Take the uniqueness of the numerous brides planning a wedding in a given year and the quantity of creative wedding photographer types and you’ll find a wide range of styles when it comes to both weddings and wedding photography. However, one thing remains reliable, predictable, and timeless inspiring me to share these 5 keys to documentary-style wedding photography. Couples want to remember the joy of their wedding day.
Beyond the benefits of immortalizing once-in-a-lifetime important moments, documentary-style wedding photography means you allow the couple to enjoy their wedding day with minimal interference. That means you’ll be telling a true story but it also means your couple gets to focus on having a true experience. To me this is the ultimate win-win, if my couples have a great experience then I’ll be able to capture incredible moments.
But how? How do you learn to take better moment photos, photos that draw the viewer in until they feel like they were there? That’s what we’re going to talk about today starting with a little deeper dive into what it all means.
What is Documentary Style Wedding Photography?
Documentary style wedding photography is when the photographer documents the wedding day as a reporter would in an accurate and true-to-life way. It’s about capturing those candid and real moments that make a couple happy on their wedding day. Documentary-style wedding photography is often referred to as photojournalistic wedding photography.
Photojournalistic wedding photography captures genuine moments. While wedding photographers are traditionally expected to shoot some posed couples portraits and posed group shots, the photojournalist primarily tells the story of the day without interfering with the events. You can see the appeal of this type of photography, couples want to remember those fun candid moments with their friends and family.
For me personally, if I ask a couple about their photography priorities and they tell me they’re definitely interested in some candids, I start to get excited. Couples that want good candids are going to be focused on having fun and making memories, which feels like a big part of what a wedding day should be about. As a photographer, I consider myself a storyteller, and documentary-style wedding photography allows me to tell stories.
Key #1. Find the Story
When I think about the wedding industry and what a lot of people think about the wedding industry, I don’t fit in. I don’t care about the fanfare. I care about people, the love, and the stories.
A wedding day is a day filled with stories. Some of the stories are cringy like the family drama that can come out, an awkward speech, or a drunk best man. And some of the stories are touching like grandma on the dance floor, parent-child relationships, or life-long friends.
If your job is to tell the story, first you need to find the story. Some aspects of the story are already written for you like a reliable Disney movie. The good guy wins, the guy gets the girl, they exchange some vows and rings, and they live happily ever after.
The predictability of a wedding makes the framework of your story easy. Act 1 is getting ready, act 2 is the ceremony, and act 3 is the reception. You know the story arc and you can break it down even further into the specifics of what’s going to happen from a first kiss to a first dance.
Your collection of images will tell the story of the day. Meanwhile, a single image can tell a story too. What’s, who’s it happening to, and how do they feel about it?
The trick then is to observe your characters, watch how they are moving through the storyline, and then get deeper into the details of how the specific day is playing out. What makes your character’s story unique? What makes it interesting?
Key #2. Feel, Then Shoot
Once you find the story and the angle you want to tell, you have to shoot how it feels. Take everything in, fill your senses, and become super present in the moment. Is it tense or silly or romantic?
If you’re ever in an unfamiliar scene and aren’t sure where to start, pay attention to what you initially find the most interesting. By allowing yourself to tune in and listen to your feelings about a scene, you will often find a subject that visually interests you. If you are interested, you will probably make more interesting photographs.
People view photography to get a window into a scene that they want to feel. It’s not enough just to see what something looks like, you have to feel it. If you want your bride to tear up looking at a photo, she needs to feel like she’s back there again.
Key #3. Study Moments and Trust Your Gut
The more you familiarize yourself with moments, the more you’ll start to see them everywhere. Some of it comes down to observation and the rest comes down to trusting your instincts.
Often we leave too soon, you might think a moment is over when it’s actually still building. Tune in to your ability to listen and observe. Listen to yourself and also observe what’s happening in the scene.
Choose a subject and framing that speaks to you. Follow your gut here and notice what draws your attention. You can learn about framing and composition and analyze your pictures after the fact to get better, but in the moment pick something and stick with it.
It’s easy to be distracted and bounce around between subjects. However, pick something and stick with it and then find the moment. Listen, observe, and anticipate.
If you don’t stick with your scene, you’re bound to find yourself chasing moments. Instead of focusing on what you might be missing, stay present.
Key #4. Simplify the Frame
It seems like in order to tell a story we need a broad scene to communicate context. In actuality, we often need to simplify everything. If your images are too busy they will be less likely to evoke a specific emotion.
Ask yourself what can be eliminated in the frame to simplify the story. Cutting things out of the frame reduces clutter, simplifies the scene, and hones in on the important components.
You can simplify by changing your framing, using light, or getting in closer. Getting in close is one of the easiest options. The added benefit of getting rid of things in your frame by getting closer is that people will feel the “closeness” in your images and feel a deeper emotional connection to the subject.
Simple can also mean looking straight on with your subjects and squaring up with the scene. It can mean more white space and breathing room around your subject. Make your images easy and quick to read.
If someone can quickly see what the photograph is about, I think it will hold their interest longer because their eyes can appreciate it instead of trying to figure out what is happening. This does not mean the complex compositions can’t be successful, just that the concept in the photo needs to be easy to understand.
Key #5. Pull It All Together
Photography is more complicated than our non-photographer friends realize. Has anyone ever asked you just to take one great photo real quick? Yeah, and the light was probably terrible and the scene was super cluttered, but no pressure.
Taking great documentary-style wedding photos really comes down to putting everything together to make a great storytelling image. Find the best light, choose an interesting yet simple composition, and then wait for that moment to strike. Photos can be strong with only a few of those elements but putting it all together is where the magic happens.
That’s a lot to think about. I find it helps to focus on one thing at a time, trust your instincts, and then learn from your work. The best way to get better is to shoot more and learn from the process, the successes, and the near misses.
In summary, the key to documentary-style wedding photography begins with finding the story. Then, immerse yourself in how it feels before you start shooting. Study moments so that you can anticipate them and then trust your gut. Follow your instincts.
When in doubt, simplify and focus in close on the story you are trying to tell. And finally, put your photography composition skills together with your storytelling skills. Hopefully you see how these tips will help take your photos from snapshot candids to impactful storytelling images.
Your clients will love that you evoke their emotions allowing them to remember and relive real moments. And, perhaps more importantly for the sustainability of your work, you will love finding and crafting meaningful stories.
About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” They are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.