Making a connection: Jos and Tree WoodSmith thrive on authenticity
Passion. It’s a word that pops up often when talking with Portland, Oregon-based wedding photographers Jos and Tree WoodSmith. “We are passionate about photographing weddings,” says Tree, on break from a hectic photography schedule. “One of the reasons we feel this passion is because weddings are so ripe for emotion and connection. In fact, each wedding is like a marketplace for emotions, and we enjoy the challenge to capture them.”
Capturing the emotions and preserving the connections has become the couple’s life’s work as they record nuptials in far-flung locations, including France, Italy, Belize, and Peru. They’re recognized for dramatic, documentary style images. “Real moments will never go out of style,” says Jos. “We are so lucky to be able to do what we do.”
They share some tips that have helped them earn praise from clients and peers alike.
GET TO KNOW YOUR CLIENTS
Jos and Tree do extensive interviews with clients to build relationships. “The more we know about them, the more emotionally connected we become, the fuller we can tell their story and the more motivation we have to stumble into and identify those moments that are real,” says Tree.
Clients fill out a questionnaire that covers practical topics such as logistics. But they’re also asked probing questions. “We dive in more and ask things like, ‘Where do you think the emotion will be in the ceremony?’ or ‘Who are the most important people for us to focus on?’ or ‘Do you perceive any interactions that may happen?’” says Tree. “They may tell us things like their grandfather recently passed away but their grandmother will be there. Or they recently lost a father, and it is going to be very emotional for them. We have to be ready.”
At one wedding last fall, for example, the groom’s mother was terminally ill with cancer. So they knew the mother-son dance would be a special moment. “It was so critical to photograph that extraordinarily emotional moment,” says Tree. “The lighting was difficult; it was very dark. And it was really just a fleeting moment. But we were ready for it and worked together to capture it.”
WORK AS A TEAM
The couple has worked together so long they’ve come to anticipate each other’s moves. In that mother-son dance, for example, when Tree saw Jos moving in, she instinctively supplied the lighting she knew he’d need. The pair have also created their own “lighting language” with arm and hand signals to indicate to each other or an assistant when and where they need lighting.
“Our lighting language enables us to work as a team by using nonverbal cues to communicate the angle of light, the intensity of light, and how to manage the technical aspect of lighting a real moment while it is happening without disrupting it,” says Jos. Tree adds, “Hand signals let us communicate silently. Our sign language we have developed has given us that fly-on-the-wall, silent photojournalistic approach to seeing the moment and also lighting it.”
Notes Jos, “It is very important to work as a team because one of us may be in the middle of the ceremony, super close in, waiting patiently while the other is running far in the distance getting a wide angle or a scene of the entire perspective. Anticipating what each other is thinking, doing, and what each other needs helps us divide and conquer.”
ANTICIPATE THE MOMENT
Because they take a photojournalistic approach to wedding photography, the WoodSmiths can easily shoot 10,000 images during a typical wedding assignment. At a recent day-and-a-half gig in India, they captured 18,000. Jos is quick to explain that it’s not a “spray and pray” approach: “It is very intentional. We are trying to capture a collection of high-quality, real-moment photos.”
Says Tree, “We actually photograph through a moment, all the way through, because sometimes the best photograph is at the end or at the beginning or in the middle. Imagine photographing two people who are seeing each other for the first time and hugging. You need to start photographing from the beginning because they are going to hug and look at each other and hug again. If you don’t do that it’s easy to miss that moment. You may get an OK photo with a pretty good expression, but the best expression may have happened 10 seconds later, and you won’t get it if you don’t photograph through the entire moment.”
Jos adds, “Some of the best moments happen with a fraction of a second and that fraction of a second of an expression can communicate the entirety of the day. We know that; that’s why we shoot so much and why we work so hard. We are attracted to the moment.”
When editing his earlier work, Jos confesses he’d think, “If only I’d done that, or If only I’d shot a little more.” Today both photographers often carry two cameras and habitually anticipate moments. “It’s one of the major lessons our experience has taught us,” he says. Adds Tree, “It pays to remember that a wedding is made up of fleeting moments.”
TAKE A BREATH, LITERALLY
When it comes to photographing a wedding, “You can’t be everywhere,” says Tree. You have to make a choice about where you’re going to shoot and what you’re going to do. “The wedding day shoot is full of making choices, and it can be exhausting,” she admits.
Both Tree and her husband are yoga prac-titioners and apply deep breathing techniques during their day of shooting.
“Take the time to pause and take a deep breath while you find yourself caught up in the wedding day chaos,” says Jos. “There is nothing more powerful than being able to remain calm in the chaotic storm of a wedding. How do you remain calm, technical, and focused but also connected to the people without being derailed by frustration or simply being overwhelmed? Pause. Take a deep breath.” He adds that it’s important to be patient but at the same time thoughtful about your actions. “You cannot be so emotionally connected that you lose your technical thought process,” he explains.
Adds Tree, “We want to be present for a couple, but at the same time we need to be a fly on the wall. It’s a fine balance. Thinking about light, composition, and moment is a never-ending, shape-shifting challenge. We are carrying all this gear, are amidst all these emotions that are happening, and we have all these expectations of our clients expecting us to get great storytelling images. Breathing [deeply] is a way to remain calm.”
Anyone can use this powerful tool. As soon as you slow your breath down you’re changing the way you’re allowing oxygen into your blood stream, they explain. Your brain works a little differently; it slows down a little bit more, it calms your nerves. “Maybe,” says Jos, “it is the combination of the high-intensity chaos and the calming of the breathing that feels like this yin and yang access to creativity. Oftentimes people say they write better when under pressure or with urgency. If you can get calm and urgency together that’s a magic combination.”
TRY EXPERIENTIAL PORTRAITURE
Tree and Jos rarely do traditional, staged portraits of their couples, preferring what they term “creative experiential portraiture.” Says Tree, “Typically, we will have already chosen a dramatic location, have our lighting dialed in, and then invite the couple into this setting, where we encourage them to connect with one another.”
The photographers may ask the couple something that will elicit a laugh or even draw tears. Recently they had a bride and groom for just 20 minutes after their ceremony, walked them to a beautiful, pre-selected site, and asked each of them, “What was the favorite part of your partner’s vows?”
“This turned their focus completely away from being photographed,” says Jos. “They were reinforcing the whole experience by pulling part of the ceremony back into the sunlight while we were photographing them instead of them thinking, How do I stand? or Am I supposed to look at the camera?”
The moments couples typically remember are when they’ve stepped away from the chaos for a moment. “We want that memory for them to be a beautiful one, and we want to create imagery and art from their moment,” says Tree. “We want them to remember the connection and what they were sharing with one another and how they were feeling, not that they were being asked to pose. That often is their favorite picture of the wedding.”
Adds Jos, “Invariably the resulting image is the difference between a beautiful photo and a meaningful photo.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.
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