You can argue that of all the photos on your wedding day, the ones taken during the ceremony are the most meaningful—that’s why you’re there, right? It’s ironic, then, that wedding photojournalists regularly have the most trouble shooting their best work in the churches where these very ceremonies take place. Often times, significant moments unfold in front of camera lenses that are too far away, positioned at awkward angles, and photographers are forced to operate under sub-optimal conditions.
While few wedding photojournalists would recommend selecting a church based solely on how the photos will turn out, there are some important points to consider before the big day—if capturing the moments of your church ceremony is a priority, that is.
Church restrictions pertaining to photography can vary wildly. And while wedding photojournalists all cite different restrictions that make them particularly crazy, one thing seems to jive with many: they want to know up-front what the restrictions are, so there are no surprises on the wedding day. It’s always best if brides and grooms don’t have to play catch up, retrofitting their photography needs to fit often misunderstood—and sometimes even arbitrary—restrictions.
“There are times when I’m not allowed to photograph the ceremony at all,” wedding photographer Kathi Littwin says. “But it shouldn’t be something that just pops up on the wedding day. They need to find out ahead of time, so they can decide how to proceed.”
Some wedding photojournalists strive to be very frank with their clients about what they can accomplish, given tight restrictions. They feel their clients should know exactly how the restrictions are going to affect the photographs. For example, if the church will only allow a photographer to shoot from behind the last row of people, then the couple should not expect a spread of shots showing their facial expressions during their vows. There’s always going to be a repercussion.
Churches often impose rules about where the photographer can stand during the ceremony. Some churches won’t let photographers on the altar. Others insist they can only stand behind the last row of people, or shoot only from the balcony. WPJA member Peter Pawinski says the most common request he gets is the pick-one-spot-and-stay-with-it restriction. He can do it—and get some really nice, tight shots from almost anywhere—but the couple should not expect a wide variety of angles.
“The couples need to understand what is and isn’t possible. The bride and groom should discuss the restrictions with the wedding photojournalist,” says Pawinski. “Feel him out. See if he’s comfortable working with the restrictions.”
In the albums, Pawinskihe shows people during consultations, there’s a beautiful shot of the bride facing the groom during the ceremony. “It’s a quiet, intimate moment shared between bride and groom. As a photojournalist, I’m really disappointed when I can’t get into a position to capture that.” During every wedding, he says, there’s a glance at one another, a shared laugh. “There’s a whole gallery of expressions when they’re at the altar that you can’t capture when they’re facing the priest,” he says.
Our wedding photojournalists have the same advice: talk to your wedding official. They usually have the power to bend the rules. Sometimes the restrictions are outdated, sometimes they are not enforced, or the official is willing to overlook them, if you make a strong case. Many times the matter rests entirely on the mood of the person making decisions that day.
The clergy person or justice who will serve as your wedding official, or officiant, needs to understand that your wedding photojournalist is not going to show up and cause a major disturbance. Perhaps that person has had bad experiences with pushy, inconsiderate wedding photographers in the past. It’s your job to let them know your wedding photojournalist will be respectful of the ceremony. Littwin makes sure the officiant knows that your photographer will shoot with a tripod and without flash, if necessary. Wedding photojournalists, by definition, are there to capture what’s happening as inconspicuously as possible —almost invisibly.
“There are times where I’ve seen a photographer step on the altar during the ceremony, and receive instruction from the officiant. I will not do that,” Littwin adds.
In order to capture facial expressions in a church that won’t budge on its photographer location policy, Pawinski recommends asking the officiant if they’re willing to set up chairs facing the audience. When there’s no angle straight-on, this at least allows the photographer to capture their faces during some of the significant moments.
Another point to raise: the restrictions are usually placed only on the photographer—not the guests, who are all snapping (and flashing!) willy-nilly with their point-and-shoot cameras. That could be a big frustration considering wedding photojournalists often make every effort at being discreet—and will avoid using flash when asked (“it doesn’t look good anyway.”)
If patient explanation gets you nowhere, one last resort is to involve the bride in the negotiation process. When the bride insists the photographer is granted access or permission, it tends to work better.
What most wedding photojournalists will not do is break the rules. “There are rules within the church,” Pawinski says. “And most of us will not break the rules for the bride and groom. We have to show professionalism. And the ceremony is a sacred event, not a theatrical show,” Pawinski says. ”I’ll move wherever I’m allowed, but I will not draw attention to myself.”
Other wedding photojournalists may not be so docile. As the ones hired to actually document the ceremony, they feel that if rules are placed only on them and a ‘No Photography’ or ‘No Flash Photography’ general announcement is not made to all guests in attendance at the wedding, then they are free to follow what the guests are doing. If the guests are shooting flash, they’ll use it as well, if needed, regardless of the do's and dont's that were mandated in advance.
In churches where they won’t allow photography at all, Littwin says, they usually suggest restaging the important moments from the wedding. “Nobody ever wants to do that, including me,” Littwin says. It defeats the notion of wedding photojournalism.
What’s most important, she insists, is that the couple has an attachment to their church—that they feel comfortable and connected to the place they choose. “My desires are second to that. Regardless of what the priest lets me do, I make it work.” Just like most wedding photojournalists, her biggest request is open communication. “I don’t want to be surprised or have to look for someone on the wedding day.”
— by Meghan McEwen for the Wedding Photojournalist Association