Erin & Ben from Chrisman Studios

Interview

Erin & Ben from Chrisman Studios

We are Erin and Ben Chrisman, the owners of Chrisman Studios which is based in Charleston SC and San Francisco. Two of our photographers are based in San Francisco, and our videographer is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Most of us come from photojournalism backgrounds, having worked for newspapers before starting our individual wedding photography businesses. We have been shooting together since 2008 and have shot in more than 30 countries and all over the United States!

What inspired you to start your photography business? 

Before Chrisman Studios, it was called Ben Chrisman Photography. Ben started his business in his garage after leaving newspapers. He was based in Santa Fe, which is a destination wedding location. His business grew quickly, and before long he was being asked to shoot weddings in California, Mexico and the East Coast. 

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Tell us about your photography business?

We are four photographers – Erin, Ben, Ryan and Mauricio – and one videographer – Vlad. We’ve been shooting weddings for a long time, and they’ve taken us all over the globe. We’ve photographed so many cultures as well – Chinese, Thai, Indian, Persian, Icelandic, Mongolian and even Bhutanese. 

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What inspires you artistically when you shoot weddings or couples?

We let every wedding be a blank slate. We come in with zero preconceived ideas about how it should go, and let the unique personalities and relationships inspire us and guide the kinds of photos we make. We love real moments, and when those real moments happen in beautiful, interesting light, the magic really starts to happen.  

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Tell us about your studio or home office setup?

We had a studio in downtown Charleston for several years, which we closed during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. We have gone back to our roots, working out of our homes and doing all of our shoots on location (or in a friend’s studio when we need to). 

What does a typical non wedding workday for you look like?

Every day is different, and that’s what we love about what we do! Today, for example, Ben is in Columbia, SC doing a full-day marketing shoot for a law firm, and I (Erin) am home working on a wedding blog post, social media posts, and phone calls with prospective brides and grooms. In between everything, I’m researching flights for a wedding we have next year in Mexico, and one at the end of this year in Florida.  Later this week we will present family photographs to a family we just photographed on the beach in Charleston (it was their vacation). And we’re working on logistics for a wedding and series of family sessions we are doing in the San Francisco Bay Area next month. 

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What is a typical wedding day for you?

That’s kind of all over the place too! Our last wedding was a four-day Indian wedding in California. For the rest of 2021, we have weddings in Healdsburg, CA, Nassau, Bahamas and Wellington, Florida. January has us in Costa Rica, Antigua and Miami. The pandemic has definitely brought us more small weddings, either elopements or weddings with 10-20 guests, which we love. We still love the excitement and fast pace of the bigger weddings, but the smaller ones give us a chance to slow down and focus on more subtle details and exchanges. It’s a nice change of pace, having a bit of both. We always start weddings photographing the bride and groom getting ready. And we generally stay till the end. Telling the complete story of a wedding day is so important to us – we like to be there for everything!

How do you go about getting couples to relax in front of the camera? 

We assume the couples we photograph are going to be our friends for the rest of our lives, so we treat them as such. We also talk with each couple, and even their parents when possible, ahead of the wedding to get to know everyone. When we all finally meet in-person (most of our clients are not local to us) we already have this great rapport. We also know what is uniquely important to them, and we know who the key players are, because we’ve had those conversations already. 

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Can you list the camera gear you bring to a wedding?

Ben, Erin and Ryan shoot with Fujifilm cameras. Mauricio shoots Canon. Vlad films mostly with Canon. We always each have some combination of 28mm, 35mm and 85mm lenses on our cameras. We use Profoto for all of our lighting, and HoldFast camera straps. We try to keep the gear as simple as possible – the essential pieces we use for every wedding – so we spend more time composing photos and looking for moments, rather than fumbling with gear. Paring down our gear is also helpful since we fly to probably 98% of our weddings and other shoots. Ben’s current favorite lens is Fujifilm’s 18mm 1.4. It stays on one of his cameras all day. Once we get a second one, it will probably be my favorite as well! 

What is your process for culling and editing your images?

We cull our own photos in Photo Mechanic, and our editing is done in-house. We (Ben and Erin) have a retoucher here in Charleston, Matt LeGault. He handles everything from Lightroom to the heavier jobs of Photoshopping for our website, publications, client albums, print orders, etc. Mauricio and Ryan do all of their own editing. 

How do most of your couples find you? And how do you marketing your business?

Most of our weddings come from referrals from past couples or from coordinators we have good relationships with. We have over 15 years’ worth of our work online through our website and social media, so often they find us through an Internet search.  

What has been your best business purchase in recent years? 

Switching from Nikon to exclusively Fujifilm (for Ben and Erin) has been a game-changer. These cameras have made us happier photographers. We have felt more inspired and more motivated than ever before. Plus, the Fujifilm family is so supportive, with amazing customer service and constantly upping the ante with new and better equipment.   

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Comparing your business from when you started to now, what has been the main thing that allowed you to succeed?

As obvious as it may sound, it’s experience. One of our longtime mentors, Huy Nguyen of Fearless Photographers, once said “the better photographer gets the better photo.” That could also be said for having a better business, being better people to our clients… it all comes from experience. There is no shortcut for experience. Allowing ourselves to try new things, make mistakes, experiment, push ourselves to our limits and pull back when we need to has made all the difference. Through the years we’ve found what works for us, we’ve learned how to do everything better, and we acknowledge that we’re not done learning yet. Fifteen years later, we’re still trying new things, making changes, and letting our mistakes lead us to becoming better photographers, business owners and people. 

What do you consider the main differences between those people who have been successful in the industry and those who have failed?

I’m sure there are many reasons why some businesses fail and others succeed. I can only speak for us when I say diversifying what we offer completely saved us during the last two years (when weddings nearly came to a halt). For many years we resisted portrait work and only took weddings. Another mentor, Steve Saporito, showed us how gratifying and fulfilling family photography can be, when done right. Through his urging, back in 2016-2017, we expanded to include family portraits, business headshots, even pet portraits. When the pandemic hit and our income from weddings was pulled out from under us, we survived because of our portrait clients (many of whom are past wedding clients). 
I also think being a photographer is a lifelong pursuit. You have to know that you’re in it for the long haul. And it’s not enough to just be a great photographer. You have to be highly interested in and devoted to learning how to be a good business owner. When people ask us what advice we would give to college students studying photography, we say “take business classes.” 

What’s the best piece of photography business advice you’ve ever been given?

To take the time to really get to know people and ask what they actually need and want, rather than sending them a generic one-size-fits-all price sheet – a lesson also learned from Steve Saporito. Find out what’s going on in their lives, and why these photos will be important to them. Care enough to simply ask. That also applies to when you’ve completed a job for someone. Instead of just emailing them a link to a gallery of 1,000 photos, actually present the photos to them one-on-one, walk them through, guide them, show them what’s possible in terms of prints, albums, wall art. Our clients appreciate this type of care so much. In this hands-off digital world, any kind of old-school customer service you can give will go a long way and make your clients want to come to you again and again – because they trust you and because you make it easy for them.  

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What’s the most common rookie mistake when it comes to starting a photography business? What advice would you give them? 

Always bring backup gear! We advise shooting with two cameras on your body (Ben shoots with five). But if you work better shooting with one, at least have a backup camera in your gear bag, even if it’s lesser quality than your main camera. Never trust all of your gear to work. Accidents happen, things break and malfunction. Without backup gear, especially at a wedding, if your one camera goes down, you are finished. Also crucial – back up your photos in three places (one outside of your home and one in the cloud). Never trust your hard drives – they won’t live forever, and unfortunately they don’t always warn us when they’re about to die. 
Also, get two bank accounts – one for personal and one for business. And keep those expenses/deposits separate so it’s easier to pay your taxes and know exactly what you’re making.

What are your top 3 wedding venues or destinations that you have photographed?

Most memorable is Mongolia. Our clients were Mongolians who lived there and owned a big hotel there. We got to experience a traditional Mongolian wedding ceremony in a yurt, complete with horse-milk tea. 🙂 Next, or equal to, would have to be Bhutan – probably the most unique place we’ve ever seen. And then I have to say Mexico, because Mexico will always have our hearts. We got married there ourselves, and every wedding we photograph there is a dream with the best parties we’ve ever seen. But there’s also Israel, which was incredible… and we also are deeply in love with Italy… there are so many, it’s impossible to choose just three!

Do you have any bucket list locations you want to shoot?

A few places have eluded us through the years – Africa, Croatia, Ireland to name a few… and even though we’ve had a documentary assignment in India, we’ve never shot a wedding there. Would love to experience that! 

Best places online to view more of your work?

chrismanstudios.com has all of our wedding and portrait work. You can see Ben’s documentary work at http://benchrismanphotography.com/