As featured in Professional Photographer magazine - February 2017

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Not every bride would be willing to do it: Lie down on a cement walk in her white dress just before she walks down the aisle. But much to Joe Hendricks’ delight, this one was game. “Two weeks before, I’d seen this picture of a band lying sideways [on the ground], but the picture made it look like they were standing,” says Hendricks. “I kept that in the back of my head that it would be a really cool concept, but I didn’t want to copy it exactly. It had to be a twist on that.”

Enter this couple, their enthusiastic wedding party, and a gridded walkway rimmed with gravel just below an outdoor staircase. Hendricks posed the bride and groom reclined on the walkway (he placed plastic under the bride’s dress so it wouldn’t get dirty). He then told the wedding party to walk toward the couple with arms outstretched

(He’d intended to have them lie down as well, but there was no time.) Then he sprinted up four fights of stairs—breaking a sweat as he reached the top—and made his shots quickly. The composition was perfect, the posing spot on. Another whimsical Hendricks wedding masterpiece was born.

Mic drop

Coming up with creative shots on the fly is something Hendricks loves about wedding photography. “I have done a lot of different kinds of photography,” he says, “and wedding photography is the ultimate art form for photographers because you have to know how to do everything. You have to know how to deal with people, how to shoot creatively, how to shoot fast. You have to know all your gear. If you can do wedding photography, you can do anything.”

Hendricks’ photographs stand apart because they draw so much personality from subjects. His secret to capturing those genuine moments isn’t just people skills, though that’s part of it. It’s also knowing his gear. “When I see other photographers shooting, I see a lot of them looking down at their gear while people are waiting for direction,” he says. “If you know your camera equipment like the back of your hand, you don’t have to do that. You can sit there and talk to your client while you’re fooling with your gear without looking down.”

His process works like this: He takes an initial image while looking at his subject, glances down at the review screen for a split second to check the exposure and composition, and then clicks away. The camera is never pointed at subjects for too long. "Once somebody gets a camera pointed at them, you know how it is. They feel a little differently.”

Focusing his eyes and attention on his subjects keeps them engaged and having fun. When Hendricks wants a particular angle, he doesn’t walk to where he needs to be, he runs, he says. “Because I know there are just two to three seconds where they are feeling great and they are laughing—sometimes at me for running.”

Posing is also important in his quest to capture personality, and he has several tricks up his sleeve. For example, when he’s photographing an engagement session, he’ll tell the bride to pose, and then pull the groom aside and whisper to him to walk up behind her and scare her. Some of the photos backfire—he might get a double chin when the bride is initially frightened. But if he continues shooting, those expressions soon melt to laughter. “Sometimes it’s pure gold,” he says.

At the wedding, when he photographs the groom and groomsmen, he tells them, “On three, I want everybody to try to get past the groom and get in front of him for the picture.” Meanwhile he instructs the groom to try to hold the groomsmen back. After the countdown, you have one groomsman grabbing the groom by the throat, one trying to jump over him, one crawling underneath, he says. “I have to tell them to be careful of the flowers because I’ve had a few florists who were not so happy with me when the flowers came off,” he laughs.

When he photographs the family, he often does one shot where he tells the group to go with whatever pose they want on the count of three. Then he adds, “Just remember they may hang this up on their wall.” That joke always gets a laugh. “You can always tell when you’re ‘on’ at a wedding because you get the family laughing. That’s what I’ve gotten better at over the years is getting a laugh from people.” He’s also found that little courtesies like helping the grandmothers stand up for a photograph go a long way with making the client and other subjects feel relaxed. “It shows you’re being good to the bride and groom and to the family.”

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Albums his way

While Hendricks loves the unpredictability of the wedding day—the family drama, the heightened emotions, the moment-to-moment pace—he doesn’t like unpredictability when it comes to delivering products to clients post-wedding. That’s why he made a rule long ago that clients have no say in wed- ding album design.

“When it comes to albums, they were the one thing I hated to do more than anything,” he says. “But the only reason I hated it is that I hated the back-and-forth with the bride and groom.” Removing album feedback from the process enables him to deliver a better product in a shorter turnaround time. In an era when photographers can take six months or more to deliver an album, Hendricks gets wedding clients their photos in a week and albums in three to four weeks. “I tell all my couples, You will get an album of your wedding. It’s a gift from me to you. You have no say in it because I will be a lot harder on making this album great than you will be.” And because his clients trust him, he receives little pushback.

“I had a recent wedding where I let them look at the pictures before I printed the album, and I can already tell you it added a couple of weeks to the whole process,” he says. “Every once in a while you bend on what you do, but when you bend on your standards, it always kicks you in the butt. And you always say, I’m never going to bend again.”

Another reason Hendricks is able to deliver such a quick turnaround on images and albums is that he shares the studio with his wife, Rhonda, who handles the business side —contracts, scheduling, correspondence with clients. “Everybody needs a Rhonda. She makes my life so easy,” he says. Emailing clients is a common time suck in photography that he doesn’t have to deal with. “I have a lot of photography friends, and most are stressed because they’re responding to brides. I just take pictures and send them. That’s why I’m able to turn it around so fast.”

Emotional play

Hendricks got into wedding photography the same way many photographers do: A friend asked him to photograph his wedding and he did. And much to his surprise, he enjoyed it. “I love everything about it. I love the challenges of it— the pressures of the wedding day, because that’s when I do my best is under pressure. Coming up with creative pictures at the last second. Handling a mom and dad who are interfering.”

More than once, Hendricks has been the calming presence in a tense family situation. In fact, at one of his worst weddings, the mother of the bride upset her daughter so much that the bride cried for an hour. “And I had to take pictures of her,” he says. Hendricks handled the situation the only way he knew how: by offering her comfort, assuring her that the day was still hers, and promising that she would look beautiful for the photographs.

It was a valuable lesson learned early in Hendricks’ wedding photography career: Train your focus on the client. Be the calm (and the fun) they need on this emotional day.