It seems like nowadays everybody uses the term documentary wedding photographer to describe their style of wedding photography. Yet, very few of these so called documentary wedding photographer actually document the day in the true sense of the word. For me, to be a documentary wedding photography is to record the wedding day as it unfolds naturally, recording a set of images that truthfully show your wedding day from start to finish, images that are not staged nor given any kind of direction from myself. The end result is a collection of cohesive images that tell a story with moments of authenticity rather than a collection of clearly posed and dictated images that lack meaning.
What does being a documentary wedding photographer mean on your wedding day?
Beside a few family formal photographs and some wedding portraits, and documentary photographer should not be dictating anything about your day. He/she should not be asking for people to look and smile, or asking guests to “do that again”, it should be natural, moment driven documentary photography throughout. So for instance where a typical wedding photographer might spend time looking for a place to hang a wedding dress, which is time spent away from the true story, a documentary wedding photographer would not be doing that. A documentary photographer would be absorbed in the real emotions, waiting, being ready and aware of what’s happening. Time spent with a camera slung around your back as you carry the wedding shoes to a nice location to photograph may mean missing a really important moment that can’t be re lived. It would be a rarity to see a documentary wedding photographer that is not ready, with a camera in hand or already up at eye level. It is of course very possible that certain obscure moments are missed anyway, after all you have many guests spread about your wedding venues and being in all places at once is impossible. But a good documentary photographer can anticipate moments that are about to happen and are ready to capture them skillfully with good composition.
Finding the real moments and developing an authentic story
When I come across wedding galleries of the typical wedding photographer, it seems like the images are very much focused on you and your partner only, I’ve been to events and seen how these wedding photographers work as I sit as a guest. The camera is on the bride and groom 100% of the time. With plenty of great photographic moments happening all around they neglect to even look around. Personally, I would not want a collection of images all of myself and my bride, I would want to see a story of events and happening spread across the day, some I will be present in and some I won’t be. Photographs of moments with family members that have not seen each other in years. A true reflection of the people who attended my wedding, and the fun they had and the moments they shared are such an important part of your wedding day. A wedding photographer would not even think of finding these moments, they would follow the normal process of shooting the timeline or a shot list prepared beforehand and used at all weddings. The lipstick shot through the first kiss and finishing at the cake cutting or grand exit. They have a “prepared story” that is used for all weddings. I realize that weddings are unique, not just because of you and your style, but the company you share and the varying characters among those guests, they create a uniqueness that is unlike any other wedding. The scripted moments may be the same, we all have the first kiss for instance, but you have so much more going on. A documentary wedding photographer can captured those moments between moments, creating the authentic story that your wedding should have.
You could say that once a person has mastered a camera and the required settings to capture the "shot list" moments at your wedding, that wedding photography is actually an easy job. The wedding photographer is focused on getting the shots that they believe tell the story of your day, following a timeline and using voice commands to make sure they captured it all and re created any missed moments. I think that once you start going down that route as a photographer you just become a mechanic working the camera. Wedding photographs become uninspiring and weddings become banal because you believe you have seen it all before. I know this after shooting 50+ weddings in my first year as a second shooter beginning my journey into wedding photography. I worked for a very large and successful wedding photography business in Southern California. This studio gave its photographers rules to follow, shots that needed to be got, and "moments" that should be encouraged in order to create realness. You was not encouraged to be unique, that was considered dangerous and going off the mark for the studio style that had been developed. You had a the shots that needed to be captured and that was it. Weddings did become boring, I was told to capture the same moments at each wedding I photographed, and even told which settings I should use. It really sucked the fun out of photography and I was a bit lost to be honest. I had learnt a lot as a beginner working for this large studio and I'm forever grateful to have shot so many weddings to somewhat fast track my skills as a photographer. However, I knew that this type of wedding photography was not for me, nothing to do with the couples, or my work colleagues or the studio. I just knew that I wanted to be a real photographer that can create images that not just anybody can see, let alone capture. Now that is what I do.
Photography equipment a documentary wedding photographer is likely to use
I am a photographer that uses small and discreet cameras and lenses. Being discrete is an important part of getting close to the moments before they're gone, without putting people off with a big old camera. Nothing worse than a big old lens on a massive DSLR camera clicking away loudly right in your face, it's sure to tone down if not kill authentic moments. My small cameras allow me to be like a guest as it's very likely that some of your guests will have larger and louder cameras at your wedding. For me this is great, I don't complain that other photographers are present as it allows me to go unnoticed more. Being unnoticed has a huge impact on the types of images you will get as will the types of lenses I use. I use the natural eye lenses on my cameras (28mm, 50mm). This basically means that I won't be using super zooms, or super wide angle lenses that see differently to that of the human eye, but rather using the lenses that offer the same angle of view that the human eye sees. No distortions with these lenses. These focal ranges (on prime lenses) are time tested because pretty much every photojournalist in the world uses these lenses to create imagery the world has to see and believe in. This is just another aspect of being a real documentary wedding photographer. The equipment a photographer might use is just a tool for the job, I have my tools and I can record the types of moments I see with the cameras and lenses I have. I'm not fascinated with new cameras as I don't believe they will improve me as a documentary wedding photographer. I improve with constant practice and studying, buying a new camera every year is just a distraction and will not improve a photographer, it will however improve the "mechanical" photographer I wrote about above. Painters don't become better by the brush they use, they become better by improving technique and with practice, the brush is just a tool. It's the same with a photographer.
The details & portraits
I understand that a lot of effort has gone into your wedding, all those details, the dress, the flowers, the tables, and the cake etc. These are integral parts of the wedding day and should be documented into the story. But they should not consume a documentary photographer time. It takes 5-10 mins to gather a good collection of detail images from a reception before the room becomes consumed with people. Some details I just don’t do, things like taking your rings and placing them on a leaf and giving you 25 almost identical images to pad out the collection with is something I don’t do. If however I stumble across your rings and can photograph them in the state that I found them then I may just do that if it’s a worthy images in keeping with the documentary style. It’s the same with the dress, I would rather not be carrying it around looking for a place to hang it because my time should be spent in the moment being a ready photographer. However, if I show up and your dress is on show, you can be sure I will capture it and it’s details. I do prefer photographing the dress on the bride rather than photographing it like it's a product going into a catalog.
Even as a documentary wedding photographer a lot of my couples still want a few portraits taken. Nothing uber cheesy or in your face, and still authentic in the way you interact with each other, but the backdrop is my input and is chosen specifically for portraits. This is not being a documentary photographer, it’s being a portrait photographer, my style of portraits are very much environmentally influenced so they go hand in hand with your wedding story. I keep all portraits shorts, because as a documentary photographer I want to be documenting the events of your day for the majority of time. I enjoy this aspect of weddings and engagements, and see it as a chance to create and artful scenes, only with you both in them. Take a look at my types of wedding portraits here.