WPJA photographer Scott Lewis, who just moved to Philadelphia from central New Jersey, halted his unpacking to ponder a question: When photographing a wedding, is it necessary to shoot constantly to ensure that every memorable moment is captured?
He answered by recounting a recent conversation he had with two young photographers just beginning their careers as wedding photojournalists. They admired his style and sought guidance. Lewis, who has worked most of his career as a photojournalist, most recently at a newspaper in Raleigh, NC, gave them sage advice. “These guys shoot twice as many pictures at a wedding as I do,” says Lewis, who takes between 1,400 to 1,800 images per wedding. “I told them, ‘You’re taking a machine gun approach when you should be taking a sniper approach.’”
The digital age has liberated photographers from the expense of purchasing and processing huge quantities of film. In addition, some WPJA members have cited the ease and economy of digital photography as a factor that support their creativity—one that includes a license to take large numbers of shots. Yet overshooting has its disadvantages.
Lewis posits that less-experienced photographers overshoot because they do not trust their instincts. “As a photographer, you are always going to beat yourself up about every moment you miss,” he points out. “That’s just what we do. It’s not important to get every possible moment between the couple. The guests are just as important. If you photograph a protest, for example, you don’t have to get a picture of every person with a sign. You need to capture the essence of the event. A wedding is like 100 little events in a day. You just need to capture the essence, not every moment.”
Patience is part of the discipline, and that also improves with experience. You can stay fixed on a subject or moment, get one in the bag and then hang with the scene while shooting a few more in hopes of a change that will improve the picture.
At a recent wedding, Lewis patiently captured a well-framed candid emotion, which revealed a private and honest split second expression given by the subject while among other wedding attendees. Unguarded moments like this one are what Lewis continuously looks for, even in structured situations. “I shoot for me but not at the expense of shooting for my clients,” he says. When Lewis sees something that he finds visually intriguing, like the bride standing serenely by the window in this photograph, he shoots and hopes his clients will have a similar response to the picture. When they do, he calls it “magical.”
Lewis believes he must put down the camera from time to time in order to see—moreover feel—what’s going on. “I often sit back and look at the world through my own eyes and not just through a camera. It brings a human element to the photos. It’s about people connecting.”
To Lewis, the measure of ultimate success is to have someone who didn’t attend the event feel as if they were there. “You do that by being a good observer,” he notes. “If you are constantly shooting you aren’t observing. A photo editor once told me you can’t give up your life to photograph others’ lives. If you don’t have a life, you aren’t going to be a good photographer. That’s also true for wedding photography. Overshooting takes away energy and creativity.”
Evrim Icoz, a WPJA photographer in Portland, OR, is completely opposite from Lewis in his creative process. Icoz has to move—all the time—and consequently shoots a lot; taking 3,000 images is not uncommon. But Icoz isn’t shooting photos for the sake of picture taking. He judiciously selects moments and shoots each one like a short story by capturing the build up to the moment, the moment itself and the denouement afterward. Later when he edits, Icoz pares down the number of images by choosing only those that tell the story of the day best.
Shooting more than one frame of certain situations and events also helps inoculate the photographer from an untimely blink from a subject—the chance of which is increased as the number of subjects in the frame grows.
Icoz says he walks around constantly and patiently watches. “Turks are very aware of their surroundings,” says the Istanbul native. “At weddings you have to look all over the place, not just at the action in front of you. I’ve seen wedding photographers sit down! I don’t wait for the action to come to me. I go looking for it.”
Icoz had to sprint to keep up with the action at the recent high-spirited wedding of Portland personality Margie Boulé, who invited musicians, performance artists and puppeteers to perform at her wedding to her high school sweetheart. The reception was held at an art gallery across the street from the church. In keeping with the festive atmosphere, Samba dancers, jugglers, wedding guests and the couple danced all the way down the street to the carnival sounds of a Brazilian percussion group. “I walked with them and tried different combinations of lighting and lenses,” says Icoz. “My philosophy is that the first time I see something I capture it immediately. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best photo I can get. I stick with the subject and wait to get the best shot. I waited for the bride’s dress to fly in the air a bit and looked for one more action to happen. When the drummer lifted his hand, that was it.”
Because he also photographs dance, Icoz says he often anticipates what’s going to happen at weddings. “In music you can hear something coming and it’s the same in weddings. It’s a combination of anticipation and constantly monitoring what’s happening around you.”
WPJA member Jonathan Kirshner of Springfield, IL, agrees that the key to photographing a wedding successfully is staying alert and anticipating moments. He says that he sees weddings as performance for wedding photojournalists. “It’s a blend of athletic and artistic performance,” he says. “There is so much energy that goes into shooting a wedding that you have to prepare for the expense of energy physically and mentally in order to do it well. The day after shooting a wedding feels like you’ve been in a marathon. As a wedding photojournalist, you don’t set up pictures, so you have to constantly be in the process of making good images.”
Kirshner and his wife, Shannon, are staff photographers with the State Journal-Register newspaper in Springfield. Often they work together to photograph weddings, and when they do they shoot between 3,000 to 4,000 images per event. “If just one of us is shooting, it’s more like 2,000 to 2,500,” he says. “It isn’t motor driving the wedding to take 2,000 photos because we’re thinking throughout the day about making great pictures. That means recognizing and anticipating moments, moving to compose, moving in and out of situations, and working situations creatively. Your brain is on, your eyes are moving and you’re documenting emotions. You are constantly engaged in the creative process.”
At a wedding in the plaza of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Kirshner anticipated and captured a buoyant moment during the reception when the joint was jumping. Wedding guests danced to a live band that performed in front of a replica of the White House façade as it looked during Lincoln’s presidency. “This was one of those moments during a wedding that shows when photojournalism is more than just reacting to what you see but anticipating what’s to come,” Kirshner says. “I saw these guys jumping and made a split-second decision to do something at a low angle. I didn’t use flash, just available light from the bright white house behind them. It was a creative decision that turned out well. Weddings overflow with photo opportunities.”
While the way in which they shoot varies, all three photographers say the number of images they capture is determined by instinct, experience and anticipation. Scott Lewis says when shooting, it is important to remember the work of those who saw photography as a craft and not a business tool. “Those people who made photography an expressive, exciting medium didn’t rely on the mechanics of motor drives to capture scenes or moments,” he says. “They relied on their guts.”
In his book The Decisive Moment, Cartier-Bresson talks about the heart, brain and camera coming together into a fully integrated response to the world. Lewis says that when you do that you are connecting with your subject. “That’s what separates one picture from another—no matter how many pictures there are.
—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalism Association