Breaking Boundaries in Destination Wedding Photography ( Link to the interview )
For Sean Aalami, his passion for photography can be traced back to high school. His focus was on capturing moving images though, and studied cinematography at Capilano University in Vancouver. He ended up in film school and worked in various countries around North America until he realized one day, after pushing buttons behind a computer for 3 years, he “felt like [his] creative side was literally fading away.” So, Aalami left his secure, well paying job to give him time to think about his future. He realized in this time of contemplation that he missed capturing images and hadn’t done so in many years. So in 2011, knowing very little about still photography, he purchased his first DSLR, a Canon 60D. He didn’t touch the camera until he read the manual from cover to cover.
Now, just a few short years later, Aalami is an international destination wedding photographer, with 60% of his weddings in different countries. Aalami was kind enough to chat with us about how he got from picking up his first camera to a sought after and very talented wedding photographer with a Facebook following of over 40,000 people. He shares with us images from his last wedding in Iran, where a bride cannot be out in her wedding dress in the streets and it is forbidden to hold a camera in public without a permit. (Read on to see how he got this image….)
How did you get to where you are now in such a short time? How did you know that you wanted to do wedding photography?
I started to take lots of pictures and I started to edit them. Editing them was a lot of fun. Post production had always been my favorite part of any production. A year past and I realized that I needed to stay focused and not get carried away or I’d eventually turn into a daydreaming artist who struggles to pay rent at the end of the month. I needed to make money. I was looking for a market that is almost always hot. I chose wedding photography for two main reasons – first was the one which I just mentioned, and my second reason was that I always felt confident in my ability to capture a person’s best expression and pose.
In October 2012, I established my business in and I can tell you in the first year, I literally was not able to sign a single contract. But since then, it has been nothing, but a fun and educational ride.
How did you get from not signing a single contract in 2012 to shooting internationally with 40,000 Facebook fans?
One of the main mistakes that I made in that year which led to a not so successful wedding season, was that I didn’t price my packages correctly. I said ok my work looks as nice as my competition in town so why not give out the same price, or even a bit lower just to get in the market. Second main reason was not really a mistake, I just didn’t know anything about marketing strategies. Therefore the volume of the calls I was getting were ridiculously low and when they did call, my prices scared them away.
[REWIND: 3 PRICING STRATEGIES THAT SELL]
In this business there are three main things that any photographer needs to master in order to be successful: One is the technical part which has to do with knowing your gear and how to use them really well, second is to be able to find the proper marketing strategies, and last but not least, is being able to manage a wedding day to its fullest, which only comes with experience. I personally myself have yet a long way to get there.
After the first year, I realised I need to make some necessary changes. Such as finding out what gear is right for me. Some people might laugh, but I did my first wedding with continuous lights and a big generator in the middle of the busy street of Cologne, Germany. I had no idea speed lights existed. I’m not kidding. That being said, the images I took that day are still to this day one of my favourites and powerful images, and I am using them on my site right now. But that’s not the point, I learned that quality doesn’t necessarily play the main factor on wedding days.
Being fast and efficient will strongly help you in getting through the day and will help you to maintain your schedule and confidence for the rest of the day. Which in my case the generator and the extension cords were not helping me much. I started taking a lot of online courses, watched a lot of videos got to know the big sharks in the business. Got my hands on Fstoppers’ “How to become a Professional Wedding Photographer,” which helped me a lot and I saved a lot of money on gear. A little later on I ran into Pye, who introduced me to Lightroom which until that day, I always thought was a waste of time. After watching SLR Lounge’s Lightroom Workshop DVDs, I saved so much time when it came to processing my clients’ images. And in the meantime I was also taking online courses on Facebook advertising. And I still am learning every day and looking for any new education I can get.
What makes your style/business unique? I’m curious to hear how you would define your photography style? And from where do you draw your inspiration?
My style of photography is not a very popular one. It is a bit commercial and I like to spend a lot of time in post like I mentioned above. This is one of the main reasons I really related to SLR Lounge and [Post Production] Pye’s videos and business idea in general. After I purchased the Lightroom Preset System and the Lightroom Workshop DVDs, I was literally like lost kid in a playground. I locked myself in for a week until I was familiarized with the Presets. The Presets are very smartly created and labeled and even though they are presets, they still leave a lot of room for creativity of an artist and his own taste.
You asked me about inspiration – as a wedding photographer, to be honest with you, the only thing that really drives me is inspiration. Without it, I don’t think I would be able to deliver a successful project. I mean, my business model is just not like a template shoot it like the last time kind, and it might not be the smartest way business wise. I really crave to achieve a new style almost every single time I am assigned to shoot a wedding, and my clients appreciate it.
You shoot a lot of destination weddings. What are some tips you have for a photographer who has never done destination weddings?
I find destination weddings to be a lot of fun; they vary from Amsterdam, Brussels, and London to Tehran. I believe it is worth it to spend that extra money on advertising and targeting some new places and people. Other than the experience, this way at the end of the season when you look back at your reel, you see a nice variety of different city thumbnails on your page. One tip I could give to photographers who want to do destination weddings is that you need to make sure you get to the location a full day before the wedding. This way you get to check out the venue and find some nice attractions in the city for your shoot.
I love to travel, especially when I get paid for it. That was practically my motivation to do destination weddings. I only have been doing it for almost two seasons now, so I’m kind of still learning about getting it done properly. But if I was to give one quick advice to be successful in destination wedding, that would be having your own unique style of photography. For example, I live in Germany, but I like to weddings in London. I have to give that bride in London a good reason to want hire me from Germany and pay for my travel costs. The only thing that will convince her to make that commitment is for her to know, she is not going to find anything similar in London. And lastly; do not hesitate to spend $30 a month on an advertising campaign for a city you have never been to. You will be surprised of the feed back you will get. Taking risks in advertising is mandatory.
Please give me some background information about this wedding in Iran. What made it different from other weddings you’ve photographed?
I have been going to Terhan for weddings in the past 2 years. I was actually born there, but I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. So, I was kind of like a foreigner and new to a lot of things there. In the meantime, I learned a lot about the people and realized the way they throw weddings are completely different from what I’m used to.
Normally as a wedding photographer, I would try to keep my eyes open for moments like the first kiss and the first dance, etc. But most traditional Iranian Weddings are played out much differently.
Here is a quick overview: the day starts by the groom picking up the car from the flower shop and then heads to the beauty salon to pick up his bride. Unlike North America and Europe, the whole getting ready process doesn’t really happen in hotel rooms.
Let’s remember Iran is an Islamic land so the male photographers are not allowed in the beauty salons. Therefore 90% of the time, there really isn’t any Bride getting ready shots in the album. And the biggest downer is that because of the Islamic rules, it is forbidden to hold a camera in public without a legit permit from the government, and you absolutely are not allowed to have a bride with her wedding dress in the streets while not wearing any Hijab. They usually rent a private villa for the ceremony and reception. These restrictions obviously narrow down a photographer’s hands to be creative. Anyhow, after a few projects there, I almost decided to stop my activities in Tehran as a photographer. At the end of the day, I had images to deliver to my client and they were paying me good money too, but being locked in a villa’s backyard was absolutely killing my inspirations.
After almost a year, I was going trough some images I had taken from streets of Tehran a while ago. I thought, if only I could take my couples on site of these beautiful architectures. Not only would I achieve something very new, I could also break these restrictions without having to break any rules. So, I tried this in my last project in Tehran and it worked like a charm and I have to say it is by far one the best pieces I have created myself so far.
These two images (below) caused a big buzz over the social media in Iran. Some people thought it was real, some didn’t believe it, and some congratulated us on our courage. It also received the most attention any image has ever gotten on my Facebook page over the past 3 years.
I realized if we education ourselves with the proper and modern techniques of today’s world of Post Production, we can do a lot of strong things such as being able to break these boundaries.
If you were stuck using one lens for the rest of your life, what would it be? What is in the rest of your gear bag?
One lens to be stuck with would be I think a 35 mm f1.4. Mainly because of its sharpness and it will also let me shoot at night. I usually carry two bodies – a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 60D, a Canon 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 50mm 1.8, and last, but not least 35mm f1.4.
Would you have done anything differently if you could do anything in your career over again?
No. I believe that in this journey everything happened to me for a reason sweet or sour, even the hardest and sourest experiences in my life were the ones that made me stronger. So, in general, I don’t regret anything in life, and trust me I have had some rough times in my past.
CREDITS: All photographs shared by Sean Aalami are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.