Street photography has always been the cool kid of the photographic industry, and wedding photography has ever been the oldfangled unfashionable square. Even landscape photographers in their fishing vests and hiking boots seem to get more street cred than wedding snappers.
But what if we could tap into some of that cool? What if we could figure out what their particular tincture is, the magic in their photos that moves people — other than soon-to-be-brides — in ways that wedding photos never seem to be able to?
To really get a grasp on what makes a great street photo, we need to take a quick trip back into the past and look at where the whole genre began.
The History of Street Photography
Street Photography found its roots around the 1930s. It’s no accident that this was also the time the 35mm camera first made its appearance. Its hand-held size allowed photographers to move through busy streets and capture fleeting moments, and the 35mm film of the time was better suited to lower light shooting. The 35mm cameras also allowed photographers to shoot directly through the viewfinder, instead of needing to look down into the top of the camera. All of this meant versatility and speed, and it allowed photographers to move more freely and capture more spontaneous imagery.
At this time, a number of notable practitioners of this style of photography began to emerge, especially in Europe. Eugene Atget is regarded as one of the earliest visionaries and is often credited as legitimizing the street as a place from which to create photographic art. Following him came a host of other photographers who began to take advantage of the fast-improving cameras, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is famous for his idea that there is a “perfect moment” to take a photograph in any unfolding human scene on the street. Then came Robert Frank, who brought to the genre unapologetic rawness, grittiness, and a love for the mundane. And following Frank many others, notably a man called Gary Winogrand, who pioneered “machine-gun photography”, a technique I’ll touch on again shortly.
As the decades progressed, photography became more accessible to the general public, and we began to see the emergence of much greater quantities of photographs and a broader range of styles.
But at heart the work of the earliest street photographers has maintained a powerful influence, not just on how street photography is shot, but how it is appreciated.
In the styles and techniques of the old guard of world-renowned street photographers, we can find clues about why this genre excites and intrigues so many people. Their work has influenced many others, and galleries still sell out exhibitions featuring their photography.
So what makes their work so good?
There’s no singular answer, but one way to look at their work is to examine what it isn’t. We’re so used to being fed a diet of images that are planned, posed, manufactured and airbrushed, that images that are unapologetically candid intrigue us. In a perverse way, they’re refreshing. It makes sense when you think about it: we value honesty and candidness in dialogue and conversation with people, much more than we do conceit and deception. Why is it so strange that this would also hold true for photographs?
Street photography captures the essence of life, allows us an honest view into the world of others, and can give us a glimpse of decisive, poignant moments.
How Do We Translate This Style To Weddings, and Do We Even Want To?
For this question, we must examine our audience. Who are we shooting for, and why?
At the heart of street photography is the idea of authenticity & realism. But we need to understand, firstly, that many people prefer to look good than look real. There’s nothing wrong with this. Who among us wants to be photographed first thing in the morning? Sleeping with their mouth open? Doing things that could embarrass or humiliate us? We value our social standing, and we judge ourselves and others on how we present ourselves in photos every day.
This is even more true on a wedding day. Many brides have spent years dreaming about their big day and visualizing themselves in their wedding photos. Couples want to look good, and so do their guests. What may look like an amazing moment of unguarded photojournalism to us, might look simply unflattering to a bride.
This is one of the conflicts at the heart of documentary wedding photography: how honest can you be, and how often? When and where can we shoot images that are real, and when do we need to manufacture them to appease the sensibilities of our subjects? Do we shoot pretty, or real?
That fact is that this will largely depend on the bride and groom and their personal aesthetic. Sometimes there is a balance that needs to be negotiated, a middle ground that must be trod. And there’s another option: we can do both, just at different times.
So how should we go about injecting more of a reportage style into our wedding collections? Where do we begin in our quest for realism and authenticity, when so much is working against us?
1. Communication is Key
This is the first Rule of Documentary Wedding Photography: make sure the client understands you and your style. And make sure you also understand them.
In practical terms, this can be achieved as follows:
Make sure your portfolio, and what you showcase on your website and through social media, is a good representation of what you intend to deliver. Otherwise, the client may end up feeling misled when you deliver the final product.
In your contact form when they first inquire, ask some key questions: get a handle on the style of the couple. The more info you can get the better. Pay notice to their personal aesthetic.
Double down on this: make sure to have at least one meeting or conversation with the client prior to the wedding, and talk this through. Lay down your intentions. Listen to their requests. If your intentions and their requests are too different, either be prepared to compromise or don’t book the client. It will lead to unhappiness for both parties.
Furthermore, seek out the client that you would prefer. This can be done by only blogging the sorts of images you want to shoot. If you compromise here, you’ll need to compromise even more in the future.
Remember: what you post now is what you’ll be shooting next year.
2. Plan and Prepare, but Aim for Spontaneity
Once you have a client who you feel has given you the freedom to shoot the way you want, make some plans. Here is the chance to not only express yourself on the wedding day but to create more imagery to showcase for future brides of a similar style. These opportunities need to be taken.
Scout the venue, and plan some ideas for the portrait session. Make sure to do the scouting at the same time of day that you’ll be shooting on. Pay attention to the light, to the locations of distracting things, like parked cars. Find locations that are compelling to you. It might be as simple as the way a beam of sun strikes down against a brick wall, or you might find a particularly colorful or gritty alley that takes your fancy. Visualize how those locations will look and feel when you’re shooting them. Be conscious of the time you have at your disposal.
Street photography is about capturing real events, but the dirty secret in lots of candid styles of shooting is that things are often planned – not necessarily in minute detail, but in ways that will give the photographer a better chance of being presented with a decisive, well-composed moment to capture. This isn’t about shotlists and run-sheets, but of idea-gathering, and inspiration-sourcing.
Also be prepared to throw out those plans when opportunities arise. Almost none of my plans end up being exactly how I foresaw them, and this is a good thing. We need to keep an eye out for new ideas and decisive moments that appear and seize them.
3. Be Brave
Good reportage photography is not just about the portrait session, it’s about the whole day, and everyone in it: from the couple through to the guests, and hired help and bystanders. Everyone is an opportunity.
But we need to be confident enough to shoot everyone, sometimes at moments they might think are inappropriate. The good news is that at a wedding, people are much more prepared and accepting of being photographed, and are less likely to be affronted by you. Take advantage of this. If you’re lambasted for being too intrusive, apologize and move on. It’s your job: the couple will understand. Channel your inner Gary Winogrand: the art is worth the awkwardness. You’ll not succeed in your quest for compelling photojournalism if you’re too afraid to get in people’s faces.
4. Be Ready — All Day. Observe and Pre-empt.
When you first walk into the hotel suite where the bride or groom is getting prepared in the morning, your camera should be ready to go. Throughout the day, always have a camera in hand, always on, always with the settings ready to shoot.
Know what’s coming. If the father of the bride is about to enter the room where the bride has just finished getting into her dress, but aware of where he is coming from, where the light is coming from, what position you need to be in to best capture everything.
Be across your run sheet. Know what’s happening next.
Observe people’s behavior. The fun and energetic people should be magnets for you. When you hear someone laughing, observe who was entertaining them. Next time the job gets told, be there to shoot the fun.
Watch the old people: they’re incredibly compelling subjects. Understand their relationships with the bride and groom.
Weddings are emotional days. There is more than enough material to be captured, but you must be in the right places, at the right time. This is a skill that can be learned!
5. Your Equipment is Not Important. The Less it Gets in the Way the Better.
Cameras these days are amazing – all of them. It doesn’t matter whether you shoot Nikon or Canon or Sony or Fuji – all their capabilities are overkill for our needs. Just look at what was capable in the era of Helen Levitt, 100 years ago. The brand and price of your gear are mostly immaterial.
Nor do you need to follow expected norms of technique. It’s important to understand how your camera works, completely. But you don’t need to shoot on M all day, simply because it takes more skill.
When things are fast-moving, or when you’re unsure of what is about to happen, dumb your settings down. Aperture-priority is a great tool. Consider a minimal shutter speed and a floating ISO. Cameras these days have such amazing metering systems, and such incredible sensors, that we can trade away some exposure accuracy for speed and readiness. An underexposed shot is infinitely better than a missed one.
And don’t be afraid to stop down. As wedding photographers, we’re conditioned towards bokeh and shallow portraiture. But sometimes to tell a story it’s safer to shoot with a larger depth-of-field.
6. Moments Before Aesthetics
I won’t go into lighting too much here, because it’s a matter of style and opinion. But often, in the quest to make a shot more pleasing to the eye, we kill it. Spontaneity is beauty. Not only when shooting general scenes, but for portraits too. If a couple is interacting and connecting, try not to fix them in rigid positions, with detailed instructions. They’ll look like mannequins.
If you’re genuine about wanting candid photos, throw the softbox in the creek. If not for the whole day, at least for some of the time. Spending 5 minutes with an assistant setting up a giant diffuser and then wrangling them into the correct posture is anathema to spontaneity.
Instead work on their connection, on getting them comfortable. Walk with them, talk to them, pump them up with praise. Be a gentle guide, not an instructor.
7. Embrace the Imperfect
Street photographers seek out the imperfect, the gritty, images that are raw and compelling. Where possible (and with the right couples), we can strive to do the same. Even in post, when we’re sorting the wheat from the chaff, the temptation remains to cull images that aren’t flattering or that are imperfect.
Here again we need to channel our inner Cartier-Bresson and remember that life isn’t perfect — so nor should our photos be.
About the author: Van Middleton is a wedding photographer who shoots internationally. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Middleton’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.