Erica Jensen – Focusing on the Right Things: What to Look for-and Why
Weddings are boring. There, I said it. They’re choreographed events that follow a scripted timeline. Girl gets ready. Boy gets ready. Boy marries girl. White dress, black tux, yada yada yada. There is no winning sports team, no exploding volcanoes and no skiers ripping down the slopes. What plays out before the eyes of a wedding photographer is, in many ways, predictable and boring. That is, of course, what we see on the surface, from the outside looking in. But down beneath is the way that it feels. And that is an entirely different matter. Weddings feel extraordinary because they represent extraordinary things: the joining together of lives and families, eternal promises, unabashed love.
Recognizing this, and being able to tap into it, is the secret to creating wedding imagery that gets at the deeper layers of what lies beneath the surface of a wedding…the heart and soul of a wedding…the feeling.
This is what David Allan Harvey was getting at when he said, “Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.” This is the ultimate challenge of wedding photography, and the root of what separates compelling, timeless images from those that lack feeling. We can’t just give our clients photos that remind them how their day looked, because that’s not how they saw it. In fact, it’s quite possible they didn’t see it at all—they felt it.
We have to give them photos that remind them how it felt, or better. So many couples are disappointed with their wedding photos because they just don’t live up to their extraordinary memories of the day. What we give them will ultimately influence their memory, and that’s a powerful thing. So if we’re going to change their memory, we want to enhance it. Uncle Bob, with his Best Buy TDI, can show them how it looked (on Facebook, less than 24 hours later) and spoil their memories. Our ability to show them how it felt has very little to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness. Just knowing what to pay attention to makes all the difference. Too many photographers focus on doing things right, when they’d be better off focusing on doing the right things.
So what do we focus on? We look for and record the extremes and the unexpected. Why? Because that’s how we feel. We may see the world in expected colors and boring midtones, but we feel in extremes, we remember the unexpected. That’s what leaves impact. That’s what we feel. The memorable and impactful is almost always extreme and unexpected.
We apply this approach to light, composition and, most importantly, the moment. Let’s look at each.
Stop shooting your bride and groom, and start shooting light and shadow.
Our cameras and our eyes are entirely different entities that view and record the world in different ways. Understanding and exploiting the differences is key to creating compelling imagery. Our eyes see the world as scenes and subjects. Our cameras and the photos they produce speak only in light and shadow. And while our eyes can see across a dynamic range of 20 stops, our cameras are limited to five. We deliberately exploit this difference to create extreme and unexpected images. By intentionally over- and underexposing to extremes, we can take advantage of our cameras’ limitations and make images that are so much more compelling than what we see (what it looks like). We can add drama, mystery, feeling.
Natural light is almost always our first choice. Exposing for the extreme highlights (or occasionally the extreme shadows) helps us create visually impactful images. Midtones are blah…that’s how it looked.
When we can’t get excited about the natural light, we bust out our speedlights. This is something we would never do if we were afraid to fail, because we fail often with this. But when it works, it can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the insane. My best advice with regards to manufacturing your own off-camera light is to just experiment. Play around. And don’t worry: Flash photography is still “available-light photography.” If it’s in your camera bag, it’s no less available than that lamp you can turn on or those curtains you can open. It’s available, so use it. Be brave.
And remember, what makes a photo really sing is not so much where the light is, but where it’s not. The absence of light is often more important than its presence. We use MagMod grids on our speedlights to help shape and modify our light. This allows us to add light exactly where, and only where, we want. Being able to control your light is an absolute game changer.
Take all of those stuffy photography rules and throw them out the window. If the goal is extreme and unexpected, then why would we adhere to them? We’re artists, not technicians; so don’t let the curse of knowledge prevent you from doing something new and exciting. Just compose visually, instinctively, not in accordance to rules. Rather than the rule of thirds, for example, follow the rule of ninths. Experiment. Make your own rules. Once you free your mind about the concept of composition being correct, you can do whatever you want.
The best practical tactic for creating more extreme and unexpected compositions is to get out of the “safe shooting zone.” Shooting from 5 to 10 feet away from your subject is boring and expected because that’s the way everybody else has already seen it.
Getting close is as critical as it is scary. It requires bravery as a photographer and trust from our clients. The result can be compelling compositions that make our viewers feel as though they were present in the scenes we’re photographing.
Shooting from afar can also be extreme and unexpected. Pulling back to reveal the chaos or the enormity of the bigger scene can have powerful storytelling potential.
Basically, the most important thing about composition is that our images are composed in a way that tells the story we’re trying to tell, ideally in an extreme and/or unexpected way.
Moments trump everything, always. But not the ones you might suspect. Almost every wedding has a first kiss, first dance, cake cutting, a bunch of toasts, and many other very predictable moments. While these are important to capture, they in no way get at the underlying heart and soul of a wedding.
Weddings are full of so many unexpected moments and stories that fall outside the obvious timeline of the day. It’s those unexpected, not so obvious moments and stories that clients treasure. It’s our job as wedding photographers to search out and record them. They’re happening all around us, constantly, throughout the day. And they require absolutely no direction whatsoever. All we have to do is put our camera where it needs to be to capture it in a compelling manner.
On the surface, weddings are boring, predictable and silly. If you’re stuck seeing and shooting on the surface, then your photos are likely to be just as exciting. But beneath the surface, the heart and soul of weddings are extraordinary, unpredictable and moving. Capturing this requires curiosity, bravery and commitment.