Around 2014, a friend of Aly Kuler, CPP, asked him to photograph his wedding. Kuler was working in graphic design, and photography was his hobby. He made some practice portraits with family members, then accepted. He showed up at the event with his entry-level Nikon digital camera ready to go. When the wedding party arrived, a photographer associated with the venue was there and asked the groom if he needed a photographer. The groom said no, but the venue photographer offered to capture the event for free and sell the couple any images they wanted afterward. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, the groom accepted.
During the event, the venue photographer crossed paths with Kuler multiple times, often with a derisive comment. At one point, he suggested Kuler tape a piece of paper to his camera reading “camera” so people would know it was a camera and he was a photographer.
Though offended, Kuler took the experience as a challenge. He started educating himself on the finer points of wedding photography, diving into online classes, tutorials, and workshops. He photographed complimentary sessions for friends and family, practicing his technique and honing his individual style. He joined PPA, began entering photographic competitions, and eventually earned PPA’s certified professional photographer designation.
For two years, Kuler focused on his craft. By 2016, he was ready to start taking paid gigs. Those weddings initially came from personal contacts and networking and gradually expanded to people from throughout New York and New Jersey. With every assignment, his goal was to be better than before.
“It was a constant evolution, an improvement week over week over week,” he says. That improvement gave each new client something different to view, engendering excitement at what he’d produce for the next event.
Today, Kuler, who works alongside his wife, Kathleen, a highly sought-after wedding photographer in the New York Hudson Valley. His images have appeared in multiple publications, and he’s won a slew of wedding photography awards.
Realizing that the first step in building a wedding photography business was to establish an impressive portfolio, Kuler focused his first couple of years in business on that goal. He shot free sessions for friends and family. He added extra portrait sessions to wedding gigs. He experimented and tried new techniques at every opportunity. Everything that worked made it into his evolving portfolio. If it didn’t, he chalked it up to lessons learned.
Continuing in that vein, Kuler has made it a practice to go beyond expectations with every wedding job, no matter the scale of the event. He always provides something extra, whether it’s additional time, a surprise print, or a small gift after a wedding. “People remember those extra little touches and talk about me long after the event is over,” he says.
They talk about and refer him in impressive numbers. Kuler’s CRM software shows his No. 1 source of new leads is word-of-mouth referrals, both from former clients and from Kuler’s carefully maintained relationships with other wedding vendors.
His second-best source of new leads is Instagram. Kuler treats the social media platform like another website, carefully managing his profile, posting almost daily, researching hashtags for images, and always sharing the kind of photography he wants to do.
To create the dramatic, signature images that win awards and give clients a conversation piece, Kuler needs a calm environment where he can focus on his creative process. At weddings, he’ll often set up for a mini portrait session in a side area or another nearby location away from the excitement of the day. In many cases, however, he’ll suggest staging an entirely separate session to avoid distractions and prevent conflicts with the rest of the wedding schedule.
For these images, Kuler typically uses a custom lighting setup. Outdoors, he favors natural light with some additional fill from a parabolic reflector or perhaps back light from a remote flash. Indoors, to bring out the drama of the space without overpowering ambient light, he’ll typically set up two or three lights. He also likes to employ windows for soft, directional light, adding lights outside of windows if necessary to shine in and augment the natural illumination.
Kuler’s compositions feature a lot of wide angles with the subjects creatively framed inside a grand scene. Keeping in mind the rule of thirds, he sets up images to bring in interest from the background and showcase elements from the venue or wedding location. He leans toward editorial-style posing to create a sense of connection, as if the viewer is looking at an unfolding story. The editorial posing fits well with the rest of his wedding coverage, which emphasizes real, emotional moments.
These signature images are the first things that grab clients’ attention. Kuler often charges extra for these specialized sessions and offers the finished pieces as wall art. Previously, he produced these as part of his standard coverage and included the images in the digital files that come with his wedding packages. Then he started seeing his wedding portraits, printed elsewhere, showing up on clients’ walls.
“I realized how much income I was losing, so I decided to make it a focus,” says Kuler, who set up a page on his website dedicated to wall art and redesigned several of his packages to include wall art prints. “This is something people want, and if we want to impress our clients, we need to provide these specialty items.”
Kuler credits the PPA CPP program and image competitions as two of the biggest influences in his career. A passionate devotee to lifelong learning, he constantly works on his craft while seeking professional feedback.
“People tell me, ‘You don’t need this award to get more clients,’” says Kuler. “I tell them, I know, but this is for me. I want to be able to look back on my work and see improvement. I want to look at my work five years from now and notice a big difference. That’s how you stay in this industry. If your work is the same today as it was five years ago, that is how you end up out of a job.”
Kuler applies the lessons he learns from competitions and certification to his business. They provide an added level of confidence that he can adapt to any situation and an extra layer of security to his clients, who know he’ll deliver no matter the conditions.
Kuler promotes his CPP prominently on his website and his email signature, and he links to PPA’s web page that describes the difference made by a certified professional photographer.
“Today, everyone is a photographer with their phones,” he points out. “And a lot of people dive into professional photography without enough knowledge. It’s important to be able to explain why you’re different, why you are worth what you charge.”
Kuler relates several times when prospective clients asked if he would match the price of a cheaper photographer. In response, he asks why they don’t just hire the cheaper photographer. “Because we like your work better,” is the typical reply. “And there you have it,” he says.
“There’s a reason the work is better. It’s because I understand the specifics of lighting and posing, of adapting to different situations. It’s because I’m always learning how to be a better photographer. My advice to any photographer: Always keep learning. The pursuit of knowledge has changed my business, made it more solid, more sustainable. As photographers, we should never be satisfied with what we already know. There is always something to learn, always something else we can do to improve our photography. And it always pays off.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.