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"When I do a wedding, I shoot to make me happy, to make my heart sing. And my clients are on the same page, so if I make myself happy, I make them happy."
If there ever has been a photographer who has found his place in the world, it might be wedding photographer Joe Buissink. He is well known to the well-heeled, having shot big weddings from Los Angeles to Paris, including many celebrity weddings (clients include Steven Spielberg, Annie Leibovitz, Jennifer Lopez). But what makes Buissink special, and the reason he has found his very successful niche, is his decision to remain an artist in a world more often filled with technicians and business people. It is this decision, along with his open heart and quick eye, that allow him to shoot weddings in his own style, a style that keeps him receptive to the gorgeous moments that a lesser photographer might miss.
This is not to say Buissink doesn't satisfy his clients and provide the typical formal shots that every wedding shooter must, it's just that he knows where his strengths lie and he has his well-schooled and well-paid secondary (actually "primary") shooters handle the formal setups while he concentrates on "the essence of people in the moment."
For this, Buissink carries a minimal kit: two Canon EOS 5D Mark III cameras, one with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens on his belly and one with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM over his shoulder. When I asked if he brings lighting or uses flash, he gave me an answer I imagine he gives many of his image-savvy clients, "I'm an available-light shooter and every once in a while, my flash is available." When those moments do arrive, he has two 580 EX II Speedlites ready. He says he may update soon to wireless capability, but for now he has an assistant handhold a flash. And when it's on-camera he makes it clear that he always bounces, "I never point my flash at anyone!"
I asked Buissink about prime lenses and he says that the new 24-70mm is so sharp he tends to leave the primes in his bag, often going a whole event without using them. He also recognizes his need for speed: "moments happen and I don't have time to change lenses." This also explains why he prefers to shoot in Program mode. It's a matter of knowing how to "drive" his camera faster in P mode and be ready for what comes. "I can switch 5-6 stops faster than I can in manual."
The primes he does have are the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, 50mm f/1.2L USM, a 24mm f/1.4L II USM, the 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro and "his fun lens," a 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens, which "I absolutely adore and pull out before any other prime. Really, it may only be in tight quarters that I even use a prime now." Clearly, Buissink likes to keep it basic, He says he avoids filters and the rule of his studio is no Photoshop. Photos can be color-corrected in Lightroom, possibly cropped a bit, but having cut his teeth as a lab assistant, he believes that the true art and craft of photography is in-camera.
Buissink came to shooting late in life. He was a psychology PhD student when his son was born and in a beautiful epiphany of photographing his newborn son nursing, he realized his true calling. A few years later, at a friend's wedding, he observed the photographer spending too much time on formal shots, all the while missing wonderful moments around him. With this, he found his avenue. He started by doing it all himself, the formal shots, table shots, eventually hiring a second shooter to do documentary style, and when seeing that work come back, the light went on. Now he employs photographers out of college who "breathe lighting and composition." He puts in his two cents when needed but trusts them implicitly. "This is my passion," he says, "you should never work a day in your life." Never working has been pretty good for Buissink. As a Canon-sponsored shooter, he speaks all over the world, he shoots 30-35 weddings a year plus other assignments, and noted that before 2008, a $30-40k shooting fee was common.
Getting back to gear, I asked Buissink why he started using Canon, and his answer was simple: "I saw how clean the files were at ISO 1600." He wanted a digital camera and a film camera that could keep up with each other. Speaking of film cameras, he says that he has recently been getting more and more requests to shoot black-and-white film, and he is very happy to do so. He notes that his "primaries only shoot color digital" but he is free to juggle styles and formats and often does. Everybody shoots only RAW and files are backed up three times—twice to two separate hard drives and once to DVD. The memory cards are not reformatted until after the client has the files.
JOE BUISSINK'S FAVORITE LENS
This redesigned EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens from Canon ups the ante for optical performance for a professional standard zoom lens. It has one Super UD lens element and two UD lens elements that minimize chromatic aberrations in the periphery at wide-angle, as well as reducing color blurring around the edges of the subject. In addition, two types of aspherical lenses are combined to help reduce spherical aberration over the entire image area, as well as through the full zoom range. Optimized lens coatings help ensure exceptional color balance while minimizing ghosting.
A ring-type USM and high-speed CPU with optimized AF algorithms ensure silent, fast autofocusing. The lens is constructed with improved dust sealing and water resistance, while fluorine coatings on the front and rear lens reduce fingerprints and smearing. A circular 9-blade diaphragm gives beautiful, soft backgrounds. A zoom lock lever locks the zoom position at the wide end for safe transporting while attached to an EOS DSLR camera over the shoulder.
Speaking with Buissink was a delight. There is a straightforward clarity, openness, and a confidence that was comfortable and inspiring. When I ask what happens if a future mother-in-law insists he stop shooting the kids playing at a wedding and concentrate on the bride or Uncle Joe at Table 5, he laughs a laugh that indicates how rarely that happens to him. "By the time my clients come to me, they have seen the work of 20 other photographers and know absolutely what I do. I'm always up front."
He does oblige the brides, of course, and "assigns a primary to a mother-in-law if she wants table shots." Clearly, his psychology education was not a waste, since "wedding photographers are also part-time therapists." He will meet clients three or more times before the wedding, often doing engagement sessions to get to know the families. When he says that he feels like a part of the family after a wedding, it doesn't ring hollow, and the amount of repeat business would certainly testify to that.
I mention one photo he has on his website, of a reception shot from what looks like a nearby hillside. "Yeah, I went for a walk," he says. It was at this point I thought to myself, "this guy is livin' the dream." He clearly likes what he does and that's something you cannot say about all wedding shooters. Whereas others might feel that their work interferes with their art, Buissink simply allows his art and work to become one.
He enjoys the events too, and can wait patiently for a single photo or shoot from the hip on the dance floor, often incorporating aspects of the venue into his shots. "I get butterflies at every wedding; it's about what can I get today that I never got before. I feel amazing to be able to be present on these important days; it's an honor and a blessing."
When I ask about the venues he works, he explains that there are a few he shoots regularly but would prefer to not know so much ahead of time. "What I try to accomplish is to not think at a wedding, I want to feel, be in the moment, and dance with the moment. Preconceived ideas can be problematic."
Buisssink is satisfied with the 5D Mark III, praising its vast improvement over the Mark II, and loves Canon glass but feels it is important to stay on top of his gear, looking forward to jumping on whatever 5D comes next. Also, every December he sends his cameras, lenses, and flashes back to Canon to be cleaned and reconfigured and notes with satisfaction that they always require some kind of adjustment.
As our chat wrapped up, talking about Joe's family history which includes him immigrating to Los Angeles from Holland as a child after having been born in Singapore and raised in Indonesia, he drops a comment that not only offers an insight to his success, but surprises with its lucidity: "I don't want it to be a photo shoot—I want it to be a wedding!!"