Once asked to back up a principal wedding photographer for a day, Nicole Ashley found something new – a career that takes her around the world capturing one of life’s most memorable moments.
Meant to be.
It’s a sentiment often shared in a wedding speech. Two people, after unexpected stops and unplanned detours, say yes to something random and find their way to each other.
Taking a leap into the unknown can lead you exactly to where you were always supposed to be, maybe even to what you were always meant to do.
Take Nicole Ashley. She started off randomly in sports photography. A high school friend asked her to shoot a few lacrosse games, which led to more sports teams, then eventually to concerts and music festivals. The wide-angle views, though, weren’t her game; she wanted to focus on the athletes, the entertainers. “I realized that just documenting events wasn’t enough for me,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work with people.”
As luck would have it, another photographer asked her to second-shoot a wedding. It was a no-pressure, let’s-see-how-the-day-goes proposal – Nicole wasn’t even supposed to be paid – but the day was a turning point. “After the couple read their vows, I was like, ‘I can’t believe that I’m witnessing complete strangers’ wedding vows.’ It was such an intimate, raw moment, and I couldn’t believe I got to be a part of it. It was like a drug. I was so high off of that I knew that that was it.”
Nicole now shoots close to 30 weddings and intimate elopements a year. The Edmonton-based photographer has travelled from Italy to Iceland, Belize to Croatia to capture a couple’s big day. There’s a lot of nervous energy for the bride and groom; Nicole wants them to feel beautiful and worthy. Gaining that confidence to take charge came in time.
Nicole’s first camera was a basic point-and-shoot. She taught herself the ins-and-outs of a DSLR. “I would literally shoot every day in different lighting scenarios and ask friends and family to model for me.”
She was still learning when her husband’s band asked her to shoot photos for their upcoming album. “The morning of the shoot, I threw up I was so nervous,” she says, laughing. “That stuck with me. I must really care about this if I’m physically ill over it.”
She credits her husband, Jon, a tattoo artist and part-time musician, for pushing her to pursue photography full-time. At the time, Nicole was working two serving jobs. She was torn on whether to work over Christmas, when the money is good. “[Jon] said, ‘I think you should just quit cold turkey and focus 100 percent on photography. If in six months you don’t make a dollar, then we can re-evaluate.’ I was pretty fortunate I had that kind of encouragement in my corner,” she says.
Nicole, who describes her style as “moody romantic,” has now grown her portfolio to the point that couples seek her out. With weddings all over the world, she usually meets her clients the day of their ceremony. Her goal always is to produce intimate, genuine photos, which can be a challenge when the bride and groom are strangers to you just hours before their ‘I do’s.’ She needs to get to the essence of the couple quickly – speed dating, in a sense.
“I’m big on watching people’s mannerisms and quirks,” she says. She mentally notes how someone turns their face when they talk, or handles their hands, or little movements they do. “I’m watching all those little details as we’re talking. In my head, I sound psychotic,” she says, laughing, “but it really pays off well with posing them.”
Her greatest hope is for the bride and groom to not just recognize themselves in their photos but also see something they have never seen of themselves before. “I want them to see an intimate but relatable look, and to deliver really artistic impressions where they can see their personalities,” she says.
Nicole initially envisioned a different career path for herself when she earned her Bachelor of Education degree. She still found her way into teaching, just in a different classroom setting. She teaches workshops and speaks at conferences. She offers mentoring, allowing aspiring photographers the opportunity to ask her anything and spend time shooting with her.
“When I started shooting I found most artists to be closed off or very protective of their secrets and locations,” she says. “It was disheartening, and I knew I never wanted to be a roadblock for someone else. I’ve always been very open with the photo community, and find it so rewarding to watch others grow in their artistry. Community over competition has always been my motto.”
It’s also a great way to give back to an industry that’s allowed her to experience so much.
“I’ll be photographing a couple in a new location, and it blows my mind, I’m like, ‘Wow, if I had never picked up a camera, I would never have met these people. I may have never been in this particular town in Switzerland. I may never have been to travel as much in the world.’ There are times I’m sitting on a plane and I can’t believe someone believes in my art enough to take me to them. It’s crazy.”
Memorable moments are plenty, no matter where in the world her work takes her. One wedding brought her to Australia – “I was blown away that clients would fly me literally across the world to be a part of their wedding” – but another, backyard nuptials in Edmonton where the guest list was just closest family and friends, left just as lasting an impact. “It was incredibly emotional and beautiful,” she says. “I just think of that couple and I get goosebumps all over again. It doesn’t have to be about location. It’s more like the way you connect to that ceremony.”
Nicole’s schedule will keep her closer to home the next couple of years. However, one European wedding has her extra excited for an elusive stamp in her passport. A few months ago, she mentioned on a podcast that one of her bucket list destinations was Portugal. Not two weeks later, she met with a couple who booked their elopement there.
“Whether that’s total coincidence or that’s the power of saying something out loud, I have no idea,” she says, “but that was a pretty good moment.”
And maybe just meant to be.
“I love making people feel beautiful and worthy. For a lot of people, it’s intimidating to be [in front of] a lens. There’s a lot of nervous energy, but if you can make people feel good and turn over a product that they love how they look in it, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Tricks of Her Trade
Here are a few of the ways Nicole captures the overall feeling of a wedding day, from the celebration to the raw, intimate moments that truly reflect the couple and their guests.
There is never a shortage of celebratory shots from a wedding. But how do you capture the more intimate moments, the quiet among the chaos? The key, says Nicole, is being observant. “Even if I’m meeting a complete stranger and it has nothing to do with photography, I’m making eye contact, but in my peripheral vision I’m watching their hands, the way they tilt their head, if they’re touching their hair a lot, or little movements that they’re doing.”
Be a little sneaky.
The less obvious you make yourself, the more likely you’ll capture candid moments that truly reflect a person’s character. People act differently when they know a camera is on them, says Nicole. “The sneakier you can be, the more you’re going to capture those really authentic images that people want.”
Keep the camera up.
A couple can plan their wedding down to the millisecond, but the day will still be full of unscripted and unexpected moments. The key to freezing those to digital memory? Keeping the camera at chin level, says Nicole. In the extra second needed to raise the camera from your hip to your face, the moment may have passed.
Tell a story.
Nicole makes a custom slide show for her clients, a highlight reel of their day. “I want them to view it the way an outsider viewed it.” Instead of opening with a photo of the bride getting her makeup done, it may start with a shot outside the venue, documenting the weather and the area. Nicole builds the album in her head as she goes. “Even when we switch locations, I’ll shoot their feet walking to the new location. I want to lead them into it, so it’s not just, ‘here’s a photo, here’s a photo.’ They get to view it as a video.”