Behind the Scenes with Asian Wedding Photographer Shakira Umar

Marianne Stenger
5th April 2022

As a photographer, there’s something wonderfully rewarding about having the opportunity to capture two people’s love story and play a key role in their important day. 

Although we’ve already covered many aspects of wedding photography, the traditions and customs surrounding weddings do tend to differ from one culture to another. Asian weddings in particular are unique and steeped in tradition, from the colours, food and traditional attire to the various ceremonies involved. 

Curious to learn more? We spoke to wedding photographer Shakira Umar to get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to photographing an Asian wedding. 

Image © Shakira Umar

Could you tell us a little about how you got into wedding photography? 

I always had a love for photography. I studied fashion PR, which involved fashion marketing, photography and graphic design. So before wedding photography, I worked as a designer and art director for a home shopping catalogue, which involved me going on photoshoots and working alongside photographers. 

It was through this job that my love for photography grew. The photographers I worked with would often say “You’re such a natural,” but I didn’t think anything of it. I just really enjoyed it. 

When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I didn’t feel I could physically work anymore, as the job required me to travel a lot. After I quit my job, a friend whose niece was getting married asked me if I knew of any wedding photographers. 

I told her I’d never photographed a wedding before, but would love to do it. So I did, and I absolutely loved the whole experience. At that point my husband said “Well why don’t you just do wedding photography then?” Before I even had a chance to think about it, he’d already gone round and told everyone I was becoming a wedding photographer. 

He even arranged an appointment and told me someone was coming to see me about my wedding photography. I was like “I haven’t even got a proper camera yet!” It all started from there. I guess in the beginning it was a way to keep my creative juices going, but from there it developed into a proper thriving business. I’ve been doing this for around ten years now and I still love it. 

Image © Shakira Umar

How would you describe your style of wedding photography? 

I think it’s a mixture of everything, both reportage and candid. A lot of my clients book me because they like my candid shots as well as my portraits. But with that said, it can be very hard to get candid shots with Asian weddings. 

This is because not a lot happens spontaneously. The day tends to be very planned out and there are a lot of time restrictions. For instance, there’s usually not much dancing going on and there aren’t always speeches, which is where you often get to capture candid moments and reactions. So you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time and go with the flow. 

It’s about trying to capture all the best bits of a wedding and give the client the shots they are hoping to get. Of course there are some aspects of each wedding where I know for sure I’ll get nice candid shots, but the most important thing for me is making sure that my clients feel comfortable in front of the lens. 

What are some of the traditions that are specific to Asian weddings and make them so special? 

One of my favourite aspects of Asian weddings is the ‘rukhsati,’ which happens towards the end of the wedding. It’s where the bride’s parents or family formally give the bride away, and it’s like a big commotion at the end of the wedding. 

This is because the majority of the time, the bride is still living at home with her parents, and this is the first time that she’s actually moving away from home. Sometimes, the bride will even be moving away from the town or even country where she grew up, so it can get very emotional. 

It’s something that happens with all Asian and Hindu weddings, and there are years of tradition involved as well as religious elements. All the emotion kind of comes out at the end of the wedding. For me, it’s the best bit, because everyone’s guard is down and they’ve sort of forgotten that I’m there, so it’s really nice to capture all those emotions. A lot of my brides absolutely love those shots and always say “I’ve never seen my dad cry, and you caught him crying.” So it’s just little things like that.

Image © Shakira Umar

What would you say are some of the more challenging aspects of your work? 

On the challenging side of things, photographing a wedding means very long days. I’ll often be on my feet for 8 to 10 hours. I literally have to peel myself off the sofa when I get home. 

I think my most challenging period was when I first started out. There weren’t many female Asian photographers around and it often felt like the men looked down on you or would kind of treat you like you didn’t know anything. 

It’s taken me years to build a reputation. These days, I can go cover a wedding and people are aware of who I am, and I’ve also built a good relationship with other vendors within the wedding industry. There’s mutual respect and we all recommend each other. But it’s taken years to get to this point. 

Fortunately, there are now actually quite a few female Asian photographers around, and girls often get in touch with me and ask to shadow me. But it was difficult to begin with. I think after my first few weddings I would come home crying, because I felt a bit bullied. 

I do think the industry is changing, though. In general, there’s more respect now. There’s an understanding that women can do this job as well as any man. I think also, being Asian, it’s even more difficult, because the gender roles are very defined and women are still seen as inferior in some aspects. Fortunately, that’s slowly changing as well, though. 

So I think you need to be really thick skinned to deal with these things. You need to be bold and be willing to stand up for yourself, basically.

Image © Shakira Umar

How have the last couple of years been for you since the start of the pandemic? 

The past few years have been some of my toughest I think, although more than anything, I really felt for my clients. It’s not easy, after planning a wedding for years, to be told that it’s not happening, and then having to move the date not once but sometimes a few times.

I really felt for them, because it wasn’t not just me they had to think about; there was also the venue and the caterer and all the other vendors that are involved in a wedding. 

Last summer was the most challenging actually, because all the weddings kind of clashed and happened at once. I’d never experienced that. There was one weekend where I didn’t see my family at all, because I would come home for a few hours to sleep and then head straight back out for the next wedding. 

Normally I schedule weddings in a way that allows me to cope with the workload. I wouldn’t take on three weddings in one weekend because that’s just impossible. But that summer it somehow seemed possible. I’m still catching up on all the edits even now, because it was just a crazy summer!

At the same time, there were parts of it that were nice. For example, Asian weddings aren’t very small usually, and having 400 to 500 guests is quite normal. So when the restrictions were in place, there were only about 30 people at a wedding. It was quite a refreshing change, as things seemed calmer and more relaxed. It was more intimate in a way.

Image © Shakira Umar

What are some of the highlights or memorable moments from your time as a wedding photographer so far?

There are a few weddings I particularly remember and when I look back. One was quite a challenging wedding that happened recently. The venue was massive and prestigious, and I had never shot there before, so I was dreading it. But in the end it went really well, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Another wedding I remember very well was with a bride who was very well known on  Instagram. As you might imagine, she had very high expectations. I literally didn’t sleep a wink the night before the wedding because I was just so nervous. Fortunately, in the end everything went really well and she loved the images, which is the main thing.

Then there was also a Covid-19 wedding that just a handful of people attended. I think there were around ten people at most, including myself. I had never experienced that. They treated me like family and I felt more like a guest than a photographer. They made me feel really welcome. 

I was actually sitting there thinking “What exactly am I going to photograph here?” because it was just the bride’s parents, her grandma and the groom’s parents. So there were hardly any guests there and not much to shoot. But it ended up being one of the most beautiful memorable wedding I’ve shot.

Image © Shakira Umar

Is there anything you would say to someone who is interested in making wedding photography their profession? 

Mostly, I would say it’s a lot of hard work. People see me with my camera and think it’s easy or that I’m just there clicking a button. But it involves so much more than that. 

You need a lot of strength and stamina to get through the day, as you’ll be on your feet for 8 to 10 hours in a day. You’re also not only a photographer, but a friend for the bridesmaids and the bride, and the family will come to you with questions. 

So there’s just so much going on during the day, and even after the wedding is done, there’s the post production and dealing with the images. You’ve got to be able to handle all that with care, because you can’t repeat that day. 

I think even when I first went into it, I didn’t really think of everything that goes into it, and then I realised once I got in just how much work is involved.

Would you like to see more of Shakira’s work? You can visit her website or follow her on Instagram @MomentsbyShakira. If you’d like to read more inspiring interviews with wedding photographers or get some fresh ideas and advice for your own photography, have a look at the wedding section on the Bob Books blog.