Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking you through the different styles of wedding photography available to you in the hopes of helping you to find the type of photographer that best suits your needs. Last week we did our best to give you a brief breakdown of all the different styles, but now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty! Over the coming week’s we’re going to look at these styles in a little more detail and tell you just what it is that’s great about each one. So today we’re kicking things off with a more in depth look at a style most photographers shoot at least some element of: Documentary Wedding Photography.
As we explained in last week’s post Documentary may also be referred to as wedding photo-journalistic or reportage photography. Now we’ve tried to identify the differences between the three but to be honest we couldn’t find any general consensus that all photographers fully agree on. Generally though the three can be grouped, and although some photographers may class themselves under only one of these three, we feel that our descriptions below can be applied equally to each.
Now although most photographers will turn to documentary shots when it comes to the ceremony and certain key moments of the day, there is a clear separation between true documentarians and just shooting the odd documentary style image. For most photographers they shoot documentary only during moments where they can’t take control of the image… for example it’s generally really not cool to stop the Bride halfway through her vows and ask her to adjust her body position slightly and start again! However most of the time the majority of photographers will control the image in front of them to some extent to try to create the best possible shot. The thing about a pure documentary photographer is that they never interfere at all; their images are all about the truth and beauty of the moment, about telling the real story of the day without dictating the events. As wedding photo-journalist Kevin Mullins (who has kindly provided the photographs for today’s post) puts it, it’s about observation without orchestration.
It’s both relatively easy and incredibly difficult to spot a documentary wedding photographer, in the sense that whilst you could probably identify them in a line-up of photographers, the idea is that you won’t see them at all on your wedding day. The idea is for them to be unnoticed and consequently many documentary photographers favour dressing more like the wedding guests to blend in, they use short, discrete lenses or often Leica’s (a beautiful and incredibly expensive model of professional cameras that look just like a normal handheld camera) and they will probably be the quiet one at the back waiting for you to stop looking at them so they can capture an awesome real-world shot: a truthful reflection of events. If you’re saying cheese in front of a documentary photographer it’s solely going to be in your excitement at the arrival of a nice bit of stilton to adorn you crackers.
“A photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Documentary photography relies on real reactions and emotions and responds to the action rather than creates it. They strive to capture natural moments that could never be created artificially and might be lost if direction were to be attempted. For the photographer themselves this has both advantages and disadvantages… the advantages are that they don’t have to worry about posing their subjects and trying to create the “perfect image”. The disadvantages are that they still have to create an incredible image to capture the moment without any direction at all, and if they miss it they miss it – there’s no second chances and you can’t ask the bride to “just do that again for me”. The result of this is that they can’t just switch off for a second and have to be constantly in amongst the action. The next “decisive moment” could happen at any time and they can’t afford to miss it.
One of the major traits of documentary photographers is that they tend to see “the big picture”. They may capture the room around them and the features therein but it is the people that tend to take precedence. Whilst they naturally gravitate towards the Bride and Groom they are looking at every single person in the room, searching for a great image wherever it may be. Consequently documentary photographers are often popular with couples for whom capturing moments between the guests is just as important as getting the photographs of themselves. One of the really beautiful things about documentary photography is that it captures absolutely everything that’s going on and for the bride and groom it allows them to share all those little moments they missed as well as those they were a part of. Documentarians see the world in a certain way and their pictures often capture moments that no-one else has seen. Some of the finest reportage images force the viewer to really think about what it was in that particular moment that inspired the photographer to take the shot they now see before them.
You’ll rarely see a documentarian use flash photography as flash is, by its very nature, obtrusive and an example of controlling the environment around them. A documentary photographer makes use of natural light, waiting for the light to create the perfect moment naturally rather than take control of it. Partly as a result of this documentary photographers tend to like a bit of grain in their images, sometimes inherent from low-light situations and sometimes added artificially to create more of a simple clean, film photography look. Black and white images also tend to be popular amongst documentarians, with colour often used sparingly amongst a series of black and white images to help a particular image pop out and emphasise key points of the story.
And for the documentarian that story is all important. Their images must be a coherent record when placed together but they must each also tell a story in their own right. Henri Cartier Bresson is recognised as the father of photo-journalism and no-one has ever defined it better than the master himself:
“A photograph is neither taken nor seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”
All of the images featured in this post are by Kevin Mullins, a fantastic pure documentary wedding photographer. To see more of Kevin’s inspirational work go to his website.