International Wedding Photographer

Sansom Photography interview Emin Kuliyev

Everyone approaches what we do differently.  Even in a more specific niche like wedding photojournalism, there are hugely different takes on the style.  Being members of the WPJA ourselves, Emin Kuliyev was right up there at the top of my list when I set out approaching photographers for these interviews!

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Having moved from his native Russia 14 years ago, Emin now lives in New York, although he has recently been doing workshops throughout Europe.  Emin started by telling me about how a usual wedding goes, and how he works on the images when he gets home.

 “Every wedding is different but usually something like 10 am to midnight, about 12-14 hours is my day. Basically I spend all of a [non wedding] day editing but I can take a break whenever I want and come back to it. I’m not actually editing all of that time – a lot of the time I spend answering emails or on forums – but again, I will come back to editing every 20 to 30 minutes.  I have a schedule so I know I must edit today and when I must finish.  It’s my lifestyle too, editing images all day long but with many breaks.”

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 As with everything when it comes to weddings, editing is incredibly subjective.  I’m lucky in that Verity does most of our editing, I’ll just do some extra effects to a select few images in PhotoShop – but whereas Verity will edit around 800-1000, I’ll edit just 100.  Emin has a really interesting way of looking at the editing process:

 “I don’t know what it means for you but for me editing means just look for the pictures.  I’m looking for the best images, I’ll scroll through the files because my computer will freeze if I delete in Lightroom because I take so many images during the day, about 10,000. 

 For me, editing is just looking through the pictures, which pictures I’ll keep, which pictures I’ll delete.  Enlarge a little bit, brighten, maybe make black and white, but not actually needing to retouch it. This is what I spend all of my time doing.  Just deciding which picture will match with another in a series.

 In Photoshop I spend only a minute or two, maybe less;  these are all my secrets!  It really depends on my mood and how I feel on the day.  Maybe tomorrow I will delete the image that I loved yesterday!  I spend about a month choosing images, then at the end of the month I go back through the images again, decide which I will leave and which I will delete, and I leave about 100 images for my blog.  For the couple I leave about 1,000 to 1,500.”

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 It’s clear to see when someone is passionate about their work and Kuliyev is instantly recognisable as one of those artists.  I asked him about free time, his workload and if he shoots other things.

 “No, I spend my free time with my kids, I don’t shoot anything else besides weddings. And I don’t shoot so many weddings.  In 2013 I shot only eight weddings.  For me it’s enough – I’m not very rich but it’s enough to survive and I’m happy if I have free time. 

I don’t want to shoot many weddings – I’d hate to do many weddings.  It’s not so interesting if I repeat myself and copy.  When I started, I shot about 35 to 45 weddings and didn’t charge as much;  after two years of that style of shooting I decided to find another job because I hated everything about it!  Now I can choose my brides – they accept my style, my pictures and my point of view. This is a very different job.  It’s the same photography, but it’s my rules.”

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 When you look through some of Emin’s more well-known photographs you see a certain ‘joy’ in the photos that almost makes it look as though his brides and grooms are natural extroverts.  I was intrigued to know whether he attracts this kind of bride or if he brings this energy into the shots himself.

 “They are regular people, not models, not clowns.  I just try to catch something, maybe ask something.  But usually I won’t talk with the people, I just look carefully at how people behave.  I know they will react for somebody, maybe not for me but the bride will react for her sister, a friend or for her mum.  They will smile a lot, or cry, and I just try to catch this.”

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 OK, I’ll admit it, I’m an out-and-out camera nerd.  I love the things, whether it’s one of Verity’s favourite Holga toy cameras or a well-machined piece of twin lens history.  If it takes photos, I’m in!  I was pleased to see Emin has a similar love for the kit he uses.  He actually has the largest kit list I have seen from any wedding photographer.  I’ll just link to his post on it here instead of writing it all down!

 “I will bring everything.  I have an assistant who helps me with the bags.  I try to use almost everything – I try to use some particular lens in some particular situations.  It depends on my mood;  for me, it’s like a brush and I’m like a painter, and I will draw something depending on my mood.  I’m like those people who collect stamps, but I collect lenses!  I don’t just collect and store them on a shelf, I use them – [some] not so often, of course, maybe I’ll use 10 percent of my lenses on each wedding, but I have the chance to choose anything.  When I shoot an engagement and I do it by myself I will bring a camera with four lenses, but every time I bring different lenses.”

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 To me, one of the most exciting things about Emin’s high profile within the wedding world is the draw of destination weddings.  I asked him how many of his weddings are around the New York area.

 “In 2013 I shot eight weddings.  Just two were in New York, two were around New Jersey and Connecticut, one was in Russia… the Caribbean… another was in Tennessee and another was in Boston.  I don’t like travelling, it just happens over the last few years.”

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 Recently Emin has done workshops in Europe.  It’s a fairly natural progression in the photography world, and I was keen to learn more.

 “I created my workshops because I feel I can spend some time with photographers. Usually I sit in my workshop all day long and I need some people for conversation. Maybe once or twice a year I create a workshop, but I make long workshops, maybe eight or nine days.  Not many people, but many days.  I have about 10 or 12 people at a workshop so we can all sit in any café.”

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 We all take inspiration from different sources;  some people love to look at the best in the world, while others choose incredibly varied subjects to satiate their creative appetites.  I asked Emin who he looked up to in the photography world.

“When I started I looked at the previous WPJA Photographers of the Year.  Personally I know Carlo Carletti and I meet with him in New York and create a workshop with him in Russia… he’s my friend and I like his work. I don’t like every single image from photographers – it’s more a philosophical question.  Say you like Ansel Adams, for example.  You like the person or the photographs?  You like his most famous photograph or you like every single image from this photographer?  This is why I like some images from some weddings from other photographers. It doesn’t mean I’ll like every shot, but their style generally.

 Right now my vision is changing, and it’s hard to say I like some particular photographers because I don’t like all of my own work, I just like a few.  I like many, many different styles.  I try to – like Sherlock Holmes – decide in this particular situation, has this photographer done his best, used the right lens, the right light?   I try to estimate – if I was behind the lens, could I have shot a better picture?  And that’s how I decide if I like a picture.”

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 Looking at Emin’s work, I thought he perhaps posed more than he does.  On closer inspection, his explanation of when he stages shots makes perfect sense.

 “I have a chance to talk only during the morning.  In the ceremony and reception I can’t talk.  During the reception the music is so loud nobody can hear me, so the morning is the only time I can manipulate.”

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 So, what does someone who has won nearly 100 WPJA awards find difficult on a wedding day?

 “When I start… because you know how it can be in the morning, when you arrive at the bride’s hotel or bride’s home, and [for] the next three hours girls will be just sitting and getting ready, and you must shoot something interesting and different in this same situation, and you must start immediately.  That’s the difficult part.”

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 With that many awards and accolades, I was curious to know what Emin’s proudest achievement is to date!

 “It was not a wedding – I was really proud to have my first publication in a magazine.  It was about my design skills.  It was 10 years ago, in 2004.  I thought everybody would point and say “Wow, this guy’s been published in a magazine!” After that, a lot of things happened but nothing came close.”

If you would like to see more out Emin’s work check out his website : http://www.em34.com/

– Chris 

Look out for our interview with Dave Getzschman of Chrisman Studios next week!

Chris and Verity Sansom are International Wedding Photographers covering events nationwide as well as abroad. Together they own and run Sansom Photography