Documenting Reality: The Art of Storytelling in Wedding Photography with Michael Anthony
Wedding photography has been a passion of mine since I first got behind the camera seven years ago. I was initially attracted to the art of storytelling in wedding photography because it allowed us to capture fleeting heartfelt moments. I appreciated the challenge and the feeling of satisfaction that would ultimately come when I was able to capture an authentic, emotional moment.
While I do not know what the exact reason is that I am drawn to the excitement of documenting moments on a wedding day, if I had to guess, it would be because emotional moments are rare and happen in an instant, and capturing one with good lighting and composition requires planning, execution and a bit of luck.
I can’t teach you to be more lucky, but with a refined skill set in planning and execution, luck will strike much more often than you might think. This month I am going to teach you how to get ready for it.
The Importance of Storytelling in Wedding Photography
A wedding is a day filled with emotional moments. Have you ever walked into a room full of bridesmaids who were awkwardly quiet? While you can’t see emotion itself, emotion influences behavior. The behavior of those bridesmaids suggests an emotion of anticipation, which is common on a wedding day. Our job as storytellers is to read behavior and interpret it as the correct emotion in the very instant it happens, and translate that into a two-dimensional image.
In other words, our images should help a viewer who was not at an event feel the emotions that the subjects are displaying through their behavior, and help the subjects themselves relive that moment when they look back at their imagery.
This is my three-year anniversary of writing for Shutter Magazine. In the past three years, the style that our studio has become known for is epic, cinematic imagery that enhances the reality our couple was experiencing when the image was captured. Portraits are no doubt important in the sales process, but being a good portrait-wedding photographer isn’t enough. Many moments on a wedding day include people who will not be around forever, and when those people are gone, the stories you tell through imagery will be some of the last things remaining of those people. Understand that what we do is important, and give every event your best effort.
While I love seeing beautiful portraits of couples in an amazing environment, as a community, we have been overemphasizing the importance of those images, and in a sense undermining the most crucial part of a wedding day, which is reality.
That being said, I have never lost sight of the importance of capturing moments, and through mediums such as Shutter, I want to help more photographers understand the importance and benefits of storytelling and also give them the techniques to get better at it.
The Three Elements of Good Storytelling
Light is the essential ingredient in capturing moments. Without light, we don’t have an image, and without good light, we have a mediocre one at best. So what makes good light?
Lighting is not just about where light is; it’s also about the absence of light in a composition. By using both highlights and shadows, we are able to tell better stories, create more dimension and hide distracting elements in an image while at the same time directing viewers to our subjects.
In documentary photography, you can use both natural and artificial light, but it’s crucial to understand how to use artificial light quickly and efficiently. In documentary wedding photography, we are not able to influence many moments, so getting to our shot as fast as possible could mean creating a great moment or missing it because your flash wasn’t ready or didn’t go off.
There is much debate over how much money to spend on certain types of lights. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Buy what works for your budget and your skill set. But here’s a tip on gear that will instantly make you a better photographer.
Get yourself a voice-activated light stand (VAL). This isn’t some crazy new light from your favorite manufacturer. It’s actually a human, a fancy word for an assistant. Having an assistant on the wedding day has taken our work to the next level. I am now able to get lights into places in a fraction of a second that otherwise would have been impossible.
Bring a VAL to your next wedding, and within an hour, you will see how useful it is to have a competent individual helping you capture that next moment, especially when you are trying to capture fast-moving action like dancing shots during a reception.
Composition is critical for good photography. Without composition, your frame is a garbled mess of elements with no cohesion or direction. Composition is a difficult skill to learn. Sometimes we educators make it even more difficult. We use a set of prewritten rules to teach it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because beginners should always be familiar with a basic set of rules.
What will set you apart is creative interpretation of the rules to create a composition that is meticulously planned. During a processional at a ceremony, you don’t have time to meticulously plan anything, so you have to rely on instinct to create better images. As an athlete and police officer, my instructors and coaches always told us that practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice is the only thing that makes perfect. This is because when emotions are heightened, you go back to your training.
Shutter speed is one of the first things we learn in controlling exposure. After a year or two of experience, did you ever have a situation that required an almost instantaneous change in exposure? What was the first thing you did? If you are like I was, you probably mashed that shutter dial one way or the other, whether or not the shutter speed was the best choice to adjust in that moment.
So how do you practice composition? The thing that helped me the most was to practice shooting everything at f/8 or higher. Doing so forces your brain to use other methods to clean up a clunky composition. I’ve used this technique in my live-day wedding photography as well. I rarely shoot a wider aperture than f/5.6 these days for documentary work because I prefer to layer stories together. Once you start practicing this, you will see that there are infinitely more possibilities when you allow your backgrounds to add to your story instead of hiding them away.
If you have heard me talk about these three elements of impactful storytelling before, then you know I believe this is by far the most important one to document. The reason is that you have control over the first two, but this one is something that happens when it happens, and that means you have to constantly be ready for it. Remember earlier when I told you that you have to sometimes get lucky? Well, if you are ready for the moment by lining up your composition and your lighting prior to the moment happening, you are increasing your opportunities to capture valuable moments.
Documenting moments boils down to three things:
- Anticipation: Anticipate moments before they happen so you have the best possible chance of capturing the right moment.
- Be patient: Once you line up your composition and lighting, you will be ready to capture the moments you are anticipating. They won’t always come, so don’t get discouraged if you are all set up and your moment doesn’t quite line up with your composition. Shoot the moment instead because a good moment trumps both good light and composition.
- Shoot through the moments: When a moment happens, we are instinctively unable to perceive and react to something in the amount of times it takes for a moment to happen. Expression can change in a fraction of a second. Reaction involves both perception and the time to act. If you try to time a perfect moment with a series of four to five shots, you will likely miss it, but if you shoot through a moment 20 to 25 times, you increase your chances of capturing the best possible composition and expressions. This is very different from “spray and pray”; it’s a methodical technique that is guaranteed to give you better results. Just be thankful we are shooting with digital cameras. Because of the Sony A9’s stellar autofocus and lightning-fast 20FPS, it’s not uncommon for us to shoot up to 10,000 images on a wedding day, and I know many documentary wedding photographers who shoot double that.
Techniques for Becoming a Better Storyteller
Layer Your Stories Together
Use multiple subjects in your shot, people and things (dress, details, etc.), to lay out a composition that will help tell multiple stories. By doing so, you are able to showcase many different elements.
Shoot in Sequences
This is more for the album, but shoot multiple frames in the same composition while your subjects are in motion, and then place them together on a page to tell a story.
Use Back-Button Focus (or Continuous Spot for Sony Shooters)
Back-button focus works by separating your trigger finger from your focusing mechanism. This allows you to line up your composition and focus, and wait for your shot. As long as you turn off your half-press shutter focus, you will be able to wait for your composition, and when the moment is right, you can fire away without reconfirming your focus, which will likely be in a different place.
Get Close and Use a 24–35mm Lens
This may be one of the most impactful factors on your images. By being close to your subjects with a 35mm lens, you can isolate them but still showcase the energy and environment around them. This is important to delivering context, because if you are shooting across the room with a 70–200mm lens, it’s hard to showcase why people are expressing certain emotions because there are no supporting elements in your frame.
Robert Capa, the famous war photojournalist, said it best: “If your photos are not good enough, you are not close enough.”
With a 35mm lens, think about being a little farther than a handshake’s distance from your subjects. Because you are getting close to them, this means you need to prepare them for how you work from the very beginning. I often tell my clients that within 10 minutes of me being there, they will forget about me. You often have to coach your subjects like this because of their tendency to look at the camera whenever it’s pointed at them. Once they understand to forget about you, your images will always be much better.
The Shutter community has allowed me to connect with so many of you all over the world. If you have enjoyed any of the articles we have written in the past, please help me stress the importance of wedding storytelling to the photography community.
There is no right way to photograph a wedding, but there are essential skills every wedding photographer should have when documenting reality. That starts with understanding the importance of what we do for our clients on the most special day of their lives.