Reportage, Documentary, Photojournalistic wedding photography – what do they mean?

In general, those three phrases mean the same thing. The documentary, photojournalistic or reportage photographer at your wedding should be taking many unposed photographs. The intention is to document, or report, on your wedding. (I think ‘Photojournalistic’ is an American phrase, but meaning the same thing.)

Years ago, sometimes even today, every photograph at a wedding was posed. Your photographer would have arrived with a tripod, and during the reception a long list of group photos would be taken, with people leaving the reception to pose with the bride and groom in front of his or her camera (which rarely moved.) The photographer was in control and every photo was contrived.

This was unwieldy (because of the tripod) and time consuming (because they had to get their subjects to stop and pose.) Some photographers gave all of us a bad reputation by holding up proceedings at the church and reception. Ministers don’t like the bride’s arrival delaying the ceremony, and venues worry about guests sitting down for the wedding breakfast on time.

The fashion for documentary and reportage wedding photography came out of new technology (firstly highly sensitive film, latterly highly sensitive digital cameras) which enabled the photographer to get the camera off a tripod and use less lighting equipment and so be more mobile, and the desire for the wedding party to spend less time posing and more time enjoying themselves, while still getting a record of their day.

However, getting it right is hard to do. i spend an inordinate amount of time looking at other photographers web sites, and there’s many who produce wonderful, unobtrusive, captured moments time after time. However, most of the documentary and reportage photographs I see on the web are not ‘unobtrusive’ and ‘unposed.’ They’re recreations of the reality of the day. You can tell when the photo of a Bride grinning from the window of her wedding car is contrived (“Can you smile and look happy, please!”) or the genuine emotion in that split second as the car arrived. It’s the difference between your photographer controlling the events at your wedding and your photographer not interfering, but observing, and capturing the emotions of the day as they happen.

I would hope that all professional wedding photographers understand the technical side of their cameras, and comprehend what good composition is. The difference between a good documentary photographer and the others is that they don’t disrupt the flow of events – we wait for the content of each frame to align itself into a great composition and we don’t recreate events at the wedding.

Many will agree with me that the greatest documentary, or reportage, photographer of all time is Henri Cartier-Bresson. He set the standard of the genre, a standard that some of us try and achieve in our wedding photography. He is also know for his phrase to describe his greatest photographs: “The Decisive Moment.” This is when the elements that make up the content within a frame align themselves to make a composition that is greater than the sum of the constituent parts. To achieve this requires complete concentration, the ability to predict what will happen next, and perfect timing. I am certainly no Cartier-Bresson, but his photographs set the bench-mark that I aim for.

Of course, even I pose people! There are family group shots which are a pre-requisite for any wedding, and the photos of the Bride and Groom that will appear on their parents’ walls and Grandmother’s mantel pieces. But all too often, I hear that the Bride and Groom’s favourite photograph of themselves is one that I’ve taken when they weren’t aware I was taking it (like the photo of Sarah and James above.)

It’s often said that wedding photographers don’t sell photos, they sell memories. I really hope that the memories of your wedding are not of your photographer telling you how and where to stand, to smile, sit, hug, and so on. I sincerely hope that looking at your photos brings back memories of your happiest day.

My thanks to my colleague Steven Taylor, whose own blog post inspired this one.

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