Carpe diem: a Q&A with Dan O’Day
In the Australian wedding photography industry, the name Dan O’Day is synonymous with creativity, innovation, and a strong and unmistakable shooting style. Capture gained a special insight into this amazing photographer.
Before he became a household name in the Australian wedding photography industry, being commissioned to capture wedding across the globe, and a regular on the international speaking circuit, Dan O’Day used to tour the country with his band as well as hold exhibitions of his paintings and fine art photography. His day job at the time was working in the government for the National Health and Medical Research Council, taking care of the peer review process of medical research funding schemes in Australia. And he’s certainly come a long way since then.
In a world where the celebration of matrimony has become ‘cool’ again, gone are the days of stock-standard weddings. The opportunity to capture that special day, coupled with finding the most epic locations to amplify the self-expression of the contemporary wedding provides a blank canvas for O’Day and his visionary ideas. When O’Day shot a friend’s wedding in 2007, not only was it a generous gift, but a realisation of the potential of a highly rewarding and new career. Starting his business in 2009, there is no way he could have predicted where he’d find himself today.
Taking the documentary approach to weddings, O’Day captures the personal story of each couple he photographs. While shooting and guest speaking all around the world has kept O’Day innovative enough to be named 2016 AIPP Australian Wedding Photographer of the Year, his fine art background drives his ingenuity to create unparalleled images for each of his clients. There’s a mantra that Dan O’Day lives and works by: Get good, be nice. Then get even better, but still be nice. And given his success in the industry, and the fact that he’s universally liked sort of a guy, it’s clearly a good one.
Capture: How did you get started as a wedding photographer, and why did you choose that area?
Dan O’Day: Probably the same way as everyone else; shooting a friends’ wedding as a present to them. Before that, I was showing my fine art photography in galleries, and it was my art practice, after painting. I secured a show in a gallery that I really wanted to show in, and it was well received by the press, which in turn led me to get some good commercial commissions, which eventually led to being represented by Catherine Asquith Gallery in Melbourne. I was really enjoying the art of photography and didn’t take wedding photography seriously at all. Then I shot my first one, and I was keen as a bean.
Capture: How has the wedding photography industry changed since you started?
Dan O’Day: It has changed so much. Nowadays, weddings themselves have become “cool” again; couples are getting more and more creative and often using the opportunity to showcase to their friends and their families just how creative they can be. In turn, they are looking for the right artists to collaborate with to help their vision come to life.
I have seen loads of trends come and go, and it will continue to evolve, but one thing I can say is that we have never had so many talented wedding photographers on the planet earth as we do right now. Of course, they are all teaching face-to-face and online, so the talent pool is just going to keep growing faster and faster.
Capture: What do you think is driving that change, and what do you think the industry will look like in five years’ time?
Dan O’Day: I think one of the major things driving change is the wide-ranging influence of social media. It has never been so easy to get recognition so quickly, and especially international recognition; “Insta-fame” is a real thing, although “Insta-success” is a different ball game entirely, and none of us can hide anymore. Clients know that everyone they went to school with, their work colleagues, millions of strangers, even the people they hate, is likely, in some way, to see their photos. Through social media, magazine publications or online blogs with one million plus unique visits every week, it’s going to happen.
I think this adds to the pressure – for the couple as well as the photographer, the planner, the designer, stylist, florist, musicians, illustrator, caterers, and filmmakers. Everyone is on their A-Game, and everyone is on the brink of experiencing “their big break” or their 15 minutes of fame. The pressure is on in a way that it has never been before, but in five years from now, who knows?
Things are moving so fast. I predict motion films will become insanely popular and photographers who see and document a moment well will be able to stay around as long as they want to. If you have a business based heavily on a trend, you will have to move fast with the trends to keep up, or else you’ll fade away. Strong documenting and killer costumer service will always trump everything else for longevity.
Capture: Taking a documentary approach, you really tell a story about the day. Why did you choose to work this way as opposed to the purely aesthetic shooting of other wedding photographers?
Dan O’Day: I try to dedicate the right amount of focus to both documentary and aesthetic, where I can. At the end of the day, a well captured moment will always prevail over a well or cleverly taken portrait to a client.
Beautiful aesthetics and amazing portraits are great to attract couples initially, and also to impress our peers. But once the photos are delivered, I believe, based on the reaction from my couples, that the documentary aspect of the day holds more weight in the long term. A moment will be more likely to bring a tear over details or portraits, which are still important to knock out of the park.
Capture: You’ve founded the collective All Grown Up Weddings with fellow photographer Kelly Tunney: an unusual venture in a profession that mostly finds photographers working in isolation. How has this collective benefited your career and your practice?
Dan O’Day: I’m not sure that I can say it has benefited my career right now, but it’s just really nice to be working with a family of artists toward a common goal, as opposed to working by myself in my darkroom listening to podcasts all day. It is designed more to benefit my lifestyle long-term, and hopefully the industry, moving forward.
I can’t shoot weddings for the rest of my life, so I am choosing to create a family of photographers to guide, mentor, and, of course, learn from myself. These are photographers that we believe in, and they represent our agency moving forward. I feel like agencies can sometimes get a bad reputation as “wedding factories” that produce huge volumes of work with mid-range quality. We are trying to change that perception with All Grown Up Weddings. Our photographers have been selected very carefully, and they are crazy talented. They are producing work at the highest standard, and we want to make sure we keep it that way. As a result, I will be able to cut back on my own weddings and get a few weekends back for myself, and for any little humans should Andrea, my partner, and I decide to create some in the next few years.
Capture: Your submission to the APPAs was less than traditional. What have you been doing lately to push the boundaries of your processes and practice, and how have your clients reacted?
Dan O’Day: I’m not sure that anything I have been doing lately is any different to what I have always done. When I first started, I put my main focus on the creative portrait shoot with the couple, and I would always try to push the boundaries as far as I could, while still getting the safe “keep mum and dad happy” shots.
I use a system I call, “Happy +1”. When I am shooting, during any stage of the day, I grab an image that I am really happy with, and I try not to settle at that. I try to +1 what I have just done and experiment with an alternative composition, perspective, lens, or slightly different pose. On occasion, I’ve been known to just start running away from the client as fast as I can to see where my legs take me, turning and then shooting, and again +1’ing that frame until I come up with something that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t pushed myself beyond the shot that I was initially happy with. Sometimes it takes me somewhere completely out of my comfort zone and into a land of a beautiful new picture that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Other times it just confirms for me that I had it right the first time. Either way, playing and experimentation are key.
For more complex set-ups, I think my couples enjoy being a part of something that they know will create a reaction, either good or bad. It’s exciting, and not something they get to be a part of every day. These days, I’m putting less emphasis on the location shoot and more on documenting the day as it unfolds in front of me, as creatively as I can. It’s more reactive shooting than proactive shooting. I still push hard for the location shoot to try and do something outside of the box if I can, and I do love it. But as for documenting, it just feels right for me at this stage of the journey to have less control over a scene and be forced to pull something special out of it all. That is where the challenge lies for me. Having total control of a scene and setting up something beautiful can be easy, but capturing a passing moment and relying on my instinctual framing and use of available light to produce something special, requires a lot more from me creatively. And that’s what I need to keep being challenged by my work.
Capture: Having recently won the 2016 AIPP Australian Wedding Photographer of the Year, can you tell me how important awards are for careers of wedding photographers these days, and what impact do they have in terms of attracting clients?
Dan O’Day: In my experience, they have been super beneficial. Clients might not really take into consideration what awards I have won when they are deciding between another photographer they like and myself. Winning awards – if you play your cards right, and submit press releases – can give your business a whole lot of free publicity. Winning the title this year drew huge traffic to my website and inbox from potential clients – many of which have led to conversions. Also, I think that entering awards and having my work judged by my peers over the years, I have always been kept accountable to myself and the quality of work that I produce. Plus, it makes Mum really proud and gives her bragging rights at work.
Capture: Because a wedding is such a significant event for a client, how important is it for photographers to take creative risks on the day?
Dan O’Day: I’ve always worked on a personal rule of two for them, one for me. First up we need to remember what we have been hired to do, and that it’s a pretty serious gig, and a dangerous one to be doing any experiments. Minimising risk is key; having a second shooter that you trust can help a lot with that. For example, the ceremony is a pretty important occasion not to stuff up. However, if you have an idea to get super creative and plonk yourself on a mountain top, to shoot the ceremony in a vast landscape 300 metres up the road, go for it. That’s only if you have a reliable second shooter who’s in position on the ground getting everything that needs to be documented, otherwise send the second shooter on a hike.
Taking risks just to shoot something to impress fellow photographers, and running the chance of stuffing up an important aspect of the couple’s day is reckless. A lot of photographers are torn when shooting weddings. Are they shooting for the couple or are they shooting for other photographers to blow each other’s minds on social media the next day to get those likes up? I’ve been guilty of this on occasion, as well. We all enjoy approval from our peers. I think we all want to produce work that inspires our clients, and other photographers. But if I have learned anything, it’s that there is a time and a place for everything. Sometimes, we can attract clients that give us free reign to get as creative and risky as we want, and they are prepared to cop the consequences. It’s rare, but it happens.
Capture: On your website, you state that paintings and contemporary art contribute to your process, and what you ultimately produce. Where do you turn to actively seek inspiration outside of your medium? Why do you think this is important to your practice overall?
Dan O’Day: It’s important for me to keep fuel in the tank. Coming from an art background, I get inspired by paintings, installation, just about any form of design, and, of course, music. I can’t say that it has any direct impact on the images that I take, but what it does do, when I make time to get to a gallery, is get me fired up and hungry again. Taking time out to enjoy others’ art practices reminds me why I started doing what I do. I see what people are achieving out there, and I want a piece of that. I want to be proud of the work that I produce.
Some of my favourite artists include Cy Twoobly, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, and Jason Benjamin. As for photography, well, it’s honestly too hard to name them, and I’m sure we don’t have enough space.
Capture: What are some of the bigger mistakes you see early career wedding photographers making?
Dan O’Day: Building the house without a solid foundation. Everything is moving so quickly at the moment, and a lot of photographers starting out can get work pretty quickly through social media and free [magazine/online] features. I think that getting busy quickly and not charging their worth, even if it isn’t that much first up, is a big mistake. Biting off more than they can chew, without learning the basics of photography and business, is also what is sinking many. Those who pick themselves up and dust themselves off often enough will keep moving forward, and the others will move onto the next thing.
Capture: Having given many keynote presentations overseas, what have you learned from meeting other photographers from all around the world, and how do their experiences differ from those of Australian wedding photographers?
Dan O’Day: It depends on which country. I guess the major differences are climate and light. After shooting in many other countries, I have realised just how harsh our light is, so I think we drew the short straw there. In the US and EU, their “Golden Hour” is literally one whole hour; whereas here it’s “Golden 15 minutes”, if we are lucky. The rest of the day we just have harsh, white light thumping down on us.
I know the Irish have to deal with a lot of rain, so it’s almost a safe bet that it’s going to rain on their days at some stage. The US do a lot of “first look” shoots (couple shoot before the ceremony) and then sneak out for a golden hour shoot later on during the reception. Australia has been catching onto this trend the last couple of years, and it’s great.
Most cities in Asia are very tech based, so it’s a lot about gear and strobes; strong dramatic studio-lit portraits, high fashion, and status. They tend to allow photographers hours of shooting time – often the day before, or even a month before, fully dressed in their wedding attire – to get the portraits they are after.
Europe is too broad to pigeonhole. They like their gear; they love their beautiful light, and have a billion beautiful locations with thousands of years of history to play with just about anywhere they look; in short, they are lucky bastards.
Capture: What pearls of wisdom can you offer newer photographers to help them survive and thrive in the industry?
Dan O’Day: Be patient, find a mentor, second shoot, or better yet, assist others before you dive in. Let the world know you exist. Be heavily active in your photo community, speak with people, reach out, get knocked back and then reach out, then get knocked back, then reach out again. Understand that it takes time, and that’s OK. And by time, I mean years, with many weddings and many mistakes. After years, if you still love it, and want to do better, and get better, you will.