Everything in those images – from the long tables overflowing with succulents and candles, to the chalkboard signs with swooping calligraphy, to the flower-crowned brides and bearded grooms holding hands on canyons – was staged. These faux weddings are called “styled shoots,” and they’re happening all the time, especially here in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Maybe it's the desert scenery or the year-round sunshine, but the Valley is booming with more than 100 styled shoots in the past year. In some cases, they cost thousands of dollars and can even be ticketed events with paid admission.
For industry outsiders, this practice raises a lot of questions: Why would anyone want to arrange a styled shoot when there are plenty of real weddings in the world? How does it work, and who benefits from this trend? What does the endless feed of fairy-tale photos mean for consumers? Let’s break it down.
Metro Phoenix has a handful of Facebook groups devoted to styled shoots, where members can share mood boards and build teams of other professionals who share their vision. For instance, a stylist could post a photo collage with a bold black and gold aesthetic to see who likes the look. Interested makeup artists, calligraphers, models, and more comment with their portfolios and availability, and the shoot leader can talk with them and pick partners to make the shoot happen.
“Being a creative, it can get really lonely and really competitive if you allow it to,” says Katrina Amburgey, known to locals as a “godmother” of the Phoenix styled shoot scene. “When you’re working on a styled shoot, though, you’re getting all these ideas. You’re getting input. You’re just able to feel that fire that’s inside while working with others.” Amburgey and her husband Blake founded one of the largest Facebook groups devoted to styled shoots in Arizona, called AZ Creatives-Styled Shoots and More, now with more than 1,000 members who often meet new collaborators through the posts. The closed group was once for photographers only, but now it accepts anyone interested in working on joint projects. And networking isn’t the only reason people love doing styled shoots.
“We do our styled shoots just to go on a location that we have never explored before or one that we haven’t been able to convince clients to do yet, because it might take a big hike to get there,” says Gilbert-based Jonnie Allen Burk, who owns a wedding photography business with her husband Garrett. Shooting in a new setting, whether it’s the edge of a secluded cliff or simply an unfamiliar venue, is good practice for a photographer to learn about its light, colors, and angles in case a couple hires them to go there.
“I really enjoy the creative component of it, where you have no rules,” says Kate Mellow, co-founder of Bloom + Blueprint, a Phoenix-based planning, design, and floral company. “Whereas a real wedding, you obviously have rules. Someone’s dreamed about this day their entire life. They might not want a disco ball chandelier at their wedding.”
Or maybe they do want that disco ball or that bouquet with scavenged prickly pear paddles, and they just don’t know it yet. Another reason many wedding vendors enjoy styled shoots is because they allow clients to see new ideas and options they may not have even thought to request. Styled shoots present possibilities.
This line of thinking is also most vendors’ best defense against naysayers. When asked how they’d respond to criticism that styled shoots are lavish and unattainable for couples on a budget, all of the wedding professionals interviewed said their ideas are meant to be purely aspirational. Like ads for athletic gear and beauty products, these images present an idealized version of reality, yes, but they can offer brides and grooms useful concepts to interpret in their own ways.
Still, some wedding industry professionals believe that styled shoots cause undue pressure not only for engaged folks but also for other creatives in the field.
“I would go so far as to say that I think it’s homogenizing the industry,” says a local photographer who wishes to remain unnamed. “Everything starts looking the same. Then brides feel pressured to have a certain look in their wedding, and they feel pressured to conform. And I think that’s so sad.” It’s not just the millennial pink everything or the ubiquitous boho aesthetic; it’s the people in the photos, too. Many styled shoots feature actual couples rather than professional models, but there’s not much diversity. “Just get away from the stereotype of tall, skinny, white, blond girl. Just show some different people. You really don’t have to try that hard to get some people who are of color or maybe not 100 pounds.”
Another big issue surrounding styled shoots is money.
There are no set industry standards, but the shoots usually go one of two ways: All the vendors provide products or services for free (meaning some, like florists, carry a larger cost burden than others), or photographers pay to participate and cover costs for the other vendors. At larger events, known by many as “shootouts,” a coordinator could charge a group of photographers anywhere from $50 to $200 a head. In most cases, the coordinator does not make a profit but uses the funds to compensate for rental fees, florals, and other expenses. Either way, somebody loses money to make the passion project happen.
Amburgey has organized six shootouts, and she finds that having about 15 photographers participating is ideal. That way, she can keep ticket costs reasonable and still be able to hire top vendors to set up luxurious scenes. The photographers split into three small groups and rotate every half hour through three different stations: the couple, the wedding party, and the decorations. With her system, only five people are shooting the same subject at one time. It's close quarters, but it's manageable, she says.
For budding photographers, buying a ticket to a shootout might be a valuable investment. It gives them the opportunity to see how other photographers work, to get tips and feedback, and to practice using new equipment and directing subjects in a low-pressure setting. Many photographers consider them workshops for sharpening their trade skills. Plus, the images can beef up portfolios and allow photographers to show a range of styles that they may not have been able to achieve through client work alone.
“Maybe, for whatever reason, they’re attracting a whole bunch of brides who love cowboy boots,” says Amburgey. “And once you have that one wedding like that, you’re going to attract another and another and another, because that’s in your portfolio. So being involved in these shoots that are a little more high-end, you can attract a different clientele.”
However, using photos from styled shoots to build a portfolio can be a tricky thing, and some consider it false advertisement. At a real wedding, time is limited, lighting may not be optimal, and things are often chaotic. Being able to produce high-quality pictures when the heat is on requires a very different skill set than shooting in perfectly controlled, artificial environments. Most photographers are upfront with their clients about this, and they aren’t deliberately trying to deceive anyone. They like when couples ask how images are created, because it gives them a chance to explain the differences and be honest about what is possible to reproduce on a wedding day.
In addition to simply asking vendors to point out pictures from styled shoots, there are some clues that couples can use to spot them on their own.
The most obvious is any post with a title or hashtag including the phrases “styled shoot” or “inspiration shoot.” Another cue is if a photo caption has a long list of credits. When there are specific shout-outs for the stylist, clothing designer, makeup artist, videographer, prop rental company, and more, it’s probably not from a real wedding. Also, if the same event appears on multiple photographers’ websites, chances are it’s because they were at the same styled shoot. And finally, look at the people in the photos. If there’s only a couple (and maybe a small wedding party), but no guests filling the seats, no crying mother watching the first dance, and no drunk friends photobombing, it is most likely staged.