To document the best moments of a wedding day, a photographer shouldn’t only focus on the bride and groom, or even on the main event. "Reaction shots," which record the reactions of guests observing the wedding’s activities as they occur, add an invaluable dimension to the visual record of the festivities.
“I was constantly given a gentle reminder to look beyond the obvious action while covering sports assignments while on staff at The Hartford Courant newspaper,” says WPJA founder David Roberts, who notes that the assignment sheets that came to the staff photographers from the sports department and the assignment sheets always read “Action or Reaction.”
“Sometimes I would arrive at the event totally focused on getting peak action of the winning team,” he recalls. “Then I would read those three words and look at the event in a completely different way. I would say to myself: ‘I’m not here just to show the winners in action, I also need to capture the reactions to the main event on the sidelines.’”
Experienced wedding photojournalists focus on the bride and groom, but they also make a practice of scanning the room for reaction shots and zooming in on the details. According to California-based WPJA member James Lee, spotting great moments to capture is a matter of both technique and timing.
“Getting that classic reaction is 40 percent just being there at the right moment at the right time, and 60 percent knowing the techniques and how to capture that moment.
His strategy? Be prepared with the equipment and pay attention. “I always carry two cameras with me, my wide angle and my telephoto lens, so I can shoot without stopping to change my lens. This way, when people are dancing, for example, I can be in the fore, move with the music, move with the people. Often I don’t even look through the eyepiece, I know where the shot’s coming from and I don’t want to stop the moment.”
Arizona-based wedding photographer Sergio Lopez was scanning the crowd at a wedding when he took a close-up photo of sobbing bridesmaids, which went on to place in a WPJA contest, and stands alone from the moment that inspired it. Lopez explains, “The bride was doing the father-daughter dance. I was focused on that, but I was also paying attention to everybody else. I noticed that these bridesmaids were getting a little sad, so I got closer to them and waited for something to happen.”
The bridesmaids’ emotions escalated in an instant, providing him with the opportunity for what would turn out to be one of his favorite shots.
“All of the sudden it looked like somebody had said the bride was going to be deployed to Iraq,” Lopez wisecracks. “I love this shot! These are my favorite bridesmaids ever! This is one of my favorite shots because it has so much emotion.”
WPJA member Tor Clausen of Washington state also prefers shots that highlight all of those present and acknowledge the communal spirit of the celebration, rather than focusing only on the bride and groom.
“I have found that with group events, there seem to be times when the collective heartbeat quickens and people's faces light up and react,” Clausen remarks. “I have always tried to be aware of times that people have their attention on a common subject. Toasts are great for this, but so is the ceremony and cake cutting, balloon rides and fainting priests.”
His photo of an elderly woman surrounded by younger guests raising their glasses in a toast captures the joy that accompanies this sense of togetherness.
The photo was taken at a wedding of a bride and groom who had met at the large arts festival called Burning Man. “Half of the wedding reception were ‘Burners’ [attendants of the festival] and the other half of the reception was family, many of whom live in a Shaker community. This made for an amazing contrast that actually worked out well. It provided an audience/performer feel to the evening. The shot is of the grandmother of the groom surrounded by young friends of the groom, some wearing wigs and bright colors, but all focused on a toast by the best man.”
A reaction shot can be a totally separate photo with meaning and context of its own, or it can encompass the main subject with the reactions of those looking. Both approaches can result in excellent, memorable photos. James Lee recently won a WPJA contest with his photo of a cake fight-in-progress between a bride and groom, and the delighted reactions of their guests.
Says Lee, “We’d reached the cake-cutting and people were surrounding the bride and groom.” He readied his camera to capture the moment.
“The bride and groom had started to feed each other, when the groom just took a piece of cake and smothered it all over the bride’s face, and in her surprise, she grabbed one-third of the bottom cake and smashed it all over his face!”
On one hand it’s a photo of a great couple that wanted to have fun, love each other and enjoy the moment. But what makes the photo, for Lee, is the crowd’s reaction. “It’s not just capturing the bride and groom but everybody else, their actions and reactions. I want the couple to see the reaction of their friends, how much they’re having fun. Their reaction brought a light to this moment, it’s a great shot of everyone at the wedding, not just the bride and groom.”
As Lee points out, wedding photojournalism is particularly well-suited to capturing the surprising moments and reactions that unfold at a wedding. “As photojournalists, whether it’s for weddings or for news reporting, our purpose is to tell their story, the story of the people in the photograph. I try not to alter the event with any predetermined format, and I go into every wedding knowing that each one is unique. At the end of the day when the bride and groom get their pictures, I want them to remember everything that happened.”
Clausen agrees. “People do not live in a vacuum, and images that show the great person, in a great place, having a great time are my highest objective. Compare it to portrait photography, or aerial photography or x-rays, and you see photojournalism is all about capturing expressions and reactions.”
—by Heather Bowlan for the Wedding Photojournalist Association