1000 Stories: Always a Happy Ending
by A. Victor Goodpasture
Fong, together with his wife Marci, runs Storybook Studio in Los Angeles, has told more than 1,000 stories in the 15 years he's been a wedding photographer. For the 75 couples a year who get these storytellers, it is a happy ending; for the dozens more that they have to turn away, it is not.
Couples looking to hire Fong to record their story will quickly learn he's not easy to find. He does no advertising or marketing. He has no listing in the telephone book. There isn't even a sign on the door.
Is this any way to run a business?
"It is if you've built up the clientele," he says. "All of my customers are referrals. They are the relatives, guests and bridesmaids of couples I have previously photographed. I could do as many as 125 weddings a year but I don't want to. With 75 weddings annually, I can ensure they receive my very best work."
Fong is in an enviable position. He has no competition. His unique approach to covering a wedding is the secret to his success. He sees himself as a photojournalist telling a story, a story of the day in the life of a wedding. And then he presents that story in a unique album--a storybook album.
"I think most photographers want to tell stories," he says. "The basic idea of the wedding album is to bring back those cherished memories. But when I started 15 years ago, all albums were pretty much the same--packaged albums that were all 8x10s. Most of them had very nice but boring portraits of the wedding party. They didn't tell a story. Typically, portraits were against painted backgrounds so they looked more like prom pictures. As you paged through the album, it was basically different combinations of family members with maybe a posed photo of the cake cutting and the bouquet being tossed. It was all very mechanical. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted an album that started from the dressing room and went all the way to the limousine pulling away. I wanted to tell a tale and have it flow in a sequence. You couldn't do that with portraiture."
Fong eliminated the one-8x10-per-page wedding album. Instead, he began designing albums that told a complete story from beginning to end. That meant creating layouts on the two facing pages with the photographs arranged to complement and play off each other, something Fong calls relative placement. The photographs together cause them to be much more than the sum of each individual photograph alone.
"I create albums where I set up, design and put everything together," he explains. "So on the left page I have the best man giving the toast, holding his glass up and facing to the right. And the picture on the right is of the bride and groom looking left and laughing. Those two photos are actually talking to each other. This opens the door for storytelling. I now shoot sequences, previsualizing in my head what the page layout will look like."
Working in a fashion similar to a brochure designer, Fong knows that assembling a great story requires shooting the right elements. That means focusing on the little things--lace on the wedding gown, clasped hands, the bouquet--as well as the big things. This allows him to create interesting visual themes that everyone can understand without the need for captions.
"When you're designing anything, be it a brochure, an advertisement or a wedding album, you want to have visual interest so that your eye darts around," he continues. "And with wedding photography, you have the additional aspect of telling a story within that visual interest. A good example of how I present images versus the more common way is a recent incident where the groom had hired a skywriter to draw a heart in the sky. I took a full-frame fisheye shot of all the people looking up at the sky. It looked like they were all looking for superman. I took another shot of just the heart in the sky. Back at the studio, I put the photos top and bottom, a solid example of relative placement that told a story. Had that same sequence been done with 8x10s, you'd have one silly shot of people looking straight up in the sky and the next picture of what was in the sky. It's much more interesting to put them together."
Fong offers two types of wedding albums, storybook and portraiture. While all of his customers love the storybook, they still insist on having a portrait album, as well. Fong is happy to oblige, but even then, his method is unique. He doesn't pose his subjects, nor shoot countless frames from his Hasselblad camera. The entire process takes about 10 minutes. He says he gets much more natural photographs that way.
"One universal truth in photography is people don't like posing," he says. "Even if the picture is a nice, flattering one, people respond much more favorably to spontaneous, unposed photographs. I find that the longer I spend posing people, the quicker their expressions become stale. So usually it's a one-shot deal. They jump in and I get it. If it looks like they blinked or something's questionable, I'll do it again. But I don't wear them out by doing tons of photos. That's just needless duplication. I let them be relaxed and composed so I can capture them being playful and acting natural. It may be lighthearted but it's still portraiture and my clients love this fresh approach."
Except when absolutely necessary, Fong uses all natural lighting, even when shooting indoors. When he does use an external flash, it's of his own design. Fong had engineers at Norman Enterprises Inc. develop a special bare-bulb flash system two years ago. The Gary Fong Lightsphere system gives off a very diffused light, similar to that of a 30-foot softbox.
"I don't use meters, umbrellas, tripods or softboxes," he says. "If I have to, I'll use the flash as a low-power fill, but you can't get light better than from the sun. My standard film is Kodak Pro 400 film. It has the richest color palette by far, and I did some real rigorous testing of all film types. The best way to describe Pro 400 is as Kodachrome film on negatives. It is a very high contrast film, which complements the high impact, very spontaneous images I'm shooting. I'm not looking for subtle softness. I'm looking for a lot of snap, and the color palette is really important for that. So if I want a red, I want a really good red. I don't want a pale muddy red or an overall brownish cast. I want it clean and a fairly high contrast. In low-light conditions I'll use Kodak Pro 1000 film, which doesn't show any grain."
After the portraits are done, Fong goes into his editorial mode, where he basically walks around unnoticed with his Canon EOS cameras. In some situations he'll shoot with his Hasselblad, but for the most part, the story is told on 35mm film.
By the end of the day, he'll have shot well over 1,000 images. He has the film processed and proofed at Moonlight Color Labs in Northridge, California.
Within a week of the shoot, he'll have about 25 of the images on his web site (www.storybookweddings.com) so the couple and the wedding guests can get their first glimpse of the images.
"We want today's customers to be tomorrow's referrals," he says. "In the old days, we had to rely on people seeing the albums. But when the albums are 40-50 pounds, they aren't getting a lot of mileage. Couples are not circulating them around, so no one really knows how good we are. Now, future customers can see their loved one's wedding and see our work. It gives us much greater exposure and ensures we're booked a year in advance."
Before a couple comes in to view the proofs, Fong processes the images through a software program he invented called Montage, marketed by Art Leather Manufacturing Co. The program automates the print ordering and album creation process. It also allows wedding photographers to create a complete wedding album on a computer to significantly increase sales. The program is being used in more than 3,000 studios around the country. Fong had software engineer John Keating develop it because the intricacies of developing a storybook album demanded such software.
"A focus group found the program eliminates about 30 hours of paperwork per wedding because you don't have to fill out album order forms or even add up invoices," Fong explains. "I've been using this fully integrated software program for five years and it has improved my photography tremendously. How? Because it's one thing to shoot storytelling-type photographs, and quite another to put it all together. If I had to spend 40-60 hours of labor to produce an album as sophisticated as the ones I do now, I would have to charge an exorbitant amount."
Fong uses a Tamron Fotovix to scan low-resolution images into his computer. After all of the photographs are scanned in, he can begin assembling the portrait and storybook albums. The software keeps track of where the images are placed in the albums and their sizes, including crops. That, in turn, automatically generates printing instructions and the invoice.
In a comfortable, darkened private theater, Fong displays the two digital albums on a video projection screen, showing the couple his proposed page-by-page layout. His clients are thrilled. They leave the studio with thumbnail prints of the proposed layout as well as all of the images that were taken at the wedding. The couple can then decide if they want to eliminate, substitute or move images around. The vast majority have very minor changes or none at all.
"My couples are really busy people who don't want a long grueling selection process," he says. "They want to make a quick decision. I help by editing the images and coming up with a design I think they'll like. I promote the idea that they shouldn't think about a single image, but to view an entire open facing page as one image unit. That's when they start thinking about album design. They still get to see all the images and make the final decision of what to include, but I've done 95% of the work for them.
When he's not shooting, Fong conducts as many as 29 seminars a year around the world. There he details his approach to wedding photography. His theme is that photographers need to break out of the mold of conventional wedding photography and educate their clients about the storytelling possibilities.
"They need to show their clients and proposed clients
that wedding photographers are storytellers documenting the happiest
moment of their lives," he says. "The photographer
is not just presenting photographs. He or she is working on a
higher level. When clients walk through the door, they need to
immediately know that this is not the wedding photographer that
they are used to seeing. It's a lot more important than that."