Relaxed documentary wedding photography - ethos, approach, principles, editing and other stuff
A brain dump from a Cheshire based Reportage Wedding Photographer
I’m writing this post off the back of a number of conversations and questions from photographers and brides, hopefully some people will find it useful and a bit of an insight into my approach to weddings. Photographers perhaps with an insight into how I approach weddings. Brides & grooms as a peek behind the curtains and what I aim to get from your day – for you and me
This is going to be a bit of a brain dump post, take what’s useful from it if you desire or simply finish reading and think wtf was he going on about.
The Wedding story - Documentary / Street style
I guess the first thing is that I photograph exclusively for me, every wedding I shoot is 100% me. Now that might seem a bit self indulgent for any potential brides and grooms to read but it’s not intended to be a ‘this is all about me’ statement. What I mean is I love being a photographer, I love being a photographer at weddings because I don’t feel constrained or obliged to follow the rules of wedding photography.
There’s a set of rules that wedding photographers feel obliged to follow, rules that dictate how a wedding should look and because of that most wedding galleries look the same - the same template applied to each and every wedding, there's nothing individual there and there's one thing weddings are is individual - because everyone's an individual. Who really wants their wedding pictures to look like everyone else's - no personality, nothing that makes their day'them'.
Weddings to me are about people, the relationships of those people, the story of the people on that particular day – that’s a very personal thing, completely unique to that particular couple, how they interact with each other, their family and their friends – there’s a story there and as a photographer it’s up to me to find that story and tell it. Not just photograph a wedding, but bring their personalities to life.
So the first thing I look for is a couples story as I see it, I listen to the things they talk about, observe how they interract, understand characters and personalities. Each and every wedding is approached differently- it’s not a wedding, it’s the people at the wedding first and foremost.
Wedding pictures with feeling
I firmly believe you can’t photograph a wedding unless you’re emotionally involved in it, not from a ‘oh this is a wedding it’s such a happy time’ perspective but from a ‘I actually like these people’ perspective. To me, being a part of a wedding gives that connection in the pictures, an emotional perspective that simply turning up and taking pictures of strangers simply can’t convey.
A lot of people have said there’s a rawness to my pictures they haven’t seen before, I think that’s where the emotional connection comes in, I’m fully invested in the day, I’m part of it, I feel it and that’s how I photograph it.
It’s a very personal thing and to be honest it is a struggle at times to fight that small voice inside me that says ‘there’s other people out there getting more clients because they shoot weddings the wedding industry demands, take some pictures for competitions or constantly submit to magazines in the hope of being featured’, but there’s a bigger voice in me that says ‘fuck off! I’m happy doing it my way and the people who book me want their day photographed as it really is’ because you know what, it’s not about more clients, it’s about the right clients (for me anyway)
Being accepted - as a relaxed wedding photographer
Everyone has a different approach to photographing a wedding and I guess it’s about finding the right approach that works, everyone has different personalities and trying to retrofit a personality into something you’re simply not just isn’t going to work – that’s my belief anyway, it relates to my first point – photographing for yourself, being yourself
Approach is kind of a big deal to me, how I am, fitting in without sticking out like a sore thumb (or a photographer) are paramount to how I take photographs. I’m lucky in the fact my previous career as a low profile bodyguard taught me some useful transferable skills that really help me now, I had to be a face in the crowd, fitting in both dress wise but also demeanour and interaction, the key lessons I learned were: You can dress down but can’t dress up. Arriving at a wedding in a short sleeved shirt wont cut it if everyone is fully suited. Arriving fully suited and being able to shed a jacket and roll sleeves up allows me to mirror the general dress code of a wedding and fit in
Joining in conversations as a guest of the wedding, not as a photographer. It puts people at ease, allows me to get to know people and be part of the day. Observing while chatting, being aware of surroundings and other things happening around the room. Hiding in plain sight, being confident, relaxed, interacting, feeling like you belong there. I think a key thing for me is being a social chameleon, blending in with the surrounding audience and tailoring approach accordingly – a wedding full of parras and squaddies, rum as anything, rowdy and booze heavy wedding dictates a different approach to high society weddings, different mannerisms and a different way of speaking.
On the reportage / documentary side – there’s a belief that in order to truly document a wedding or any social situation and get the true essence of the people there without affecting behaviours one must simply observe quietly, impartially and simply record things as they happen. For me at least I feel you can shoot a wedding and be fully interactive without affecting the core behaviours of the people you’re photographing.
The content is still perfectly natural in behavioural terms as if I weren’t there, it’s all about acceptance, fitting in, participating from an insider perspective, not an outsider. Some (in fact most) of the best social documentary work is from people who’ve spent years with their subjects – they’re fully accepted as part of the tribe, behaviours are natural and authentic- it’s just a lot bloody harder at weddings where you’ve got a day to form that relationship – that’s the real challenge.
Editing wedding photographs
There's a trend of youtube tutorials showing people how to get 'my look' (not my look, the look of the person who’s channel it is). I really don't like it to be perfectly honest - all it's doing is encouraging people to copy the tutor, and when you copy someone else there's no individuality, you become a part of the industry - shooting and editing for other people. To be upfront it's ruining photography in the wedding industry. Find your own way man, be an individual !
I’m not going to tell people how to edit pictures, nor the in’s and out’s of my process but I will share some general thoughts on editing.
Outsourcing is becoming quite popular (getting other people to edit your pictures), the rationale behind people doing it is that it allows them more time to go out and photograph instead of being sat behind a desk. My thoughts are – no-one touches my pictures, they’re mine ! No-one, no matter how good they are will be able to create what I want to create when I edit my images. I’d rather spend more time on each wedding so I can see the story through to completion.
I get a lot of comments that my pictures seem ‘RAW’ in some way, tbh I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Maybe it’s a nod to the feeling of being there e.g. raw emotion, maybe some people think they look unpolished...not digital enough - who knows, who cares!
There's a trend thing perpetuated by the desire to become popular to the masses - one month the wedding industry demands super bright pictures, light colour pallets and that kind of stuff...and the next month it's muddy faded colours, either way - see my points on being yourself, shooting for you etc etc – screw industry expectations, I like my editing style, it’s taken me years to perfect my "polished unpolished look", it actually takes me a lot longer to get my pictures looking like they do.
I don't like the "digital look", it doesn't work for me, and don't get me started on presets....trend chasing nonsense that most of them are.
Tools I use – Photomechanic for culling, Lightroom and Alienskin Exposure X2 for editing, jpegMINI before delivery
These things work for me, this mindset and how I act works for me, they suit my personality. The key is finding what works for you. Some bits may be useful to some people and I guess they give a bit of an insight to anyone looking for someone to photograph their wedding in a different way.
For me the key factor is the unique story of the wedding day that is exclusive to the couple who’s wedding it was, and constantly reminding myself that I do this because I want to do it and I enjoy doing it, every wedding is 100% me, not that fake ‘I put my heart and soul into every wedding’ claptrap you read in some 'about me' sections.
It’s actually me, completely unique and exclusive to each couple - not a template, not a set of expectations, me as I’m feeling on that day, how I feel and my perception on the day. Some descriptive words couples have used for my work are – it’s raw, real, like being there, heartfelt, genuine, the truth, our real personalities.
There has to be a story otherwise the whole thing is pointless, I don’t just mean ‘this is a wedding and that’s the story’ – that’s a cop out, seeing the people for who they are, understanding them and their day, that’s part of the story. All the other things mentioned are simply tools used to uncover that story and tell it, and make sure I continue to actually enjoy what I do. It’s ingrained in me, I like social situations and weddings are possibly the best social situations on the planet with so many things, emotions, personalities, interactions etc crammed into a very short timeframe.
I don’t care if my pictures pull hundreds of people towards my website, or get me thousands of likes on social media – that’s not why I photograph weddings. I care that my pictures attract the right couples, that I connect with my pictures and when I look at them they satisfy my never ending journey to perfection and storytelling, and that the people who's wedding I've photographed see their day for exactly what it was.
Thanks for reading - Paul
I’m a Cheshire based Documentary Wedding Photographer covering weddings across the UK and internationally. I don’t just photograph the best bits, I photograph all the bits - they all go to make wedding story what it is.
The photographs in this article are taken at numerous locations across the world, from small intimate weddings to exclusive luxury ones - except you wouldn’t see the difference because my approach is about people, emotion and memories....people make weddings what they are, they’re the things you’ll remember and talk about in years to come.