Weddings provide timeless memories, and everyone would agree that the best wedding photojournalism should do the same. After all, it’s only fitting that one of the most important days in someone’s life should be preserved for eternity with imagery that will always be emotionally and visually resonant to its viewers.
But what makes a truly timeless image, and what sets it apart from the cliché shots that we’ve all seen over an over again? A few of the WPJA’s members weigh in on their quests for timeless wedding photography.
There are certain standard wedding images that have been captured again and again throughout the decades. We all know what they are: the bride and her bridesmaids preparing for the ceremony, the father kissing the bride, the walk down the aisle, the married couple’s first kiss and many others. These images are iconic in that they’re instantly recognizable and steeped in tradition.
But many of these pictures are also clichés. They’ve been done and redone almost to the point of yawning boredom. They have been seen so many times, in one slight variation or another, that they flirt with meaninglessness, having lost so much emotional “oomph” as we’ve all become desensitized to the same imagery over time.
The quality of true timelessness, photographs that look as though they could have been created yesterday or 50 years ago, occupies another level altogether. Such images require anticipation, patience, recognition and photojournalistic skill on the part of the wedding photographer.
New York City, NY, USA-based WPJA member Jacek Wiesnowski believes that the difference between “cliché” and “timeless” is wrapped up in how you capture the moment, whether in the action, the expression of the faces or the gestures of the hands.
“In wedding photography, what’s important is not just capturing the iconic image, but how you capture it,” he says. “You need to capture emotion at the same time—not just the scene but also emotion in the face. This is what is going to make the image not only iconic, but also elegant.”
In addition to an emotional resonance that will stand the test of time, a sense of timelessness can be captured through the skilful use of black & white imagery, clothing and hairstyles, and even depth of field.
Wiesnowski’s contest winner successfully captured dynamic, timeless emotion, and was enhanced further by the classic, 1920s-style look chosen by the bride and groom. Like most timeless images, it looks as though it could have been captured decades ago, or yesterday.
“Black and white images are more difficult to place in a timeline,” Wiesnowski says, “but is it just that they are ‘timeless,’ or is it also that they don't lie? In the digital age, color can be very misleading. A black and white image just tells the truth. Color can be used, or abused, to over-emphasize elements of the picture. With monochrome scene, it's more about the moment (and people captured in it), rather then the beauty of the scenery, real or enhanced. I think that it's the honesty of a black and white photograph that makes it timeless.”
Full depth of field also can play a part. An image shot wide open, especially with a very fast lens, is often perceived by the public as "modern” or “artistic," even when the real reason for the shallow depth of field was the lack of sufficient lighting. “Wedding photography is especially demanding when it comes to low-light coverage,” Wiesnowski notes. “Modern technology allows us to capture scenes that would have been overlooked, or simply ignored in the past, due to technical limitations of older equipment. The use of fast lenses that were never available before, dictates the current look and feel of wedding pictures, taking it further and further away from a classic image.”
Our experts agree that a large part of capturing timeless moments and emotion has to do with knowing when to anticipate those moments—a highly practiced photojournalistic skill.
South Dakota, USA-based WPJA member Shalista Anderson states “Every wedding is different and every one is also the same. The same turn of events tend to happen, but you have to be in the right place and know what to look for in order to be able to catch those moments.”
Anderson believes that finding timelessness is all about being prepared, being experienced enough to be prepared, knowing where to be and knowing your couples.
Her contest-winning photo is a study in timeless Americana. “This wedding was in a tiny town with about 600 people, about 50 miles from the next town, and the couple’s getaway car was their uncle’s convertible,” she explains. “These hometown kids were just taking a cruise down main street and flipping a u-turn at the end, and I had my camera out the roof of the car, praying that I was getting something. I was driving with one hand, shooting with the other, and it came out.”
She says the image has always been one of her favorites because it sums up the whole wedding in one picture. “They’re a fun-loving couple, in a small town, sitting on the back of a convertible, carefree about everything, and that’s how the entire wedding was. That picture could have been taken 20 years ago, or 20 years from now, and the same feeling is going to come out of it.”
Catherine Hall, a wedding photographer who works out of New York and San Francisco, CA, USA, notes that it also has to do with investing in your client and seeing them as human beings—really caring about them so that you can capture something that is personal and real. “I’m really interested in getting to know my clients, understanding what’s important to them, and through the closeness they have with me they become comfortable and let me into their lives. That’s when you start to get stuff that’s going to matter 50 years from now,” she says.
Hall’s contest winner of two girls playing outside of the church was what she calls “a real moment” captured on the fly. She feels that the timelessness of the image is in its innocence. “I think people will feel that in ten years when they look at this,” she says. “There’s an innocence and elegance that, no matter when you look at it, it’s always going to be there. The captured moment is always going to push that emotion.”
When all is said and done, timelessness in wedding photojournalism often can be reduced to simplifying an image down to a classic emotional moment that by its very nature transcends the passage of time. “As a photographer you have to recognize those moments, little slices of life, where everything at once is happening for an incredible emotional impact,” says Hall.
To her, a timeless image is when you’re truly capturing the moment in a traditional way, making sure that you’re getting what’s there in the first place. “With all of the image manipulation tools today, people are getting very trigger-happy in terms of overworking their images and overdoing things for special effects. I would hate to see a bride’s wedding captured and made to look ‘fantastic’ now with all of these new effects, but then 10 years down the road when the novelty of the effects fades, there’s not much left there.”
The truly timeless images, those that transcend cliché, are inevitably captured rather than staged, with the wedding photojournalist staying true to the action. The best image you can capture is going to happen by itself; you just have to be ready for it, and the authenticity of the moment will make it timeless.
“It’s an image that you can look at today and be moved by it, and one that you can look at in 20 years and it will have the same effect on you, regardless of styles changes and current trends,” Anderson states. “The emotional impact is going to be the same when their grandkids look at their albums.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association