Disclaimer: I’m not a wedding photography professional, I never have been or claimed to be at any point, nor is it likely that I ever will be in the future. So take this with the intended grain of salt as written from the position of an external observer. The images illustrating this post were shot as a guest at the various weddings I’ve attended in the past.
It seems that in the last twenty or so years – perhaps even less than that – wedding photography has moved from ‘capturing some memories of your (hopefully) once in a lifetime event with family and friends’ to ‘create an overprocessed hollywood epic composed of thousands of pictures with you and your other half in unlikely, impossible and completely out-of-charachter poses in which none of the protagonists at all resemble each other!’. How? When? Why? More importantly, doesn’t anybody who’s actually paying for the images realize that in twenty years, if you look at the images again at all, the first thought entering your mind will probably be ‘ugh, what was I thinking?’
This opinion piece aims to deconstruct the modern wedding photography genre, and figure out whether there’s still any room for somebody who wants to do it right – the best term I can use is honestly.
I have actually shot my fair share of weddings over the years – once or twice as primary photographer, nowadays under the condition that the couple hires somebody else, I’ll bring a camera along to the events I attend, and I’ll shoot like I normally do. Invariably, their print album and the images they share land up being the ones I shoot, not the ones they paid for. Why is this?
Firstly, I make sure I don’t get in the way of the proceedings; in doing so, I’m forced to find unusual angles or work from the point of view of the guest as observer – so the documentary takes place from a slightly different viewpoint. I shoot as a photojournalist, not an event photographer; I look for emotion and context. Finally, I don’t shoot weddings commercially. I recognize that isn’t one of my strengths, and it wouldn’t be fair to any potential clients to do anything less than a perfect job on an occasion which simply isn’t repeatable. (“Excuse me, could you walk down the aisle again please? My flash didn’t fire” doesn’t quite cut it, does it?). I do them for very close friends and family; instead of buying a gift that might well be your fifth toaster, I might as well give you something unique and which actually requires some effort and thought to produce – and I know will be appreciated later. But I digress.
The reason why I don’t shoot weddings is threefold: one, they scare the crap out of me: I can’t be in twenty places at once, capturing each and every single little emotional moment – there are bound to be many – but at the same time, I can’t hire secondary photographers because I can’t guarantee quality. And having assistants in itself brings up a whole new set of issues, which I’ll get into later. Secondly, the market is dire. Either you compete on price – a thousand shots for just US$200! Or you compete on extravagance – pre-wedding shoots in a hot air balloon at dawn shot from a helicopter over the Himalayas! And neither market is sustainable, for obvious reasons.
However, the most important missing element for the hired gun is almost always the emotional connection: as a friend of the couple, or family, you probably know most of the other guests – that being the case, they feel comfortable around you (and know you’re a photographer); this means that what you get to capture are genuine, unguarded emotions. This is the ideal of the serious wedding photographer, and something that almost none of them manage – because they’re looking for the significant action, or the interesting perspective, or some technical showcase, not the emotion. And I know that it’s nearly impossible to do this when you don’t know the guests personally – they just don’t open up to you.
I can understand the desire for a couple, and their families, to have the big day properly documented for posterity. I went through the same issue of trying to figure out who would shoot my own wedding several years ago – in the end, a photojournalist friend and my brother did the bulk of the work, and I provided first-person filler thanks to a compact in my suit jacket and a borrowed camera. I edited the 8,000+ raw files down into a storyline of about 150, and did the processing myself. The result was a remarkably consistent look and feel; most of it was processed in a traditional B&W photojournalism style (which I may later come to regret, but at least I have the raw files) which fit the way the images were shot, and the style of the photographers.
But it seems that today’s trend is to go for the most over the top production you can find – the output shown (usually on a slideshow at the wedding banquet) is often so ridiculous that if you know the couple, you also realize that the photos are in no way representative of their personality, or even physical appearance, most of the time. Perhaps this is only a trend in Asia; I don’t know. But I’ve seen enough ultra-wide-from-the-tail-of-the-gown-in-forest-ruins-with-studio-strobes shots to suggest that this may be an international thing.
I think what bothers me the most is the lack of integrity about it all – I do know that a lot of couples select options like this because it’s either what’s socially acceptable, or because they don’t know any better (and it most certainly isn’t in the interests of the photographers to educate them otherwise). What has become a relatively minor expense in the whole scheme of things has now turned into something that can consume 10% or more of the entire wedding budget. What I don’t know is how many of these couples are actually happy with the output – Asians tend not to complain unless something is vomitoriously bad – but I do know that a lot of the wedding photographers don’t actually care, because repeat customers usually aren’t an issue – there’s always somebody else going to get married.
One of the biggest sins that almost all wedding photographers commit is getting in the way. At a recent family wedding I attended, the photographer and his two assistants continuously hovered in front of the couple, machine-gunning away with flashes. The problem here is that a) quarters were pretty tight, as with Asian weddings a portion of the ceremony is traditionally at home, and most homes can’t easily accommodate the hundred or more invited guests; b) as a family member or guest, you can’t see anything. For starters, this pisses off your family; not to mention feeling like you’re being mobbed by paparazzi. As a couple, ask yourself: is this wedding for us, for the family, or for the photographers? Because as an external observer, it sure as hell feels like the latter.
And that’s not the only trespass. Over the top airbrushing, or use of hideous filters – think applying the entire Instapop or Hipstagram or whatever repertoire to every image – to hide fundamental compositional sloppiness or focusing errors at critical moments – is de rigeur. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single wedding banquet slideshow which contained anything approaching a natural looking image – and I’ve attended dozens of weddings in the last couple of years. Do you really need thousands of crappy photos instead of perhaps fifty, or a hundred, perfectly-timed, natural, emotional ones?
Of course not! But that’s difficult to produce, and thus makes for a very poor business model, so nobody does it. Which is a shame: the ideal wedding photographer could exist, and with some customer education, do pretty well. What attributes should such a mythical creature have?
1. Don’t get in the way. The wedding is for the couple and the family, not the photographer and his assistants.
2. Don’t miss critical moments – you don’t need twenty cake cutting shots, you just need one or two well-timed ones.
3. Look for emotion, and capture only emotion. Preserve the atmosphere and the feeling. We are human. Your audience is human. Your clients are human. They’ll look at the images and instantly feel that connection to the subject when looking at the images afterwards.
4. Less is more: spend some time curating, and you’ll find that you now have time to process each image individually instead of running them all through the SuperSoft-Crayolamatic-HDR filter.
5. Know who the key players are: you don’t have to get headshots of everybody, but if you miss the tearful mother of the bride hugging her daughter because you thought it was her kindergarten teacher, your clients probably aren’t going to be happy.
6. Be prepared! Don’t miss a shot because something wasn’t set right or malfunctioning or you weren’t paying attention. Get the program beforehand. If in doubt, shadow the bride. Doing otherwise is a cardinal sin.
7. Images don’t take a month to deliver, especially if you’re running them through filters or delivering JPEGs. There is NO EXCUSE! If a guest can find time to process each shot individually and deliver in a couple of days, and it isn’t even his job, then as a ‘professional’, it’s just embarrassing.
8. Break out of your stylistic silo occasionally – there are a lot of big-name society wedding photographers here who have a compositional repertoire that can be counted on less than the fingers of one hand.
9. Don’t overdo the output.
10. Be reasonable about what you charge – this goes in both directions. If you’re good, don’t kill the market for everybody (and yourself) by undercharging. Similarly, if you’re crap, don’t rip clients off. Steer them towards quality instead of quantity and location productions if they can’t afford it – ultimately, they’ll be happier, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this will in turn be good for your business.
Most importantly, as a photographer, make sure you have integrity in what you do. It might just be work to you, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime day for somebody – you’ve been hired to do a job, don’t mess it up. This is the number one reason why I probably won’t ever shoot weddings – playing it safe doesn’t deliver that something extra; but at the same time, taking risks is also a no-no in case you miss the shot. And I wouldn’t want to fall short on either count for the client.
As a consumer, be educated: know what you want in terms of style, deliverable, and how much it should roughly cost – see the work of many people and get quotes before you make a decision. Ask a photographer friend for an opinion if in doubt. The more informed you are, the better a product you’re going to get. Don’t be bridezilla, either. MT
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