Muñoz Photography: The Family Business

When the Muñoz brothers—Tom, Mario, Armando, and Marceliano—say photography is in their blood, they’re not just using a turn of phrase. Photography is literally in their blood line.

“We’re fourth-generation photographers. Our great-grandfather started a photography business in Cuba over a century ago,” says Tom, 37, as he sits with his brother Mario in their Fort Lauderdale, Florida, studio, Muñoz Photography. “Then my grandfather Tomas continued it and came to Miami in 1961, where he opened a photography studio. His four brothers followed and all worked in Florida as photographers.”

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Tom, who was named after his grandfather, explains that when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in the early 1960s, Castro asked Tomas Muñoz to be a provincial general. “He also told my grandfather, ‘We are now communists so you will no longer be a photographer, and you have to give up your properties and move.’ My grandfather said, ‘Sure. No problem.’” Muñoz laughs and continues: “Then he got on the first plane he could and flew to Florida! The family has been here ever since.” 

Mario, 35, jumps in and continues the family saga: “Our father carried on the business here—he started when he was just 16—and we also learned from him. See that room back there? That’s where our grandfather taught us how to process and print black-and-white film when were just six or seven. And we went to weddings with our dad to learn how he did everything, from being in the right place at the right time to posing to working with a bridal party to setting up lights.”

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The brothers were good students and fast learners. So good and so fast that Tom photographed his first wedding—solo—when he was just 12. He laughs at the memory. “I was so young that I couldn’t drive so my grandmother had to drop me off at the church with my Hasselblad and lighting gear. However, by 16 I was booking jobs and driving myself,” he says.

Mario, not to be outdone, adds that he photographed his first wedding at 15. “I couldn’t drive but I did get to ride in a limo with the bride. I got some great shots.”

Marceliano, 31, who recently opened his own studio in Arab, Alabama, completed his first wedding at 13. Armando, 28, has specialized in portrait and studio work in addition to weddings. The brothers’ mother, Joann, heads up the studio’s business operations.

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Today all four Muñoz brothers are accomplished, international award-winning wedding and portrait photographers. Indeed, Mario, Tom, and Marceliano were chosen to represent the United States in the 2020 World Photographic Cup, the first time three photographers from the same studio have been so honored. The Muñoz team photographs more than 300 events a year in both the United States and abroad and employs a staff of about 30.

The brothers have led workshops and given numerous presentations on wedding photography and have happily shared many of their hard-learned lessons. “There’s a lot to talk about and teach,” says Tom. “After all, I’m 37 and have been going to weddings every weekend for the last 30 years.” Among their tips:

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Keep learning ... the business. After giving numerous workshops and lectures, Tom  admits that every photographer in his audiences wants to learn how to take nicer photos. “All want to see the magic show; they love watching live photographers shoot to create. I get that. That’s inspirational and exciting,” he explains. “But really, where they should also be focusing their time in many workshops is learning more about the business side of photography, such as how to run a successful studio.”

That’s why Tom regularly includes tips on time management, administrative day-to-day tasks, and how to create strategic packaging for album, print, wall canvas, and other sales. Mario agrees: “Workshops are not just about learning how to make pretty photos; they are also about learning the principles of running a good business.”

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Tell the client’s story, not yours. Says Tom, “We don’t just show up at a wedding hoping to take as many pretty pictures as we can. Rather, we show up at a wedding and say, How can I tell this story? And how can I tell this story with images that are going to relate to one another? That is the goal.”

“People often ask us, ‘What is your style?’ I don’t think a great wedding photographer has a single style in which he photographs a wedding. I think a great wedding photographer is someone who has a skill set that can be changed by the expectations, the culture and relationships of the families. Storytelling is so important; but it’s about telling their story, not our story.”

 “I have heard some photographers say that their goal at a wedding is to take one incredible image,” explains Mario. “Our goal is not to take just one but to take many shots that have that wow factor and also tell the client’s entire story.”

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Push and inspire yourself. “Our clients have very high expectations of our work, and we constantly strive to exceed them,” says Tom. “We found the best way to exceed them is to push ourselves, to see things differently. For example, you need to walk into a venue that you have been to 1,000 times and say, What can I see differently today? I had a wedding recently at a venue that was not that beautiful. And it was stormy outside. But I took the bride and groom onto the beach in the middle of a storm with 25 mile per hour winds. It worked. I made it work. You have to be willing to make the best of a bad situation.

“I find our best inspiration comes from the clients themselves—looking at the things that make up their relationship. Say you notice the way a woman snuggles up to her husband when she is feeling a certain way. It might not be the best pose when she does it but that initial emotion will inspire you. You may end up saying, ‘Wait a minute, wait, let’s move the hand this way, a little bit, glance up at me ... there you go.’ That was something inspired by the client but was created by you.”

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Establish a relationship. “It has always surprised me that one of the things that is the most critical in photography but few people speak about is the experience of the clients,” says Mario. “It is really easy to bark, ‘Tilt your head this way,’ ‘Turn this way,’ but our focus is to be able to better our clients’ overall experience at an event by reading the situation first off, being aware of the different personalities, being able to evoke emotion, make people laugh, make them have fun while doing something that is notoriously not fun, and knowing when to shut up and be invisible. Being perceptive, being able to read people and being aware of who you are is not something I’ve seen at seminars or heard photographers talk about as a primary focus. But for me personally, that is one of my No. 1 focuses at an event—assuring people have a great experience, caring about them, and becoming friends with my clients. The minute that you can bind your heart to that person you are that much closer to a success. We never leave the event shaking the client’s hand. We always end up giving them a hug.”

“I remember when I was a teenager and assisting my father when he was photographing a Hispanic girl’s 15th birthday party, a quinceanera, where I learned a really valuable lesson,” says Marceliano. “The girl was not having fun. No one was dancing with her. My mother turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you take her to dance?’ I danced one song with her and other guys then started dancing with her. She ended up having a great night. At the end of the evening my dad pulled me aside and said, ‘Before we are anything, we are entertainers.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

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“Becoming friends with your clients helps you build relationships that can also help build business,” says Mario. “Everyone there sees you at work, and this can lead to word of mouth and more referrals. One of the biggest compliments we get is when a client tells us after a wedding, Everyone had so much fun; they keep talking about you guys.”

As Tom explains, “I disagree with a photographer who once told me he wanted to be like a fly on the wall while shooting a wedding. How many flies do you notice at a wedding? I want to be noticed. I want the bride and groom to say their wedding day was better because I was there.” 

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.