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Sunday, 5 May 2013
Albums - Story or Portfolio?
Mood:  quizzical
Topic: Wedding Tips

This spring has got me thinking a lot about albums, what they are for and what makes a good one?  This was prompted in part by the passing of our Bichon Frise, Jeremiah, and my decision to design an album to commemorate his life.  It was also prompted in part by our experience submitting two of our wedding album designs into the Vermont Professional Photographers 2013 print competition, and subsequently observing the judging. 

I recall a while ago reading a post in a photographer's forum I scan occasionally that sparked a debate on this very topic.  It seems the photographer had made a mistake in a wedding album that was not caught by him or the bride and groom until after it was printed and bound.  It was a mistake that both should have caught, but alas, did not.  The photographer was seeking feedback on how other photographers handled situations like this from a business point of view. 

Somewhere in the various comments, someone said, well, at least he could use the album as a sample to show potential clients, since the mistake (an erroneous date) did not in any way detract from the design as a sample.  The original photographer answered, no because the bride had picked the wrong pictures - they were the ones the bride wanted in her album, but were not the ones the photographer would want to use to show off his work.  She had included lots of family group shots, for example, and under budget constraints omitted some the photographer's favorite portraits, etc.  This is where the debate got interesting because two camps evolved - those who believed that the client's input into the album design should be kept to an absolute minimum (even excluding the family group shots altogether), and others who believed that it was the bride's album and should have what she wants in it.  

As the debate went back and forth, it seemed that there were some photographers on one extreme who designed the album the way they thought best - in a way that best represented their artistry; while the others tried hard to tell the story of the bride's day as faithful as they could to the way the bride saw it.  To me this represents two very different design approaches to album design - one is to design it as a photographer's portfolio, and the other is to design it to tell the story of what was important to the subject of the album - in this case the bride and groom.  There is considerable overlap because the portfolio has a storytelling element, and the bride wants her story told in an artistic way, BUT they also have significant differences.  

This is probably best exemplified by the family group shots.  Some photographers will not put them in the album, but insist they be published separately.  Whereas many brides will have a long list of groups they want photographed and then select many of them for inclusion in the album, if given the option.  In general the photographer selects images for inclusion based on artistry first, whereas the bride selects on the basis of the strength of the relationship she has with the subjects in the image as the first criterion. 

When I first observed wedding albums in print competition, I was struck by the complete absence of the family group shots in many of the submissions.  It prompted me to ask those with more experience whether these were "real" albums - meaning ones that were delivered to real customers, or were they designed or modified specifically for competition.  In some cases where the albums submitted were "real" I was told that the designers also selected the images for the album, without giving their client an opportunity to offer input. 

One of my favorite parts of being a wedding photographer is getting to deliver the final album to the newlyweds and getting to watch them go through it for the first time.  Even though the selected the images that went into it and even though they approved the layout / design before printing and binding - it was still special to see it in print - in the book.  What I have also found interesting is what they react to.  Often they will make a comment like, "I really love this picture" especially when viewing a great artistic portrait.  But what they linger longest over and come back to for a second and third look are the ones to which they have the strongest emotional attachment to. Very often it is not the best or most artistic photograph in the album.  It might be a shot of them with their favorite grandmother, or with a friend she had been afraid would not have been able to make it, but came and surprised her, or of something funny her niece, the flower girl, did.   

In working on our album of our puppy's life, I found that in some cases I included images that would never win an award - probably not even be judged acceptable for exhibition.  They were included because in retrospect I chose the best image I had to tell a part of the story that was important to me independent of whether it measured up to some artistic standard.  The reality is that in some cases we were just shooting snapshots, not carefully orchestrated portraits.  And when we took them, they were not all that important.  It was only a few years later, when cancer had robbed him of his vitality that these simple snapshots took on so much more meaning.   

Similarly, I once took photographs of a Relay For Life Cancer Walk.  This event has all kinds of people - many are survivors, many are care givers, and others are just supporters.  It took a while to go through all the images and put them into a simple album.  One of the organizers went through and pointed out images of three people that had passed away in the short time since I had taken the images.  She said that at an event like that almost every image is important to someone!  The people were not known to me and even in retrospect there were few clues they were this close to the end in any of the shots.  It was not uncommon after one of these events to get requests from people who had seen a crowd shot I may have taken to describe someone in the image and ask if I had somehow managed to take any closeups? 

It is just one of many examples of when we as photographers have to take photographs without knowing the back and hidden stories of those whose photographs we are taking. Sometimes we find our later and in other cases, we never know. Without knowing the stories, without knowing what binds people together, without knowing all the sources of meaning in the people and things we photograph we will never see our photographs in the same way as our customers.

It is for this reason that I begin the design of every album with the simple question - whose album is it anyway? If it will not sit on my coffee table for the next 20 years, mine ought not to be the only perspective taken into account when designing it. No matter how nice I thought a wedding was, my emotional attachment will never be as strong as that of the bride and groom.

So, when we design an album, especially for a wedding, we work hard to balance artistry with meaning as seen by those whose album it is. To do this we take the first cut. We sort, perfect, and present only images that are technically acceptable - meaning we start with only the good images - which is always far more than we have room for in an album.  We then ask the bride and groom to select their favorites - and we give them a number range of what usually fits comfortably in an album of the size their budget has enabled them to purchase.  This tells us several things.  It tells us which parts of the story are most important to them and when we get to the candid reception mages, which of their many guests were the most important to them.  We then use that pool of images as our primary source in designing their album.  Sometimes we do not use all the images and sometimes we pull in additional images to make the design flow in an artistic way.  When complete we let the bride and groom review the design and recommend changes, if any.  We interpret their requests and propose alternate designs until we are both happy with the result.  The end result is an album that artistically pleasing, while at the same time telling the bride and groom's story in a way that emphasizes what is important to them using the images they like the best   They now feel comfortable using this album to tell their story in their way for generations to come. 

Interestingly we have found that about 70 to 80% of what the bride and groom select, we would have selected also.  These tend to be the technically best images and the ones that portray them in the best light.  Once the bride and groom have selected the best shots of them, other criteria begin to play a bigger role in selecting the remainder.  They want a few shots of their best friends and relatives, even if they are not the most photogenic, or in some cases even cooperative in letting you get their photograph.  And if they are budget constrained they may want to leave out some of those additional great bridal portraits from before the ceremony in favor of including more candids of them dancing with their friends, if that is more important to them in the way they want to tell their story. 

Story or portfolio?

Our artistic goal is to tell the story of what makes our clients uniquely special, and the treasured relationships they have with the people with whom they are connected in this life, through photographic art that touches the heart and reflects their priceless value.

Posted by Warren

Ayer Photography of Vermont           


Posted by ayerphoto at 6:27 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 7 May 2013 3:34 PM EDT
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