With royal wedding fever about to sweep the nation, just what was it that used to fill me with horror at the prospect of being asked to be a guest at a wedding? Was I the only person who hated weddings? I don’t think so. Of course, I was being immensely selfish, and not giving any thought to the reason why I would be considered worthy of sharing a couple’s special day. For me there used to be two knots at a wedding – the bride and groom’s and then my own, deep in the pit of my stomach. Knowing I would have to spend what would seem like an eternity making polite conversation with people with whom, for the most part, I would have absolutely nothing in common. We would dutifully RSVP or is it RIP?. “After all, it is a celebration, not a funeral,” my wife would say. Our friends and relatives often did their best to seat us with like-minded individuals.Yet there would always be the relative, work colleague and, sometimes, ‘friend’, who had been invited out of some sort of duty. It was with these people, in the leper colony of the wedding celebration, that I so often found myself. The thought has occurred to me that maybe I was one of them. However, as my wife, Mari, is just about the kindest, most sensitive and thoughtful friend anyone could wish for, who no one would want to offend, I like to think of myself as exempt.
There are upwards of quarter of a million weddings per year in the UK, being documented by around 20,000 different wedding photographers, whose fees range between £1,500 and £4,000 – not to mention those shooting celebrity and society weddings… So it’s serious business. It seems to me that, in a market that must have reached near saturation point, the question is, what can photographers offer that is different?
So, why am I using valuable page space to rant and moan about weddings? It’s really very simple; an epiphany has taken place.Well, it actually took place several years ago. I started to pitch up with a camera, and even though I wasn’t invited as the official photographer, I would shoot pictures anyway. Doesn’t everyone take a camera to a wedding? Admittedly, they are usually small compacts, and initially I would get strange looks as I pulled out my Canon EOS-1Ds MkIII with 85mm prime lens; mostly from the official photographers. However, I was discreet and stuck to just the one body and single lens on a hand strap; usually by my waist or behind my back, and out of sight until needed. I suppose it’s fairly obvious, but still worth mentioning, that the enjoyment of being a guest at a wedding is directly connected to how close you are to the bride or groom. This dynamic is turned on its head once I have a camera. It will make little difference, and it is even sometimes an advantage not to know who I’m photographing, as the emotional attachment can work against the purity of the moment. For the most part my interest was in catching those ‘oh so often’ elusive moments. As I was invited as a guest, I had none of the restrictions of having to make sure I photograph ‘so-and-so’ and ‘thingamajig’; nor did I have to shoot anything that didn’t interest me. In fact, I didn’t have to take any pictures at all. A great place to be when shooting, as I could simply watch and wait and put the camera between me and the moment. A really great way to work; not forcing the pictures, but letting them unravel around me – a discipline that I have used ever since. Documentary: the purest form of photography, and one that requires great discipline, observation and intuition. It’s just about the most fun you can have with a camera. So many of the pictures I have taken at weddings have really burned themselves into my memory. This is because a wedding, at best, should be a deeply emotional experience for those at the centre, which then emanates outwards. And as with most human emotions, happiness, when shared, is infectious. It is rare to go to an unhappy wedding. It’s like swimming in a sea of emotion: from the pre-church nerves, through to the exuberant outpouring of love expressed with smiles and tears post-ceremony. If you look closely there will always be someone (usually a bridesmaid) in a trance-like state, mesmerised by the bride, allowing herself to dream of the moment when she too will be a princess for the day. All I have to do is make sure that I am in the right place at the right time.
I greatly admire wedding photographers, and the ones that stand out are creating pictures which work in their own right, regardless of the fact that they were shot at a wedding. I’m not talking about what seems to me the often painful and energy-draining group shots, but the documentary style of shooting, from such wedding luminaries as Jeff Ascough. This work is inspirational, and when I look at it as a photographer all I can say is, “I wish I’d shot that.” My friend, assistant and wedding photographer, David Griffin, gave me an insight into wedding photography as a profession. He said: “Most of all you have to enjoy it. Then you have the necessary drive, enthusiasm and energy you need if you’re going to shoot dozens of weddings a year. People skills are essential, along with patience, as things don’t always go to plan. So being able to react to changing situations while remaining calm is imperative.”
I have an appreciation for the sheer amount of effort it takes to deliver on a once-in-a-lifetime event. I certainly don’t intend this to be a guide for wedding photographers, as many of you are far better qualified than I am to offer advice. There are upwards of quarter of a million weddings per year in the UK, being documented by around 20,000 different wedding photographers, whose fees range between £1,500 and £4,000 – not to mention those shooting celebrity and society weddings, or those of the super-rich, who demand even higher fees. So it’s serious business. It seems to me that, in a market that must have reached near saturation point, the question is, what can photographers offer that is different?While researching this Dispatches I watched Crash Taylor’s very open and honest interview with PP editor Grant Scott, filmed at Canon Pro Photo Solutions 2010 [available to view on the Professional Photographer website]. He really spelled out just what it takes to make a living in the business. Much of what he said applies to many of us, myself included. The documentary style of wedding photography definitely seems to be on the increase, as brides and grooms are looking for what I believe to be a collection of pictures which capture the atmosphere and the essence of their day. In my opinion there is a gigantic opportunity to shoot beautiful DSLR documentary films, edited to great music, as movie shorts.
For me a no-compromise approach to this type of film would be imperative and so, for it to work, the bride and groom would have to take a leap of faith. Budding film makers would need to have at least one great example of this potential new art form to show, so as to win the case for creative freedom. A tricky decision this: do I shoot stills or do I make a short film? Also, will I be shooting solo or will I have a crew with additional photographers? At the higher end, for example, with A-list celebrity or society weddings, I think this will become the norm. The potential to shoot beautiful film shorts may, in fact, increase what a wedding photographer/DSLR film maker may earn. Maybe I’m living in cloud-cuckoo-land, but surely a client has to understand that this level of quality, from capture to edit, will inevitably cost more money? After all, once the wedding is over it’s the pictures or, indeed, the film, that will remain. Putting aside the huge marketing and awareness effort, combined with talent that should result in commissions, I have my own philosophy and set of rules when it comes to shooting stills of weddings. These are: Number one – and probably the single most important factor for me – I am commissioned for my shooting style. I cannot give a cast-iron guarantee that I will photograph everyone. In my case the bride and groom are usually friends or, on occasion, clients, so we already have an understanding. They know my style of shooting, which is why they’ve asked me. Most importantly, I’m not going to compromise that.Whether it’s a gift or a commission, my pictures are my reputation and will be seen. Number two – and easier said than done – it’s important to overcome the horror and fear of cocking things up. Number three: Preparation, preparation, preparation. It’s another shoot, so the normal rules apply. The more I know about the bride and groom, numbers, locations (ie light, where it will fall and at what times of the day) the better I feel. Before the day of the wedding I always visit the locations at the times of day when the key moments of the proceedings will be taking place. Predicting where the light will fall is now much easier with the advent of iPhone and iPad apps like Sun Seeker, Helios Sun Position Calculator and Sunrays. On a few occasions I have managed to negotiate with the vicar to allow me to sit on the front row, or even kneel at or near the feet of the bride and groom. As I don’t use flash, this has not interfered with the proceedings, and I usually set the camera shutter to silent. Number four: People skills. I will spend the morning with the bride and her party while they are in hair and make-up – a busman’s holiday for a fashion, beauty and portrait photographer using a Canon EF 180mm macro; quite simply the best lens I know for close-up beauty, along with 35mm, 50mm and 85mm primes. Engaging in non-intrusive, easy-going banter will ensure the picture-taking does not become more important than the event. As with all ‘people photography’, people skills will make the pictures, and so a good rapport is essential.
Number five: Assistant or no assistant? For the most part I will shoot on my own and keep it simple, working with prime lenses at varying angles and ideally shooting through people (I mean through natural gaps that appear in a group or crowd). This somehow increases the intimacy of the stolen moment and usually means that the subject has not seen the camera, so is not influenced by it. A good assistant will make sure that he or she stays nearby, yet far enough away so as not to interfere with the necessary space needed in which to shoot in, around and through the guests. As I shoot so much, memory cards need to be cleared at intervals – another useful job for an assistant. And, most importantly, when shooting with available light, one who can use a reflector is worth their weight in confetti. Number six: Equipment. Maybe two camera bodies would help, especially when using primes; although you have to weigh up the case for capturing moments through the simplicity of one lens and one body. Maintaining a degree of stealth is essential to capturing the elusive moments. A small shoulder bag with a couple more lenses is my personal preference. Number seven: Lighting. As the ISO sensitivity of cameras like the Canon EOS-1D MkIV is so high with fast primes, I believe it is now increasingly possible to retain the essential degree of invisibility in almost any natural light. But if additional lighting is required I will use an LED. Number eight: Edit and post-production. I am as ruthless with the edit as I dare to be, while trying to please the bride and groom. There is usually an official photographer, so with my images it’s less about who is in the pictures – although I do research the key people and try hard to make sure I have photographed them to my own satisfaction. I post-produce every single frame in my edit. This will be a mix of colour, black and white with vignettes, dodging, burning, desaturation, selective sharpening and, on the odd occasion, cropping. I love to make my own prints, as they are still to my knowledge the best way of showing my work. As I don’t make my living from shooting weddings, much of how I photograph them will be self-indulgent and quite possibly unrealistic.
I have shot a grand total of six weddings in an official capacity in as many years, and two-thirds of those have been for friends. I’ve shot many more as a guest with a camera. It was a chance picture at a friend’s wedding that caught the attention of my friend, and now agent, Mark George. He says: “Photography, like all other art forms, relies in part on the viewer recognising and feeling familiarity with the event being presented.This picture (above) does just that. It is beautifully observed. Everyone who has been to a wedding has seen the grandmother seated, exhausted; the little girl on the floor with her mother rushing by trying to find her.Every wedding has boys, their once-tidy outfits now askew, hurling themselves on their knees across the dance floor – or, as in this case, lying on their backs, kicking the wall. The way Clive has shot this image, using his signature drop focus, helps to draw the viewer into this recognisable scene. Finally, the interaction between the grandmother and the little girl is classic. Even though the viewer cannot see the grandmother’s expression, it is easily guessed. How much more interesting is this as a record of the family members present than the normal boring wedding picture?” I had been shooting pictures professionally for a while, and yet it was this one shot that somehow appealed to Mark in a way that much of my previous work had not. This picture played a significant part in him deciding to represent me, and so as a consequence shooting my friends’ wedding was a turning point in my career. This same wedding gave me a half-dozen pictures that I would happily hold up or include on my website or in my book today. So while I may not entirely enjoy weddings as a guest, I have to admit that they are among some of the finest occasions I know at which to capture genuinely beautiful, atmospheric and emotive imagery.