Way back in the original days of film photography, the subject needed to be stationary because film speeds were very slow and the shutter needed to be open for a long time. It was understood that the subject would have to sit for a long time, and this usually meant also a limit to arm gestures and poses because they couldn't be sustained for the duration of the exposure. As an unintended result, there was a certain gravitas to these photographs, as though everyone needed to look intensely into the camera like Gustavo from Breaking Bad.
Times have changed, and many young photographers can't even imagine a time before digital and before ISO12800 and f1.0, f1.2 and f1.4 lenses became so ubiquitous. These tools now allow us the opportunity to shoot in nearly any conditions, exposing us all to beautiful things in exotic places and making, in some cases, the extraordinary ordinary through travel photography on Instagram feeds.
There is compelling evidence that the first known contract in history was a wedding contract. Looking at early wedding photography, one is left with the impression that they were more about tradition and obligation than about love, joy, connection and our current expectations from relationships. Most weddings were at places of worship, where photography *during* the event was forbidden (even if it would have been possible, technically), so the key moments of the ceremony were posed recreations at the end of the ceremony. After these stiff, fake events were photographed, the photographer then photographed the couple and family photographs on the same stage. As an obvious result, the extent of the variety was that the people differed from wedding to wedding, but the expectation from what the photographer would deliver was largely the same. The die had been cast and creative input from the photographer was, by definition, limited.
Although I knew I wanted to be a photographer when I was 15, I never imagined that I'd be photographing weddings. When I was a kid, I didn't look at weddings with much curiosity and I had only been to a couple of them before I started photographing them. This would turn out to be an unexpected asset because I didn't have to un-learn bad habits. I've covered my photographic history in other blog posts, so I'll cut to the chase here. When I started photographing weddings, things were just starting to change from traditional and canned to incorporating spontaneous moments. In Seattle in 1999, there were a handful of us shooting weddings and we were all friends who regularly passed work to each other if we were already booked on any given date. Back in the 90s, the only well known photographer for weddings who was shooting entirely candidly, (a style often referred to as "wedding photojournalism,") was Denis Reggie. The term quickly became co-opted by wedding photographers to mean "I shoot *some* candid photographs" or in some cases "I use a roll of B&W at each wedding in addition to color."
My transition from shooting landscapes, live music, model portfolios and news stories for the two Seattle weekly papers to weddings was relatively simple: I wanted to tell a story of what really happened rather than create my own invented narrative. Whether I was shooting the mayor at the podium during a press conference, a city council meeting or a story about the life of a lottery winner, the goal was the same: pull the reader in to the text with an image that contained the key elements of the story.
From the very first wedding I photographed in early 1999 to the wedding I'm shooting today, all I look for are moments. Rather than tediously running each couple through a template of posed photographs where every wedding is the same except for the people in it, I look for the personal, beautiful and sometimes quirky moments that make each wedding unique. You should feel what it was like to be there, or at least wish you had been there! I also believe that every bride and groom would rather live their wedding day, present in each moment, rather than the fantasy of a photographer dictating the action through a series of pre-determined photographs he/she does at every other wedding. While this approach theoretically places more responsibility on the me because I am actively looking for photographs from the moment I get there to the moment I leave, it's what makes photographing at weddings fun and exciting, and I am always pushing myself to see the world and the event I'm shooting in new ways. It also guarantees that your wedding with be about YOU and not me, because I'm reacting to what I see at your wedding rather than telling you what to do and putting you in the exact same poses and scenes as the wedding last weekend. When it comes to photographs of the couple, my approach differs depending on the comfort level of the couple, how demonstrative they are and how they naturally interact together. I will lead you to good light and beautiful scenery, putting you in situations that are conducive to good composition. I will NOT ask you to dip your spouse or have you and the wedding party all hold hands and jump up. I will NOT ask you to make your hands in the shape of a heart. I will NOT ask you to stand far away from each other and look bored like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. I do everything in my power for you to feel comfortable and natural in front of the camera, because I want you to look great in the photographs as much as you do.
One of the things that comes with experience is the unshakable confidence that I can identify and preserve these moments at every wedding and in any lighting condition.
It seems that everyone is in a hurry these days, not only in their lives, but in their approach to photography. I consider myself lucky that I started with comparatively simple tools that required a deliberate, measured approach, and rewarded patience. Everything used to be all manual: manual focus, manual exposure, manual advance and sometimes even one had to use an external, handheld light meter. This are now thought of as "obstacles" when they were, to me, teachers. The way that I learned to photograph has stayed with me through today: I find my composition and then I wait for the right moment. I will sometimes take a 2nd shot if I see something less than ideal happen during the first, but I never just hold down the shutter and think I'll pick out some gems while I'm editing in Lightroom in front of the computer. My goal is to get the moment right in camera, and that requires the ability to pre visualize the frame, and the ability to recognize moments and pleasing lighting and composition as it's happening. I had the good fortune of seeing this wonderful lecture on photography by National Geographic photographer Sam Abell called "The Life Of A Photograph," which was probably the best talk I've ever heard about photography. You can click a link to it in the previous sentence. It's almost 2 hours long, but it's worth it, and more substantive and life-changing than most workshops. Best of all, it's free. He discusses his way of composing, his history learning photographic lessons from his father, and with multiple examples, what makes a lasting photograph from his experience personally and shooting for National Geographic.
If you look at most photography blog sites and Facebook groups, the bulk of the discussion is almost always around equipment. "Should I buy this or that?" "Will this new camera finally be fast enough for me?" and "I couldn't possibly use that- not advanced enough for me." To read modern photography discussions, especially in an era where we have access of tools that the photographic masters of the 50s, 60s and 70s couldn't even *imagine,* photography is impossible without the camera that's just about to come out. I grew up on fully manual focus and manual exposure, so any autofocus to me is a treat when it's helpful. It's as though sports photographs from 50 years ago somehow arrived in print via magic. Despite the exponential advances in equipment to the point that ANY camera would be a dream for someone even a few years ago, it's still nothing but complaints out there: the focus isn't fast enough, the drive or buffer isn't fast enough. It doesn't do this or that. It's not weather-sealed! These are all nonsense, and are the particular focus of hobbyists more interested in photographing their own equipment rather than making images. Weddings are about moments, not poses. Photography is about communicating emotion, not about cameras, lenses, film and megapixels. "This isn't sharp enough" has never been a complaint as much as I wish I had moved a foot to the left or shot a split second sooner, etc. No one makes a bad camera or a bad lens. If you aren't getting the results you seek, that's on you!
"My new camera is so advanced, I don't even need it." - Steven Wright
There is no right or wrong way to photograph a wedding, but with the movement toward everything being "perfect," I'm more committed than ever to patiently and carefully making images as they happen rather than scripting the day.