Charmi Patel Peña dazzles her wedding clients

Charmi Patel Peña © Charmi Patel Peña

Charmi Patel Peña is working with a fashion designer. Not to photograph their latest clothing line but to identify an appropriate outfit for Patel Peña to wear while working. “I would like to not wear pants and a top to these weddings,” she says. She wants something “Indian enough” to help her blend in but comfortable and functional enough to remain agile. Indian weddings are elaborate celebrations—wardrobe, jewelry, and decor in more colors than Crayola could ever conceive. She’s worked a wedding in an Indian full-length skirt known as a lehenga. Gorgeous, yes, she says, “but not something to run a marathon in, which [is what] Indian weddings are: a marathon.”

Born for this niche

Raised in New Jersey, Patel Peña is the daughter of Indian immigrant doctors. She resides in Princeton, New Jersey. She forged a niche photography business that makes use of her image-making skills as well as her cultural understanding and her personality, which she describes as “extroverted extrovert.” That last piece is essential for multi-ceremony weddings that last three or more days and involve two vast families—villages, really. Even in America, an Indian family may count 80 cousins and kin-like friends, she notes.

© Charmi Patel Peña

“People management is part of the anatomy of getting 21 people and the doorman of the Ritz-Carlton to cooperate for a single photograph,” Patel Peña says. “The fact that I’m energized being around people helps me do three- to four-day weddings. I am not drained emotionally or mentally by being around so many people, and I tend to be tuned in to people’s emotions.” As she needed to be for a recent bride wearing a 13-pound veil on a hot day. “I was trying to make sure that the current her is not unhappy so that the future her wouldn’t be even more unhappy with photographs of the current her who wasn’t happy.”

Patel Peña graduated from Rutgers University with a double major in information technology and economics. “None of the jobs related to my two degrees appealed to me at all,” she explains. Her husband, tired of her complaints about being bored at home, inspired her to pursue photography as a hobby with his wedding gift, Bryan Peterson’s book “Understanding Exposure.”

Patel Peña started her professional career with baby photography. Photographing twins led to a wedding assignment. Her images of that wedding were published on The Knot website, and suddenly she had a growing wedding photography business.

Indian people soon discovered her and now account for all of her wedding photography clientele. Having grown up on a street where Indian families accounted for half the occupants, she represents the best of both worlds for these clients. Her documentary-style images illustrate a penchant for modern light-ing and composition, while her cultural heritage affords an understanding of how to honor the traditions of Indian nuptials.

“Indian wedding photography historically was a little more traditional, posed, and very involved,” she says. “Indian couples were happy to find someone who saw it through a romantic and emotional lens.” Her upbringing armed her with an understanding of the significant rituals, symbols, and details of these weddings. “Forty things are going on at the same time, and you have to know what to look for,” she says of documenting Indian wedding celebrations.

© Charmi Patel Peña

Simplifying the pricing

Her cultural understanding shapes her business approach to this niche market, as well. When she began her business, she was applying her standard hourly rate for eight hours and doubling it for overtime. Indian wedding days typically run from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a four-hour afternoon break, and then resume at 6 p.m. with a celebration that lasts into the night. So charging an overtime rate for work she was doing during the break (backing up, previewing, and culling images)as well as additional photography before the reception didn’t sit well with clients. They had trouble grasping such a fee structure for time they wouldn’t see her working. “Just having that discussion at all was not letting things land where I wanted them to,” she says.

© Charmi Patel Peña

She began charging a flat fee for “tailored coverage,” which includes an hour of the bride’s preparation through the end of the traditional ceremony, images during the break, and the first portion of the reception when speeches, performances, and other traditional activities take place.

“My people like to party, and we don’t like to be interrupted,” she says. “Everything is front-loaded, and once the dance floor is opened, that’s it; it stays wild for hours.” Photographing a half hour of the reception is enough to get everything she needs there.

She stresses that as the expert in the room she’s focused on doing whatever needs to be done to meet the wedding couple’s expectations for their images. This includes knowing which guests to round up, when, and where during the mid-day break. The flat fee is based on her hourly rate for eight hours plus eight hours of overtime. “Nobody has had any objection,” she explains, because it’s a much less complicated discussion now. “It felt easier for them to grasp: ‘She’s going to be here for the wedding day; she’s looking out for our best interests. That’s her flat fee and it’s not going to change.’”

For pre-wedding day events, she applies her regular hourly fee. What doesn’t change is positioning herself as the expert. For instance, for photographing the haldi ceremony in which a paste is applied to the bride and the groom’s bodies, the bride might ask Patel Peña to plan on an hour. “When I hear that, I tell them to check with their parents. Mom knows it might be five hours,” she says. “I don’t like financial surprises for my clients because that does not inspire them to spend on my albums later.”

The extroverted extrovert makes herself a part of the extended family at the wedding. “When I walk into a wedding, I’m not acting like a wedding photographer. The bride’s mom is my mom and I call her Mom. All day. ‘Hey, Mom, we need you here.’ Indian weddings are big productions: There are planning teams and make-up artist teams and dressing teams. All that is great, but the bride is not looking for a fond moment with the makeup assistant. I’m just the bride’s friend; make her comfortable, she forgets me, and the emotions come out.” Patel Peña has been accused of being too casual—by assistants working with her for the first time. Using one assistant per wedding, she keeps a roster of four whom she’s trained to “keep me alive and know what my weird gesticulating hand gestures are.”

For any wedding more than 15 miles from her home, Patel Peña insists on a prepaid hotel room the night before and the night of the wedding as part of her compensation. “I don’t do reimbursements anymore: too hard to follow up. They already are prepaid for other people’s rooms, so they just need to add me to the list.”

© Charmi Patel Peña

What’s next

Indian weddings account for 100% of Patel Peña’s wedding clientele. “Indian couples book way in advance, and I have no room for anyone else.” At one time she was photographing as many as 31 multiday weddings a year. The time commitment was grueling. It was not a sustainable pace, she says, “not if I want to be a good mom and a sane human being.” Even if the wedding is only an hour’s drive away, she’s giving up weekend time with her husband and two children, ages 6 and 9.

This year, she’s limited the workload to 20 weddings, and next year to 14 and raising her rates. In addition to enjoying a better work-life balance, she can be more selective, choosing clients she wants to do business with.

She’s also diversifying, using the relationships she’s built with hotels and caterers to expand into architectural and food photography. “Wedding photographers are trained in the art of efficiency,” she says. She knows she can use that to her advantage with commercial clients.

She’s not worried that her style of Indian wedding photography is being practiced by more photographers in the United States and in India, too. In fact, she teaches seminars on her techniques. And she knows that technique isn’t everything. Her clients, she says, “are getting a combination of my work and me as a person; they’re hiring both. I can’t compete with who other people are as people, so I don’t try. I’m just myself.”   

RELATED: A photo gallery of Peña's work

Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.