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5 Reasons Why Wedding Photography Is A Specialized Art Form (and why you need a wedding photographer)

I get it a lot. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve come across– friends, potential clients, strangers– who think photography is photography. And I understand. For the average person who doesn’t know much about weddings or spend day-in-day-out thinking about them, it is hard to understand the difference between photography and wedding photography. But there is a difference. A huge one.

Photography is a large umbrella for many different specialized art forms. But just because someone is a great landscape photographer, or commercial photographer, or even a family photographer, doesn’t mean they are a great wedding photographer. Wedding photography is kind of an Olympic sport– or even a triathlon– of photography. You see, a wedding photographer works for 8 hours, in a high pressure situation (ummm the BIGGEST day of their clients’ lives!!), in varying lighting conditions and on a tight timeline. Handling all these obstacles while creating gorgeous images is a specific skill-set one must develop for a very specialized art form. There’s a reason you want to hire a wedding photographer and not your Uncle Bob who has a fancy camera and takes amazing photos on all his vacations, or even that cheap guy who’s website says he does do weddings in addition to commercial work and pet photography. 😉

Here are my top 5 reasons why wedding photography is a specialized art form requiring a specific set of skills different than other types of photography, and in turn why it’s so important you hire a true wedding photographer:

1. A wedding photographer must be skilled in portraiture.

One of the biggest, and in my mind most important, aspects of wedding photography is portraiture. In a typical wedding day I spend about 2.5 hours on portraiture– between the getting ready portraits, bride and groom individual photos and romantics, family formals and bridal party photos. These are photos every couple wants and expects, and so it is crucial a wedding photographer know how to handle them. Directing portrait sessions on a wedding day is one of my strongest skills and I think that is one reason why I am an awesome wedding photographer. I know exactly what I need and want to get out of each different portrait session on the day (whether it be romantics or family shots), and I know how to guide my clients and their family and friends into looking beautiful and relaxed.

Taking romantic portraits is a skill in itself… you have to take a real couple (read: not models) and get them comfy enough to be themselves on camera while still looking effortlessly glamorous. And you can see that I achieved it in this photo…

Every bride is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful on her wedding day. And of course she wants to have photos to document it. It’s just as important knowing how to pose a bride and groom solo as it is to pose them together. I am really good at getting my clients feeling relaxed and confident, which makes them look stunning. Part of how I do this is being confident myself– showing them the poses I want from them as well as the facial expression. When my clients see that I am confident in explaining the photo and pose I am after, they feel more at ease to give it to me. And then I can capture stunning photos like the one below! Note, Skylar is a REAL bride and not a professional model (but I bet you can’t tell from the photo!). I highly doubt a hobbyist or travel photographer could capture a portrait SO strong and confident.

Another big aspect of wedding day portraiture is group shots, whether they be family formals or bridal party. There are a TON of elements that go into creating a fabulous group shot, from posing the group so that everyone can be seen, to making sure everyone is looking their best, to simply getting a large group of people to focus and look at the camera all at the same time. You need to be loud, good at handling all kinds of personalities (I’ve dealt with my fair share of rowdy groomsmen), and, frankly, bossy. If your photographer can’t be heard and take charge of a group, the group portraits will certainly get out of hand. Fast. And nobody will be happy. But a true pro wedding photographer can handle groups, and make even the most wild groomsmen look as slick and cool as this:

2. A wedding photographer must excel at capturing candids.

While wedding photographers have to be able to step up, take charge, and direct portrait sessions throughout the day, they just as easily and readily must be able to hang back and capture candids. The modern approach to wedding photography that I, and most other professional wedding photographers, subscribe to is a mix of creative portraiture and photojournalism. These candid moments are some of the most precious photos to my clients because they tell so much of the story and the emotions of the day. I am always happy to quietly hang back, unnoticed, and click the shutter just as a tender, funny, or emotional moment happens in front of my lens. I love this moment below of my bride hugging her mom and sister:

…or this moment full of laughter during the reception….

…or all the anticipation that fills these two photos, which were taken right before the bride and groom saw each other for the first time…

Having an eye for candid moments is a must for wedding photography. But a huge part of capturing amazing candid moments is knowing how to look for them. Shooting weddings week in and week out really trains the eye for looking for these emotional moments, so you can be prepared to capture them when they happen. There is an art to candids, even though they appear so happenstance. It’s the fact that candids don’t look contrived in the least that you know a skilled documentarian took them!

3.  A wedding photographer must be able to see and photograph details as still life.

Couples spend so much time, thought, energy and money on the little details that make up their wedding day. From the rings, to the shoes, to the flowers, to the decor… all of it is special. And almost all of it will also be gone, put away, and forgotten after the wedding day is over. You invest in wedding photography because you want to invest in your memories. So while you of course want some to capture how great everyone looked (via amazing portraiture) and all the stolen moments (via candids), you also probably want all the physical details you put so much work into to be remembered as well. Details or “still life” photography is an art form in itself and is a major part of a wedding day too. It’s important your photographer know how to photograph your details to make them look truly special…

Whether it’s vignettes of vintage items, like the books above from my bride Lauren’s wedding, or beautiful floral arrangements, like these beauties below from Skylar’s wedding, I take care to photograph my clients details like they are great still life masterpieces. And my couples always appreciate having their wedding details documented! I mean, how else can you show off how awesome and unique your wedding was to all your facebook friends?!

4. A wedding photographer must be able to handle various (and unexpected) lighting conditions.

This is a BIGGIE. Hands down the toughest thing about wedding photography is knowing how to successfully handle all kinds of various lighting situations. Not only does each wedding I shoot have different lighting conditions (some days are overcast, others extremely sunny, others partly cloudy) but even within one wedding day I deal with many different types of light. From getting ready indoors in a hotel, to portraits outside, to a ceremony which can happen in all sorts of light conditions (a dark church, indoors but backlit, outdoors but with harsh or uneven sun), to the reception… there are just SO many different kinds of light I deal with on any given wedding day. Being prepared and knowing how to handle whatever comes your way is key. The experience of years of shooting weddings, enables me to be prepared and confidently and competently handle whatever lighting issues I’m dealt with. But I have seen amateurs, inexperienced/newbie wedding photographers, and even pro photographers who work in studio/controlled light environments fail at handling these light issues on a wedding day.

And trust me, the last thing you want is to get your wedding pictures back only to see they are over exposed, under exposed, or that your photographer put you in unflattering light for portraits. And sadly, this happens a lot.

Here is an example of a difficult lighting situation– a dark church with NO windows. Oh and did I mention, church rules state no flash? Most photographers probably wouldn’t know what to do when faced with this tricky situation. But as a wedding pro it is my job to handle it. And I think I handled it well. Using a 135mm 2.0 lens and the high ISO capabilities of my 5dmkii I captured these precious moments:

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Nikki and Dave’s beach wedding, held mid-day in high, harsh sun. There was plenty of light all right, but it wasn’t all flattering light. The trick was to find just the right places to stand where the light fell mostly even on the couple. Also, exposure was crucial as I didn’t want to blow out most of the details in the bright light, but I also didn’t want to over-compensate for the brightness by making everything really dark (which is an easy mistake in this type of light). Again, since I deal with crazy light situations like this all the time I was able to capture beautiful images.

After Nikki + Dave’s ceremony, the couple asked that we do some portraits on the beach. It was really important to them. But the light? Yeah, it was still really harsh. Most photographers know to look for open shade to take flattering portraits. But what do you do when there is NO open shade? Again, this is something I am used to dealing with. Wedding timelines being what they are, I don’t always get to take portraits during the best lighting times of the day. But I know I still must deliver gorgeous images to my clients. So I know how to work with light in a lot of different ways… here are a couple portraits I took of Nikki + Dave on the beach. The even light I created by back-lighting them makes them look gorgeous!! Harsh sun? What harsh sun?

5. A wedding photographer must be able to catch fast-happening (and important) moments.

The final thing that in my mind makes wedding photography it’s own special art, is that wedding photographer must be able to quickly capture very important moments. And when I mean quick, I mean QUICK! When the important moments come a long, they happen fast, and your photographer better be ready. A first kiss and a recessional last all of about 30 seconds, and yet 2 huge moments need to be documented perfectly in that short time. Here’s a recessional photo from Nikki and Dave’s wedding that I just love:

Then there is the bouquet and garter toss. Literally a FAST moment, as within seconds a bouquet goes from the brides hand to lucky single lady! Below is a great fast moment captured– a lucky single gal catches the bouquet, and another single gal looks like she’s about to fight for it!!

At least moments like the recessional and bouquet toss are announced before they happen. But there are also lots of great moments that happen out of nowhere and seem to vanish just as quickly as they came about. Moments like this when a guest decided to show the bride some hilarious moves on the dancefloor…

Fast moments happen, and even for a pro it is not possible to catch all of them. However, that is why I always bring a second shooter to the wedding. With two sets of eyes on everything, and two cameras going, the odds become very small that we will miss a moment. I’d say 90% of most professional wedding photographers bring a second shooter with, and this is definitely another huge reason why a pro is so valuable to you. Because not only will you have one person shooting your wedding who knows how to handle all kinds of wedding-specific situations, you will actually have two people doing this! Score!

I know this was quite the long post… hopefully you made it through! Because the point is, Wedding photography is not just photography. Wedding photography is it’s own special species of beast, and you need someone behind the lens with enough experience to handle it. A true wedding photographer is a specialist. In just the same way you wouldn’t go to your general family physician to treat lung cancer, you shouldn’t go to just anyone who says they are a photographer for your wedding photos. I get that wedding photos aren’t as severe and serious as cancer! But we are talking about the photos, and in turn the memories, of one of the most important days of your life. Don’t you want to make sure your memories are in the most capable hands?

  • Sam - I think this is a really great post with lots of great examples. It is so true that wedding photography is a marathon art form and requires very specific skills and experience. My only comment would be to clarify that being a real wedding photographer and being a landscape photographer or travel photographer or pet photographer are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Just because someone is great at one of these other things doesn’t mean they are a great wedding photographer, but it also doesn’t mean they aren’t.

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