All images by John Lee. Used with permission.
“As most full time photography studio owners without a large staff will tell you, shooting is only probably 25% of what you do.” says photographer John Lee about his business. John has been a veteran for many years. He’s a portrait and wedding photographer based in Iowa that’s weathered lots of the changes that have come in the industry over the years.
John grew up in a time when parents told their kids to never try to make their love of art into a living–because it wouldn’t be fun anymore. But he didn’t listen, and he’s still in love with photography.
What’s unique about John’s work is that he finds a way to blend the prim and proper traditional style with the modern aesthetics of the use of wide angles and a more normal perspective to tell a story. And that surely reflects in his work.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography?
John: Like a lot of people it was a passionate hobby, that was instilled in me by my father who taught me all my foundational knowledge. Ironically he told me never to do it for a living. I think his generation felt that if you do something you love for a living it isn’t fun any more. First time someone wrote me a check for doing this I was hooked. My Father passed away over 20 years ago and unfortunately never got to see my success.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into weddings?
John: Honestly, I kind of fell into it. We were new to our community and people found out I was a beginning photographer (still shooting film) and a friend of my first couple asked me if I shoot weddings…the rest is history. After shooting a few more I realized I loved the variety of situations and styles during the day. And spending so much time with the couple and their families, you get to know them better also.
Phoblographer: Tell us the story of your first wedding. What would you have done differently and how do you feel you’ve improved?
John: It was the most terrifying thing I had done to date. My palms were sweating on the drive to the church and I was gripping the steering wheel as if my life depended on it. Overall the wedding went well…for a first wedding. The couple was very young and had no money, so whatever I gave them they were happy with.
I probably would have tried to light things differently, I did a lot of “on camera” flash. It was film, so I couldn’t check the back of the camera to make sure things were looking alright. I put the flash on Auto and went for it.
Oh my gosh, what hasn’t improved! Other than the obvious technique/style improvements that come with experience, probably the biggest thing is planning and setting of expectations. I meet with clients for a final consultation and walk through and talk about the wedding day and what they want. That way both the client and myself are going into the day on the same page.
Phoblographer: Most of your work is very wide angle. Why? What attracts you to this vs getting up close and personal with a portrait lens?
John: It is interesting you say that because I don’t consciously shoot that way, but as I look through my work it dawned on me that it really is true. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact on a wedding day it is so much about the venues, environment and people. I see a lot of the wedding day’s photography as environmental photography with people in them. I do some close portraits, but couples love to remember who was there and what was going on that they maybe didn’t see; so I would say that is what drives my perspective.
Phoblographer: Where do you get your ideas from to ensure that every client gets wedding photos that don’t look monotonous and instead are unique to just them?
John: Well, when I book a couple I check out their social media pages and I do an engagement session with almost every client. Part of my reason is that I like to get to know my clients, what their interests are and what makes them tick. Especially the engagement session allows the couple and I to interact in a more casual environment and start to form a friendship and comfort level with each other. For ideas I will also admit looking at Pinterest occasionally but usually the venues of the day and how the clients are interacting will dictate the way I capture their day.
Phoblographer: Where do you typically go about searching for inspiration?
John: As mentioned before I will occasionally look at Pinterest or other Photographers pages but I try not to do that too much, I really try and use them only as a “idea springboard” to then put my own stamp on it.
Phoblographer: When you go about working with a wide field of view, how does your mind’s eye typically work? Are you looking for shapes? Compositions? A balance between light and dark?
John: This is actually a hard question to answer because I really don’t have one compositional mindset, maybe other than balance. Balance when it comes to visual weight, balance when it comes to light. This sounds silly, but I just know when it feels right.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use. Why do you choose it?
John: For several years now I have been a Nikon DSLR user and still have my trusty D4 which is a beast and I love it. The Nikon is fast and responsive and I know I will get the shot! Within the last year or two I have been migrating to mirrorless cameras, partially because of weight and partially because of the live view allows you to make exposure and white balance changes on the fly before shooting the image. So right now I own two systems the Nikon D4, a Sony A7II, recently purchased an A6000 and have a little RX100III for my fun pocketable personal camera.
Phoblographer: How often are you actually shooting vs doing other tasks like meeting with clients, marketing, etc?
John: As most full time photography studio owners without a large staff will tell you, shooting is only probably 25% of what you do. The largest remainder is probably editing followed meeting with clients and marketing, so basically running your business.
Phoblographer: Describe your typical clients to us, how do you go about reaching out to them?
John: I live in a smaller community in the midwest, so it is hard to categorize my client base, because I really serve a wide variety of people from our town the region around me. One thing I can say, is that in this time of high school students and moms with camera starting photography businesses, my clients value what I do, the expertise and experience I bring to every session or wedding. I think reaching out to clients in a smaller community can be different than a larger urban area. Other than the obvious website, social media and necessary forms of getting your images out there, I feel it is vitally important to be an INVOLVED member of your community. I have served on several boards and community groups to establish relationships with the people in my town. All other things being equal, people like to do business with people they know and trust. That is also why just doing a killer job for these people every time you pick up that camera and treating them well is the best marketing you can do…..word of mouth!
Phoblographer: One of the biggest challenges that any photographer will face is getting repeat clients. How do you do this?
John: My answer will piggyback the previous answer a little. The biggest challenge I see if an increasing lack of customer loyalty in our industry. People often “price shop” or follow the latest trend and that can make it a challenge when you are a full time professional trying to create timeless images. But going back to the previous answer, being that person that a client knows they can trust and enjoy working with can go a long way towards creating a long term client relationship. Specific to weddings, one thing I do is give all former wedding clients lifetime session fee FREE sessions. That way when they start a family I am there for the maternity images, newborn pictures and family pictures! That has been very successful for me.