Portraits, Photography

Documentary Wedding Photography | Guest Portraits with the Leica M11

Wedding guest portrait by documentary wedding photographer Ben Wagner.
The best man turns and sees me setting up for a portrait shot

Guest Portraits While Maintaining a Documentary Wedding Photography Style

In documentary wedding photography I think it’s important not to rely on the same “bag of tricks” that the photographer knows has worked in the past. It’s easy to find yourself replicating the same thing over and over, year after year, and so it’s important to break out of your comfort zone and try something fresh. Each year when the wedding season starts I have a goal to try something new that I will work into my process.

In 2023, I gave myself the challenge of shooting more in the moment wedding guest portraits, while still keeping a documentary wedding photography feel. I wasn’t going to setup a backdrop or perfect three-point off camera lighting — these would very much be in the moment portraits that felt in-line with my documentary wedding photography.

Wedding days are like a movie in which the bride and groom are the stars, everything is about our stars, and the entire production revolves around them. But one of the things I love about being a documentary wedding photographer is getting to know the supporting cast, those people on the wedding day that make it all happen. The maids of honor, officiants, grandparents, rarely seen cousin or best friend from overseas.

Like a good movie, often times the supporting cast makes some of the most memorable moments, a funny dance or an inside joke or a meaningful hug. Getting authentic portraits of these people felt like both a challenge to myself and something that my couples can cherish years from now.

Some of these portraits were done without the guest knowing until the last possible second. I would see a guest in nice light, dancing or chatting or doing something that caught my eye. I would frame, compose, and focus the portrait, and then wait for the decisive moment when they would look at the camera.

In some scenarios this led to a bit of a Schrödinger’s cat situation, when the guest noticed I was taking the portrait they would pose, or make a face, or change their behavior in a way that would make the portrait more interesting.

In other situations, more rarely, I would notice one of these supporting cast members and ask them more formally to look at the camera for a quick portrait. While I like these, I found myself asking less and less and instead, trying to go for method 1. Sometimes patience was required, but I found that even if they saw me trying to take the portrait, the photos often turned out better if I didn’t say anything and let them figure out if they wanted to pose, make a face, or try and hide.

Technically, I shot most of these portraits over the course of the 2023 wedding season on my Leica M11 and my Voigtlander 50mm 1.2 lens. While also often rely on an 85mm equivalent lens for portraits, more and more I’m drawn to the classic 50mm focal length. It feels a little more natural, a little more real-world than an 85mm.

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