Be personable: Wedding clients want a photographer who cares
David Wheeler knows the power of relatability
From a geographic perspective, David Wheeler has it all. Based just outside of Southampton on England’s picturesque southern coast, Wheeler has at his disposal miles of coastline overlooking the famed Isle of Wight. Within a short distance are the rambling New Forest National Park, the verdant countryside dotted with Downton Abbey-esque manors, and the delights of London.
“It’s a beautiful part of the world,” admits Wheeler, who specializes in wedding and portrait photography and fosters a deep love of landscapes. “It gives me a lot of variety to play with.”
But picturesque locations do not a successful photographer make. Wheeler is well aware, so he’s worked at perfecting not only his technical proficiencies but also his social graces. If there’s anything he’s learned over the past 10 years in business, it’s that being relatable is paramount to success. It benefits everything from cementing the client-photographer relationship to uncovering those subtle nuances of character that define his wedding images and endear clients to him.
“I get a lot of feedback from couples after weddings who say, Thank you for truly getting to know us and who we are,” he says.
Wheeler grew up under the roof of a keen amateur photographer father and went on to study photography in college, spending hours in the classroom as well as the darkroom. After college, he took a job outside the field, but before he knew it, he was spending so much time shooting weddings and portraits for friends that it only made sense to go pro. His work garnered attention from his peers, and in 2014, he became the youngest photographer to earn a fellowship with the British Institute of Professional Photography—one of only 18 in the wedding category worldwide. He’s also currently on the U.K. team competing for the 2018 World Photographic Cup.
Clearly, Wheeler is onto something with his personable approach. “Even before clients book me, I try and ensure we have a meeting face to face,” he says, “because in emails, you never really know someone’s character.”
Like a detective, he finds out everything about a bride and groom, from how they met to the proposal story to any family intricacies that might later inform his approach at the event. He takes care to check in periodically with couples before their big day, the goal being to make them feel comfortable with him. His pre-wedding checklist also includes scouting locations well in advance so he knows his options if Britain’s notoriously unpredictable weather turns foul.
And then there’s the wedding day plan as a whole. “Unlike in America, not all weddings in the U.K. have a wedding planner, so I’m almost the planner to a certain degree,” he says. “I want to ensure the day runs perfectly—if there is such a thing as a perfectly run wedding. It’s really about the lead-up and sitting down and talking through all the timings and details of the day so that I’m not holding up the dinner or speeches. There’s a lot more to it than people think.”
Being intimately involved with event planning keeps him on track and ensures clients don’t spend so much of their day in front of the camera that they miss out on time with guests. “For me, photography isn’t the most important part of their day; it’s an addition,” he explains. “And again, preparation is so important. It helps me make it as easy as possible.”
Though Wheeler always captures some directed portraiture, he prefers images that document what’s unfolding in front of him, so he’s always on alert for moments of unguarded emotion. He estimates that roughly 20 percent of his wedding photos are posed, and the rest are fly-on-the-wall documentary. He begins the day chatting with the bridal party and groomsmen, with coffee rather than camera in hand. By the time he comes back around to grab some getting-ready shots, they barely notice he’s there. When he does direct, he uses his carefully crafted rapport to draw out the best expressions.
“You have to change your approach to suit the person,” he says, adding that he models the poses himself before asking the bride or groom to follow suit. “People like to know they’re doing the right thing, and it brings out the right, or I should say, the most natural, expression. I try to make things look good whilst having a relaxed manner about it. If they’re not at ease, it won’t be a strong portrait—you get stage fright.”
Much of this Wheeler learned through old-fashioned trial and error, but he also found a mentor along the way in Kevin Wilson (who is distinguished by British Institute of Professional Photography fellowships for both weddings and portraits). Wheeler met Wilson by chance just as he was going pro.
“Kevin has been extremely generous with his help and knowledge,” says Wheeler. “He took me under his wing and taught me everything he knows. It was such an important part of my development and career.”
Wheeler recently started returning the favor by doing some mentoring of his own, particularly in helping younger photographers with the fundamentals. “The important thing as a mentor is not to influence someone’s style too much, but let them have their own influences and be an individual.”
In developing his own style, Wheeler likes to look outside of the wedding industry to fashion, art galleries, films, music, and landscape photography, as well as the early black-and-white photographers.
He makes it a point to pause at the close of every wedding season to assess his work and ponder new areas to explore. “What is my style? is a question that I’m continually asking myself,” he says. “It’s continually evolving, which comes through experimenting and experience. Experimenting is the only way to move forward through your work.”
Before the 2018 season amps up, Wheeler hopes to pursue some personal projects he’s been mulling over and attend to the development of his craft.
“As photographers in the 21st century, there are so many different aspects to what we do,” he says. “We’re supposed to be social media gurus, specialists in web design, respond within two hours to every email. It’s easy to forget you’re a photographer. That’s what I want to do, get out there and take more photographs.”
RELATED: A gallery of David Wheeler's wedding photos
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.