What is documentary wedding photography?
There are many styles of wedding photography, so choosing what’s right for you is very important. If you have read my other blog posts you will have seen that yes, I do shoot groups and couple portraits. While these are not considered to fall in the realms of documentary photography they are still a part of the day and important to capture, more about that further down this piece.
What I really want to talk about are the ‘other’ parts of the day, to some, a lot more important, those caught moments and how their story is told, not how things looked but how they felt.
Personally, for me, documentary wedding photography doesn’t mean hiding out of sight or not talking to people. It’s engaging with people on their level as someone who’s part of the wedding so they become comfortable around you and ultimately accept you’re there and stop feeling like “OMG! there’s a person with a camera in the room what do I do?”
Natural unstaged wedding photos.
Sometimes referred to as reportage and maybe more commonly candid wedding photography, terms more and more broadly used to describe ‘natural’ images. More importantly, these terms describe natural moments. When something happens that is either unexpected or unplanned or just an observation of a scene unfolding in front of the camera without any input or direction from the photographer. A documentary image can create an emotion that sparks a memory of the day. When you receive your final edited gallery true documentary photographs should connect and wind through the story of your day. From the face a bridesmaid pulled when hairspray went in her mouth to the sparkle in granny’s eyes when the best man pulled her onto the dancefloor.
Most weddings have certain things that usually happen throughout the day and most people expect at least some photos of those things. A parent’s ‘first look’ of a bride, for example, I know this is probably going to happen, but without any input I have no idea what is going to happen. There have been times when Dad has walked straight past the bedroom door, looked in and said “are you ready?” and there have been times when a mother or father, or both have been so overwhelmed with emotion that I’ve been fighting back the tears myself while trying to capture the moment. Other parts of the day like the exchange of rings, the first kiss and the first dance are traditional moments that photographers are expected to capture. None of these are usually set up by the photographer but I know they are going to happen and with documentary wedding photography, I will always be looking for an unusual angle or a reaction to the moment or even some way of telling the story in a different way.
Every wedding is different, even if I shoot three couples in a row at the same venue, each day will have different moments and different people that react in a different way and that’s what makes each wedding unique.
What makes a storytelling image?
A storytelling image catches a moment in time that won’t happen again, it doesn’t have to be clever or complicated, and sometimes a sequence of shots can be used to give each image context to tell the story. What I love to look for are moments that are made up of many things happening at once, layered up in different parts of the frame. An unusual composition or lighting that can emphasize what you want the viewer to look at or even an image that makes the viewer look really hard to work out what’s going on. Careful composition can make the viewer’s eye move around the image leading the story.
Here’s one of my recent favourites.
My Instagram highlights contain some more image breakdowns like this where I explain why I took a particular shot and how I saw it.
“candid wedding photographs are easy to take”
A guest told me this once and it’s true to a point, aim your phone at someone and take a photo, if they didn’t see you then it’s candid. But using documentary wedding photography to tell a story is a lot more tricky. I spend a lot of time watching and listening. People have animated conversations that suddenly burst into roaring laughter, or there may suddenly be a quiet moment, a parent’s look, or a bride or groom’s moment of realisation that ‘this is finally happening’. Ultimately my aim is to move around unnoticed and be able to walk right up to something happening, capture that little moment before it passes, and move away. What is documentary wedding photography other than a real record of what happened on your day.
Dance like nobody’s watching
It’s no secret that the dancefloor is one of my favourite places to be at a wedding reception. People let their guard down and right in amongst the action is where I have found some very special moments. There are many different approaches to shooting documentary wedding photography on the dance floor and for me, it’s usually going in close and looking for interesting shapes and compositions, dramatic lighting and multiple layers of interest.
Choosing a documentary wedding photographer
They will be with you more than anyone else throughout your day, so feeling comfortable and relaxed around them is hugely important. Even if you don’t see them for periods of time you should feel confident they are out there capturing those moments that you may not even see until your photos arrive. And by choosing this style of photography you will have a collection of images that will tell the whole story of your day for years to come.
Does documentary wedding photography mean no group shots?
Some photographers shooting in a documentary or reportage style don’t cover family formals. Personally, I feel it’s an important thing to do and when you think about It, it’s still a document of the day. In years to come it will show who was there. But the important thing for me is to do it as quickly and smoothly as possible so nobody is waiting around and it doesn’t impact the day in any way. The same goes for couple portraits, whether it’s after the ceremony or later in the day, a short time away from the celebrations is a chance to spend some time together to reflect and soak in what’s been happening, I just happen to be there to take some photographs at the same time.
You can see examples of documentary wedding photos along with some group and couple images on my end of year review posts