Fearless….or not?

Fearless wedding photography

It's an odd name for an international directory of wedding photographers but I guess it is intended to describe the spirit behind the photography it promotes. Set up by former wedding photographer and photojournalist, Huy Nguyen, in the States, it's declared mission statement is as "a directory of more than 2,500 of the world's boldest wedding photographers for couples who truly love photography". I joined Fearless in 2011. Like all directory sites there is an annual fee and quarterly competitions to gain awards. I currently have three awards. But I haven't won an award on Fearless for two years. Many of the same images submitted in that time have won elsewhere, in similar big international quarterly awards and other wedding photography competitions. My three fearless awards so far, are for completely non-setup, natural (B&W) reportage images - they are in my portfolio. Don't win a recent award, you drop down the search list in the directory - clients no longer find you, the listing loses value. Is the $149 annual membership fee worth it just for the google juice, regardless of any awards? But why nothing since?

There is some great work on Fearless but there is also some very mannered, contrived imagery that wins awards and gets copied again and again. The question for me is how does it fit in with the documentary approach? How does it fit in with how I want to shoot or even how my clients want me to shoot? Now some documentary wedding photographers will not shoot any portraits - I don't agree with this. But clients who really want the documentary approach don't want to pose for hours - regardless of how 'awesome' the resulting portrait-in-a-landscape shot is. They want storytelling. Many don't want any group shots or maybe just one or two. But then as a business can you afford to be too purist about this? You have to sell a style but your style has to be true to you.  I use the words 'honest' and 'natural' for a reason when describing how I shoot. I want clients who like what I shoot and want me to tell the story of their day. But do I need to change? Does my work need something else? Probably.

I don't shoot for awards.

I shoot for my clients and for myself. Every wedding photographer is award-winning is the joke within the industry. Every wedding photographer's website says so. Even this one. It's another element to give reassurance to prospective clients I guess - that you know what you are doing. (Only photographers can really judge the value of these different awards or 'finalist' badges). It would be a lie to say that there is not the competitive aspect of wanting to gain some recognition for your work, so why nothing since? Is it my work, my style of shooting? What am I doing wrong as 'Fearless' sees it?

Now, before we go on, I am not lying awake at night over this. My current membership runs out at the end of 2016 (on my wedding anniversary as it happens) so maybe there's still time? If I don't, I don't. But Fearless very much favours a certain approach to wedding photography - bold, epic, 'wow' and my least favourite word in the English language, 'awesome'. It's a seemingly 'American' style that is gaining favour with some photographers in the UK too. I am trying hard to be unobtrusive rather than 'awesome' (read, often contrived?) in my wedding photography. So is my work the wrong fit?

Each photographer has their own eye and they need to fine tune that eye each year, bit by bit. You can't just change your style overnight, if you really could. You have to be true to your vision and remember that these clients, in the new wedding season, have booked you based upon the work/style you did before. That doesn't mean you don't change, or should I say evolve? The question for me is how I fine tune the way I shoot? To evaluate the weaknesses in my work and improve upon it. It is something I've been looking at for years. So when Fearless announced a two day conference to be held in Bucharest, Romania (held at the end of March) it seemed like a good opportunity to see what I could learn from some big names in the industry - who shoot differently to me (and charge megabucks) - and get to see a city and a bit of the country, that I've been interested in seeing for years.

I flew out to be Fearless...or not? 😉

Fearless Photographers Conference sticker

It started with a loud high-five!

Sat at the end of a row, at the back, I got a hand slap from Huy, much to the smirking amusement of some other UK photographers. America was here! Some of the presenters seemed to have their own headphone/microphones. They had the flow, the patter, this was part of their tour. Often high energy, it was wedding photography mixed with a little bit of showbiz. There were slideshows, image analysis, keynote presentations, 'amusing' graphics, videos, charts, diagrams, sketches, laser pen pointing things...more slideshows, lifestyle and business coaching and a lot of upbeatness. Speakers included Huy himself, Sergio Lopez (Arizona) Candice Cusic (Chicago), Todd Leffler (New Jersey) Anna Kuperberg (San Francisco) and representing Europe, Carlo Carletti (Italy) and Whitesmoke (Poland). Some I had heard of, some I hadn't. ( I didn't know any wedding photographers until about four years ago)  The headline act were a couple who seem to dominate American wedding photography currently, Ben & Erin Chrisman (San Francisco). So amongst that I believe you have two of the highest paid wedding photographers in the States, if not the world, the holder of the most lifetime Fearless awards and a lot of work that is very different to mine. So what did I learn?

I won't go through the two days in too much detail, but it was an opportunity to see this 'American way'. I'm not being disparaging, it's just different. You could see the difference when Carlo and Whitesmoke showed their work. But it is a style being copied by many photographers in Europe and the UK. So, the difference? Partly how weddings are over there. Partly the approach and an emphasis upon 'creative' shots. So, 'first looks' - an hour or so of portraits with a couple before the ceremony. Two shooters, always, it seemed? An assistant even, as well as a second shooter. Clients that will stand on top of buildings for 4o odd minutes to get a shot, a 'wow' shot and the processing has a lot to do with the 'wow'! An imaginary two foot rope between the camera and the client - being unobtrusive through submission perhaps? The continual use of out-of-focus wine glasses, beads, shiny things, iphone screens to 'enhance'. This is becoming so copied now.

Then there was tilt, lots of tilt. Now I don't have a complete anti-tilt stance. Even the American photojournalism examples had lots of tilt and you see this in the World Press Photo awards too. You just don't see it so much in UK photojournalism. When done well, you don't notice it, because it is an integral part of the composition. But often it just jars and used too much becomes formulaic. This work has a definite formula. Big landscape, get tiny people to walk across it in a certain, exaggerated way, for example. I've pretty much driven out the 'tilt' from my work, here it still wins awards. The processing of images is very heavy - deep contrast and very highly saturated colours. You see a lot of photographers mimicking the Chrisman style and this is where many fail, overdoing the colour saturation. A lab processes their images I believe? There is a formula of expose for the bright light fittings then set the couple against something bright for a silhouette in the corner or pop in some off camera flash. Or stick your 85mm up close against something shiny and again maybe light the couple - the out-of-focus colours will pop up in processing. Watch the Fearless awards, you'll see a lot of imitation. The focus is to enhance the glamour, the showbiz of a wedding but from what I could tell (and I may be wrong), not the storytelling of the actual event? This isn't realism. It also seemed to be portraits after portraits. Any genuine documentary? Brides were told where to put their dress on, details were rearranged and placed. Wedding rings photographed placed upon pictures in books, etc. Even a semi-fisheye shot of a wedding group, shot from a stepladder.

But there was nice work too, some strong images. Not all of it setup. Funnily enough, the work I liked the most wasn't the wedding photography shown. Anna's documentary work with kids in St Louis(?), her dog and child work and Ben's intimate reportage of an American couple adopting a very young child from India - which I had seen before. No need for 'wow' or 'awesome' setups/processing here, the photography spoke for itself. Beautiful work.

Then there were the critiques. We were all invited to submit ten images from which one would be chosen by Huy to go up on the big screen and be critiqued by Sergio, Candice, Todd and Ben. Hand on heart, I did not recognize my shot when it appeared. It's just below here BUT it had no blacks, none, it was seriously washed out and you could see little detail, especially in the mirror. I would love to know what happened to the file? Being at the back my iphone snap is not much use to show how it was so badly displayed. (There were some technical issues, Carlo's work was displayed too bright also). No surprise then that Ben Chrisman dismissed it as just an exposure test shot and had no 'moment' or merit. In fact he expressed surprise when Todd said he saw any moment. Todd was actually more complimentary, but throughout the critiques, he was the most constructive of the group.

I've done critiques myself and you have to be careful not to apply unrealistic 'should-have-been-done-this-way' comments when examining images. Candice thought the moment had yet to happen, that I didn't spend long enough watching. (A typical photography tutor comment, from someone who wasn't there. It prepares you for the comments picture editors can make when you go into the real world). So apart from the lousy technical setup and it not being shown properly - I checked the file when I got home, it's here, it's this one here - is this image no good then? No moment? Not being a 'Fearless' moment, does it lack value?

Reportage wedding photographer

Well I like it.

It's a quiet image, a moment between a bride and her mother during bridal preps. Not a 'wow or awesome' moment, so probably not a Fearless moment ever. It wasn't setup, it was seen and captured. It also didn't take two hours to capture/construct, involve any prisms, iphone screens or wine glasses. I have mentioned this critique to wedding photographers since I got back to the UK. Some like the shot but say it's too quiet for Fearless. Others think there is too much space, don't like shots using mirrors period(?) or don't find it 'epic' enough - back to that Fearless approach again. Clearly it is tempting for some! I'm sure some don't like it either.

So I thought I'd ask the bride and groom.....the client. I didn't mention Fearless, just asked them what they thought of the image?

The groom first:

"I love this photo.

Emotionally it really captures the relationship between Helen and her mum, Kate. And, I wasn't in the room, obviously, but I feel like it gives me a really good sense of what they were feeling. A turbulent combination of tears and giggling.

I'm an enthusiastic photographer rather than a good one. But to my untrained eye, it looks technically spot on. I think the composition is lovely - the contrast between the bright scene in the mirror and the darkened corner it sits in is great. The out of focus table has a still-life quality. And it's nicely balanced by the light from the window on the right."

and the bride:

"It's actually one of my favorite photos from the day. I have no memory of what we're talking about (or even any memory of you taking the photo), but I think it captures a really special moment.

I can't comment on the technicality of the shot, but I do really like how it seems to offer a window into the morning. I like how the room is out of focus, and the photo is centered on the reflection. Retrospectively, I think I can say that it's the people that matter on the day, not the venue/weather/food etc. This photo really echos that sentiment for me.

I know my Mum really likes it too (I think it helps that we're both smiling)!"

So this post. It's not meant to be negative, it's more my own reflections upon my work and how I can improve it. ( I welcome suggestions. 😉 ) Fearless has some really great work but there is a definite tone to many images. Whether some of it is the 'best', well it's a definite approach. Looking at other people's work should inspire you as a photographer. (Personally I find it more inspiring to look at work outside of wedding photography. Not all my favourite wedding photographers are even on Fearless). A benchmark is if you see a shot and wished you had taken it yourself. That's enough. Seeing other approaches can push you to try to shoot the same way or it can push you to develop your own style with more determination. I think I came away from the Fearless conference in Bucharest thinking the latter. Real inspiration seeps in unnoticed, rather than going straight out and looking to deliberately copy. There is too much of that in wedding photography imho. Now it's just a question of putting it into practice and see where it takes me? In a few months I'll see if anything seeped in. But I won't be concerned about shooting for awards, but for my clients and for myself. You see too many self conscious images where the photographer is trying too hard to be clever with his angles and approach. I prefer the natural approach, recording the wedding day as it was.

Sounds Fearless enough to me?


To finish, here are few snapshots on my little Fuji X100T - just simple tourist pics - in Bucharest and on a brief day trip out of the city.

Statue of Vlad Tepes in Bucharest

A 'Fearless' road sign.

Fearless road sign in Bucharest

The Peoples Parliament, Bucharest


Poster masquerading as a mural, from a film shot here pretending it was the Vatican



Memorial to those killed in the 1989 revolution in Bucharest
View from my hotel bedroom in Bucharest one evening

  Vlad Tepes

Vlad the Implare, the infamous Saxon woodcut.


Travelling through Wallachia
Road trip in Romania
Stray dogs in Romania

Poenari Fortress

Sign on the route up to Poenari castle
Ruins of Poenari castle in Romania
Poenari castle in Romania
Impaled dummies at Poenari castle ruins in Wallachia

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  1. Martin this is a really balanced article, thank you. It’s been a few years now since I judged two Fearless photographers contests and was a speaker at Fearless conference in Germany. In the many years I was with Fearless photographers I definitely pushed myself and learned a lot – it’s allowed me a transcription if you like, to move myself in a different direction for a while. There were positives. And from a business perspective alone I used to take a few bookings a year. Ultimately though I came to realise it was the wrong place for me. I’m just not ‘one of the cool kids’, nor do I really want to be. The organisation allowed itself to become heavily politicised, in an attempt to keep pleasing everyone (based on events happening in North America at the time), and subsequently polarising the small creative community, causing enormous division. The photo submissions themselves, though always highly stylised, became set pieces in the skirmish for an elusive ‘Fearless award’. Real moments still existed, but the chances of receiving an award were so heavily diluted by the mass of ‘constructed’ scenes it became borderline impossible to continue being authentic in what I was doing. I was following the crowd and losing my way, big time.

    So I popped a sentence on my timeline reflecting this, and that I was going to let my membership lapse this time around. Within 24 hours all of my Fearless awards (I was consistently top three in the UK for quite some time), had been stripped from the fearless website, along with my profile and all mentions of me!

    I was surprised and quite angry, having contributed in many ways for many years and been hugely supportive of the organisation. However this really settled my decision as the right one.

    Years on I’m in a much better place, and having stopped “competing “ altogether, my business is in great shape and I’m so happy to be making work for my clients and myself. Without the need to feed my ego with awards. I also now spend time mentoring and helping photographers for free, which I get enormous contentment from.

    Somewhat ironically you could say that walking away was is the most Fearless thing I did in the end!

  2. Great article. I completely agree with your points. It shows that you are great photographer. Wedding photography define the quality photo to make it memorable and the main concern is to make client happy with the best services. Thanks for share.
    Mr. Indranil Roy
    PIP Broadcast

  3. Hi Martin, just come across your article and really appreciate your very considered perspective. I think it says a lot about you as a documentary wedding photographer who cares deeply about your clients and the authentic work you give them.

    I’ve only relatively recently become a wedding photographer and it’s scary to see how your style evolves from year to year. I’m not quite sure what is driving the change but I guess it’s a combination of our own experience/confidence and the daily exposure we have to incredible imagery. When I look at my own photos it’s always the ones that capture a special moment or emotion in time that hold my attention and activate my memory banks. A staged shot is not that but it probably excites in a different way when all the planning and technical wizardry come together at that one instant. Moments versus wedding art?

    You are right though that the hyper-staged shots grab a disporpionate number of awards. Maybe they are just being fearlessly creative directors/photographers and some do create incredible ‘art’.

    Show-stopping documentary wedding photography is more difficult to capture in my view but when you see Isabelle Hattink up there with the best of them it shows it can be done. I greatly admire some of the amazing documentary work coming out of Spain – these guys are picking up a fair share of awards between too.

    Oh, I forgot to mention, I’m just about to sign up for Fearless!
    Keep up the amazing work Martin.

  4. Awesome! Couldn’t agree more having been to this same conference here in the states. Much of what you wrote had me laughing out loud in total agreement. Yes! It’s not just me! Someone else feels the same way. I would even go as far as to question who is “judging” te award submissions. Many of the winners seem to be the big names and/or the people who have given Fearless its recognition. In addition, many of the photos that receive awards are, in my opinion, questionably “fearless” as in, I don’t get it. If, upon seeing a photo, I have to ask myself why it won an award or what is so fearless about it then whats to say that I’m the only one questioning??? Sure does make me wonder….. Thanks for writing this up! I hope this sparks change!!

  5. Hi Martin

    Another excellent write-up. Exactly! me feelings about Fearless … I was there for a while but soon realised I am not Fearless at all.
    I am definitely not part of that ’wow’ scene … I am just very happy photographing weddings in my own way and having great clients that really appreciate documentary photography.

  6. It was like I was reading some of my thoughts! A very well written article about wedding photography and all that “star making” system…

  7. Martin, you are 100% right on what you say about shooting for your brides and grooms. I totally agree!
    I was writing yesterday in an article that weddings are primarily about the couple, are about emotions and this things needs to be captured first.
    I was reading somewhere, but I don’t remember where something like first the moment then the focus. 🙂 It made me think about what we really do! We have in our hands one of the greatest days of that couple. 🙂

  8. Great read Martin! “Awesome” in fact 🙂 Really valid points here, to many fads around, a wedding photographers main concern should be making their clients happy.

  9. Quite some interesting perspective!
    Martin, you are a very very talented photographer and do you really need to win a portrait award?
    I mean these days the photojournalistic approach is rather getting dissolved into image-management or directed-still images, rather an artificial thing. But thats not too bad either. Artificial has ART in it.
    Cheers from india.
    This is Prithu De from PIXIPfoto.

  10. I only very recently joined Fearless. I have various reasons for joining but one of them was indeed to enter images into competition. A win would be fantastic but I won’t get hung up on it if I don’t. Indeed, I was having the same conversation with a fellow photographer just yesterday. There are obvious trends and “awesome” wow images and in a social-media age these will always do well and in many cases, rightly so. But like Shannon implies above and as you point out – don’t shoot for awards, shoot for clients and yourself. That’s a truly award winning formula. The feedback you had from the Bride and Groom stands testament to that and for what it’s worth, I think it’s a beautiful capture.

  11. Well said!! Competition feeds our ego do our brides really care how many (or few) Awards we have… some might, but most want to know your a good person who understands their vision for their day. Would I like to win a fearless award Hell Yes, do I think it will make brides desperate to book me… nope. Do I treat every bride and wedding like its/they are the most important person/wedding ever of course because that’s just who I am, I love that I have turned photographing weddings into a career, im blessed that these couples trust me to document their wedding. Not once has any bride ever asked if I have won awards or if I would submit their images into magazines or competitions. I really loved your take on the conference, your critique (which I think is lovely) and and awards. Thanks for sharing this.

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