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WHAT IS DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY?

“Documentary style wedding photography” is a common term, but what does it actually mean and how does it work?

THE QUESTION:

What is documentary wedding photography?

At its simplest, documentary wedding photography means the photographing of unposed wedding moments, captured as they spontaneously occur without prior instruction or intrusion by the photographer.
Above is perhaps the most simple, back-to-basics definition of the documentary approach, but in this article we'll attempt to explain the rather more subtle intricacies of the artform.
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bride holding two bouquets with her three flower girls at middleton lodge
natural wedding photographer
Whilst virtually all wedding photographers are forced to photograph certain parts of a wedding without posing, the specialist documentary photographer not only captures the occurence in front of them but simultaneously looks for an "alternate take" on the scene.

Variations on a candid photography theme …

Documentary style, reportage style, wedding photojournalism, candid wedding photography, there are many different terms associated with documentary wedding photography (and you can read about each individually in our article here). Effectively though whichever question you ask (what is reportage wedding photography, what is wedding photojournalism, what is documentary?) you’re likely to find the same basic definition: Documentary wedding photography is simply the photographing of unposed wedding moments, captured as they spontaneously occur without prior instruction or intrusion by the photographer.

So that’s the simple back-to-basics definition but there are plenty of subtleties, peculiarities and red-herrings to the art form. So let’s take a deeper dive into documentary wedding photography: what it is, how it’s captured, and why you might choose a documentary wedding photographer to capture your day.

We’ve written several articles on documentary wedding photography (several of which you can find below) but in this particular article we’re going to attempt to answer certain questions with the aim of helping you to decide whether documentary wedding photography is right for you and your wedding.

Also just a quick note that for the purposes of this article we’re going to be using the words “documentary, reportage and photojournalist” interchangeably to mean “non-posed wedding photography”. Again you can read our separate article on documentary vs reportage vs photojournalism to find out a little bit more about each of these terms individually.

CONTENTS
- What you need to know: 

  1. WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER?
    Perhaps surprisingly this is actually quite a different question to what documentary wedding photography itself is!
  2. HOW DOES A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER WORK?
    What does a reportage style photographer actually do on your wedding day and how does their approach differ from other wedding photographers?
  3. WHY SHOULD I CHOOSE A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER?
    What distinguishes documentary from other styles and why is that good for me and my wedding?
  4. WHAT MAKES A GOOD DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPH?
    If I’m new to this artform how do I tell a good image from a bad one?
  5. HOW DO I CHOOSE AND BOOK A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER FOR MY WEDDING?
    How should you go about finding and booking the right documentary wedding photographer for you?
comedic photo of a groomsmen getting ready in suffolk

1. WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER?

So the obvious answer to the question “what is a documentary wedding photographer” is of course “someone who takes documentary wedding photographs” right?! Unfortunately though under that definition just about every wedding photographer would be considered a documentary wedding photographer. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where your photographer will not take some unposed imagery on a wedding day – after all most do photograph the ceremony and it’s generally frowned upon to ask you to crack a smile for the camera mid-way through your vows! So if everyone’s taking unposed images on a wedding day then what separates a documentary / photojournalist / reportage photographer from the rest of the pack?

Documentary photographers don’t shoot unposed images just when there is no other choice, a documentary photographer celebrates real moments, just the way they happened, through every part of your day. A pure documentary photographer will work discretely in the background and will move their own feet rather than ask anyone else to adjust their position in order to capture beautiful, intricately composed imagery. A documentary photographer will not come into your day with a list of pre-planned shots but will embrace the spontaneity of a moment and use their skills to create an image equally as powerful as any posed portrait.

London Documentary Wedding Photography

2. HOW DOES A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER WORK?

One of the key reasons that couples often choose a documentary style photographer over alternative styles is the discrete way that wedding photojournalists generally work. Rather than require the bride and groom (and indeed their guests) to smile and look at the camera or adopt a certain pose, a documentary wedding photographer relies on their subjects to ignore the camera and carry on naturally. That requirement to capture real moments exactly as they really happened means that everyone can just relax into the day knowing that everything will be captured without having to worry about what the photographer is doing.

There are many misconceptions though about how a documentary style wedding photographer actually captures the kind of imagery that they do. Whilst the moments that are focussed upon are, by their nature, spontaneous, that doesn’t mean that a documentary photographer gives any less thought to their shots than if they were trying to orchestrate a posed image, in fact the opposite is true.

Where portrait specialists generally have a knack for seeing a way to place people in front of a background to create an interesting composition, documentary or reportage photographers have to recognise the potential of an interesting composition coming together and position themselves accordingly. A documentary photographer may take more photographs of a particular scene than other types of photographer but this is far from a random “spray and pray” methodology – it’s often simply necessary for the reportage photographer to capture numerous shots to find the “decisive moment” of the scene where every element comes together as they choose not to exert any control over the actions of the subjects. The end result though should be equally as well thought through, balanced and composed and be centred around at least one interesting and dynamic focal point.

DOCUMENTARY, REPORTAGE, STREET STYLE - ALL OF THESE FORMS OF PHOTOGRAPHY RELY ON YOU NOT POSING FOR THE CAMERA OR ADJUSTING YOUR BEHAVIOUR IN ANY WAY.

3. WHY SHOULD I CHOOSE A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER?

Documentary wedding photography, whilst ever growing in popularity, isn’t going to be the right style for everyone and it’s incredibly important that you make sure that you and your photographer are in tune and that you’re going to end up with the type of images you want from your wedding day. For many couples though a documentary or unposed form of wedding photography could be absolutely perfect for you and here’s a few reasons why:

i) THE CAMERA-SHY COUPLE

If you’re a little nervous in front of the camera or just hate being the centre of attention then chances are an unposed form of photography is going to be right up your street. Documentary, reportage, street style – all of these forms of photography rely on you NOT posing for the camera or adjusting your behaviour in any way. So if you don’t want to feel like you’re part of a photoshoot on your wedding day but do want to capture some photographic memories then it’s documentary style all the way.

candid documentary wedding photographer
ii) REAL MOMENTS, NO PRETENDING

It’s often struck us as a little odd that we choose to remember what we did on special occasions by stopping the thing that we’re doing and pretending to do something else for the camera! With more traditional styles of wedding photography there are plenty of examples where that might be the case: remember when the groomsmen were getting ready and then you got slightly undressed again and pretended to put your ties on? Remember how you felt when you pretended that your dad had just seen you in your dress for the first time? Well in truth you probably felt like you were acting because that’s precisely what you were doing, even if it did lead to a nice photograph. Documentary photography captures those same moments but does it in real time – the emotion is real, the memory is real and the photograph is equally beautiful, but hopefully that reality will shine through when you look at the photograph and remember that moment.

street photography at weddings
iii) CAPTURING HOW IT FELT TO BE THERE

To us wedding photographs exist to help spark your memories and take you back to a place in time. Because documentary style images are captured in the moment they show real emotion, real feeling and memories are often more of a feeling than a clear visual picture.

Our version of street documentary photography is all about capturing how it felt to be there and there are many factors that go into creating images that can do that. For example we choose not to use additional lighting or flash in part not to take you out of the moment but also because lighting affects the feel of an image and if we change the feel we change the memory. When you look at one of our images we want you to remember those feelings exactly as they were. If you weren’t even at the wedding we want you to be able to imagine exactly what it was like and to somehow feel the electricity in the air. To us the documentary style is the best possible way to do that.

iv) EXPERIENCING EVERY PART OF YOUR WEDDING - EVEN THE BITS YOU DIDN'T SEE!

Wedding photography is traditionally very much about the bride and groom and, at a stretch, their immediate family. The portraits and groups are considered the most important shots of the day and so that’s exactly what the photographer focuses upon – making sure they have lots and lots of shots of you in creative poses. For the documentary photographer though, whilst the bride and groom are of course at the centre of everything, almost as important is what the guests got up to and how they experienced your wedding day.

Documentary wedding photography is about documenting the whole day and that means showing the ridiculous things your friends got up to, celebrating humour and focussing on relationships between people. We’ve always said that your wedding day is probably the only time that everyone you know and love will be in the same place at the same time, but you as the bride and groom have a lot to do and there’s inevitably a lot you’re going to miss. A documentary photographer though can be your eyes and ears – they can be places that you can’t and show you everything that happened. Often the greatest feedback we can get as documentary photographers is that we showed the bride and groom a moment that they didn’t see at the time but that sums up the personalities of the people in the photograph. For us there’s really no more powerful image than that.

uk wedding photographers
v) TRULY UNIQUE IMAGES

To us wedding photographs exist to help spark your memories and take you back to a place in time. Because documentary style images are captured in the moment they show real emotion, real feeling and memories are often more of a feeling than a clear visual picture.

Our version of street documentary photography is all about capturing how it felt to be there and there are many factors that go into creating images that can do that. For example we choose not to use additional lighting or flash in part not to take you out of the moment but also because lighting affects the feel of an image and if we change the feel we change the memory. When you look at one of our images we want you to remember those feelings exactly as they were. If you weren’t even at the wedding we want you to be able to imagine exactly what it was like and to somehow feel the electricity in the air. To us the documentary style is the best possible way to do that.

4. WHAT MAKES A GOOD DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPH?

The answer to what makes any type of photograph good or bad is of course, as with any art form, a highly subjective and conditional one. Whilst there are some similar overarching characteristics to documentary images every single individual photographer will interpret an image slightly differently. Indeed if you were to put 20 documentary photographers in the same room at the same time you’d still expect to see 20 entirely different images. It’s also conditional upon the circumstances – what makes one image might destroy another, so we can only really offer a broad and inevitably subjective explanation here! But let’s see if we can identify a few of those characteristics that you might initially look for in a documentary image if you’re new to the artform.

1. Composition
Composition is the “language” of a photograph. A good image should be easy to read and should draw your eyes to the story being told without distraction. It’s sometimes thought that if a really interesting moment is captured in an image then the composition doesn’t matter but to us this simply isn’t true. If your photographer created a portrait and you both looked really great in it but there’s a dirty great bin dominating the image and distracting you from the focus of the photograph then you’d probably wonder why they didn’t get rid of it, and it’s absolutely no different in documentary. Just because a moment is spontaneous it doesn’t mean that the photographer has the excuse to be sloppy and good strong composition is absolutely key to creating a good documentary image. Everything in the image from left to right should serve a purpose and if it doesn’t then the photographer should try to frame it out of the shot. For us personally composition is always the first port of call and if the image isn’t properly balanced or is too messy in some way then it will immediately be cut.
2. Moment
Here at York Place we’ve become quite well known for what’s known as layered imagery. In a basic sense this is where there is more than one thing happening in a scene that are all layered together through composition. Layered images usually include several people in the image and often at different focal points to fill the frame from left to right. But one of the common mistakes made by photographers when using this technique is when the layer is created without a moment at the centre of it.

A moment is basically something interesting that the photograph is built around. A simple example would be a joke between two guests. Whilst the bride and groom would probably like to see all of the people who were at the wedding in the photographs a photograph should really have more of a story to it than just two people standing there. The moment a joke is told a little personality is on show, a moment exists between the people in the frame and that adds more of an interest to the frame. A documentary image should be interesting to people who weren’t even at the wedding and without a moment this is rarely the case.

Documentary wedding photography has long been associated with The Decisive Moment – a phrase coined by the legendary photographer Henri Cartier Bresson and finding that ultimate moment (or numerous moments in the case of a layered image) where everything comes together and adds a magic to the image is absolutely key to creating a great reportage image.
3. Story
bride leaving the pub surrounded by a hen party and a bride to be
Here at York Place we’ve become quite well known for what’s known as layered imagery. In a basic sense this is where there is more than one thing happening in a scene that are all layered together through composition. Layered images usually include several people in the image and often at different focal points to fill the frame from left to right. But one of the common mistakes made by photographers when using this technique is when the layer is created without a moment at the centre of it.

A moment is basically something interesting that the photograph is built around. A simple example would be a joke between two guests. Whilst the bride and groom would probably like to see all of the people who were at the wedding in the photographs a photograph should really have more of a story to it than just two people standing there. The moment a joke is told a little personality is on show, a moment exists between the people in the frame and that adds more of an interest to the frame. A documentary image should be interesting to people who weren’t even at the wedding and without a moment this is rarely the case.

Documentary wedding photography has long been associated with The Decisive Moment – a phrase coined by the legendary photographer Henri Cartier Bresson and finding that ultimate moment (or numerous moments in the case of a layered image) where everything comes together and adds a magic to the image is absolutely key to creating a great reportage image.
4. Feeling
A truly great reportage image should hopefully make you feel something. It might make you laugh, it might pull the heartstrings, it might make you recognise something from your own life or about life in general, it might just make you want to be on that dancefloor! It doesn’t matter what feeling it evokes but if you feel a connection with an image in some way then that’s incredibly powerful and often the hallmark of a really great image.
Every photographer has a unique perspective and there is no right or wrong answer as to which is best - there is just the style you most connect with.

5. HOW DO I CHOOSE AND BOOK A DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER FOR MY WEDDING?

So you’ve settled on the idea of having a documentary style photographer capture your wedding day, but as we’ve mentioned several times already, each photographer is completely unique! So how do you go about choosing the right photographer for you and what do you need to know from them before booking their services?

1. Take the time to find the style you most connect with
Documentary photography is not all the same. For example some photographers might focus more on black and white imagery where others embrace colour more. Some might look to capture a very pure form of documentary storytelling with “warts and all” on show whereas others shoot in a still truthful but perhaps more flattering style. Some will embrace more humour where others might look more for sentimentality. There are also various sub-genres of unposed wedding photography such as the street style wedding photography that we ourselves adopt and which is slightly different from more traditional documentary. Every photographer has a unique perspective and there is no right or wrong answer as to which is best – there is just the style that you most connect with. Don’t just book any reportage wedding photographer – book the one whose images make you feel something.
2. Look for consistency
reportage wedding photography
Photographers of all styles will naturally only display their best work as part of their portfolio and on their websites but it’s important to remember that those images are not from one individual wedding, they might be the best 10 images from 100 or more weddings (we’re no exception to this by the way!) So it’s generally a good idea to look through plenty of blog posts where you can see examples of lots of images from the same wedding, or even ask to see some full wedding collections as delivered to the client. In this way you can make sure that there’s a level of consistency to the work throughout every part of the day (and see how your photographer works in different conditions and scenarios). For us personally as street documentary wedding photographers we will never give an image to the client that we can’t 100% stand behind and justify its inclusion, so if a wedding includes 500 images then all 500 should be individually strong images, not only when put together as a collection.
It’s also worth noting that whilst many wedding photojournalists like ourselves have always photographed weddings in an unposed style, documentary wedding photography has become something of a trend in the industry in recent years and consequently many photographers may describe themselves as documentary even if it isn’t actually an accurate description of their style. Once again look for that consistency and if you see the words documentary wedding photography accompanied by a posed portrait it’s usually a good indication that the description and true style are not really correlating.
3. Don't worry about location
London Documentary Wedding Photographer
Location is rarely of particular importance to a reportage style photographer and this is true in two ways:
Firstly most photographers will happily travel just about anywhere, so don’t worry too much whether you’re in London, Edinburgh or Berlin, there’s no need to limit your choice to a photographer that happens to be based especially near to you.
Secondly though the spontaneous nature of the images that reportage photographers take means that most actively try to avoid planning shots in advance. So whereas for some photographers a site visit might be considered essential in order to plan those perfect portraits or consider how to light a space, for the wedding photojournalist a site visit, in most cases, is an unnecessary and often actively unhelpful exercise. Similarly there is generally little or no advantage to choosing a documentary photographer that has worked at your venue before.
4. Trust your photographer
One of the reasons it’s so important to do thorough research when choosing a reportage photographer in particular is that it’s absolutely essential that you feel comfortable, relaxed and absolutely ready to trust them to capture great images. The candid, photojournalism style is based on creating brand new imagery each time and on embracing spontaneity so you can’t ask them to recreate past images at your wedding, you need to have faith that they’re going to be able to create stunning images of your wedding. Without that faith you’re going to be second-guessing your photographer’s moves through the day and be taken out of the moment and that is the one sure-fire way to ensure that you actually DON’T get the images that you’re looking for!
5. Let the main wedding party know how your photographer works
Whilst documentary photographers are more than used to people naturally trying to pose for the camera and generally don’t mind in the slightest, it can sometimes be a good idea just to advise your immediate family, bridesmaids and groomsmen about how your photographer likes to shoot. People often have preconceptions about how they think wedding photography works based on their own past experiences and if you’re booking someone to capture natural spontaneous images the last thing you want is for your bridesmaids to be directing your photographer to capture highly staged group shots. Again your photographer’s probably more than ready to deal with such scenarios but if everyone’s in the loop it just avoids any unnecessary stress for you as the bride and groom. Reportage wedding photographers are often not looking for the shot you might think that they’re trying to take so just leave them the freedom to work a scene and trust in the results.
islington town hall weddingsDocumentary wedding photograph of a wedding reception street scene in Hackney.

IN SUMMARY

In summary, if you hadn’t realised it by now, there’s a little more to documentary wedding photography than just taking a photograph without posing anything. Reportage, wedding photojournalism, whatever you want to call it, documentary is a highly skilled form of wedding photography and one that we personally find incredibly powerful and rewarding. With documentary style photography truly no two weddings are ever the same and we love creating images that celebrate people, relationships, humour and love. We hope that this little summary has helped you to understand the art form just a little more and to decide whether documentary wedding photography might be the perfect way to capture your day.

HERE'S A SHORT EXAMPLE OF SOME DOCUMENTARY IMAGES FROM A SINGLE WEDDING
We hope you enjoyed our summary of the art of documentary wedding photography! If you’d like to chat to us about our own particular brand of unposed street documentary wedding photography for your wedding we’d love to hear from you.
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