In recent years weddings have become much more relaxed and documentary wedding photography is taking over. How can reducing our need to make choices when shooting help our fair play?
I want to be clear: documentary wedding photography isn’t just about taking pictures of people without their knowledge. For me, it’s about capturing the story of the day. Think about the terms we use: documentary, reportage, photojournalism. They all basically mean the same thing. They take reality and create a true story and narrative for our entertainment.
Marriage has a beginning, a middle and an end. The story shows people being themselves, the events of the day unfolding and, perhaps most importantly, the bonds and emotions people share.
Light, composition and moment
A good friend and great mentor once told me that great photography has three essential elements. They are pleasant or interesting light, a good composition and a convincing moment. I agree 100%. We have more control over composition than the other two aspects, but we can help the other two – to create our luck, if you will.
Personal choice means I don’t add light until I push what my cameras are capable of, preferring to use whatever light is available. Therefore, I have to position myself so that the best available light hits what I want to photograph. Of course, that’s not always possible, but anticipating what’s going to happen next helps us decide where to position the camera. This anticipation will also help capture great moments.
When shooting a wedding, I like to stay about 10 seconds ahead of what I think is a good time. Ten seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time to take a critical shot, and it isn’t, but that’s why we have to keep it simple.
Let’s take an example of a moment that is unfolding. Take a typical “just married” moment at most weddings (where the ceremony is not a church) and discuss how we can capture it. The happy couple will walk down the aisle as newlyweds; I’ll position myself to capture this, usually halfway along the passage so I can back up with them. The couple will pass in front of me, and I will have my chance. Great!
Is it time to look behind the camera and admire my work? Oh no ! There is another moment that unfolds. The newlyweds walk up to a room staff member who offers them drinks. They then have their first moment alone.
Their personalities will shine now, because they can finally breathe. And that’s where I am, taking pictures of this beautiful and intimate moment. I’ve been there for about 10 seconds. I’m already thinking about the moment in about 10 seconds when the important people will also walk up the aisle and give the bride a congratulatory hug. For this, I will think about standing behind the bride.
My day goes like this, and that’s how we capture the moments, in good light, with thoughtful composition.
keep it simple
For me, my way of working is a balance between efficiency and freedom. The freedom comes from keeping the whole process as simple as possible while providing fantastic quality work for my couples. I try to minimize the need to make decisions on wedding days so that things happening around me get my full attention.
Why do they need it? As documentary-style photographers, our job is to see and then capture. Sometimes it happens in a second or two, and we have to be able to react. If you add an extra decision, a change of goal, for example, we miss the moment, and that moment is gone forever.
I want to be free to capture what my eyes see. So my only decision should be my composition. What the camera does should be second nature and not a conscious thought process.
wedding photography equipment
All brands make great cameras, but Fujifilm gear works for me. I love the way the cameras work, the clickable dials, and the vintage vibe. They have bodies that fit well in my hands (strange, tiny). I also appreciate the files I receive from my cameras.
My Fujifilm X-T3 cameras are small and light APS-C bodies: discreet, fast, durable, waterproof and equipped with two card slots. The new X-T4 also offers the same features that I use.
The Fujifilm XF 18mm f/1.4 R LM WR is my workhorse lens. I often joke that I see in 18mm. I know what will be in my frame before I bring the camera to my eyes. The lens is fast, sharp and not too big or heavy. A 28mm full-frame equivalent would be my desert island lens. The wide angle allows me to get closer and fit more into my frame. I like to be in the moment rather than further away with a longer goal.
The Fujifilm XF 33mm f/1.4 R LM WR is the other lens I use at weddings. I keep this on a second body. I grab it when I need a little more reach.
I keep two batteries in my back pocket and usually leave my emergency gear in the car: my LED lights for the dance floor, a spare case and a longer lens (Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2).
Many wedding photographers would scoff at this equipment. Where is the 70-200mm zoom? What about off-camera flash? I’ve used this stuff in the past and now I like being free of it. Great documentary work won’t come by lugging a 100kg bag full of unusual lenses and options. It will come from being able to see and capture moments without making additional decisions.
Beginner settings for professional work
My camera is set up as a point-and-shoot! People often assume that professional photographers have to shoot in manual mode, which is not true. Our modern cameras are incredibly smart. They can make hundreds of decisions every second, so I allow them to do just that, while taking control of what I need.
Below is a recipe for settings that allow me to work faster and change settings less often.
Aperture Priority: I set my shutter and ISO to automatic. I decide the aperture based on my choice of depth of field.
Auto ISO: My ISO is maxed out at ISO 12800 before the camera drops the shutter below 1/250s. By setting this, I can shoot in 99% of lighting situations without touching my settings. I would much rather have grain than blur!
White Balance: If you’re starting to notice a trend, you won’t be surprised here. The white balance of my cameras is set to automatic. Fujifilm cameras generally do a great job with white balance, and I can adjust the raw files later if needed.
Autofocus: I set the autofocus to a single point. I can focus and recompose quickly. There is a small switch on the front of the camera to switch to continuous AF if something is about to move and I need to track it. Some people prefer to focus on the back button, but that doesn’t work well for me.
Measure: I find it’s quicker to meter the spot and lock the exposure if I need to rather than using the exposure compensation dial.
I always take pictures in raw mode, with two memory cards and with face detection disabled.
Should you shoot this way?
I know this way of shooting is not for everyone! Many photographers will prefer to be more in control of their subjects. For me, I love the excitement of the unknown. I like to document honest and happy moments. This is not a long article and will only scratch the surface.
If we can take away one thing, it’s this: every time we add a decision that has to be made on the fly, we’re adding an opportunity to miss. When we miss fewer photos, we become better photographers.