Roberto Valenzuela: What It Takes To Be a Master Wedding Storyteller
What does it take to stand out in the field? How do you tell wedding stories in a compelling way? We caught up with international award-winning wedding photographer and Canon Explorer of Light Roberto Valenzuela during his recent visit to Asia and obtained some insight into his motivations and approach to wedding photography.
The art of capturing emotionally impactful weddings
“When it’s twenty years into the marriage, I want you to look at this [photo], and I want your heart to just rip open from emotion, because of what I did for you. That, to me is more important.”
Every wedding photographer has their own style of wedding storytelling. For Roberto Valenzuela, it is about taking pictures that are simple yet emotional and meaningful.
It was a realisation that he wishes he made earlier.
“I started out taking dramatic photos, of the bride or groom in front of a monument—the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China, or whatever,” he tells us. “But when I looked at the photos, I realised that while they made nice pictures, it would be more about the monument than the couple.”
The images that truly “spoke to him”, he realised, were the ones that were simpler yet more sentimental.
“I would take a photo of the grandma looking at her daughter putting on an earring that she gave for the wedding, and there would be that expression on her face, and I would just fall in love with the image.”
EOS R/ RF28-70mm f/2L USM/ FL: 28mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/800 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 500/ WB: Auto
The bride’s father welcoming the groom into the family with a warm, affectionate hug. Capturing emotionally valuable people in special moments makes the image emotionally powerful.
Roberto spoke passionately about the kind of images he loved to capture. “When I shoot weddings,” he tells us, “it is my heart that shoots.”
The impact of emotionally valuable people
With that, Roberto found his “voice” in wedding photography: To include “emotionally valuable people”—people who are very important to the bride and groom—in the composition.
Part of this was due to personal experience: Roberto’s own father had passed away shortly before Roberto’s wedding. He tells us that he still is "especially sensitive" to other people’s fathers at weddings, and is inclined to photograph them.
However, he is careful to emphasise that who the emotionally valuable people are depends on the individual. Before the wedding, he always checks with the bride and groom about who the important people are in their lives, so that he knows who to include in his shots. A wedding story, he feels, would not be complete without emotionally valuable people in it.
EOS R/ RF28-70mm f/2L USM/ FL: 32mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.5, 1/200 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
The bridal party cheers at the sight of the bride, who has just finished changing into her wedding gown. Note the presence of an emotionally valuable person at the back of the room: The bridegroom’s mother, in the sari, with the look of sheer delight in her eyes.
Interactive photojournalism—making organic moments look beautiful
To suit the needs of different scenes, Roberto uses different approaches throughout a wedding. He feels that the “interactive photojournalism” approach is what he uses the most often for capturing valuable storytelling moments.
This approach differs from pure photojournalism because the photographer influences the scene in some way. For example, he might put two people in the same area so that they will encounter each other, or make adjustments to the scene so that it is captured in the most flattering way possible.
It’s like putting magnets near each other so that they come together, he says. “If the father of the bride is somewhere else in the room, but not within your frame, you miss the story of the dad seeing his daughter react to something.”
He would therefore change the positions of the father or the bride to ensure that the lighting and composition were visually appealing, but “once they are there, I let them go”. Any interaction that happened afterward would be completely organic.
EOS R/ RF28-70mm f/2L USM/ FL: 38mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/200 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto
For this image, all Roberto did was find a place that would result in beautiful lighting and framing, and then ask the bride and her mother to move there. The result: A natural, effortless-looking shot of the bride’s mother helping her with the veil, and the perfect example of the interactive photojournalism approach in action.
EOS R: Perfect for capturing emotional moments
Emotional interactions are intimate. If people know that they are being photographed, it will break the moment. Roberto found the EOS R a game-changer for wedding photography, partly because it was perfect for remaining inconspicuous. Features such as the Silent Shutter, the fast AF performance and the control ring on the RF lenses allowed him to work quickly and quietly without ruining the organic moment.
Roberto shares his wedding photography experience with the EOS R at the EOS R Creators’ Workshop in Singapore.
The importance of deliberate practice
In the 13 years since he first became a full-time professional wedding photographer, Roberto has won countless international awards and become one of the top wedding photographers in the industry. It is the kind of success that many professional photographers dream of.
However, he strongly emphasises that it was not natural talent that got him to his current level in the photography industry. Instead, it was determination and hard work, including thousands of hours of what he terms “deliberate practice”.
“A paid photoshoot is a performance. When you’re practising, you’re practising to perform”
“Deliberate practice” was how Roberto used to practise when he was a professional classical concert guitarist for ten years. He would spend 30 to 40 hours a week practising for a 40 minute concert. A paid photoshoot, he says, is just like a performance. You need to practise to give a good performance.
In deliberate practice, you:
1) Identify a very specific area that you want to improve on,
2) Setting small goals that you want to reach,
3) Set parameters to measure whether you have reached your goal, and then
4) Practise until you can reach your goal naturally and effortlessly.
At the start of his career, deliberate practice helped him to reduce the technical errors he made, allowing him to focus on the creative, storytelling aspect of wedding photography. Even now, he still makes it a point to practise for at least 15 minutes a month.
Manual exposure (f/3.5, 1/45 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 800/ WB: Auto
Shot during a hurricane-level storm, this is probably one of Roberto’s most iconic images. The skills gained from hours of hard work and deliberate practice helped Roberto to take advantage of the weather conditions and achieve perfect lighting, composition and posing within a limited time, resulting in the “most magical photo of [his] entire career”.
Practising with the EOS R
So what has Roberto been practising lately? “My hand movements with the EOS R”, he shares.
At the time of our interview, he had been spending 30 minutes a week familiarising himself with the EOS R’s ergonomics, practising going between various controls and menus: “The muscle memory has to go to my spine.” This ensures that on assignment, he can adjust his settings quickly and instinctively.
All the better for capturing the unique, valuable, sentimental stories that he has become renowned for.
You may also be interested in:
EOS World's interview with Roberto Valenzuela
For interviewers with other wedding photographers, check out:
Wedding Photography: Tips of the Trade
Wedding Photography Through The Lens Of Nguyen Long
Shooting Weddings: An Interview with Raymond Phang
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Sponsored by Canon USA and a member of the Canon Explorer of Light Program, Roberto has won over 100 international awards for his wedding and portrait photography and is recognized by his peers as one of the ten most influential photographers and educators in the world. He is also a top-selling author, and his books on photography and wedding photography, such as Picture Perfect Practice and Wedding Storyteller Volume 1, are sold all over the world and have been translated into multiple languages.