When Danny and Julia Dong started marketing their Bay Area business in 2010, they tried the same routes as many other wedding photographers: They paid for ads, they bought online listings, they set up booths at bridal shows. But the standard promotional approach didn’t work well for them.
Then they started looking at their competitors, and they recognized that everyone’s presentation looked the same. Over and over, they saw the same standard photographs at the same standard events, the same posed family groups, the same shots of couples in front of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. It wasn’t bad work; it’s just that nothing stood apart from the rest.
So Danny and Julia decided to insert themselves into the picture, literally. Instead of showing client wedding photos, they put up images of themselves. They displayed their love of color, their love of travel, their love of adventure. Everything was bright and bold. Other young couples gravitated to their approach, and before long Danny and Julia were booking exotic wedding jobs from Hawaii to Lake Tahoe.
The Dongs continued to refine their style to an elegant-yet-sexy look that became an immediate differentiator. “We were appealing to a very specific demographic,” says Danny. “We weren’t going for a traditional audience but instead a more artistic, progressive-minded client when it comes to wedding images and styles. And you could tell immediately by people’s reactions who our market would be.”
The change in approach attracted a sophisticated, international clientele and led to more destination weddings in locations including the Maldives, Dubai, London, and Greece. Images from those events attracted still more like-minded clients who were drawn to the dramatic settings. Things snowballed, and now Danny and Julia operate among the upper echelon of wedding photographers in one of the country’s biggest, most affluent markets.
One of the Dongs’ signature offerings has become boudoir-style portrait sessions captured as the bride is getting ready. These sessions often start with just the bride and then may expand to include bridesmaids, sisters, or other people close to the bride. It’s an artistic approach shot with soft lighting to flatter the subject’s form and provide a refined yet sensuous aesthetic. To help create this look, Danny and Julia often employ natural window light filtered through sheer curtains. They may add a pop of flash bounced off the ceiling to provide some fill or shoot more of a silhouette in front of a large window.
Danny and Julia first dipped a toe into this style by staging their own boudoir wedding portrait sessions and sharing those images with clients. A few asked for something similar, then others saw those images, and more began to request the sessions. Now they ask every couple during their planning meeting if they want the boudoir mini-session. There’s no extra charge, but it’s important to make sure everyone is prepared so there’s no awkwardness on the wedding day.
“We pre-arrange these sessions and make sure everyone’s on the same page,” says Danny. “You don’t want to pop into the bride’s dressing room on the wedding day and say, ‘Hey, let’s do a boudoir session before you put on your dress.’ That wouldn’t go over well.”
In stark contrast to the intimacy of the boudoir sessions are the Dongs’ bold, active family portraits. Around 2015, when Danny and Julia began working with increasingly affluent clients, the weddings started trending toward big family events. To keep the families happy (and generate raving referrals), the Dongs began investing a lot of time into creating meaningful family portraits at each event.
The approach starts with finding a unique location, one that gives a good sense of the wedding venue. Next, Danny and Julia place the bride and groom as the main focus of the composition. Then the Dongs position each family member around the bride and groom in a way that creates interesting shapes—some people sit, some stand, some are partially turned. The idea is to break up static lines and build an interesting structure. The photographers also pay attention to color balance, positioning subjects throughout the composition so there’s a mix of colors rather than a line of black tuxedos on one side and colorful dresses on the other.
When they’ve made sure no one is blocked and every face is clearly visible, Danny and Julia start to create interactions. They trigger conversations between different people or pose questions to the group. Everyone stays in position, but the multiple side conversations give the images an engaged feel. While people are interacting, the Dongs make multiple exposures to capture the scene in motion.
Lighting for these group shots typically comes from natural light, even in low-light situations, because Danny and Julia want to portray the ambiance of the setting. In some cases, they enhance the ambient light with an additional light source coming from a similar direction. For example, if the sun is setting behind the group, they may hide a light behind the subjects to serve as a rim light and add extra glow—consistent with the sunset light but stronger. Or for an indoor group, they might position a flash on a stand pointed toward the ceiling to bounce back down on the subjects, removing shadows and enhancing the interior light.
Danny and Julia have developed a reputation for crafting dramatic wow shots. These images feature clients in the stunning settings they chose for their wedding.
To create these photographs, Danny and Julia arrive at wedding locations early—sometimes days in advance if it’s a destination they haven’t photographed before—and scout locations for a dramatic setting. They take cell phone pictures, test lighting set ups, and use their iPhones to determine sunset location and time. Then they strategize the entire session.
“These shots don’t just happen,” says Danny. “They take hours, sometimes days of planning. In some cases, they could take 10 hours of walking or hiking to find the best location.”
During this prep time, Danny and Julia create a vision for the shot that they can communicate to the clients. During a busy wedding, it can be hard to convince people to take time away from guests to do these shots because they take some effort and can distract from the rest of the day. It’s important to show enthusiasm for these wow shots and be able to describe their vision, says Danny.
In the end, the extra effort is worth it. “We’ve had couples write to us later on thanking us for our encouragement to create these special photographs,” says Danny. “It’s a part of their wedding that they will always remember.”
In everything they do, Danny and Julia exude enthusiasm for their work. They pour that energy into every image so that even the simplest shots are backed by hours of practice and planning. “You want your clients to see your images and immediately identify that you are different,” says Danny. “Clients are waiting to figure out if you are the person who can bring something different to their special day, to their lives. So show them that you are someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to create something special.”
Most of all, urges Danny, make photography your vocation, not simply your occupation. “Don’t treat photography as just a business,” says Danny. “It’s a career. It’s a passion. When you embrace it that way, anything can touch you, inspire you. Then you are willing to put in the work to create something special. Those special things are what connects you to your ideal clients.”