wedding photography – a photo-journalistic style, or more posed?

wedding photography – a photo-journalistic style … or more posed?

A photographer who attended the recent flash photography workshop here in New York, asked me an interesting question regarding my wedding photography style. His observation was about how I seemed to consistently get such well-timed un-posed and natural looking images with my wedding photography. Since my explanation seemed to surprise him, and even bordered on being a real aha! moment for him, I thought it could serve as an article here which might interest other wedding photographers.

When asked by photographers about my style of wedding photography, I like to reply that I don’t quite subscribe to the purist photojournalism, nor the traditionalist style. I think my approach is more along the lines of get-the-job-done-alism.

Instead of subscribing rigidly to a defined style, I’m there to give the bride and groom the best photographs I can on the day. And for this, my approach has to be flexible …

different styles of wedding photography

There are two broad styles in wedding photography – traditional and photojournalistic.

Traditional wedding photography tends to be formal, with the emphasis on posed images. On the other end of the spectrum is the photojournalistic wedding photography. Here the emphasis is on a documentary approach with little direction from the photographer. Then there are also styles which incorporate a Fashion sensibility where the couple (and bridal party) are posed, but in a modern free-style way, rather than staid, traditional posing. Most of modern wedding photography falls somewhere inbetween the purely documentary photojournalism and the overly posed traditional wedding photography.

In a previous article on the topic of how the photographer can blend in on the wedding day. I feel it is entirely possible to aim for spontaneity and genuine expressions, while still offering direction to the couple and some of the day’s events.

For me, a photojournalistic approach to wedding photography is akin to story-telling. If it means interacting and directing the couple to achieve this, then that’s fine by me. I am there to tell the story of the day – to capture the day’s events. (And I know, that  phrase is a cliche by now … but it is descriptive.)

I know that the purist photojournalistic wedding photographers eschews interacting with the couple and family and guests … even going so far as to not even remove a styrofoam cup that might be distracting in a scene. But at this point I feel it borders on pretension. We’re not hardcore News photographers that absolutely should not guide events. We are there to photograph the bride and groom’s day. It’s entirely different than News photography. And if I need to move cups and clutter out of the way … or edit out the videographer’s tripod in a final image, then that is what it takes to create more beautiful images. I am there to tell the story of the day, and it is just silly getting stuck on whether random minor things are adjusted at the time or afterwards in editing the images.

Back to the topic … the photographer wanted to know how I seemed to consistently get uch well-timed un-posed and natural looking images. I do this by interacting with my clients as needed, in a gentle way. Far from the “stand here & do this” approach of a traditional wedding photographer, it sometimes just needs slight adjusting to make an image look great. I often work with found moments, adjusting them.


an example wedding

To explain this, let’s look at a recent wedding which I’ve already shown here as a video & stills fusion clip – Cherryl & Jim’s wedding.

Looking again at the image at the top, the bride was fitting her ear-rings while looking in the mirror …

… moving closer with the 85mm lens, and shooting at a wide aperture (f1.8), I was able to photograph her reflection. The edge of the mirror helps anchor the image, and gives a visual clue why there might be that double-image there. It’s her reflection in the mirror. (Available light only.)

This is one of those found moments which I adjusted slightly. I gently asked her to move slightly to her left, giving me this angle. Far from me telling her to “stand there and fit your ear-rings”, it is a found moment which was adjusted slightly to give me the best angle. There is a spontaneity to her expression which would be impossible for me, as the photographer, to instruct. It is very much ‘her’. It is natural. It tells the story.

Similarly with this photograph. It isn’t pure photojournalism and entirely candid. Instead, it is a found moment that I saw and adjusted. I saw the bride look at her hair and fix something … and I realized that if I shot through her arm like that, I’d get a natural frame around her face. It took several frames until I had her position her arm in a way that worked in this final image. It’s not pure documentary wedding photography, but it tells the story.

In this way, I often direct the moments found, and the action and events.

Kids can be wonderful subjects, especially when engrossed in their own activities. These two flowergirls were just adorable.

Both images shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 at a wide aperture (f3.2) The light on them via on-camera bounce flash, controlled with the black foamie thing. The amount of flash was of course intentionally balanced with the light in the  background, coming in from the window.

Often though, kids can be so conditioned by parents to stop & smile at the camera, that it becomes near impossible to get a natural photo of the child. The moment you lift the camera, they notice and stop & smile. So, an insistent request to any parent reading this … let your child be, and be less relentless about having them stop&smile-for-the-camera. The natural portraits, even when they are camera aware, are far more precious than cheeeeeezy smiles. But I digress …

Similarly, with the groom’s prep, it is a simple request to just turn to the camera and have them adjust their cuff-links and tie and jacket. It is something the groom did anyway, and it is still a natural moment that happened, even if you direct the groom to turn to the camera while doing so.

Again, the light here is mostly on-camera bounce flash, controlled with the black foamie thing, balanced with the light coming from the window.

Back to the bride’s prep … when the  bridesmaids or mother of the bride helps the bride, it may as well be in a part of the room where there is space to get a good angle.

So I will easily suggest that the bride has her shoes fitted (and garter belt placed), in a more spacious area of the room. I will have cleared any clutter in the background before-hand, removing plastic bags and such. Clean and uncluttered always looks better, and it is a minor adjustment.

The bride will inevitably at some point look at her bouquet and smell the flowers. A quiet and friendly request to just linger a few more moments, is easily accepted without it being intrusive or come across as an order. It’s still very much her action and movement. Not posed … but slightly directed, to make sure I get the photos I need to get for her.

The more posed portraits will come later, and then you can finesse things a bit more …

… or even get to play a bit with angles and the bride’s pose.


photographing the wedding ceremony

At the church or ceremony location, I would only offer a little bit of instruction when outside. For example, while the bride is waiting to go into the church, is a good time to quietly ask the bride to look out of the limo window. But I still try to stay away from images where the people appear to be camera aware. So I asked the bride to look towards the church.

To anyone looking at the image afterwards, there are no clues that the image wasn’t purely documentary, and that it needed a nudge from the photographer.

Inside the church or ceremony location, I want to be as non-intrusive as possible. I absolutely would not stop people walking down the aisle to pose for the camera like the traditional photographers would.

The ceremony is the one time during the day where I would not interact with anyone. I’d even crouch low in the center aisle – I’d rather the guests not have to stare at my back during the ceremony. I’m there to photograph it as it happens, and be as transparent to the occasion as possible.

More on photographing the wedding processional.

During the ceremony, I will sneak some surreptitious images of the guests. I will most likely not use flash, but where needed I might use some bounce flash with the black foamie thing, to make the flash as un-intrusive as possible.

At the end of the ceremony, when the couple is ready to leave the church, I will usually try to get the traditional silhouette shot in the doorway where the couple leans in for a kiss. It is usually expected.

But where I do give some other instruction to the couple, as that when they walk down the steps of the church, to take their time and linger. A helpful suggestion that will give the guests more opportunity to congratulate them, and give you more opportunity for photographs. It’s still the story of the day … but it unfolds slightly slower than it might have if the couple had just rushed down the stairs.


romantic portraits of the bride and groom

The one time during the day that I do pose people and take charge of the events, is during the family photos and group photos. This is definitely not the time to be passive or just an observer. The photographer needs to be assertive and make sure the group photos are done, and done efficiently.

During the portrait session with the couple, my aim is for romantic and intimate. So while the portrait session is directed, it is more of a collaborative thing between the couple and myself.

I do try to take myself ‘out of the picture, so to speak. I want few images where the couple directly looks and smiles at the camera. Unless of course, it is done with specific purpose. I want the portrait session to be about the couple, and their relationship.

This next image is more traditional in that it is the classic dip shot. Here I used a fish-eye lens to get the grand staircase and entrance of the venue in the frame. In that sense, this is more of a location shot, and less about the couple.

But for the most part, the romantic portrait session is about the couple, and should be romantic, fun and sexy.


video tutorials – wedding photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.


photographing the wedding reception

With the reception, I interact with the guests when I take candid portraits of couples … but for the most part, I am there as the observer photographer.

The traditional wedding photographer may very well tap the couple on a shoulder to get their attention for a smile-at-the-camera photograph, but this takes away from the actual event. I want the real moment here, as the couple dances for the first time at the wedding reception. Same for the parent dances.

With the toasts, I will crouch low or stand further away towards the DJ or band, so that I don’t impede the view of the guests. Here I still try to photograph the spontaneous moments … but sometimes with the toasts, I may not get a clear image of the couple clinking their glasses.

For this next image, I went up to the couple afterwards, and asked them to toast each other and linger. My instruction is “clink, drink & kiss … but linger, take your time”. Then I step back with a longer lens. The resulting photographs are invariably spontaneous and easily fit into the flow of the rest of the images here.

Then of course, there is the rest of the evening and the party! This is the easiest part of the wedding day for the photographer, as guests and family members have fun and dance.

This next photograph is a cute moment between the groom and the flowergirl. This was shot without flash, using the 85mm f1.4 wide open, using only the available light there.

But I do rely heavily on bounce flash during the wedding reception as my light source. Sometimes I use on-camera bounce flash with additional off-camera light, but mostly I just use on-camera bounce flash. with high-ISO capable cameras and fast lenses, you can get images that look wonderful without being too ‘flashy’. This next image was shot with just on-camera bounce flash, but at settings where the available light does register.

With this I wanted to explain an approach where I, as the wedding photographer, do help guide some events during the day. This is done with a delicate touch, since I don’t want to intrude on the couple’s day. But with all my experience photographing weddings, it is something that couples often do rely on when they ask me for suggestions or advice. It is then that I gladly help out, but without being over-bearing.

It is a fine balance, all done with the intention of helping the day’s events flow smoothly and ensuring the couple gets great images – images that represents their day, and will be wonderful memories of events that they experienced and weren’t even aware of.


related articles


37 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Aniversari says

    Beautiful post, one of the most interesting. But how you get consistently results (thinking better-even in different events) it is still a mystery for me, even if I am reading you almost daily. Maybe that’s why a workshop with you is priceless.

  2. 2 says

    Thank you for the wonderful compliment!

    If I could attempt some sort of reply, I’d say that key to the technical part of all this, is combined in:
    – direction of the light,
    – quality of the light,
    – good exposure (ambient & flash)

    Neil vN

  3. 3 says

    Wonderful, wonderful work. Just wondering what settings you used in the reception dancing photos. I always bounce flash, but my ISO 800, f4, 1/60-1/80th, doesn’t quite open up the ambient light as much as I’d like. Thanks!

  4. 4 says

    Your settings are too conservative. Take it higher than just 800 ISO. That isn’t a high ISO anymore with the recent generation of D-SLRs. Is there any specific reason why 800 ISO is your ceiling? I start at 1600 ISO when shooting the reception.

    In considering your ISO settings, you need to keep in mind the final use of the image too.

    Similarly, take your aperture wider than f4.0 if you can.

    Let the light in with higher ISO strings and wider apertures.

    Neil vN

  5. 5Eduardo B says

    Hi Neil,
    I would like to know if dressers a suit and tie in a wedding. I think I saw one picture of you in a wedding wearing just a black shirt, what is your advice in that area?


  6. 6 says

    I wear black pants. Some have a light pin-stripe. My shirts in winter are dark shirts – usually black with some pattern or a dark purple or very dark blue. I don’t wear a jacket, unless I am actually cold. The idea of wearing a tux or a jacket in the summer heat while running around with all that equipment is just insane. I don’t own a suit, but I do own a few nice jackets that I buy from the Guess stores. I like their range in styles.

    In summer though, I have to wear a short-sleeve black golf shirt made by Nike – the Nike Dri-Fit shirt. It is really necessary for me, since I sweat so much that I can’t have a shirt cling to me, or worse, show white sweat stains during a hot day. That’s the best piece of advice I can give the guys. Wear comfortable clothing.

    Neil vN

  7. 7bart says

    Your photos are so natural. Lovely.
    I wonder how do you deal with people awareness of the camera?
    I noticed that anytime i want to take a spontaneous photo people notice me and they start preparing for the photo and they ruin the moment i was hoping for.
    Are you invisible?

  8. 9Alfredo says

    Very interesting how your shot with available light (85mm 1.4 lens) looks so consistent with your other flash lit shots. How do you get such consistent white balance between such different lighting situations?

  9. 10 says

    Alfredo .. as I mentioned in a comment above, it is all about:
    – direction of the light,
    – quality of the light,
    – good exposure (ambient & flash)

    The break-through for me with this was in gelling my flash for tungsten. In the examples here during the bride’s prep, I used a 1/2 CTS gel on my flash. It brings my flash and ambient light much closer, and then the flash becomes less noticeable. Oh, and bouncing the flash properly gives you soft, directional light. That helps immensely. And shoot in RAW! It’s not negotiable.

  10. 11Alfredo Medina says


    Beauty, sharpness, glamour and great tonality is what I always see in your photos.

    Do you believe that I can achieve similar photos with a lot of practice and using the following equipment:

    17-55mm f/2.8
    85mm f/1.8
    2 SB-900

    Or do you think I should improve my gear?

    That you advise me about to make beautiful, sharp, glamorous and great tonality photos?


  11. 12 says

    While you could probably do much the same with a D90 (or related camera), I can’t imagine anymore how I would cope using a camera that isn’t as responsive as a Nikon D3 or Canon 1D mk IV or similar. The image quality, combined with AF speed and accuracy make it possible for me to concentrate on getting the images, rather than be limited by my equipment in some way.

    So yes, a D90 would work … but you’d love a D700 much more. And that extra stop or so that you gain in high ISO quality, really is a boost.

    Neil vN

  12. 13Aniversari says

    Alfredo (both) asked what is more important to me, with the same gear, too. Also, it’s so time consuming (and Especially non-consistent) getting “more correct” white balance in any software, so I believe you achieve corect white balance directly in raw. But how, in different rooms, with different typs of lights? Thank you, Neil.

  13. 15Marius says

    Dear Neil,
    I hope everything are well. I would like to tell you many thanks for publishing the book on-camera flash. I juste fnish to read it.
    And I inform you i will receive your over book off camera flash at May 25th.

    I appreciate your publication about Pocketwizart TT5,thanks to you for 2 years and I learned a lot in terms of flash photography.

    However, it is unfortunate that your books are not french.
    I continue to follow you and enjoyed your work.

    Thanks again

    Marius From Paris

  14. 16bart says

    Alfredo, I think you can get great photos with d90, but when I saw photos from full frame it all looked for me so good compared to d90.

  15. 17 says

    Dear Neil,
    I have bought your two books about flash. Both are “you must have”.
    I love your wedding style of photography, especially because it is vary similar with my style.
    I agree with all your words. About the style “title”, I use to say that my style is contemporary.
    We get the best of traditional, photojournalism and fashion photography, just to tell the story of the wedding day, with the most beautiful images that we can capture. Some times I include some “cinema” photography shot styles, were I use a lot of back harsh light. In all wedding we are always with an experimental look. That was what make to me wedding photography a passion.
    By other way, all your comments and suggestions are all perfects to give a consistence to the job.
    In Brazil, were we live and works, 95% of the wedding are at night. So your flash technics are vary useful.
    Thanks for your blog.

  16. 18Patrick Brophy says

    I really couldn’t leave enough “thank you” comments for everything you share here on the Tangents blog that has taught me so much. Thank you, Neil!

  17. 19 says

    Neil, Thank you for sharing SO much about how you do what you do on the wedding day. It is really helpful to learn how other people do things. For me it helps me to know that I am not the only one who uses this same approach.

  18. 20 says

    Thanks for your advice earlier regarding pushing my camera limits. I have the Canon 7D and 40D, I think the 7D should be able to handle higher ISO that I could clean up afterwards in Photoshop. I also just picked up the Canon 70-200 2.8 IS.
    I always just used f4 worrying about depth or field while dancing.
    I really appreciate your website, I’ve learned so much from your articles. Keep it up!

  19. 23Artur Ocubaro says

    24.Hi Neil!

    First, awesome photos and explanation as usual! Congrats!
    But, I am curious about the preference of a 1D-MK IV instead of 5d MKII…I know it´s a better built machine and much, much more expensive……but, for wedding photography, it is 1.3x crop camera, it is 16Mpx and I think its ISO capabilities is as good as 5D…..Could you give me a light?


  20. 24 says

    Artur .. that was a short-hand description for “excellent / professional / better-than-average”. I can’t list every camera that is great. So just read it in context.

    Neil vN

  21. 25 says

    Hi Neil,

    Thank you so much for your valuable information. I have a question, I find I have trouble photographing brides walking down the aisle (inside chapels/churches). My settings are generally f2.8, ISO 1000, 1/30 without flash and I always seem to get slightly out of focus because of the movement of the bride and groom, if I add flash I seem to get a cold flash look. I have tried manual flash, same settings as camera, with flash one stop less. Still not getting the appearance of your photo of bride and father. Could you please give some advice and perhaps general camera settings for most churches? Thanks Susan. Camera Nikon D700 lens 24-70mm

  22. 27Arjawa says

    Hi Neil,

    I found that ur articles very useful especially for flash photography.The wedding shot u’ve been captured is obviously stunning.The problem I met with flash photograpy why the subjects were harshly captured and it’s so unnatural.So I’ve learned that I should find the correct ambiece light + correct flash exposure to meet the corect exposure .I keep wondering can I get the natural light though I use speed light
    in wedding photogprahy.

    My gear is D300S,SB600Speedlight,lens 18-70mm,80-200mm

  23. 28Richard says

    Suprb as always!
    In point #10 you mention CTS gel. I’ve not heard of that. Is CTO (colour temp orange) the same thing?

  24. 30 says

    This article pretty much summarizes how I approach weddings as well. I don’t find it beneficial (or fun!) to subscribe to only one side of the wedding photography spectrum (traditional vs photojournalistic). As a multiple award-winning member of the WPJA (Wedding PhotoJournalistic Association), I nonetheless almost discontinued my membership there after being told that my website photos weren’t ‘candid’ enough to qualify for the WPJA. I had to change some images around, which was easy enough since I always have 100s of candids to choose from at each wedding, but I seriously doubt there are ANY professional wedding photographers who are strictly shooting in the PJ style. Some 2nd shooters do, of course, but the primary photographer has to be able to pose people when requested. Even if my agreement with the Bride & Groom is to shoot everything candidly, there are always folks who want traditional portraits (especially the mothers of the couple!), and I can’t imagine telling them no, I don’t shoot that way.
    Glad to know there are others out there who feel a blend of styles is the best way to approach a shoot. Like you said, it’s all about getting-it-done.

  25. 31Lindie says

    “But I still try to stay away from images where the people appear to be camera aware.”

    Please explain what exactly it is that we need to avoid doing as wedding photographers, regarding the quotation” Many thanks

  26. 33 says

    in the UK it is almost unheard of for a minister or a civil service registrar to allow flash photography from the time the bride walks in till she leaves as a married woman.

    they also tend to ban other cameras apart from the hired photographer/s so there is no secondary flash to worry about.

    My question is to you is have you been told not to use flash by a minister and what did you do ? Most of the churches here have very very poor lighting and the natural light is very low as well especially in the small country churches. even with the higher iso capabilities of top end bodies and using a very fast lens keeping the shutter speed at a safe level is difficult and blurring from the movement of the minister or the couple is inevitable.

    Faced with a flat no flash instruction what would you do or say?

    regards Alistair

  27. 34 says

    If I’m not allowed to use flash, then I don’t use flash.

    That’s why I have steadily updated my cameras to the best that there is in high-ISO capability:
    Canon 1D mk III; Nikon D3; Nikon D3s; Nikon D4

    And while I prefer working with my f/2.8 zooms, I have the necessary f/1.4 optics to shoot in very low light.

    I really do rely on my equipment to allow me to shoot under any requirement and conditions.

  28. 35 says

    What focus mode do you use on the Wedding Procession? Do you use Continuous Focus Mode with the Back Button? Do you broaden the focus points from one point to a more expanded set?

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