Bride and groom portraits – do they fit in with documentary wedding photography?
The portrait of the bride and groom has been the staple of wedding photography since the camera was invented and was first taken to a wedding. But a portrait means ‘setting up’ an image, doesn’t it? It’s a portrait. The subject knows they are being photographed. They have probably been directed. ‘Stand there, look this way, give her a kiss’? How does that fit into the inventory of a documentary wedding photographer? Surely pure reportage just doesn’t do this?
Well, from a purist’s point of view and approach, probably not. But does that mean it’s right?
I know one or two documentary wedding photographers who will not do any posing of couples. Nothing. But to be frank even those who will not do any portraits, will often do some family groups. I’ve found in recent years I am getting less requests for group shots, which is kind of the way I want it. I even had a couple of grooms last year who did not want any portraits. One refused at first and even tried to walk out of the ten minute portrait session – I think he was glad he didn’t when he saw images. So I’ve had weddings with no groups and ones with the idea of no portraits but is this the right approach?
Groups – just one quick shot with parents, grandparents, immediate family – nothing formal, no “Vanity Fair” setups – a simple, historical record. These people were here at this point in time. That’s the best approach imho. But I’ll talk about groups another time. Portraits though, here is this couple, at this (major) point in their lives. Why not shoot a portrait?
I have recently been looking through a stack of old prints that my parents sent to my son for a school project. Images of them as babies, toddlers, before they were married, when they got married, as they got older. Images of them with family long since gone. Images that seem to be of different people to the older people you see now. It’s the power of still images as a memory archive. Stages in their life captured and no bigger moment than their wedding day. As for a box of prints, what will people have fifty years from now? No physical prints, maybe no images?
But how to shoot bride and groom portraits?
There is a growing ‘creative’ trend of documentary wedding photography. Some of it is not documentary at all, the photographer is as manipulating and dictating as the old fashioned wedding photographer from sitcoms. Just as intrusive but more creative. But with this approach a wedding can be reduced to a series of stylized shoots. This is not to say that strong images cannot come out of these. Look at most wedding photography competitions in recent years. International contests such as at Fearless, the ISPWP, even the Wedding Photojournalist Association and the number of ‘setup’ but creative images winning awards is on the increase. So which is the right approach? Which approach do today’s wedding couples want?
The standard, standing next to each other, framed and sat on a mantelpiece type image?
The hyper-creative, fake reflections, prism effects, small-couple-in-a-vast-landscape, or backlit by flash in the dark, type image?
Or genuine moments when the couple were just caught together during the day?
Personally the latter is the preferred image, with a ‘real’ moment, but it’s probably a combination of all three in most cases?
Now the first can be a bit dull. The second it is easy to go too far with the ‘creative’ look. Remember this is a wedding day, not a fashion shoot or a portrait session for a magazine. The photography reflects rather than imposes on the day – that’s documentary. The last one – that is left to chance, quite apart from the skill of the photographer.
Will these moments happen? Will the couple have quiet moments to themselves that you can discretely record? Will a couple interact on the day in a way that will reward you with images? This is the UK after all. British reserve and all that. Go back to those international competitions and look at Italian or American weddings….
Or is it case of not worrying too much about being a ‘purist’ and while the priority is to look for those moments, also have a mixture of the first two, in your bag, as a backup. Something you can do in ten minutes or so. When and where the light is right. Direction to a minimum. A couple embracing – a few quiet moments away from the celebrations – a chance to smile. To look into each others eyes and let it sink in what you achieved just a few hours before. Then start giggling at each other at how silly it feels to be standing somewhere like this….snap…there’s your picture!
I often get enquiries that say they are looking to hire a documentary wedding photographer because they don’t like being in front of the camera, so want to be caught unawares. One couple last year really emphasized this…but they didn’t book me. They said they shortlisted me with another photographer. One who uses the term ‘documentary’ but rarely is. Seemed an odd decision but they said they decided that maybe their phobia of the camera, meant they needed more direction. I’ve seen the resulting images….. 😉
So for me, bride and groom portraits do still have a place for a documentary wedding photographer. After all, my work is influenced by my time as a photojournalist and portraits have their role within that genre. It’s a question of approach. Get the spot, get the light, let a couple relax and you get your shot….quickly! No drama, no big production.
Here are some images from recent years. Some are pure moments, some are ‘posed’. Even those, the direction may be no more than stand there!
You can find more bride and groom portraits here…