So you want to be a documentary wedding photographer?
I’ve spent a lot of years learning all things documentary wedding photography related, often the hard way or the slow way - sometimes that’s the only way to learn, sometimes it’s just stupid. I thought I’d note some things down based on my own experiences.
On being unobtrusive
Being unobtrusive isn’t the holy grail ‘if’ a couple aren’t really bothered about that kind of approach. If you are trying to become an unobtrusive photographer, be extremely sensitive to your surroundings, the reactions you’re getting from people, how they behave around you (even with your camera away). People are extremely wary of photographers, it’s like they’ll catch a disease from us or something. Watch for signs people are modifying their behaviour around you, if they are then you’re being too obtrusive or obvious. You only have to get one picture of a certain scene so don’t overdo the camera work - instead try and focus on building relationships, don’t be ‘the photographer’, be yourself (unless you’re a total dick, then be someone else). Dial the camera work back, relax, don’t make it about getting ‘that killer picture’ at all costs, it rubs people up the wrong way. This of course takes time, it will take a fair few weddings to get anywhere near knowing what I’m talking about and it will be a gradual change in your own behaviour towards people at a wedding.
Invest in you, not equipment
You can shoot a wedding with any camera, I use my cameras until they fall apart, personally I couldn’t care less about the next latest and greatest camera gear. Faster focusing, more megapixels, sharper lenses won’t make for better pictures - you make the pictures.
Too many photographers jump on the new gear bandwagon before investing in themselves. Money on gear you’ll never get back. Money spent on learning, education and self improvement will pay for itself time and time again. Spend your funds on trips, books, things that will expand your mind.
Keep your camera out
Some of the fave pictures I’ve taken are when I’m staggering back to my hotel room, or leaving a venue or saying my goodbyes to everyone. There’s always the potential something amazing, funny, touching or downright weird will happen as you’re leaving….never pack your camera away until you’re actually far far away. The one time you do pack it away will be the time you’ll be like “fucks sake where’s my camera”.
There’s plenty of SEO courses out there that tell photographers to call themselves whatever it takes to get noticed and booked, you’ve got to get those clicks to your website right? If you’re the kind of person who’s cool with that approach (talking shit) then by all means go for it. The very real danger is you’ll get caught out at some point, and the people who catch you out will be a very irate couple who have it within their power to severely damage any reputation you may have built yourself. My advice is, be honest. If you’re not particularly creative don’t call yourself a creative photographer. If you’re not an unobtrusive photographer who’s ‘just like a guest’ don’t say you are. Basically don’t make out you’re something you aren’t, it’s silly and dishonest.
Practice, practice, practice
If you’ve not got a camera of some form in your hand all the time you’re missing out on an opportunity to learn. Take pictures at any given opportunity, then go back and critique your own work, ask yourself how you would improve a picture next time then go and do it. Your rate of growth with multiply exponentially if you’re hugely passionate about taking pictures of everything.
Remember this also applies to editing your pictures, the more you do it the more proficient you will become - it’s a big part of the photographic process. Learn your tools inside out it doesn’t matter if you use lightroom, capture one, alienskin exposure or anything else - they all pretty much do the same thing, it’s not about what you use, it’s about how well you know it and how you use it.
Street photography is your friend
If you’re not into street photography or don’t even know what it is you’re missing a trick. Become a proficient street photographer and shooting weddings documentary style will be much easier. Everything you want to practice at a wedding you can practice during a daily jaunt to your local town or city, the more you do it the more you’ll be able to compose your images quickly, get used to anticipating the optimal moment to press the shutter button and not forgetting work discreetly. Obviously you’ll need to check the laws of your country as far as photographing people in the street goes.
Ultimately you’re there to serve the people who’s wedding you’re shooting. Your primary role is to give them a set of amazing memories and do it well. Forget the fancy bollocks and trying to be arty farty, or at least shove that way down your list of priorities, as a documentary photographer you’re there for moments. Now depending on who you listen to a moment can be anything…Uncle Brian eating a bag of crisps (bullshit moment), A flower girl doing nothing in-particular but lit by the most gorgeous sunlight (bullshit moment), a load of people stood in a room with great layers (bullshit moment). NO NO NO…concentrate on the simple stuff, the relationships, the characters, the interactions, the personalities, the little things that happen in between the big stuff (sure sure you’ll be getting pictures of the first kiss, someone crying watching the ceremony, kids climbing trees, the first dance and all that ‘wedding stuff’ - anyone can get pictures of these things, they’re pre-determined to happen at a wedding). I mean the things that happen in-between all those things, DON’T start nobbing around on your phone doing a facebook live broadcast, don’t sit down because your little legs are tired…get to know people, observe the things that are happening around you, notice how people interact with each other, listen to them, join in conversations with them - be part of the wedding…basically give a shit about their memories and their day. You’re being paid a fucktonne of money to photograph them, not to tit around making yourself more social media popular…because sods law WILL dictate that the moment you switch off your brain something incredibly amazing and personal will happen at a wedding and you’ll miss it.
Prioritise moments above everything else.
Back the fuck up
You’ve had a long day, you’re knackered, staying on your feet with your brain on constant alert for up to 18 hours (or more) is tiring. More so if you’ve been actually a part of the wedding a fully enjoying the celebrations, maybe you’re wobbling back to your hotel room at 3am in the morning…firstly you need to make sure you’ve got your cameras and memory cards (obviously), personally I check at least 5 times before a venue finally closes it’s doors. Once you get back to your pit, back your cards up, yes I know it’s the last thing you might feel like doing but really get into the habit of making a couple of copies of everything you’ve shot. The last thing you want is pictures going missing, getting corrupted, dropping a memory card down a toilet…as soon as you get back to wherever you’re sleeping, back your stuff up. You can sleep the next day.
You can’t appeal to everyone
When you’re writing your website copy sound like YOU, not everyone else - don’t repeat what Jonny the bore-off but looks like he’s super busy photographer is writing, the guy who covers all bases with his “I’m a wild creative caring boho fine art relaxed documentary wedding photographer with an edgy fashion, light and airy dark and moody twist”…you can’t appeal to everyone on the planet, what you want is to appeal to people you’re going to really get on with, couples on your wavelength - not for your own sanity, more so you can give them pictures they’ll absolutely love, so they trust you completely without question - those are the people you want to find and the only way you’ll do that is being completely yourself.
Don’t check your stuff the night before
Obviously do check your stuff the night before, that goes without saying…check it the day before that or a couple of days before. Why? Simply to give yourself change to get a replacement for anything that’s broken, common sense yeah? Imagine the night before a wedding your doing your checks and your fave lens has taken it upon itself to fall apart for no better reason than it wants to ruin your evening, you’re setting off at 4am in the morning for your wedding and you’re pretty screwed if you need to get a replacement….give yourself a days grace to replace anything that might have self destructed. Sure you’ll have backup stuff, but why nobble yourself if you don’t need to?
Traffic is a bitch
You can’t control traffic, accidents happen, roadworks happen, shit happens. While Waze is my frikkin lifeline when it comes to getting anywhere, unless a wedding is literally 10 minutes down the road from me I never leave turning up on time to chance…even if you leave hours and hours in advance there’s always a chance something will stitch you up when you don’t want it to! A 5 hour drive once took me 12 hours, blame circumstance and there’s nothing you can do about it. Book a room either at the wedding venue or very close to it, stay over the night before and set off early anyway. There’s so many times I’ve seen wedding photographers in blind panic on photographer groups asking for emergency cover because they’ve been snarled up in traffic. Don’t be a mug for the sake of saving yourself a few £ on accommodation, you’re not only putting a couples memories on the line, you’re risking your reputation as someone reliable and trustworthy.
Learn how to tell a story
This kind of relates to some of the points I’ve made above. A story isn’t a collection of randomly taken pictures, you need to connect them. Throughout the day you need to think about transitional pictures, things that link a story together, no two weddings are the same - the plan for the day may follow a certain format but that’s where the similarities end, the thing (for me) that makes each wedding so unique and personal for me is the people there, their relationship with each other, the thought that goes into each one, the personal touches and the characters. Every wedding is special to the people who’s wedding it is, the things that happen at each wedding are uniquely different for those people (based on their personalities and how they see the world through their own eyes). This is where you need to work on understanding people, not circumstance, to tell a unique story for each couple (and their associated families and guests) you need to understand them, get to know them in the short time you have with them. How you tell that story is obviously up to you, I can’t really advise you how to do that, just bear in mind that everyone’s story is different.
Don’t over promise
Don’t over promise and under deliver to anyone. If you’re not comfortable in your capability to deliver something be honest about it. Things like confidently stating “Oh yessss I’ll absolutely without doubt get a picture of everything that happens at your wedding” unless there’s 10 of you taking pictures you can’t guarantee this, if you do you’re a big fat liar.
They’re great for networking with other suppliers, but the amount of styled pictures that find their way into portfolios as a way of demonstrating how great a photographer someone is, I find it frightening. Be careful with them….by displaying images of models, taken when you have a huge amount of time to control pretty much everything you’re giving couples the impression they will get incredible pictures on their wedding day, when the reality is you barely have a 10th of the time and your couples are not used to posing for pictures in the way models are. Unless you’re absolutely, 100% certain you can pull off exactly the same thing in a fraction of the time with real couples, don’t put them in your portfolio. It will bite you on the arse at some point, and it’s not fair on genuine couples who may be left wondering why the shit their pictures don’t look like your portfolio.
Be aware of other people
You’re not the only person at a wedding. There’s nothing worse than a photographer who constantly gets in the way of guests and other people trying to work at a wedding. It’s damn annoying, rude and unprofessional. I was a guest at a wedding once and saw two photographers literally backing into kids who were trying to watch a first dance, they didn’t give a shit who’s view they were ruining. Be aware of your surroundings, the people at a wedding have bigger dibs on witnessing the moments than you do. Let people enjoy the wedding, work round them! Work around people, always remember the people at a wedding are there to enjoy it, not see the back of your head blocking their view.