• billboard

EDU Featured Photographer: Erum Rizvi

Through photography, Erum channels her clients’ energy to work as a “medium” for their weddings and has forged a path to become the top South Asian wedding photographer in the DC area.




By Jenn Gidman
Images by Erum Rizvi

Head over to Erum Rizvi’s photography website, and two taglines immediately catch your attention: “Human First, Photographer Second,” and “Authentic Imagery for Badass People.” Those pithy descriptors offer a sense of a photographer who has confidence in herself, in her work, and in how she interacts with her clients. That self-assurance, however, wasn’t as well established when Erum first arrived in the United States two decades ago from the UK and struggled to find her place, both personally and professionally.

“When you’re an immigrant in a new country, you’re trying to figure out how America works as a whole, and how your community works specifically,” Erum says. “There’s also politics you can’t ignore. Being a Muslim, it felt very daunting to come to the US, and so at first, I wouldn’t reveal too much about my background. But about six or seven years ago, I’d had enough. It didn’t feel like me. I wanted to just be who I really am and let the chips fall where they may. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made.”

Since taking that leap of faith, Erum, who originally went to school for acoustic engineering, has become the DC area’s top South Asian wedding photographer, putting a classic photojournalistic spin on Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Arab, Hindu, and Sikh weddings, among others, with a style informed by her own Pakistani roots and knowledge of South Asian culture. “When I first arrived here, a photographer told me, ‘Start in your own backyard.’ And so that’s what I did. I understand the cultural element behind South Asian weddings, and the aesthetic elements as well—colors that work best with South Asian brides, for instance, aren’t necessarily the same as those that work with white American brides.”

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

Understanding the familial and community ties underpinning South Asian weddings has also been key to Erum’s success. “Once you photograph a wedding here in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, if the clients and their families like you, you’re going to get another client from that event,” she says. “South Asian weddings are about not just the couple—they’re about two families coming together. Of course, it’s important that the bride and groom like you. But if their parents rave about you, you’re in.”

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

To photograph her weddings, Erum has relied on the Tamron 17-28mm F/2.8 Di III RXD (“it’s compact and super-light for my wide-angle work”), as well as a couple of prime lenses and the SP 70-200mm F/2.8 VC G2. But a new addition to her lens arsenal has now upped her photography game. “I’ve just started using the 35-150mm F/2-2.8 Di III VXD, and that covers so much of the focal-length range I need,” she says. “It’s a great all-around lens. I’ve had it on most of the time when I want to shoot tight and wide during the ceremony, and also for portraits—I like to go wide for portraits, but also compress, especially in family photos. Now I can do it all with the 35-150. The videographers I’ve been talking to also love what they’ve seen of this lens so far!”

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

Light and color figure prominently in her photos, and Erum classifies her style as “imagery with meaning.” Her main focus when she takes on a job, however, is the client experience. “I don’t have a formula I follow, because every wedding, and every bride and groom’s energy, is different,” she says. “I like to think of myself as a medium, a vessel that channels that energy and the couple’s unique love story through the photos I take. How are they feeling on their wedding day, and how do they want to remember it? That’s what I want to impart in my images.”

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

To accomplish this, Erum needs to figure out if she and the couple are a good match from the get-go. “The photography is actually the smallest part of the equation for me,” Erum says. “The rest of it is the pre-consultation, acting as a therapist of sorts, the wearing of many different hats on the wedding day itself. When we first meet, I’ll ask the bride and groom about their work and their hobbies; I’ll follow them on Instagram so I can see what kind of journey they’re taking. Some photographers can just show up on the wedding day without ever having met the couple and start taking pictures. That’s not me. In the photojournalism world, access is key, and if I don’t have access to the couple’s intimate space, I can’t establish the trust I need to capture the photos I want to capture.”

© Erum Rizvi
Click image to view larger

Erum’s quirky sense of humor also comes into play. “I like to work with couples who jibe with me,” she says. “I can use humor to loosen them up so that they’re relaxed and totally enjoying their day. I worked with one couple where the groom drove up in a monster truck and he had his turtles as his ringbearers. The energy from that wedding was wild, and I was able to capture amazing photos because of it.”

Erum’s work has earned her not only a steady clientele, but also accolades and awards. She was named one of Rangefinder’s “30 Rising Stars” in 2014, served as a Stella Light & Motion Ambassador, received a “best engagement photo” citation from Junebug Weddings, and garnered a second-place “Honors of Excellence” WPPI award in 2020, among other honors. Erum has also served as a WPPI and Rangefinder Advisory Board member for the past year. “It’s been wonderful having a voice in that space, and representing South Asian and Asian wedding photographers,” she says.

As for fledgling photographers just starting to make their way in the photography world, wedding or otherwise, Erum offers advice that has served her well over the years. “Be yourself, and find your niche,” she says. “If you’re a photographer who specializes in a cinematic look, stick with that. If you’re consistent in what you do, you’ll soon have clients coming your way who want exactly what you do. At the same time, don’t ever stop experimenting, whether it’s trying out new gear or new techniques or a new lighting setup. You’ll stay stagnant if you don’t keep evolving.”