What is a Documentary Wedding Photographer?
I guess this article is aimed at anyone who has an interest in documentary photography, not necessarily of wedding. Or non photographers who might be in the process of choosing a wedding photographer and are struggling to work out how far or how little your ‘documentary wedding photographer‘ might be prepared to go to get you some nice photos of your wedding.
So what is documentary wedding photography? Well, there are many definitions, but essentially it’s photographing a wedding as an observer, telling the story through photographs without having any input or say about what happens. Its real, it can be beautiful, emotional, gritty and messy. But ultimately it’s the the real stuff, from the ugly crying to the spontaneous outbursts of laughter and everything in between. Ultimately what the images say comes down to how the photographer relates to the scene, what he or she things is important to the story and at which point in any moment unfolding in front of them is the correct split second to represent that part of the wedding day.
The inclusion or lack of context can be implicit in the understanding of the story. It can force the viewer to make assumptions or provide a back story in which the behaviour of our subjects fit. 3 different photographers might shoot the same scene in 3 completely different ways, depending on how they empathise with the characters in the story. But it is this empathy and educated anticipation which can be the difference between good photography and great photography.
Photography is an art form. But like all art, there are many types of photography. Ranging from pure and unadulterated documentartists to raging in your face creatives who work in studio settings or with teams of lighting assistants. There is a scale here and documentarty wedding photography falls in at one end of it. It can be further broken down, as far as weddings are concerned.
Starving Artits, professionals and wannabe Cartier-Bressons.
There are those who claim to be pure documentary photographers, there style can be described as reportage, documentary or photojournalism. These photographers will not under any circumstances pose anything. No portraits, no family group photographs, no nothing. so don’t even ask. Nor will they remove anything in Photoshop as it makes a ‘false reality’. I would argue that photography itself and any form of editing can make a false reality. What a bout shooting with wide apertures or changing an image into black and white? But that’s a conversation for another day.
The next group of documentary wedding photographers probably makes up 80% of the current market. These guys will mostly shoot documentary, but will be happy to do a few group shots and some portraits. Not posey posey portraits, but something with a bit more substance, provoking a reaction or encouraging a connection between the couple. More ‘directed’ than posed. These guys will do a few group photos too.
The last group of wedding photographers who shoot documentary might not really describe themselves as photojournalists as such, but they do it as part of a wider reportie of their portfolio. This group likes portraits and will spend a lot of time arranging groups and bride and groom portraits, often with additional lighting. Those at the other end of the spectrum might get a bit grumpy about these people using the word ‘documentary’ to describe their work.
The good news is that none of the approaches above are wrong. Because all photographers are artists in some way, shape or form. Some are more photographers than artists and some vice versa. No approach illegal. But that doesn’t stop people voicing their opinions and pushing their views of how things should be done on to others. It happens quite a lot in the wedding photography community. In fact it happens almost as much as arguments between photographers who shoot with different brands of cameras. It reminds me of conversations I used to have in the school playground about which football team was better.
For me, as someone who is happy to live and let live, these arguments provide me with some entertainment on my tea break. I couldn’t care less if someone photoshopped out a crisp packet or if photographer x or y has the latest mirrorless camera. But I do care about art and photography and I want anyone who wishes to create something to be able to do so and show it off to the world without fear of criticism because they did something different.
For me there are two types of photography. Firstly the type that pays the bills. And secondly the I do for myself, to satisfy our own need to be creative and share my art. I do one to enable me to do the other. Mixing the two doesn’t always work, but it’s nice when i does.
As a side note it must be said that there are successful wedding photographers out there who stick to their creative vision and photo-journalistic morality and do very well. For the rest of us we must remember, we are just wedding photographers.
Some interesting reading about good photographers who were presumed to be pure photojournalists, but it turned out weren’t. I’m not judging them by the way, it’s just an interesting topic of conversation.
If you found this interesting I wrote another article a little while back. My top tips for wedding photography