To anyone drawn to being a wedding photographer, there’s something undeniably intriguing about documentary wedding photography. Think about it; it looks like there are no rules! Just point your camera at whatever is happening, and off you go, right?!
But just like a star gymnast who makes the balance beam look easy, it’s so, so much more than what we see. So I want to share with you some of the reasons why I feel being a documentary wedding photographer takes a special kind of skill and a special kind of heart.
Why Become a Documentary Wedding Photographer
To me, documentary wedding photography is the art of embracing the real realness of life, seeking out the hidden stuff beneath the surface, and capturing the candid beauty of who we are and what makes us tick.
Clients hire me to weave a visual narrative of their day while allowing the story to unfold organically, without the confines and expectations of traditional wedding photography.
There are many different approaches to capturing a wedding day. Some photographers meticulously create scenes, and delicately stage each moment to showcase the fairy tale romance that unfolds on a couple’s big day – and that’s perfectly amazing! These carefully crafted images appeal to those who want the perfection of a well-orchestrated, thoughtfully constructed photograph.
See: candid photos vs. documentary photos.
However, for those drawn to documentary wedding photography, it’s the allure of the raw, uncontrolled, unexpected moments that truly captivate our hearts.
Like the clients who hire me, I thrive on the unpredictability of real life as we live it. I believe the true essence of love and connection shines in fleeting, often overlooked instances. By being open to the unexpected and allowing emotions (theirs and mine) to guide me, the result is that their wedding photos have a deeply personal and honest visual narrative.
The Art of Observation
As a documentary wedding photographer, it’s essential to ask yourself if you’re fully down with visual storytelling.
Documentary wedding photography entails much more than just understanding the technical aspects of photography or being able to take a nice photo of a moment; it means developing an acute awareness of your surroundings, honing your intuition, and cultivating an accurate sense of anticipation.
The ability to feel for, and not just watch, moments, to truly understand the energy unfolding around you, is a skill that takes time, patience, and practice to refine. And it’s worth every minute of the effort!
Documentary wedding photography is about constantly observing human behavior and emotion, searching for the subtle cues that hint at the rawness of your subjects’ experience, and being absolutely open and unerringly curious about the people around you.
It’s about being INTERESTED in what they find INTERESTING. It’s easy to downplay something that’s happening because it doesn’t float our own boat, but a good story teller is always able to put aside personal preferences and feel through their subject’s motivations.
To do this, documentary wedding photographers have to cultivate a deep connection with their client, fostering a sense of trust and understanding that enables the client to feel at ease in their presence.
Doing so creates an environment where true emotions and reactions can flow freely, allowing the documentary wedding photographer to capture those elusive, candid moments that honestly reflect who the subjects’ world.
Above and Beyond
By above and beyond, I mean delivering the expected images that capture the key moments of the couple’s wedding but also continually pushing the boundaries of your creativity and intuition–this is where your work will become unique to YOU, and thereby unique to the couple you are doing the storytelling for.
And it’s impossible without a strong rapport with your clients. Take the time to truly understand their personalities, values, and desires. By embracing this mindset, you’ll be able to create a body of work that is visually stunning, deeply meaningful, and emotionally resonant for them, which will pour into all the soon-to-be clients who value the honesty and perspective that only you have.
Spidey Senses and Documentary Wedding Photography
As a documentary wedding photographer, immersing yourself in the experience and using all of your senses during a 10 hour shoot is essential to be able to truly tell their story. This sensory approach enables you to connect with the wedding on a deeper level, allowing you to anticipate the expressions of emotion that define the couple and their story. Here’s the low down on which sense you need to hone, and why:
Sight: Your vision is, of course, your most crucial tool as a documentary wedding photographer. Train your eyes to constantly scan the environment, looking for the subtle cues and gestures that signal a moment worth capturing.
Pay attention to the interplay of light, shadow, and color, as well as the composition of your frame, to create visually compelling images. Look to the corners of your viewfinder to make sure everything you need to tell their story fits, and use your feet–not your telephoto–as your zoom lens.
The closer you physically are to the action, the more your clients will be able to feel what they were feeling when they see the photo. If you stand back with a lens longer than 50mm, you’ll be detached from the moment. You’ll be an observer, not a participant. Get close.
Hearing: Listen carefully to the sounds around to anticipate key moments and emotional reactions. Train your ears for increases in volume, changes in vocal pitch, speed of talking… all these signify a crescendo, and likely one that’s worth photographing.
Think beyond the crowd’s laughter, the sniffles during the vows, or the whispers between the couple, and “look” with your ears for voice, footsteps and shifts in tone. These all serve as cues to focus your attention and zero in on the emotions unfolding for everyone, not just the couple.
The people around them are as much a part of the story as the couple themselves. Use their experience to amplify and complement your couple’s.
Touch: This is where strong knowledge of your gear comes in. You MUST be able to change all of your settings without taking your face away from the camera. By being in tune with your equipment, you can focus on the scene without fumbling or hesitation.
Need f8 instead of 1.4 so you can clearly show everyone’s reaction to what your subject is doing? Practice changing aperture and using the light meter in the viewfinder, rather than shooting and looking at the image after you’ve pressed the shutter.
Trust is essential for documentary wedding photographers. It allows for creative freedom and access to what your subject is feeling. Here are some key steps to fostering this deep sense of trust with your clients:
Communication: From the initial consultation to the wedding day itself, maintain open and honest communication with your clients. Discuss their expectations, preferences, and any concerns they may have. Give them lots of details about how you’ll move through the day, and share your process so they know what to expect.
Build Rapport: Share your inspirations and experiences as a means to give them insight into who you are as a person, so they can see you as a person. Demonstrate your genuine commitment and honest interest in who they are as people by active listening and prompt responses when they want to talk.
Portfolio and Testimonials: Show a portfolio with diverse environments and perspectives that highlight your unique documentary style, creativity, and expertise. Include testimonials from previous clients, emphasizing the ones that reveal trust in your vision and ability to deliver exceptional results, even in unconventional situations.
What About The Details?
As a documentary wedding photographer, the approach to capturing details may differ from that of a more traditional or stylized photographer. While staging and styling details can result in beautiful, magazine-worthy images, it’s important to remember that your primary goal as a documentary photographer is to capture how people experience the wedding day, not just what it looks like.
So instead of flatlays, watch for how guests use the details. Include the human element–holding flowers instead of flowers on the table, putting on the earring instead of earring on the desk, handwritten notes tucked away in a pocket, the way the wedding dress moves as they walk, or how they always reach for each other’s hands after their wearing the ring.
You might want to hire a second shooter that can photograph details for you. Wedding planners really appreciate these photos, so it’s good to have a plan for getting static detail images.
But the documentary wedding photographer finds a way to photograph details as part of the whole story. And therein lies the grace and originality of your work. How will you include the details to buoy their story?
Become a Documentary Wedding Photographer
If documentary wedding photography resonates with your heart, I encourage you to pursue it wholeheartedly! When I found out that documentary wedding photography was a thing, I fully dove into the genre. It’s incredibly satisfying to observe, anticipate and create.
My tagline is “For couples who want to feel what they felt” and that principle guides me through every single frame.
If you want to forge deep connections with your clients and make photos that are dedicated to feeling all the feels, then it’s time to step boldly onto the path less traveled. Welcome to the documentary wedding photography club!
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