Joe Buissink: Every Wedding Tells a Story

09 February 2008 Written by  Mary McGrath
This image of a bride walking in front of a mural is an example of the many candid portraits and unconventional angles that make Joe Buissink an in-demand wedding shooter. This image of a bride walking in front of a mural is an example of the many candid portraits and unconventional angles that make Joe Buissink an in-demand wedding shooter.
© Joe Buissink

With his training psychology, wedding photographer Joe Buissink knows how to put nervous couples at ease, making him a popular choice on the high-end wedding circuit.

What do Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, Hilary Swank and Christina Aguilera have in common? Aside from being beautiful, rich and famous, all have been captured by the insightful lens of Joe Buissink, wedding photographer to the "A-list" crowd.

In a little more than a decade, Buissink has become one of the foremost wedding photographers in the industry. Named one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world by American Photo, and voted one of the top five by the BBC in 2003, Buissink has also received the International Leadership Award in photography from the International Photographic Council at the United Nations. Why Joe? His name kept coming up based upon a consensus of opinions from Photo District News, WPPI, PPA and other renowned photographic organizations.

How did this not-so-average Joe achieve such acclaim so quickly? It's an interesting story, filled with tenacity, creativity and luck.

Born in Indonesia and of Dutch descent, Buissink was interested in clinical psychology as an undergraduate and was preparing to become a therapist. The more he studied, however, the more he realized he needed therapy himself, so he began to doubt his qualifications as a therapist.

Instead he began pursuing a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, a much more technical discipline. Meanwhile, he held many part-time jobs: research assistant, teaching assistant, photo-lab technician. In between, he dabbled in landscape photography. In his estimation, though, his landscape work was nothing remarkable.

Foot in the door

It was not until he started taking photographs of his autistic son that he realized he had the gift of psychological insight, the ability to see the true nature of his child. For Buissink, it was a photo-epiphany — a "wow" moment in which he realized that he could apply his background in psychology to his growing passion for photography. A seed was planted for a promising career in photography.

As he attended weddings of friends and family, he began to feel that their stories could be documented with a camera. This connection was reinforced by seeing the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ruth Robert Doisneau, photographic heroes whose images he greatly admired. He was interested in telling wedding stories through journalistic eyes, but wondered whether it was possible for him to carve out a niche in a field with so much competition.

He decided to take a chance and simply show up on the doorstep of Colin Cowie, a top-drawer wedding planner with offices in both New York and Los Angeles. Buissink believed that positioning his images as signed pieces of fine art would help differentiate himself from other photographers.

His gutsy strategy worked. After showing Cowie a few of his photos from other weddings he had attended, Buissink was hired. Shortly thereafter, Cowie booked him to shoot the wedding of actor Kelsey Grammer. Buissink was on his way.

Buissink's relationship to Annie Leibovitz didn't hurt either. Leibovitz was familiar with Buissink's work from a promo piece he had sent her, and was looking for a videographer to shoot her sister's wedding, since she was going to undertake the still shots herself. Buissink suggested that she simply enjoy the wedding festivities and let him handle the photography, and she complied. The result was a huge hit, and the galaxies opened for Buissink in the high end of the Southern California wedding market.

Under the veil

Regardless of whether celebrities are involved, being a wedding photographer is not for the faint of heart, especially when one must work with nervous and stressed family members. Buissink sometimes works with four sets of families, and there is often conflict and tension between the various relatives and guests. "If that's going on, it affects the bride and groom, and you can see sadness in their eyes," he says. "That makes it difficult to shoot, and then the photographer is blamed for bad energy at the wedding."

In cases like these, "I'm like a photo-therapist, and then I have to fix these problems," Buissink says. His sensitivity to the delicate psyche of each couple enables Buissink to see and shoot an event from an emotional perspective. With his background in psychology, he understands how to make subjects comfortable so that they are at ease in front of the camera, without forced smiles or stiff postures.

I step back, and often I use a much longer lens to capture these special moments.

But celebrity weddings, which often feature a tremendous amount of security to guard against the paparazzi, are truly unique events. In these circumstances, Buissink deals not only with publicists, but also with managers and lawyers. The high security ensures that the images shot at these weddings are not leaked to the media. According to WireImage, one of Buissink's A-list celeb shots could easily fetch $3.5 million, based on $1,500 to $2,000 per usage.

Many celebrities are quite familiar with posing for the camera, so Buissink has to employ specific techniques to catch the rare candid occasions. "I step back, and often I use a much longer lens to capture these special moments," he says. "The celebrities are aware I'm there, but I'm out of the way with a longer lens."

Film tells a story

When Buissink began shooting weddings, most of his peers were using Hasselblads. His inclination was to employ 35mm cameras so that he could bring "art" back into the wedding shoot, much like the Atlanta-based Denis Reggie, whose styling reflects the story of a wedding. Buissink now uses Canon gear, opting for the 5D for his digital and the 1V for his film-based work.

Buissink is one of the few who still prefer to work mostly with film. No Photoshop junkie, he doesn't even have the Adobe program installed, preferring to shoot rather than labor on his computer for hours at a time. His film preferences include Kodak's TMY 400, TMZ 3200 and infrared.

Using film, Buissink says, helps differentiate him from a sea of wedding photographers. As more and more photographers opt for digital capture, being a film-oriented photographer makes him stand out in this competitive field. Besides, he adds, his master printer, Robert Cavalli, works wonders with Buissink's negatives.

His primary shooters, however, work entirely in digital. The end result is that 80 percent of his wedding images are in color, with 20 percent in black-and-white, in both film and digital formats.

The business of matrimony

Most of Buissink's wedding sessions are seven hours in length, with him shooting during the entire session. Oddly enough, Buissink casts himself as the second shooter so that he can hang behind the scenes, shooting his artsy, candid shots, while his primary shooter appeases the bride's mother, who typically wants table shots, formals, flowers and other such images.

With destination weddings being all the rage these days, Los Angeles, Hawai'i and Mexico are popular locales for his shoots.

Over in Europe, he has also done many weddings in Italy, Greece and France. If the wedding couple lives in Florida, the ceremony is often held in the Bahamas or the Caribbean; Barbados is currently a hot destination, for example.

Buissink shoots about 50 weddings a year, including three or four celebrity shoots. Word of mouth has escalated his business, but in these tough economic times, he is sensitive to the economic constraints that have put a crimp on wedding costs.

Many of his non-celebrity shoots range in cost from $10,000 to $15,000, but now include several added features that have helped to buoy his business. For example, all of his wedding packages now include a variety of album options in the cost of the wedding shoot. Since Buissink is a fee-based photographer, adding albums into his pricing structure has made his services much more cost-effective for clients.

"Joe's photographs are truly works of art. The images he captures speak of love in a way that language cannot." —Hilary Swank

Some of his more popular packages include Graphistudio albums from Italy: lightweight, magazine-style albums with a more modern feel, compared to more traditional albums. Also included in the cost of the shoot are proofs and online viewing of the images through, where family members and attendees can order their prints directly.

This strategy sets Buissink apart from most other wedding photographers, especially those who shoot on a part-time basis. Many photographers who are new to the wedding business use a "shoot and burn" approach, in which the event is shot and a CD is given directly to the client. Although this approach is initially less expensive, it often results in many additional expenses for the client when files need to be corrected in Photoshop.

Looking inward

Beyond his wedding business, Buissink also teaches several photo workshops.

These aren't techie f-stop seminars; instead, they are designed to help photographers get in touch with who they are as people, and to shoot from the heart. Buissink's teachings encourage photographers to establish an emotional connection to their work, so that they can better relate to their clients, and thus become better photographers. Call him the Tony Robbins of the photography world.

Buissink first noticed his sensitive perspective when photographing his then-two-year-old autistic son. Autism is an emotional subject for Buissink, especially as two of his sons have been diagnosed with the condition.

I just liked the clean sand for them to leave foot prints in," Buissink says. "I simply asked them to go for a walk. I just followed.

"One out of every 150 kids has autism, and of those who have it, 75 percent are boys," Buissink says.

Clearly, he knows this subject firsthand. Buissink's passion for the topic has led him to document the lives and struggles of 38 autistic families in a book, "Autism Heroes," which was released in November 2007 and has been flying off the shelves.

It's a project that's near and dear to his heart.

And that's what Joe Buissink is all about. Whether he's shooting celebrities or just plain folks, he's a man who sees and feels with the eye of his camera, his images reflecting the true depth of the human psyche.



IN THE LOUPE: Joe Buissink

Location: Beverly Hills, Calif.

Celebrity weddings covered: Jennifer Lopez; Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey; Brendan Fraser; Kelsey Grammer; Hillary Swank and Chad Lowe; Christina Applegate; Jenny Garth and Peter Facinelli; and Christina Aguilera.

Popular wedding destinations: Venice and the Amalfi Coast in Italy; Mexico; The Bahamas; New York City; Napa Valley, Calif.; the south of France; Miami; and Aspen, Colo.

Media attention: He has been profiled on several TV programs, including "Good Morning America,"  "Entertainment Tonight,"  "Extra," Lifetime Television's "Wedding of a Lifetime," and "E!" His images also appear regularly in InStyle Weddings, Grace Ormonde Wedding Style and People, as well as many photography magazines.

Accolades: Buissink has received numerous International Grand Awards for his work from the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International. In February 2007, American Photo nominated him as one of the Top 10 Wedding Photographers in the World. Kodak hired Buissink to shoot its ad campaign for the Portra film line in 2003. He was also selected in 2005 to be Apple's spokesperson for the wedding industry for the release of the Aperture suite.


Mary McGrath
Story Author: Mary McGrath

Mary McGrath is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Professional Photographer and Rangefinder magazines as well as Copley Newspapers. To see more of her work, visit

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