The Insider Scoop

‘We like to be exposed to positivity.’ Heartfelt Studio puts heart into photography

When it comes to a working style, there is no one size fits all at Heartfelt Studio.

Hiring a photographer for your wedding day is a huge decision. You want a studio that will listen to your concerns and requests. And if you have no clue what you want, you need someone who guide you through your wedding day to get the best photos and capture your special moments.

Di Zhang, the studio director/lead photographer at Heartfelt Studio, knows what a big investment a photographer and/or videographer is for a couple, which is why he and his team put their hearts into their work to make memories for brides and grooms.

BOLI had a chance to speak with Zhang about Heartfelt Studio in Great Neck.

How did you get started in wedding photography?
I started wedding photography in 2009. I had a full-time job in Manhattan, and a recession hit and the company went bankrupt, and left me not really knowing where to go. I was looking for something new, and my wife suggested giving photography a shot. I borrowed a camera from my father-in-law, and started taking photos.

Several years later, my wife and I moved to Great Neck, and we started doing more Long Island weddings. It’s all about timing. [I was working for other studios and] it was a good time to branch off and start my own thing. That’s how Heartfelt Studio was born initially.

The studio itself officially opened with actual studio space in 2016. Initially, it was just photography, and then I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of good people. We get along really well. We’re all friends, our kids all play together. It’s a very good type of atmosphere. And now we offer both photo and video.

How did you come up with Heartfelt Studio as a name?
I didn’t want to use my name to name the studio. The next best thing was to go with how we feel about this industry. Why we’re doing this.

I think for all of us who are in this industry, we all kind of like to be exposed to this kind of positivity when people are at their best, emotionally, mentally.”

I started trying to find this word to describe this feeling. I think ‘heartfelt’ is a really good word to describe it. A lot of our work, a lot of our efforts put into each wedding, I think this word sums a lot of that up.

You really have to put a lot of heart into what you do, especially this job when you’re handling so many different types of people, coming from different types of backgrounds. You have to be inclusive; you have to be very understanding. I think that word, [heartfelt,] really describes a lot.

How many weddings have you shot?
Oh boy! I don’t have an exact number, but I do know that in the very first five-six years, I was shooting at least 100 weddings a year. The number definitely came down, but it’s close to 700-800 weddings, for me, personally. That’s a lot.

How would you describe your working style? Do you prefer candid shots? Or choreographed shots?
I don’t think there’s one size that fits all. A certain portion of the wedding requires a lot of candid capture, those that we have no control over.  If you think about the whole day, the crazy schedule that everyone has. I would say, majority of the time it’s very candid. When we do get the chance to kind of control the scene, to kind of stage it up, or even spice up, then it would be a combination of directed and natural shots. If people are conflicted with what they want, we’ll be happy to jump in and take charge when necessary.

It’s a combination of many different styles, in terms of shooting, but the most important part of it is the couple, we want to make sure the couple enjoys their wedding day. If they need some time to take a break, take a break. If they need some time to gather themselves, it’s totally fine. Because during that time, we kind of ‘stalk’ them a little bit, without being intrusive, and there’s some beautiful shots that can be captured from that.

What sort of advice do you offer to put nervous couples at ease?
There’s a certain expectation when the bride and groom come in, like, ‘I’m being photographed, I have to be a certain way, I have to be like one of those Next Top Models.’ We’re photographing real people. You don’t have to constantly worry. I always tell people, don’t think of us as photographers, think of us as the little voice in the back of your head.

Focus on each other, talk about your day, since you don’t really get to see each other, talk about your mornings getting ready. It might sound silly, but it does, kind of lighten up the mood. It makes them less nervous. It’s about playing psychology in a way. You have to kind of tap into their head, and feel how they feel and make that part of you. Capture their thoughts.

A nervous bride will be a nervous bride. And it’s OK to be nervous. You just have to trust us. There’s no better way to sum it up. You decided to go with us, you need to trust us in terms of making some of the right decisions for you when it comes to getting photos taken. It should be all about the bride and groom. If they can see that, that we’re there for them, then they’ll be less nervous.

Preparation is very important. You have to be very up front about everything. You have to let them know they’re not alone in this. My team and I have been through this countless times. You just have to trust us.

What are some of your favorite places to shoot on Long Island?
Recently, this year, I was able to go to the Peconic River Herb Farm. And I totally fell in love with it. The place is very well curated for photos or weddings. The people there put a lot of heart into the decorations, the landscaping. I don’t even know if that’s what’s on their mind when they did it, but the place is gorgeous. It has a lot of flavor.

The Vanderbilt Museum is a really beautiful location. The people are so easy to work with. Not only that, they do allow us to fly drones there, which is a big, big plus. The area near the water is beautiful. The castle has a lot of flavor. It has architectural character, it’s almost like icing on the cake when it comes to shooting a couple when you have a beautiful location.

The last one I go to a lot is Sagamore Hill. The place is very diverse in landscape. The rule is that if you don’t put anything on the ground, it’s free to photograph. And I can’t think of a better location for that. Every season there’s different personalities. It’s a lot of nature, there’s a hike that heads down to the dock that leads to a patch of beach on the north shore. A lot of tall grass. A lot of tree lines and good hills. Very nice sunset shots too. I can’t complain. I always go there. I probably go there maybe 30-40 times a year.

Do you offer customized packages to suit a couple’s needs?
It’s constantly changing in terms of what the couple’s needs are. We tried just all packages, and couples asked to customize. Then, we tried all customization and couples asked if there were any packages. Now, we meet everyone down the middle, so there are some packages and if they need to customize, they can go to customization to kind of tweak the package or make their own package. We try our best to satisfy everyone’s needs. When someone can’t decide, I’ll figure out what they need versus what they want. We want to make sure we give them all the information necessary to make their decision because it is a big investment.

Heartfelt Studio comes recommended by BOLI members too! BOLI Danielle Barr used Heartfelt for her October 2019 wedding.  “Aside from how great our photos and trailer look, they were SUCH a fun team to work with. Photos were a breeze, we were on schedule, and Di and his team made us feel like we had known them forever. Even my husband who I can barely get to take a selfie with me loved working with them (especially when they let him fly the drone!),” says Danielle. She adds that she just did her 2020 Christmas photos with Heartfelt Studio, and plans to use the team for all of her milestone events.

And in times of COVID-19, Zhang offered this piece of advice for all BOLI members:

Stay positive. Love is never canceled. It’s a tough time, but things will get better. And we’re there to help them.”