If Jasmine Star hadn’t become a wedding photographer, if she had stayed in law school and passed the bar, she’d probably be keeping her chin up and muddling through a career she didn’t particularly love, maintaining a positive mental attitude and sharing inspirational memes with friends on Facebook. But, lucky for her, and for the brides of Southern California, Star dropped out of law school to follow her dream of becoming a wedding photographer. Ten fast years later, she’s one of the highest-profile wedding photographers in the country, and she’s as passionate as ever about bonding with brides, documenting their big days and inspiring fellow photographers to follow their dreams.
DPP: As your profile has increased, has the pressure to perform also increased?
Jasmine Star: I was just reading about this theory that success is like walking a tightrope: the more successful you become, the higher that tightrope is lifted and the larger the scale of the fall. You feel that pressure, and I think that the pressure cuts both ways. The pressure has forced me to become a stronger photographer in a shorter amount of time, but also you are your own worst critic, and sometimes people online criticize the work because more people are seeing it.
DPP: There are some haters out there.
Star: Oh, goodness, I couldn’t agree more about that.
DPP: Is the marketing and branding as much work as it appears?
Star: The actual branding, marketing, social media, blogging—that takes more time than actually being with my camera. Looking back at it, when I first started, I aspired to be a photographer. Now I aspire to be a very strong businesswoman with a camera. And that’s a very different thing. I’m a first-generation Hispanic, I’m a first-generation college student, and when I went to school, I think my parents sacrificed so much to bring our family to a place where education was a luxury, and I wanted to treat it as such. So I pursued a degree in business administration and I understood basic business principles, and so when it came time—I didn’t get into photography after college, I actually went to law school. And then my mom had a relapse of brain cancer.
It’s actually a really good story because it was a pivot point in my life. I was so unhappy in law school, but I felt like this was what I needed to do. And when she had a relapse, I woke up one day and was, like, okay, I want to be with my mom because I don’t know what the future has in store. And J.D., my then-boyfriend, proposed, and we planned a wedding in three months in Hawaii. And the doctor said there’s a very big likelihood that your mom won’t be able to make it. But we took a leap of faith and said, no, she’s going to be there with us in Hawaii, and against all odds, my mother and my father walked me down the aisle.
It was amazing, and I think that was the first time that I saw what a wedding photographer could do because our wedding photographer wasn’t just documenting a wedding day. Little did he know that he was documenting a miracle—a pivotal point in all our lives. And I’m happy to report that almost 10 years later, my mom is in remission. It’s a total miracle. But I believe it was her life that caused me to change.
When it came time for me to go back to law school, I was so unhappy and I was crying, and I told my husband I didn’t want to go. And he looked at me over the dinner table and told me, "I would rather see you fail at something you love than succeed at something you hate." And that Christmas he gifted me with a camera. And when I got that camera, I felt like it was time for me to make a decision to pursue photography. And, then, once I got into it, after about a year, I realized that if I didn’t make it a business, I would have a real expensive hobby. And I didn’t want a real expensive hobby because that meant that I’d have to go and actually get a career as a lawyer, and I really didn’t want that. So I had to change everything about how I approached my business. And, as disconcerting as many creatives might find it, I believe that when we pursue our passion, it’s 80% business and 20% photography.
DPP: When J.D. gave you the camera, was it a shot in the dark?
Star: He definitely had an inkling. I always loved photography, but I didn’t think I could make a career out of it. And when it came to planning my own wedding, I became obsessed with looking at what photographers were doing and how they were running their businesses and the lifestyles they led. And I thought, if I could ever do that, I would just be so happy. And so I told him that, the night I was crying over dinner, when he asked, "If you could do one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?" And I said, "I think I want to be a wedding photographer." And he said, "But you don’t even own a camera?" And I said, "I know, but if I did, I really think I could give it a good go."
DPP: I’m wondering if you feel that technique takes a backseat to seeing, capturing the moment, and all of those emotional things that go into photographing weddings.
Star: Using your analogy, if we were driving a minivan, technique would be in the third row. Along with focusing on the moment and the emotion, I would actually add to that, that I want to create an experience. I’m not a commercial photographer. I’m in the business of selling my services, yes, but also selling the emotions attached to my photography. So, yes, I’m very focused on what’s happening in the moment and documenting it in the best way possible. At the same time, the better the bride’s experience, the better her family’s experience and the groom’s experience, the more inclined they are to look back at the photos and have positive memories of what that looked and felt like. At the end of th
e day, if I was a commercial photographer or a lifestyle photographer, the experience matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as getting those killer shots for the campaign. But, in weddings and portraits, the thing is, yes, it’s technical, but, no, it’s capturing truly the essence of that person and then making sure they feel really, really good about the entire experience surrounding that entire event.
DPP: Does that experience start the first time they call you?
Star: A thousand percent yes! I know there are other photographers who feel differently, but I’ve built a personal brand. I’ve built a brand around my services, but equally around who I am as a person, because probably tens of thousands of photographers are shooting with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and they’re using the same 50mm ƒ/1.2 lens and they’re using Lightroom. And, not only are they using Lightroom, they’re using the same presets that I bought. And they’re using the same computer I bought. And we all have Facebook fan pages. So the thing that has to stick out, that makes me marketable, is the person holding the camera. That’s the defining factor. So, it starts, for me, at the beginning, when they go to my blog, when they go to my website, when they go to my Facebook fan page, when they experience the curation of images on Instagram. All of that is just feeding into when they actually take the time to send an email.
DPP: You seem to cater to brides who are elegant, but not stuffy, like the shot on the front page of your website, with the bride and groom laying in the grass. What happens when clients want something traditional?
Star: I dealt with that a lot more in the beginning of my career when I was trying to define my style and my vision. But, as my business has progressed, I’ve really understood the value of only showing what I want to shoot more of. I do blog and share every engagement session, every wedding. I want to treat all of my clients the same, and with the utmost care. And, so, it’s really my job to showcase fun, natural and editorial. The more I show of that, the less that I’m getting requests for traditional aspects of the day. Now, to be fair, I always capture the traditional aspects of the day. There will always be family photos, and I convey the importance of that, but at the same time, I’m really using my blog, social media and my website to act as a funnel. So, if you go to my website and you could never picture yourself laying on the grass on your wedding day, then that actually becomes a barrier to entry. And I’m okay with that.
DPP: What’s your essential gear?
Star: I shoot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and I take a backup with me because, as a wedding photographer, you definitely need a backup. My definite go-to lenses would be the 50mm ƒ/1.2, the 85mm ƒ/1.2 and the 35mm ƒ/1.4. I like fast primes because, on the wedding day, you go from the brightest available light to the darkest reception room, and shooting wide open really does give a lot more latitude and flexibility. You also absolutely need the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 IS. In dark churches, that image stabilizer is amazing. You definitely need it. I also use the 100mm macro—for details like wedding rings, that’s my go-to lens. And the 24mm ƒ/1.4 is fantastic. That’s what I primarily use for all my dancing photos at the reception. You want wide photos to tell the entire story of what’s going on. I also have the 24-70mm zoom. That’s a great lens for family formals or bridal party pictures when I’m quickly navigating groups between four and 30.
DPP: Do you worry about light?
Star: Oh, goodness, yes. I’ve learned early on that I had to be competent to some degree with working with both a Speedlite and off-camera flash. So every wedding I shoot, be it local or destination, I take a flash on a tripod with a small light diffuser. And I’ll set that up in the corner of the reception. If there’s a DJ or a band, I put it next to the speaker and I don’t move it too much. It acts as a great light source when the couple has their first dance, or when guests are on the dance floor. So I shoot with a mounted flash in addition to the off-camera flash, and that really helps to bring up my light and balance it with the ambient light that’s in the room, which is traditionally darker.
DPP: And if it’s outside, is it all ambient all the time? Because that’s where all the mood is?
Star: Yes, absolutely.
DPP: The last decade has been a whirlwind for you. What goals do you have for the next decade?
|Jasmine Star’s Gear|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 24mm ƒ/1.4L II USM
Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L USM
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L USM
Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.2L II USM
Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8 Macro USM
Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II
Star: I had this conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago. She pointedly asked, "Have you really done a good job of articulating your purpose, your value for who you are for your clients, who you are in the industry?" And I was, like, yes, of course. And, then, as the conversation progressed, I realized, in fact, I hadn’t. And, so, I think, for the next few years, what I really want to do is define my purpose. I want to let people know that I care about their businesses, I care about entrepreneurship, I care about people’s success, and not success by some made-up standard. For some reason, people have this pretend idea of what success looks like, but, in reality, success is defined by us. There are photographers who shoot five weddings a year, and if you want to shoot five weddings a year and you hit your five-wedding mark, you’re a freaking success. So, really, I want to empower other entrepreneurs and business owners and creatives to pursue their version of success, and to revel in it. I think that’s going to be a big goal for me in the next few years. And then to continue what I’m doing: making brides happy, working with my husband and my mercurial, grumpy old dog, and traveling the world. It’s a good space to be. And, if I can just show other people and bring people on the journey with me, then I would be very happy.
See more of Jasmine Star’s photography and her extensive blog at jasminestar.com.