When it comes to artistic expression, Richard Israel has always zigged when everyone else zagged. Since transitioning to wedding photography from a hair styling career around the turn of the 21st century, he has been on a relentless pursuit of authenticity, even if that means walking away from what’s on trend sometimes.
An early adopter of digital photography, Israel shifted to film when everyone else raced to embrace digital. Then he bounced back to a hybrid approach when it appeared that film was defining his work. Trends shifted in one direction; Israel slid in another. This refusal to conform isn’t a type of rebellion. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, British-born Israel simply wants to pursue personal authenticity above all else. That pursuit has been the defining feature of his work and the driver that has helped him establish himself as one of the state’s premier wedding photographers.
“I’ve studied a lot of luxury brands,” says Israel. “Their success all comes down to the same thing: Everything is always on message. Always consistent. Everything they put out adheres to a particular standard. If you want to be a luxury brand in photography, try to do the same thing.”
Consistency emerges from authenticity, says Israel. If you can’t settle on what inspires you, then it’s hard to communicate your unique quality to others. This is why so many photographers struggle to distinguish themselves. They’re caught between their instincts and what they think the market wants. If you’re always chasing trends, trying to mimic the style du jour, then you’re always a step behind. This is a dangerous position in today’s hyper-competitive photography field because if your work looks like everyone else’s, there’s little to distinguish you beyond price.
Instead, be true to yourself and your inspirations, suggests Israel. You don’t have to be a revolutionary trendsetter—just develop a sense of who you are and what you do well, and stick to it. “Be authentic, truly authentic,” he says. “That runs from the type of work you do through to how you present yourself. How many photographers’ websites have you looked at and their About blurb says exactly the same thing? People are often afraid to beat their own path, so they follow the tried and true road. But whoever you are, you should present the best version of yourself. Whatever work you love, that is what you should be doing, not what the crowd is doing.”
Israel points out that photographers are their own best marketing tool if they allow themselves to operate according to what inspires them. Working this way impacts sales in a positive way as well. Your conversations with prospects aren’t about catchy lines or closing phrases; they’re honest exchanges about mutual inspiration.
“If I can get a prospective client on the phone, I know I’m going to win them over, not because I’m going to bamboozle them but because I’m generally interested in them,” says Israel. “I home in on their interests and what makes them tick and then guide the conversation to them, to what interests them. More often than not, we find a connection. If we don’t then I know it’s not a good fit and we move on.”
Of course, even the most dedicated photographer still needs to operate within the larger context of their specialty. That requires understanding who your clients are and what they want. For Israel, 20 years of wedding photography has helped him develop a clear picture of his target market: hard-working professionals in their 30s with a creative bent. His appreciate art and have diverse interests and hobbies. They’re generally paying for their wedding themselves, which means that they, not the mother of the bride, are making the decisions. Their wedding is an important event but not the defining moment of their lives.
Understanding these factors helps Israel plan the photography according to clients’ preferences. These couples are not looking for a huge, over-the-top blowout. They tend to want a more private affair they can share with loved ones. They want their photography to be poignant, intimate, and focused on relationships. They care little for large-scale depictions of grandeur and formality.
In many ways, Israel says these preferences mirror what he’s seeing in the wedding industry at large. “This is how wedding photography has been evolving,” he says. “Millennials and younger generations are more interested in a genuine experience. They’re not as interested in spending tons of money on all the trappings. So we’re seeing smaller weddings, more elopements, and more intimate events. Today’s younger generations know when something isn’t real. And they are all about experiences.”
What does this mean for wedding photographers? It comes back to authenticity. Israel and his clients appreciate a documentary approach that focuses on relationships and the dynamics of people rather than overtly stylized images reminiscent of a fashion magazine. “I’ve maintained relationships with many of my brides over the years, and the pictures that they end up living with on a daily basis, the ones that are on their walls for years, are the ones showing authentic moments of them having fun and interacting with the people they love,” he says.
Israel feels there’s room for infinite variations as long as the work is authentic. “You have to do the work that truly comes from your heart, whatever that may be,” says Israel. “That’s what will resonate with people. Don’t think about being in one camp or another because clients are completely unaware of the different camps we photographers fall into. Try to stop letting the camera get in between you and the people you’re photographing. And forget the formulas. After 20 years, I still get excited about shooting a wedding because I try to work without a formula. I’m trying to look for something new every time.”
For Israel, the pursuit of authentic images is founded in a belief that there will always be sophisticated clients who appreciate the work of true artists—and who have the budget to pay for it. Those are the clients—the only clients—he’s interested in pursuing. It may seem like an elusive group, but it’s one that tends to seek out photographers based on their body of work. You can’t just wake up one day and appeal to these people, but when you consistently produce images that reveal your authenticity and inspiration, clients become a lot easier to find.
“It’s a process that builds over time,” says Israel. “It can be hard when you’re eager to make things happen right now. But patience will pay off because when you identify those clients who really appreciate what you do, then every new job is an inspiration.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.