Note: I’m going to publish this post with the knowledge that it might offend some photographers, including some who are my good friends. Please know that this is not my intention. My intention is to draw attention to what documentary photography really is, and also to what it’s not. I think a healthy discussion of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is important in any field.
What is documentary wedding photography?
Documentary or photojournalistic wedding photography has been a trending style for years now. Documentary photographers are supposed to “shoot what happens,” giving you the most realistic images of your wedding day. Real documentary photographers (think news photographers) do not interact with the subjects or adjust the scenes they’re shooting at all. They try to be as unobtrusive as possible in order to give people an honest look at a situation.
Fortunately, for weddings, things usually aren’t quite so strict. In documentary wedding photography, we try to give people a mix of photojournalistic coverage, set up detail shots, and posed portraits. We want to be sure you have every aspect of your day captured, and we know the rings and the flowers and the family group shots are important. But we also want to focus on capturing the little emotional moments that pop up during your day: a father’s embrace before the day begins, a favorite aunt wiping her eyes, a little cousin eyeing the candy dish, a baby laughing while his mother dances him around the hall. And of course, the way the two of you interact with each other.
Overall, documentary wedding photography requires less set-up and less posing. You’ll get the traditional (but relaxed) portraits you love and some shots of important details and objects, but mostly your photographer will concentrate on images that represent the action and emotions of your day. That means you might not get that macro closeup of your wedding ring on a flower petal, but you may very well get a shot of your grandmother admiring your newly adorned hand.
What ISN’T documentary wedding photography?
You will see a lot of photographers calling themselves “documentary” or “photojournalism.” I’m one of them. When you read this, go back and look carefully at their recent blog posts and portfolio. Do you see a focus on real, emotional moments? Or do you just see details and portraits?
Some of the most popular photographers I see right now are almost 100% portraits and details on their blogs. This is the way they attract attention from wedding blogs and magazines, who are unlikely to publish a shot of your mom crying through the ceremony. But this approach is not documentary. It is not natural moments. It’s meticulously set-up, posed, and curated to make your wedding appear like a magazine spread. This kind of work is beautiful, for sure… some of my favorite photographers shoot this way. But it’s not documentary work in the purest sense of the word.
Documentary wedding photography is different from portrait or fine art wedding photography. We spend less time photographing details like empty tables and jewelry, and we focus more on people’s interactions with one another. We learn to anticipate hugs, laughter, and tears so that we are ready to shoot them before they happen. We try not to change too much of your set-up by removing bags, turning on and off lights, etc. because we want to stay unobtrusive (I do like the blinds open, though). We probably will not carry a styling bag full of our own items to add to your photos or bring a piece of furniture into a field of wheat. We will chatter with you to keep things casual, but we likely won’t ask you to turn and smile very much (maybe only for the portraits). We certainly will not attempt to fake a blowing veil while the rest of you is clearly not being blown by the wind at all (sorry, this is my pet peeve).
We want to capture things as sincerely and authentically as possible, while still making sure the shots are pretty and nicely lit and artfully composed. It’s not easy, but it’s never, ever boring, and it’s my favorite way to shoot. I believe in documentary photography and in the art of the everyday.
To see some of my favorite documentary photos, check out the Moment Collection. If those photos resonate with you, then let’s talk about your wedding. You might be a perfect fit for documentary wedding photography.