What is documentary wedding photography?

Reportage or documentary wedding photography is a style of photography that has evolved since the emergence of the digital camera. In essence, it is a natural progression from the traditional type of pictures taken at a wedding where a film photographer would have been severely limited as to the number of pictures that he/she could take in a day.

After all, there are only so many rolls of film that one could take to a wedding and thus, experimentation with light/angles/subjects would not have been at the top of the list of priorities. With this seemingly limitless number of pictures at a photographer’s disposal, it is now possible to capture not just the ‘key’ individuals at a wedding, but to photograph those moments in between. Those natural wedding pictures that add up to the real story of the day.

So we’re not just getting ‘faces in a crowd’ but a whole spectrum of types of shot that record the fun, emotion, and atmosphere of the day. If one was to shoot purely reportage at a wedding then there would not be a single posed shot of either the families and friends or the couple themselves. For this reason, there are very few pure reportage wedding photographers out there. I for one (like many others in my field) shoot a combination of posed and reportage.

As I just mentioned, it’s fairly obvious that posed shots of the couple/family could not be classed as reportage. So for the rest of the day, from the preparation stages to the wedding ceremony itself and up until the first dance, a good reportage photographer should be fairly anonymous. Nothing staged, nothing posed, and allowing the flow of the day to continue effortlessly.

To follow this kind of ethos whilst still getting artistic and informative shots one has to plan as much as possible in advance and also have the ability to anticipate pictures before they happen.

Light, camera, angles!

There are certain moments during a wedding day when I can plan for specific events. For example, when I arrive at a church in the morning before meeting up with the bride, I will find out which church entrance the bride is to be driven to. At that point, I will plan a series of shots whilst taking into account the light (and how that might change over the next couple of hours), backdrops, angles, and the potential symmetry or asymmetry of a picture.

A reportage photographer could of course just turn up and ‘wing it’ but there’s way too much luck involved in shooting like that, and luck is something I prefer to remove from the equation altogether if at all possible!

Discretion

Robert Capa famously once said, ‘If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’.

It’s easy to fall into a rut where you’re shooting nothing but telephoto shots from across the room. I for one shoot a range of focal lengths (from 16mm to 200mm) so I can say that there is a lot of style and beauty that can come from a telephoto image. But the real skill lies in shooting with wider angle lenses.

Firstly, you have to take light and angles into consideration much more, and if you don’t have an eye for that then your wide shots may look a little plain. Or at best, they’ll be depending solely on the subject rather than both the subject and the backdrop that you’ve chosen. The trouble is that when you’re shooting wide you need to get that much closer to the person in question, and most people simply don’t like being photographed until they’re ‘ready’. Their body language changes as does their facial expression.

I find the best way to counter this problem is to look almost completely disinterested with the subject that you’re about to shoot, prepare your camera settings discreetly, and in an instant when they’re unaware grab the shot. In fact, I quite often shoot from the hip with wide shots rather than bringing the camera to the face so that all around me are completely oblivious to the fact that I’ve just captured a moment.

The other benefit to being discreet is equally important to me. My job may well be to photograph the day and the people who all take part in it, but it’s also my responsibility to not be taking over and ‘papping’ people constantly which could be seen by some as intrusive.

So finding the right balance of taking pictures and guests having a good time without feeling uncomfortable is what reportage photography is to me. After all, the photography should be about the wedding. Not the other way around.

Richard Galloway, Surrey wedding photographer