Considering that we just wrapped up SXSW 2016, Mayor Steve Adler is fighting hard to keep Austin’s music scene alive, Austin consistently ranks high in studies about best cities for startups, and we’ve already seen a bunch of public art pieces installed this year — including an entire-repainting of HOPE Outdoor Gallery and the new Willie Nelson mural at East 7th and Neches — there’s really no doubt that Austin is an explosively creative place.
And as KXAN reported recently, our fair city is also growing like crazy with over two million residents and counting.
Where are we going with this? Well, as ATX booms, one creative industry in particular is growing too: the wedding business. This isn’t a topic that we talk about much, so we arranged an interview with Shelley Montgomery of Shelley Elena Photography — a local wedding photographer with supreme Texas roots.
Montgomery first picked up a camera in high school as a creative outlet. Unlike anything else, her little point-and-shoot Kodak allowed her to show others the beauty she noticed in the world. “My parents encouraged creativity and modeled it,” she said. “Artistic talent runs very strongly in my dad’s family, and though I didn’t inherit the ability to draw or paint, I always loved art.”
During her first two years studying at Southwestern University, Montgomery took photos constantly, which ultimately sparked her first big break. In 2008, her friend asked her to photograph her wedding. “By the grace of God, I didn’t ruin it,” she joked. On the contrary, her friend was thrilled with her work, and Montgomery knew that she had found her calling.
After graduating from SU in 2011, Montgomery launched her business full-time and has photographed nearly 100 local and out-of-state destination weddings since. In her quest to celebrate the unique beauty of each person that she encounters — client or not — Montgomery strives to place integrity and honor at the forefront of everything that she does.
“Early on, I decided that my goal would be to celebrate the beauty of every person I photographed and champion the relationships of marriage, family, and friendship,” she said. “Starting with that foundation, I know that every decision I make, from responding to emails quickly, to the way I photograph weddings, to how I use social media, should serve my clients in a way that lines up with my values.”
Montgomery also specializes in creating vibrant, emotional portraits of individuals, families, and couples, and she always packs her camera along on her travels to chronicle her personal outdoor and urban adventures, but wedding photography is unquestionably her first and deepest love.
“After shooting a wedding, my feet will be killing me and my back will be begging for mercy, but my heart is saying, ‘Let’s do it again! Let’s do it again,'” she said. “It’s truly a privilege to create and share art reflecting my love for people and this beautiful, messy life we live while documenting weddings.”
Having grown up in rural Dripping Springs, Montgomery loves exploring nature and has developed a strong preference for shooting in natural light, so she often gravitates toward outdoor venues and locations. This, as well as her adventurous personality and her mastery of creative compositional techniques — such as blurring objects like leaves in the foreground, back-lighting, and shooting through glass prisms — draws in fun, nature-loving clients.
“Austin is such an amazing place to be a photographer because of its character and easy access to gorgeous outdoor spaces,” said Montgomery. “I will shoot at pretty much any park, but am consistently drawn to some of our state parks like McKinney Falls and Enchanted Rock. I’ve also been blessed to build great relationships with venues like Kindred Oaks, The Greenhouse at Driftwood, and Camp Lucy, but backyard weddings and weddings on family property are probably my favorite because they have sentimental value and are completely unique.”
“I think my photography best reflects the creativity God gave me when it’s full of fresh air and wilderness,” she added.
Montgomery told Austin.com that most of her clients invest between $3,000 and 4,000 for her services, but that she also offers smaller packages for shorter, or more intimate, weddings and elopements.
These rates are highly competitive in Austin’s wedding scene — and for good reason. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes as wedding photographers prepare for and photograph each wedding and spend countless hours lovingly compiling and editing every clients’ collection to perfection. Montgomery broke it all down for us in our interview:
“Running a photography business means being responsible for all the logistics of being an entrepreneur such as insurance, equipment, sales tax, software, professional development, and advertising on top of having the unique talent and skill of an artist,” she explained. “Add in the high risk of being responsible for documenting a once-in-a-lifetime event and limiting the days you can work, since most weddings are on weekends, and it makes sense.”
She also encouraged us to view wedding photography as a long-term investment.
“It is a luxury, but you get what you pay for,” she said. “Weddings are unique in that there are few times in life when all the people who have impacted us are together in the same place. It will be the photographs of happy tears, grandma’s proud kisses, and laugh-so-hard-you-cry speeches that make those feelings swell up again when you look back at your album.”
Montgomery draws inspiration from a number of different local and national photographers, including Sam Hurd, Nessa K, We Are The Parsons, and most notably, Michael O’Brien — an award-winning Austin-based portrait photographer and family friend who first taught her photography fundamentals and has continued to provide guidance through the years.
Networking with and studying the work of other photographers has inspired Montgomery in more ways than one, challenging her to improve her technique, step out of her comfort zone, and develop her own unique style — all critical stepping stones to success as a modern photographer. In fact, she shared that building these relationships has not only been downright encouraging, but it has also allowed her to practice having her own photo taken.
“Getting in front of the camera incredibly vulnerable thing,” she said. “I try to let myself be photographed frequently so I can stay connected to the experience and practice the self love that I encourage my clients to have. It also reminds me what an honor it is that people trust me to photograph them.”
However, if you’re considering a career in photography, Montgomery said the most important thing you can do for yourself is identify why you want to become a photographer and which genre (or genres) resonates most with your core values and creative goals. Without passion, she says, you’ll burn out quick.
For her part, Montgomery adores photography because it allows her to capture and celebrate the unique beauty of her subjects — even things as small and seemingly insignificant as “dust motes” and “sun shining through leaves.”
“I see beauty everywhere and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to capture it,” she said. “When I saw that I could use a camera to communicate the things I found so beautiful, I knew I would never be the same… Figure out why photography makes you come alive and follow where that takes you.”
Alongside her photography business, Montgomery contributes images to The Georgetown View and has seen her work featured online and in print by Southwestern Magazine, Brides of Austin, and many a wedding blog. The American Outlaws recently invited her to photograph the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team in Houston during their 2-0 victory over Canada to win the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. She also films the occasional music video and is, of course, the official photographer of Hot Texas Swing Band, which is captained by her father, Alex Dormont.
Featured photo: Rebecca L. Bennett, Brave Bird Photography