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DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY 101

Hello – I’m Simon, a documentary wedding photographer who’s been covering weddings since 2012, which makes me sort of qualified to write a bit about it. I also dabble a bit in documentary family photography, and just about anything documentary, really (I shoot most things in a similar way)

But this is a guide for photographers who want to photograph weddings in a Documentary Style. I’ll hopefully go into more depth on several topics as time goes on, either adding to this article or branching out.

I’ve also raided the cookie jar of quotes from famous photographers, to hopefully add to and contrast and harmonize with whatever I’m saying (a lot of it is, after all, just my opinion)

If you are a layman and looking for a wedding photographer, you might find my separate article on what are documentary / reportage wedding photography more helpful. 

“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.”

Robert Frank
Bride wears bright yellow dress in taxi on way to wedding ceremony

WHY I PHOTOGRAPH WEDDINGS IN A DOCUMENTARY STYLE


The most simple answer is that this is how I’d like my wedding covered. I’m not one for group shots and carefully posed portraits. I’m naturally quite shy and introverted and I do think the majority of people look better when they are captured naturally, being themselves (there are some people who are good at playing for the camera, but I’m definitely not one!)

I have a belief that a wedding day should be more about the celebration of love and a chance to party with family and friends. The day flies by and every minute is precious – I wouldn’t want my day to be about photography.

At the same time, a wedding naturally produces the opportunity to make hundreds of beautiful and meaningful photos – and I believe taking a photojournalistic approach to that is the way to make the most of that opportunity. 

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”

Aaron Siskind

WHAT MAKES FOR A GOOD DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER?

 I  do think that this is something anyone can do – not just more quiet, introverted photographers such as myself. I know documentary photographers who are the life and soul of the party. So I guess you need to know your camera inside out and you need empathy and curiosity. Having said that – here’s an overview of the skills you need to be working on as a documentary wedding photographer. :

Observational skills: A documentary wedding photographer must have a keen eye for detail and be able to anticipate and capture spontaneous, unscripted moments as they unfold naturally. They need to be observant and have the ability to read body language and emotions to anticipate potential photo opportunities.

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Don McCullin

Storytelling ability: The primary goal of a documentary wedding photographer is to tell the story of the couple’s wedding day through a series of compelling images. They need to have a strong sense of visual storytelling, capturing the emotions, interactions, and details that convey the essence of the day.

Technical proficiency: While creativity is crucial, documentary wedding photographers also need to have a solid grasp of technical skills, including camera operation, lighting, composition, and post-processing techniques. They should be proficient in using their camera equipment in various lighting conditions and settings.

Discretion and blending in: Documentary wedding photographers need to be unobtrusive and blend seamlessly into the background, capturing moments without disrupting the natural flow of events. They should be able to move around discreetly and work without drawing attention to themselves.

Patience and endurance: Weddings can be long and demanding events, often lasting several hours. Documentary wedding photographers need to have patience, stamina, and the ability to remain focused and alert throughout the day to capture all the important moments.

People skills: While being discreet is important, documentary wedding photographers also need to have excellent people skills. They should be able to interact with the couple, wedding party, and guests in a friendly and professional manner, putting them at ease and encouraging natural interactions.

Editing and post-processing skills: After the wedding day, documentary wedding photographers need to have strong editing and post-processing skills to curate and enhance their images, ensuring a cohesive and visually appealing final product.

By combining these skills, a documentary wedding photographer can create a powerful and authentic visual narrative that captures the essence of the couple’s special day.

Bride with Bridesmaids and Flowergirls

STORYTELLING FOR PHOTOJOURNALISTS

I’m going to be doing a deep dive on Telling Stories soon. But what I am going to say here is that as photographers we are being entrusted with our clients’ stories (we do put our own slant on them and bring our own personalities to the photos too). And that the first part of any story is listening. Get to know your clients, their wishes and dreams and stories. Meet them at home if possible, see their bookshelves and what photos they put on the walls.

Don’t use questionnaires, but get in there and ask real questions wherever possible, the deeper you can dig and the more you ask questions the stronger the story will be.

This is true on the day itself too – don’t be afraid to ask questions. Questions will always be the quickest way to get into the story you need to be telling.

Don’t just make pretty pictures, be a visual anthropologist and family historian. Pretty pictures are overrated (in my opinion)

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”

Robert Frank

PREPARATION / ANTICIPATION

This ties back to storytelling. Once you know all about the people you’re photographing, you can pair that with your years of watching and interacting with other people, and it gives you an idea of what’s coming up next (your experience as a documentary wedding photographer will also come into play.)

So you’ll be subtly moving position and making sure your in position as things happen. Documentary wedding photography is about constantly anticipating moments that may or may not actually transpire. Photos that may or may not happen.

A lot of the time it will feel like you’re missing things, focusing in the wrong place at the wrong time. That feeling may be accurate (and it may be a learning experience). But usually when you get home you have a wonderful amount of material for telling your clients story.

“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”

Paul Caponigro
Wedding guests play with bow and arrow

WHAT’S IN THE DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS CAMERA BAG?


You can read about my approach to photographic kit here (spoiler, I use Fuji’s) All I’m going to say is I’m a strong believer that less is more, and as a documentary photographer most of your best images will probably come from a good wide angle lens (and I love primes). You’ll find lots of reportage photographers swearing by their 35mm, 24mm, 28mm or even their 20mm lenses – and this is for good reason. In the right hands these lenses can tell dynamic multilayered stories that make you feel a part of the moment.

So in short, carry the minimum required and really get to know it inside out. 

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”

Ansel Adams

HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY

The ability to make yourself disappear is quite counter-intuitive. You need to be in people’s personal space to make the best photos –  and the trick is to make yourself part of the furniture (ever looked at your lap to find a cat in it? It’s a bit like that)

Obviously this is easier if you start with one or both of the couple in the morning. You can break boundaries whilst keeping your own body language gentle and submissive and get them used to having you there. Using smaller cameras helps, as does removing distracting elements from them (lens hoods, logos, every little helps)

But whenever in the day you are starting – come into whatever situation without a camera and talk to people and get them used to having you around. You will be able to make yourself part of the surroundings and by the time things are in full flow they won’t know you’re there.

And then they say later, ‘we didn’t see you all day!’ – and it seems like a mystery because you could have physically tagged them at any point. 

“Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.

Diane Arbus
Ceilidh Dancing at The Whitworth Centre Wedding Reception

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY AS A TRAINING GROUND

There’s been a real trend over the last few years towards street-inspired Documentary Wedding photography. Loads of photographers swear by doing street photography to keep their eye in the game and observational skills sharp for when they are at a wedding – but I’m not one of them.

This is for several reasons. Firstly, I really really love good street photography and I don’t believe I’m ever going to work at a standard I’m happy with I’d have to commit 100% to being a street photographer. Otherwise I just beat myself up about being a crap street photographer, and where’s the fun in that? Maybe that’s the more neurodivergent part of me talking.

I also don’t tend to lean into visual puns too often in my work. So I’m not looking for witty juxtapositions and bold clashes. They don’t create much meaning for me, and I think this is one of the skills that street photography can really help with and that people aim to transpose across to weddings (although I know some street photographers hate the easy visual puns too).

On the other hand, if you feel comfortable in the street and want to explore this – get out and do it. Most of us have at some point, it’s the only way of working out if it works for you or not (I actually did some on Gary Lashmar’s Dare workshop, which is a wonderful way of completely exiting your comfort zone)

“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.”

Jay Maisel

PHOTOGRAPHY ESSENTIALS (LIGHT, COMPOSITION AND MOMENT)


Again, I’m going to cover this as briefly as possible. Once you’ve mastered exposure you really need to work on seeing / controlling light, your composition and nailing the moment. Getting any two of these right in a picture tends to make a good picture – but if you can nail all three it tends to make for an amazing one.

(Maybe a deep dive article in the works, or three)

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Elliott Erwitt

FINDING YOUR VOICE

You will realise that there are hundreds of documentary photographers out there and the quickest way to differentiate yourself from them is finding your unique voice. We all have different priorities and visual styles (I have written a separate article that may help with this)

“We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.”

Ralph Hattersley

MENTORSHIP AND ASSOCIATIONS

This is not solely for documentary wedding photographers – but I think it’s important to find good mentors, especially people who understand how you work and what you’re trying to do.

I say that because my first Mentor shot both Documentary photography and Wedding photography and believed that the two should never be mixed. He hated my work and believed it would be vastly improved if I shot in a more traditional style like most photographers at the time. Needless to say, it was a non-starter.

Since then though, I’ve had several good mentors that have pushed and pulled and inspired me and I’m currently a member of the Wedding Photojournalist Association, Fearless Photographers and This is Reportage because I believe you should always be trying to learn and inspire yourselves. 

“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”

Man Ray

FURTHER READING FOR DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS

There are many great learning resources for photography and creativity. I’m going to dial in and supply a handful for the documentary photographer

This is Reportage Podcast – there’s nothing like hearing all the different views and how different photographers work 


Is this Something? – I’ve loved York Place’s work forever. And the minute I discovered they were publishing a book it was on order.

Kirsten Lewis classes on Documentary Family photography are wonderful – she’s a great teacher and I think what she teaches can be applied across the board.


Zalmy Berkowitz’s composition clinic – This made me see photography and composition in so many new ways! I think Zalmy also has a wonderful approach to documenting and photography.

ANY QUESTIONS?

Hopefully this has been a good starter for you if you’re planning on getting into reportage / photojournalism / documentary wedding photography. If you’ve any questions please drop me a line and I’ll make sure bits are added and questions answered as time goes on!

“Photography is the simplest thing in the world, but it is incredibly complicated to make it really work.”

Martin Parr