With the snap of a shutter, a camera captures a single moment in time, one that can never occur again in the exact same way.
At any given wedding, there are an infinite number of these moments that pass into time. Some hold in place for longer than others; some come and go in the blink of an eye.
It is with fleeting details as such, that some wedding photojournalists earn their keep. With an eye honed through years of visual training and practice, they constantly scan the wedding scene, as if looking for that close-focus moment that is sure to pop up next.
Combine that eye with hands possessing enough dexterity to react in an instant, top wedding photojournalists can take some of these come-and-go details and freeze them in a memorable shot forever, preserving the moment in time that memory alone could not possibly hold.
It is a skill that is often repeated, though possibly overlooked or underappreciated, since it is second nature to photographers with an eye for details on the move. And yet there’s little doubt: keeping an eye peeled for unique details, anticipating when the best moment will pass, and then pouncing on the opportunity are three keys to ensure that fleeting memories can be bottled in a photograph.
From behind their lenses, professional photographers have spent countless hours watching and waiting for a moment to strike for a picture. All the years spent panning scenes has helped exercise the visual side of the brain to spot certain details that could make great pictures that would otherwise be missed by the casual eye.
“After over 20 years of being a newspaper photojournalist, you’re a trained observer. That’s the way you look at things,” says Rebecca Barger, a Pennsylvania, USA-based wedding photographer who honed her skill as a staff photographer with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “When I’m shooting a wedding, I’m ‘on’ for that time. My mind is totally all about observing for those hours.”
Her mind got started early at one particular wedding, when a bride chose to get ready in her parents’ row house in South Philadelphia. As the bride straightened out her stockings before putting them on, Barger saw the light come through the window, making them nearly translucent. “With the way the light was, I thought it would make some good detail,” Barger says. “I love to shoot against the light and using it to my advantage.”
Knowing what to look for can simply be a matter of finding something among the crowd and hullabaloo of weddings that just looks a little off-kilter from all the other people and events being photographed. “I have my eye open everywhere, looking for things that just grab my attention,” says WPJA member Carl Walsh. "I'm looking to show what makes each event unique.”
Spotting that image is hardly enough, as sometimes the moments are so fleeting that once you see them, they’re already gone.
So once you find that striking pattern that contrasts with the rest of the wedding ensemble, or a certain accoutrement that stands out on someone’s dress, keep an eye on it to try to figure out where the detail may go.
It may be something like the foil of a champagne cork about to be peeled and popped away, so be quick. Or it can be an article of clothing that may stick around for a while, but be constantly on the move. Either way, think like a hunter stalking a photographic prey, and try to anticipate just where that detail will wind up.
Walsh, who is based in Maine, spied a unique detail on the feet of one of the wedding guests: rainbow-striped rubber boots, employed due to the rainy conditions outside of a tent in New Hampshire. He knew he had to try to catch a shot of them, and kept an eye out for the girl whose feet they protected. “There are certain things that you just look at and you know immediately where to go and what to do,” he states.
Soon enough, he caught up with the young woman on the dance floor, and caught a detail-rich action shot of her and a dancing partner suspended in a mid-air dance—a true detail on the move.
“Unless you're just lucky, I don’t know how you do it without anticipating and visualizing it beforehand,” says Iowa, USA-based WPJA member Mark Kegans. In other words, luck will only take you so far; you have develop both an eye and a strategy for capturing such images.
Beyond having a good eye and persistence, a wedding photojournalist’s prime expertise is in the execution of the photos. After spotting a detail and keeping an eye on it to anticipate where it will wind up, it’s then a matter of framing and taking the photograph.
Most of that skill comes down to mastering your tool—the camera—and knowing how to spring into motion at the drop of a hat. “You have to really know your gear. You can't be thinking, 'What do I need to [do with the camera to] capture this fleeting moment,” Kegans says.
Barger keeps her camera set to the available light, so she’s not fumbling with the exposure, and has a strobe at the ready if it’s needed. Walsh and other WPJA members like to keep two cameras handy, one with a zoom lens and one with a wide-angle, in order to be able to switch back and forth if a detail is spotted close up or from afar.
In one instance, when taking a step back and framing a picture through a long lens, Kegans found himself able to capture a spate of details that would’ve been missed had he been too close. He was at a wedding that was getting particularly raucous, with the entire party raising their hands on the dance floor in seemingly endless toasts. After the umpteenth clinking of beer bottles and cups, he needed a different approach.
“After you’ve got the overall wedding covered, try to take a step back to get it a different way,” he recommends.
With his a longer lens, Kegans stepped away from the dance floor and caught another toast to the couple. In a sea of insulated beer bottles and clear plastic cups, he bagged his fleeting detail: the bride and groom’s hands firmly clasped together.
The key is being ready to move from one detail to another and not fixate or harp on that one fleeting detail that has come and gone. “You have to have consistent momentary tunnel vision,” Barger said. “If you miss it, you miss it. Always be willing to fail at trying to make an interesting photo.” And if one of those details passes you by, never to return again, keep an eye out for the next one to come along.
Paying attention to such ever-shifting details will eventually produce pictures that will set your portfolio apart from the ordinary. Anyone can create a detail shot of a cake sitting on a table, a hanging dress, shoes, or rings—they will always be there until someone moves them. It’s the skill and intuitiveness to capture these details as they move about during the course of the wedding that take the photographer’s work to the next level.
—by Paul Ziobro for the Wedding Photojournalist Association