for ALL the kind words!!  Much appreciated.  I'm humbled :)  All images are out of camera.  No heavy post work.  Pretty much just color correction (last image is from film).  I shoot it they way I see it and feel it.  There's no such thing as a perfect image, only a perfect moment.

Laurence Lee's picture

You hit it on the nail Joe, "There's no such thing as perfect image, only a perfect moment."

Michael Kormos's picture

I just read an interview he did with Rangefinder magazine for their Jan. 2012 issue, and I thought I had stumbled onto a carbon copy when I saw this posted. One is about his weddings the other about his celebrity weddings. Either way

Digital Macdaddy's picture

I agree on everything except for the last statement. Dynamic and creative lighting in wedding photography has just begun. Having the ability to craft light to your style whether it be natural or artificial plays a HUGH part in the art of photography. To say speedlites at weddings may be a thing of the past just shows your disregard for what photography is primarily made of.....LIGHT!

Neale James's picture

Some certain truisms within that piece. I've seen you speak a few times now Joe, and the word inspiring almost doesn't seem powerfully appropriate enough.

Fore Ver's picture

Hello..Joe..Your my hero.I like your wedding photography. I want to friend with you.let me introduce my self,my name is Rkar from Myanmar. I want to invite our county.Came and see.Now i work in Forever wedding dress &amp; Photo Studio as a Photographer. I want to learn more then photography &amp; work with you together.

Fore Ver's picture

Are you receive

Christopher Hoffmann's picture

Excellant article. Joe is a fabulous photog and a great read!

mmmarc's picture

OMG his portfolio has awful, awful music accompanying it on the site.

bryceguse's picture

Same with Kristy Mitchell, although maybe it's because I'm not crazy about ambient music. What kind of music do you think should be on a website like his? I think it's wrong to criticize without supplying a suggestion for improvement.

Larianne Tide's picture

Excellent article! I feel so inspired.

Fritz Asuro's picture

This motivates me more :)

Jeremy Sale's picture

Awe. Some.