An Interview With Steve Wise

Steve Wise - West Australian Portrait, Wedding and Medical Photographer

Steve is an inspirational wedding, portrait and medical photographer based out of West Australia. Through his work in wedding photography and as a medical photographer he creates stunning imagery that portray compelling stories.

Learn more about Steve’s creative process, where he finds his inspiration, and what drives him to produce such stunning visuals.

Was photography your first choice for a career? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do? Please tell us more about your photography journey and what lead you to become a portrait/wedding/medical photographer?

I’ve had an interesting lead up to becoming a professional photographer. It started with studying Architecture at UWA straight out of high school, with the first three years being a kind of jack-of-all-trades design degree of sorts – a mixture of drawing, drafting, graphic design, computer design and creative art. Heading back to complete the last two years after six months break and I’d lost the enthusiasm. Music had always played a big part in my life and by this stage I had traded in my trombone (after playing in the WA Youth Philharmonic and WAYO) for a bass guitar – gigging and recording successfully with a couple of mates from school in an original band.

My big claim to fame… we played a gig at the (then) Swanbourne Hotel and a cool looking busker from Freo opened the gig for us – his name was John Butler. I guess he went on to do a lot better than us!

I ended up working at a good mate’s family Camera business in Perth – Plaza Cameras – and slowly but surely learnt the craft hands on. Years later we opened a Pro store opposite Central TAFE with the one and only Ben Walton and it was here, while showing a ‘professional wedding photographer’ how to use his Speedlite flash, that I decided it was time to make some money from photography like these crew. I teamed up with my good mate and fellow Plaza Pro staff member at the time Alan McDonald, and we shot our first wedding in 2005.

Alongside my photography business I was fortunate to land a Graphic Artist position at Royal Perth Hospital in the Medical Illustrations Department in 2009 and two years later one of the Medical Photographers positions became permanent and was open for applications. I went for it, I got it and have been there ever since. We have one of the largest Medical Illustrations Departments of nearly any Hospital in Australia with a hugely talented and dedicated team. It’s an amazing place to work. Especially considering what we are currently going through with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

How do you get your start as a wedding photographer? Can you describe your first wedding, from getting your client, to the actual shoot and post production? Do you find your approach and confidence much different today?

As I mentioned, Alan and I shot our first wedding in 2005. It was trial by fire! The wedding was the day after a huge storm front came through which continued well into the night. The location photos were planned for Kings Park and the place was an absolute mess. Broken branches strewn everywhere. The day turned out to be freezing and windy, and it showed in the photos. The couple were friends of friends and had a great day considering what we had to work with – but photographically it was a challenge!

Our mantra on that day and from then on was to have fun. Basically, act like d*ckheads. It relaxed everyone and put a smile on their faces, and it was less stress all round. With two of us shooting we had all the angles covered – and with neither of us having experience shooting a wedding we had no preconceptions about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do anything, so we developed our own way of going about things and our own style of shooting weddings, which served us well moving into the future. We shot five weddings that year, 25 the next and nearly 50 the year after.

With that came the experience and with the experience came the confidence to push the boundaries and not be complacent – not shooting the same stuff every time. The experience also sharpened our post-production skills which, although didn’t really change much over the years, became tighter and faster – and we began shooting with specific post-production treatments/looks in mind. 

In 2012 we got busy enough to break off into our own businesses and that’s when my current business – 27Creative – began.

You have earned multiple photographic awards at state, national and international level, including the 2018 Australian Portrait Professional Photographer of the Year, which all are huge achievements. To achieve these results requires continuous improvement, can you explain how you critically looked at your work and any steps you took to improve?

Photographic awards are a funny thing. They certainly help – and are designed to do so – with marketing yourself and your business. After winning the 2010 WA AIPP Wedding Photographer of the Year, the next day I bumped my pricing up by 50%… and got busier. At the same time though, everyone is an ‘Award Winning Photographer’ – a throw away line that tends to dilute the market which is unfortunate. How do you stand out from that?

I enter awards for a few reasons. One of them is I want to win stuff. That’s natural isn’t it? It’s not the main reason but it’s a pretty cool thing if you work hard at your craft and are fortunate enough to win.

The main reason is out of a competitive spirit and a love of the process. I love shooting specifically for awards, whether it’s during a wedding shoot or a creative portrait. The latter is something I started delving into after building my studio at home in 2012 and I’ve been hooked ever since. The challenge of building a visual narrative through photographic portraiture and listening to the range of interpretations that come from it pushes me to improve my craft and build memorable images.

When I first started entering awards/competitions I always ran the images past a few close friends who I knew had a good critical eye – and would be honest with me. You have to be open to others’ ideas and critique – it’s important as we often become so emotionally attached to an image after spending hours on it, we begin to see what we want to see and miss the basic stuff. It’s also important to remember that their view of your work is their opinion too – so you don’t have to agree with everything either. Take what works for you and by all means leave what may not agree with. In the end, it’s your work.

The more images you work up -past the point you normally would – for awards or competitions, the better your critical eye becomes and you learn to be able to look at your own work more objectively. But this only comes with experience.

How do you gain creative self-confidence and do you ever question your abilities as a photographer? Have you ever doubted yourself and if so how did you move forward beyond self-doubt?

Years ago, I was having a beer with two of Perth’s younger wedding guns – both very experienced with years of weddings under their belt. One of them mentioned they still got nervous and anxious before shooting a wedding – we blurted out straight away that we felt exactly the same. I had often wondered about this and it was a huge revelation that has stuck with me. Other photographers went through the same thing.

I always question my abilities as a photographer. Always.

Weddings are a big one too because you only ever have one chance to get it right. No pressure right!? But I guess the thing with any creative pursuit is that it’s a very personal thing – you’re presenting what is most of the time your view of the world through a photograph – or series of photographs – hoping people like/get what you’re showing them… whether it’s weddings, portraits, commercial work – it’s your take on it and if the clients don’t like the results, it can be a pretty big hit to the ego.

How can you get around this? Learn to communicate more effectively. Learn how to be articulate in presenting information to a client; a family; a portrait subject. A lot of the time people won’t warm to your ideas or your images, not because they dislike them but because they just don’t get it. It’s our job as photographers to be able to articulate our vision, our ideas, our creative direction – so that the client can understand what we’re trying to say and speak the be able to same language.

I believe your photography (portraits) portray such a connection with people which has a way of bringing out their personalities, individualities, diversities, inclusions, sexuality and cultural ethnicity. In 2019 you worked on a project with Mercy Care WA “Diversity and Inclusion Oration” which included 20 Portraits of extraordinary employees, volunteers & service users on what diversity meant to them.

Tell us about this project and how important it was for you? How do you make a connection with people? And, how do you approach photographing strangers?

This was a project I was fortunate to collaborate on with a long-standing connection (and now good friend) who had just started at MercyCare heading up their Marketing division. Building strong networks with your best clients should never be underestimated. They take you and your work with them.

It was a true collaboration and I was given creative lead on the format for the portraits and how they would be shot, look and hang as an exhibited set of images. This was huge – to be given the freedom to develop the idea behind the Exhibition with them.

Once we had the ideas mapped out, it was their job to find the 20 diverse subjects whose stories were going to be told and whose portraits were going to be taken… and the most humbling part of this whole project was meeting these people and hearing their stories. The diversity within Mercy Care as an organisation from both staff and clients was astounding. The stories were worldwide, heartbreaking, sad, beautiful and filled with strength, courage, pride, joy and humility. Some important life perspective we should all be served regularly.

How did I approach shooting these crew? I was just myself. I only had maybe 10 mins tops with each – at various locations – meeting them cold. A really good challenge to make them feel comfortable and ready to stick a camera in their face. The most important thing for me was to introduce myself as warmly as possible and be as relaxed with them as I could – and definitely not going straight into the shoot. I always had a chat – light compliments are good. I would be filled in on their story so could ask them questions about their background. Always being attentive to responses, body language, cues to whether they’re comfortable or not… and the one thing that made them relax the most? Showing them a photo on the back of the camera. With the lighting setup the SOOC image was pretty punchy – and seeing how good they looked on camera early in the shoot both surprised them and released any anxiety they may have had.

So, the biggest takeaway is to be yourself – and again, be able to communicate effectively in any situation.

You are a highly sought after wedding photographer, which in my eyes needs a certain type of person who can handle the pressure of capturing those precious exact moments that you will never get back if you miss them. In 2017 you photographed high profile Outback Wrangler Matt Wright’s wedding to his wife Kaia. 

With the pressures of photographing weddings, and capturing those moments, do you feel any nerves or fear about not meeting your client’s expectations? And is there any extra pressure and nervousness when shooting a wedding for a high-profile client?

Good wedding photographers are a multi-talented bunch – they’re not just photographers on the big day. They’re managers, psychologists, time keepers, transport officers, mediators, family therapists and much much more. It’s a LOT to take on and you have to be on your game the whole day and night, which will most often be pretty fluid situations.

The anxiety and nerves are always there – for me, right up until I walk through the first door of the day. But from then on, I have no choice – it’s game on. …and the nerves disappear. It was no different with Kaia and Matt.

It also helped that they were two very down-to-earth people. They were all about having fun on the day. Regardless.

So we had an awesome time with one of the largest bridal party’s I’ve worked with… and the front seat helicopter ride to the coast was a pretty huge highlight ; )

The ultimate goal of many photographers is to express an emotion or feeling in their work, and to have that recognised by a viewer of the image. Your portrait work evokes emotion and tells compelling stories about your subjects. Can you describe the process you use in setting up your portraits to ensure that you capture this emotion in your subjects and that their story gets told?

An important aspect of portraiture for me is collaboration with the subject. Their story is important and we always start with catching up for a chat and talking about my ideas, their ideas and what we think the end result could be. Sometimes I have a pretty clear idea formed early, only for it to completely change after some discussion – other times the subject is happy to go with the flow and let me be as creative as I like. Either way it’s important to me that the person is completely happy with the final image. …and that their story is told, whether it’s a clear narrative or leaves much for the viewer to interpret, often relating to their own life experience.

My hope is for the subject to be 100% engaged in the idea and the shoot. I tether live in the studio so they can see the results on the fly – which definitely helps them relax when we get it right. …and most importantly we get the expression right. Quite often, when a completely relaxed expression is reached, it becomes all about the eyes and the subject takes on a very different look and emotion.

You work full time as a medical photographer, documenting procedures and clients in a hospital. There would be no doubt that you face confronting and emotional circumstances in your daily work, both positive and negative.

 Do you find yourself being inspired by the strength of some of the people you photograph at the hospital? Alternatively, are you ever negatively impacted, and how do you deal with it?

Interesting question. Being a Medical Photographer actually means quite the opposite of dealing with emotion and personality. Our job is to clinically document aspects of a patient, under specific guidelines of angle, background, order of documentation and most importantly, deidentification of the patient (unless specific aspects of the face are to be documented). Interaction with the patient is kept on a purely professional level as often as possible. We’re in and out.

If I was to get caught up in the stories and backgrounds of everyone, I doubt I could handle it to be honest. At Royal Perth Hospital we deal with a wide demographic of clients with an even wider range of conditions. …but apart from all that – the biggest part of our job as Medical Photographers is to respect the patients privacy,  confidentiality and stay professional – whilst getting the photos we need (sometimes under difficult technical circumstances due to angle, conditions and often non-compliance) for their Medical Record and also teaching and education.

The inspiration really comes from the staff – the Nurses who are the backbone of the hospital system and know everything that’s going on – who deal with aggression alongside those who appreciate what they do. The surgeons who operate 8 or 10 hours straight – no break – sips of water – full concentration the whole time. The crew dealing with the growing Mental Health problem in the community with patience and empathy. The cleaners who keep the hospital safe – especially at this time. …and the staff working on the frontline.

They’re all Legends and put others before themselves.

If you could spend an hour talking to anyone, past or present, about photography, who would it be and why?

Man, it would definitely be Lee Friedlander.

He’s renowned for his American street photography – documenting the urban ‘social landscape’ in a way I wish I could and am completely in awe (and jealous) of. I became interested in his work when I first picked up a Hasselblad SWC second-hand, which I still love using today. Small and compact, it was his workhorse and a unique way of shooting – super wide angle, no mirror, ground glass or through the lens viewfinder – and quite often shooting from the hip.

I wish I could shoot with such freedom. Something I hope to learn eventually.

How has your work as a photographer influenced you as a person?

I think photography has taught me more about communicating with people than anything. More and more it’s becoming apparent to me that the end result of a creative portrait 80% communication – learning about them – hearing their story. Learning bout what they love and what they don’t love. About what makes them tick and what their past has been and their hope is for the future. Helping them see themselves like they haven’t before. Helping them be proud of themselves.

The other 20% is capturing and editing this and printing it.

That’s the easy part.

What are 3 pieces of advice you would give to an upcoming wedding/portrait photographer?

Learn to communicate and be articulate. Learn to listen. …and continue to push yourself.

(…and basically ‘Just do it’)

Thank you Steve, for sharing some of your story, and for being so candid in your responses.

See more of Steve's inspirational work at the links below.