All wedding photographers face the challenge of distinguishing themselves from their competition. But for the photography collective SOTA Dzine—established in 2001 by Jeremy Bustos, Nicole Wolf and Brad Wolf—standing out doesn’t mean offering better prices or nicer album options. It means being the people you call when you and your fiance want to pose as a betrothal-bound Alice in Wonderland and Mad Hatter.
Such high-concept shoots bear out SOTA’s core belief that each job must be inspired by and tailored to the individual client. “It’s easy to stand someone in a field with the sun shining on them and voila, a beautiful photo,” says Nicole. “It’s not so easy to create something completely from scratch, based on maybe a few words in how they described themselves, then light, style, prop and storyboard an idea.”
Nicole, Jeremy and Brad (who is married to Nicole) were all based in the Washington, D.C., area when they launched SOTA. From the start, they agreed that they were a unit, with no one person taking solo credit. Now, nine years later, they have a thriving brand in SOTA, specializing in commercial, editorial and wedding photography, and have opened an office in the Midwest (Jeremy runs it, and Bruce and Nicole handle the East Coast from their home base in Fairfax, Virginia). All three pursue their own work outside of SOTA—Jeremy and Bruce are also graphic designers, and Nicole is also a fine-art photographer.
Here, Nicole, the self-proclaimed “talker” of the trio, explains SOTA’s unusual approach to wedding photography, how they pull off their high-concept shoots and the ways in which SOTA’s wedding business feeds their other work (and vice versa).
“When we started SOTA, we were working as commercial photographers and designers,” Nicole recalls. “Wedding photography was not anything we had ambitions about doing but came about simply because we needed the extra cash and people were constantly approaching us asking if we would shoot their wedding. We made the decision early on that if we were going to take on wedding photography, it would have the same flair and style that we approached all of our commercial work with.”
She continues, “In the beginning, we were much ‘tamer’ with concept and approach as we built our portfolio and tried to discover who our type of client was. As the years progressed, we became more refined with our style and in turn started appealing to a more ‘creative’ group of clients.”
At the peak of its wedding-photography business, SOTA was shooting as many as 45 weddings a year, hiring outside photographers to help with the workload. Now that their company is established, they are far more selective in accepting wedding jobs and keep it to about 18 a year.
“There’s a lot of photographers out there whose mindset is, ‘The more I shoot, the more I make.’” says Nicole. “But what they don’t understand is they’re going to burn out really quickly and will not be able to execute their work with pizzaz they had in the beginning.”
In the early days of SOTA, the collective got their wedding clients through their commercial clients. “We’d do an ad job or editorial job, and then we’d get this random email like six months later: ‘Hey, I was the art director on that job, and my sister’s getting married and we’re wondering if you guys photograph weddings,’” recalls Nicole.
Last summer, SOTA pulled off their most ambitious conceptual shoot yet: an interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. “The idea came from me asking the clients what they liked to do together. One of the answers was that they love to drink tea.
The idea came from me asking the clients what they liked to do together. One of the answers was that they love to drink tea. Random, I know, but that was it—I was driving in my car one night and said, ‘We should do a tea-party shot.’ Then my brain started going into overdrive, and the tea party suddenly turned into seven scenes from the book, and a full-on concept developed,” Nicole says.
“Brad thought I was crazy and that it would take a long time to construct. And it did—six months, to be exact, of planning, prepping, getting industry friends on board and developing the idea. We storyboarded every scene initially, so we knew what we would need for each shot, and then moved forward from there. We wanted to make sure that they still felt like wedding photos, so it was important to make sure that her dress was the focus of every shot and hat he was styled to look like the Mad Hatter, but that it didn’t feel too over the top and theatrical.”
“We rented a mushroom forest background,” she continues, “got a rabbit from our friend Mary Ann, ordered caterpillars online and etsy became my best friend. I started tracking down hundreds of teacups and saucers, my good friend Paul Thornley from US Royalty provided all the clothes for Will, Georgetown cupcakes donated some delicious treats, Katie Martin from Elegance and Simplicity did the florals, Janice Kinigopoulos did the hair and makeup and Pascale Lemaire was the talent behind the tea-party table and propping it out. Everyone was on board because we promised them amazing photos, and they believed in us.”
SOTA’s more experimental work may be what gets the most attention, but it actually accounts for only about 30 percent of their wedding shoots. The remaining 70 percent are primarily journalistic, though SOTA devotes just as much effort to elevating that imagery, as well.
“We want to make sure that our wedding clients’ photos are unique to the two of them, not cookie cutter, contrived or formulaic, and we spend a great deal of time and effort making this happen.”