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The Styles of Wedding Photography: Documentary

Bride Vs Groom, Wedding BlogOver 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.


Photography by Kevin Mullins

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.

documentary wedding photographer

Photography by Kevin Mullins

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.


Photography by Kevin Mullins

“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.


Photography by Kevin Mullins

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.

documentary wedding photography

Photography by Kevin Mullins

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.”
-Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.


Photography by Kevin Mullins

  • Martin Hambleton - January 22, 2013 - 12:23 pm

    A very comprehensive examination of documentary work. I’m biased, both as a fan as a practitioner (although I am happy to shoot some posed shots during a wedding too), but I think the main point about documentary work is that, while it’s the least obviously ‘showy’ style of photography, a well crafted documentary image can have much greater lasting impact, as it’s the kind of image you keep going back to.ReplyCancel

  • Michael from Bohemian Weddings - January 22, 2013 - 4:10 pm

    I really believe that the above may never before have been comprehended by many wedding couples. The style will either attract them or repel them but most importantly will educate them. A realisation that there is a difference between each photographer who cares about their work and niche is so important.

    Really looking forward to more ‘style’ blog posts 🙂ReplyCancel

    • bridevsgroom - January 23, 2013 - 11:27 am

      Thanks for the comments everyone, when we got into it we really found that we could write an entire essay on the subject of Documentary photography so we hope we’ve done it justice in such a relatively short and simplistic article! It’s really fascinating looking at all the different styles and there’s such crossover now that the lines between the types of photography are blurring, but we hope that articles like this can help couples to understand the principles behind what each individual photographer is broadly aiming to achieve with their own niche style and that not every photographer is the same. Glad you enjoyed it!ReplyCancel

  • Simon Dewey - January 29, 2013 - 11:51 am

    this is a really helpful article. It should probably be added that most professional bodies haven’t really caught up with the trend. It’s rare to see a qualified photo journalistic wedding photographerReplyCancel

    • bridevsgroom - January 29, 2013 - 3:50 pm

      Thanks Simon and a very interesting point. I imagine with so many different styles of photography now emerging and constantly crossing boundaries the guidelines for the professional bodies must constantly be flipped and turned on their head if they want to stay current.ReplyCancel

  • Lorenzo Ali - March 23, 2013 - 10:44 am

    Very interesting article and Kevin’s work is up there with the best. This subject always poses the question as to where to draw the line when describing the work as reportage. If HCB did weddings would he pose groups and arrange detail shots?ReplyCancel

  • Maria Assia - May 20, 2013 - 10:49 am

    I love Kevin’s work and it really shows documentary wedding photography at its best. How can anyone resist that shot of the girl running away with just her feet showing in the door frame. Awesome!ReplyCancel

  • Harry Richards Photography - December 14, 2015 - 8:30 pm

    Interesting thought, Lorenzo. I think HCB might bring in a decoy photographer to do the traditional groups and then get pictures of the pageboy hiding under the bride’s dress! I often see guests taking impromptu groups of each other and it’s quite fun to get the ‘behind the scenes’ shots even though I’m there in an official capacity.ReplyCancel

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