The Challenges and Rewards of Documentary Wedding Photography


Looking through her parents’ wedding album a few years ago, Boston-based photographer Kate McElwee noticed the stark difference between the “staged and static” images shot by the official wedding photographer and those captured by a close family friend. McElwee explains that the family friend’s images “were incredible; they captured everything I love about my parents.” Although McElwee had developed her photojournalistic style of wedding photography several years prior to this “aha” moment, “everything clicked into place” with this juxtaposition of photos in a single album.

The ability to document events and special moments for future generations is a large part of why McElwee and the other documentary-style wedding photographers we interviewed for this story love what they do. But, like other genres of wedding photography, to reap rich rewards, there are also challenges to overcome.

Above photograph © Kate McElwee Photography

It’s a Matter of Trust

While formal family portraits are often a small part of their wedding coverage, documentary-style wedding photographers generally seek to fade into the background, to capture moments as they happen. Perhaps one of the biggest compliments someone shooting in this style can receive is, “We didn’t even notice you were there.”

But this fly-on-the wall approach requires a level of trust that’s, perhaps, more critical than it is for other wedding-photography genres. And building that trust starts long before the wedding day.

Kenny Clapp, of Baltimore-based Clapp Studios says, “Building a relationship with your client from day one is key.” During the wedding consultation, Clapp will ask questions such as how the couple met, while also sharing personal stories about his wife and himself. Shooting the couple’s engagement session also “helps build relationships for when the big day comes. I love to photograph the hidden interactions at weddings, but clients have to feel comfortable around you or it won’t happen,” Clapp explains. “The more relaxed they are around you, the more those moments will happen.”

Usually photos of the guys getting ready show a lot of toasts, practical jokes, and antics,” says Clapp. “But often the quiet moments are the most telling. In this image, a groom and his best man prepare for the big day.”Clapp Studios

Jos and Tree Marie Woodsmith, of Portland, Oregon-based Jos Studios, also ensure a trusting relationship by meeting with the couple—in person or via Skype—multiple times prior to the wedding. “We listen, and we ask a lot of questions,” says Tree, “and let our couples know that the better we know them, the more we can identify what to look for when shooting the wedding. They inherently trust us because they know we care.”

We show up early and end late,” the Woodsmiths explain. “This way we don't miss any subtle moments that play a big role in telling the story. We look for expressive moments that allow you to feel something in the photograph. Here we anticipated the stylist spraying the bride's hair by setting up an off-camera backlight to freeze the particles in the air to frame and make the bride pop."Jos Studios

Between in-person meetings, Skype, Facetime, and phone calls, there are plenty of options for connecting with the couple, regardless of their location. “There’s a lot of communication,” says McElwee, “so they trust me going into the wedding day.” But, she adds, sometimes the parents and the wedding party “might not have seen my work, and they might have a preconception about what wedding pictures should look like, so I may have to work a little harder.” Because family and friends don’t always “get the documentary thing, they’ll create photos for you—the bridesmaids might say, ‘Can you get this shot of our dresses?’” McElwee’s response is simple: “As soon as they start posing, I put my camera down, which is a subtle way of saying, ‘I’m not going to shoot that.’ If you shoot, it’s rewarding that behavior.”

Since she generally hasn’t met family and friends before the event, McElwee shows up a couple of hours before the couple and the wedding party start getting dressed. “I’ll spend time talking to them and getting to know people,” she says, “so when I do start shooting, they’re already used to my presence.”

Courtney gets ready in her Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, home. Rather than just taking beauty shots of the getting-ready process, McElwee aims to tell stories that go a little deeper and reveal more about her subjects' personalities, and their relationships with friends and family. She used a Sony 35mm f/1.4 lens to capture the whole scene, rather than just the bride.Kate McElwee Photography

It’s important to work with the couple or the wedding planner to avoid timelines that are so tight that “there’s no extra time for things to happen, and it’s really hard to find the more organic stuff that you want,” says McElwee. “We’ll sometimes buffer the day,” Tree explains, “because crazy schedules make it difficult to document the day and tell the story.”

Hiding in Plain Sight

While McElwee is “part of the scene” and “absolutely not invisible” during the getting-ready part of the day, starting with the ceremony, “people say they don’t see me the rest of the day, even though I’m shooting in a similar way.” (Except when the dancing starts, and she joins in while shooting.)

Because they’ve set up specific expectations beforehand, Jos explains that his clients “give us access to be in a bolder position. They know we’re trying to get the best shot possible,” he says. Talk about bold positions, though! At a recent wedding with an outdoor ceremony, Jos decided to “dive underneath the couple as they were exchanging rings and photograph their hands straight up.” The guests started laughing, he recalls. “The couple loved it and laughed, too. It became part of the story.”

Layering people in one photograph is key for telling a story,” says Jos Woodsmith. “Here we photographed through a man holding a baby while the ceremony was happening in the background. Two stories happening in one photograph. The man in the foreground was the previous groom we photographed two years earlier, and a potential foreshadowing of the couple currently getting married." Jos Studios

But there’s a time to be bold and there’s a time to disappear—physically (to get an overhead shot, for example) or metaphorically, when everyone at the wedding “sees us as guests and not photographers,” Tree points out.

Patience is key when shooting documentary style. As Clapp explains, “Once I have my framing, I wait for the moments to happen.” Rather than moving around, he positions himself where he can pivot to the left or right, and then return to center, ensuring that he’s able to capture whatever is going on around him as the scene unfolds organically.

Like Clapp, the Woodsmiths will get into a spot, compose and “wait for things to happen.” Where to position yourself? “Light is a big factor,” says Tree. “If I’m using natural light, I’ll position myself where the good light is. The other factor,” she adds, “is anticipating that someone else might come into the frame with the subject.” Or, you may want to shoot from high or low angles “to get out of the chaos,” says Jos, and create an image “with a really good zen background.”

“Robin and KK married at the Crane Estate, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, on a blustery October day, and at the beginning of the ceremony Robin's veil flew off in the wind,” says McElwee. “Unplanned moments like this provide the perfect opportunity to capture the couple's real personalities, and they remind the couple how it felt at that moment in time, with the wind howling.” Kate McElwee Photography

While McElwee wishes she could shoot the whole day waiting for something to happen, “realistically,” she says, “you can’t. You’d end up with 50 incredible pictures, but the couple is expecting up to 800 images, so it’s kind of a balancing act between waiting for the moments or seeking them out.”

Everyone we spoke with usually shoots in a team or with a second shooter and, often, an assistant, which allows them to cover a broader scope.

What About Formals?

“Formals are really important,” McElwee insists. “And the parents really appreciate them. In 20 to 30 years, when they start losing family members, these images become even more important.”

Clapp forms close relationships with his clients and is personally touched by their weddings. He explains, “As a father of three daughters, seeing a bride being escorted down the aisle to be given away by her father is one of the most emotional moments of the day for the bride, her father—and me.” Kenny Clapp

Even with formal photos, which comprise a very small percentage of the wedding day (maybe two to five percent), these photographers work with the couple and the family to ensure natural-looking results. Clapp will give the couple cue words for actions other than posing for him or looking at each other, explaining, “I give them things to do, so they’ll still look natural.”

Jos notes that he and Tree might ask the bride, “What is it about the groom that makes you feel safe? Now they’re having a real conversation, and forgetting they’re being photographed, and real emotion comes out,” he says. McElwee may have the couple walk up the stairs and then back down to give them an activity rather than saying, “go to the top of the stairs and kiss.”

Technical Challenges and Gear

For these photographers, lighting is probably the biggest technical challenge. As Clapp, who shoots with the Nikon D750, says, you really have to be comfortable with your camera because you’re going to be changing settings so quickly. “If I’m worried about equipment, I can’t be present or engaged in the moment,” he explains.

According to the Woodsmiths, "When we commit to shooting a destination wedding, we immerse ourselves into the entire experience. We ebb and flow into every activity and become one with the guests. This gives us access to authentic moments that tell the real story. Our clients trust us, which allows them to be themselves while we photograph real moments, not staged."Jos Studios

The Woodsmiths, who shoot with Canon 5D Mark III’s and Canon EOS 6D’s, explain that, “You’re moving in and out of shadows and light, spinning the camera exposure dial to get the right exposure.”

Although McElwee generally uses her Sony a9 in manual mode, changing exposure settings without thinking, she also sets up a custom “oh s%#t” mode—using auto ISO, auto shutter speed and auto white balance that she can access with one press of a function button. “I don’t use it often,” she admits, “maybe once a wedding—when stepping outside from a dark church, and the couple is running down the steps, which gives you no time to change settings.”

McElwee notes, “Getting low enables you to shoot wide and close, without disturbing guests' enjoyment of the reception. Here, I wanted to capture the reactions and the moment within one frame; getting close to the subject with my Sony 35mm f/1.4 lens enabled me to do this.”Kate McElwee Photography

McElwee mainly shoots with available light, but adds her Godox V860 on and off-camera flashes during the reception. Clapp is a fan of Godox, too, and carries the Godox R2 and, when he needs more power, the Godox AD200. The Woodsmiths are huge fans of the new Profoto A1, although they’ll shoot with the Profoto B1, as well.

While Jos may use a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 when he climbs a tree to get a shot and McElwee will take out her Zeiss Batis 135mm for the ceremony and portraits, wide and medium focal lengths seem to be the “go-to” lenses for the documentary wedding genre. Tree prefers the Canon 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2 and 85mm f/1.8, while McElwee’s main lens for documentary work is the Sony 35mm f/1.4. She’ll also switch to the Zeiss Batis 25mm for dancing, when necessary. Clapp carries his two Nikon D750s using a Hold Fast Gear Moneymaker harness, with a Nikkor 85mm on one camera and a Nikkor 35mm or 24-70mm lens on the other.

Color or Black-and-White?

The documentary genre is often associated with the halcyon days of black-and-white film, yet contemporary wedding photography involves a much richer palette, leading the photographers we spoke with to agree that the lion’s share of their coverage remains in color. “Couples pay attention to color,” says McElwee, while Jos mentions, “If the couple has a specific color palette for their bridal party, we’ll do that.”

"Capturing dancing during a reception can be challenging, but we love it! We like to get super close in on the action and shoot lots,” the Woodsmiths explain. “We shoot with wide-angle lenses and off-camera flash to create dramatic lighting that gives feeling to the action and celebration."Jos Studios

For the percentage of images that do end up delivered as black-and-white, the decision about converting them is often intuitive. “The photo usually tells us what it belongs in,” says Jos.

There is also a rationale behind that intuition. As McElwee, who delivers about 20 percent of her images in black-and-white, explains, “Quite often I’ll know when I take the picture. If there’s really beautiful light or an emotion I want to highlight, then the image will be black-and-white.”

Light and emotion also speak to Clapp, who says, “If an image has strong emotion and gorgeous light, I’m usually going to make it black-and-white. It allows the viewer to focus on the moment in the image,” while lots of colors can add an air of chaos and distraction. McElwee clarifies further, “If I have a really distracting background, black-and-white helps focus on the subject.”

Benefits and Rewards

If you’re going to shoot documentary-style weddings, don’t be shy; you need to be able to get up close and personal with your subjects. It took a while (and some prodding from mentors) for British-born McElwee to be comfortable with getting close and shooting with wide-angle lenses. “I think it’s part of being British—I don’t want to be an imposition,” she explains. “But I realized you do need to be closer, and clients hire you because of this style, so they’re going to be okay with it.”

Seeing the moment of her daughter and new son-in-law being announced for the first time, the mother of the bride was overwhelmed with emotions of joy and pride.Clapp Studios

All told, the biggest reward for the photographers we spoke with is that their photographs will pass from generation to generation and bring those who weren’t at the wedding—those not yet born, as well as people who were unable to attend—a true sense of the emotions and interactions from that special day. Says Tree, “The reward is to experience these beautiful moments and to capture something that’s going to be meaningful to future generations.”

With a nod to her parents’ wedding album, McElwee adds, “It showed me a side of my parents that I didn’t get to experience myself.”

Perhaps one of the biggest rewards to this wedding genre is delivering photos the couple doesn’t expect. “Maybe a quirky picture of a guest that they didn’t see happening, but really represents this person,” McElwee notes. In another instance, “the bride had no idea that there was emotion from her father until she saw a picture of him tearing up,” she recalls. “It’s moments like that I really love.”

As Jos says, “Documentary photography is so powerful because real moments are timeless, real moments will never go out of style.”

During a January Nor'easter in Portland, Maine, McElwee pulled out all the stops to tell the full story of her subjects, Kelly and Huy. “They braved the snow for portraits, but the above image better shows the challenge they faced in taking photos outside in such conditions,” she says. “Capturing transitional moments like this also creates a better story of the day for the album or slideshow, showing how the couple moved from one venue to the next.”Kate McElwee Photography

Are you a documentary-style wedding photographer? If so, please share your experiences in the Comments section, below!

To view additional images from the photographers who contributed to this article, click on their names below:

Kate McElwee

Clapp Studios

Jos Studios