"If I can still hang upside down from a tree with my old Hasselblad to get the picture, then I've done my job."
So says Michelle Pattee, who uses every inch of her six-foot frame, and sometimes a stepladder, to capture important wedding day moments. Yet for all the athletics she'll employ to photograph her A-list customers, Pattee's signature images reflect a quiet beauty and timelessness.
"My clients tend to have very sophisticated taste, so my work has to stand up to those expectations—integrity in the sense they can look at their wedding photography investment 15 years from now and still feel very comfortable displaying them in the home. I want the images to have real staying power."
Pattee prefers to shoot in black and white. "I think color and sepia images have their place in a wedding portfolio, so I'll always present all three, but black and white is always a sure bet for images that endure."
Attracting the Affluent Bride
Pattee's aura of confidence and calm control have helped her attract and retain an upscale clientele. She began focusing on this group of brides after receiving a BFA in photography from the California College of Arts and Crafts. Once she started shooting weddings on her own, she saw huge potential in offering upscale wedding parties coming to San Francisco and wine country as an exclusive event photography service, and so began tailoring her services accordingly.
When first meeting with a new bride and groom, Pattee will schedule one or two meetings. At one of these get-togethers, she'll show large portfolios that include a variety of shots from different events, plus a selection of Leather Craftsmen albums, large and small.
"These albums contain many images from one event—something couples are looking for when shopping for a wedding photographer," she says. "I would definitely prefer to show everything on a laptop, but I feel strongly that the client still wants to touch the product, see the actual print."
Once a couple decides to work with Pattee, she'll stay in touch and meet again two months prior to the wedding. At that time they'll discuss schedule, picture lists, family dynamics, and any other critical details.
Not Always A Bed Of Wedding Day Roses
"I've been photographing events for 12 years and have come across almost every wedding photographer's challenge," says Pattee. "But if you are able to learn from the experiences and keep moving forward, you gain the assuredness that is so important when working with a high-end clientele."
When faced with a challenging situation, Pattee has learned to separate herself from the negative and fully jump into the client's world. She sighs when recalling a trying photographic scenario that taught her an important lesson: "The bride's side was blue-blood Connecticut. None of them smiled, and they all refused to be photographed with the groom's family because they were from a different culture. Frustrated, I came close to handing off my camera to my assistants! But when I looked over at the groom's side, they were all laughing and hugging, and I thought to myself, 'Look at that! I'm staying right where I am.'"
She learned an important lesson that day: Be sure to be more vigilant and investigative during initial discussions with new bridal clients.
The Big Day
"When the big day arrives, I pack plenty of film, Hasselblad bodies 503CW, 501C, and 500C; Nikon F100, N90, F3, and the D100; an assortment of lenses; four Nikon SB flashes; Tiffen Soft/FX and Hoya Close-Up filters; battery packs; a tripod; reflectors; and, even though I'm six feet tall, a small ladder. I use the Hasselblad for everything except candid shots of wedding guests. The Nikons go everywhere, especially on the dance floor."
Pattee oversees one to four freelance assistants as they orchestrate the wedding party shots. She zooms in on special-moment shots of guests, bride, and groom. She loves to use close-up filters to capture the pure color of a bouquet or detail in the script of a place card. Fast film printed in sepia is her preference at night to create vintage and timeless images. She likes getting a shot of the entire wedding party with this technique.
On average, Pattee works 20 weddings a year, having scaled back a few years ago to meet the dictates of the economy. She's shot intimate 10-person events and 500-person extravaganzas.