Anyone who’s been to a wedding knows there’s nothing simple about the pictures. This is doubly true for a wedding photojournalist, whose goal is not to just photograph the bride, the groom, and the family and friends present, but to capture the energy and the variety of emotion that surround the event. After all, it’s called a milestone for a reason.
One of the best compositional strategies for a great photographer is to focus on images with depth. Deep photos, like any good wedding cake, are made up of multiple layers of people, objects and emotions that make for compelling photographs and, for those involved, memories that will last. A photograph with depth is complex--it shows and it tells the story. And as with many great images, it takes a little bit of luck and a lot of skill.
To get a shot with complexity, it takes “hard work,” says Joseph Gidjunis, a WPJA member in Pennsylvania, USA. “I know that’s a cheesy phrase, but a photojournalist doesn’t just accept what’s in front of them as the only answer, the only photo. We all get lazy, and it’s hard to keep the camera in front of your face and also constantly look around you and be aware of your surroundings. So when we see that one great shot of emotion, we get it and we feel like it’s done. But it’s not—there’s something going on around it, beside it; a bigger emotion coming up around that moment.”
Jonathan Adams, a WPJA member operating in Wyoming and Kentucky, USA, agrees. Looking for the larger moment helped him capture the photo that placed in a recent WPJA contest, showing a bride and her sister embracing tearfully, the bride’s face reflected in a mirror.
“I had photographed just minutes earlier the bride using the mirror for makeup, so using the reflection was something fresh in my mind. Once I got the composition I watched the expression of the sister while watching for a clear view of the bride. The moment came together and I was ready for it. I shot about 10 photos of this scene and it quickly evolved from a grab-shot moment in the first frame to a composed, clean image with more depth by the last frame.”
This strategy is one Adams often employs to catch the subtleties of the day as well as the big brush strokes of emotion. In fact, he uses an artist’s metaphor to elaborate. “I look at shooting like sketching a drawing. I shoot the scene and keep shooting while constructing and deconstructing the photograph. After I shoot the first image, I start looking for secondary elements to help tell the story—often times people looking on or reacting. I search around my main subject for things that make the image have more meaning or impact, while at the same time I’m looking to clean up my composition.”
Staying with a moment and seeing it through clearly requires not only skill in composing an image, but patience. And plenty of it.
“I am not the type of photographer that can grab a great moment from across the room with a long lens, says Adams. “What I am is the type of photographer that is great at observing cool moments, and positions and preps himself to be on top of it the next time it happens. I’ll see a moment taking place at a reception and position myself for a repeat of that moment. As soon as that happens and I get the photograph, I continue to wait and watch through the camera, with the idea that hopefully I caught the moment with the momentum going up, and it will only get better. Don’t stop shooting until you are sure the moment has gone or you have thoroughly worked the scene.”
California, USA-based WPJA member Matt Kim found this to be the case when he took an award-winning photo of family and friends laughing, crying and, in the background, looking on with confusion. According to Kim, the photo was taken “at a reception in a rural backyard. I was scanning the crowd looking for good moments.”
“I'm not certain what happened, but my guess is that the mother of the groom, who had not been very expressive during the ceremony, finally had her emotions catch up to her and started bawling an hour into the reception. I saw her across the yard and moved quickly towards her and snapped a series of photos.”
By spying a moment-in-progress and taking initiative, Kim was able to capture more than just an overwhelmed mom—and more, it turns out, than he was even able to notice at the time.
“The main subject of course is the mother sobbing with her face in her hands, but we also see the grandfather, still happy, and family friends reacting to the joke someone must have told,” Kim notes. “Meanwhile...no one notices the mom behind them. The guy walking past in the background was completely unaware and his expression doesn't reflect his general demeanor during the wedding day, but it’s intriguing.”
Kim knew to seize the moment when he saw the previously reserved mother let loose with her emotions. This awareness of and familiarity with your clients is essential to taking a more complex photograph. The depth is not just in the image, but also in your understanding as a wedding photojournalist of the emotions involved.
“I think depth is very useful in telling the stories more efficiently,” Kim says. “Including background, and additional players, it adds context and relationships to a single photo. And usually it's just a matter of being aware of all the elements in a scene and working the angles to present the most complete story.”
There’s quite a story behind the Gidjunis photo of newlyweds kissing that took first place in a recent WPJA contest. In the foreground, a woman, the groom’s mother, has thrown her hand up in the air; in the background, a younger cousin laughs at the spectacle.
“This photo was a culmination of the whole wedding, in a way,” says Gidjunis. “Throughout the day we’d seen a series of kisses by the bride and the groom, who were a bit more physical than some other couples, and it really got to be funny towards the end of the reception.”
“We’d just come off of an impromptu formal shot with some extended family and the couple started kissing again. The mother said ‘I can’t believe it, again?!’ and the son answered, ‘I married her, I put a ring on her finger, I get to do this all day long!’ So she threw up her hands, as if to say, ‘what am I going to do?’”
Because of the image's skillful composition, we get both sides of the story in one photo. This is the appeal of an image with depth to the wedding photojournalist.
As Jonathan Adams says, "I like to see points and counterpoints, I like to see actions with reactions, moments and reasons. I always want to provide a reason for the viewer to linger longer on an image." Quite literally, it's this skill to perceive beyond the surface, to the deeper story, that makes an eye for depth and complex composition so valuable to the wedding photojournalist's work.
—by Heather Bowlan for the Wedding Photojournalist Association