We are thrilled to feature one of our favorite Australian photographers, Van Middleton, in today’s Spotlight Interview. With a background in writing and photography, Van passionately pours his heart and soul into every wedding he photographs. Surreal fine-art photojournalism at its finest, Van’s exceptional use of light and composition combined with ethereal landscapes will inspire you to no ends. We hope that you enjoy our interview with Van Middleton, prepare to be enchanted!
Tell us a bit about yourself. First and foremost I’m a father and husband – my world revolves around my little girl and wife. When I’m not shooting weddings (or editing them) I’m spending time with them. When I’m not doing photo stuff or hanging out with my little tribe, I’ll be playing soccer, surfing, or dreaming up new and exciting business ideas and shooting techniques. I’m a pretty restless person, and pretty driven to be the best at what I do. I love photography, probably because I love being creative and sharing that creativity with others.
How do you prepare for shooting a wedding? I do a lot of planning and prep: first I make sure I get where the bride and groom are coming from, and what they’re hoping to get out of the photos. I make sure I understand the timings well, so I know how much time I have to shoot them after the ceremony. And then I scout and plan the locations and a general idea of what I’m going to shoot. Of course, on the day, things often go in different directions to what I had envisaged, but it’s always good to have a plan going into a wedding. A lot of other things matter too: I check and double check all my gear, charge my batteries, backup my cards and format them, clean my sensors. When the time comes to head to the wedding, I have one last very important task to take care of: getting myself an extra large takeaway coffee. Then it’s all about being focused and enjoying the shoot.
Who and what gives you ideas and inspiration? I take my inspiration from a number of places. People who are the best at what they do – it doesn’t matter if it’s film-makers, photographers, painters, authors, musicians – anytime I see something that I don’t think I could do myself, that moves me, I’m inspired. There are so many incredible creative people working on so many amazing projects, it’s hard not to be inspired at least once in any given day. I tend to respect craftspeople more than artists. By that I mean people who have discipline and skill, whose work is clearly the result of dedication, rather than just whimsy or salesmanship. There are a lot of successful artists who make it because they can sell their work, not because it’s very good. And conversely, there are a lot of amazing artists who don’t make it because they can’t sell it. My little girl inspires me as well. Sometimes it seems like she teaches me as much as I teach her, and she’s only 2 years old!
What is your favorite moment or tradition at weddings? It’s hard to go past the moment the groom first sees the bride as she’s walking down the aisle. For some reason, grooms tend to cry far more often than brides do. I think it’s because they aren’t as emotionally prepared. Most brides are ready: they know what to expect, what’s going to happen. Men tend to arrive at that place under-prepared and I think it shocks them a bit when they see their new life walking towards them, all done up and beautiful. It’s a great moment.
What really gets to you at weddings? Makes you emotional? Makes you laugh? I often cry at weddings. They can be incredibly moving. Ceremonies don’t usually make me emotional – to me the nuptials are really just formalities, a precursor. But the speeches get me all the time. And it’s often when the newlyweds thank their parents. There’s real power there, a lot of pent-up feeling that gets released. There’s a lot of reflection and contemplation, and sometimes people choose that moment to express their love honestly, and in front of a big audience. I remember very clearly the most emotional speech I ever heard. It was the younger brother of the groom. This kid was about 10 years old, and he explained to the gathered guests how his brother had raised him like a son, ever since their father had left them. He told everyone that his brother (the groom), after growing up and leaving home, had not failed to call him at night for many years. When he tried to tell his brother that he loved him, he broke down in tears. I managed to get a photo of the moment it became too much for him.
Do you offer albums? What kind? What do you feel is important about wedding photo albums? Wedding albums are a big part of what I do. I encourage all couples to get them. It’s one thing to get images on disk – entirely another to see the finished product on paper. It’s striking how much more special it is turning the pages of a well-crafted wedding book than simply clicking through a folder of images on the computer. I use an American album company called Vision Art. They make the most beautiful books. And their pages are museum-grade fine art paper – they should last a lifetime and beyond. I sometimes imagine my photobook being dusted off by the grandchildren of my clients in 100 years’ time, and being moved by the images.
What are your favorite wedding locations in your area? I have a few favorite locations, but in all honesty I like to shoot at new locations as much as possible. Once I’ve shot at one location more than two or three times I need a new challenge, some fresh locations. Having said that, my favorite wedding venue in my area is a place called Deux Belettes. It’s like the perfect marriage of French-inspired architecture and design and Australian landscape.
What do you find to be the biggest challenge/most difficult part of being a wedding photographer? Being a wedding photographer isn’t difficult. The hard part is excellence. A great photo can just be a matter of being in the right place at the right time: timing and technique. But really special images require seeing something others don’t. Sometimes you have to search for that location, other times it happens and you need to be able to capture it before the moment is gone. It’s also hard being different, getting unique images, especially when you’re shooting in an environment that’s not particularly interesting. It’s also hard maintaining that creative drive, that focused mindset, through a long day. For me shooting a wedding is about getting hundreds of interesting and beautiful photos, not just one or two. That’s not easy.
What is your creative vision? What do you desire to express with your photos? I try my utmost to capture the feeling of the wedding. I would like, more than anything, for the couple to look back on their wedding in the future and feel like they are re-living it. That’s why I’m attracted to documentary photography. It’s about all the individual moments, and the sum of those moments. That’s why I’m not attracted to staged imagery, to contrived photos. For my own wedding, our photos were, unfortunately, contrived. So when I look at them, rather than remembering my wedding day, I remember the photo shoot, and how manufactured it was. So the images aren’t emotive for me. I’d like my couples to be moved by the images, to be surprised by them: that’s where candid images shine. Then there is another layer: my love of landscape photography. I love a big vista, a dramatic scene, for example in a forest or hillside under a stormy sky. I don’t know why. I just think landscapes are beautiful.
Do you have a favorite photo that you have taken? Can you describe how you created it? What is it that you like about it? I took one recently at the beach, and there were surfers everywhere, just ignoring me. And for a moment, the couple were just ignoring me. And I took this photo, not bothering to try and find some space, to manufacture something. I decided to just capture it the way it was: with other people out enjoying the evening, and it just worked. There were surfers in the photo, a few seagulls, waves, a colorful sky. There was a kind of irreverence about the image that I liked.
Any advice for couples who are looking for their perfect wedding photographer? See a full wedding, and if possible, several full weddings. Ask for a USB or a link to a gallery. Don’t just rely on a handful of photos, taken from a hundred weddings – you might be courting disappointment. To me, a good wedding photographer is exacting: they will capture the whole day, and hundreds of moments, with skill. I’m a documentary photographer, so I find the whole wedding essay important, including all the candid stuff, the formal stuff, the reception, prep – everything. Don’t choose your photographer on how many other people like them, on their showcase images – they might be salespeople first, photographers second.
Any advice for couples on how to look amazing and feel comfortable in their photographs? I think the process of making the couples comfortable in front of the camera begins with the first meeting. Once they get to know me a bit they tend to loosen up. I’m pretty easy-going, relaxed and I like to think (I hope) some of that rubs off on them. For the actual shoot I start off with some basic direction, a few poses, then I find the couple starts to realize that it’s actually not that scary being photographed and they relax. I also find that the post-ceremony excitement carries through into the photo session. A few glasses of champagne and a beer or two doesn’t go astray either!
Do you have any advice for beginning photographers, wedding or otherwise? Do what you enjoy doing. Follow your intuition, your interest, your passion. Borrow from the best – ideas, style, technique – but be your own person. These days, you need a point of difference, something that makes you stand out. So don’t copy what your nearest competition is doing, what everyone is doing. You’ll be lost in the crowd. Push yourself. Be inspired. Try harder than the others. Aim to be the best. If you fall short, you’ll have gone further than if you aimed for mediocrity and made it. And don’t neglect the marketing side of your business. In many ways it’s more important than the photos themselves.