Oh, to be a fly on the wall at a wedding—with a camera. Maybe then you could get a wedding party to be 100 percent candid 100 percent of the time. To capture spontaneous, truthful moments throughout a client’s nuptial day, wedding photojournalists have a few tricks up their sleeves, including disappearing in plain sight.
“I’m six-foot-three and have no hair,” says Michael Albert, an award-winning WPJA photographer from British Columbia, Canada. “So I don’t blend into a crowd very well. And having a Canon D body around my neck doesn’t exactly make me unobtrusive, either.” And yet by the end of the day people often tell him, “Oh, I didn’t know you were there!”
This amazes Albert. “Like most people I’m a little self-conscious,” he admits. “I feel like I stand out like a sore thumb.” But Albert captures the most unselfconscious moments of people at a wedding, a feat he attributes to his photo gear and mindset. He’s streamlined his equipment—two camera bodies, two prime lenses (wide angle and close portrait)—so that he doesn’t have to think too much. “I’m so comfortable with the simplicity of my setup that it makes me a more quiet person to be around.”
Albert was one of those kids in school whose abundant energy routinely landed him in hot water with teachers. As an adult, he’s learned to funnel that energy into creativity. Before a wedding, Albert grounds himself by slipping into a Zen-like state. “I calm down and accept what comes,” he says. “I think that relaxes people around me. I’ve mastered the skill of talking to people with my eyes, giving them a sense of peace and confidence in me.”
But when Albert encounters those people who simply can’t forget a camera is nearby, he has a game plan. “The default move I do when I encounter someone who won’t stop mugging for the camera is to smile, drop my camera and move on to the next person. Then I go back, often with a pre-focused lens, and fire the camera at belly level.”
From the get-go Heather Mabry sets her clients straight. “I tell them at the initial meeting to ignore me during the actual event,” she says. A WPJA medallion winner from Georgetown, Texas, USA, she says it’s important to be clear with clients about the way she documents weddings and to set some ground rules. But, she adds, her clients wouldn’t have sought her services if they weren’t already sold on her photojournalism style. “That’s why they hired me,” she says, “so they already know that they don’t have to act aware of me the entire time.”
Sometimes brides and grooms take it on themselves to lecture their own wedding parties about not posing. “I don’t ask them to, but they do it anyway, and it works to my benefit.”
Mabry’s shooting style comes naturally to her. “I’m not the type of person who is naturally inclined to do a lot of posing during the event,” she says. “In the beginning I never wanted to do a bunch of portraits. My photography was always hands-off. So it’s clear to brides and grooms what my style is. If most of the work you show is posed, setup-type shots, then your clients will expect that type of work from you.”
When she does encounter people who mug for the camera, Mabry says, “I gently remind them that they don’t have to do that and should continue on with what they’re doing and not look at me every time I point the camera. Sometimes people have the mindset that they should look at the camera, so when I tell them not to, they’re happy to know they can ignore me. Other guests try to pose, but when they see that others are ignoring me they get it. I guess some people think they don’t look good in candid pictures.”
If some wedding guests are uncomfortable in front of Mabry’s camera you’d never know it. Her portfolio shows insight and intuitiveness in a lively mix of animated and relaxed images. Mabry believes her personality has everything to do with it. “I’m pretty quiet by nature, not exuberant, so people are relaxed around me. They know that I’m not going to be obnoxious. By the end of the night, they don’t notice that I’m there any more.”
Children, on the other hand, are a different story. When there’s a camera around, most kids can’t resist perpetually posing, and dissuading them from hamming it up can be a frustratingly fruitless endeavor. As WPJA founder David Roberts notes, "Typically, kids are programmed by their parents at a very young age to stop any activity they are engaged in and 'cheese' for the camera aimed in their direction." One solution is to communicate with the adults and encourage them to let their kids be kids throughout the event. Though this tactic does not work perfectly all the time, it does facilitate more opportunities for candid moments.
Distraction can be a photographer’s best friend. For wedding photographer John Hong, ice cream made him invisible to four children in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor in Yakima, Wash. “The parlor was a hang-out area for the wedding party,” says Hong, who along with his brother Joseph run John & Joseph Photography in Seattle. He had been with the wedding party for a couple of hours, he says, wandering around taking pictures, so everyone—including the children—were used to him being there. “I let kids be kids and they get used to me,” he says, “and eventually they ignore me.” But distractions can guarantee candor. When Hong turned and saw the kids absorbed in their frozen treats, he was able to capture the sweet spontaneous moment quite handily.
Generally if you’re confident and comfortable with yourself, advises Joseph Hong, your clients will feel the same way about you. “Comfort is of foremost importance,” he says, in getting people to relax and forget that a photographer is nearby taking pictures. “We get to know our clients quite well because we’re photographing personalities, not just a wedding. And we have to make everyone feel comfortable—not just the bride and groom—but family and friends, too, because they’re also part of the pictures.”
Hong says he and John have encountered camera-shy people throughout their six years of photographing weddings. They’ve found that “everyone has their level of comfort and if we feel a person is uncomfortable, we’re not going to push the limit. Of course, alcohol throughout the evening helps to get rid of inhibitions,” he laughs. “But we won’t photograph someone who’s not comfortable. Usually, though, even the shyest clients get used to our presence and style.”
Being swift-footed also helps them capture true moments, Hong adds. “By the time they notice us, we’re already gone,” he says, so there’s little time for a subject to be self-conscious. “We shoot and we move and we shoot and we move. By the time we come around a second time, they’re used to our presence and we become kind of invisible.”
Early on in their wedding work, the Hong brothers knew that shooting in natural light would yield more natural pictures, in part because it enables them to remain in the background. “In today’s world of mega lenses, we’ve always believed that less is more,” says Hong. “We shoot exclusively with prime lenses, which enable us to shoot with natural light and not use any flash. They’re faster lenses so we can stop down to f/1.4 or wider and use natural light.”
Going for a natural look is the goal of all wedding photojournalists. It can be challenging—after all, people are involved. But by being as inconspicuous as possible and concentrating on the small moments of the day, WPJA photographers capture the big picture of a wedding. On her web site, Heather Mabry says it best with a quote from the mid-20th-century Italian novelist and poet Cesare Pavese: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
— by Lorna Gentry for The Wedding Photojournalist Association