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Stealth Mode: How to Take Wedding Pictures Like a Reportage Photographer

This post is part of a series called Wedding Photography.
Understanding Photographic Style through Wedding Imagery
Master the Toughest Parts of Shooting Weddings
This post is part of a series called Documentary Photography .
How Much Post-Processing Is Too Much?

Photographing a wedding in reportage style is a wonderful way to work. It's a fun, challenging, and engaging. You get to see the wedding in a very intimate, observational way, and your clients will also get a record of their day that is unique and personal. Reportage style creates a story in a way that no other approach to photographing a wedding can duplicate.

Think Like a Documentarian

The wedding is all about the couple and their commitment to each other. It's not about you, or even about the photos. You're there to document and record the event. As a reportage photographer, your aim is to be in the right place at the right time and document as best you can.

In some ways, the real audience for your pictures isn't your clients: it's their friends and family. Think of all the people couldn't make the event, and the couple's possible children and their grandchildren. When you are documenting, consider how these people will experience the event through your photographs. Your goal is to tell them the story of the day.

Applying make-up before the wedding ceremony

Of course, the work of a reportage-style wedding photographer still means taking of the more formal shots, such as the group and couple photographs. Don't overlook these responsibilities. The power of a reportage approach really shines when balanced with the more traditional formal element.

Be Ready

Each wedding has a narrative that develops as the couple progresses through each stage of the day, so it’s vital to preserve those precious moments that capture the essence of the emotions and exchanges taking place.

Traditional weddings share a common set of steps, and you can use these conventions predict the flow of the day. Being a human affair, weddings are also open to wild variations in how they actually take place. Here are what most of the weddings I shoot in the UK include:

  • Preparation, usually at the bride's parent's home
  • Arrival of the bride at the church, sometimes in a fancy car!
  • The wedding ceremony
  • Couple and group photographs in chosen locations
  • Reception, including speeches, cutting of the cake and the first dance
  • Party time!

A lot of reportage work is based on simply being in the right place at the right time, and this doesn’t happen by accident. By being organised well in advance of the day, you can talk everything through with the couple so that they can let you know where they’d like you to be at each stage of the proceedings. Scouting out locations for couple shots and group photographs is really helpful and saves stressing on the day, get the couple to make suggestions and do your best to visit beforehand. 

Lace of a bridal gown
Catching details, like this fine lace on the bridal gown, helps round out your coverage of the day with depth and nuance

I will always have a full run down schedule of the day (organised with the couple) in my pocket, telling me what time everything is happening, where I need to be and also if there are any specific photography requirements for that section of the day. This helps me ensure I don't forget anything and allows me to keep looking ahead to the next activity, enabling me to keep to the time allocated, but also giving me flexibility to change the order of plans if needed

It's also a good idea to speak to the person leading the ceremony to ask if there are any sections of the service that they’d rather you didn’t take photos or use flash.

My favourite moments in photographing a wedding come when there aren't any formal pictures to do: I keep on working when friends and family are chatting, catching up, sharing stories and making each other laugh. At these times, there’s no pressure and I can capture those connections between relatives and old friends. Working in those pauses really helps you to build a wider picture of the day, one that shows different perspectives. This is a great service to the bride and groom, who are typically so busy and overwhelmed that they tend to miss out on seeing how much fun everyone is having.

detail of the brides hair decorations

Plan for Contingencies

In order for you to blend in, dress as if were going to a wedding, I always aim for something smart with lots of pockets for batteries, memory cards and lenses, that way, you’re not constantly traipsing back to your bag!

Pack for contingencies, too: snacks, waterbottles, clothes pins, gaffer tape, spare socks. Photographers are more involved in more weddings than anyone. A bit of fruit and nuts shared with the couple before the photoshoot is just the thing to keep blood-sugar levels up and everyone, including you, feeling energized. A bit of well-placed gaffer's tape can fix a broken hem. It doesn't happen every time, but when things go wrong it pays to be ready.

Wedding ring

Keep Out Of Trouble

Photographers love to trade horror stories about weddings, and you've probably heard about weddings where the photographer has taken centre stage. I once heard of a photographer that made the couple walk down the aisle 3 times in order to get different angles. Don’t make the photo of the event more important than the event itself. It’s not about forcing the day to fit around your needs.

The mood within a wedding day often changes quite significantly. At the start there is a lot of tension and nervous excitement and as things progress you see a whole spectrum of emotions, joy, relief, sometimes sadness and quite often stress. You certainly don’t want to be adding to the emotional strain of the day by getting in the way and intruding.

Tieing the ribbon on the back of the wedding dress

At the start of the day I like to chat with the subjects, most often the bride, bridesmaids and her parents. This helps them feel comfortable with me being there and taking pictures, and it helps me feel comfortable too. From then on I work quietly and consistently I am especially discreet during more intimate times, like preparation periods when there are only a few people in a room.

Work and Act Decisively

To work quickly at a wedding there’s no time to fiddle with your camera settings. You need to have your eyes open and be aware of proceedings in order to catch those special moments, the glances, smiles, hugs and gestures that portray the involvement of each individual. This means being comfortable and having rock-solid confidence in your equipment. It's also very tempting to keep checking your screen to scroll through your shots, which can be a huge distraction, as it totally removes your attention from the here and now.

To be really inconspicuous, work with a compact camera that will make you less noticeable. Advancement in mirrorless cameras are a real boon for reportage-style wedding photography. High ISO and near-silent shutters of these small cameras makes working without being noticed much easier.

Portrait of the groomsmen during the wedding ceremony

Put Your Zoom Lens Away

In many instances, photographers like to get close to their subjects, but at a wedding you have to choose your moments carefully. In many cases, it’s preferable to use a telephoto to portray closeness.

However, as soon as you pull up a large zoom lens to your face the more aware of the guests will be. If people spot that you’re about to take their photograph their natural expressions are lost in a moment. This is where all the effort of blending in and working unnoticed is so valuable. I admit that often it’s far easier to work with a long lens from a distance, but in smaller confined spaces and crowds, a good-quality compact camera with a zoom is often just as good as chunky piece of glass on a DSLR. Look for one with on-board image stabilization. This will help you use longer telephoto lenses with less image shake and lower shutter speeds.

Bride walking down the aisle

When to Flash and When Not to Flash

In a similar way to bandying around a huge zoom lens, people are going to spot you if you’re using a flash. For moments such as speeches, first dance, cutting the cake, everyone is expecting you to be taking photographs, so it’s not as important. During open times of chatting, eating and drinking, however, you need to work more discretely.

The best way to stay frash-free is to practice working with the natural light. Sensors are tremendously good in low light now. If you need to, don't be affraid to work your camera hard: don't be afraid to crank up the ISO higher than you might normally. The documentary aesthetic has much more tolerance for noisy images. If you have to choose between making a noisy picture, making a distracting picture with a flash, and not making the picture at all, make the noisy picture and deal with consequences later.

Bride and groom holding hands during vows

When Not to Take a Photo

As you build the story of the day, you’ll gather some ideas for what to include within your images: the more personal touches that you can find to involve in your work, the better. As with any good reportage photographer, there are also things that you may want to leave out of images that act as a distraction or don’t fit with the aesthetic that you’re looking to create. It may also be that at certain times during the day you choose not to take photographs, perhaps at an upsetting moment with a speech that the couple may not want reminding of, or if something goes wrong. You may choose to take the photo but then not present it to the couple, it’s up to you to use your judgment.

Bride and groom embrace outside the church

The Take Away

Essentially, if you’re a keen street photographer, documentarian, or photojournalist, but would like to get paid, maybe this is just the job for you! Becoming a wedding photographer doesn’t happen overnight, but it's also not too hard to start. Try assisting a pro first, and work your way up to second-camera; there’s a lot less pressure on you and you’ll get to practice your reportage techniques in a wedding setting.

Finally, you do need to be comfortable taking photographs of people, and you need to find a way to get them to comfortable with you. A lot of this is about on personality, but it's also about mentality, and how you approach the job. All these things are gained with practice and experience.

Portrait of the bride and Groom

Keep Learning

If this has peaked your interest in wedding photography, then there's plenty more to learn! Andrew Childress has written a great piece on some of the practicalities involved and how to avoid too much stress on the day. I've also written another article about photographic styles at weddings, which may help you decide what sort of wedding images you'd like to be shooting.

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