Shooting wide vs. long runs to the heart of how you approach wedding photojournalism—in the storytelling, the composition, visceral message and emotion conveyed, and even in how your subjects relate to one another.
In fact, there’s no debate that the decisions you make on the length of your lenses significantly affect your results in documenting any one scene or event during the wedding festivities. There are advantages and disadvantages to shooting both wide and long, and it’s ultimately up to your mind’s eye, your vision as a wedding photojournalist, as to how you decide which lens is appropriate to any particular scene.
We’ve polled some of our top members on their wide vs. long shooting styles, as well as their techniques, preferences and recommendations for using focal length as a key tool for effectively documenting the story of the day.
Most wedding photojournalists routinely use a variety of lenses to shoot weddings, but for the most part, shorter, wide-angle focal lengths get the lion’s share of use—actually about 75 to 80 percent of the time. Most typically 17mm to 35mm in length, the shorter lenses capture more of the scene, allowing textures, atmosphere, reactions and other subjects of interest to play a role in telling a richer story.
“Wide reveals more of the story behind the shot,” states wedding photographer Hun Kim, who works out of Seattle. “It takes more effort and intention [than with a tight composition] to compose the scene, but it’s definitely rewarding once that magical shot is captured.”
Kristin Reimer, a WPJA photojournalist whose studio, Photomuse, is based in the northern New Jersey/New York area, likes a balanced approach, saying that she doesn’t overuse either wide or long lenses during her coverage. However, her inclination is to shoot wide, as that is what allows her to get in close to my subjects and the action. “I prefer that intimacy,” she explains. “Shooting wide allows me to bring in the energy and moments that are happening surrounding my given subject, providing a bigger picture of the whole event.”
She notes that she is trying to show the actions and reactions that exist around her subject. “By placing myself up close like this, I become a part of the energy. I feed off this energy, it emboldens me to take chances, to play, experiment and push myself deeper.”
For a recent WPJA award winner in the Action category, Reimer was in the midst of the dance floor, almost laying on her back as the crowd gave way for a boy who had been dancing quietly to the side for most of the night. “Once he stepped out into the limelight in front of the crowd, and in particular, my camera, he burst out of his shell into these incredible dance moves. He was awesome,” she recalls, and she captured the dynamic moment using 10mm 2.8 glass.
A caveat to shooting wide is that wide lenses create some body distortion—people look heavier and shorter on the edges, while arms can look huge, Females usually don’t like this, though men generally are okay with it. Also, distracting or unwanted elements can enter the frame. “It’s more difficult to isolate a subject and make it ‘pop,’ and you're constantly trying to avoid putting the bride and groom in the edges of the lens' wide-angle distortion,” New York’s Jeffrey Lau explains.
Lau captured a WPJA award winner during the bride and groom's first dance at a reception held in a large tent. The groom whispered something into the bride’s ear, and she smiled while twirling his fingers behind his neck. “In that moment, I dropped the telephoto, grabbed the wide-angle body [with a 17-40mm f4 USM set at 17mm] and stood about six inches away from her fingers, framing both her and the reception tent, and took the shot,” he notes. “I usually shoot in bursts, but I only had time for one frame before she let go.” Lau notes that if he had shot this same image with a long focal length and framed the subject exactly the same way, the DJ, the lines from the tent and light pouring through the window would have completely disappeared from view.
“I am a photographer who wants to feel and smell the subjects, and with wide-angle lenses, you are in the vibration of tensions,” says Riviera Maya-based Peter Van De Maele. “You can feel them. It's a storytelling moment.”
With long lenses you can give your subjects more space in situations where you don’t want to be a distraction. And there are other benefits as well.
“The advantages of long lenses are the ability to isolate the subject from its background, and to wholly make the image just about that particular subject,” Lau notes. “The obvious disadvantage is that in many cases (not all), there tends to be little to no context as to the whereabouts of the subject, who else was there, and why the subject may have had expressed what they were feeling.”
“I often find a long lens to be more sterile and disconnected, as if I am shooting a stranger in the distance,” Reimer adds. “More reflective and quiet, long is for when I either can't get in close or for when I want to be the unobserved stranger in their midst. I also associate shooting long with intimate and private moments. A stolen glance, a caress, a kiss—the details that are conveyed by the emotions.”
Hun agrees that a long lens has the capability to capture the detail and emotion of individual subjects. “It's nice to get in close to a shot using long lenses,” he says, “but I've seen a lot of photographers overkill this style [with] shots of single-subjects.” Also, using long lenses raises the occasional risk of a person passing between you and the subject, blocking a shot at the key moment.
Sometimes a situation warrants that you forsake the wide angle for a longer lens, such as when Hun captured a groom reacting to an emotional toast by the best man, who also was the groom's brother. Hun says that the brothers seemed to have a very close relationship, and that is reflected in the groom’s expression as his bride comforts him. Although he had been shooting with a wide angle, Hun switched to a standard 50mm lens for this image, as there was a distance of 15 to 20 feet between the toasters and the couple. “I just decided to switch back and forth and capture both sides independently, with the luxury of knowing that my wife was covering the scene with a wide angle as well,” he notes.
Shooting wide requires getting close up to your subjects, and that can cause reactions, as well as distractions. How do people react to being photographed with either long or wide-angle lenses?
Lau notes that the wide-angle approach can actually be executed in a way that minimizes the distraction aspect. “Since your view is incredibly wide, you can often frame the person(s) to the sides of the image without them realizing you are actually focusing on them,” he says.
While he believes that you need to vary your distances from your subject to build a complete story, he maintains that it is critically important to get close to your subject during peak moments of emotion and action when it's both possible and appropriate. “It can make the difference between a shot that is remembered, and one that is just another pretty picture,” he notes.
Van De Maele usually starts shooting from a distance, and then moves in, allowing his subjects to get used to the noise of the cameras and the lenses pointed at them.
Reimer says that her clients have actually been more intimidated when she was using a long lens for portrait work than when noticing a wide lens up close. “I can't answer with certainty why that it is. My guess is that a long lens just looks more serious,” she muses.
Sometimes getting in close with a wider lens can be beneficial to getting natural, true reactions, especially in portrait sessions, when you can help assure that the couple is relaxed while filling each frame full of detail, layers, and substance.
“Getting in close means I can interact with [the couple] more and help them feel at ease,” says Reimer. “We are working together as opposed to having a spotlight on them to perform under. When I shoot long, I have placed distance between us which I feel sometimes leaves them feeling alone and needing direction and guidance. The personal contact disappears.”
“Ultimately, the biggest reason I prefer getting up close and personal, is the intangible sense of intimacy all of these elements can provide when the everything falls into place,” Lau says. “I think it helps us to feel more connected to our subject and heightens our sense of emotion. Long shots on the other hand, are great for purposely isolating and subduing a small moment. Where our subject's peaceful expressions, and body language, is all that's needed to tell the story.”
Ultimately, the characteristics of any lens—wide or long—are only as good as what you see in your mind’s eye. The tools are what you make of them, and are totally dependent upon your shooting style.
“Either way, the aim is to capture the moment and the emotion, to tell the story and to show the couple something they may have missed,” Reimer says. “How I choose to interpret that moment is the deciding factor.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association