Documentary Wedding Photography
An almost purely documentary-style wedding, because I was never meant to be there in the first place.
I love photographing weddings. You've probably heard me say it ten times already on this website, and it's absolutely true. Photography for me started 18 years ago, on one fateful day, sitting on my father's bed when he handed me his camera from the 1970s. I took a few photos despite there being no film in the camera and I was immediately hooked.
Between then and now I've taken a lot of photos. A lot of photos. But some of the magic has been lost I fear along the way. That's not to say I don't enjoy my job, because I love it - it's just that I only seem to take now photos for work related things. If I'm going out, I don't take photos for myself in the way way that I used to. I've had two rolls of film sitting in my fridge for the last three years since I used them because I'm not excited enough about having them developed to walk into town and get it done.
Now this next bit might well sound slightly odd, but bear with me here. I like weddings, and I love photographing them, and occasionally if I have a week off, I'll phone around my photographer friends and see if anyone is shooting a wedding that I could also attend. I don't get paid, after all, taking payment would make it work instead of a hobby. So, occasionally, I photograph weddings as a hobby. I must say it's fantastic fun too, I get to do whatever I want for the day, I get to try new things and new techniques and there's no pressure if I don't get a single photo worth keeping. Let's remember that the bride and groom didn't know I was attending until very recently, meaning anything they do receive is a free bonus.
For the wedding in question, I wanted to try a new camera and lens combination that I'd not used widely at a wedding of my own, this being the Nikon D750 (full frame sensor in a small body) and Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens (a favourite of mine since the day it arrived)
If you're reading this and have already studied the article I wrote entitled 'Do we need two wedding photographers?' then you may be familiar with the name Aaron Russell. Aaron is one of my associate photographers who I employ to second shoot for me, and it just so happened that he had a really cool sounding wedding on a weekend where I was free. (If you click on the link to view Aaron's website and think 'wow, these two websites are very similar' it's because I helped build his!)
Aaron's wedding was for Molly and Sean, a lovely young couple who had asked a family friend to take their wedding photos for them. That family friend had second thoughts, and in turn phoned Aaron to see if he could do the job with with him, or for him in its entirety. The bride, Molly, would get ready at her parents house in the countryside, which is also where the reception was going to be held later that day, with a marquee in the garden. The church was a 10 minute walk away, up a slight incline leading into the village centre which consisted of a church, one pub (where a drinks reception was to be held,) a school (where we were going to take the group photos on their playing field) and about 7 houses.
As Aaron was busy covering the bride having her makeup applied, I relaxed into my role as pseudo-second shooter for the wedding. No pressure, just have a bit of fun doing the thing I love.
Early in the morning, the wedding cake arrived; a three tiered semi-nude sponge cake with white icing and no decoration at all. I believe it may have been made by a family friend, but can't be sure. Either way, it looked fantastic, if slightly bland. It transpired that the bridesmaids and brides-men were going to decorate the cake themselves, using some fake flowers and fresh fruit. Of course none of them had attempted this before, and didn't really know what they were doing. At the time I was already a veteran of some 280 weddings so I knew a thing or two about them... and as any of my friends will tell you I know a LOT about cake. With a few helpful hints and tips the cake decoration actually went very well.
Sure there were one or two moments of uncertainty when it came to decorating the cake, but all told it ended up looking fantastic, as you can see a couple of photos below. I really like the black and white image immediately above, with the bridesmaid looking somewhat anxious as one of the bridesmen (also known as the 'honour attendant' or 'man of honour') places the finishing touch to the top tier of the cake.
With Aaron focusing (excuse the pun) on the bigger events that took place in the morning, namely covering the bridal party having their hair done, I was free to wander around taking photos of the details that might otherwise had been missed.
The house was vast, and had two large conservatory-like rooms, one at either side of the house. Initially the hairdresser had the bride in the kitchen where she was doing her hair, but the artificial light gave a strong orange cast in the photos. These kinds of lights do give a wonderful warmth and ambiance in a family home, but it's not such a great look in your wedding photos. I suggested a move of location to the one conservatory, and an extension cable was found allowing the hairdresser to plug in all of her essential electrical items.
I was able to capture some cracking candid moments in this part of the house. There was enough space to get all of the family in, and the open side meant we had plenty of good quality light to work with too. I really like the photo above, where there seems to be a committee meeting going on, discussing the bride's hair!
I'm not quite sure why the bridesman looked as nervous as he does here. The hair was going well and to plan, and we were perfectly on time too.
Mid morning and a there's a knock on the door. I don't know whether the family are expecting anything or anyone, as this is the first time I've met them and have no prior knowledge about the day itself. Instinctively I followed the bridesman to the door where he was met by a man with a surprise delivery.
It was addressed to the parents of the bride, neither of whom were due to receive anything that day. There was an air of intrigue as the mother of the bride (on the right in the image below) struggled to open the box. After several attempts she was in, and to her surprise found a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Only there was no card, and nothing to suggest who may have sent them. After feigning having no idea as to what was going on, the bride, Molly, eventually owned up to the plan!
With the bride and bridesmaids hair done, it was time to move onto the makeup, which the girls were applying themselves. This isn't unusual when it comes to weddings, as not everyone trusts a makeup artist to deliver exactly what they're after. A lot of brides and bridesmaids are much happier doing their own make up, as they've been doing it for years and already know what they do and don't like. The blue-green walls of this room made for a great backdrop for some portraits of the bride doing her makeup.
As other members of the bridal party joined Molly, I hung back and took some photos whilst looking in from another room. I really like this approach to wedding photography, as you get a real fly-on-the-wall feel to the images. I have purposely include the door-frame in this photo, itself framing the people in the image naturally.
All morning I had been enjoying my day off, despite it being awfully similar to a work day, when Aaron asks me something. 'Lee, can you go to the church and photograph the groom arriving?' Wait... this wasn't part of the plan... and all of a sudden this feels like I'm actually working! Not to worry though, Aaron was busy and it wasn't too much hassle organising a lift to take me to the church just up the road. I went straight back into my normal work mode and took some candids of the groom and his ushers making their way down the church path. They had arrived rather early, and as such were the first people inside the church that day, with the guests not due to arrive for another hour or so.
Inside the church the groom took a good look around, making sure he was happy with the set up and how everything looked. He practiced standing in the right position and gave his ushers instructions on what he wanted them to do when the guests started making their way inside the church. After 10 minutes or so at the church, I felt it was time to return back to the bride and bridal party at the house. As no guests were present there really wasn't much else to be done here, and I felt like I could be of more use down the road.
When I returned I was told that the bride was getting in the wedding dress. I didn't want to interfere, so popped upstairs, first asking that everyone was dressed and that I was okay to do so. Molly was getting dressed in her old bedroom, and it was very tight for space. Using my 35mm lens at it's widest aperture of f/1.4 I took a few quick frames through the door and then left Molly in peace to have her wedding dress done up.
With the bride in the dress, the final step really was to get her in her shoes. There was insufficient space to do this upstairs, and because of the corseted top to her dress she found it very difficult to bend down. Luckily, the entire bridal party were on hand at the bottom of the stairs and they all chipped in.
I popped back outside as I had heard male voices, and assumed that the men of the family were now dressed and were otherwise ready to go. The father of bride was stood there with his hands held in front of him, anxious to see his daughter in her wedding dress for the first time. I said that I'd see how they were all getting on, and I'd give him a shout in a few minutes when we were ready.
Aaron and I decided that the best place to get a photo of this could be back inside the room where Molly had been doing her makeup, as there was plenty of space and the quality of the light was perfect. As I'm rather small, I opted to hide behind the bridal party, shooting back over the bride's shoulder towards the door where her father would walk in. As you look at the photo below, Aaron is in the corner of the room to the right, shooting back towards the bride in order to capture her reaction. I feel like I got the best job between the two of us here, as it's always great seeing the look on a father's face at this part of the day.
With these important shots in the bag, it was time to make our way the short distance to the church. The church was tiny, and only had a very small access road, just wide enough for the bride's method of transport - a VW Camper, to make it's way up. I think the image below works really well in terms of story-telling. I shot looking down the line of the bridal party, whilst being able to include the camper van coming up the lane in the same shot. The bridesmaids and bridesman had arrived at the church before the bride and were able to be there for her entrance.
Being a second shooter here was great; Aaron was outside taking a couple of formal photos that the brides family had requested. Of course, if this were one of my weddings it would have been me outside taking these photos. Instead, I had the freedom once again to do whatever I saw fit. In this instance I saw the vicar, who was well into his 80s and walked with a cane, standing just inside the church doorway and looking back out to see what was going on. The Nikon D750 camera that I took this picture with handles shadows and highlights better than most cameras do, so despite the people outside being in daylight, and the vicar being in near dark, the image has come out perfectly with details being preserved both sides of the church door.
For the ceremony itself, there wasn't a huge amount for me to do. Aaron was at the front of the church which is where I would have chosen to have been too. Instead, there was only space for me at the very back of the church, shooting down the central passageway towards the soon-to-be-newlyweds. Fun fact: the walkway down the centre of the church isn't called the aisle, but instead the central passageway. The aisles in a church are actually the walkways on the outermost parts of the building, between the ends of the pews and the walls of the church. So how many brides each year walk down the aisle? The answer is none of them!
As I say I didn't have a huge amount to do in the church, especially as I was originally never meant to be there in the first place. Still, I used my 70-200mm lens which was the longest I had with me, in order to get some photos of the bride and groom at pivotal moments such as the exchanging of the rings and their first kiss.
One peculiarity that experienced during this wedding was with the vicar. As Aaron was busy before the service, I had spoken with him and asked that we could, as is the norm literally everywhere, take a staged photo of the bride and groom signing the register after the actual signing had taken place. (You're not allowed to photograph the actual signing of the register, despite it being a public document) however when the time came to take these photos, the vicar flat-out refused. Luckily I had taken one cheeky photo of the bride signing from on of the pews. As no details are visible I'm not breaking any rules you'll be pleased to hear!
Immediately after the ceremony had finished and the couple had left the church, the guests came pouring out. This is actually one of my favourite times during a wedding day to take candid/reportage photos. So much happens in a short space of time, and it all happens literally right in front of you. For these images I once again used the D750 camera and 35mm lens combination that I had been experimenting with all day.
One photo I always try to look for in this circumstance is a photo of the bride and groom mirroring each others actions, when they don't know they're doing it. It rarely ever happens but the photos when it does happen are special. Take the black and white image above, where in perfect synchronicity both the bride and groom are greeting two separate guests with a hug. I could see this happening and quickly had to step to my left with the camera still to my eye in order that I could get the composition that I wanted.
We were faced with one small issue at this wedding, and that was really the lack of viable outdoor space that could be used to take the photos of the bride and groom on their own. The church had a tiny amount of grounds, most of which was used as a graveyard, and no one wants tombstones in their wedding photos. I had a bit of a look around and noticed that at the far side of the church there was a small walkway, with headstones either side, but thought that I would be able to position myself in a such a way that you wouldn't see them. I stood the brie and groom where I thought would be best, and switched to my 85mm portrait lens. This lens has a huge aperture of f/1.4 which really allows you to blow the background of an image out of focus. It's also incredibly sharp and is perfect the this situation. I chose to shoot these photos at f/2, with just enough depth of field that both the bride and groom would be in focus, but still a wide enough aperute that the background remained blurred.
For the image below I switched to a different technique. I put my beloved 35mm back on the camera in order that I would be able to include more of the underside of the tree that I had placed the bride and groom near. To make sure that I had the correct perspective in this image, the bride and groom are actually leaning towards me at the waist by about 20 degrees. In person it looks weird, and I'm sure for the people in the photos it felt weird - but it looks spot on in photos. If you don't have the couple leaning towards you and you take a photo with a wide angle lens whilst kneeling down, you give a forced perspective where their bodies are wide and their heads are very small. This lean towards the camera keeps the couple parallel to the lens from head to toe and so they remain in proper proportion.
After we had left the church we walked only 100 metres or so to the church opposite, where the pub had put on canapés and the guests could order their own drinks. We stayed here for about an hour and I spent most of that time taking candids of the guests. Two of my favourite images from this time period are the ones above and below. The image above has captured the moment that the groom is showing his friends his wedding band, at the same time explaining how weird it felt to be wearing a ring!
It was such a gorgeous day that the wedding guests decided to walk the mile back to the house, led by the bride.
After the food, speeches and first dance, I was outside taking some candids of the guests just relaxing in the garden. I pointed my lens towards this outside conservatory-come-greenhouse and noticed that the setting sun in the background was creating this lovely golden light. I stopped taking photos and went outside, to the front of the property to see if there was anywhere we could go to get a sunset photo. There was not. I looked at a satellite photo of the area on my phone to see if there were any adjacent fields that we could go into for a stunning wedding photo. There was not. The sun was getting really low in the sky and I had no ideas as to how to make the most of it. I turned onto the main road and looked out towards the countryside - success! The sun was hitting the houses and trees either side of the road at a low angle and was illuminating them. I put the camera on the pavement (I cannot explain to you how quiet this part of the world is) and ran back in to find the bride and groom. 'There's an awesome sunset happening and I have a really cool idea... but you have to trust me' - usually I've known my couples for anywhere from 6 to 24 months, and when I say 'trust me' they've known me long enough to do so. Molly and Sean had known me for all of 12 hours, but came running nonetheless. 'I want you to run about 200 metres down the road, stand in the middle of the road, hold hands and walk away from me' and without a seconds hesitation they did so. The rest as they say is history, and the photo below is the perfect way to have finished the photograph of this wedding. Not bad for my day off!