Diana Zapata is a Brooklyn-based wedding and portrait photographer whose work blends an editorial sensibility with a knack for finding and capturing natural moments during weddings and events. In this interview, she discusses her strategies for managing personalities and locations to create original and compelling wedding portraits.
Photographs © Diana Zapata
Cory Rice: The first aspect of your photography that immediately stood out to me is how present everyone appears. What goes into achieving this effect? How do you avoid the clichés of the genre?
Diana Zapata: I try to establish a connection instead of going for a specific image. I find that posing is where the cliché and the cheesy stuff happen. We’ve all seen certain types of wedding and engagement photos a million times. However, establishing a connection in my sessions also means giving some direction. Maybe the couple is hugging a certain way and I will ask one of them to kiss the other on the forehead, ask them to take a deep breath together, close their eyes, walk toward me, dance and get them moving. In all this process I’m also aware of how different every connection is, so before I even suggest anything, I will tell them that if any of what I say feels weird, just laugh at the situation and don’t worry about following exact direction. What I’m really after is an image that is real and that, as you say, feels unposed and present. I prefer a photo of them laughing at what I just asked them to do than the one of them looking uncomfortable because I “forced” them to do something that didn’t feel natural. The challenge is getting people to loosen up in front of a total stranger and get to the core of who they are in their relationship, to really be themselves. And of course, this can be really hard to do in front of someone they barely know who will ask them to “look natural.”
How much time do you dedicate to getting to know the couple ahead of time? How collaborative is the planning process?
I try to get to know them before the wedding day as much as possible. If we don’t have an in-person meeting, we will at least have a phone call or a Facetime meeting. I have a questionnaire that I ask the couple to fill out with basic questions about them, significant locations, and scheduling so I can plan to capture what is important to them. Some people are more traditional in that they want to focus more on formal portraits while others might say, “I just want fun photos!” Then you just have to tease out what exactly they mean by “fun.”
What is your approach for formal portraits when working with people who aren’t models and aren’t accustomed to taking direction?
Whether these are couple portraits or individual images, the first thing I do is try to get them out of the space where there are distractions and nerves of being photographed so that they can focus on becoming present with me. A few years ago, I did a yoga teacher training, so I think this might influence a little bit of my approach, but I’ll remind them they are here, present with me. I’ll ask them to take a deep breath. I’ll reassure them that they don’t have to look at the camera and smile all the time, they can look somewhere else or at each other. If they want to close their eyes for a minute that is OK, too. There is no right or wrong and we can start where we are, it always gets easier after the first click. What happens most often is people are just shy and don’t know what to do. If I’m working a portrait session, I’ll ask what the purpose of having these photos taken is, that way we have a clear sense of direction. If it’s a wedding day, sometimes couples will ask if they should smile. “Well, how do you feel? Are you happy?” That usually gets a response.
And for the rest of the wedding party?
When I am shooting members of the wedding party together I will often group them and ask for a shot looking at the camera smiling and shot looking at each other. Eye contact is such a powerful thing—the longer I have them hold it, the more giggly they get.
How do you maintain that energy once someone is relaxed?
I keep the process fluid and moving. I tell them after they hear the shutter release to look somewhere else. That little action might make the photo look totally different. It could bring in something that I didn’t even think of, but they did it because it felt natural to them and the image ends up being much better. I think about fashion photography and how models keep switching poses between shots because you don’t want to see the same thing over and over. Sometimes I will have them do an action. “Walk toward me or away or twirl.” Even if it feels like it’s something cheesy, it keeps them moving.
Do you have any advice for managing larger groups like an entire wedding party?
The most important thing to manage a large wedding party is to be clear about what you’re planning to do and communicate it. There is a lot happening on a wedding day and people might be distracted or just wanting to go party! So, I try to keep it under 30 minutes and have a few go-to action shots, one simple portrait image of everyone (with variations like smiling or no smiling) and then split them into smaller groups like just the ladies, just the men, maybe groups of siblings or any special connections that the couple has mentioned in advance. One of my favorite action shots is I have everyone lock arms and walk a straight line toward me. This gets them close and encourages them to move together which usually leads to laughter and the chance to capture genuine emotion. This is usually the very last shot and I just tell them to keep walking toward the closest bar or their cocktail hour.
How do you manage people who are important parts of the wedding party but don’t want to have their picture taken or just want to party?
I don’t come across this very often, but when I have, it’s been mostly within a group of groomsmen (sorry guys!). The bridesmaids usually start getting ready from super early on in the day, but the guys just have to shower and get dressed. So, they sometimes start drinking much earlier and there is a higher chance for that one rowdy friend who doesn’t want to cooperate. When I run into that situation I try to remind them gently that these photographs are for the couple and how much they will appreciate having them later.
How does your approach change for the reception after the wedding?
It is highly documentary style at that point. I’m not directing anything or anyone. Sometimes a person will see me with my camera and ask for a photo. This can have a snowball effect where other people see me making portraits and come over. I’ll happily take photos of groups if they want to, but my concern with trying to get group photos during cocktail hour and the reception is that most people are there to enjoy themselves, so I don’t want to intrude. I’ll use a longer lens to get more candid images. I think it tells the story better if I am taking photos of people who are not necessarily looking at the camera all the time. Of course, every event is different, and I’ll read the room, see what the best game plan is depending on time and what is happening.
What is your approach to locations for engagement and wedding portraits?
I have a list of places that I suggest. But I also tell them that if they have a location in mind—somewhere important to them, like where they first met, the neighborhood they first lived in together or that sort of thing—to tell me. That can add a lot to the meaning of the photo, especially since the photos are for them.
If it is a location, you haven’t used before, do you scout it out ahead of time?
It depends. I don’t do that very often because I think that seeing the location for the first time helps me to see it with fresh eyes. There are so many things that are unpredictable, especially in New York. You can show up somewhere and there is a firetruck or something blocking your shot that wasn’t there yesterday. I will research the place to see if it is somewhere that will be easy to shoot in or not or if it’s a large venue that needs some exploring to find the best spots for photos. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search to get an idea of the place, as well, although I am also careful because if you do a lot of research online, you may end up doing similar things to what other people have done instead of creating something of your own.
There are practical concerns. For example, I had a bride who needed to get permits to shoot at a specific location and another bride that was getting married in the Catskills at a new venue, but it was quite a big property, so I drove up there a few months before the wedding day to scope it out—those kinds of things are important during the planning stage.
Do you have any other projects that you have been working on lately?
Most of my work is shot on location because I love intertwining the landscape with my subjects and allowing that to be an important part of the story I'm telling with my images, but I recently realized that I wanted to work on a portrait series in studio, to challenge myself with a blank backdrop. So, I thought of working with women and creating a series dedicated to the divine feminine within each of them. I ask my subjects a series of questions before our session to get them thinking about their femininity, how they see it, how they communicate it, if there's been a role model for them in their own ancestry or only societal conditioning as they are growing up and if there's any shame associated with their own expression. Within their answers, the idea is to get a series of images that express their unique view of what being feminine means to them. Using elements like movement, breath, items special to them, clothing and, of course, lights/shadows, the goal is to capture their answer in the form of an image. My ultimate goal is to showcase this project in a gallery exhibition, make it a book and turn it into a workshop where women can see themselves represented somewhere in the spectrum of their own feminine nature. Anyone interested can learn more about this project and sign up for a session here.