Updated: Jan 10
Almost every wedding photographer these days calls themselves a ‘Documentary wedding photographer’. What does this mean and is it the right ‘style’ for you and your wedding?
There are dozens of adjectives to describe different styles of wedding photography: Photojournalism, editorial, fine art, traditional, fashion, reportage, contemporary. I’m going to go against the grain and argue that many of them mean almost the same thing, and that great wedding photographers will do all of these on every single wedding day.
What is ‘Documentary photography?’
Each photo should tell a part of the story and all together they should tell the whole story.
I spent many years producing and directing documentaries for the BBC. Documentaries are factual programmes about real events but they are so much more than just that: great documentaries reveal the human stories behind true events told in engaging ways that make you feel connected and emotional.
Great documentaries show people at key moments in their lives and the emotions they’re going through as they transition to another important stage of their lives. And isn’t that exactly what’s happening at a wedding? Weddings are just perfect for the documentary approach.
Documentary photography is about telling a story with great photos. Each photo should tell a part of the story and all together they should tell the whole story. A set of documentary photos isn’t just a collection of individual photos - it’s a series of photos that works together to give the bigger picture of events and emotions. Take a look at Rick and Naomi's wedding which show's the anticipation and build up, followed by happy tears and bursting joy as the day unfolds...
What other kinds of wedding photography are there?
It's worth considering how long you want to step "out of the party"
To some extent all wedding photographers are documentary photographers because they are at your wedding, documenting what they see. So, why do some photographers not call themselves ‘documentary wedding photographers’?
There are broadly speaking three categories of wedding photography:
The traditional wedding photographer takes more formal photos and is less interested in capturing the crazy reality of what happens when you put all your loved ones into a room for a massive party. To be honest, not many people would call themselves a ‘traditional wedding photographer’ these days, but some photographers’ portfolios are more ‘traditional’ than others.
The documentary wedding photographer tries to capture all the little elements that they see on the day: kids doing cartwheels through the bridal prep, dads crying their eyes out when they see their daughters in their dresses, the over-excited dance floor queens! If it’s interesting, they’ll capture it!
The artistic wedding photographer spends time trying to create magazine-style images, and their work is sometimes called ‘editorial’ or ‘fine art’. There are subtle differences between these styles, but these photographers dedicate at least some time to posing people to get the shots they want.
Often, the editorial or fine art wedding photographers are aiming for fashion looks and will charge more for their services. If you choose this route, you'll need to invest more of your wedding day posing in front of the camera - so it's worth considering how long you want to step "out of the party" for all of that.
What makes a good documentary wedding photographer?
Great documentary photos are full of emotion just like wedding days. Some photographers seem to have a radar for those moments. It’s not just about the big emotions: the tears and the laughter, but capturing the little looks that say so much.
A great documentary photographer or filmmaker is always thinking about getting the shots that tell a story. They won’t miss the essential shots that need to go in the album that complete the memories from the whole day.
Many weddings are planned down to the last minute. But huge, complex events are also subject to surprises and change. A great documentary filmmaker or photographer will go with the flow and adapt to the changes happening around them.
Is documentary wedding photography for me?
a great wedding photographer is an ‘all-rounder’
Many people say the feel awkward posing for photos. This is a really common explanation for why people want a documentary style wedding photographer. They feel it means they won’t be asked to pose awkwardly for formal photos.
In my experience documentary wedding photography is great because it delivers all the natural drama of a wedding, but it also captures those moments that couldn’t be predicted but which often help to make a wedding day full of surprises and character.
But most people also want to have a few formal photos from their weddings as well. The family shots taken at weddings may seem less important to some couples, but are often really important to parents and relatives. Any wedding photographer should be able to capture the family formal photos regardless of whether they call themselves a documentary wedding photographer or not.
Similarly, even though many brides say they feel awkward about posing for photos who wouldn’t want at least one photo of them looking like they’ve strolled out of the pages of a fashion magazine? Many great documentary photographers can, at the drop of a hat, sensitively pose a bride for an incredible portrait without making her feel uncomfortable, getting the ‘editorial’ look before returning to documentary duties. Social skills and emotional awareness are definitely traits to look for in a wedding photographer!
In fact, a great wedding photographer is an ‘all-rounder’. On the big day they will be:
Formal portrait photographer
Product photographer (rings & shoes)
Architectural photographer (wedding venue)
Food photographer (cake, anyone?)
Action photographer (Have you seen grandad’s moves)
Wildlife photographer (pets/best man)
So, yes, a documentary wedding photographer probably is for you. In fact, it’s probably for almost everyone except couples looking to spend a significant amount of time away from their wedding party posing for photos that look like they belong in a magazine.
6 great tips to choosing the right wedding photographer
With so many documentary wedding photographers out there, how do you choose the right one for you? I recommend the following steps:
Choose your wedding photography budget first.
With that budget in mind, make a list of 10 photographers near you whose photos you love.
Ask to see images from a whole wedding, not just the best of their best.
Read reviews - think about the quality of the words not just the amount of reviews.
Find out whether they have your special day available in their diaries,
Speak to your top three affordable and available photographers and see whom you like best. You will be spending more time around your photographer on the big day than anyone else - you want a photographer you feel comfortable being around, not just one who takes great photos!
If you want to know more about documentary photography, for weddings or just in general, please feel free to get in touch for a chat!