Best wedding photojournalist in the USA
Susan Stripling Photography
Susan Stripling Photography

Best wedding photojournalist in the USA

This might be my favorite image - ever. 

At this 2012 wedding in Richland Center, Wisconsin, the bride’s little sister was painting the nails of her grandmother. 

Her grandmother fell asleep during the sweet manicure and I love the delicate subtlety of this completely perfect moment. 

I could write about this image for days and how much it meant to create it and what technical babble went into the making of it….but I won’t. Instead I’ll tell you about this amazing family and what a treat it was to get to know them. 

I’ll tell you that I’m headed back this summer to photograph the bride’s sister’s wedding and I will shoot another getting ready session this same house. 

The session won’t be the same, however, since this lovely woman is no longer with us, having passed away in the year after the wedding. 

Getting to know this family and how much they love each other I know that though the bride’s grandmother might not be there in body she will very much be there in spirit. 

I entered this image at WPPI in the 16x20 International Print Competition and while it didn’t win I don’t care even a little bit. Being able to document this for that family on that day in that year is what matters and I am grateful to have been witness to such a sweet moment.

I used to run a wedding photography education blog called The Dynamic Range.  I wrote a series of reviews of my experience with prints in the WPPI 16x20 Print Competition, and I wrote a write-up of this particular image!  The description of the judging process, my score, and how I felt read as follows:
Sometimes when entering print competition, I score just how I think I will.  Sometimes I score badly, but I understand why I did.  Sometimes a print inexplicably scores badly, and I have no idea why.  That has only happened a few times in the many years I've been entering the WPPI 16x20 print competition, but it happened in 2013 with the image I'm talking about today.
This image, shot in 2012, is my single favorite image I've shot in fourteen years of being a wedding photographer.  It's been three years since I shot it, and it's STILL my favorite.  I have never seen a moment with such kind purity, such warmth, and such simple love before, and might never again.  This is not to disparage the hundreds of other weddings I've shot and hundreds of thousands of images I've captured, simply to say that sometimes something strikes you in a new way.  This image did that for me.
The Wedding Photojournalism category is an especially tough one, since all I-made-this-in-Photoshop! images are off limits.  Quoting directly from the official rules found on
"Images entered in the Photojournalism category NEED to have the original RAW file or original Jpeg file submitted along with the final entry. There can be no post production process applied other than white balance adjustment or slight overall, global changes. Localized dodging and burning is allowed (as per conventional wet darkroom techniques). Altering individual pixels within an image is not allowed (e.g., liquefying, spotting, healing, cloning etc.). Global sharpening is allowed. Localized sharpening is not allowed. Split tones are not allowed. HDR effects are not allowed. No images will be allowed that have filters, textures, actions or overlays applied to it. Cropping is allowed. Removing sensor dust spots is allowed. Images entered in the PJ category cannot be posed or coached by the photographer or assistants. A PJ image is one that needs to be captured with no interference from anyone and should reflect a moment in time that was simply captured but not created."
Simply put, you cannot have a hand in the creation of your photojournalistic image.  I didn't ask the grandmother to sit in that chair.  I didn't ask the bride's little sister to give her a manicure.  I didn't hang the dress in the window.  I didn't direct anything, I just observed and captured.
Now let's talk about the score.
The image received an 81, meaning that it was "above average...good standard of professional skill, creativity and technique."  I can't tell you how much I vehemently disagree with this score.  Why should this image have scored well?
  1. The moment is flawless.  Any of you who know me, know that I'm not the photographer to get all swoony over my own work.  I don't fancy myself an artist at all, not really.  I'm a businessperson who is good at photography, not a photographer who fell into owning a business.  Am I good at my job?  Yes, I am.  But it's a JOB to me, not a life calling.  I love it, I strive to be the best I can at it, but it's my job.  I don't get attached to my own work the way some photographers do.  But even I, with my careful detachment, feel confident standing up and saying that this moment?  It is perfect.
  2. The image is technically excellent.  I chose the right lens, right settings, and right everything to make the image TECHNICALLY correct.  It's exposed properly.  The foreground is sharp, and the background is soft but still prominent.  I made the right technical choices to convey the message of the image.
  3. The print is very, very good.
When we are taught about judging at WPPI, we're told to start at a score of 100 and work backwards, taking points away, instead of starting at zero and working upwards.  Why was this image not deserving of a higher score?
  1. The print wasn't perfect. This was in my pre-Rocco days, when the printer that I was using was a bit sloppy.  It's got some blocking-up in the shadows, and some of the highlights aren't treated as gently as they should have been.
  2. That's all I've got.
I wasn't in the room when this image was judged.  
I was in another room, watching another category be judged.  I think I might have been judging myself, in the Bride and Groom Alone category at that time.  I have no idea what was said, and I couldn't figure out later what judges saw it, so that I could ask them why it scored so low.  An 81 is a great score, a very great score, but I don't think it was the right score for this image.
But just stop now, everyone reading this.  I know your fingers are hovering over the keyboard, itching to say any of the following things:
  • But your clients must have loved it!  Screw competition!  Forget it!  You got hosed, concentrate on what your clients say, and NEVER ENTER AGAIN!
  • I don't care about the score, you got robbed, I OMG LOVE IT.
  • Judges are stupid!  You're right and they're wrong and don't know anything!
Don't say any of those things.  I'm not.  Do I agree with my score?  I don't.  Do I agree with the judges this time?  I don't.  Do I still believe in competition, especially THIS competition, strongly?  I do.
Listen, you guys, it's not a perfect world.  
Sometimes great prints get bad scores.  
Sometimes mediocre prints get awards.  
Sometimes I sit in the judging room and think "This is totally insane."  
Sometimes I think "Whoa, that judge saw something that I totally missed."  
Maybe if I'd sat in on the judging of this print, I'd have seen something mentioned by a judge that I never saw when I prepped the print for entry.  Maybe I wouldn't have.  In all of the years I've entered competition, this is the ONLY print that I think got scored incorrectly.  That's one out of over thirty five entered images.
My point is this : If you enter print competition, if you choose to put yourself and your work out there, and it doesn't do well, don't sweat it.  Get back out and enter again.  Try again.  Try harder.  I can tell you that this disappointment didn't dilute my love for this image, and it didn't deter me from continuing to try as hard as I can to find a moment I will love capturing as much as I loved capturing this one.

(Update : It's 2017, and I'm still striving for perfection, and for perfect moments.  In case anyone was wondering how that quest was going!)

Location: Richland Center, Wisconsin.

Keywords: Richland Center (24), Wisconsin (24). 1/160; f/2.0; ISO 900; 85.0 mm.

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