This photographer left his portrait-heavy style behind in favor of a more organic approach. See how he changed course and became a happiness photographer! (Featuring WILSON LAU)
“I shoot to satisfy myself first, then my clients.” Vancouver, Canada, photographer Wilson Lau has always been focused on what makes his creative soul thrive. Instead of bending over backwards to please his clients, he recognizes that the best images come from a place of self-driven creativity.
“It sounds kind of selfish,” admits Wilson, “but I believe that when you create for yourself, you do your best work. No one told you to do it. You did it purely because you wanted to.”
Therefore, in 2012, when Wilson first began photographing weddings, he set out to create images he found beautiful; and for him at the time, that meant posed portraits.
Turn Perfect Poses into Memorable Moments
Then something happened that changed his work forever.
After a chaotic weekend photographing three weddings in a row, Wilson began culling through the thousands of photographs he’d taken, and he noticed: “I more or less put each of my three couples in the exact same poses. Yes, the photos looked great. Yes, they were happy with the photos. Yes, they will never see the other couples’ photos. But something didn’t sit right with me.”
On the heels of that revelation, Wilson also recognized that his creativity was taking on a new shape. “I realized that I really like capturing moments – specifically moments of happiness.”
“I Learned to Photograph Happiness”
These simple realizations struck Wilson so clearly that he decided on the spot to change the way he photographed. “I decided I was going to go out and capture happiness,” states Wilson. “Happiness can look like many different things to different people, and that, to me, was so much more unique than any of the poses I could come up with.”
Wilson’s transformation from a primarily editorial photographer to a joy-inspired journalistic photographer didn’t occur overnight. Three experiences were instrumental in helping him change his style.
#1: “I switched to a wider lens.”
Like many portrait-heavy wedding photographers, Wilson relied primarily on lens focal lengths at 50mm or longer. “My 50mm, as it turns out, was what was preventing me from improving,” Wilson shares. “If you look at the best street photographers, the best photojournalists out there, what lenses are they shooting with? A 35mm or wider! With a 35mm, you are part of the action; with a 50mm, you are an observer. Also, with a 50mm you often end up shooting in that five to 10-foot range. Shooting with a 35mm made me either get in so close that I could reach out and touch my subjects, or stand further back in that 20 to 30-foot range.”
#2: “I got a portfolio review.”
Wilson hired a mentor, Jesh De Rox, specifically to help him select his best work for his website. The mentor did so much more than identify his winning images, though. “This mentor gave me a critique session and basically tore apart my best work. And it was amazing,” raves Wilson. The no-holds-barred critique inspired Wilson to shoot with a new awareness of what was happening around him during a session.
One story, in particular, stood out from the rest. “I was second shooting for a prominent photographer in town,” shares Wilson, “and I noticed during a particularly sad speech that she was not shooting. Before that point, I thought, ‘Oh my god, tears! Yes! This is gold. Shoot, shoot, shoot!’ But from that experience, I’m not sure people necessarily want to remember the sad moments on an otherwise happy day. Another approach is more human, and that is to give people space – especially during tougher, more emotional moments. ‘Photo fatigue’ from being photographed too much is a real thing.”
#3: “I learned to take better portraits.”
Wilson knew that portraits would always be a part of his work as a wedding photographer. From engagement portraits to wedding day group portraits, there was essentially no way to completely avoid portraiture and also please his clients. But he wanted his portraits to flow naturally, like the moments of happiness to which he had dedicated himself. So he hired another mentor.
“The second mentor I hired is my favorite wedding photographer, India Earl,” Wilson says. “The thing that attracted me to her work was how natural her portraits were. They just looked like pictures of couples doing their thing – almost like documentary portraiture.”
Really, Honestly, Authentically Happy
These days, Wilson receives inquiries from couples who specifically love his photographs of happiness.
“My current work may not be as pretty on the surface level,” Wilson speculates, “but I believe beauty lies in the authenticity of the images, the people who are in them, and the moments they share.”
What does happiness mean to you?
Share your experiences in the comments below!
Written by ANNE SIMONE | Featuring WILSON LAU