What Defines a Documentary Wedding Photograph?

Wedding photography—and particularly the documentary image—takes up a great deal of my thinking time when I’m sitting at my desk editing or reading on the Internet. It’s a passion as well as a job, so I’m quite often distracted by other photographers’ websites or getting involved in discussions on the various forums that cover the subject. One particular discussion I was involved with earlier this week asked the question:

“What defines a ‘documentary / reportage / observational’ photograph?”

and it’s one of those deceptively simple questions that gets you thinking about everything that you do.

behind the scenes of a wedding shoot

Photo by Roberto Taddeo; ISO 400, f/5 aperture, 1/320 exposure.

Weddings are littered with cameras these days—every guest must have one—so what is it that I’m doing on the day that differs from everyone else who’s taking photographs?

The Majority of My Work is Unposed

I’m looking for truthful, natural, and unself-conscious photographs of how the wedding day was for everyone who experienced it on the day. (Guests’ photographs tend to be about making other guests stand and smile for the camera.)

My Photography is About Telling a Story

Whether it’s within a single image or a sequence of images, I’m always looking to tell the story of the wedding day in each photograph. I’m always looking to show the emotional interaction that’s happening. Not every photograph is about smiling and looking at the camera; more often it’s about the heightened emotions of the day: crying, laughing, kissing, being proud, being overwhelmed, being nervous, being really REALLY happy, being human.

It’s most importantly about what is happening ‘between’ people—photographing the connections and reactions of the wedding day. I really love that there are so many emotions that couples, parents, and friends go through that it makes telling the story so compelling for me.

artistic wedding photography

Photo by John Ho; ISO 250, 3.5 aperture, 1/250 exposure.

It’s More Than Snapshots

I’ve been asked before, “With so many guests clicking away throughout the day, why not just collect all their shots together and make an album?”

Some of the explanations above will go part of the way toward answering the question, but I would also say that it’s not their ‘job’ to document the day. They are part of the day. I’m watching, waiting, anticipating, and creating photographs that are not just little slices of the day but form part of a narrative that tells the story of the event in an aesthetic, artistic, and pleasing way (I hope).

candid wedding photo

Photo by Flickr user Geon_D.

Before I click the shutter I’m not just thinking about who’s in the frame but where we are, what the light is like, what I want to say, how best to communicate what the photograph will tell us, what to include in the frame and what to leave out and what split second in time will register the emotions of the scene (or when the punchline is coming in the speech so I can get everyone laughing at the same time!).

Every guest takes a ‘snapshot’ so they can remember being there, but a good documentary photographer communicates the emotion of the day to people who weren’t there or who haven’t yet been born.

About the Author:
I am a professional wedding photographer based in Staffordshire, England (weddingedge dot co dot uk). My approach to wedding photography is to create a natural, relaxed set of images telling the story of the day. I am passionate about ‘good’ wedding photography and believe it’s the photographer’s job to create a very individual set of images of each wedding day. I live with my wife, Rachel, and shoot all over the UK.

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6 responses to “What Defines a Documentary Wedding Photograph?”

  1. Abigail says:

    Nice article Andrew. I’ve heard of a few weddings recently requesting either no use of personal cameras or a requested social media embargo. May I also point out that your website seems to be unavailable.

  2. Lois Bryan says:

    Like it!!! Well said!!! Tweeted

  3. Amy Dawson says:

    Great blog post. I shared it onto my Facebook page “Amy Dawson Photography”. I have been leaning towards this style of photography for over a year now, and I love it. Recently I spent 10 hours with a bride and groom, and they requested not one single posed image. The entire day was about candid, unscripted, in the moment… I had the best time at this wedding, and even editing the photos, it has been a blast. So many moments that made me smile just remembering the day .. I can’t wait to share the images with my clients. Thank you for posting about this subject !

    • Rennae Christman says:

      I just did the same for our children…it was a wonderful experience. How do you handle the changing lighting issues? The wedding was in a tent and then moved to a room of very mixed lighting. Also, do you have a preference of lens/cameras or do you have a couple of cameras that you bring with you? You are so right. It is an absolute joy to mingle and shoot, to capture the expressions and emotions in the moment. I confess I was so tired when I got home! You spent 10 hours!! Amazing.. You must have had a boat load of shots.. So how do you break down which you will fine tune and how many you will provide to your couple? Mine of course was our children so looks like they will get most all of them. I am not seasoned by any stretch of the imagination so when they asked for ONLY candid shots and no poses I was a bit nervous. I hope you get back to see this and won’t mind sharing your thoughts. Thanks so much!! I am generally a nature photographer… My facebook is Today With Rennae

  4. John says:

    Recently went to my nieces wedding. She had asked me to shoot the wedding but I declined but I did want to give her something special so I made a point of capturing as many of the moments that I could without ever getting involved in the posed photos. I had a great time and when I gave her the photos she just loved, loved, loved them. She said they made her cry because they gave emotional context to her special day.

  5. Rennae Christman says:

    I just spent 5 hours photographing our sons wedding. He is a 20 year veteran and his wife’s business revolves around veterans. So fitting that they chose Veteran’s Day. I was and remain timid over the task as well as the result. However, I also feel that the emotion of the day is far more important than the “posed” moments. There were very emotional moments that I captured of tears and of joy. The challenge was that the room had dark brown walls and a dark colored floor! The lighting left much to be desired. As a nature photographer I was so far out of my comfort zone! All in all the photos while maybe aren’t magazine material will provide them with nearly a moment by moment capture of their special day. Your article warmed my heart and gave me reason to pause. I love to shoot in the moment no matter where I am. I am self taught and will be looking to expand and grow my knowledge. I have come to realize that weddings are very challenging but very satisfying too. Thanks so much for sharing your article. I am sure that it was an eye opener for so many!!

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