One of things I love most about my job is having known someone for years, and then finding out all kinds of new things about them when we get a chance to really talk about their work. Today, I am thrilled to share with you the images and ideas of my friend and internationally sought-after wedding photographer, educator and author, Los Angeles based wedding photographer Roberto Valenzuela.
Blair: What initially led you to become a wedding photographer?
Roberto: I was a high school business teacher for many years, teaching economics, finance, accounting and entrepreneurship. I have three business degrees, and I really loved teaching high school kids. It was an incredible amount of fun!
In 2007, President George Bush, gave business teachers in the U.S. a large grant to fund student run businesses in order to promote entrepreneurship. The program worked quite well and it increased the percentage of students applying for business degrees by 600%. My students and I were part of that grant and we were given $90,000. It was pretty much a unanimous decision to start a digital photography business. We wanted to shoot portraits, but we knew we would have to learn everything from scratch, which meant lots of long days practicing and making mistakes. None of us, including me, had any clue what to do and it was fascinating learning together. I was the DECA advisor at the time, an international association of marketing students, and my students and I traveled all over the country competing. It was very rewarding for me and the kids, and we bonded in that experience. I am still in contact with many of them.
After class I would take our cameras home to practice more, and at the same time I was practicing photography I was helping my wife, Kim, plan our upcoming wedding. I ended up totally falling in love with the whole wedding process, so I signed up for WPPI in Vegas to find out more about wedding photography. I was overwhelmed by the great photography there, and I came home on fire to shoot weddings. I got my first opportunity through shooting my sisters friends wedding, who I think let me do it out of sympathy, and I loved it! Using only those photos, I set-up a booth at a local bridal fair and ended up booking ten weddings. I do hate to admit it, but I had to buy my equipment using the down payments I was receiving from my very first clients. This is how I got through the first weddings. Ive been shooting consistently and practicing on my days off ever since, because I believe that continuous practice is a necessity for anyone who wants know exactly what they are doing instead of guessing and hoping something works out. I never liked that feeling of panic when it was time to shoot the bride and groom portraits, so I practiced at home and executed what I learned at the wedding. This gave me the confidence I needed, and the ability to focus on creating art.
Blair: On that note, your new book is called Picture Perfect Practice: A Self-Training Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Taking World-Class Photographs. What inspired you to write it?
Roberto: Before I learned photography, I was trained as a classical guitarist and I performed and taught guitar lessons for ten years. I would have to practice 30 to 40 hours a week to be good enough. What I learned during my training about the value of practice has always stayed with me, and I took the same approach when I became a photographer. Now that I see so many new photographers on the market, and I want them to understand how much they need to practice with timelines and specific parameters to become good enough to stand out in a crowd. The focus of my book is really about teaching photographers what it takes to become artists. I think of a wedding as a big performance, there are no do-overs, so deliberate practice during the week is needed to truly be ready and thus perform as a professional.
Blair: Do you have a favorite moment or tradition at weddings?
Roberto: I guess I would have to say the father/ daughter dance. I value, honor, and respect my parents very much. I usually spend a lot of time focusing on family members and the emotions between people because I know these will be the most important pictures later on for my clients, and I want them to have an emotional connection that will last forever.
Blair: Do you shoot film, digital or both?
Roberto: I usually shoot digital, but I am actually starting to introduce film into my work. Lately, Ive been using completely mechanical cameras, and I am shooting with a Leica M6 and medium format film back Hassleblad. I just shot a wedding at the Beverly Hills Hotel with film, and I loved the results of combining the two formats, film and digital.
Blair: Do you have a tip or two for couples who are looking for the right wedding photographer?
Roberto: The first thing to do is to find someone with the right chemistry. That is the most important thing. Second, dont be impressed by what you see on a website, ask to see entire weddings so you understand how your images will be captured. Your photos will mean everything to you when your wedding is over, so think about that when youre deciding on your budget.
Blair: Do you have any advice about how to look amazing and feel comfortable in photographs?
Roberto: In general all you have to do is let yourself feel confident. If youre worried about how you will look, it will show in your photos. If you choose the right photographer they will give you all the confidence you need and you wont have to worry about anything.
Blair: How has being a wedding photographer made you a stronger photographer over all?
Roberto: A wedding photographer has to be good at every kind of photography from commercial and landscape photography to classic portraiture, photojournalism and beyond. You need to move from one discipline to another seamlessly. It requires you to be an expert at multiple types of work and to bring them all together at the wedding.
Blair: What makes you give yourself a mental high five?
Roberto: When I am practicing I learn lots of new things. I love it when I am able to translate what Ive learned in my exercises into a spontaneous photograph.
Blair: How do you know you’ve done a great job for your wedding clients?
Roberto: By the number of exclamation points in their email. If there are 30, I know I did a pretty good job. I think its awesome when my clients talk to me like I gave them a gift even though they paid me, I feel honored by that.
Blair: Can you name three photographers you admire most right now?
Roberto: The first three that come to mind are Sue Bryce, Marcus Bell, and Joe Cogliandro. I consider these photographers true masters. I greatly admire their dedication to the art of photography and most importantly, I respect their desire to keep learning and improving.
Blair: What advice would you give to other photographers in this market?
Roberto: Dont forget that you have to make a living to keep doing what you do. There is no scarcity in the photography world, so you have to make your work outstanding. Being a starving artist is still starving, so work hard to set your work apart.
Blair: What gets your heart racing – both personally and professionally?
Roberto: Almost anything new, because I am always looking to raise the bar on whatever I am doing. I will always love teaching, and when I am able to make a difference to my students thats a heart racer for me. I am teaching photography all over the world now, and nothing gets to me more than the sound of students really getting my message.
Blair: What are your hobbies outside of photography?
Roberto: I have lots of things I love to do and I believe everyone can gain from having hobbies and personal projects to feed their soul, and enough close personal time to spend with their families. I like to play table tennis and fly high performance remote control helicopters, and I always have something fun to do.
Blair: If you weren’t a photographer what would you do?
Roberto: I would run for public office. When I was in high school I competed in several national competitions, and I was asked by Bill Clinton to come visit him at the White House. Ive always been passionate about the social and political impact of economics, and I would love to help people improve their lives. I want to make a difference.
Blair: What are looking forward to most right now?
Roberto: My wife, Kim, and I are thinking of having a baby next year, and those conversations are very exciting to me right now.
Blair: No doubt, that is exciting! Please keep us posted and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.