Elizabeth Etienne
Equal Parts French Romantic and American Pragmatist

Elizabeth Etienne

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In This Article

Elizabeth Etienne has always been an artist. “As long as I can remember,” she says. Painting, drawing, writing short stories. “I just loved to express myself creatively.”

In high school, she fell in love with photography. “My first boyfriend was in a band, and I was learning how to process images in the darkroom,” she recalls.  “I started taking pictures of the band, then I started selling the pictures at lunchtime for 25 cents a pop.”

Thus Etienne the photographer and Etienne the entrepreneur were born.

Realizing she would need to balance both the art and the business of her craft to be successful, she pursued a degree at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif. “I chose that school because it had a very strong business emphasis. My Mom said, ‘You can go to any art school in the country and make more art. But I want you to learn how to earn a living’.”

Good advice, Mom.  Upon graduating, Etienne was prepared to do both. But she lacked a trademark photographic style of her own.

A  Style of Her Own [Back to top]

“I graduated with a broad portfolio,” Etienne says. “I could do a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and even though I was getting jobs shooting for magazines and band promos, I was struggling to find my own recognizable artist's stamp. Instead of focusing on refining my style, I was trying to be a certain kind of photographer — a fashion photographer, or an editorial portrait photographer, or a rock band photographer. My portfolio was all over the place.”

Frustrated, she decided to go to Paris for a month. She also began shooting for herself. “For the first time, I wasn’t thinking about how these images would make money, or where they would go. I didn’t even care. I just started shooting images that I liked for myself. Looking back, this was probably one of the most pivotal moments of my career — the moment I just let go. ”

And so the journey began. As luck would have it, she found herself at a dinner party, seated next to an art director from Island Records. “I had a mini portfolio in my back pack. He looked at it and hired me on the spot.” She ended up staying and working as a photographer for several years, shooting fashion, music, film, and fine art.

One afternoon at a Paris flea market she came across a box of old postcards from the turn of the century. “I was captivated by them, some of the postcards had street scenes. Others were portraits of people. Life appeared so uncomplicated, so simple and peaceful. The people had these ambivalent, stoic expressions that made me so intrigued. I wondered what their lives were like. What were their loves, joys, and hardships?”  In between freelance jobs she created her own photo class called Make Your Own Postcard of Paris.  “I’d shoot along with the students – everything from the scenic images of historic landmarks and the romantic cobblestoned street cafes to portraits of the locals.  In a way, I was sort of subconsciously replicating those antique postcard images that I had seen. When I began developing the images in the darkroom it all seemed to flow together, like a story or stills from an old movie.”

It was in that moment that she realized she had finally arrived at her style.

American  Pragmatism, French Romanticism [Back to top]

It is a style Etienne describes as moody, emotional, and intimate, born of equal parts American pragmatism and French romanticism, and inspired by film-noir style films. “Alfred Hitchcock’s lighting was emotional,” she says. “He definitely knew how to set the mood with his lights.”

Upon returning from Paris, one of the first things Etienne did was submit her new images to stock houses and galleries. They were received positively, and within a short time, she had several gallery openings. At one of these openings, a couple approached her with an odd request.

“They asked me if I would shoot their wedding,” she laughs. “I had never shot a wedding before and I had no clue what was involved, but I needed money.” Ever the pragmatist and romantic, Etienne said yes, but not before admitting that she was not a wedding photographer. “They said, ‘That’s why we want you to shoot our wedding,’” she recalls. “They gave me free rein saying, ‘Shoot the way you feel, we trust you. Get creative, explore, do whatever you want.’”

So she did. And from that point on, she established herself as the wedding photographer with a unique Euro-American stamp all her own, and a unique spin on the engagement session.

My engagement images are probably what I’m most known for,” she proclaims. “Few photographers shoot engagements like I do.”

Etienne describes her sessions as highly stylized, theme-oriented sessions shot like a commercial ad campaign in which she’s the art director. “Each session is specifically catered for each couple’s personality and appearance,” she explains. “We begin by reviewing my image portfolios and books, my website, and my extensive image library and note of images we like. We might pore through magazines and books, looking at posing, composition, wardrobe, hair, and make-up. I also make sketches of ideas and then a shot list. From there, my assistants and I begin location scouting for the right ambiance.”

She looks for locations such as a deserted beach with a romantic alcove, a woodsy canyon or a historic building for a vintage theme.

“Many people have commented that the images look like an editorial spread for Vanity Fair, or a vintage French postcard from the turn of the century,” she says. “Either way, the couple gets to feel like celebrities for a day, and later I can recycle these images into my fine art collection, add them to my commercial portfolio, or stock image collection.”

She adds that she loves it when a couple says that the most romantic day they ever had together was at the engagement shoot. “I think, wow, we spent a couple of hours meandering barefoot on a beautiful misty beach, and they just melted together. So, in a way, I was creating this intimacy that they may not have had before —like phototherapy. It’s a permanent reminder for them, maybe if they go through a rough patch in their marriage, they can look back at these images and remember when they were in love.”

While Etienne is a highly sought-after wedding and engagement photographer, she stresses that she doesn’t consider herself a “wedding photographer.” “This feels confining and limiting and as true artists our work can apply itself to so many different things.”

Covering  Every Angle [Back to top]

Etienne works from a standard shot list, whether she is shooting an engagement shoot or an ad campaign, but her list is anything but standard. “It includes fun, creative, and traditional shots,” she says. “And I shoot in color and black-and-white.”

Eight percent of each wedding is shot on film, she says. “I shoot so much that I can easily go through 20, 25 rolls of film. If I’m doing an advertising shoot I make sure to get what the art director and client want first, then make more creative suggestions and shoot variations.”

Etienne typically works with two assistants. “I’m the primary shooter,” she says. “I shoot 90 percent of the ceremony. But we’ll have several cameras documenting the ceremony at one time so we can get two points of view.”

For analog capture, Etienne relies on KODAK PROFESSIONAL PORTRA 160NC and 400NC Films and KODAK PROFESSIONAL Black-and-White 400CN Film.

“I love the PORTRA NC Film because the color is so balanced,” she explains. “It has a nice warm glow to it. I shoot all the portraits of family members with it.”

As for her preference for KODAK PROFESSIONAL Black-and-White 400CN Film, she says, “I love that film because the tonal range is fantastic and I can develop it at any lab, anywhere, anytime.”

While Etienne shoots mostly film, saving digital capture for back-up and low-light situations, she has all her film images converted to digital files for retouching and adjusting color.

“People always ask me why I don’t just shoot digitally if I have all my negatives scanned,” she laughs. Her answer:  She can’t get the look that is her trademark style from digital. “Digital is very crisp and sharp, but that’s not the look I’m going for when I shoot my portraits,” she explains. “The beauty of film is the grain. The grain itself hides so many flaws that digital reveals. There’s nothing like film. It’s the real thing. The quality, the color balance, the saturation, the grain — it’s just perfect for me.”

She also appreciates film’s latitude. “When you shoot digitally, you get about one-third of a stop in one direction or the other. If you shoot film, you could have an image that’s underexposed two or three stops, and you still have a lot of information in that negative. You can still create a very beautiful image. Film has so much latitude and so much more information.”

Not to mention the archival qualities. “Film’s not going to get corrupted,” she says. “It’s one of the most secure forms of data storage that we have. My clients love that they get negative and digital files. “I’m probably the only photographer that does that. It’s an extra expense, and it’s more labor intensive, but the end result is just so much better.”

The  Greatest Challenge, The Biggest Gift [Back to top]

Etienne feels her greatest challenge is the juggling. “Being creative is a wonderful thing, and being able to make a living at it is fantastic. It’s truly a gift. A lot of people have to go to a 9 to 5 job every day and work with a boss they don’t like, and deal with certain issues. I don’t have that. I love that I have the liberty to do my own thing.”

The drawback is the lack of security. “Work can be inconsistent,” she sighs. “Sometimes it’s difficult to balance it all out. It’s important for photographers to look at what their expenses are, what it’s costing them to run their businesses.”

She feels so strongly about this that it is the subject of one of her workshops.

“I teach photographers how to estimate correctly for a job, and how to keep their costs down. You have to balance the time you’re spending to produce the job, because time equals money. You have to decide what your time is worth and handle that appropriately.”

Etienne has known many talented photographers who thought they would have been successful and established, yet who are out of business because they didn’t have savvy business skills. “If you don’t have those, you’re not going to make it in this business no matter how good your photography is,” she says. “This is an expensive business to be in. The general public takes that for granted. They think you can just grab a digital camera and go out and shoot  — fast, cheap, and easy. It’s our job as photographers to gracefully and tactfully educate clients. We really need to educate the masses as to what our value is.”

The Importance of  Relationships [Back to top]

“Everyone and their sister suddenly wants to become a photographer,” she laments. And while Etienne acknowledges the value of photographer network sites, such as Kodak’s Pro Photographer Locator, she also stresses the importance of grassroots marketing. “The Internet is a great space for communication,” she explains. “All this technology is designed to make us closer, to help us communicate better. In some ways, though, subtle nuances have been lost and in a way, we’re further apart. I’ve learned how important it is to slow down and have conversations and develop relationships.”

She feels this is one of the most important things she can teach students and interns. “Don’t just send a quick e-mail and ask someone to look at your work,” she advises. “There are 10,000 photographers doing that same thing. Get to know what they’re looking for, and how you might help them. What are their needs? How can you give to them first and make their life easier or better?”

She adds that it’s also about respecting someone’s time. “Most of us are so busy that we don’t have a lot of time to give to other people. But we need to make that time. I feel terrible when an assistant or intern will contact me, wanting to know if I need help or if there’s an opening in my internship program. Often, I don’t even have the time to respond, but I make that time because I never know when I’m going to come across that person again. I certainly want them to have a good impression of me — not just as photographer, but as a human being.”

Etienne takes great pride in the fact that her interns remain in touch with her long after they leave. “They e-mail me, tell me how important the program was, how they’ve learned more from the three-month internship with me than they did in four years in photography school. So I feel good. These are my children, so to speak. It’s nice to know that they can go out in the world and be able to succeed as photographers. That’s what I really want.”


In Etienne’s Camera Bag [ Back to top ]

Capture every breathtaking detail

Choose PORTRA 160NC Film for natural color and low contrast to expose the subtle splendor of the moment. Choose PORTRA 160VC Film for more vivid color and slightly higher contrast to bring out rich, vibrant details. Whichever film the scenario calls for, expect the ideal level of color saturation and contrast to match the situation.


Now with even finer grain!

Control the situation even when you can’t control the light. The new generation of KODAK PROFESSIONAL PORTRA 400-Speed Films let you capture every spontaneous moment—now with even finer grain. Choose PORTRA 400NC Film for lower contrast, and colors and skin tones that look real and natural in a variety of lighting situations. Choose PORTRA 400VC Film for vibrant color, and slightly higher contrast to add snap to images shot in flat or overcast light.

The world’s finest-grained chromogenic film.

The truth doesn’t have to be difficult. Trust KODAK PROFESSIONAL BW400CN Film to give you all the impact and elegance of black and white—with the undeniable convenience of C-41 processing. The finest-grained chromogenic film in the world, BW400CN delivers smooth, neutral tones with amazing highlight and shadow detail—even when it’s enlarged.

BW400CN Film. Seeing is believing.

Etienne’s Biography [ Back to top ]

Elizabeth Etienne has photographed weddings for more than 20 years, and credits both her French-American upbringing and her many years living in Paris shooting fashion, music, film, and fine art with giving her work a unique Euro-American stamp that is hers alone.

A sought-after workshop speaker, and author of the soon-to-be-released book, From Snapshot to Cashbox, Etienne currently resides in Los Angeles, Calif.

When she isn’t traveling for work or pleasure, Etienne can be found surfing the waves at her beachfront home.

See more of Etienne’s work