Jennifer Alexandra

A Trip to Shutterfest

This post comes to you from the floor of the photography conference Shutterfest. For  veterans of this event, you know that this very well could be a literal statement. Don’t step on me as you walk over my tired, broken body. Just wait a minute and you can pry my Sony A7RIII out of my cold, dead hands.

Shutterfest is exhausting!

Thousands of photographers come from around the country to Shutterfest, but as it takes place in St. Louis, I only had to drive about 20 minutes. It may be a short trip, but once I arrived, I stepped into a chaotic fantasy world – a Disneyland for photographers!

The Background

This is the 5th year of Shutterfest, brainchild of local portrait and wedding photographer Sal Cincotta. Sal and the event is not without controversy, but I’m not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater and I’m not one to pass up photography education especially when it arrives pre-packaged on my proverbial doorstep.

Shutterfest is a photography conference, but to say that really doesn’t do the event justice.


The event takes place at Union Station, an historic St. Louis landmark attached to a grand old hotel. Sweeping stairways, long hallways, beautiful arches and behind the building are trains – yes, trains!

Portrait of Amy in the Rain
Shutterfest happens whatever the weather. Not many photographers braved the cold rain, but a pair of us did with our brave model, Amy. We backlit the rain and came out with some stunning shots.

It’s a beautifully big and diverse space, but when Shutterfest hits town, the walls bulge with photographers and models and fashion. So much so that the conference spills out onto the streets of St. Louis. At any point in the week surrounding Shutterfest, on any street in downtown St. Louis I can turn a corner and find a full-fledged photoshoot going on with models in dresses transportable only in tractor trailers.

The Experience

At Shutterfest, there are classes just like at any other conference. But get the image of photographers sitting quietly in darkened rooms lit only by PowerPoint presentations right out of your head!

Yes, there are classes. Lots and lots of classes. So many classes that they spill into the hallways, into the bars, and onto stairways. Many of these classes are hands-on: models provided (but please don’t handle the models!)

There are the official classes that we register for and the unofficial ones. Impromptu classes and photoshoots erupt everywhere and at all hours of the day and night. Getting from one class to another necessitates walking through at least 3 photoshoots. But don’t worry, the photographers will Photoshop you out of the picture. If they don’t know how, they’ll go to a class and find out.

But why walk through the photoshoots? Stop and take a few photos!

Shutterfest is an open, sharing place. Photoshoots at the site are open to other photographers regardless of who actually organized the shoot. Sometimes I never do find out who is actually in charge! Sure there’s an etiquette that comes with having 30 photographers trying to photograph one little model in a huge dress, but somehow it works.

These photoshoots happen all day and night. Poke your head into the grand hall at 3 in the morning and a dozen photographers will be passed out in lounge chairs and another dozen will be trying to stage a photoshoot around them.

I’m not sure what the employees of the hotel are told. It seems like the Shutterfest organizers have negotiated an Anything-Goes clause in the contract.

Staging a boudoir shoot in Starbucks is not off limits, it’s actively encouraged! I suppose there might be other conferences where half naked models walk publicly through a large hotel full of people in the middle of the day, but I don’t usually get invited to those sorts of conferences.

Reflections in Piano
Shutterfest post-processing continues! I took thousands of photos. This is Grace in a sleek black number at a grand piano in the Grand Hall at Union Station. We were playing with reflections.

Tossing a model up onto the bar and setting up a light stand behind the counter is no problem – the bartender just serves drinks around the taffeta.

Hoisting models onto street lamps or setting off smoke bombs in front of the hotel is treated as commonplace by the staff. I’m surprised the grand pianos are still standing after having so many models perched on them.

It’s not uncommon to see one photoshoot almost literally stacked on top of another one (or two or three).

Photographers at the conference can join any or all of these photoshoots as long as they are courteous of the other photographers. The famous names of photography roam the building stopping to photograph alongside and offer ideas and instruction. Headshot photographer Peter Hurley stopped by one of my photoshoots this year just to offer a few tips.

But if you can’t muscle your way to the front of the 29 other photographers for a shot, don’t worry! You can easily check out a model of your own.

RAH – or Rent a Human – is a bit like going to the library to check out a book. My conference badge is my lending card.  I can walk up and ask for the type of model I want (yes, even boudoir) and we’ll go off and take photos together. There’s no fee involved. My only responsibility is to get the model some photos for his or her portfolio. That is, when I’ve finally had a chance to post-process the thousands of photos that I’ll bring back from a couple of days shooting.

It’s too good to be true, you might say. There must be a limit to how many photoshoots you can attend. But there’s not! Shoot until you break your camera, run out of storage on your SD cards, or fall over into a quivering mass of creative pudding.

Lexi poses with classic car
Model Lexi Conner poses in an abandoned warehouse in St. Louis during an after-hours photoshoot shoot. The classic Comet fit perfectly with the urban theme.

Managing the Chaos

I’m generally a planner, but not for this event. I just go and ride the wave!

Newbies are easily recognized by the shell-shocked look on their face. It’s mass chaos and yet it all works. We all come back with amazing photographs and have generally pushed at the boundaries of our photographic skills.

My plan, such as it is, is to photograph anything that looks interesting and take classes with some of the big names in photography. Granted, this conference has primarily a portrait and wedding bent to it, but most are classes generally about taking good photographs. Lighting, composition, marketing are all major themes that cross over into other genres.

This year I targeted all the natural and low light classes and photoshoots. These are skills I can take with me on the road and into my street photography. But next year I may sign up for all the boudoir classes and photoshoots. I’ve never photographed boudoir and this is the perfect venue to try out something different.

Experts shoot alongside beginners and the attitude is generally one of education and encouragement. This year, I got my best lighting tutorial by shooting next to a wedding photographer from New York. He wasn’t an official teacher, just a photographer who shoots 80 weddings a year and has a ton of photographic knowledge. Just him and me and the model. One-on-one education.

Jennifer Alexandra
I learned some new lighting techniques from Florin Tilinca, a New York based wedding photographer with a ton of knowledge – and his ice lights – to share, and wonderful local model Jennifer Alexandra.

As if shooting non-stop and classes taught by world class teachers isn’t enough, there are other perks of the conference.

  • Free professional headshots for all photographers complete with hair and make up if you want it – and the behind-the-scenes blackmail photos taken by my pals.
  • Freebies from the vendors. There are more and more vendors each year. Yeah, Sony made it this year! My people have arrived! WordPress was even there to give me hands-on help with my blog and a couple of vendors brought big printers and were giving out free prints.
  • Networking to your heart’s content! I’ve never seen so many photographers in one place. But don’t fear if you’re a bit of an introvert – many photographers are. There’s a special Facebook group for introverts at Shutterfest to help them survive the chaos.
  • Contagious energy. Most conferences come with an energy boost when you get around others who share your passion. Shutterfest is like having a tall skinny mocha with a quadruple shot — four times a day!


It doesn’t matter if you’re not primarily a portrait photographer and just thinking about photographing weddings makes you break out in ulcers, there is so much on offer at Shutterfest.

If you’ve wanted to try shooting fashion or weddings but haven’t had the opportunity or may not know how to get started, Shutterfest is your place. You’ll be able to practice to your heart’s content. I’ve discovered a lot about myself by attending Shutterfest and exploring all that is on offer. I know what types of models I gravitate towards and how to find and control light, even if I’m not using flash. I’ve learned a lot about posing and interacting with models and other photographers.

Let me know if you plan to go next year. We veterans try to help the newbies – at least try to keep their heads from exploding.

I can only tell you about this crazy event because I’ve already got my ticket for next year. The event is limited and it does sell out. So if you don’t want to have your nose pressed against the glass while all your photog friends go and play at photo-Disney, act now!

If you want more information, get the low down on Shutterfest.

Anastasia's Green Coat
Anastasia’s brilliantly green coat matched well with the colorful graffiti in an abandoned warehouse that we used for an after-hours photoshoot at Shutterfest.

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