My concerns with styled shoots, and why I publish them anyway

Posted by | Styled Shoot
This couple is GORGEOUS… because they're models. Photo by Leah And Mark

Are you familiar with this concept of styled shoots? It's when wedding vendors team up together to create fantasy weddings, showing off what they can do. I totally get why styled shoots are great for vendors — it gives folks a chance to show off the kind of work they WANT to do — but we try to not feature too many on Offbeat Bride, and here's why.

My biggest concern: Styled shoots set unrealistic expectations.

It's easy to have the most perfect tablescape centerpiece… when you're an event designer setting up a table for two. It's easy to get the most perfect photos ever… when you're a photographer working with models on your own schedule. It's easy to have every single element of the wedding feel on-theme… when you're a wedding planner coordinating on a set.

You can almost always spot a styled shoot: everyone looks perfect, and there seems to be a lack of guests at the “wedding.”

Again, I totally understand that styled shoots are extremely valuable public relations and marketing materials for vendors. You guys, seriously: as someone who spent a decade working in marketing and who has now spent seven years working in the wedding industry, I TOTALLY GET IT. Some of Offbeat Bride's favorite vendors do AMAZING styled shoots.

As a publisher with a mission committed to supporting couples wrestling with grueling insecurities and internet-influenced anxieties about an event that's already fraught with family pressures and financial realities, the last thing I want to do is set up unrealistic expectations.

But here's why Offbeat Bride features styled shoots anyway: increasing the visibility of folks marginalized by traditional wedding media

There's no arguing that styled shoots can set unrealistic expectations, but I choose to publish them on Offbeat Bride for a very specific reason:

Sometimes styled shoots to highlight folks who don't get as much visibility in the mainstream wedding media.

I'm very clear on Offbeat Bride's submission page that my top priority for the site is using the publication as a platform to increase the visibility of folks who don't feel seen in mainstream wedding media. This includes folks who identify as:

  • Nonbinary / genderqueer
  • Disabled
  • Neurodivergent
  • Older

…and just otherwise NOT the usual skinny, white, able bodied, cisgender, heterosexual folks seen in wedding media.

The simple truth is that styled shoots allow me to ensure that I'm prioritizing the visibility of folks who might not otherwise feel seen. I want people to come to Offbeat Bride and see people who look like THEM, and so sometimes I choose to prioritize that goal over the goal of setting realistic wedding expectations.

I also want to ensure that Offbeat Bride is a platform that amplifies the work of wedding vendors who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ, neurodivergent, etc. So this means that I prioritize sharing their shoots, to support their work. I want my business to be a springboard for the kind of microbusinesses I want to see more of… that means amplifying the work of photographers who are queer women of color, wedding planners who are nonbinary folks on the spectrum, and officiants who are disabled older folks tryna do some good in the world.

So, this means that sometimes you'll see styled shoots on Offbeat Bride… but they'll always be clearly marked as such (look for the styled shoot tag at the top of the post!), and they'll usually feature models or vendors who identify as someonhow marginalized by the mainstream wedding media.

This is all to say: yep, I share y'alls frustrations with styled shoots… and yep, sometimes I feature them anyway.

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Comments on My concerns with styled shoots, and why I publish them anyway

  1. This is one of my new favorite posts. Thank you for taking the time to explain this. As someone who has worked in the marketing/film industry, I constantly explain to brides that there is no need to compare. Most don’t even know what a stylized shoot is! Once you realize that you are comparing yourself to models and set-up wedding shoots, it’s a little easier to breathe. Unfortunately. there is also a lot of pressure from well-meaning friends who tend to forward pins or post things on Facebook. Lucky, OBB is no pressure.

  2. How time appropriate. I have a bit less than a month to my wedding and technically have no theme (which honestly, I think is even better) but what started out as Alice in Wonderland quickly turned into “let’s see how clever we can get with disposables and low-budget options. At the beginning it was fine and now, I have mini-breakdowns because I think I’m going to hate the look of my wedding. But, a few days ago i went on Pinterest (you’re absolutely right. It is an easy culprit) and had an epiphany: Pinterest is to weddings like fashion magazines are to body image.

    So now I’m trying to relax into the fact that I have a gorgeous husband to be who i fall in love with more everyday, our loved ones have and will be travelling from so far just to celebrate with us and that we have done our best to create a fun romantic and surreal day for ourselves and for our guests. So it might not end up being an Alice in Wonderland wedding but it’ll definitely be our very own wonderland.

    Thank you for posting this because it will save a lot of brides to be a lot of heartache and possibly moolah too.

    • “Pinterest is to weddings like fashion magazines are to body image.” QFT!

    • I am also having a “let’s see how clever we can get with disposables and low-budget options” themed wedding. I’m sure yours will be lovely.

      plus, between you and me, i’ve been to a lot of wedding and i can’t remember what the dishes looked like at a single one of them

  3. This is one of the reasons that I love Offbeat Bride. Not only do you take a stand on this, you take a thoughtful, balanced stand that you explain in a transparent manner. Thanks, as ever, for all you do.

  4. Thank you for bringing up styled shoots. The unrealistic expectations go both ways, as well. As a vendor (photography) clients will show up with their pinterest collections looking to recreate the scene, and it’s just not possible in the hour between the ceremony and cocktail hour. ( In which we have to photograph the couple, bridal party, families, and- Oh, Aunt Sara wants a shot of all the cousins!!)
    It leaves clients disappointed, and makes the vendor seem less than capable of producing quality work

    • …which is great, and I’m glad you’ve got no shortage of places online to see those photos! I’m absolutely confident that styled shoots are useful for some folks — I’m just explaining why we generally choose not to publish them.

  5. This is something I can come at as a musician – I equate (at least from your explanation, not having been in the wedding vendor business myself) a styled wedding shoot to be very similar to a studio recording session. If you get several hours to take many takes, weave all the best moments together with post-production editing, and lots of other advantages in the studio, OF COURSE it will sound better than a live concert with one take, huge audience pressure, and tons of random chance thrown into the mix. So if you, as a performer, expect your time on stage to sound like someone else’s experience in the studio… yeah, you’ll be disappointed. It doesn’t mean both aren’t valuable, but one simply isn’t a realistic impression of the other, and they can set up a LOT of unreasonable expectations if you don’t consider that fact.

    • And that weaving is why some folks (0/) prefer live albums. The little variations & changes between versions are where the art comes in. 🙂

    • SOOOOOO THIS!!!! If they can’t cut it live, and they are ONLY a studio band, I’m apt to leave them by the wayside…

  6. Thank you for posting this! Styled shoots, while beautiful, can feel very unrealistic for all of the reasons you mentioned! I also totally understand why they are done – I’m sure if I was a wedding vendor I would want to show off my favorite ideas in a beautiful way – but one thing I’ve always wondered is, is there a way for “real” people to be able to benefit from these (other than inspiration)?

    It seems like a fair amount of money goes into these shoots, and whenever I see them, I’m like, gee, I could really use someone designing my invitation or planning a great, cohesive theme for me, and then using it as their styled shoot! Or it seems like they could be engagement sessions where the models are putting in the work to get the photos for free – though then most models would not be quite as flawless (which could be good!). Anyway, it seems like there would be less waste and more awesomeness if real people who could use a little help could benefit too. I’d guess the issue is the effort it would take to coordinate this, or maybe that’s what’s happening and I just don’t know, just wishful thinking…

    • As a wedding vendor (photographer) I can tell you I never use models for styled shoots. I want people who are genuinely in love and I think most vendors (at least over here in the Netherlands) want brides and grooms to be able to relate to the couple in a styled shoot. I want people who are nice looking, sure. But in a girl-next-door kind of way, if a couple is to pretty I won’t invite them to do the shoot (in fact I knew a couple who wanted to participate in my last styled shoot. But both being professional models I was sure they were way to pretty for this kind of shoot). Most of the time I just ask family, friends or former clients who have a friendly face and easily show affection towards each other.
      I always note that a shoot is a styled shoot (if only to let people know who the wonderful vendors were I worked with) and not a real wedding. It would just generate misinformed clients.

  7. I really appreciate that about OBB – styled shoots really don’t do anything for me wedding-inspiration-wise because they’re models with handlers and a team of makeup artists ready to make everything perfect, and life isn’t like that. I’m not saying that they’re bad, just that I personally don’t find them helpful and I skim right over them in other wedding blogs.

  8. Thank you. As wedding photographers that also do commercial/advertising photography, we made a decision over 20 years ago that we would never do or include “fake” shoots in the samples we show wedding clients.

    We though it would be misleading to couples over two decades ago when we were just showing books and brochures, and now in the digital era we find the widespread practice to still be nothing but misleading to wedding couples.

    So much of what you see on inspiration shoots is completely unrealistic to pull off on a tightly scheduled wedding day (unless you are paying $10k just for a production crew to do the set-up work), not affordable to do on a larger scale for 100 – 200 guests (most inspiration shoots are one table, not 10 or 25 tables) and most of the vendors that participate in inspiration shoot are all providing services it for free in hopes of getting publicity.

    At the very least inspiration shoots should be transparent enough to say what the costs were (or would have been), and how it would translate to a typical wedding size of 150 guests. Others have already mentioned how these shoots set up couples for unrealistic expectations or place more stress on them or take focus off purpose of the wedding day itself. Doing good work for wedding clients takes more than just talent, and frankly, it takes a few years to be able to deliver any service consistently well every week, year after year, at a high quality level.

    Overall, inspiration shoots seem to be a shortcut that I see more from newer vendors than established ones, and it boils down to selling services pictured at a quality level that frankly newer vendors don’t have enough experience to deliver consistently at each and every wedding. When you are new, sorry, you just don’t deliver great work every time. That comes with experience and everyone has to go through growing pains during the first few years of business. The time and environment for working on a set-up/stylized shoot is completely different than what is involved on an actual wedding day.

    To sell services that are unable to be matched equally because of time, location, and usually budget constraints a wedding cannot typically afford to recreate as seen in “fake” shoots, has always seemed to be a very unethical way to sell services to couples. Not everyone in the industry is like this, in fact many vendors are just hard working people who want to make their couples happy and don’t participate in inspiration shoots. So, I mostly place blame at the feet of the internet, and demand of so many wedding blogs to have fresh and unique daily content, no matter what. A simple and sweet wedding submission is never accepted by blogs or magazines anymore, much less “traditional” (read: boring in the eyes of blog editors) weddings, which were never accepted in the first place.

    So it seems vendors now feel compelled to do these kinds of inspiration submissions because their “regular” weddings are supposedly not “exciting” enough to get them published regularly. Most weddings are not considered “blogworthy” by most editors, so maybe 1 out of 10 of clients might get published. So now vendors perhaps have unrealistic pressure to get published in blogs.

    All of this high production value and focus on details often makes the wedding itself not about the couple, but more about the “wow” factor, and that hurts the quality of service. When vendors are focusing on number of blog publications, that takes away from who they should be focusing on, the wedding couple that is paying you to work for them, not the blogs or magazines.

    If you are a good company and do great work, your clients will be your #1 resource for new business. You don’t have to “fake” it if you really work hard to be good at what you do and treat your clients well.

    Lastly, nothing kills creativity like sending a photographer, florist, cake designer or other creative vendor a picture you just want them to copy. Inspiration is one thing, killing the creative process and not considering unique ideas from your hired professionals because you MUST have exactly what is pictured…is pretty sad.

    • My husband and I don’t do styled shoots. In our area, they are mostly shot by photographers who don’t have much wedding experience and aren’t busy. I understand why other vendors do them. But let’s call it what it is: a commercial shoot. it’s a fashion shoot or product shoot, plain and simple. The same as any other business does.

      The problem is that MANY photographers will try to pad their portfolios with photos from Styled Shoots or Inspirations Shoots. I have seen vendors at bridal shows that only had samples from styled shoots and that just seems dishonest to me. I know of more than one couple who were sold on photos from a shoot but disappointed in their wedding photos because the person they hired had never shot a real wedding. She didn’t have enough experience to capture the first kiss or dance photos or deal with the challenges of timelines and herding cats.

      I think there is more to be inspired by from real weddings because they are so personal and that comes through in the photos and the joy of the people involved.

  9. I blogged about FAKE weddings recently, and why I enjoy creating films for these inspirations shoots:

    TL;DR: Inspiration shoots are a great opportunity to break the rules and stretch one’s wings creatively. It’s part marketing, and part artistic restlessness – I get to create the sort of wedding I’d *love* to film, and hopefully it will attract couples looking for just that sort of style!

    One thing couples should know about vendors: We know that we have to show the type of work we want to do more of. But what if you’re only getting calls for church weddings, when you’d really love to be filming mountaintop elopements? That’s when you stage the perfect mountaintop elopement – to say “THIS is what I do, so if this is what you’re looking for, I’m your girl/guy!” It’s a matchmaking thing. 😉

    That said, I totally see why you exclusively feature real weddings, and it’s awesome! You obviously have enough stellar content as it is, and your readers are blessedly willing to do something different with their REAL ceremonies!

  10. Do I get in trouble for fangirling a link to that photoshoot’s dress? It’s just very budget-friendly and made by a friend-of-a-RL-friend that I Etsy-stalk. >.> (I considered it for my own wedding but I’m too short&curvy for that style.)

    That said, I’m about a month out and have 90% quit looking at any site that isn’t OBB, because whatever my unanswered questions involve, the search for an answer brings up a styled shoot or a professional event planner, and at this point it obviously ain’t happening.

  11. Love this post. I often find myself laughing at styled shoots that I see on other sites because really, who has the time, resources or wherewithall to make a picture-perfect fern-and-shrub filled tablescape, each person having a log cross-section as a charger plate and a hand-chiseled deer at their seat? Really?

  12. I just want to say thank you to OffBeat Bride for NOT posting styled shoots. I really appreciate it.

  13. This post is a perfect example of what Offbeat Bride represents. I appreciate this on so many levels, the main one being you NOT ACTUALLY BASHING STYLED SHOOTS. I can tell that you really do understand why they exist and that you are simply putting it out there that this particular kind of marketing is not representative of Offbeat Bride’s tone and style. Thankyou for being so thoughtful and consistent. It’s why you guys are so successful.


  14. As a small independent vendor for all types of events & celebrations. I can say that a real benefit to doing some styled shoots has been to show a skill set or product that clients don’t know I have yet. I make custom cakes and rarely re-create the same piece twice…with respect to make everyone just a little unique. Not every client I have can afford my potential (maybe I don’t even know my potential yet!), but I really really want to show the world my art just as a painter, sculptor or any other artist would.

    I genuinely enjoy taking part in competitions and being challenged. If I could enter competitions for just the cost of the cake entered that would be fantastic, but NO those all have entry fees plus the cost of your work and travel. So why not challenge myself and team up with some other vendors so that we all share the cost and benefits. Plus remember not all clients have the stomach to let their vendors simply “rise to the challenge”, they might feel nervous about not knowing if you truly can bring that skill set. So yes I do participate in some styled shoots by offering my confectionery art to be displayed and try I gain some experience (a new technique) and insight along the way.

    I know that this has always helped me to grow as an artist and vendor. I have increased my skill set rather than just staying at the level of my real working portfolio as well as gained valuable network opportunities with other vendors. That is important for my clients too, I love being able to have an answer and a referral for a vendor they need to complete their vision.

    On the other hand, I have had real parties featured in online blogs as well. These always come across with more love and emotion involved. I would absolutely love if every client of mine had the time to photograph their events in a way that the submissions would be accepted online so we could read about the real celebrations more, but that’s unrealistic. Sometimes the best part about the real celebrations is just reading their thoughts, memories, and why they chose to incorporate something. You simply don’t get that level of emotion when reading a styled shoot write-up. So yes, I’d love to hear more of the real celebration ideas and the lovely back stories behind them….but I do seek out the eye candy of the styled shoots too on occasion!

    I personally can always spot the difference in the real vs. styled. The romantic artist in me really hopes that the styled shoots don’t go away any time soon, just that everyone takes them for what they are, an expression of what the artist/vendor would like to work on displayed for you all to see. I’ve seen some of the best new products from myself and other vendors come as a result of a styled shoot or showcase concept. It all comes back around to the client and offering more for them….more experience, more techniques, more ideas, more selection, and YES more inspiration!

    I love that you put this topic out here and your perspective on it! As always, this site is a fantastic resource!

  15. We’ve never participated in inspiration shoots, and especially in more recent years, have been more disgusted more with the sheer amount and how they are used misleadingly.

    We had a wedding that we were hired to shoot and the bride was an art student. Naturally, she had a photographer friend at school. This photographer friend asked the couple who hired us to get dressed up again on a different day after their wedding took place to do a styled shoot. The friend photographer then proceeded to not only post this shoot in her portfolio, but use one of the photos as the main first photo in her new photography business portfolio. She also advertised on some of the same directories – in the same city – that we do with pictures of this same couple. I was furious, but worse, like someone else mentioned, this is misleading to couples.

    It is not so much styled and inspiration shoots I have a problem with, it is the lack of transparency. I wish everyone would take a pledge to A. be forthcoming about staged shoots, and B. explain the costs involved for what it would cost to duplicated the styled/inspiration shoot for a real wedding with 10 to 20 tables.

    Tell couples what the cost is not only for the services shown, but the production crew and furniture rentals, in addition to expensive flower packages, wedding dresses, linens and table settings that are the most expensive in rental catalogs, etc. that are involved to make these very beautiful staged shoots. They never tell you that couches and tables don’t put themselves out in the middle of a field and such by themselves, you need a production crew and moving truck for that.

    Yeah, no one is questioning that they are not all fantastic and beautiful ideas.. they are all look great. But 90% are wholly unrealistic either for what the costs would be, or the logistics that would need be involved to make a lot of those ideas work on a real wedding day. Just a lot of misleading inspiration, which does have an influence on making couples think that they are not living up to some kind of false standards for what is typical. What is typical is a 1970s Brady Bunch church and suburban banquet hall with 1980s linens and no windows. You don’t see the real typical weddings on blogs, you see very very very rare exceptional weddings that represent maybe 1 out of 100 actual weddings.

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