“It takes a unique set of skills to be a wedding photographer,” says Lauren Miles. To be a successful wedding photographer one needs to have a balance of technical skills and people skills that are unlike commercial photography, fine art photography, or even other kinds of portrait photography. Lauren has that balance. She is a wedding and elopement photographer based out of Portland, Oregon and since going full-time with her business in 2017, Lauren has photographed hundreds of weddings. But in 2009, when she was just out of high school and shooting her first-ever wedding, Lauren had never been to one.
Behind The Camera: Lauren Miles
When asked about how in just eight short years Lauren went from attending and photographing her first wedding to being a full-time wedding photographer, she admits, “I just kind of fell into it.” Like many, she started photography in high school. She took a film photography class in her senior year and fell in love with it. As a graduation present, her parents bought her a digital camera and Lauren started taking pictures of everyone she knew. “I literally could not put it down,” she reminisces. “A family friend asked me to shoot their wedding a year after I graduated high school. I had never even been to a wedding before that,” Lauren continues. So despite not really knowing what a wedding was at the time, Lauren photographed her family friends’ wedding. “I took it so seriously. This day was so special and meaningful, and they wanted me to photograph it, and they believed in me,” says Lauren of the spark that would create something much bigger in her life in the next decade. “Shooting that wedding opened my eyes to the idea of wedding photography. Because at that point I had only been taking portraits for the most part.”
Lauren didn't go to school for photography. “I loved it so much that I didn't want to do it as my job,” she says. “So I went to school for graphic design instead, and I continued to do photography on the side for fun.” After working multiple graphic design jobs, she realized photography fulfilled her more than graphic design could so she quit her full-time job and pursued her photography career. “Photography was never something I stopped doing,” continues Lauren. “I always picked up these random little gigs like a friend needing a headshot or friends getting married and finally realized I should do it full time.”
People were the driving factor for her wanting to take pictures. “I never took photos of landscapes or things. It was always about the people,” explains Lauren. “I'm a very empathetic person and I've always tried to capture people as I see them. And no other form of photography ever interested me in the way that capturing people did.”
“It's always been about how people interact,” Lauren explains of the draw to shoot weddings. “You have to create a relationship with your clients leading up to the wedding so that you already know who they are,” she states passionately, “that way you're able to capture their wedding day on a more personal level.” Lauren says that a lot of clients that reach out to her say that what caught their eye about her photography is that it feels very personal like she knew the couples somehow. “I'm a professional third wheel,” Lauren jokes. “Every couple and wedding day is so different. My main goal is to capture wedding days in a way that is authentic to my clients.”
“A big part of my approach to wedding photography is not being noticed,” tells Lauren. “I try to blend in with the guests and be out of the way so people don’t even realize there's a photographer around,” she continues, “I feel like this allows people to relax and enjoy themselves and I can capture more genuine photos.”
Lauren’s ability to blend in and capture authentic moments is derived from her ability to, as she says, be the calm that the people need. “Everyone is so amped because it's such a happy, special day,” Lauren says, “weddings can be high stress, but only because they're full of emotion. I've always been a natural problem solver and I do thrive in high-stress environments. But to me, it's more important to be the person that is able to be the calm presence throughout the day.”
Lauren’s approach to capturing couples' special day is a mix of artistic and documentary. “I would describe my style of wedding photography as candid and photojournalistic,” she continues, “I really just try to capture the day in a warm and nostalgic way so they can remember this exciting time in their life.” As a child, Lauren’s grandfather bought her a subscription to National Geographic. For years she loved looking through the pages of articles and real images. “That's probably where my photojournalistic approach to photography came from.”
A few years ago, the usage of film photography at weddings would have categorized Lauren as a fine art wedding photographer. Nowadays though, she says that many wedding photographers have integrated shooting on film into their documentary and editorial-style weddings. “Film photography has made such a comeback in the last few years,” says Lauren. She hypothesizes that the demand for film photography at people’s weddings is a direct reflection of the trend swinging too far to the side of perfection in wedding photography.
“I think a couple of years ago the focus of wedding photography was on perfect images and editing out all the distractions. Even I caught myself editing out things in a photo sometimes to the point where I'm like, ‘why am I making this photo so perfect that it doesn't feel real anymore?’” states Lauren. “It swung so much to the perfect side that it’s now swinging back the other way and people want it to feel real again. I think adding film back into the mix has kind of brought back that realness to photography. If you take a film photo, it captures that real moment in a way that digital just doesn’t.”
Lauren has spent years trying out different gear and seeing what works best for her. “I am finally happy with the setup I have for wedding days,” she explains.
On a wedding day, Lauren shoots with a pair of Canon R6s. “I’ve always shot on two cameras on a wedding day, which usually had a 35mm and a 50mm lens,” tells Lauren. “I used to shoot only primes, but when I switched to the mirrorless Canon R6, I got the 28-70mm f2.0 RF lens and it blew my mind. I picked up that lens and it was like three primes in one. It made shooting a wedding day so much easier.”
That the switch to that zoom lens two years ago was huge for Lauren, she says. "Once I got my 28-70mm, I'm like, ‘this is it!’” Lauren says that throughout the day, the 28-70 is perfect for her photojournalistic approach. “Shooting wide is my favorite way to capture a wedding day. Getting the whole environment, seeing everything that's happening. But to tell the story of the day and really capture how it felt, you need those close-up shots as well which this lens easily lets me do. It's just an amazing lens. It's really heavy, but it's my favorite lens ever.”
“On a wedding day, I'll start with my 28-70mm on one camera and then usually my 85 on the other,” Lauren says of her lens choices, “That's usually my setup until the ceremony where I'll switch out my 85 for my 70-200mm lens. I just feel comfortable with that setup. With that combo, I'm fully ready to capture anything.”
Finding her new favorite lens and switching to zooms wasn’t the only advantage that switching to Canon’s mirrorless system brought to Lauren’s work. “The technology has come such a long way in just a few years that it's crazy what it can do now,” she exclaims.
“Mirrorless cameras have gotten so good that I can shoot at 10,000 ISO in a really dark venue and it still looks great.” And while the high ISO capabilities with her camera allow her to do that, Lauren doesn’t just rely on pushing her exposure when walking into unknown lighting scenarios at venues. “Early on in my career I was like, ‘I'm a natural light photographer.’ But really, I was just scared to learn flash,” she remembers, “then I took the time to really learn flash and I realized how useful it is.” Lauren says that she prefers doing on-camera flash when bringing in external lighting gear. “It kind of goes with my approach of being hidden and not really being in the way,” she explains. “I still shoot ambient lighting, but I love doing on-camera flash as well. Direct flash is one of my favorite ways to capture the joy of the reception. I just love how it looks,” Lauren continues. “I’ll do off-camera flash, occasionally, if it's necessary. I just shot a wedding on New Year's Eve and it was really dark by the time we were doing family portraits. So I had an off-camera flash with a soft box because you really want those portraits to look nice and natural.”
“Learning flash was a huge game changer in my wedding photography,” admits Lauren. “I'm pretty sure I learned how to use my flash on YouTube. In this day and age, you can learn anything on the internet, just by looking up videos,” Lauren suggests. “But I'm a very hands-on learner, so for me, it's also just trial and error. Someone can tell me how to do something, but I won’t fully grasp it until I do it and figure out what works for me,” she says of her learning style. Lauren says that anyone new who wants to become a wedding photographer can learn a lot of the techniques and skills online. “I love that you can learn things online yourself. If I have a question about anything, I'll just Google it. Like ‘why is my flash doing this weird thing?’ Google it. Someone else has likely dealt with it,” Lauren excitedly points out. “I didn't get a degree in photography and I don't think you need one anymore. Photography, like any art form, is subjective and you have to find what you like on your own.”
So how does a seasoned veteran wedding photographer keep things fresh? “I like to do a styled shoot at the beginning of the season and try out different creative techniques. It's kind of fun for everyone to get that little creative itch scratched at the beginning of the wedding season,” tells Lauren. She uses styled shoots to play and try out new trends or techniques. “On a wedding day it would be weird if I just pulled out something like a roll of plastic wrap and said ‘we're gonna try this’ without ever trying it before,” laughs Lauren. “Having creative shoots really helps stir up that creativity and get my ideas going again for wedding season so I can keep that creativity going throughout the year. It's so easy in wedding photography to just have something that works and then do it over and over. But for me, I try to do something different for every client because every wedding day is different, so I want the way I capture it to be special to them.”
These styled shoots often bring together other creatives that are also in the wedding industry that Lauren can collaborate and network with. “Having those connections with florists or planners is great because you get to see their creative vision,” tells Lauren. “When I go to say, a florist, I'll go with a basic idea and let them do their creative thing and let everyone bring their own creative aspect to it.” Lauren continues, “it's a lot more fun having a collaborative shoot. And everyone gets a little bit more out of it than if it's just my idea.” Connections within the industry go a long way according to Lauren in her experience. “They’re basically your coworkers in a way, and you want to like your coworkers, right?” exclaims Lauren. “Word of mouth in the wedding community is a huge tool, especially because the industry here is so small. If you are a nice person, people are going to want to work with you again.”
“I’ve always had a great community of creatives from the start,” Lauren states matter of factly, “everyone in the Pacific Northwest wedding industry is very community over competition focused.” Lauren remembers that the first year that she decided to go full-time as a wedding photographer, she was able to use the time she had when she wasn't working to make connections. “Before the pandemic, there were always meetups and hangouts within the wedding community. It felt very welcoming from the start. Everybody wanted everyone to succeed, which was amazing to be a part of,” remembers Lauren.
“Once I made real friendships with other wedding photographers, it was a relief to have other people who I could talk to and bounce ideas off of. Working for yourself can be very lonely without those kinds of relationships” continues Lauren on the benefits of community. She also remembers not feeling as though wedding photography was super competitive as she was starting her business. “I think everyone kind of realizes there's no reason to be competitive because so many people get married each year. If you don't get this wedding, you're going to get a different wedding,” proclaims Lauren. “I've never felt like I had to plow my way to the top or anything like that,” she continues. “Most people get married on a Saturday and there are only so many Saturdays during the wedding season, so once you're booked out, that’s it. Having those connections with other wedding photographers, if someone is booked out, they can send that wedding to a photographer that they feel has a similar style and that they're friends with because you want others that you’ve made a connection with to succeed.”
A few years ago, Lauren worked hand and hand with a videographer. “I was really lucky to be able to work with my husband, a videographer, because I learned a lot about video,” reminisces Lauren. “He doesn't shoot weddings anymore, but it was a nice time in our lives.” Past learning video from her partner, Lauren says she gained even more from working with him. “It has been amazing being with a partner who fully understands my career,” says Lauren, “he pushed me from the beginning to go full-time and he has been able to help me when my workload gets crazy.”
And the support that Lauren got from having a creative partner really helped her push toward a full-time photography career. “When I went full-time, it was a scary and exciting jump from a stable job. I don't want to say it was easy for me, but I knew I would succeed if I put my full energy into making it happen. So I was spending 40 hours a week trying to become a photographer. From the second I went full-time, I contacted people and did shoots all the time. I posted on Facebook and Craigslist. I did everything in my power to succeed.”
“When I was first getting started, becoming a traveling wedding photographer was the goal,” Lauren reminisces, “I thought you made it when you were getting paid to go shoot weddings that weren't in your hometown.” These days, destination weddings make up just a small part of Lauren’s wedding season. “Weddings have taken me as far as Isle of Wight,” Lauren says, “but I quickly realized I preferred shooting close to home.”
Padding extra days for travel and making sure your gear is insured for full replacement were just a few of the stressful parts of traveling for wedding photography. “When I was traveling for weddings, I realized it's not just a vacation. I barely got to enjoy the locations I was shooting in so now I prefer to take on a couple of travel weddings a year, so I can really enjoy the trip.”
The hard work didn’t stop once Lauren established herself as a wedding photographer. “During the wedding season, it's constant work, Monday through Friday. Well, really it's seven days a week through summer. Then in the off-season, it's all backend work. Updating your website and blogging, making sure everything is updated and ready for the next booking season. There are different seasons in this career and the work definitely ebbs and flows.”
“I’ve worked hard to be where I’m at in my career,” admits Lauren about her success, “but I’ll never stop learning and growing.” As an artist, Lauren doesn’t know if she’ll ever be fully satisfied with her craft, but at least that leaves room for creativity and exploration, she says. “I’m excited to see where it takes me. If you keep doing the work, you keep getting better. And if you create work that you love, you will be successful.”