Interviews with the Worlds Best Wedding Photographers

Sansom Photography Interview with Todd Laffler

I’ve always loved the idea of America, the place where everything’s bigger and there’s just so much to take in. I say I’ve always loved the idea of it because I’ve never actually been (That said I’ve not really been to many places outside of the UK) but I do have a certain fondness for maple syrup with pancakes and bacon not to mention an insatiable impulse to buy a box of Lucky Charms every time I see somewhere selling them.

When I first Skyped Todd Laffler he was right in the middle of some UK imported Marmite, in fact he describes himself as ‘a fiend, like a crack addict for Marmite’. It does make me feel a little better to know that perhaps it’s a case of the grass always being greener. Anyway I briefly extolled the virtues of Bovril but I feel like my description probably didn’t do it justice so we got down to talking shop as planned!

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Any conversation that starts off with food has to be a good one in my eyes and I found myself quickly at ease with the incredibly likeable New Jersey based photographer who describes himself as ‘modern, fresh, fun, and sometimes a little quirky’. He started the more serious side to the interview by giving me an idea of how he approaches shoots.

I usually don’t go in with set goals or plans as far as how I’m gonna shoot. I just kind of let the wedding tell me what to do so to speak. If something comes my way then I’ll take advantage of it on the wedding day but I usually don’t go in with any kind of preconceived shots that I want to do or anything like that. Lately I’ve been trying to focus more on the moments of a wedding day rather than trickery or cleverness if that makes sense.

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Todd is one of a few photographers who seem to blend photojournalism with more traditional posing with exceptional skill in each area. I asked him about this balance and where he feels his work sits between the posed and the photojournalistic.

I feel like it’s probably a good balance and it’s not something I think of myself as one or the other I just try to be the best I can be at everything. Whether it’s posed photos, photojournalistic, details, whatever it is I just try to do it the best I can and I don’t think of myself as being particularly one over the other. I do know that if I can nab a really amazing photojournalistic moment I’m drawn to that image most times indefinitely whereas some portrait type work that I’ve directed over the years they become…not trite but they kind of look like I’ve seen it before or it got trendy or I don’t have a personal connection with it as much. So when I look back at some of the photos that years ago when I took them I looked at them and I was like ‘oh wow’, patting myself on the back saying ‘look at how great these are’ I don’t really feel that way as time goes on. On the flip side I’ve had some photos that I’ve taken years and years ago when I didn’t really consider myself as accomplished as I am now but I have a personal connection to because it’s just a great moment and it’s proved to me that those images really truly are timeless. And so I’ve kind of switched gears a little bit in trying to focus more on not doing those all day long, but just being aware of them and trying to be present more.  

That’s kind of a watered down synopsis of where I’m at, I don’t mind doing portraits, I don’t mind directing people and doing that type of thing but usually the portraits I do set up I like to try to have them look more candid even though they’re not. So they are kind of ‘Semi Candid’ as I call them. Obviously I’m telling them where to go, I might be adjusting where their hand are or moving them a little bit into the light but their expressions should hopefully look more natural and real even though sometimes they are totally not, they are totally directed by me. As long as the end product looks natural I think it’s all good.

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Over the years I like to think we’ve got better and better at narrowing down what we put on the blog. When I first looked at Todd’s blog I was blown away by the quality of everything. He is a true master at narrowing down a collection of images to make sure that each blog post looks like it’s a collection of competition entries.

I strive for consistency between weddings, hopefully the photos don’t look too similar but the quality looks similar. As best I can I try to make sure that every photo I post on my blog I would be comfortable putting on my website. So there’s a very high standard that I have both whilst shooting and while editing and also what I show to make sure that every single image I put out – within reason because sometimes there’s some filler images that weren’t as great but are needed to connect the story– I’m proud of, I’m happy with, it’s been edited properly to make sure it can stand on its own as a photograph and doesn’t need a bunch of support images. That’s another way I try to look at my photography is that each photo stands on its own and it doesn’t need to be padded with lesser images to fill in the gaps so to speak.

While I’m shooting that’s another thing I’m very conscious of my blog, I know when I do every blog post there’s a formula to it. Well, not a formula, basically I’m just showing something from every stage of the wedding day. For example if I don’t have a good shot of the bride getting her dress on I’ll start to panic and I’ll start to make sure that I get something because I know I have to put it out there. I’m kind of holding myself accountable. I blog every wedding I shoot and I think that’s a great way to not give up, or sit back and say ‘well this isn’t a good wedding I’m just not gonna try as hard and I won’t blog it’. I know that I have to put something out there to the public from every wedding. It definitely pushes me, if I don’t have a good shot from a certain stage of the wedding day I’m concerned about it and I want to do something about it.

That’s something that I tell couples when I meet with potential clients, I tell them that as they are shopping around for photographers to compare blogs because I want them to see the level of consistency that I can create week in week out so they feel comfortable. There are some photographers that, the website can look good but the blog doesn’t and to me that’s kind of the measuring mark of a good photographer – how good each blog post is and are they showing something from each stage of the wedding day or are they cherry picking the best. So maybe they had a great portrait session so it’s mostly that and not much else.
I saw a billboard the other day for a jeweller, the message was ‘no pressure, no diamond’ that was the tagline, you need pressure to make a diamond. I kind of look at it in the same way, you need pressure – having to put every shoot on the blog – that’s what gives me the diamonds.

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One thing I love about Todd’s work is that each wedding is really different. Not just different in theme but the feel of the photography varies for each couple. It’s still classic Laffler – and ridiculously good – but it never gets boring. It didn’t take long for me to realise Todd shares the same genuine passion and excitement for his work as us. Reflecting the mood of a wedding is a skill we pride ourselves in and after speaking to Todd and looking at his work I think that variety is a reflection of the excitement we approach each wedding with.

Sometimes it’s not excitement its stress but it’s something different, it’s not like I’m going to go in there and do what I’ve always done. To some degree I rely on what I’ve done a little bit but I try to let the wedding breathe a little bit, let it have a life of its own and not put too much of a stamp on it. I understand some people may want to recreate what they’ve done, it’s easier, repeatability for the client. The way I look at it is that there’s ‘an ass for every seat’, you know there’s plenty of clients who don’t want cookie cutter stuff. I’m gonna guess the average professional is shooting 20-30 weddings and the way I look at it is that’s not a big number. That’s not that many people to find who connect with your work. For me there was a big shift a couple of years ago in my work I feel because I stopped doing work I thought would get me more work. I stopped caring what I thought my potential client would want and just started making images that I found interesting and let them find me and make that connection. When you do it that way, you know infusing your own style into the work you make, then you start getting the clients who respond well to that. You get those emails from clients who are like ‘Oh my god I love your work!’ and they already love it, you’re not convincing them. That way it’s not about price even, it’s about finding clients who can appreciate what you do, when you do that there’s a certain level of inherent trust because they want what you do and they realise it’s more unique. When it comes to the wedding day they are usually just like ‘Do what you do’ which allows you to just photograph what you’re naturally drawn to which is what they hired you for!

I’d like to see a lot of photographers come to that realisation if they haven’t already – there’s no rules, you can shoot what you want! As long as you can get people to hire you that’s all that matters. I always look at it as I’m just going to put my head down and shoot what I find interesting. I’m not going to worry about what I think the client wants or expects. I can understand that it might sound like I don’t care about the client, in some ways that’s true and in some ways it’s not. I only show what I’m connected with and what’s authentic to myself, because I only show that I know that’s what the bride wants. For the most part my clients want me to just run around and do what I do!

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The more of these interviews I do the more different stories I hear as to how people ended up shooting weddings. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love what we do, but I’ve never really heard of anyone growing up yearning to shoot weddings. I asked Todd about his journey that lead to him being one of the world’s best wedding photographers.

My mother’s actually a bit of a dabbler in the arts and when I was 17 she started developing her own film in our basement and she showed me how to do it. I was blown away by the whole thing, being able to do that just in your basement seemed like magic. So I picked up a camera and I started shooting what I knew which was skateboarding at the time, it was kind of like my life, if I wasn’t at school, eating or sleeping I’d be boarding. At that time I didn’t have a lot of college ambitions and one day this recruiter from art school came in to art class with a presentation about art school and I thought ‘ok, that’s cool I’ll do that!’. So I put together a bit of a portfolio and went off to art school, I actually have a BFA in photography from the ‘Maryland Institute College of Art.

Art school was great, it taught me some things that I didn’t realise it had taught me until years later. Honestly though it was a Fine Art college and I didn’t feel very Fine Arty, it was more about conceptual art which I wasn’t really into so I kind of got burnt out on the whole thing. So in ’93 I graduated and basically didn’t photograph until 10 years later. During that 10 years I worked for my dad’s printing company, I guess I kind of learned digital darkroom printing, I learned Photoshop 3, how to do colour correcting and editing. Essentially what I’d learned in the darkroom but digitally at the printing company. The business went bust in 2003 so I grabbed a camera and took a cross country trip because I was unemployed and that’s when I fell back in love with photography. I tried to go down the fine art path you know selling prints at art shows and things like that but discovered pretty quickly that’s a really difficult way to make a living so in 2005 I started second shooting for a wedding photography studio. I did that for 2 years, so in 2007 having realised I wasn’t going to make a living out of second shooting for someone else, I started my own wedding photography business.

I think in that first year I shot 13 weddings for myself and still did some second shooting, but then in 2008 – I forget exactly how it happened but I shot like 41 weddings and then it settled back down to 30 or so after that. When I shot that 41 weddings in my second season I really didn’t know what I was doing but part of what I feel is so important to learning is just repetition and actually doing something. You can learn anything but if you don’t use it, it just fades. So having a year in the trenches so to speak when I saw so much stuff and encountered so many problems was really important for me. That’s what really pushed me along.

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Having started in analogue I asked if Todd still used 35 or 120mm at all or if his work is now entirely digital.

During the 10 years that I was working at a printing company Digital was just becoming bigger and bigger. I didn’t really own a camera at all for those ten years, then one day I got a Sony Cybershot and travelled across country and that’s when I kind of fell back in love with photography.

I remember thinking when digital first started coming out that it would never catch on or be as good as film, just having short sightedness at how far along they would come. For me it doesn’t really matter though, it’s just a tool. Even the camera itself doesn’t really mean that much to me, I think most photographers realise it anyway but I always use the expression ‘It’s not the wand it’s the wizard’. In one of my workshops I use one of my favourite images that I’ve ever taken, I put it up on screen and just show them what I took it with which was the Sony Cybershot – this old prosumer camera, nothing fancy. Just to illustrate the point that most of photography is really just about observation and composition and light. Things that have nothing to do with the camera.

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With a wealth of learning opportunities around nowadays I asked if Todd went on any workshops and where his motivation and inspiration came from along the way.

Back then I didn’t do a lot of workshops, I don’t really think they were as readily available as they are today. I went to a DWF convention once and there’s a local guy who does seminars each year so I went to a couple of those. Nothing intense or hands on though, aside from having the college experience in photography a lot of the practical side just comes from practise on my own. I’d constantly be testing lighting and being very observant of light. Most of it is self-taught, I read a lot of books and I spent a lot of time on my own just learning that stuff. Back in 2007 I discovered Ben Chrisman’s work, which was a big turning point for me because I had no idea wedding photography could look like that. He was just doing his own stuff and it looked like art. That really opened it up for me.

That was kind of a turning point for me, I looked at his work for a couple of years and gradually tapered off. There was a time when I kept looking at my competitors work and thinking ‘Howcome they are charging this much? I’m better than that’ etcetera and it just wasn’t very productive. So I stopped looking at work that wasn’t inspiring me. I think that’s important because I think your brain can kind of digest these things, even if you don’t understand it. So I didn’t want to fill my head with stuff I didn’t want to do. I used to do a lot of mountain biking and there’s this saying, if you’re riding a really gnarly trail you have to try not to look where you don’t want to go. There’s a tendency to look at where you don’t want to go, like ‘I need to avoid that’ and you end up going in that direction instead of looking at where you do want to go.

I don’t really look at other photographers work, occasionally if it comes up but for the most part I don’t look at other peoples work in general. It’s a hard thing because sometimes you can look at another photographers work and wish you’d taken it or think you suck and it’s just not always that beneficial. I prefer to just keep my head down and be true to myself. That’s the goal anyway.

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So was there any particular turning point when the momentum really started to pick up?

I’m not sure exactly, I think it was in 2008 that I started my blog and I guess that was how people started to know about me. I wasn’t consciously setting out to do that, I just wanted to make good work that I was proud of, that resonated with me. Back in 2009ish I was fairly active on DWF and maybe that’s how some people started hearing about me or seeing my work, not viral by any stretch but maybe they passed it on. I don’t know really, essentially all I did is try to do good work and put it on my blog and the rest took care of its-self.

I think the climate is very different right now in the wedding world, back in 2009 or 2010 there was probably a lot of people doing great work who nobody knew about. Now though, in today’s climate with ‘Fearless’ and stuff they are all coming out of the woodwork. There’s a platform for really great photographers to showcase their work and it seems like there’s an explosion of really good photographers. They were probably always there it’s just that people didn’t really know about it.

I think it’s a really cyclical thing though because now there is that platform it naturally elevates the quality of work in general. Its pretty mind blowing, if you look back just ten years, how much wedding photography has progressed just in quality.

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For the last few years Todd has been right up there in Fearless Photographers top 10, consistently putting out award winning shots. In fact it seems like every time the awards are up there’s at least a few with his name on. I asked about this and any other organisations he is a part of.

I’m still not a member of the WPPI or any of those, there’s a whole bunch I never associated with, I always just felt like a lone wolf. I just wanted to do good work and that’s how I went about it. I’m not saying that’s the right way or the best way, it’s just how it was. I don’t really get involved with any print competitions or associations. Fearless was something I felt good about because it was finally the way I thought work should be judged – by your peers and anonymously. It had nothing to do with your name, how much you pay or who you know, it’s just strictly by merit. By how many awards you’ve won based on your photography, the cream just rises to the top and there’s no bullshit.

That’s really the only thing I actively participate in. I don’t know if that’s good or bad or what, it’s just how it is for me. If something isn’t broke I don’t try to fix it, as long as there’s still enough clients coming forward who love what I do, I don’t feel like I have to make more work for myself.

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So we know it wasn’t associations that garnered Todd the worldwide attention he now receives, in fact the answer to how he got where he is seems like an obvious one in some ways.

In the beginning I felt that if I just created good work everything else would kind of sort itself out so I didn’t do a lot of branding, or marketing or anything like that. For me it’s panned out, I wouldn’t say that would work for everybody but that’s kind of how I felt. I’d always hear ‘It doesn’t matter if you create great work if nobody knows about you’ but that’s really all I did, just worked hard and did good work. That’s why I’m always very cautious of telling people that’s how I did it therefore that’s how they should do it, because I don’t really think it will work for everybody.

I’ve seen photographers who are pretty average but fantastic at branding and they are definitely ‘successful’. The thing with that though is I really don’t want to have to be chasing the branding and marketing, chasing that tail for the rest of my life, because that’s what they are going to have to do unless they step up their photography game. I’m chasing the ‘Do good work’ tail, there’s some people who love branding and marketing and that’s great, I don’t but if that’s how you get your business that’s how it will continue. For me that just seems like you’re always chasing people or convincing someone to hire you.  I never want to have to convince someone to hire me, if I’ve got an inkling we’re not a good fit I’ll never try to convince them. I can probably find someone else for that date who does fit.

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So how does everything work in practise? Photographers are pretty unique here, in terms of how many photos they deliver, how many weddings they shoot and how fast they hand over a wedding to the clients.

I try to do 30 per year, most of my weddings have a second photographer so usually the client gets about 800 or 900 edited images from both of us. That seems to by a typical range. As far as my timeline after the wedding, it’s horrendous, I don’t even want to say it’s just that slow! Mostly because I’m very meticulous about the blog and making sure I have just the right images and that they are edited. They all go through Photoshop and usually there’s around 50 images I have to fully edit through Photoshop. Once I’m done with the blog I hand it over to my photo editor and she finishes things up. Things get very backed up because I don’t send the job to my editor until I’ve blogged it, it kind of becomes a bit of a bottleneck and it’s something I’m still struggling with – how much time to spend on the blog. It’s just that important to me. It’s my favourite part actually, seeing the finished product.

I’m a firm believer in trying to get it as best you can in camera, that said on a wedding day sometimes it’s just not possible to get everything perfect in camera. I always like to use the example of Ansel Adams, if you took one of his negatives and just did a straight print without any burning or dodging it’s really pretty average. It’s really the post processing that he did that made those images come to life. So that’s a big thing for me, to really finish those photographs. I think that’s where a lot of photographers really miss the boat is not honing their post processing skills. It’s not to say you’re going to paste in a new sky and stuff like that, to me you’ve got to have the bones, the composition and lighting has to be there but there’s still a lot that can be improved in post processing and I think it’s important to do that.

My process is basically to edit the file in Lightroom, to do as much general editing there as I can then just for the blog images I’ll take them into Photoshop where I’ll maybe brighten eyes or put a slight vignette on. Basically anything I can do that looks as natural as possible that’s really going to draw the viewer’s eye to where I want it to go. That’s always my goal, draws people attention where I want them to look.

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So what’s in the kit bag?

I keep it pretty simple, I don’t use a lot of external lighting so I just have one bag. I use two Canon 5d MK III’s, I just like the luxury of having two identical camera’s with different lenses on. Two 580 EX2 flashes, I also have a couple of pocket wizards just for the reception. My assistant will walk around with a pocket wizard and an off camera flash. As far as lenses go I have my workhorse which is my 70-200 which I shoot probably most of the wedding on, the lens that I use second most really just for the reception is the 16-35. I use that primarily during the dancing and some of the bridal prep. I also have a 24 prime which I use mostly during bridal prep, not much beyond that. I have a 24-105 which I try not to use too much, it’s kind of more a family portrait lens. I tend to use the extremes so if I can be at 200 or 16mm then I’ll tend to go there. That middle stuff, I don’t find myself in that range too often.  I also have a 15mm fisheye which I basically use for one shot during the day. I have a 50mm macro lens which is really just for ring shots. I also have an 85 prime which I don’t really use much, just first dances and toasts if at all. I’m trying to think what else is in my bag but I think that’s about it, except for some pop tarts and Gatorade! I try to keep the gear pretty compact and tight, I don’t like a lot of gear.

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Let’s hear about a normal wedding day for Laffler Photography?

I don’t have any packages per se, I’m used to working 12 hours, I just accept that’s how long it takes for me to shoot a wedding. I like to shoot the day as slow as possible so I’ll try to make sure I have a lot of time for detail shots, for candid’s, bridal prep etc. that’s the way I’ve chosen to shoot the wedding so I’m not restricted to hours. The way I look at it is I do have enough time, I just have to show up earlier or leave later. Basically that’s my mantra throughout the day, to make sure that I have the most amount of time possible to do everything so I’m not stressed. I’ve seen how dramatically stress can affect the work. I’ll show up at the brides prep and for the first hour I’m basically doing details. Then I’ll put in half an hour of candid’s so the tail end of the bride’s makeup. Then I’ll have half an hour for the bride putting on her dress, jewellery etc. Then I’ll have half an hour for photos of just the bride. So just the bridal prep I spend two and a half hours, I’m guessing most photographers only spend an hour to hour and a half but that’s my choice, I want that buffer.

The we’ll probably have 15 minutes for the first look, about an hour with the bride and groom, half an hour with the bridal party and half an hour for family photos so that’s almost two and a half hours right there just for my photo time. Again I know that’s probably more than most but that’s my decision, it’s what I feel I need and it’s what I ask for from my clients – it’s usually what they give me.

Everything else is pretty normal but I’m usually there till the last dance so typically 12 hours but often up to 14 or more. I try to stay focussed on the bride so I’m just in one location and not moving around trying to get used to another location and another vibe. It’s a different room, a different light and it’s really just a different headspace for me.

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I really do love doing these interviews, it’s great learning more about these fantastic photographers that both Verity and myself have followed for quite a while now. It’s even better when I find that half way through an interview it feels more like chatting to an old friend than an ‘interview’. Todd has to be one of the nicest guys I’ve met through the wedding industry and his work really is consistently incredible. What’s even more impressive is the way he’s done it all, no gimmicks, just really hard work and exceptional images.

If you want to view more of Todd’s work check out his website : www.lafflerphotography.com

– Chris

The next interview next month will be with Samm Blake, so make sure to come back and have a look.