China, a place we often associate with a cold, steely communism, has seen its economy explode over the past decade, and with it, there has been a relaxation of sorts in local society and culture. The current 20-somethings of China have grown up with an almost U.S.-like freedom not experienced by those of previous generations. That freedom, along with economic gains, has a lot of young, successful Chinese wanting to show off to friends and colleagues, and thumb their nose at long-held traditions. One of those traditions, the formal Chinese wedding, has generated an entirely new sub-genre of wedding photography: the Asian pre-wedding.
The ‘Asian Pre-Wedding’ Photo Session
What’s an “Asian pre-wedding” you ask? It’s kind of like what we photographers and our clients refer to as an “engagement session,” except not really…at all. Here in the States, us photographers have a pretty standard stable of sessions we offer our clients: engagement, wedding, maybe a day-after session, and that’s that. The engagement session is a great way for our clients to get to know us. It also helps our clients learn to be comfortable in front of the camera. Lastly, it provides us plenty of creative freedom to shoot some beautiful photos for their save-the-date cards, wedding invitations, announcements, and guestbooks. We spend an hour or so shooting, the clients bring a few simple props maybe, we make some pretty pictures, and we’re done. The clients are happy, and we’re stoked to have had the time to shoot with them without the pressures of the big day.
Enter the Asian pre-wedding. It’s an engagement session on heroin; driving around robbing banks, doing smoky burnouts in a ’69 Chevelle, guns firing into the air, and hair blowing in the wind. Remember all that tradition? These couples are wanting wedding photos showing them living the Hollywood version of the American Dream, and they want someone to document it so they can show it off to their friends back home. They want to be in Las Vegas, a place that is as “American” as it gets to them, driving supercars, gambling, drinking and having a blast. They want to be on Route 66 in a vintage muscle car, the top down, hair blowing in the wind, oversized Aviators shading their eyes from the sun. These things represent freedom and American culture to them, and they want it in droves.
Not all of these sessions are a supercharged affair; there are plenty of other themes the clients choose to use. Our friends Jeremy and Zabrina over at Jeza Photography have been a pre-wedding powerhouse over the past several years, having carved out an incredible business for themselves along the way. Their clients have taken them all over the world; from Paris to London, Venice to San Francisco. Their clients want photographs along the streets of Paris in gorgeous designer gowns and bespoke suits. They want to be riding in a gondola through Venice, eyes locked on each other in the most romantic place imaginable. Often these clients are more than willing to spend three month’s salary to do all of this.
As the name suggests, the pre-wedding takes place before the wedding, just like an engagement session. But unlike an engagement session, the clients often wear their wedding gown and wedding tuxedo in the photos. They want to be seen in their wedding attire, and have no reservations or superstitions, and don’t buy into any traditional worries American couples might have about doing so. These sessions can last anywhere from a four-hour shoot to a multi-day marathon involving rented cars and airplanes, locations that require big money to rent out for the day, wardrobe changes, prop weapons, and theatrical makeup! They truly are an experience.
Once the session is over, the couples often head back home to China and hold a traditional, simple wedding for their parents and families. They then proceed to plaster their pre-wedding photos all over social media for their friends to see! The wedding day is very much for mom and dad, and to the couples, it’s secondary to their pre-wedding. Here in the states, the wedding day is the absolute most important thing to our clients, and the engagement session is less important – opposite from our Asian friends.
Why Every Couple Should Consider A Pre-Wedding Photo Session
We had the good fortune of being introduced to pre-weddings a few years ago by chance. We got a call from a couple out of Hong Kong, who wanted to fly to Las Vegas and have us spend half the day photographing them for their wedding, except there was to be no wedding. We were completely confused at first and tried to understand how they wanted wedding photos, but they weren’t married, nor were they getting married, until the following year. There wasn’t a name for what it was they were doing, but we went along with it and had a great time. Then a light bulb went on a couple years later when we started to notice Asian pre-wedding sessions popping up on social media. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had done an Asian pre-wedding of our own!
Fast forward to 2015 and Asian pre-weddings are a huge market. We got a call from a company out of Beijing called Muah (yep, just like the sound of air kisses). They wanted us to be photographers for clients they were sending to the States on pre-wedding adventures. Our first shoot with them was a Fast and Furious themed pre-wedding shoot both in Las Vegas, and a small ghost town outside of Las Vegas called Nelson, Nevada.
The day of the shoot arrived, and our clients pulled up in a Dodge Challenger and a Ferrari 458 Italia, both rented for the shoot. We incorporated the cars into their shoot, along with the amazing backdrops of the ghost town and the Strip. We tried to showcase the style the clients wanted their shoot to convey: freedom from oppressive parents and government, living the American dream, the open road, and reckless youth.
As a bonus, our groom said, “I don’t want to drive the Ferrari, it’s too difficult. Will you drive it?” I respond with a resounding “YES!” For the next hour, I found myself behind the wheel of the Italian supercar, blasting through back country roads – at somewhat illegal speeds – with the couple and my wife shrinking into the distance in their respective cars. It was an incredible adventure and unlike anything we had ever experienced as photographers. It was also a lot of pressure.
With all of these unique settings and props, these photo shoots can be pretty challenging for a photographer. Couple that with the fact the clients often live in China or Hong Kong, and the photographer in the States or elsewhere, and you’ve got to be on top of your game. Much like a wedding day, there are no reshoots for a pre-wedding when your clients flew in from Beijing, you live in Arizona, and you did the shoot in Vegas. It’s just not going to happen. If you have a card fail, it’s game over! Gear stolen out of your trunk while you’re having dinner after the shoot? Done! Hard drive fails on your laptop, and you hadn’t backed anything up? Have fun explaining that to the people that just spent five figures on a shoot with you! One can feel incredibly pressured by all of this, so be sure to have your workflow and backups together before you tackle this, or any type of shoot.
How To Break Into The Pre-Wedding Photo Session Genre
So by now you’re probably thinking, “this sounds great, Jason, but how do we get into this?” In an interesting twist, these couples not only want incredible images, but they also want to be able to brag about the photographer that shot their photos. It’s hugely important to be able to say they worked with a certain photographer in a certain city or location. Having done a few of these shoots over the last few years, we’ve realized how much we love them, and how we could be happy doing only pre-wedding sessions forever. We have also realized that it may take us awhile to build a name for ourselves and have a brand that is recognized with Asian clientele.
Social media is huge in China, and nothing is bigger than Weibo. I would suggest getting a Weibo account and start posting a lot of great content, utilizing their version of the hashtag to try and draw attention to your work. Partnering up with companies like Muah, and startups like PoseCatch (and several others that are now in the business) can also be a great way to try and get your name in front of potential clients. You should also try to get educated on the clients, their wishes, and expectations; Jeremy and Zabrina of Jeza Photography held a wonderful class at WPPI 2015 which delved into the pre-wedding market. Most importantly, you need to build relationships with other photographers. We all know how important relationships are in this business, so don’t be afraid to get to know people that are doing these types of shoots. We’re working very closely with Muah, and we are always happy to answer questions and steer you in the right direction.
What I would love to see is our American clients adopting these types of shoots into their overall wedding experience. There is absolutely no reason the American pre-wedding session can’t be a thing. Talk to your clients, tell them how exciting these shoots are, turn your engagement sessions into something bigger, something bolder, and something mind-blowingly fun! Sure, a day-after or trash the dress session is great, but the wedding is over then. Whether we want to admit it or not, once the wedding is over, and our clients wake up the next day, the wedding excitement slowly tapers off. Let’s turn the pre-wedding into a new, exciting experience for our clients, no matter which country they live in!