In the moment
Dan Doke is the calm eye of the emotional whirlwind
Weddings, says Dan Doke, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, are kind of like a snow storm: “You never know what you’re going to get.” Most of the time, though, what Doke finds is joy—a delightful tempest of touching moments, some of which bring tears to his eyes even as he documents them. The moment the bride and her mother’s eyes lock just before they hug at the receiving line. The instant the flower girl first gazes up at the bride in her dress. “If you sit back, there are so many things going on at once, and it’s hard to figure out which one to capture,” Doke says. “The moments are so many throughout the day. I feel like I catch one out of a thousand. They just happen so fast.”
Doke began freezing these moments at a young age and under unique circumstances. “When I was 14, I got hit by a car,” he says. To wile away the hours he spent in the hospital recovering, Doke read photography magazines. “I guess it stuck because I started doing portraits at 14 and I did my first wedding at 15.” When he was in college, a family member asked Doke to capture candid images at her wedding. The next day, the pro photographer for the wedding called, “yelling at me that there should only be one professional photographer at a wedding,” Doke says. Doke told the photographer he wasn’t a pro and, in fact, didn’t really know what he was doing. Much to his surprise, the photographer offered him a job. He’s been photographing weddings ever since, serving the New England market from his studio in North Reading, Massachusetts.
Having been in the wedding game for a long while, Doke has learned how to get the best shots of quintessential wedding moments. For example, he used to simply stand by and snap away to try and get the perfect image of the bride’s father as he enters the room and first sees his daughter in the wedding dress. But now he orchestrates the event, calling it “Daddy time.” He knows precisely when the moment is going to happen and where, and he has the proper equipment ready for the perfect shot. “When I capture the parents crying, it’s phenomenal,” he says. “That is the most powerful moment of the day.”
Other moments are essential to photograph, too: When the groom first sees the bride as she advances down the aisle, for example. Instead of capturing that instant as a solo image of the groom or of just the bride and her father, Doke catches it all by photographing from behind the bride and father between their heads and focusing his lens on the groom’s facial expression. He does something similar during the toasts, including the toast-giver in the photo but focusing on the bride’s face as she bursts into laughter. “It encapsulates the whole moment in one photo,” he says.
Creativity and control
Experience has taught Doke to devise systems for every anticipated scenario. “If we are doing sunlight at high noon, I know what equipment to start off with and when to change off to other equipment for cocktail hour,” he says. He also has a system for posed family photos that ensures they’re done quickly and seamlessly. He begins with the bride’s family (so the parents can move along to the party as quickly as possible), starting with the whole family, then removing the siblings, and next the parents, and then bringing the siblings back in. Then it’s on to the groom’s family. The order is ingrained in his memory since he uses it for every wedding. He politely directs people to “slide in” and “slide out” to move them in and out of the groupings. “You have to do it with a smile,” he explains. “If you smile, you can get away with anything.”
Though he has systems in place for posed photos, he also leaves room for spontaneity. “People will ask me what I’m going to do next week, and I say, ‘I have no idea,’” he says. “But in the moment, I can tell you a hundred things I’m going to do.” His favorite clients are the ones who trust his vision. “This happens all the time: We are walking into a room and I see a pocket of light and say, ‘Hey guys, stop here.’ They have to trust me to do that.”
In fact, Doke’s lighting is what defines his signature look. He uses the Canon 600EX-RT radio wireless flash setup. “I can use three or four of those [slave lights], controlling everything from the back of the camera,” he says. “I’ll have one flash a half stop under the other one. And it’s a lot faster than it used to be. I love the high speed.” Plus the radio-based wireless means he doesn’t need a line of sight between the camera and slaves. “So you can shoot through walls and windows,” he says. He’s also not afraid to incorporate additional light sources—flashlights, lamps, and sunlit windows—when inspiration strikes. But he reiterates, “It doesn’t matter how the image is lit if you didn’t capture the moment.”
Selling up front
Like many successful entrepreneurs, most of Doke’s business comes via word of mouth. “We work with a lot of facilities and they recommend us; churches recommend us,” he says. “By the time people come in, they say, We hear your name everywhere.” When a client approaches the studio via referrals, they’re significantly more likely to book with him than if they came in cold.
Doke used to make his money in post-wedding sales. But several years ago after experiencing some less-than-fruitful post-event sales, he consulted with peers, who suggested he begin the sales process in the consultation meeting. He’s created several packages, which are priced based on time at the wedding and album size. Today, he says, “I’m getting paid what I want to be paid.” He also offers a signature package focused on customer service that gives him more freedom to create the album of his dreams for the couple. Forty percent of clients select that package, he says.
Doke’s ideal clients “are the people who are self-made,” he says. “They had a hard time getting through school and are making good money. They are appreciative of what we do. They work hard and expect us to work hard. They treat us with respect.”
But most important, he loves the clients who trust his judgment and allow him the freedom to be inspired and creative. “The ones who don’t trust me, it’s just photos,” he says. “The ones who do, it’s amazing moments.”
RELATED: See a gallery of images by Dan Doke.
Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.