Wedding photography is an art. Wedding photographers have to be talented at many different types of photography, but most importantly, we have to be skilled storytellers. There is something amazing about having the opportunity to document one of the most important days in the lives of our clients. I love creating amazing portraits, but capturing events throughout the day and using the images to create a cohesive story is something I look forward to with every wedding. When I started in wedding photography, my style was heavily focused on fashion-influenced portraiture. When we started creating albums, I began to learn the art of storytelling.
Wedding photojournalism is about connecting with the viewer in as few images as possible—or, for that matter, even a single image. Emotional stories are created through images using three things I refer to as the Trinity of Storytelling: light, composition and the moment.
While shooting a wedding in Italy recently, I visited a few museums in Florence, where I got to see the work of Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci and many others. One thing I found in common in all of the amazing paintings, including those on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, is the ability to tell a story using the Trinity of Storytelling. Every single work of art I viewed in the museums had the ability to make me feel the emotion I felt the artist was trying to convey.
How does all this tie in to your wedding photography business? It’s simple: Photography is subjective. Your editing style, lighting style and shooting style are all a matter of interpretation of the viewer. The one thing that is prevalent in all photographs is emotion. In order to connect with the individual tastes of the greatest possible number of potential clients, while rising above the competition in your local market, you need to make viewers of your portfolio feel emotion through storytelling. This is done by combining the composition and the light with the final element that we will be talking about in the rest of this article: the moment.
So what’s a “moment”? According to Webster, it’s “a very brief period of time.” In photography, I would amend that to “a very brief period of time that should be remembered for the rest of the subject’s life.” In order to capture these moments, we have to find just the right expression during a photographic sequence that can sometimes be predicted, but can also be unexpected.
Branding Yourself as a Storyteller
I refer to our photographic style as creative documentary. While true photojournalists will not intervene in their imagery, wedding photographers do not often have the ability to simply wait for something to happen. Being a storyteller is not the same as being a photojournalist. Storytellers often have to evoke emotion from their clientele in order to best tell the story of the day.
Adopting a storytelling mindset is the first step in finding clients who appreciate your ability to capture their moments. Your website, gallery and sample albums should all be in sync in order to communicate to your potential client that you are going to be photographing their wedding to tell a story, and not just to take pictures.
Much of storytelling involves carefully honed techniques. Here a few ways to make your work stand out.
Go Close While Staying Wide
Be fearless. Much of storytelling in photography is about perspective. You need to be in the right position to tell the story in the way you intend to. Photographers are too often afraid to get close enough to the action because they are nervous they will be disruptive or intrusive. If the clients hired you because of your ability to tell their story, then they will understand that in order to capture the images they see in your portfolio, you need to be in the right position. During your consultation, tell your clients that this is the way you work, and it’s what you do that is different from the majority of photographers. They will welcome you to get close on their wedding day to create images using that interesting perspective that a wide angle creates.
I have seven different lenses for wedding day, but the two that stay on my cameras 90 percent of the time are my Canon 35mm F/1.4L and my Canon 85mm F/1.2L. I use a two-camera setup, and the majority of my photojournalism is shot with my 35mm. The 35mm is wide enough to allow me to give my story context. The F/1.4 aperture also allows me to isolate my subjects with its beautiful bokeh, or shoot in extremely low light, a common situation in wedding photography. Normal focal lengths are boring, and too many portfolios are filled with photojournalistic images shot with a 70–200 from across the room. Be different. Don’t be afraid to get close.
The magic of the 35mm focal length happens at a two-arms-length distance from your subject. At this distance, you are able to capture context but still isolate your subject. This image of Lisa and her mother, Mimi, photographed with a 35mm lens, earned First Place in WPPI’s 2014 Second Half Competition in the wedding photojournalism category.
The image was photographed using a 35mm lens and was wide enough to incorporate Lisa, her mother, Mimi, and the reflection of Mimi, but not so wide as to decrease the significance of the subjects or capture unwanted elements. The 35mm F/1.4 is a focal length used by many wedding photojournalists because of its versatility and low-light capabilities.
Back-Button Focus (BBF)
When I was told to use back-button focus for the first time to help capture PJ moments, my instructor could not give me a good reason why. I was just told that it was something all good photojournalists do. Having to push an additional button to get my focus was distracting and seemed counterintuitive. I still hadn’t realized its potential. Back-button focus has a very specific purpose in PJ work.
All cameras have the ability to use back-button focus. On the back of your camera, there is an AF-on button. By pressing that button, you activate the electronic autofocus on your camera in the same manner that you would by pressing the shutter halfway down. Simply using this button instead of your shutter button won’t show you the benefits. You have to disable the focusing function when you press your shutter button halfway. On the latest Canon cameras, navigate to your custom controls and select the first option (looks like a shutter button). Then, scroll to the option that says Metering Start and select it.
You have now disabled your shutter button autofocus. The benefit of BBF is that you separate your focusing mechanism from your shooting mechanism, allowing you to compose your shot and then wait for the moment to happen.
If you create the perfect composition without disabling the shutter button focusing mechanism, when you press the shutter button, your camera will refocus on whatever your focus point is hovering over in your viewfinder, causing an out-of-focus image. If you are shooting moving subjects, such as people dancing, a first look or grand entrance, your composition will likely change as you are shooting. BBF helps you avoid moving your focus point around to accommodate your changing scene, like I did in this photo of Nate crowd surfing at his wedding reception. This is crucial to storytelling.
As photojournalists, our job is to capture emotion. As storytellers, our job is to evoke emotion to complement the story. When posing family members or the bridal party together, you need to develop techniques to get them to show emotion for one another. Sometimes, evoking that emotion is easy. For this image of Melanie and her bridal party, we posed them together with Mel’s long veil, and all we did to get this reaction is ask them to look at each other and laugh. Sounds simple, right? It really is that simple. What happens is the group will look at each other and laugh, but when they hear themselves forcing a laugh, real laughter takes over, and you get images like this. Be ready to shoot multiple frames of the sequence to get the best one. I use this technique all the time, and it consistently provides excellent results.
As storytellers, our goal has to be this: When a client views her wedding album, she needs to feel exactly how she was feeling when the image was taken. We use raw emotion to accomplish this. So how do we capture intimate emotion? Sometimes it helps to remind your subjects about the significance of the moment. Try saying this to a mother or father of a bride when they see their daughter in her dress for the first time: “Look at your daughter—do you remember when she was a little girl? Did you ever imagine she would look this beautiful on her wedding day?” Then encourage physical interaction such as a hug—and be ready to capture the emotion.
Look Beyond the Obvious
Very often, the emotion in an image can be captured in the faces of onlookers at an event. Look at the background to make sure you do not miss any important moments.
Patience and Shooting Through Moments
As a storyteller, you need to be patient and wait for a moment. Over time, you learn to anticipate moments throughout a wedding day. Once you see that your light is right, you must set your composition in-camera and then wait. You may feel in the beginning that your efforts are not paying off, but over time, you will realize that by being patient, you are giving yourself the best opportunity to capture your moment. This sequence of Nate watching his bride, Monica, walking down the aisle is an example of anticipation and patience. I was able to capture her expression by being patient and waiting for the right moment.
Once I had the moment, I turned and focused on Nate and waited for the right moment. When the moment happens, be ready to shoot through it and take multiple frames. If you try to capture a moment by timing it perfectly, chances are you will miss it. Sports photographers use cameras with a high frame-per-second rate in order to capture the best image during an action sequence; wedding photographers can do the same without using cameras that shoot at 14 FPS.
Creating and Selling Storybooks
Telling a story requires a medium. In my opinion, it is impossible to tell an emotional story through a DVD or flash drive of 700-plus images. You need to have a physical, tangible album that includes only the images that tell the best story. The album creation process does not start when you open your design software or send your images to your designer. It starts when you are shooting the wedding. You should be designing your story’s spreads in your mind as you shoot. If you’re shooting bridal details, shoot all of your details on the same background vertically for the left page, and maybe one beautiful photo of the bride wearing these details on the right page. Take what appears to be emotionally insignificant images separately, and then combine them with a single impact image to tell a powerful story.
Your album is also the key to your success as a business. Album sales are so important to your revenue, and allow you to be different from your competitors. Choose albums that blow your client away. The difference between your competitor’s albums and yours should be obvious to any nonphotographer. Look at cover choices, paper types and overall build quality. Our studio uses Signature Collection Albums in our Renaissance lines, which are our most expensive products. We have used many different albums over the years, and SC albums are by far the highest-quality book we’ve used. Our first consultation showing this album resulted in a contract worth over $12,000 for us, which instantly made me a believer. Order a sample, and you will see exactly what I am talking about.
Remember, after seeing your books, your client will visit other photographers. Clients know the difference between bad photography and good photography, but they do not often know the difference between good photography and great photography. Your photos alone are not enough to distinguish your brand as a leader in your market. Your books, studio and personality must be better than what your competitors offer.
If you are having problems selling albums, make sure you are marketing the books as the main product in your collections. Digital negatives should be an afterthought in a storytelling studio, and you need to make your clients understand that the book is the final product you are working together to create. This starts from the client’s first interaction with your website. You should have actual album designs on your website, right next to your galleries, and then physical samples in your studio.
Once you adopt a storytelling mindset, your clients will too. You will see changes in the kind of people who seek your services, and you will be fulfilled as an artist—and, more importantly, as a business owner.