Wedding photojournalists know how to memorably document the story of a special day by capturing real moments, and that's why brides and grooms hire them. Still, for most couples and their families, those captured memories would not be complete without portraits. Fortunately, this is an area in which most wedding photojournalists also excel - just not in the traditional sense.
In fact, many of the best wedding photojournalists have come from journalism careers where portraits were often part of the assignments. Drawing on their experience, they're adept at getting those expected "people shots" in ways that can yield much richer images than those resulting from traditional 'line 'em up' sessions.
Here our award-winning WPJA experts offer their hard-won perspectives and tips for how they stay creative and "real" with portraits, all while employing methods to reduce their impact on the day's natural flow of events.
Although there are always exceptions, most wedding photojournalists recognize the need for a modicum of portraits. As WPJA award recipient Tara Arrowood puts it, "Even brides and grooms who think they don't want posed shots, want posed shots. They just don't know it." She says that they may be disappointed if they don't have any photos of people looking at the camera. That's why it's important for clients to understand the implications should they decide to forgo these types of pictures.
Parents, the ones who often foot the wedding bill, are often the biggest influencers. In many cases they have been trained to think of wedding photography in a very limited capacity. There's definitely room for education and compromise, but they're still going to want those portraits of the family to hang on the wall.
"Parents are going to expect that," says wedding photographer Jeff Andrews. "It's just part of [the job], and I understand that it's a necessity. Of course I would rather do photojournalistic shots throughout the day, but I say, 'Let's do the safe shots now, so we can have fun later.'"
"Not having portraits would be unusual," agrees Marie Labbancz, a WPJA competition winner. "Portraits are a part of the American tradition. As wedding photojournalists, we don't want to change a tradition." But instead of setting up a portrait studio in the park and telling every person where to put their hands, Labbancz, has a different, more creative approach.
"It's a matter of photographing family and friends in a natural way," she says. "I'll say, 'Look at me, both of you, just like the mothers always say, 'I want to see your face.' I want everyone to be happy."
The best way to ensure that everyone stays happy is to keep the portraits moving along quickly. For that reason Jeff Andrews often excludes extended family in his portraits - just parents, siblings and grandparents. "I include everyone that shows up for the formals in the group photos, but during our initial consultation, I ask the couple that only the main family members to be present at the formals. However, they can still choose to have anyone present that they feel should be included in the group photos."
"I keep it lighthearted, full of energy and on to the next shot," Andrews adds. "Bang, bang, bang. I have a system down, and I can get through it in 15 minutes maximum." His strategy: get the entire group together and then start breaking it down until only the couple is left.
Andrews recommends allotting a time slot so that the portrait session doesn't take away from the flow of the day. He says some brides and grooms think that giving him a shot list will help, but it's actually more of a time-consuming burden. He doesn't want to be responsible for rounding people up. It is not a bad idea to have a pre-assigned family 'herder' for this purpose.
In fact, most wedding photographers will agree that managing the people who need to be in the photos is the biggest roadblock to efficiency and making sure the natural progression isn't interrupted. "My responsibility is taking photos, not finding people for the photos of people I don't even know," Arrowood says. She keeps the flow of the day intact by constantly looking for an interesting setting, instead of creating one - whether it's a couch with a fun painting over it, graffiti on the street or a textured wall. "When you see it, you stop and do a mini session. You don't make a big deal about posing," she recommends.
Labbancz also keeps the session moving along quickly, and the commotion leads to better photos. "As we're adding people, we're getting more interaction. Once you start posing too much, people get bored and start thinking too much about getting their picture taken. And clients who like photojournalism are looking for expression and interaction with each other"
Just because you're taking portraits does not mean that the wedding party has to be lined up perfectly, shortest to tallest, looking at the camera with no character or interaction.
Arrowood employs both technique and style to make her portraits look more artistic and interesting. She uses a small aperture and sometimes puts the groom in the background with the bride closer in. She uses different types lenses to get more creative results. Instead of shooting the groomsmen all lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, she'll use a wide-angle lens and bring the groom up front. Often taking a more fashion-oriented approach for the girls, she might ask the entire group to sit on a porch. She suggests where they should sit, but it will be in a random order. "My posed stuff looks natural," she says.
In what she calls the "interactive portrait," Labbancz tries to get people to interact with each other naturally while they're getting together for the session. She wants them to handle their bodies naturally. "I don't want them to look like or act like some generic couple. I want them to be themselves," she says. The father looks at his daughter with bursting pride; the groom kisses her on top of the head; mom and daughter are giggling with each other. "It's often the candid moments between the camera-aware portraits that my clients prefer," she says. Those are the [pictures] my clients love and the reason they hired a wedding photojournalist in the first place."
It's clear that portraits aren't going away anytime soon, or maybe ever, but allowing your wedding photojournalist to bring a little creativity into the mix could very well result in another perfect marriage on your special day - one that joins an honored tradition with documentary storytelling.
— by Meghan McEwen for the Wedding Photojournalist Association