What Is Documentary Wedding Photography?

The aim of this page is to explain documentary wedding photography as I see it. Hopefully, my style, how I work and why I like to promote myself as a documentary wedding photographer will be a little clearer on reading this.

When I was preparing to put this page together, I started to trawl through a folder I have on my desktop of favourite images. It’s quite a big folder as I’ve been photographing weddings for over fifteen years now. As I tagged the ones to help me illustrate the page, I managed to narrow it down to about a hundred (well, it’s a start)! What I did notice about the images in this folder was that they are mostly storytelling moments. Pictures that expressed joy, laughter, pride, excitement, embarrassment, sadness – a whole spectrum of emotions. The reason these images had been chosen in the first place from the individual weddings, is because they define my style. To me, these images sum up documentary wedding photography – it’s essentially documenting the day, as it happens, in real time with minimal interruption and fuss.

Documentary wedding photography is often referred to as wedding photojournalism or reportage wedding photography. I don’t see that there’s a lot of difference between the terms but it gives the wedding magazines something to write about. I predominantly photograph with the available light – this steers my decisions as to where I’m going to shoot from, the angles I’ll use and the lenses needed to capture it all.
So, here’s how I work. On the wedding day, it’s just me; I’ve always worked this way and I manage to get about enough to cover what I need. There are lots of two person teams out there but whether you would consider this a necessity is up to you. I believe I can offer you comprehensive coverage of your day while maintaining a low profile. I work in an unobtrusive way – when couples get back to me and comment on how thrilled they are with the pictures and how unaware they were of my presence, I feel I’ve done a good job.

“We had a long look at all the photos you took (twice) last night.  Thank you, we absolutely LOVE them!  You’re so talented.  You captured the day so beautifully, exactly how we wanted, all the candid photos are our favourites… Thanks for all your help.” 
Grace & Matt

I work with two Canon 5D mk3 with an 85mm f1.2 lens on one of them and the other body mostly has my 24-70mm f2.8 or my 35mm f1.4 lens on. The combination of body and lens means I can shoot in some seriously dark spaces without the need for flash. I’m no lover of flash; it usually only makes an appearance when I can no longer physically operate by shooting only available light. This is usually towards the end of the day around the first dance, when the light levels drop significantly. Once I have cranked up the ISO on the camera and am shooting with the lens wide open, the only thing left is to drop the shutter speed right down. When this happens, more and more pictures will suffer from blurring so a little fill-in flash can help. But this is the only time I really need to use it. Even in church, despite some being very dark, I’ve never come across a situation where I can’t operate using available light only. Working with two bodies, I can document each scene in front of me with a wide angle and the 85mm which brings me in a little closer. Unlike sports photography, which I did before changing over to weddings, I’m never far away from what’s going on. There’s no need to shoot on long lenses. I now tend to shoot wider as I like the storytelling nature of having different elements in the same image – the action and reaction to what’s going on in the scene. Yes, you can have a shot of the couple being formally introduced to their guests as the descend the stairs (and shoot it from ground level with all the other guests) but if you have both elements in the picture together, it makes for a much more interesting picture. In years to come, this will mean so much more to the couple as they will be able to pick out their friends and family.

So, do the ‘traditional’ pictures that people associate with weddings not get shot then? “Where’s the shots of the bride and groom looking lovingly into each other’s eyes? Where’s the family group shot with everyone lined up in a row? Where’s the close up pictures of all the beautiful things I’ve spent a lot of money on to make my wedding look lovely?” (I hear you say). Well, they all get photographed too. I just don’t choose to put them in my galleries as they don’t illustrate what I consider to be documentary wedding photography. Detail shots, such as bouquets and dresses hanging up are fairly simple to photograph but I won’t be moving them to a more aesthetically pleasing position (it’s funny how the dress is usually hanging somewhere nicely when I arrive!). Same too with group shots. It’s not my job to dictate what family/bridal group shots need to be done. I’d say 95% off all the weddings I cover, have some group shots done. I’ll leave it up to the couple to let me know what they would like and I’ll find a suitable place to photograph them. But I’ll leave it up to the ushers to round them up; I certainly won’t be making large announcements about whom I’d like in the next picture. How many is too many group shots? That’s up to you, but remember, the more you have, the longer it will eat into your drinks reception time and in my experience, people move very, very slowly at weddings. Plus, the more time you spend on formal group shots, the less time I have to photograph your guests in the style you have chosen me for.

Similarly, with getting shots of the bride and groom, I try to photograph it in the same natural way. There won’t be any dramatic posing and I won’t make you do anything you’re uncomfortable with. Usually, we go for a wander, ideally away from your guests so no one is staring at you and I photograph this little jaunt. If you want to stop and cuddle up from time to time, that’s all good. Unless you have this time together, it surprising how little you will be together on the day other than in the ceremony, the wedding breakfast and first dance. You’ll be centre of attention but this often means you’re off talking to different friends, so it’s a good idea to have this time together. It usually takes around fifteen minutes.

So the crux of it is, if it goes on during your wedding day, it will more than likely be photographed. Documentary wedding photography is about telling the story of your day in pictures. When you come back from your honeymoon, I want you to re-live the wedding day when you watch the slideshow. It’s about real people and real emotions. If you’re looking for lots of posed pictures like the ‘Reservoir Dogs’ pic of the boys all walking in a row or that holding hands and jumping in the air shot, then we might not be on the same wavelength. There are plenty of photographers out there that can help you with these pictures if that’s your bag. What I can give you is timeless, classic images that will have narrative, meaning and great storytelling qualities.

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