Simmons’ Wedding Tips
Blending fine arts, breathtaking landscapes and more, photographer Neil Simmons captures the vibrant wedding legacy
Red flames of sunlight shoot luminously through the center of a rock arch on photographer Neil Simmons’ computer screen. He explains that this natural phenomenon occurs once a year in Big Sur, and he was there to capture it on camera: “There are just a couple weeks of the year where the sun sets through this arch,” he explains. “When I took this, there were probably 20 other photographers out there next to me.”
Simmons grew up in Santa Cruz where he cultivated a love of the natural landscape, at the same time developing an appreciation of photography in his grandfather’s darkroom. He now supports his family with his photography business, Neil Simmons Photography, primarily working with weddings.
“I literally started right out of college, and probably had 10 weddings that year,” he says. “Then it went to 20, then to 25 or 30. The last five years have finally been when I can make it a full-time job.”
In eight years he has photographed 400 weddings and in 2011 alone photographed a record 55 weddings. While he enjoys his work with weddings, Simmons makes it a point to remain connected to his passion for natural photography.
“I think I’m one of the few photographers in town, as far as weddings go, who is still in touch with the landscape part of it,” he says. “We all kind of know each other and I talk with other photographers, and I’m always surprised how few of them even take pictures of sunsets.”
Simmons says for years there weren’t even people in his photographs.
“It was always just kind of art stuff, weird stuff,” he says. “I’ve always loved the fine arts aspect to photography, dramatic landscapes, that sort of thing.”
At the end of last year Simmons brandished his camera in Death Valley National Park. In February he is headed to Joshua Tree National Park with a fellow photographer, and in April he is off to Utah to shoot the arches of Zion National Park.
“In my free time I try to make those kind of trips available,” he says. “My favorite weddings to work with are ones where it’s somewhere different. I had a wedding in Tahoe last summer and I can turn that kind of thing into a camping trip and bring my kids. Just like any photographer I love when we get the chance to travel. I just booked another wedding in Tahoe for September, so that’ll be fun.”
Simmons explains that his work with landscapes and artistic shots seeps into his wedding photography by way of outdoor shoots and the use of quirky angles.
“My new thing has been setting the camera on the ground and seeing what happens,” he says. “You’ll set up and get the normal shot, then set the camera down on the ground. It makes for a cool shot; it gives you that foreground.”
Simmons points to a blown-up photograph on the wall of his studio with a foreground of grass and a cobblestone path that leads up the frame to a bride’s white high-heels and lace skirt. The angle is reminiscent of looking up at an enlarged Alice as she towers over Wonderland.
When Simmons attended Cabrillo College and San Jose State for photography in the early 2000s, it was the tail end of the film era. Simmons trained primarily in film, but says that on a whim he took a class in digital photography and Adobe Photoshop near the end of his run at San Jose State. Today, Simmons, like most of the photography world, is a digital convert.
“Here’s my ancient, beautiful paper weight,” he says, pointing to a film camera. It sits on his desk next to a computer screen, on which he is editing his latest high dynamic range (HDR) photograph of a couple in military wedding attire in front of crashing waves.
Simmons says he does not miss shooting weddings in film.
“You’d take 10 shots, then say, ‘Oh, give me a minute I gotta change the film,’” he says. “It would be crossing your fingers hoping this film comes out. Now I’m shooting 2,000 shots per wedding.”
Much of Simmons’ work plays with color and lighting. HDR imaging, for example, heightens the colors of the image as it allows for a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest parts of the image than standard digital imaging techniques permit.
“HDR is really blending seven different pictures together so that every aspect of the photo is exposed,” Simmons says. “It’s a landscape technique that I’ve brought into weddings. It’s not for everyone because it’s so surreal.”
Another of Simmons’ favorite ways to alter an image is to give it a vintage tone. One enlarged photograph of a couple mid-embrace hangs inside of a brown frame with gold lining.
“This one’s got a vintage tone to it—I’m definitely into the different toning,” he says. “That frame is kind of an ugly, gaudy frame, but it works great with that picture.”
Simmons says his photography techniques during weddings vary from traditional, to artistic, to candid shots.
However, Simmons says, he will always work with the client’s request.
“I’ve had clients say they want me just to shoot candids the whole time and I have no problem with that,” he says. Usually at weddings, Simmons is focused on capturing specific people and events. In this case, he brings a second photographer along to capture photojournalistic, candid shots of the crowd.
“Without [my staff] I couldn’t do what I do,” says Simmons, noting that during the mid-summer busy season his staff helps him edit, shoot and stay organized. “I was trying to do it by myself for years but that’s impossible to do. As any business grows you have to have people help you.”
The most popular item Simmons offers are pre-organized photo albums. The albums consist of custom-designed backgrounds and 20-30 page layouts, which Simmons assembles digitally. He prepares the album with photographs in place. Simmons sends a draft of the album via CD to his clients so that they can make necessary changes.
“People seem to get really excited about the photo albums,” he says.
Simmons says his favorite thing about working with weddings is that it is a rewarding line of work. He is doing what he loves to make a living, and he is receiving positive client feedback.
“The coolest part about weddings is how happy I make people,” he says. “There are a lot of other jobs where you don’t get the hugs and the tips and the feedback. Moms are writing letters and emails thanking me for the pictures. How many jobs do you really get thanked that much? I’m only there for eight hours but I give people memories for years to come. That’s probably the best part of it.” | April M. Short
Simmons’ Wedding Tips
Go For Quality
Almost as important as the photographs are the photographer’s style and attitude, says Simmons. “I’d recommend when people are choosing a photographer, it can’t just be about the money; they have to like me.” He says. “They have to like what I do, and we’re going to spend 10 hours together that day so we have to get along. … You always hear those stories of a photographer drinking and being outrageous or whatever, but a good photographer will know to be mellow, not drink, and get along with everybody.”
The biggest tip Simmons says is that a little more money can make all the difference. “When people are picking a photographer if it’s all about price to them they’re going to get lesser quality,” he says. “What’s 500 bucks if it’s what you want? If people can afford $1,500 they can probably afford $2,000 and it can make a difference. Why try to save a few bucks when these photos are what you’ll have five years from now, 10 years from now?”
Pre-event Photo Shoots
Simmons says he always recommends an engagement photo shoot with the bride and groom prior to the wedding, in a natural or peaceful setting.
“Those tend to be some of the most fun pictures,” he says. “We’ll go tot he beach and take some great pictures, and there won’t be any pressure. It’ll just be us hanging out at the beach and walking over here, walking over there. It’s not like the wedding day where it’s, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got 20 minutes, gotta go over here,’ or ‘We’re late.’ It shows in them, it shows in my work.”
Get Ready Early
“Something I always try to tell brides is to be ready early because if their wedding day is early and mellow and just flowing, everything flows,” he says. “The pictures totally flow. If they’re late from the get go, everything’s late from that point on. It’s just frantic, and I can’t get all the pictures I really want.”
Learn more by calling 831-334-5408, or visit neilsimmonsphotography.com.