I love good novels, especially the ones that make me stay up through the night page after page, leaving me unable to put the book down. I always feel the same way about a good novel — I need to know more. I want my images to make people feel like that, but it took me some time to discover how to do that.
When I started shooting weddings, I felt like something was missing from my images, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I played with my pictures by putting presets on them because I thought that was the way to go. But honestly, that didn’t create the impact I was looking for. Through the years, I was craving more from my images and I wasn’t quite sure what that was or how to achieve it. One day, while I was reading “Pride and Prejudice,” it dawned on me that what I was lacking in my images was the same thing I desired from my novels or from my movies: artful storytelling. This is the soul of any good book or movie, and I wanted my images to reflect that.
My goal was to have my weddings read like chapters in a novel, and I wanted each of those chapters to end in a way that the audience had to know more. I went back to look at my notes from my English professors and realized every great story starts with the exposition, where the characters and setting are introduced and defined.
During a wedding, you can introduce the bride and groom in a way that makes you feel as if you’re reading their novel. Does the bride sentimentally cry when she sees her dad walk through the door? Is she holding her mother’s hand when she sees herself dressed in her wedding gown for the first time? Is she a bride that gathers strength through her faith? Does the groom have a reflective nature about him or is he a big personality? How would we know this unless you, the photographer, are looking for those moments to help the reader know more about them?
These moments happen during a wedding, and we must keep ourselves open to them because, if we continuously pose our brides or have a camera up to our face, we might miss moments that should be happening naturally on the periphery. Remember, the story is already there. It’s unfolding before your eyes, and you must allow the wedding to breathe its own life. That doesn’t mean a photographer shouldn’t pose a bride, but doing so should take place with a discerning eye. If you really make yourself a voyeur in the wedding, you can see the rise and fall of those types of moments seconds before they tend to happen. If you’re too busy with a list of images you want to capture, it’s easy to miss them. Does that mean I might need to come a little earlier to a wedding? Yes, that will happen; but that won’t matter if the bride is running behind and stressing out. I always tell brides to start an additional hour earlier with hair and makeup. If they’re ready ahead of time, that will only allow me to spend more time capturing and telling their story.
If we relate the story back to how a novel progresses, there is a climax (in our example of a wedding, that might be during the ceremony, but it isn’t just during the first kiss). It can be when the groom sees the bride walk down the aisle for the first time as he tears up. It’s like he’s seeing his life change before him, and when they leave the altar together, their lives will be forever changed. It’s impactful. Capturing that emotion is important in a way that a bride might not understand until she sees that particular image. The ceremony is its own chapter; it should have depth beyond that of a first kiss. Look for what is happening besides the couple just standing at the altar. Most often we just see the father walking the bride down, the couple holding hands, the first kiss, and then the part of the recessional where the couple walks down, and they kiss at the end.
Once I have my safe shots, I look over to the guests, the family, and the bridal party and continue my story there. This is where you can optimize the use of your second shooter. Share that vision of how you want to photograph the wedding. Share with them how you envision telling the story. They can’t know how to photograph the story unless you’re sharing the why. I’ve often hired second shooters because, when I see their portfolio, I know they can tell a good story. Yes, I want them to be technically skilled, but what good is that if they can’t tell a good story through their photographs? Ideally they’d be skilled in both aspects — something I myself am continually striving and pushing in my own work.
Afterward, during the reception, there is still so much story to tell. If I’m shooting a destination wedding and I’m able to photograph multiple events, I always try to attend them. That is where I can meet extended family members and friends so I know who I want to be sure to photograph during the wedding.
I want the reception to be captured in a way that elicits laughter, joy, tears, and a desire for the “reader” to want to be there. I always try to shoot a wedding with various lenses (just as you see in a movie with closeups and different angles). A close-up shot can feel intimate, vulnerable, and it has its own energy. While a wide-angle shot allows you to feel like you’re taking every breath in as you’ve just entered a room. Both are important. Both serve a different purpose.
I love the last image of the wedding (much like the resolution of a novel) to end symbolically, especially if there is no real send-off. Do I have the last shot end with guests embracing in a circle as they sing the last song? Is it a sign with the couple’s last name during the reception lit only by DJ lights? Or will it be the couple in a romantic or joyous embrace on the dance floor? However it ends, I want it to be impactful in a way that makes you wish there was an entire series. You want the next bride that inquires with you to connect with your work. If you’ve made them feel a certain way, that is always a good sign because we never forget how people make us feel.
You might ask yourself, “Where can I start?” I always tell my mentees to look through their own blog posts. If you feel bored looking through your images, chances are your potential brides will feel the same way. You might begin by carefully editing out or including some images you may have originally thought were unnecessary. Another way is to ask yourself, “Why did I include this image?” If your answer is that it helps tell the story, then you’re off to a good start. But if your answer has something to do with tones, technique, or anything of that nature, then I might question if it needs to be there.
Artful storytelling begins and ends with impactful images that also have transitional ones — a setting, characters, symbolism, and so forth. Every wedding has those moments, and as photographers, we have the distinct role and privilege of narrating images into a well crafted story.