Documentary Style Wedding Photography is On-Trend

Great news! It turns out that documentary style wedding photography is one of the hottest trends in wedding photography in 2019 and heading into 2020!

A bride and groom smile and touch foreheads as they walk between curtains put up in the synagogue in Charleston West Virginia.

Sara and Adam walk out of the synagogue after their wedding ceremony. I’d noticed earlier that they would touch foreheads with their loved ones as a sign of affection. Knowing that I watched for the gesture to happen as I backpedaled while they walked – not even thinking that they were being photographed.

As a true believer in the power of candid documentary images, this makes me very happy. It’s exactly the approach that I’ve taken to wedding photography for years.

Lots of people throw the terms “photojournalism,” “documentary,” and even “candid” around without a very solid idea of what those things mean. It’s totally OK for brides and grooms to use those words as they try to describe what kind of photos they’re looking for for their wedding. I get it, you’re not regular consumers of photo services and there’s a lot of contradictory information out there.

It’s also true that a lot of photographers will bill themselves as a documentary-style wedding photographers but then when you look at their work you see that most of their photos are posed. ̄\_(ツ)_/ ̄

So I’m going to take a shot at defining and describing some of these things for you. Hopefully by the time you’ve finished reading this post you’ll have a good idea of just what documentary style wedding photography is.

Photojournalism

Photojournalism is quite literally the telling of stories through photography. I had a full-time job as a photojournalist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for many years. It’s a very interesting job. The camera and the imprimatur of the news organization were my ticket to be a witness of some of the biggest events in Pittsburgh. As a news photographer I covered stories ranging from big stories like the destruction of Hurricane Ivan in Carnegie and Etna, the Pittsburgh Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL, and presidential campaigns from Clinton/Bush to Obama/Romney – and everything in between.

A big part of working as a photojournalist is the ethical code of never setting anything up for a photo (portraits are an exception) and then trying to pass that off as reality. The same goes for changing things in Photoshop. Photojournalists have been fired for doing that because it damages the credibility of the organization that they represent. It’s pretty serious stuff.

Documentary Photography

Documentary photography is closely related to photojournalism, and in a lot of cases documentary photography can be photojournalism. There are some differences. Documentary photography often has an element of advocacy. You’re telling a story and supporting a narrative. That narrative can have a very strong point of view. Where in photojournalism you’re a dispassionate observer who is reporting facts.

How I Practice Documentary Wedding Photography

A bride lifts her shoulder up as her mother kisses it before her wedding at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Just before her wedding ceremony Kate was waiting with her mom Mari for the signal to walk down the aisle. This was a quiet moment that said everything about how they felt about each other. It was a gift and not something that can be posed. The magic just wouldn’t have been there.

My own feelings on documentary-style wedding photography are along those lines of advocacy. To me, I’m there to tell a story for my clients. It’s their story and I am definitely not a dispassionate observer. I’m in the circle and on the team. That doesn’t make the work any less truthful. In fact, the connection that I have with my clients allows me to have insight into who they are as individuals and how they are together as a couple.

Portraits and Moments

During a wedding day I wear a few different hats. Portraits are a great example. They’re an important part of the day. Think about it: You’ve put a lot of thought, time, and effort into how you’re going to present yourselves on your wedding day. Everybody wants some straight-up nice photos of themselves looking right into the camera and smiling. That goes for family photos and bridal party photos, too. That’s not photojournalism. But it can be story-telling. To me, a great portrait reveals something of the character of the people in it. So I’ll put you in a nice spot with some good light. If needed, I‘ll offer some coaching. Then it’s up to you guys to have a moment and show me how you are with each other.

A bride and groom stand in the afternoon sunlight on the putting green outside of the Pittsburgh Golf Club before their wedding.

The light was beautiful and the clouds in the sky were amazing. So I knew just where I wanted to put Jessie and Dave for a portrait. The wind even cooperated!

Keeping Things Real

Most of the day I’ll be there but not directing or stage managing anything. This is when I’m wearing the documentary photographer hat. Things are going on without me telling anyone what I want them to do. I’m looking for those candid moments that are ripe with emotion. Those moments only reveal themselves when you’ve gotten used to me being there and aren’t really thinking about having your photo taken. I guarantee that it doesn’t take long before you just go about your day while I work to make the images that tell the story of your day.

A rabbi holds the heads of a bride and groom as they pray with closed eyes during their wedding at the Pittsburgh Golf Club.

Once the ceremony started I went into full documentary ninja mode! There was just no other place to get this image, so I squatted behind the bridesmaids (yay for leg day!) and waited for the right moment to stand up and make a photo. Nothing contrived here, just a lovely moment that means a great deal to the couple and their family.

Ultimately those unscripted, candid wedding photos are going to be the ones that get an emotional response even years down the line. That’s the power of documentary-style wedding photographs: They show you how you felt, not just what you looked like.

A bride and groom laugh as they hold champagne flutes for a toast on a patio after their wedding at the Omni Bedford Springs resort.

After the formal photos were done, Lauren and Tom shared a toast with their bridal party. When the formals were done I quickly made the transition into documentary mode.

Check out these photos of couples making memories on their wedding days: