Community : Flat Lay Styling with Rebecca Yale
Rebecca Yale is a highly regarded destination wedding photographer who has been published in Martha Stewart Weddings, Brides, Marie Claire, and many more. She is as kind as she is talented, and I am thrilled that she is sharing her approach to wedding photography and especially flat lay styling.
How do you feel your education in the arts has influenced your approach to wedding photography?
My education and life journey in general has completely formed who I am as a shooter. I always joke that weddings were the last thing on my mind, I was a total art school brat who looked down on them (not knowing what they could really be), but in retrospect my entire path feels like one big masterclass for being a wedding photographer. During my time at NYU I was focused first on being a fashion photographer and then on being a documentary photographer. I had grand ambitions of how my photographs could change the world, make an impact and live on after me. Weddings in my mind were the lowest of low and I didn't see any artistry to them and thought wedding photographers were basically on par with the Sears Portrait Studio Photographer. I had never actually attended a wedding though, other than a distant cousin's conservative Jewish wedding all in Hebrew in a temple when I was 6, so my point of reference was my cheesy bat mitzvah photos, my parents awful 1975 wedding photos, and the pretty awful portrayal wedding photographers get in movies/tv. It wasn't till 2011 when I attended my cousin's wedding as an adult that I realized weddings were actually these magical microcosms of everything I loved about photography. When I was in school I struggled finding just one thing I wanted to do because I was so passionate about so many different things- from lighting to posing to still life to documentary to nature to fashion and so on- I couldn't figure out how to do all the things I loved until I saw them all unfold on one day during a wedding. I took John Dolan's class at ICP and it completely opened up my eyes to the fact that not only could you be an artist in the wedding world, but there were incredible artists working in wedding photography and I was so inspired and excited to start that journey. My dissertation at NYU was on how photographs mold the world around us, specifically how they illuminate parts of the world we would never otherwise see and motivate us to be better global (and local) citizens and help the people around us. I spent a lot of that time focusing on the study of semiotics and how we interpret images and derive meaning and truth from them. This is central to my approach as a wedding photographer and I'm constantly thinking about how to compose better, stronger, more dynamic images that leave an impact on my viewer and leave them with the message or story I'm trying to tell in that image. Art History was a central part of my dissertation as well and having a solid grasp on classic composition and knowing how to use those tools as building blocks is an incredibly helpful tool in every photograph I take from a group portrait to a flat lay or capturing the Henri Cartier-Bresson decisive moment on the dance floor. My education is on-going and I am very passionate about making purposeful decisions every time I click the shutter. I never want to default into a technique because I don't know how to do another one. I'm grateful for what I learned at NYU and ICP and from the countless photographers and editors who have mentored me over the years, ripping apart my work, but building me back up stronger. I try to push myself to continue that education process, getting feedback from people I respect and constantly seeking out new skills to add to my repertoire.
What is your thought process for flat lay styling? Do you follow a system or is it more organic?
I don't follow a set system, it's definitely a more organic process for me. I do like to get as much information from my couple or the planner/designer about the aesthetic of the wedding so I can style purposefully and make sure the color story and overall vibe of my flat lays will match up with the wedding day. But once I start styling I just let what's in front of me speak to me. It wasn't till I started teaching flat lays that I actually quantified it and applied the rules of composition to them. This was something I had been subconsciously doing for years, it's in my grey matter, and truly it's in all of ours, we just need to learn how to identify and harness it. When I'm working on a flat lay if it's not working and I'm just not feeling it in my gut I use classical compositional theory like balance, scale, rule of odds to see if there's something trapping my eye or making me feel off and I use movement, flow and focus to see if my eye is getting stuck anywhere. But I honestly don't go through the checklist trying to make sure each image is perfect, it's more of a gut feeling. However that "gut feeling" comes from years and years of practice and making those rules intrinsic so my brain just sees them. I liken it to speaking a language- at first you have to translate each word back and forth to create sentences, but eventually you dig those synapses into your brain and you no longer have to translate, you're just speaking, and once you can speak you can create poetry, which is what I'm always trying to accomplish in any image, flat lay or other, visual poetry.
What kind of flat lays do magazines like to see for features?
I don't think there's one particular type of flat lay magazines or blogs want, but I do think a well composed one that people will enjoy looking at and find dynamic is important, as well as it making sense within the context of the wedding or shoot. I like to make contact sheets to see how my images flow together and make sure my flat lays match the color story of the whole wedding and they also flow together and won't feel repetitive if shown together on the same page. I also like to use the caption rule, which is a way to check if you've styled purposefully and thoughtfully. You should be able to caption a flat lay because it should be telling a story. So if you've included the bride's shoes in an image, but not the groom's or the other bride's if its a same sex wedding, that doesn't really make any sense. I feel the same way about trays- why is that tray in the photo? If we're in a Downton Abbey wedding where each invite was hand delivered with white gloves on a silver tray then absolutely include that tray, but otherwise ask yourself how your styling is serving the story vs just making it pretty.
If you style on the morning of the wedding, do you take time the night before to see how things layout?
Yes I try to see as much as I can beforehand so I have a blue print ready to go otherwise I take the invite home and do it after the wedding. I try to get as much information from the designers I'm working with ahead of time (and if you aren't working with a full service planner or designer yet then ask the bride/groom) and I make myself a shot list of the flat lays and installs so I know exactly what I'm shooting and how much time I need to budget for it.
What are your favorite types of styling details to include and why?
Anything personal that furthers the story. I love flowers and hand placing flowers is one of my favorite things to do, but some of my favorite invite suite photos don't have a single flower in them, they're more about the objet d'arts/props. For a wedding I shot in the South of France I used a vintage key with a tasseled fob I found in the chateau, and for a recent one in Sri Lanka that I knew had a watercolor of elephants on the invite I found the cutest little painted elephant at a market while I was traveling before the wedding. I try not to introduce too many outside elements into a couple's wedding day, unless they make sense and further the story I'm already telling.
How did you break into destination weddings?
I always knew destination weddings would be a focus of mine, I was coming off the back of 2 years of traveling in Africa, Asia and South America documenting wildlife and I knew I wanted travel, and the stories I could tell on destination weddings, to be a central part of my work. I love treating my weddings the way I would have treated an assignment from Condé Nast Traveller, making sure I'm telling a holistic story of the event, including the other events and lots of B-Roll landscapes and details of the location. I moved from NY to LA so flying back and forth between the two cities came pretty naturally and I wasn't really based in any one place, I was everywhere. I shot my first big European wedding in 2016 for a wedding planner who was getting married and she became a dear friend of mine. She was launching her business and I wanted to build my Europe portfolio so we worked together on the styling and details to make sure that wedding would be incredible and publishable and that wedding was on Martha Stewart, Style Me Pretty and has been shared and reblogged countless times. I don't believe in undercutting and destination weddings are NOT vacation and shouldn't be done for free, but you have to start somewhere, so for that very first one I did give a discount, but I was also very careful and deliberate, knowing what value that wedding would have for my portfolio because I was very involved in the design and close with the bride.
Where have you traveled for weddings? Do you have a favorite?
Italy and France will always be favorites for me! Between my weddings and documentary work I'm up to 55 countries now and Australia is my last continent that I have to hit to get all 7! My wedding travel though has been more focused on Europe. I'm a total Francophile and did my junior year in Paris and have been dozens of times and will never tire of the grand romantic landscapes and architecture in both cities. I also love exploring new places and getting unique experiences like the wedding I just shot in Sri Lanka. I know a lot of photographers build their businesses working at the same venues dozens of times, but I honestly rarely do. There's so much world out there I want to see and capture it's pretty rare I'll work in the same place twice, but of course there's exceptions for incredible spaces like the Belmond Caruso in Amalfi or Kestrel Park a little closer to home in CA.
What do you pack & how?
Packing is ALWAYS the ultimate struggle! I love clothes and fashion, but am actually a relatively light packer. My ideal is to not have to check luggage, which I'm pretty good about being able to do anywhere within the states, but gets tricky for Europe weddings when I'm gone for more days or need more film/equipment. For local weddings I have it down to a rolling bag and a messenger camera bag, which I can fit all my gear and 150 rolls of film in and then I roll up my wedding outfit, rehearsal dinner outfit, a couple extra shirts and pj's and slip them between the equipment in my bags. I actually bought a styling board that I gave to my assistant in NY and when I would come to the East Coast she'd bring it with her, but that wasn't always the most convenient and I have a lot of weddings outside of LA or NY that I need surfaces for. Bringing the Locust Collection surfaces to Europe with me twice last year was a GAME CHANGER! When I'm doing carry on, I slip them into a canvas carrying bag along with a couple other plaster rolling surfaces that I use so I can have multiple options and I carry it on as a third piece, which no one seems to mind, and if I'm checking my bag I can easily fit the tube within my checked bag.
All photography featured by Rebecca Yale. Additional image credits
Image 2: Matthew Robbins Weddings