Creating documentary style wedding photos can be challenging and demanding work.1 There is no script and most aspects of the scene are simply out of your control: people often do the unexpected and lighting conditions can change dramatically in seconds. In addition, weddings are often emotionally charged and intimate celebrations that, as a photographer, require the delicate balance between getting the shot and staying out of the way.
But, it’s also incredibly rewarding. There’s something magical about capturing authentic and candid moments in a natural and artistic way. The expression may only last for a fraction of a second – but if documented in a compelling way, the image and our memory of it can live on for a lifetime. Many people (clients and aspiring photographers alike) have asked me about the process and the approach involved in documentary style storytelling. This post provides a few tips for photographing weddings and documenting natural, candid, and authentic moments. (continued below)
First, more about my style: I love to create photo stories using an approach that blends an editorial + lifestyle + documentary approach. For most of the day, I’ll be an observer and documentarian – photographing events, people, and interactions with a hands-off journalistic style. I also love creating unique, delicious, and passionate portraits – where I pick out the scene, control for lighting, and help my clients to be in the frame in a way that compliments who they are as a couple. As part of the story I also create images of architecture, landscapes, decor, and other details important to the day. So, while my approach is rooted in the documentary style, it’s really much more than that.
Here are a few tips for creating authentic documentary style wedding photos. (continued below)
1: It all starts with planning
You should always plan with the couple. It’s crucial to know what’s going to be happening when and where. Having a basic timeline for the day will help to anticipate lighting conditions + enable you to be in the right place to document events as they happen. I often ask my clients to tell their family and guests before the wedding day that they’ve hired a journalistic style photographer. These days, when most people see a camera they stop what they’re doing and strike their finest pose or flash a smile. You know what I’m talkin’ about. And, there is some tension between this type of behavior and my shooting style. If the guests have been given time to absorb the idea that they can just ignore the photographer and continue on, I think it definitely helps.
If there’s a second photographer – give them instruction and choreograph your movements carefully so that you’re capturing complimentary perspectives while minimizing your impact on the event. (continued below)
For clothing – look good, but try to blend in. If it’s black-tie, wear black-tie. If it’s a beach wedding, adjust your fashion style accordingly. You want to be able to meld into the party, dressing appropriately will help. In a way, this is a type of camouflage that will help people to not notice you.
As with most journalistic style photo storytelling, it’s really crucial that the subjects of the story are comfortable with you as a person, your presence, and with you photographing. This type of connection is all based around relationship building and can only happen with time and shared experience. This is why I always recommend to clients to have me along to photograph for multiple days – if they are having events or parties prior to the wedding day – or for an engagement session. The deeper the connection between photographer + subjects, the more likely people are to let their guard down and allow you access to photograph the moments they might otherwise be a little self-conscious about. True story. (continued below)
2: Know the place + read people’s behavior
This is part of the planning process: for the love of all that’s sacred, know the place you’ll be photographing. I generally will visit a new venue – whether a farm, art gallery, beach, national park, vineyard or hotel – before the wedding day. And I’ll generally arrive early on the day of the event to scout locations and get a sense for what the natural light is doing that day. If you know the place, you can better anticipate what’s about to happen – how the environmental conditions might change, what is around the next corner, or what the background of any frame will look like from any given vantage point – and can be more prepared to have the right gear (lens, etc.) for the right moment.
Of course, I don’t think it’s necessary or even important to have photographed at any particular venue before – only that you familiarize yourself with that place. Most of the venues I shoot at will be a first-time experience. But, I do get to know the place before I begin photographing. I often look at any particular room or scene and imagine great vantage points, lines of energy within that place, and how pockets of light affect the space – before there are any people. That way, when a moment arises that involves that pre-imagined frame and people, I’m ready to capture that particular image with a context that is compelling. (continued below)
In addition, being able to read people’s behavior is incredibly important. Photographing in the documentary style requires that you first hone your observational skills. If you can anticipate what is about to happen – when the energy in a group of people is about to crescendo, for example – then you can peek into the future and imagine what that scene might look like in 10 seconds and doing so will allow you to get yourself into the right place to create an image of some yet-to-happen interaction. This is an exercise that requires practice and experience – the more you observe and the more you try to anticipate your subject’s movements, the more effective you will be.
3: Be everywhere + be nowhere
Photographing in the documentary style requires hustle. You’re always on and there’s always something happening that might contribute to the story in a powerful way. There isn’t much time to rest. Passion is the fuel that keeps me going during a 10 or 12 hour day. While it’s important to always be observing people and creating images, it’s also important to know when you’ve got the shot you need and when certain groups of people need more space (i.e., to not be photographed). Other times, creating an image you’ve imagined requires perseverance and patience. Many times I’ve seen an image in my head – a particular scene, the way a person or group of people will be interacting or moving in that scene – but will have to wait for quite a while in that one spot for that actual scene to materialize. (continued below)
It’s true that there are some archetypal events that are present for most all weddings: the ceremony, the first dance, etc. But I find that the vast majority of my favorite photographs from any wedding occur during off moments in-between the major events of the day: a hand on a shoulder, some nervous laughter, or a person’s reaction to seeing a photo on the back of a camera. There’s no way to fully know when or where these moments will materialize. So, it’s a good idea to always have your camera ready and to always be observing the flow of things.
To be in the ‘right place’ at the ‘right time’ isn’t just about luck – though, luck does help. It also requires constant observation of your surroundings: the light, the contours, the angles, and how the people are moving and changing. It’s all a very fluid and dynamic experience. Taken together, one has to learn to be aware of the big picture and at the same time be cognizant of the little details that are constantly in motion and changing. In this way the conscious brain plays its part, but there’s also an aspect to documenting that is more primal, instinctive, and reactionary. (continued below)
After the wedding, you’ll need to have created a wealth of images from the day that tell the story of that celebration. Ideally, at the same time, you also want your clients + their guests to feel like you weren’t there at all. This duality is difficult to achieve. The best feedback I’ve received from clients after they see their photo story is that I seemed to be “everywhere and nowhere” and that they “barely noticed” I was there. A few clients have dubbed me their “own personal photo ninja.” That’s a description I can live with ; – ) (continued below)
4: Context: getting close vs. keeping your distance
There’s an incredible moment happening. Quick, what lens do you have on your camera? Do you want to have a wide-angle and be super close to the action? Or is this particular moment better served photographing from a distance with a telephoto? There’s no easy answer. Much of this decision making depends on aesthetic choices made by the photographer.
Generally, I shoot with a harness that allows me to have two cameras on my shoulders at all times .2 I photograph mostly with fixed, prime lenses (i.e. lenses that do not zoom). So, I will likely have one wide-angle lens (a 24mm or a 35mm) and then one longer angle lens (a 50mm or an 85mm or a 135mm). That way, I’m prepared to make images close to the action or from a distance. If I know I’m about to walk into a small room crowded with people, I’ll make sure to have my wider, 24mm lens on before I do. (continued below)
Personally, for documentary style shooting, my preferred focal length lens is a 35mm f/1.4 (Canon). Being closer to the action generally gives the viewer of the image a feeling of deeper intimacy – like they’re part of the action. Also, context is incredibly important. Making an image where your subject is tightly cropped in the frame can be nice in certain circumstances, but for documentary style storytelling being able to show that person (or group) in a larger context is very powerful. Context allows a single image to say more than it would otherwise. In crowded scenes I like to use narrow depth of field (aka. selective focus) and include foreground and background elements that tell part of the story. Being close to the action is particularly great when there’s a lot going on and there are many people involved.
There are also definitely moments where keeping your distance is much more important. If there’s a more intimate exchange – a private conversation between the couple, for example – and the close proximity of a camera might disrupt that moment, I will use an 85mm, 135mm or a 70-200mm and keep my distance. (continued below)
Finally, I think any robust photo story will have a collection of various frames of scenes that are important to the story. An individual image can have context, certainly. But, a series of images can provide both context and detail. Imagine an outdoor dance party, for example. As a storyteller, I’ll start wide to establish a sense of place – this will be a series of images from a distance that capture the whole scene. Once place is established, I’ll move in closer to create images of varying frames that are details that exist within the bigger setting: people dancing, musicians, etc. In this way, a series of five images might tell a very complete story of that particular scene. (continued below)
Certainly, there’s more to it than the suggestions I’ve made here. Documentary style photo storytelling is a wonderful art that, to really master, requires years of practice combined with a technical mastery of your gear, a solid understanding of the nature of light + human behavior, and a burning passion to create images.
Happy photo’ing, my friends! I’ll leave you with this quote from the great Sam Abell:
“There is more to an amazing photograph than information. We are also seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think – to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make.”
1. Documentary Style Wedding Photography (a.k.a. wedding photojournalism) is an approach that seeks to document real, authentic, and genuine moments in a natural, candid, artistic way. In this post, I use the terms ‘documentary’ style and ‘journalistic’ style interchangeably. For our purposes they mean essentially the same thing. ↩
2. There are many such harnesses on the market. I use one made by a company called Hold Fast. Check them out here. In addition to being functional, ergonomic, and allowing me to be hands free … they’re also fairly stylish.↩
The following jargon is mainly for the search engine robots. Read on, if you like. Drew is a San Francisco based International Photographer. Drew is also an Oakland Freelance Photographer and a San Francisco Freelance Photographer and a Bay area Freelance Photographer, a Bay Area conservation photographer, an Oakland freelance photojournalist and a San Francisco freelance photojournalist and a Bay Area event photographer and a Berkeley photographer; while he is based in the San Francisco Bay area, Drew regularly photographs for clients throughout all of California, including Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, San Jose, Marin County, Santa Cruz, Eureka, Santa Rosa, Mendocino, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbra, and Napa, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, all across the USA and everywhere on Earth. He specializes in creative storytelling and artistic photojournalism, environmental photojournalism, conservation photography, environmental justice photography, and stories about human-earth relationships including urban farming, agriculture, water use, climate change, ocean issues, energy issues, pollution, and natural resource economics. He also specializes in editorial photography and lifestyle photography, portraits and headshots, corporate event photography, non-profit event photography, and branding photography for corporations, non-profits, and small businesses. Drew is also a live music photographer, a Berkeley live music photographer, a Bay Area live music photographer, an Oakland live music photographer, a San Francisco live music photographer, a San Francisco band photographer and a bay area band photographer. You can view more of his photojournalism, editorial, and lifestyle work here and more of his documentary style wedding work here. The photos in this post are connected to the wedding photojournalism, documentary style wedding photos, San Francisco bay area photographers, and Oakland photographers and telling stories with photographs. Have Camera. Will Travel. Drew is also a member in the Wedding Photojournalist Association (WPJA).