Through his Contemporary Weddings website, David has shot more than 100 weddings. While we can all guess that capturing emotion is the key to successful candid wedding photography, David argues that your picture will fail to capitalise on that great, unguarded moment if it’s poorly composed.
Below David has shared his top 10 wedding photography tips for improving your composition when working in close quarters with unpredictable subjects.
10 tips for better wedding reportage1. It's the background, stupid
A press photographer once told me, “Make sure you look after the background, and then the foreground will take care of itself.” This is very true. If you get a nice background, the fore you can kind of control to a degree.
If you find a nice, expressive moment it will be completely spoiled if it’s set against a messy background. Ensuring you’re in the right position is partly down to experience, but it’s also about reviewing the situation. If you want a nice shot of the groom when they come out of the church, for example, it's natural that his family will want to come up and give him a hug. So you need to decide whether to shoot the friends' expressions or the bride and groom’s reactions to them.
By where they're standing you can get a good idea of where you'll need to be. I also run through the schedule of events before the wedding and walk it through from location to location so I’m aware of where critical moments like this will occur and any potential obstacles.
2. Get down
I prefer to shoot from a slightly lower angle because it’s a great way of eliminating noise from your background. I recently shot a wedding in London’s Marylebone high street at lunchtime when the streets were packed with lorries and white vans. The bride pulled up in a white cab and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to shoot this and make it a nice photo. I decided get down low because it hid all the distracting elements behind her.
Getting yourself down to a low vantage point also has the effect of slightly distorting your subject and making them larger in the frame. This is a great, easy way of giving your composition more drama.
3. Get high
Sports photographers do this a lot. If conditions are prohibiting you from getting close to the action for whatever reason, see if you can rise above it.
At the Marylebone wedding I’d noted beforehand that there was a large window at the top of the hotel looking down on the street below. Had I not been able to get close and eliminate background distraction as I did, I could have used that high vantage point to shoot a wider view of the scene.
Overhead shots like this present a different view of the occasion and give your pictures a surreal quality. They work best when you can include strong patterns in your compositions, such as the arrangement of tables in a dining hall.
Of course, you don't need to as high overhead as three stories to get a more interesting picture. Simply standing on a chair to photograph the revellers as they dance can give you a nice, unsual angle on a familiar scene.
4. Have a good chat-up line
As a wedding photographer shooting a documentary style, your pictures will hinge on strong emotion. Your clients want that. They want to see their guests having fun.
If you’re trying to capture a scene of three people talking, you might find that you’ll take two or three shots and their faces will go deadpan. They'll, of course, look bored in the photo.
As a general rule I don't interact a great deal with my subjects, but in instances like this I might keep the camera facing them and lower it a bit. I’ll ask them a question or have a chat that will hopefully elicit a reaction. I don't do this too much, but you have to sometimes.
5. Selective focus
For shooting documentary wedding photography you want elements to appear in and out of focus in your frame. This helps keep your background from being a distraction, but also serves to isolate attention on your subjects. This is crucial in detail shots.
I always shoot at f/5.6 or wider. If it's a sunny day I'll shoot at f/4 or f/2.8, which is pretty much the opposite of what most photographers are told to do.
I also shoot exclusively in manual mode rather than aperture priority so I have more control over the exposure. If you’re on auto and shooting into sunlight, the exposure won't be quite right. I prefer to set my exposure manually and constantly do test shots to gauge it’s correct as I move in and out of different lighting conditions (eg exiting a dark church into sunlight) rather than rely on my camera.
6. Sensitivity lesson
Don't be afraid to embrace high ISOs. I'll shoot at ISO 3200 or 4000. Getting the picture is more important than getting a clean file at the end of the day. If putting the ISO higher means capturing that perfect candid moment, I'll do it.
Besides, if you think about past photography, like the many Magnum photographers, it's all gritty to a degree and this sits with he documentary wedding photography style. I don’t think a little bit of noise distracts from the image at all.
7. Think like an author
From my point of view when composing candid wedding photos I'm trying to shoot pictures that will give someone a story of the day without having gone to the wedding. To this end I have a sort of rough storyboard in mind.
Luckily, most weddings run pretty similarly – the bride and groom get ready, guests arrive, the groom hangs around beforehand looking nervous, the bride and parents arrive at the venue, the bride comes down the aisle, which is the classic shot where you hope for the moment when she catches the groom’s eye and gives an expression. After the ceremony I look for the two of them going down the aisle together, then the celebration afterwards. I also try to get a storyline between the two places, such as guests filing into a coach to go from the hotel to the reception.
I always shoot the wider scene, but at the same time I’m looking for details or small, evocative moments. These help add depth to the story.
8. Posing people
Even if you’ve been hired to shoot documentary wedding photography, you’ll find that the couple will want at least a few posed portraits of family and close friends. For these it’s imperative that you previsualise how you want these photos to look.
I find people look much better when they’re posed at an angle 3/4 to you. There's also a tendency for people to put their arms around each other, but this doesn't look good. Jackets come open and legs are wide apart, which makes the pose (and composition) look awkward. I ask everyone to stand still with their arms by their sides. Simple, but classic.
Again, you’ll also need to think about posed portraits in terms of backgrounds. I’ll have noted the best spots for group portraits during my initial walk around the venue before the wedding. I’m looking for places where I can position a group against a non-distracting backdrop. Often this will be an archway or door, or even flowers and shrubbery. With a plain background, all you're then shooting for is expression.
9. Shoot strangers
Go out and take pictures of other people. It’s great practice both for composition and for getting over your natural fear of invading someone’s privacy.
When you're a professional you get used to pointing your camera at people, but an amateur might be nervous pointing his camera at a stranger. I can't stress enough that street photography (read PhotoRadar’s street photography tips) is some of the best practice for shooting weddings. It really helps you get over that psychological barrier of feeling embarrassed.
10. Be a selective editor
It’s normal for me to come back from a wedding with 2000-3000 images. Ultimately I'm looking to get this down to 500, which isn’t as daunting as it sounds.
I’ll give my images a quick scan. I’ll usually find that I have multiple shots of the same thing – I'll take eight shots of the bride down the aisle or seven of a speech. Here I’m looking for the best composition and the others I will discard. Others might have a better composition but people will have their eyes closed or be giving a weird expression.
For all of your carefully planned compositions, you may find only two out of six, or a third work. This is why wedding photographers, particularly those who shoot in a documentary style, shoot constantly. If you don’t nail the composition or someone’s eyes are closed, you don’t get a chance to re-do it.
After my first sweep removing all of these duplicates or poorly composed images, my number will drop to about 1000. On the second edit I'm looking to get it down to 500 shots. I’m looking to get a mix of wideangle photos to set the scene, and detail shots to add depth to the story. Ultimately I want to build a complete story of the day.
To learn more of David's wedding photography tips, read our full interview with him in Issue 112 of Digital Camera magazine, which is out now. Or to see more of his wedding reportage, visit David's blog.