Joshua Kane: Running a Destination Wedding Photography Business

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All images by Josh Kane. Used with permission.

Photographer Joshua Kane lives the dream of so many photographers. He gets paid to travel the world, photograph weddings for clients, and in some ways lives a creatively enriched life because of it. But Josh tells us that doing destination wedding photography these days is a ballsy move, and because of it he only shoots 10% of the time and 90% of his time is spent editing, booking clients, negotiating, marketing, etc. While that doesn’t sound so fun for an aspiring photographer, it is a reality. When you combine this with Josh’s goal to give every single wedding client unique images (and the amount of work that he puts into it) Josh is in many ways still challenging himself creatively.

We talked to him about destination wedding photography, the challenges, the clients, and how he started out.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography?

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Josh: I was always an artistic kid. Drawing, painting, graffiti and other mediums. But I was the type that hated almost everything I created, even though others seem to love it (“own worst critic syndrome”). Until eventually, I got a hold of my grandmother’s dusty old Minolta SLR as a teenager. I took it up and down the South Australian coastline where I grew up, and really enjoyed experimenting. Composition and camera basics came quite naturally to me and I felt I had finally found a medium I could use to express myself best.

However, I had other interests that took priority. Basketball mainly. I was an aspiring professional when I moved to the USA to play in College. A career ending injury forced me back to reality – and back to photography. But this time, it was to make a living. I’m not the type of person who can “work for the man” day in day out… So I saw the camera as my second chance to do something I love since Basketball was no longer an option. I read books, watched tutorials, and practiced my ass off – until I got to a point where my images looked decent enough for people to pay a little money for them.

Phoblographer: What made you want to photograph weddings?

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Josh: At first it was a matter of finding someone to learn from. Outside of my wife’s family, I knew no one else in my adopted state of Florida, so I began searching for local photographers who might need an assistant to work for free (I wasn’t allowed to earn money as I was not yet a US permanent resident). Inevitably, with South Florida being one of the premier wedding destinations in the world, I found a plethora of established wedding pros to learn from. I didn’t think I’d like it as such as I did. Being primarily a second shooter at first allowed me to have total creative freedom, which meant I was able to develop a unique style based around creative compositions and documentary moments while the primary photographers I worked for were busy getting the traditional safe shots.

Also, I love every genre of photography, and I have done most of them in a somewhat professional capacity at some stage–from fashion, to landscape, architecture, sports, commercial and portraiture– and Weddings are the only subject that allow you to cover all these genres in a single shoot. PERFECT!

“I knew no one else in my adopted state of Florida, so I began searching for local photographers who might need an assistant to work for free (I wasn’t allowed to earn money as I was not yet a US permanent resident).”

Lastly, and probably the most influential push to focus on weddings came when I picked up American Photo Magazine’s wedding issue which had the top 10 wedding photographers. I was still deciding whether I’d try and go full time with weddings, when one particular photographer in the mag stood out to me; Jonas Peterson was the first guy I saw approaching weddings in a way that really spoke to me. I immediately connected with his cinematic look (I’m kind of a movie buff) and his aesthetic, but his reason for shooting weddings and telling those stories resonated more than anything. I pinned the magazine cover up in my office and made it my goal to find a visual identity that would communicate my passion and need to tell stories. I still have the magazine cover, I’m still honing my visual identity, and I have Jonas to thank for the push I needed.

Phoblographer: Tell us about your first wedding. What did you do wrong or incorrectly that you wish you did better?

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Josh: I’m guessing most people shot their first wedding for a friend or family member, and I’m no different. I had about 10 second shooting gigs under my belt, and felt confident enough to tackle my sister in law’s wedding on my own. I was light on gear, so my wife’s parents paid me enough to buy a speedlite which I desperately needed. In all honesty, the wedding went swimmingly and some of the shots I still really love! The only hiccup was when it came time for the family portraits (because only then did I realize I was apart of the family and needed to be in the pictures).

Phoblographer: How do you go about forming a destination wedding photography business? It sounds like it takes a heck of an investment and lots of logistical planning?

Josh: It does. And to be honest, it’s not the wisest of goals in this era of photography. But not impossible if you have an angle to work.

For me, the idea to market myself as a “destination wedding photographer” came out of necessity. My wife and I are from two different countries (AUS and USA), and we are both very close with our families. I knew from day one of our relationship that we needed to find a way to earn a living but also have the flexibility to travel back and forth between our respective homelands. So right away I began seeking opportunities to shoot anywhere besides my local market. I packed my site with destination related keywords and images and didn’t try to narrow down my target market to a specific area… I didn’t spend too much time connecting with local vendors like most do, instead I tried to keep in touch with friends I’d made in college who were from all over. The biggest support for my early photography came from friends on social media, and I knew that someday, some of them would need a wedding photographer…

This took a lot of sacrificing potential local income in place of chasing weddings out of state and country (and sometimes paying my own way). It’s not the most profitable enterprise when you’re starting out, but it’s certainly worthwhile if you are the type who thrives on new and interesting environments to work in.

“to be honest, it’s not the wisest of goals in this era of photography. But not impossible if you have an angle to work.”

Early on, I shot mainly for people I knew, whether it was in the US or Australia. The result was a diverse portfolio from various parts of both countries… but sadly, not a particularly healthy bottom line… However, the sacrifice was worth it, as now when I get an email inquiry, I never know where it could come from, and that’s exciting, especially since making a good profit to support my family is now my central focus, and most couples who reach out, understand that they might be responsible for travel costs to some extent.

The key is I think, is to not just randomly say “I’ll shoot anywhere in the world” and hope that you get flown to Iceland. That’d be great, but I certainly haven’t figured out how to make that happen yet, although it’s early days. I think you really need to be broad, but try to focus on a region of the world that you have at least some sort of connection with. This way, you’ll build a more diverse portfolio faster, and when you do get to travel, you might get lucky and be able to stay with people you know in that area, thus saving your clients that cost and increasing your chances of them flying you in.

Phoblographer: You’re very unique in that you have a shop in Florida and Australia. How do you feel the wedding markets differ in each area?

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Josh: The markets are similar in a lot of ways, yet almost polar opposites in other ways. The weddings themselves are a little different; most Australian ceremonies take place earlier in the afternoon, with a long gap between the ceremony and reception. This is a blessing in that you get more time for photography, but a curse in that the light often sucks. In Florida, a lot of ceremonies happen close to sunset, then there’s a mad rush to get all the photography done before losing the light… That’s probably why “first looks” are far more prevalent in the US, and really rare in AUS.

As for the markets…

South Florida attracts a lot of out of town brides due to the weather and number of venues. It’s also a really easy place for people to get to from allow over the US. So guests usually have no problem flying down for a destination wedding on the beach in January when their hometown is probably under 4 feet of snow. Also, I think culturally there are differences that factor in. A lot of people in the States go off to college all over the country and build lives away from their families. Then when they meet someone and decide to get married they realize they need to make it a destination wedding since the bride and groom’s families and friends are likely scattered all over the country. So they find somewhere warm and convenient to host their wedding and quite often it’s South Florida. When you shoot weddings for such people, the word of mouth travels really far and wide since all those guests take the memories, stories and photos back to their home towns. Then, if people like the work, there’s a much better chance you’ll get asked travel somewhere new to shoot another wedding. At least this has been my experience.

However, in my hometown of Adelaide, South Australia, it’s a different story. Most people live within a 20-minute drive of their parents and childhood friends. People stay local for Uni and work, and thus generally have weddings close by. Shooting these weddings works great if you’re focusing building a local reputation and not particularly fussed about doing destinations. The word spreads very fast (Australians also follow trends and generally like the same stuff), but the word doesn’t travel very far… so chances are the referrals you get will all be from the same area. And that’s fine. But I’m trying to do both (shoot local in Aus, and shoot destinations in the US – if I get to shoot somewhere else interesting in between, great!).

South Florida also has larger population of high income earners who often want very over the top, lavish weddings. Australia doesn’t seem to have as much of that, at least not on the same scale generally. However, the average wedding costs more in Australia (as most things cost a little more there). Another thing that’s interesting about Australia, is that almost everyone considers themselves to be “middle-class”. This results in a really crowded middle market for weddings with most vendors targeting the average budget bride. This makes it hard for brides to justify flying in a photographer who charges double, when in all likely hood there’s a slew of perfectly adequate local photographers to choose from. There is a growing market in Australia for couples to get married in Southeast Asia (it’s pretty cheap). And also a lot of Asian couples are choosing Mainland Australia as wedding Destination. But this is a market I know little about, but will focus on more once we are there in a few months from now.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about your single most favorite wedding photo that you’ve shot?

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Josh: Wow, that’s a hard one. This first one springs to mind because of all the attention it gets when people see it in a sample album I carry. It’s not that it was a difficult shot to get, or that it was particularly creative or emotional. It just has everything that I look for. Great lines, symmetry, composition, a foreground/middleground/background, and it transports you to that place I think. It also particularly stands out to me because it was one of my first destination weddings… In the Smokey Mountains of Northern Georgia.

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This one is more recent and really stands out to me… It was not a really dark church ceremony, but there was an awfully positioned skylight that shone directly in the one place I didn’t want it to. The bride and groom were in a hot spot that there was just not way around shooting without blowing them out… So I stepped back, and I thought a little differently. I stopped down to where everything was way underexposed except the two of them.

Phoblographer: Wedding photography requires lots of shooting, editing, client booking, etc. How do you find time to personally hone your own creative vision?

Josh: It’s always a work in progress. I can’t tell you how many hours I really work in a week, because I sleep literally 6 feet away from my computer. There’s always something you could be doing as a small business owner, and it’s really hard not to be thinking about it all the time… that’s why you really have to love it! Honing my creative vision comes from a personality trait of mine to always be seeking variety. I’m the type of person that never orders the same thing off a menu twice. I need to try everything. It’s the same with shooting and editing. There’s a consistent basis for everything I do that ensures an identifiable style, but I’m constantly making subtle changes that keep me on my toes and keep the work evolving,

For example, I use a completely new set of presets each time I edit a shoot, then delete them when I’m done and start fresh on the next one. It makes me feel like I’m giving the client something unique each time, although it does hold up my workflow sometimes. Also, when shooting, I’ll try to do at least one thing drastically different each time.

Phoblographer: How do you go about finding inspiration for your wedding photos?

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Josh: I keep hearing that you should shoot more personal work. That’s such vague advice, I think. I really try to think of personal projects but all my ideas seem to be too demanding of my time; so I end up throwing them on the back burner. Instead, I approach my weddings and engagement shoots as personal work. Because to me, it is very personal. I also, keep an eye out for scenes and techniques in other visual mediums like cinema and art, sometimes I spot something that might work on a wedding day or engagement shoot – or it might not. I try not to look at too much other wedding photography either.

“I use a completely new set of presets each time I edit a shoot, then delete them when I’m done and start fresh on the next one. It makes me feel like I’m giving the client something unique each time, although it does hold up my workflow sometimes.”

Phoblographer: How much of your time would you say you spend shooting vs editing, client booking, marketing, etc.

Josh: Sadly, it’s probably about 10% shooting and 90% the rest at this point. Probably because I don’t outsource anything. Eventually, I know that will change and I will happily search for ways to outsource effectively without sacrificing style and quality. But at this stage, I’m still enjoying the challenges of finding ways to be more productive and innovative within all aspects of the business.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Josh: Canon 5D Mark 3 and Mark . I prefer using the Mark 3, but I like the images from the Mark 2 better, not sure why. Mostly prime lenses: the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L was literally the only Lens I used for about a year at one point (partly because I was on a budget and partly, well I just liked it), I learned to harness the versatility of a single focal length. I’m now obsessed with my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART. I also carry the Canon 135mm f/2 L which really gets me out of trouble sometimes when I need the length–not to mention the ridiculously beautiful portraits it’s capable of. Also, the Canon 17-40mm f/4 L is my only zoom, and my best friend during the reception.

“Sadly, it’s probably about 10% shooting and 90% the rest at this point…”

Phoblographer: Your images are very modern contemporary, very saturated, and vivid. What do you feel are the more defining characteristics of your personal creative vision.

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Josh: I think that my images likely look different to different people. I try to listen to how others describe my style, so that I can understand myself how it comes across. Trouble is, I’ve heard people describe it in a lot of different ways. To me, that indicates that people can connect with the work in different ways. And I’m happy about that.

My vision and hope for every wedding/shoot, is that I want the images to be a thorough and truthful record of events. Within that, I look for a particular quality of light. Later, when I process them, I try to ensure the tones, color and contrast fit the mood within each individual image. Regardless of what editing process I’m using, my eye tends to just like things a certain way, and subconsciously my ‘style’ comes through in the end. I’ve learned to not fight it. And others seem to like it.

I get a lot of comments about my emotive B&W shots; so I think that’s becoming a defining characteristic.

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The recurring themes that I look for in terms of important moments, composition and light I think are more defining than ones editing style.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about travelling. Have you ever had nightmares at the airports? What have you learned about preventing them?

Josh: Redundancy is key. Three backups of images on separate drives and in separate bags is how I’ve managed that. As for gear, I carry my camera bag on the plane so it’s important to travel light. I have a roller bag with the bulk of the gear, and shoulder bag with at least one body and a 50mm lens incase I lose the other bag. The roller bag weighs quite a bit, so I worry sometimes that they’ll make me check it, which would be a problem. But it hasn’t happened yet (knock on wood).

Before I became a dual citizen and got my US passport, a customs official questioned me about making 4 trips to and from Australia in the same year. Not to mention, on this particular re-entry my green card was set to expire the following day. I told him I am a destination-wedding photographer, he laughed and said “you look more like a basketball player”. I laughed; then he stopped laughing and very seriously told me not to travel so close to the expiration date again.

“I keep hearing that you should shoot more personal work. That’s such vague advice, I think.”

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