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WEDDING SCENE SETTERS:
TELLING A STORY THROUGH USE OF SPACE

Like travel writers, wedding photojournalists have to set the scene in their pictures. These shots tell a story visually from a variety of perspectives that range from extreme close-up of details to wide shots or even panoramic views.

Scene setters are an important component of any picture story, providing a sense of place to help convey the tone and mood of the wedding day. And, when placed adeptly in your visual story, they can give the viewers a tantalizing taste of what is to come, whetting their appetites for more visual memories of the day.

There are a number of choices wedding photojournalists can use to set a scene, including lens, perspective and position. The mood of the crowd dictates many of those choices, as does the relationship of people to a place. “People act a little more formal inside a church than at an outside ceremony,” says Janelle Lowrance, a wedding photographer from the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, USA area. “People tend to mingle and interact more outside, and they seem to have more fun.”

“I can go to the same venue for two weddings and it will have a completely different feel because the personalities are different,” says Paul Johnson, a Panama City, FL, USA-based WPJA member. “Even though it may be the same location, I go to different places within the venue because the crowd is different and the relationship of people to a place varies. I follow the energy; I don’t dictate it.”

Johnson says that in order for him to convey through images what it was like to be there, he carries at least two camera bodies at all times, one with a wide lens and one with a long lens. “That way I can move in close and get wide, step back for an overall perspective, or grab another camera to go in tight on detail.”

PULL UP A CHAIR

In his award-winning photograph of a reception in a cabana by a pool, Johnson took the perspective of a wedding guest seated at the dinner table. “Our process of documenting a wedding is to capture the essence or feel of the day,” he says. To convey the intimate feeling in the cabana that night, Johnson chose to get down low and sandwich himself in between guests at the table to get that you-are-there feeling.

He used his Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L wide-angle lens in order to include most of the wedding guests seated at the 20-foot long table in the 40-foot-long cabana. Because of the low light—candlelight was the primary source—he shot wide open at f/1.4 with an ISO of 1600. “I was right at the edge of being able to capture detail, but I wanted the candlelight feel.” Johnson made his body a tripod by pressing his elbows close against his chest and holding his breath at the moment of shutter release. The result is an image that conveys the cozy, warm feeling in the room as the groom toasts his bride. Not only does the picture enable the couple to relive a tender moment, it also gives them a perspective they otherwise could not have had.

“It’s tricky and challenging to shoot wide and get intimate at the same time because you have to physically get in there close to the action,” Johnson notes. “In order to do that and not be obtrusive, you have to be with people for a period of time so they are comfortable with you.”

In her award-winning photograph, WPJA member and New York, USA photographer China Jorrin gave a bridal couple a bird’s eye view of their reception on Fire Island, NY. Standing on the deck of a house overlooking the beachfront where the party took place, Jorrin photographed the wedding guests gathered in an oval of tungsten light. The intimacy of the small assembly is magnificently juxtaposed to the vast, darkening Atlantic Ocean in the background. “In terms of lighting, it was the magic hour—dusk—when you can still see everything without using flash,” she says. “The lighting at that moment was beautiful, and everyone was wearing white so there was no distraction.”

Reared by photographer parents, Jorrin studied filmmaking in college and worked in the film industry after graduation. While living in Paris and Prague, she took up still photography and fell in love with it. She draws from her cinematic storytelling experience and applies it to photographing weddings. “Having the film background helped me with composition and storytelling, but it’s telling the story in a different way,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m photographing a wedding I have to stop and just watch things.” Often Jorrin does that instinctively and sometimes she has to consciously remind herself to step back, because she loves details and close-up shots.

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

Lowrance feels the same way. “I really like close-up shots,” she admits, but she stresses the importance of dropping back to set the scene. Just because brides and grooms chose the location, and just because they were there doesn’t mean they have any true sense of how the venue looked on their wedding day.

“The bride and groom don’t get a chance to step back and look because they’re so involved that day,” Lowrance notes. “I like to capture things from the guests’ perspective, which gives the couple a vantage point they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see.” She also likes to take pictures of the venue because, she says, “a lot of money and thought goes into the venue selection, and I want them to be able to remember it.”

Photo by Janelle Lowrance, Texas of outside view of wedding reception

Photo by Janelle Lowrance

Lowrance took an outside observer’s point of view in a photograph of a cake-cutting ceremony during a wedding in the Grand Hall of the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas. Overlooking formal gardens, the hall boasts glassed-in corners, designed to bring the outside in. Because the cake table was situated in one of those glass corners, Lowrance went outside to shoot into the scene, while her photographer partner stayed inside to take close-up shots. She set up a tripod, mounted a 17-55mm f/2.8 lens and set a long exposure that caught some of the flash flares from guests’ cameras. “I chose black-and-white to simplify the scene and make the bride and groom stand out. They loved it.” So did the WPJA judges, who called it “Edward Hopperesque,” and awarded it third place in the cake-cutting category of the competition.

Looking from the outside in or vise-versa; or panning out to reveal the context of a scene, wedding photojournalists use the dynamic synergy of photographs taken during the course of a wedding to convey the essence of the day, as well as the genius loci, spirit of place. It’s an omnipresent perspective with surprising, delightful results.

—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalist Association