What is Documentary Wedding Photography?

What is a Documentary Wedding Photographer?

When I quit my job to pursue photography full-time, establishing myself as Seattle Wedding Photographer, I knew I wanted to pursue a documentary style of Wedding Photography. And at that time, I was really the only Seattle-based Wedding Photographer (that I found) offering this purely candid style of wedding photography.

In the years since documentary wedding photography, or at least referring to yourself as a documentary wedding photographer, has become an industry wide trend. Now, a cursory search of Instagram or Google will lend hundreds if not thousands of results for photographers advertising themselves as “documentary style”, while their portfolios are still mostly full of posed couple portraits or overly arranged bouquet shots.

I’ve found in speaking with my couples that this has led to some confusion about what exactly is Documentary Wedding Photography? And, questions of how will my wedding photographer’s style affect the wedding photography?

When I started as a wedding photographer, I didn’t even know that there were “styles”. Editorial, “luxury”, fine art, etc. I wouldn’t have called myself a documentary wedding photographer because I didn’t know that existed. The only style I could think of was what I would call the American standard — that style of wedding photography that you probably think of when I say the phrase “Wedding Photography”. The dress hanging in the window, all the bridesmaids in robes posing, the first look, 1 hour of family photos, 1 – 2 hours of perfectly posed and intricately photoshopped portraits (probably on a mountain somewhere).

This style became popular because it is easy to replicate, package, and sell as a product. This isn’t to say shooting weddings is ever easy, there are tons of challenges to shooting this style, and there are tons of photographers who do it incredibly well. But, if you’re looking to attract clients, it’s nice to be able to promise these certain types of shots they have seen before at all their friends’ weddings, and that you as the photographer have been able to successfully replicate at 100’s of weddings.

When I began shooting weddings, I started — as most of us do — as a second shooter, essentially the assistant to the main photographer. As the second, I was given free rein to shoot candid shots, particularly when the main photographer was handling the family shots and the couple’s portrait session. As I found myself shooting these candid moments: the bridesmaids laughing together, the groom’s young nephew making a silly face, a spontaneous hug between a bride and her grandparents, I found myself asking why this can’t be wedding photography? Isn’t this what weddings really are about?

That’s when I discovered there was a select group of wedding photographers who do work in this style. Photographers like Kevin Mullins, Meredith Heuer, and of course John Dolan. Photographers who focus on raw, candid, observational moments rather than poses and direction. Photographers who ask why should we take a photo of the wedding dress hanging, when what we care about are the people in the dress? Photographers who know they need to get the first kiss shot right, rather than ask you to do it multiple times so they can get it perfect (yes I’ve seen this happen). Photographers who know what authentic imperfection is better than forced perfection.

Photographers who make art at weddings.

This is the documentary style of wedding photography, wedding photography that promises photographs of the wedding day as it really happened. Wedding Photography for couples who don’t want the same photos that are taken at every other wedding. Your wedding photos should represent you, not a set of forced poses and similar compositions done a hundred times before. Documentary wedding photography is photography that can’t be replicated any other day, any other time, with any other set of wedding guests. It is observational photography that tells the stories of moments that only ever happened once, at your wedding, with your people.

Every documentary wedding photographer does things a little different. For me this doesn’t mean there are necessarily no posed photographs (but if that’s what a client wants that is ok!) Rather, the time spent on posed photographs is just a very small part of the day (my posed portrait session are often less than 10 minutes), and even when working on portraits or “posed photos” I keep things loose, fun, and moving, with the goal of having a candid feel to any posing. My goal is to keep the posed sessions quick to get you back to the party and celebrating with your guests, because that’s where the real magic happens.

Linda McCartney (wife of the Beatle and famed photographer in her own right), said that “If you see something that moves you, and then snap it, you keep a moment.” This is my philosophy of documentary wedding photography. I don’t promise that I will take any particular shot, I can’t lay out 20 photos and say “these are the exact same photos I will take on your wedding day.” I can’t offer a “product”. What I can promise is that I will make photos of moments that move me. Laughter, tears, happy hugs, and even if things go a little off the rails. If it happened, it happened, and I’ll be there to document it.

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