Labour of love: A NAIT grad becomes Canada’s most celebrated wedding photographer

A journey from shooting hoops to shooting candids

Railene Hooper, alberta and canada wedding photographer of the year 2023For Railene Hooper (Photographic Technology ’16), a passion for shooting hoops evolved into a passion for shooting portraits – and earning top national honours for her work.

Hooper has always loved taking pictures. While attending Spruce Grove Composite High School, she took a communication technology class where she discovered her passion for capturing beautiful moments through a camera lens.

But embracing the craft as a career took time. Now 29, Hooper took a degree in sociology, largely to play basketball. Determined to keep playing after that, she enrolled at NAIT in 2014. What she didn’t expect was to rekindle her past love of the artistic side of photography.

She was, in fact, working in the industry during that time, grinding through the likes of school portraits with a high-volume operation.

But one of her NAIT instructors, Robert Bray (Photographic Technology ’79), recognized her talent, offering to let her shadow him during his shoots and become the studio’s marketing and business manager after she graduated.

Hooper’s technical proficiency was part of the reason she caught Bray’s attention but something more compelling was beneath it.

“It's her connection with people, her enthusiasm, and her drive to create something special for them that sets her apart,” says Bray, owner of Robert Bray Portrait Design.

He’s not the only one to see that. In 2023, Hooper was named photographer of the year for Alberta and Canada by the Professional Photographers of Canada, making her a standout in an industry in which the level of competition has never been higher.

The art of the happy memories

award-winning wedding photo by railene hooper featuring a bride and groom bouncing in a white inflatable

Photography allows people to return to their happiest moments through visual reminders. With weddings, those reminders tend to have an air of perfection. Veteran photographers can nail lighting, angles and poses to make subjects look their best. But Hooper feels that the best shots from a wedding are often the unexpected moments.

In contrast, as a seasoned portrait photographer, Bray specializes in those perfect pictures, and those are what he’s after when the two team up on a job. But this doesn’t put them at odds; instead, they capture different facets of the day.

"She does a lot more modern, more emotional photography,” says Bray. “Mine is very posed, but she's definitely [more] candid. It appears less structured."

award-winning wedding photo by railene hooper featuring a bride and groom in a vineyard

Before an event, they’ll meet the bride and groom separately to capture portraits and candids. Then they’ll attend the wedding ceremony, take family photos, and sometimes even visit a different location to take advantage of the scenery.

The day ends towards the latter part of the reception when everyone’s “getting a little too silly,” says Hooper.

Hooper’s sociology degree has a place in all of this, in that it helped develop her interpersonal skills and understanding of human interaction. She loves the personal aspect of her craft and finds great value in learning from people what these memories mean to them.

A first in Canada

award-winning wedding photo by railene hooper featuring a wedding party on a beach

As much as she loves the industry, Hooper finds it “tough right now.”

Though there have been between 100,000 and 150,000 marriages each year in Canada since 2000, competition is tight. Barriers to entry are relatively low, Hooper points out.

For some clients, a friend who’s good with a smartphone will do. Artificial intelligence is making editing easier. New entrants (with actual cameras) who fail to account for costs are also causing complications for the wedding photo business.

“It feels like everyone is just really underpricing the industry and the value of photography because anyone can get a camera and take photos,” says Hooper.

award-winning wedding photo by railene hooper featuring a bride and groom beside a canal

Not everyone, however, can win awards. Robert Bray Portrait Design is now the first studio in Canada to have two major award winners working under one roof (Bray has been named the country’s best portrait artist several times).

After doubling up on awards in 2023, Hooper feels she “can’t top that.” But she does hope to do well enough to win them again, and even place in international competitions. Right now, though, it’s important for her to keep honing a craft that seemed to always be waiting courtside for her.

Hooper is still excited about shooting weddings. She’s also keen to keep finding innovative ways to capture the highlights of a happy couple’s big day.

“[People are] going to look back on these photos and I’d be able to take them back to that moment,” she says. “I think the best part about wedding photography is giving that feeling to your clients.”

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