Wedding photography is often considered the underdog of the industry, that dark place where photographers go to start a career or earn some extra shekels to pay the bills. But very few have turned the endeavor into a legitimate art form.
The artsy snob in all of us erroneously tends to disregard wedding photography as a practice of inferior artistic merit then say, photojournalism or fine art photography. I hang my head in shame and confess I declare myself guilty of this.
But what can I say? Something inside of me dies every time I stumble upon wedding photographs on my Facebook feed. I mean, come on, you know what I’m talking about. How can you not cringe at the staged poses, super cheesy scenarios and stereotypical situations?
It’s amidst this skepticism that I found Chrisman Studios, a small collective of artists.
It all starts with Kentucky-raised Ben Chrisman. He studied photojournalism at New Mexico State University and before diving into the world of wedding photography he was already hardened by the heat of the newsroom experience working for local newspapers. Ben had even traveled to Asia to document the aftermath of the Tsunami that devastated Indonesia and Sri Lanka in 2004.
In a curious twist of fate, while being a guest at a wedding in 2007 he met Erin, newspaper reporter and fellow photojournalist who would later become his wife and business partner.
Today Chrisman Studios is a team of four photographers and one videographer, having photographed weddings in 23 countries.
A strange mix of documentary, fashion, and fine art photography, they manage to create works with incredibly ingenious compositions, gorgeous lighting, and striking emotion. They shoot through abstract objects, use multi-layered reflections, and manage to capture such genuine moments.
We had the pleasure to chat with them about their unique approach, their business practices, and the experience of running a photography empire as a couple.
Can you tell us a bit about your origin story? How did Chrisman Studios start? Why weddings?
“Chrisman Studios started as Ben Chrisman Photography in 2005, when Ben lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ben was a newspaper photographer at the time. He had made up his mind to go to the Middle East and become a war photographer. However, he had started getting wedding inquiries here and there. Before he knew it, weddings completely took over his life.
“He decided to follow that path and see where it took him! Weddings found Ben, rather than Ben seeking out weddings. But once he started, he decided he could only do them if he did them completely different from anything he’d ever seen. He was heavily influenced by legendary war photographers like James Nachtwey and Joachim Ladefoged, and applied what he admired about their work to his wedding photography work.
“Ben and I met at a photographer’s wedding in 2007, and, although we lived across the country from each other, over time we found our way to each other, and settled in San Francisco. From there, Chrisman Studios was born, and we brought on two more photographers. It’s now us, Mauricio Arias and Ryan Zhang, and our genius filmmaker Vlad Chaloupka.”
What gear do you usually take to a wedding gig? What’s your typical setup?
“Erin shoots a Nikon D850 and a Nikon D750, and Ben uses a combination of Nikon and Fuji.”
How do you manage to bring out such genuine emotions from normal, everyday people that don’t have any experience as models or actors? What’s your secret? Alcohol?
“Ha! Well, we both used to be journalists for newspapers, so our foundation has always been to allow people and places to be as they are, without our influence. It’s our job to be in tune with all the different personalities in a room, and know-how to listen for the cues that something is about to happen, whether big or subtle.
“We never ask for emotion or reactions from people. But we’ve learned how to anticipate those things, and be patient and wait for them to happen naturally. Something I love is when a client tells me ‘Good luck with my Dad – he NEVER smiles’. I make it my number one duty at that point to stay on that dad until I capture him smiling because I know that will mean the world to my client.
“It’s also important to make yourself one of the gang from the beginning. Get on in there, talk and laugh with everyone, make them feel at ease with you. Pretty soon, they won’t even notice you’re taking photos because you are just part of the scene like they are.”
Sometimes the line between emotional and tacky is a fine one to walk. When do you know you’ve crossed it? How to keep a balance?
“When we witness something very emotional happening, we move in very slowly and shoot lightly, and gauge as we go. We would never shy away from capturing that emotion because we know the client will appreciate having that later on, even if they don’t understand that at the moment.
“It’s a delicate balancing act, though, for sure. The important thing is to just be human… care about these people and what is happening, and photograph the moment from a place of empathy, love, and respect. If you see an obvious sign that you should back off, back off.”
Any crazy wedding anecdotes that you can share with us? Don’t worry, we promise we’ll keep it a secret.
“Weddings have allowed us to go to the best parties we could ever imagine in the wildest, most uninhibited locations, so we’ve seen a lot 🙂 We’ve seen people faint at the altar; we’ve seen lots of people get thrown into pools (including myself, by a wedding guest); we’ve seen brides and grooms jump off cliffs; we’ve seen people strip down to their underwear at the reception (hey, it gets hot in Jamaica!), and we saw two groomsmen get drunk and swim completely naked in the pool at a very fancy rehearsal dinner. There are so many great stories!”
What are the positives and negatives of running a business with your romantic partner? How do you balance your professional life with your personal life?
“We really like being around each other all the time, and this allows us to do that. We’ve learned how to talk to each other, when to talk to each other, and how hard to push each other. We feed off each other’s energy really well, so when we work together, we are highly motivated and just love getting to do this life together!
“Now that we have our physical studio, separate from our house, we also do not bring work home. When we get home, it’s all about quality time with our daughter Roxy. We aren’t on our computers. We don’t even discuss anything work-related. It all can wait until the next morning.”
Can you tell us three things that you adopted in your entrepreneurship from business mentor Steve Saporito that made all the difference?
“Steve is a genius, and he has changed everything for us! He has taught us: 1) How to truly take care of people 2) How to get more clients and more work from all kinds of avenues we never even knew about 3) how to run our business like an actual business.”
How do you avoid being intrusive with your client’s special occasion, and yet, achieve photographs that look like you’ve been tweaking with the pose, composition, and lighting for hours?
“For our creative portraits, we test every idea out on each other first, so when we put the clients in the composition, everything is ready to go. For the documentary photos, though, it’s all about being patient and waiting for everything to line up just like you want it to. It doesn’t always work, but it’s important to know what you want in advance so you can be ready for it if it happens. Normally we look for interesting light first, then figure out the best composition, then wait for a person to do something interesting in that setup.”
What’s the difference between Chrisman Studios and your new business initiative, King and Fields?
“Chrisman Studios is our wedding photography company, and King & Fields is our portrait studio. Chrisman Studios is all weddings, all over the world. King & Fields operates from our hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, and mainly serves local clients, and clients who vacation here. King & Fields keeps us busy, and shooting constantly, Monday through Friday, sometimes several shoots a day!”
Have you had any session where the muses of inspiration never arrived, and everything just seemed to be going wrong?
“It is our job to find inspiration in the most mundane and uninteresting situations. What I love the most is when the location isn’t that great, or the people are more reserved because that’s when I get to have fun. It challenges me to look deeper.
“I get to show my clients something they never saw on their own. I get to show them how beautiful and unique they truly are. We’ve been able to shoot in places that make you feel like you’re walking around in a postcard, but I actually prefer having more limitations and having to work harder to make something out of nothing, to find meaning in something ordinary.”
How on Earth do you manage to make everybody look so damn good?
“By letting them be themselves! If someone is wild, we let them be wild. If someone is quiet and reserved, we honor that and would never try to show them as being something they’re not. When someone is comfortable and feeling most true to themselves, there is a light around them that is captivating.”