With the number of wedding photojournalists perpetually on the rise, confusion over what they will and won’t do seems to be increasing at a parallel rate. The article aims to bust the most common wedding photojournalism misconceptions and stereotypes circulating in the marketplace.
Perhaps in an effort to protect their business, traditional wedding photographers often try to scare brides and grooms into thinking that they will not be able to have wedding portraits taken if they decide to use a wedding photojournalist.
In fact, many wedding photojournalists take portraits or posed shots if that’s what their client wants.
As WPJA member Shane Snider points out, there’s more than just one way to shoot portraits. “Just because wedding photojournalists capture moments, doesn’t mean we can’t use our creativity to capture a good portrait as well, he says. “If you look at a wedding photojournalist’s portraits, they can be artistic and natural looking. They’re still portraits; it’s just a different style. Photojournalists try to take portraits that fit the way they take the rest of the pictures.”
Snider says his clients have embraced his unconventional approach to portraits. “They want something a little different than the in-the-park pictures,” he says. “Obviously they’re going to want formal photos. But we try to be a little more creative.” Snider’s strategies range from layering the subjects for photo depth to creatively selecting a backdrop (looking for compositionally interesting elements in the environment). “It’s just a little different than getting everyone together and telling them to say cheese,” he says.
As a wedding photojournalist who shoots a lot of outdoor weddings around Kentucky, WPJA contest winner Jonathan Adams tries to incorporate the surroundings into his photographs as much as possible. “The outdoors is such an important reason people choose to get married here, so I work really hard to make the portraits unlike any of the photographs that the guests are shooting.”
So where does the portrait misconception come from anyway? Adams thinks that when wedding photojournalism is compared to traditional wedding photography, an easy way for people to describe the style is “un-posed”—a major oversimplification. “People take that description literally that we don’t do posed pictures, when in reality, portraits have historically always been a skill of a good photojournalist,” he says, adding that the overall difference, even beyond style, is that “wedding photojournalists are trying to tell a story.” And even portraits can be a part of that.
Although posed shots do seem to contradict the very notion of photojournalism—and are definitely not why you hire a wedding photojournalist in the first place—almost all are willing to take posed photos during a planned formals session, and will accommodate specific requests when asked.
Adams tries to keep his posing to a minimum, and notes that, “My favorite portraits tend to be the moments between the shots. You shoot a photo and the second after you lower your camera, they feel comfortable and let down their guard. And you start to see them as they are, not as they think they should be.”
He tries to create a laid-back, social environment in which people are comfortable and those natural moments are more likely to unfold in front of the camera. “A group hug seems so much more real to me then all the bridesmaids holding their bouquets properly,” he says. If everyone is standing stiff for a photo, he’ll ask them to come together real tight. “The word "hug" really helps them drop their defenses, and they start to smile because of joy and friendship, not because they are posing for a photo.”
Snider actually laughs out loud when he considers this myth, because it’s that absurd. “It is completely untrue. Some of the best wedding photojournalists out there use flash and they’re very good at it. Some people might think it’s more natural to use available light, but sometimes flash is the only light that’s available.”
As one who takes every possible measure not to interrupt a real moment, Snider uses his flash sparingly and in a calculated manner. “Using flash correctly—in a way that makes it look more natural—is a skill that takes a lot of work,” he says. “You need to make sure the flash doesn’t interfere with the moment.”
“It gets tricky to use flash and to keep the moments real,” he explains. “As soon as people see a flash, they look at the camera.” Avoiding the intrusive flash-in-the-face approach, he applies more inconspicuous lighting techniques such as using bounce flash.
Another technique wedding photojournalists employ is to tone down the intensity of their flash by controlling it through the settings. This can be very effective in preventing the subjects from being too camera-aware, and it also helps produce pictures with more natural-looking light. When this technique is properly executed, most people will not be able to discern the use of flash in the pictures, and perhaps that's where the no-flash myth originated!
This is often related to the flash myth, since shooting pictures in low light can lead to unappealing grainy and blurred-looking images, especially if the photographer is not particularly skilled at working in such settings. There’s also a misconception among many people that wedding photojournalism is defined by ambient-light only imagery, and that all of its practitioners exemplify that style.
Some highly accomplished wedding photojournalists do go for the occasional blurred image to capture the movement or atmosphere of a scene as it unfolds. They basically take the picture using a slower shutter speed that does not freeze everything in the photograph. However, the vast majority of photojournalistic wedding pictures are clean and sharp, as illustrated by a browse through the WPJA’s contest galleries, or those of individual members. In a nutshell, blurry and/or grainy images are most likely the product of deliberate artistic shooting, especially as it pertains to WPJA members, not technical shortcomings as some would contend.
Many wedding photojournalists take weddings just as seriously as they do any news event—making even the slightest of changes in the surroundings, regardless of how insignificant they might seem to you, a breach of ethics.
It’s important to recognize that wedding photojournalists are skilled at altering the background without actually moving anything. Without bulky equipment to lug around, they’re able to move quickly around the room, capturing scenes from various angles, making background decisions based on what they see in their viewfinders. Something as simple as a photographer's step in a certain direction or a change in elevation can do wonders in cleaning up a distracting foreground/background.
Because wedding photojournalists don’t create fake, unrealistic backgrounds, they’re constantly looking for the most pleasing backdrop for their photos. It’s a different way of controlling the scene. “I think that has been one of the hardest things for many photographers to learn. Giving up the control of what takes place but controlling what the final image looks like by the way you see it and shoot it,” Adams says.
Just because some wedding photographers may try to emulate WPJA members' documentary approach, it does not make them wedding photojournalists who are qualified to document your wedding. “Photojournalism and shooting candids aren’t the same,” Adams stresses. “Wedding photojournalists don’t go into a situation and randomly photograph things around the room.” And neither do they follow the "machine-gun" approach, hoping that out of the myriad of shots a handful of decent pictures will emerge out of sheer mathematical probability.
Wedding photojournalism is applying professional skills and honed talent to tell the story of a wedding. WPJA Gold Medallion winner, Michael Albert understands how this myth might have been propagated. “Not to say they’re spreading rumors, but traditional photographers see wedding photojournalism as a fad that totally upends their paradigm,” he says. Or they’re seeing bad wedding photojournalism, letting a few mediocre photographers who call themselves “wedding photojournalists” speak for an entire industry. “I see a lot of people who say they’re photojournalists—and that doesn’t always translate to strong work,” he says.
When considering a wedding photojournalist, it's best to communicate and trust your own eyes, not rumors or heresay. Ask your WPJA photographer about his or her style. Ask to see samples. Look for a wedding photojournalist who is able to tell the story from start to finish, instead of presenting just one good photo from each wedding. “That means you have potential,” Albert states, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean you can tell the story of the day.” Fortunately, WPJA members have mastered the art of storytelling. And that’s no myth.
—by Meghan McEwen for the Wedding Photojournalist Association