Why Styled Wedding Shoots and Workshop Shoots are Great…and Not So Great.

candlelit wedding reception table with fern decorations

I’ve been thinking about writing about this for awhile. Its something my wedding industry friends talk about it as its becoming a more and more common thing. With social media becoming the new portfolio platform, I’ve seen so many beautiful styled shoots, some with many of the same models, and some in amazing far off locations or having a detail that is not commonly seen in a real wedding (like alpacas! like a hot air balloon! like a massive arch in the middle of a forest!) There are a lot of workshops now to give some new photographers an opportunity to shoot a mock wedding, and a lot of us love to get together with our favorite vendor friends to create something we want to see and do – as we have the luxury of time and with no external pressures. I think there are a lot of great things that can result from a styled shoot, but on the flip side, I think there are a few not so great things that don’t tend to be spoken about very much. Let’s start with the positive first.

The problem with Styled Shoots

Creating Your Own Fantasy Wedding

For those of us who do this full time – we see a lot of dreams come to life from the minds of the couples that are carrying forth the day they had envisioned. The creative spring of ideas and inspirations come from these wells and when we are in our off season or have a bit of a wedding break – its really a lot of fun to shoot an idea thats been lingering in our thoughts. On top of that, we get to bring in our favorite vendor friends to collaborate and bring this fantasy vision to life. A huge perk of this job is meeting and working with new vendor friends and honestly – at least for me – my days off are often spent with the people I work with. These mock wedding shoots also allow us to not be practical and bring in a lot of otherwise difficult scenarios.

table top decor on a wedding day with flowers

An example of this would be animals. Seen a lot of alpacas, donkeys and horses? Its a gorgeous and beautiful idea – and truly, how awesome does a beautiful bride look whilst walking alongside a beautiful animal? Another example are extremely luxurious reception items and decor (Think those gold chargers -shibori napkins…velvet table cloths…that massive arch with endless flowers!). Since as vendors we aren’t necessarily paying out of pocket for these dream decor items, and we aren’t renting out massive sets of them for a real wedding – its totally reasonable – and attainable – for us to go crazy with the dream rentals as we would only be getting maybe a set of 8 – instead of enough luxury items for 15 tables, or enough serving sets for 100 people. Its easy for us to shoot these over the top setups as there is no real cost involved but time, effort, and the trading of energy and images. It is a collaboration between all the vendors involved and at times, paid for by the workshop participants with their tickets.

Test Test 1…2….

Another great idea to do a styled shoot? Test baby test!! I love doing styled shoots to test out new equipment, most often for me, new film – and experimenting with vintage cameras. I am a real sucker for vintage film cameras – I don’t often bring them out on a real wedding day as time and the pressure of time don’t always allow me the luxury to compose and get the shot right – but a styled shoot does! I don’t have the pressure of rushing to nail a difficult shot on film because of an impending grand entrance. Experimenting with film and candlelight isn’t a problem because I have the luxury of just shooting for myself, and for the experience. I don’t ever test new or new old gear on a wedding day so a styled shoot or a shoot with a model is a great way to get familiar and cozy with equipment and for me, to test the limits of a new film stock I am interested in using.

ceremony altar with hanging ferns an candlelight
bride and groom in front of rocks with bride holding bougainvillea bouquet

So These Aren’t Real Weddings in your Portfolio?

Uh oh. And now to the not so good side of these styled shoots. While they are great for some reasons, there are a few things that just aren’t often spoken about. Too many times I think some of these workshop and styled shoots are used in portfolios shown to potential brides and grooms in lieu of real weddings that don’t exist. I get we all have to start someplace and I think a bit of honesty goes a long way. Shooting a real life wedding is so incredibly different than shooting two people who are modeling wedding clothes for the day. Having real life newlyweds emote freely, naturally, and comfortably in front of a camera takes so much more than composing models with experience and who do this for leisure or for a career. Not to mention – a real life wedding has so many different lighting scenarios that as a photographer – we have to know our shit well enough – to capture these images under pressure, even when the lighting is not optimal. Pretty much a mock wedding is a completely idealized and imagined day – that carry no pressure of a real wedding day .

lanterns next to cactus

Now, a good image is a good image. I certainly don’t begrudge my fellow photographers for including some styled shoots and workshop images in the portfolio. But when it becomes the only thing shared – or when the images are used to mislead someone into thinking its a real wedding – I find the idea disconcerting – and unappetizing. As well, I think of the bride and groom not knowing this, who are being misled by the photographs and the reality of the photographer’s experience and skill level. Its kind of a bummer – and a real disservice! False expectations are being set, and a relationship is being built on a foundation that doesn’t exist.

But It Looks So Different on Pinterest!

Oh dear. I’ve run into this. I received a dream wedding inquiry – a sunrise elopement happening 3,000 feet in the air in a hot air balloon. Yes yes!! I was so excited – being able to shoot a real life hot air balloon for a real wedding – this was the stuff mock wedding shoots are dreamed of! I googled, scoured Pinterest – and found so many incredible and gorgeous styled shoots of brides and grooms in hot air balloons (none in the air oddly enough) and I was tickled silly with my imagination. A pastoral field! A strawberry or whimsical colored balloon! Then, reality showed itself.

The problem with Styled Shoots

A hot air balloon will be carrying people over 1500 feet into the air, brought into the sky by fire, one man, and the grace and blessing of the weather. On the day of, there was no choice in picking a whimsical or cute balloon. My amazing bride joked with me about photoshopping out the massive HONDA logo. I replied, “can I just include the images with it on the other side?” Just kidding. Sort of. Some photoshop happened.

The problem with Styled Shoots

While the styled shoots showed couples in romantic affectionate poses in the cab, it was a lot trickier for me. The truck and the handler were at the side of the balloon the entire time – you know – for that silly little thing called safety. A massive blue tarp was everywhere to prevent any snags from occuring in the balloon as it was being inflated. There was no pastoral field (at least not here in the desert) as the reality of dealing with a hot air balloon is based on safety, ease, and the weather. In no way was I going to push a real life love story into a false idealized setting – and that was what I realized immediately. Deceived by Pinterest! Ha! No its not that serious – but what I did realize – is that you have to take some of these “inspirations” with a fat dose of salt. It ain’t real. What was real – was the adventure of this day – the love these two had – and the amazing adventurous spirit they both shared. I quickly forgot all about all those inspirations I had seen and kept in my mental rolodex and I focused on the wonderful story developing right in front of me. Real life is so much more poignant.

The problem with Styled Shoots

With our sister business, Desert Pop Up we do a bit of planning with our partner The Walk Down the Aisle and sometimes brides come to us with ideas seen online of fantastic arches with massive amounts of flowers and decor – all in an incredible environment in the middle of the desert. Its totally possible – just about anything is possible – but then you have to keep in mind – there is always a common constraint, the new B word : Budget. These mock shoots don’t always have that constraint – so its another thing to keep in mind when using styled shoots as inspiration – what was free or relatively attainable for that shoot – comes with a completely different cost – and set of logistics – for a real wedding day.

wedding dinner reception shot in film

A styled shoot can have all this amazing decor in a far flung perfect location – but the reality of it for a wedding day is – someone has to got to get a truck, bring it in, set it up, as well – eventually tear it down. On a styled shoot either the vendor is doing that all him/herself (with some of us lending a hand) or is paying out of pocket to have it done. The same goes for a real wedding day – the cost is real, and sometimes more than what one can expect. Extra fees can occur with deliveries beyond a certain area, furniture set up, the carrying of heavy bulky items beyond certain feet…These are just things that aren’t necessarily conveyed in a fantastic ceremony photo. But – logistics and the planning must be given due credit to the planners that can make it happen!

invitation suite shot on film
dinner reception shot in film

Honesty is a Virtue

I think the thing to keep in mind when it comes to hiring a wedding vendor – is to be able to discern a real portfolio, versus one that is an exercise in smoke and mirrors- as a glorious illusion. Does everyone look like models? Have you seen that couple elsewhere in another portfolio? How did that fantastic – out of this world – decor happen? Does everything seem really perfect? How can you make your wedding day look like this? Open a dialogue with your wedding vendor(s)! Ask your photographer if this was a styled shoot or a real wedding – as styled shoots should not be used in place of real weddings since they aren’t necessarily an accurate display of skills that you will need that person to have on the day of.

bride with bougainvillea

As well, keep in mind that these inspirations are just that – inspirations! Keep your expectations realistic and remember that much of this will be guided by the B word: budget. (Definitely not my favorite word in dictionary!) Don’t forget to enjoy this process though as getting married is most certainly an exciting time. Keep those inspiration boards going and pin often!

(PS…All the images in this post – minus the hot air balloon ones – are all styled shoots and one nifty workshop I attended awhile back!)

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