Behind the Wedding Scenes with "Lifestyle Photojournalist"
If you're looking for Robert Williams on the day of the wedding,
don't expect to find him standing up-close-and-personal with the
bride and her guests, provoking reactions for the camera. That's
not how he works. Unlike wedding shooters who actively engage the
wedding party to get a response, Williams stays behind the scenes,
looking for emotions as they happen—without his direction.
That's not only part of his shooting strategy, he explains, but of
his own personal philosophy of respecting the bride and her guests.
"The day of the wedding, it's not about me," he says. "It's about
A native of Mississippi, Williams recognizes that his soft-spoken Southern manner and values serve him well for the wedding business: good for soothing anxious brides, promoting communication, and building enduring relationships. But they're virtues that you might not have predicted from his resume.
A graduate of Texas A&M University with a degree in engineering, math, and Spanish, he began his professional life with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Being a career bureaucrat, however, was never his passion. It was a path he chose at the urging of his family—and particularly, his loving but practical mother: "Get a good job," she advised him, "something other than taking pictures."
Eight years into a new career in the picture business, however, son-Robert is doing quite well, thank-you, shooting for Bloomingdale's and Elegant Bride magazine, winning the praises of his clients, and steadily gaining the recognition of his peers, including being named by Washingtonian magazine as one of the top wedding photographers in the elite and highly competitive Virginia-Washington, D.C. corridor. "I didn't feel challenged in my government jobs," he explains, "so I made a decision to start doing what I love." He now caters exclusively to professional couples in the high-end wedding market, and limits his bookings to about 30 a year.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
"I always knew I wanted my wedding work to be different," he says. "I didn't want it to look like every other traditional wedding photographer's. So I'm always looking for ways to make my work distinctive." For Williams, that has meant setting no limits on himself either in terms of his creativity or the range of his clientele. Or of his market. Not restricted to locations in the D.C. area, he shoots wherever his clients take him—Hawaii, Cancun, Mexico, Houston, Atlanta, Palm Beach, and New York City, to name a few.
Describing his approach as "lifestyle photojournalism," Williams explains that his goal is to document the unique personality of the bridal party, while remaining unobtrusive. "I don't take over the wedding. I spend a great deal of time getting to know the bride, getting a specific list of posed shots she wants, and then I tell the bride, `I don't want to talk to you on the wedding day' (unless she asks, of course!). She's not getting married to spend her day talking to the photographer. But the greatest moment for me is when she looks at her wedding book, sees a great shot, and then wonders, `Where were you?'"
How does he do it? "I shoot a lot with long lenses and, as much as possible, with available light. And we're very organized. I keep the posed pictures down to 15 minutes or less. And I will not pull the bride away from her guests." That's part of what he calls "the little intangibles" that make his work distinctive, he says. "But I can't be everything to everybody. And if I don't feel that I'm a good match with a client, I'll make a referral to a colleague. I not only need for you to feel comfortable with me, I need to feel comfortable with you, as well." When their goals are in sync, however, Williams goes about creating a truly unique book, full of refreshing candids, freely spontaneous action shots, and terrifically joyful moments.
"I shoot from the heart, not the head," he says. "Sometimes you see a shot and your head says, `don't shoot that'; but your heart says, `get it'—and that's the one the client falls head over heals with." But it's a canny, intuitive kind of heart, it should be said, rather than simply an emotional one.
He recalls, for example, a time when the bride and groom were riding in a classic `57 T-bird convertible, slowly approaching him in heavy traffic along Chevy Chase Circle. (p. 30) "I stopped my Blazer in the middle of the street and jumped out to get the shot—but saw that I only had one exposure left on the camera!" With no time to reload, he had to wait—passing up the first, the second, and third expected shot, in favor of one final exposure, snapped just as the bride waved while passing him by. "The first couple of shots would have been fine, but that one-and-only shot turned out to be better. I knew I had to get it, and fortunately, I did." Williams shoots with Krystal McKinney, a like-minded assistant who often shares the praise in his clients' testimonials. "We just seem to know what the other is thinking," he explains. Their crowd-pleasing wireless headsets, however, also allow them to stay in constant communication.
At the wedding, he shoulders both a Hasselblad, for color, and a Canon EOS- 1N, for B&W, relying for candids on the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 and the super fast 85mm f/1.2. But he'll also shoot candids with the `blad's 160mm; and uses high-speed versions of Portra for color and T-Max for B&W. Lately, he's also been capturing digital images with a Canon D30, providing the bride with a nice carry-away book on the day of the wedding, and a traditional album on her return from the honeymoon.
"Go with the flow," Williams counsels his brides. "If something unexpected happens—and it often can—keep smiling, no matter what!" That's good advice from someone who escaped a career-cubicle in government service for the freedom of being challenged to capture for posterity the unpredictable moments of a wedding day. But the risk has paid off many times over, he says.
And what does Mrs. Williams think now of her son abandoning that "more practical" career in government? "Robert," she told him, "this is one time I'm glad you didn't take my advice."