What is Wedding Photojournalism?

And is your photographer really a wedding photojournalist?

I call myself a wedding photojournalist, because that best describes my approach to wedding photography.
But many photographers claim to be wedding photojournalists these days.
So what is a wedding photojournalist, and how can you tell?

First, check and see if the photographer is a member of the Wedding Photojournalist Association. The WPJA is an exclusive and authoritative organization on wedding photojournalism, with exacting standards (more photographers are turned down than are accepted into the organization). (Currently, I am the only photographer in Spokane in the WPJA.)

Second, the pictures themselves will give you a good idea of the approach of the photographer. When looking at a photographer’s portfolio or website, what percentage of the pictures are “camera aware”–that is, pictures in which the person being photographed is aware of the camera? Photojournalists try to avoid “camera aware” pictures, under the belief that the photographer should document what happens, not be a part of what happens. As soon as someone is aware of the photographer, the photographer is part of the story. Wedding photojournalists try to avoid that. (I also try to avoid “camera aware” pictures because I think people look best when they are being natural and having fun, and not being self-conscious).

Wedding Photojournalism is spontaneous.

For example, at the cutting of the cake, a traditional photographer might set up a shot of the couple holding the knife, maybe having the couple look into the camera for a picture or two, and then have them position their hands a certain way to take a close-up. For the photojournalist, all this creates an unnatural intrusion. The wedding photojournalist instead will keep quiet and allow the cutting of the cake to unfold naturally. The photojournalist will still capture the images of the cake cutting, but they will be natural and un-posed, with the bride and groom’s attention on the cake and the guests and, most importantly, each other (not the photographer).

A guideline set up by the WPJA is that about 80% of one’s images should be spontaneous, natural, un-posed, non-camera-aware pictures. Keep that guideline in mind when you look at websites. In how many pictures is the person looking at the camera? How many pictures look posed?

Third, the aim of the wedding photojournalist is to capture what really happened. They document the day, rather than create an illusion of the day. Therefore, wedding photojournalists tend to avoid overly processing images in Photoshop or some other application. When looking at a portfolio, pay attention to now “natural” the images are. Photojournlistic shots tend to be crisp, clear, well-composed, and above all, natural.

Wedding photojournalism is un-posed.

On the other hand, many photographers will “spice-up” a picture with tricks in Photoshop, like vignetting (darkening and blurring the edges of an image) or color-select (where an image is in black and white except for one element–the flowers, for example), or toning (sepia-toning being most common) or over-saturating an image with unrealistically bright colors. A high percentage of obviously processed images is an indication that the photographer doesn’t approach the wedding as a photojournalist.

Finally, interview the photographer. Find out about the photographer’s philosophy. Ask the photographer how often he/she speaks to the bride and groom and what kinds of things are said (a photojournalist, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, says little beyond what is necessary and polite). Find out how the photographer handles things at the reception (the photojournalist will do no orchestration of events at the reception).

But again, above all, look at the pictures. Because the wedding photojournalist is focused on capturing the couple, each set of wedding pictures will have a completely different look and feel. No two weddings will look a like. If you can get a good sense of the personality of the bride and groom, and a good idea of what their wedding was like, and the pictures are artful, but natural and spontaneous, then you are probably dealing with a bona fide wedding photojournalist.

–Larry Brunt
June 9, 2008
Essential Moments Photography
Spokane, Washington