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A Comprehensive Guide to Wedding Photojournalism

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In this article, we're going to look at an extremely popular style of wedding photography, wedding photojournalism. There are many ways to photograph a wedding day, but I choose to photograph weddings photojournalistically for two powerful reasons: I've been a photojournalist and it is in seriously high demand. I'll walk you through a little history about the approach, and walk you through how I photograph a wedding.

Introduction

Back in 2005, you could not get me to enjoy photographing a wedding. For me, becoming a wedding photographer was tantamount to selling out and getting lost in the sea of other photographers. At that time, I already had continual employment from various news media outlets, a small but dedicated client base for fine art photography and portraiture, and from shooting special events like parties and baptisms. Getting into the wedding market meant competing against the well establised studios and possibly making the same cookie-cutter imagery they were producing.

I avoided weddings like the plague because the photos I saw coming out of studios in my area were posed, overly happy, overdone, unremarkable. So, I stayed away and kept shooting news. It wasn't until people started seeing my baptism and church photography that I started getting the "you should do weddings" chat from friends and clients. I shuddered at the thought. That is, until I almost had to do one.

One of my best friends was getting married and on the day of the ceremony, the photographer was running late and may not show up in time. In comes the stressed-out father of the groom and asks if I had my camera with me. Thankfully, I didn't have to do it because the photographer finally stumbled in just a minute or so before the start of the ceremony. A few months later, I got to see the photographs. I was not impressed.

They were good, but not what I expected my friends to get. It wasn't good enough and a lot of the images felt clique to me. I found myself saying "I could do this better."

The challenge was that I was a photojournalist and spent most of my time shooting news and everyday life as I saw it. A lot of wedding photography has a staged feeling to it. Again, my fears were quelled when I stumbled upong the Wedding Photojournalists Association (www.wpja.com) and saw that not only could I do weddings, but that it was in serious demand, especially with younger couples.

So, I brought the storytelling photography, interviewing, and efficiency I provided to newspapers into weddings. Fast, loose, creative, organic, and most importantly: storytelling.

Half Story, Half Photoshoot

As a photojournalist, my approach to a wedding is similar to the approach I take when doing an important assignment because both a wedding and a news event only happen once. The moment is there and then it is gone forever. So, I have to bring the same preparation, technical skills, and storytelling to bear.

Preparation for the wedding day just starts with having the technical skills and the right equipment for the job. Not knowing the schedule, v.i.p's, and venue could leave you scrambling. When consulting with a potential client get to know them and ask as many questions as possible about their special day and how their relationship has grown. Take notes.

Knowing the ebb and flow of their relationship will assist your photography later on because you will be able see why a particular song, color, layout or custom is significant. It will also help prioritize your efforts because you cannot literally shoot everything or be at two places at once.

Aside from learning their story, you need to know if they like your work, style and approach. It is pointless for you and for your client to make your respective investments if they don't like photojournalism. Maybe they like everything posed, lit like a studio, or they like another photograph better. Before committing too much of yourself, find out if your client actually wants wedding photojournalism.

The majority of wedding packages will also include portrait session or fashion shoot. In my experience, every couple — no matter how much they insist to the contrary — want some of the "standard" shots. They want a picture with their parents, family, bridal party even though they also want photojournalistic coverage of their day. You're not barred or realistically exempt from getting these posed photos.

When doing group photographs, you're not confined to a formula that governs these photographs. You can be creative, quirky, funny, serious, or whatever is going to work best. Just make sure that the image brings attention to the bride and groom. You can position them in the center of the image or use creative composition to draw the eye to them.

I personally don't like doing portraits, but they're a major part of the day.

The Equipment

What I bring to a wedding varies greatly and is contingent upon the venue, venue rules, wedding size, time, and a host of other factors. However, I usually have at least two DSLR bodies, multiple pro lenses, speed lights, and plenty of battery power and memory. Wedding photography doesn't require the flagship, but good gear doesn't hurt either.

If you can't afford a Canon 5D or Nikon D700, opt for their cheaper (but excellent) bretheren. Whatever DSLR you use, always use the best lenses you can afford. Good glass will seriously improve image quality and enable you to address more situations creatively.

For lenses, I use pro-zooms with a wide aperture of at least f/2.8 because churches and receptions are usually dim. Also the shallow depth-of-field at f/2.8 is splendid. My standard lenses are:

  • 16-35mm f/2.8
  • 24-70mm f/2.8
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 (image stabilized version is highly recommended)

A consistent aperture throughout the zoom range allows you to use the same ISO settings on all your camera bodies despite the lens you have attached. This small factors make you all the more efficient because you won't need to thunder-thumb a new ISO setting when you switch lenses. It also helps mitigate the lower image quality due to high-ISO noise that cropped sensors can produce by allowing you use a lower ISO setting.

16-35mm lets the whole room in.

24-70mm is for tighter shots with room to breathe.

70-200mm is to get in tight from afar. Using it close gives extremely shallow DOF.

I understand that professional lenses are expensive, but their build, image quality and situational versatility can't be beat. Additionally, they're more of a long-term investment unlike DSLRs because they aren't replaced every 18 months. However, if pro lenses are outside your permanent ownership reach, renting and borrowing are still viable options.

Renting is actually a very smart business decision for equipment you only use occasionally. It is far cheaper and allows you to keep more money in your pocket per assignment. Since I mostly do photojournalism, the equipment I rent the most are studio strobes, heavy stands, and large telephotos.

The equipment that varies the most for me when I shoot a wedding is the lighting equipment. The popularity of off-camera lighting even in wedding photojournalism has driven me to use more lights, and sometimes bigger lights, in creative ways. This means lugging around more gear and even hiring an assistant to set it up and move it around while I shoot.

It is important to meet your client's needs but it is even more important not to bog yourself down with too many tools. Having too much equipment to carry around and worry about can seriously hinder your ability to photograph professionally and express your creativity. Stick to your core and stick to why your clients hired you and you will be fine.

That being said, it is okay to experiment with new equipment and techniques as long as you can abandon them and still do a great job. I use this method with each wedding to help ensure that no two weddings I shoot look alike. For every wedding I bring a new piece of equipment (that I've practiced with thoroughly) or technique (that I've also practiced) to give that client a uniqueness as well as expand my own photography.

For my most recent wedding I combined on-camera flash and off-camera, battery-powered studio strobes combining the new PocketWizard Flex-TT5 transceivers with the older PlusII receivers. The studio strobes and radio transmission setup was the experimental part of the wedding and could be easily abandoned at the flick of a switch.

Quantum flashes triggered wirelessly. On-camera 580EX II as a fill.

"Candid" vs Photojournalism

There is a difference between candid photography and photojournalism. Candid photography, simply defined, is unposed photographs. Tons of images can be taken that way and not really tell a story. Photojournalism uses candid photography as a means and not an end.

Anyone can take a candid photograph, just don't pose the person and be sure the are unaware that you're taking their photograph. But without good composition, creative vision, and capturing the right moment in an honest way, the photograph may not say anything about the person or the event.

A lot of wedding photography studios out there, in an attempt to keep up with the latest trends, have been promoting their photography as "photojournalistic" when in reality, their imagery is simply candid. Additionally, the photographer may have no experience as a photojournalist, but know that most of their [potential] clients don't know the difference between candid photos and storytelling ones.

Photojournalism has a depth and weight that other forms of photography lack. A good photograph can help the narrative or be the narrative.

The pouring of the sand is an important symbolic event, but the little boy's curiousity is more telling.

I try to find unique perspectives for weddings, but I also try to create a balance between recording the event the way I believe the attendees saw it and recording it the way I saw it. This is why good research into your client, their family, beliefs, religion and the venue is crucial.

Composition

I've shot for news photography for years before I even considered doing a wedding. That experience, as well as my own "eye," heavily influences my images as well as my approach to obtaining them. Personally, I'm a little more aggressive than the usual wedding photographer who may hang back. I've got a 16-35mm and I'm gonna use it very close.

My proximity to the action is less important than the composition of it. Composition trumps almost every other critical point in a photograph, including exposure.

I heavily use the rule of thirds in my photographs to attract the eye to where I want it. Very few images are actually centered unless I'm emphasizing symmetry. I also use the interplay of lights and darks to control the movement of the eye. Combining these compositional techniques and varying the intesity of each one gives me a gradient of juicy to subtle photography. However, each one needs to say something: capture the moment and re-express it.

Emotion: Feel it, Capture it

Weddings are an emotional roller-coaster and as the hired wedding photojournalist it is your job to record it and ensure that the image, when viewed at a later time, re-expresses the moment. Capturing the reaction is just as important as capturing the action. And in some cases, the reaction is more important.

Knowledge and preparation before a moment happens is important because it's not going to happen again. Pre-position and pre-visualize as much as possible in order to anticipate the next move. That way your movements are a controlled scramble at worst. No problem running for a shot so long as you know you'll have to do it ahead of time.

Sweet moments like this just don't last long.

Staying in-camera instead of dropping the camera from your eye to look for your images has it's benefits. Caught this quick yet tender kiss during the first dance.

Re-expressing an emotional day in a still image requires me to have some empathy for my subjects and the event. The research into your client's lives will help you connect better with your photographs and know why a particular moment, color, or gesture is significant. The devil is in the details.

Devil in the Details

As a wedding photojournalist, your eye must be on the lookout for significance that contributes to the story. A significant act isn't necessarily the most flamboyant or flashy one, but it could be something very small or subtle. Finding what is personally significant to your client will enhance the story you're telling.

This isn't just about photographing the party favors or flowers, it is about the story. An image that tells the story of a relatioship is 10,000 times more important than an arrangement of daisies. For example, this bride's father died when she was a little girl and therefore could not walk her down the aisle. But on that day, he did.

This may not mean much to anyone else but the bride, but she is your client. It's her story you're trying to capture.

Photos like that, of the really personal stuff, are usually more powerful than the elaborate centerpieces at the reception. Details such as those are found with good research and a keen eye for subtlety and symbolism.

The 70-200mm zoomed in at the minimum focusing distance makes a good ad hoc macro lens.

Note the use of vignette, lights and darks, rule-of-thirds, and symbolism.

Reception Revelry

I think receptions are the best part of weddings because everyone cuts loose and has fun. I have fun as well catching all that joy. At receptions I switch from invisible quiet as a church mouse to a guest in a way. Like the ceremony, I try to blend in and disappear and my attire changes to match. After a few songs and a few drinks, the guests stop paying so much attention to you especially if you blend in.

Part of professionalism is dressing appropriately for the event and venue. It is a sign of respect to others as well as yourself. However, if jackets and ties are coming off and sleeves are being rolled up, I take a cue and try to match. It's a little piece of camoflage that helps prevent the subject from looking directly at me. It's one of the best ways to get in close without getting a bunch of posed photos.

Sometimes you have to join the party to get shots like this. Get in there!

I usually don't stop during the wedding reception. By this time, I've taken my meal break, but only if most of the VIPs are busy munching. I keep my cameras at my side and ready just in case something happens. You never know when you'll need to ditch your meal to get back into the action.

Shooting Strategy

Preparation is important and your logistics and tactics need to be a part of it. I'm a solo shooter, so this even more important. Solo shooters have to be extra thorough and efficient when they photograph a wedding. So, positioning and prioritizing are everything.

For the bridal party's entrance, I usually position myself 3 or 4 rows from the front. This gives me enough room to use my 70-200mm and 24-70mm when they're far off. Once the bride comes in for her entrance, I'll snap off a few frames with the 70-200 but then swap it for my 16-35mm when they're about halfway. I go wider at this point because I need to backpedal and catch the father of the bride handing off to the groom.

Once that's done, I'll hang in close until things settle down and then fade away as the ceremony begins. Out comes the 70-200mm again. I wander quietly around, getting this special moment from different angles. Keep an eye out for the parents, close friends, and oblivious little children. They'll provide you with strong action-reaction imagery throughout the day.

I keep myself as simple as possible during the ceremony because too much equipment will hobble me. Also, since flash photography is usually not allowed inside churches during the ceremony, it's one less thing I have to worry about. I stick the core of my shooting style and work hard at thorough coverage while not sacrificing the storytelling power of the images.

I also keep a little note on the main parts of the ceremony so I can know what is coming up next. This is the importance of attending the wedding rehearsal, taking good notes, and rehearsing your own movements. Knowing how long it will take you to get from point A to point B is important, especially if you're a solo shooter.

The ceremony is a pivotal time in three people's lives: the bride, the groom, and myself. They're getting married and I've only got one chance to help them remember it and tell it to their friends. I arrive early, at least 45 minutes before. Many times I'm there before anyone else is, waiting for the doors to be unlocked. This gives me time to place my extra equipment in an accessible but out of the way place, shoot the decorations and some details, and be very ready before the people arrive.

For the reception, I usually have less time because I tend to leave at the same time as the bride and groom. If I have an assistant, they've gone off before me to set up any extra lighting. If I don't, I just toss everything into the backseat of my car and drive faster than the bride and groom's car. I'm not advocating speeding or wreckless driving, but lawful impetuousness.

In any case, talk with the wedding planner, driver, and the bride and groom to hold off as long as possible so that you can be ready for their entrance. They're paying you, so usually they'll accomodate as best as they can. Those extra 5 or 10 minutes can be a bathroom break, troubleshooting time or time for a snack. Take every extra minute you can get so that you're calm and clear-headed to address your task.

Finally, because wedding days are long, hard work, keep yourself supplied with bottled water and some snacks. I don't rely on eating catered food because I may not have the chance to sit down and eat. I keep a small towel to clean off my fingers from food as well as wipe away sweat from my face during those boggy outdoor receptions. Although it is agreed upon that I can eat, my priority is to capture the story of their day. I have shot parts of receptions with a camera on my face and a snack bar in my mouth.

Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed this article and learning a little about wedding photojournalism as well as my approach to weddings. I believe that a storytelling photograph is the most powerful kind and I believe those kinds of images should be part of a couple's special day. So, if you're a photojournalist and are curious about shooting weddings, go for it. You're in demand and can bring something to wedding photographs that a conventional or well-established studio cannot.

For examples of wedding photojournalism, visit: Wedding Photojournalists Association.

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