I’m a wedding photographer, and I love it. I don’t shoot anything else and I really don’t want to either.
In all my career as a freelancer I have shot everything from boxing matches to restaurant interiors. Nothing has ever been as challenging as photographing a wedding.
There does seem to be a general consensus among the public that weddings are where photographers start on their journey to becoming the next Annie Leibowitz. However, I’m proud to be a part of a generation that is very slowly starting to change that misconception.
When I studied Photography at University I was (and still am) fascinated by the notion that photographs can trigger and even replace memories.
This fascination led me to a two year investigation into the importance of the photograph. I found case studies where individuals had forgotten lived experience and replaced it with the memory of a photograph. This startled me, but became obvious when I attempted to piece together my own childhood. Certain events I have no recollection of, yet I can recall the photograph.
The importance of the photograph was taken to new heights when I proposed to my now wife. In that moment nerves completely overtook me. I can remember the intense emotional experience, yet oddly I have no visual recollection of the event. Because of these instances (and my fascination with the connection between the photograph and memory) I hold photography in general and especially wedding photography in the highest esteem and take my work incredibly seriously.
The highest level of trust is placed in a photographer. I approach it is as if someone has entrusted me to capture their memories for them. For this reason, I consider it an honor.
The Technical Challenge
To be an exceptional wedding photographer you need to have mastered very nearly all photographic disciplines and be able to execute each skill consistently. It tests everything you know about your camera, lighting, and people’s behavior and will always throw something unexpected into the mix.
A wedding is often so tiring that shooting two in a row will exhaust you for the rest of the week, such is the level of concentration required.
Light is constantly changing throughout the day. In any one moment an event can occur in your peripheral vision, one must stay sharp and know the camera inside out to compensate for changes in exposure. I relish the challenge that comes with being quick on your feet being able to work at pace. Dark churches, people standing in doorways, even walking from shade to sunlight can produce huge jumps in exposure.
The pressure of capturing each moment keeps me mentally sharp and I produce some of my best shots when I work instinctively.
The above image is an accurate representation of the lighting on this day: overcast, some rain, fairly dark.
When the rain is intermittent, the pressure is on to work quickly and maintain quality. I’m constantly taking pictures of my hand throughout the day. Guests often look at me like I’m mad but it’s a great trick for achieving accurate exposure in changing conditions.
The solution? Place the couple under the boughs of a tree. This places them in shadow, but more importantly, creates a difference in exposure between them and the background. Would you believe it’s raining?
A wedding photographer must know how to manipulate daylight as well as flash. Be competent shooting inside as well as out (thanks to the British weather) and equally as important, know how to work with people. The biggest test for the modern photographer, however, is the ability to capture the in-between moments. Modern SLRs and lenses can cope with nearly all lighting conditions, and this has opened the door to photographing weddings in a reportage style.
To this extent all photographers must have an element of documentary in their work, even if their speciality leans towards fine art. Even if one is shooting 35mm film, film speed and fast aperture lenses means no longer capturing these moments is inexcusable.
This is one of the primary reasons why I love shooting weddings: the unexpected.
People go through a variety of emotions on the day: laughter, tears, and pure joy, all within the space of ten hours. It is truly magical. Because of this you have to be mindful of everything going on around you, not just the key moments of ring exchanges or first kiss. Guests may be crying, flower girls may be yawning, anything could happen and that’s why they’re so exciting.
Wedding photographers need to be prepared for anything.
Each wedding is a brand new challenge and guarantees to keep you creatively engaged. Even if you shoot the same venue three weddings in a row, the light will change, the weather will change, and the people will change. Each of these factors will dramatically alter the final story. No two weddings are the same, so they should never be approached in the same way either.
The evolution of the day also keeps you sharp, and I love to be tested.
Often photographers will cite the pressure as being a reason why they dislike weddings. The burden being too much to deal with. For me, each phase of the wedding offers a chance to take the best photograph you have ever taken. The moments are there, and if you wait for them they will come to you.
There is a certain fluidity of shooting that comes when you fully embrace this idea and think less and shoot more. There is no sorcery involved, be in the mix and the moments come to you.
Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere
I love that I can shoot almost every sub set of photography. Weddings give you portraits, close ups, macro, still life, photojournalism, action, and more. Fleeting glances, posed portraits, or close ups of the tables and cake—everything is covered. For this reason, plenty of arrows can be added to your photographic quivery and constantly improved upon.
Articles on food and cook books offer amazing insight into the world of food and lifestyle photography. Fashion magazines, paintings, and art blogs are always giving me inspiration on how to pose people. YouTube documentaries on Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand offer insight into the wonders of street photography.
Each of these avenues can inspire a method or approach which can ultimately be applied to improving your wedding photography.
The Emotional Connection With Clients
Weddings bring out something in people that you never encounter in everyday life: a level of openness and vulnerability. Our relationships with our partners are kept to ourselves, only on this one day will you declare how you feel publicly. To allow yourself to be vulnerable is one of the bravest things I can imagine. Being so emotionally charged that you can’t help the way you behave and the way you feel.
There is a purity of emotion that is inaccessible at any other point in one’s life. This purity is what I love to capture.
Shooting products and still life will always be overseen by a shoot director. Their job is to maintain brand identity and communicate brand values through imagery. With weddings you’re able to sculpt your own identity and shoot exactly how you believe the day should be captured. Ultimately, you deliver a product to a commercial client. To a wedding client, you deliver so much more.
You make an emotional connection with wedding clients, to the extent where you feel like you’ve known them your whole life.
I’m a big old softy at heart and adore my wife; I find it easy to emotionally invest in other couples when I see the love they have for each other, because I recognize it. The love felt on the day isn’t just between the couple, but family and friends too.
The single most rewarding thing about photographing a wedding is when a client tells you they can relive the day through the images. If my photographs re-enforce what they felt and mirror everything they experienced on the day, then I know I have done my job.
In no other field of photography will you receive such personal feedback. A commercial client will never tell you they shed tears of joy when they watched the slideshow. Weddings offer any photographer the ability to make a tangible connection with other human beings and this is why I don’t want to photograph anything else.
The Group Shots
Ask any wedding photographer what their most disliked part of the day is, and ninety nine times out of one hundred they will reply, “group photographs.”
Why is it difficult? It requires moving large numbers of people (who would often rather be drinking) into position. Guests don’t want to stand still and the couple don’t want to waste time. The way I see it, the couple has asked you for them, it’s your job to deliver. I’ve only ever photographed one wedding where no group pictures were required. With this in mind you should definitely switch your mind set and learn to enjoy them.
It is yet another challenge, something new to master. You need a big voice; if you struggle to summon your inner Pavarotti then employ an usher to shout for you. (Side note: I’d love to know if anyone has ever used a megaphone!) Organization is key. An extensive list which starts with big groups and whittles down to smaller groups of immediate family.
Why do I love group pictures? First of all, they have great potential for candid shots—groups of friends in a row will often make each other laugh. Secondly, and most importantly, where others fail I can flourish. We all know guests hate group photographs. At every wedding I have shot everyone compliments me on how quick and efficient I was at organizing. Not only that but they will then often recount a tale; “the last wedding I went to the photographer took two hours!”
This means the next time a friend of their gets married, I am more likely to be at the top of the referral list.
Both of the above images were taken right after the ‘formal’ group shots. Keep shooting through a moment and you’ll capture much more genuine emotions and images the client will cherish.
Believe It Or Not, You Can Shoot It How You Want
If a client books you based upon what is in your portfolio, then they buy into your vision of a wedding. One of the best stories I ever heard about a photographer at a wedding involved the legendary William Egglestone. He delivered an album full of pictures of the sky. Truly unique.
You don’t hire William Egglestone to take pictures of your dress hanging up in a tree, back lit and shot at f/2 on a Contax 645. You hire him because you believe in his vision. Would I hire him to shoot my wedding? No way, he could just as easily deliver photos of ash trays. The point remains: if you show what you want to shoot in your portfolio and people hire you based on that, then you don’t need to compromise.
About the author: Liam Smith is a documentary wedding photographer who believes love is the greatest of all things and deserves to be captured candidly, with honesty and integrity. You can find more of his work on his website or by following Liam on Facebook and Instagram. This article was also published here.