Good is good

For Meg Smith, first-rate wedding photography stands on its own

By Jeff Kent
Images By Meg Smith
First published in October 2005

In the eyes of photographer Meg Smith, good photography is good photography. Smith happens to be a wedding photographer, but that’s almost incidental to her when it comes to making beautiful images.

“A good wedding photograph should be such a strong image that it holds up on its own, regardless of what it is,” she says. “It should be a great photograph, and not just because it’s your wedding and you spent $300 on the shoes. Taken out of context, how does the image hold up? Does it make a statement on its own regardless of the subject matter?”

The ideology sounds like an elementary principle of wedding photography, yet for ages, wedding photography was wedding photography. It was miles apart from portrait photography, and leagues away from advertising or editorial or fine art photography. The field of photography was chopped into subdivisions and no one, no one, crossed the lines.

That’s changed. These days, a wedding photograph could just as easily be taken for an image from a fashion shoot. Portraits could be mistaken for editorial work. Advertising images could be any of the above, or something else completely. The image is what matters. The strength of the image transcends boundaries. It’s all about the idea, the emotion, the sensibility that’s being portrayed. The context of the photograph is far less significant.

Smith gets this. That could be why she’s one of the hottest wedding photographers in the country and a regular contributor to magazines like Martha Stewart Weddings, InStyle, Town & Country and Elegant Bride. For Smith, wedding photography is an art form. She describes it as something that should be iconic, something universal but at the same time personal.

“I try to capture something that’s going to be a beautiful, timeless embodiment of a brief moment,” she says. “The idea is that the image could be from anywhere. It could be someone else’s wedding. It could be from a magazine or hanging on a gallery wall. But it’s not; it’s your wedding, and that’s what makes it so valuable on a personal level.”

Smith developed her approach through diligent study and a longtime passion for photography. While studying art history at the University of California, Berkeley, she found herself frequently cutting classes to work in the darkroom.

“I love photography,” she says plainly. “I’ve studied the history of photography. I’ve studied art history. I used to process all my own film, do portraits and hand-coloring. I did Polaroid transfers and alternative processes. I dabbled in just about every type of photography. I think trying all those different things—maybe not being good at all of them but understanding the processes and what different people brought to the field—that was important.”

When Smith finished school, she moved to Napa Valley and got a job at a frame store that was expanding to do film processing. She did processing and some portraiture, working small-scale commercial jobs for local vineyards on the side. It was all fine, but it didn’t inspire her.

Then one day some artist friends asked if she’d shoot a few roles of film at their wedding in exchange for a painted portrait. “I shot it with slide film,” remembers Smith. “I didn’t even know what I was doing, but I liked it. It was fun because it was something historical.”

That was about 10 years ago. From there, Smith started doing more and more weddings until they started representing the majority of her income. She shrugged off the association of “wedding photographer,” but couldn’t escape the plain truth that weddings were what she kept going back to. “I definitely fought it for a while,” she says. “I just didn’t think of myself as a wedding photographer. And then I decided, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.”

Smith resolved to stop thinking in terms of being a wedding photographer and start thinking in terms of being a superlative, high-end photographer who shoots weddings. She decided she would make the best images possible and present them in the highest quality albums she could find. She reworked her presentation and approach and upped her prices. She started contacting magazine photo editors. She got published, she got popular, and she got really successful.

Smith jokes that she developed her style by shooting a lot of bad film. Behind the joke, however, is some truth. She concedes that a large part of her development came from trial and error. “You have to be out there doing it, practicing, putting yourself in situations where you’re shooting action in different lighting situations and moving between those situations,” she says.

With the requisite practice under her belt, Smith set about trying to set herself apart. Her focus was on creating great images that weren’t necessarily specific to wedding photography. That meant un-learning a lot of lessons about wedding photography, about what a wedding photograph “should be.”

“It’s hard finding your own style, and it’s hard to be true to that style,” says Smith. “I once had a photo teacher tell me, ‘Show the work that you want to shoot, and the right client will appreciate it.’”

The style Smith developed is all about natural images. She shoots as much ambient light as possible and shies away from bright fill flash. “For me, it’s about the real image,” she says. “I think wedding photographs should come out as close as possible to real life. I don’t do infrared, cross processing, star filters or any of those types of things. The image has to stand up on its own. Does it have great composition, great lighting, does it capture the moment? I don’t want an OK image, but, oh, it’s hand-colored with a cool filter.”

Clients have appreciated Smith’s style, just as her photography teacher foretold. But the process took time. When Smith began shooting weddings, her clients were different, her work was different, and her method of interaction was different. It all grew up gradually.

“Both my work and clientele have grown and evolved,” she says. “It’s not like I just started out shooting like I do now. It’s been a huge learning curve. When I started, I thought wedding photography had to be done a certain way. Through a lot of trial and error and, really, conflicts with clients, I learned a lot. I developed my style. It wasn’t a seamless process. I was figuring out how to make it my own.”

These days, Smith deals with her clients in an intuitive manner. During a pre-wedding consultation, she shows them different types of images and watches how they react. If they respond to the people shots, she knows not to overdo it on the detail work. If they are preoccupied with items like place settings and centerpieces, then she knows to hit the details hard. From there, she works up a unique quote for each job. Rather than dealing from a standard set of packages, she caters each project to each client, figuring out her pricing and services based on their specific needs.

Smith is proud of her work and proud of what she’s accomplished in her career. Getting into her groove as a photographer took time, but she now appreciates the awesome responsibility she holds.

“I feel like shooting weddings is a lucky thing to do, even though it’s really hard sometimes,” she says. “As a wedding photographer you have a huge responsibility. You are there to capture what cannot be repeated. It’s a lot of pressure, but that’s the challenge and that’s what makes it such a fascinating way to make a living.”

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