Many photographers hate weddings.
In fact, it’s a bit of a stereotype that photographers do some other kind of photography as their passion, but take weddings “to pay the bills”. And I understand this—weddings can be brutal working environments. To do it right, you can be working for 12 hours at a stretch, with little food or rest, and venues often treat vendors poorly behind the scenes. And under these conditions, a constant steam of moments is relentlessly passing by you, certain to never be repeated in the same way ever again. Families have traveled from all over the globe. Elderly matriarchs and patriarchs of the family survey the gathering, knowing how rare these events really are and also aware that with each event that forms, some people have passed awaywhile some of the new generation are being introduced. There is a beautiful heaviness that flows like a current under the surface. Friends from college see each other, perhaps, for the last time before kids and careers and distances become a gulf too wide to cross on a regular basis. Parents are caught in the passage of the seasons of their life, watching their kids progress through adult rites, the whole day whispering to them that they, too, are entering a new phase of life.
But for me, it is different. I view weddings as one of the highest artistic callings I can take as a photographer. And despite the heavy commercialization of weddings, I am not cynical about them. Looking through the camera, I can see the moments that happen that bind groups together and keep their connections alive. I see the fabric of relationships that makes up the day, and for the vast majority of weddings I’ve been a part of, they are truly special human moments. What’s more, it is one of the few times that families orchestrate interactions and experiences in a highly organized way, and the overlay of formality to the wedding creates a unique environment for people to metabolize all of these new roles, expectations, and family dynamics. Not all of these moments are happy and beautiful, but the small sadnesses and anxieties create the context that makes the embraces seem so much more meaingful. At some point, people stop hugging--they clutch. They don’t cry, they weep. They laugh until their vanity melts and their makeup slides off onto their clothing.
It is, truly, a meaningful human moment. Not all the time, and not in every case, but more often than not. And the calling of a photographer to take that responsibility, and that considerable work load, is a calling I take with great seriousness.
In that same spirit, I think it can be helpful to bring back from the front lines some hard earned counsel for brides, grooms, and their families. Good photographers can see so many of the secrets of the family through our cameras, and we can see them without needing words or descriptions. And without violating any of these secrets, I’d like to draw a bit form their wisdom and offer some of the best counsel I can about planning for, and designing, your wedding from the perspective of what we see as photogrphers. Sometime later we can talk about specific logistical details or how-to items, but for now I think it best to focus on the broader structure at play; the patterns that seem to emerge, over time, regardless of culture or individual preferences.
Here’s a broad, but incredibly meaningful, cheat sheet that I would offer those barreling toward their own wedding events in today’s world:
1. If you can, find a great planner. It’s not that you can’t organize things, it’s that doing so disconnects you from the day and it shows.
I’m not going to go into fine grain detail about what a planner should do or not do—that is easy to research. The important point here is more about how delegating the function of planning to a trusted professional can impact everything else that happens around it.
On your wedding day, like it or not, you are going to have a full head and a full emotional plate. And so will most of the other key participants. When I see tensions erupt—which is more rare than the myths would have you believe—it is almost always around anxieties that build up over the sequential and administrative aspects of the day. Put simply, humans are not actually built for multitasking. It produces an immense strain upon our intellectual and emotional systems, and doing this on your wedding day means you are introducing that strain at a time when you need your resources the most.
A good planner should be able to understand the sequence you’ve planned for the day, the priorities you’ve set, and can work with you to help that framework for the day unfold as seamlessly as possible. This will allow your limited time and attention to go to the things that are actually the most important to you. And there is a “butterfly wing effect” that happens here, too. The less anxious and distracted you are, the more probable it becomes that every interaction you have throughout the day happens in a way that pleases you—and thus, the more pleasing content photographers have to observe and record.
Speaking as a photographer, you will reflect the emotions and feelings inside of you. If you spend hours of your day fretting over sequential details and getting worked up over creases in table cloths, your photographs will record exactly that struggle. Instead of seeing photographs of yourself deeply embedded in that fabric of relationships around you, you will watch your past (and younger) self absorbed by minutiae. It will show on your face, and this can expand and show in the lack of connection among the people around you as moods sync up among your group.
2. Allow your details to set a mood and to fuel an experience. They generate the setting for your story. But don’t let them take over all of your emotions and attention and become the story itself.
If anything has changed in weddings over the last 10 years or so, it’s the emphasis put on the details. Some weddings have always taken this to an extreme level, but today the pattern shows up in almost all weddings regardless of budget. Sites like Pinterest, and a booming wedding coverage culture, have introduced the idea that any wedding can include a crescendo of bespoke details unique to the couple.
This is actually a very good change, in my opinion. The thoughtfulness of wedding details really has gone up, and I feel like I learn a lot more about the the wedding hosts now than I ever did before. There is more to draw guests in. But that sword has a double edge, and the other edge can be a sinister one.
With the new focus on the details has come a huge misjudgment of the purpose of those details. Instead of using details to help create a unique setting for a family moment to occur, the details are becoming a rude and controlling guest. The purpose of setting details are to provide a stage for the events of the day to reveal themselves. It is Juliet’s balcony, Jane Austen’s parlor, or Casablanca’s tarmac. But masters of scene setting will tell you that if the scene begins to take over the script, and intrudes upon the story that takes place within it, something has gone terribly wrong.
No one detail, or set of details, is worth disfiguring the wedding day over. It is all too easy to transform into the planning-obsessed daughter from the movie “Meet Joe Black” (a character I meet at weddings more often than I can recount), or even the modern Pinterest version of the family in “Father of the Bride”. The glowing lanterns, the elegance and fragrance of fresh florals, and the warm hospitality of the custom place settings are all opportunities to set a stage for the night to unfold under. And they deserve proper attention and care. Just never forget—as more and more seem to do—that the whole point of the details is to set the stage under which the story of the wedding will play out. When it begins to become the the story itself, you have lost your mooring in a way that will always show up through the camera.
Delight in your details. Laugh from your belly when you realize that the must-have custom bubble vials end up looking like you’re handing out prescription drug containers to all your guests, or when grandma fills her iced tea into a decorative mason jar meant to hold handwritten best wishes from guests at their tables. And in fact, realize that the story that evolves around the missed details can be as endearing as whatever perfect interactions you had planned instead.
3. In the hierarchy of vendor decisions you make, be most selective with those who participate actively in the day itself.
I could share so many horror stories with you, but I’ll refrain for the sake of civility and sanity. Vendors are a very unique part of weddings that I’m not sure brides and grooms fully appreciate. It is amazing to me how the wedding hosts will spend weeks agonizing over detail vendors (cakes, flowers, etc) that don’t really have a huge impact on the critical interactions of the day, and yet, these same couples will hire highly involved vendors sight unseen.
Which vendor decisions are the most important? To answer this, figure out which vendors will have the most active participation with you and your guests. For most this will be photographers, videographers, and DJs. I’ve worked with many great people in all categories, but I’ve also seen things happen that would mortify you. The iron rule for me tends to be that if any one of the vendors ends up embarrassing the entire event, it will probably be a DJ or a videographer (photographers are in that group, too, it’s just that I am thankfully spared from having to witness those moments).
Regarding DJs, keep in mind that they will control most of the mood and smooth flow of everything following the ceremony. If they decide to play custom house mixes of hardcore rap immediately following a grandparents' slow dance, you will simply have to watch it play out. If a DJ decides to hijack the mic and start offering an awkward family toast of their own, the room will all cringe together in unison. A good DJ will keep the crowd happy, engaged, and energetic late into the evening, whereas a bad DJ will have the majority in the room reaching for their coats as soon as the cake is cut (and sometimes even before). Their function is highly important to the flow of the night, and yet many seem to be hired as an afterthought.
Videographers pose a different sort of test. I’ve worked with some magnificent videographers, but they seem to be the exception to the rule. There are many competent video professionals in most markets, you just have to show a bit of care to find them and connect with them on a meaningful level before the day arrives. However, there does seem to be a common trend of what I’ll call, “really, really intense videographers” who see themselves as a kind of rising star-in-the-making, and they need your wedding to "boost their reel". They’ll descend upon a wedding venue and set up more equipment than a movie set, positioning enormous jibs behind the wedding alter and contemplating if they should lay track down the aisle for the bride’s walking shots. I’ve even seen videographers go into paparrazi mode and stand almost between the officiant and the couple at the alter, ruining every picture (from every angle) of the “you may now kiss the bride” moment. I’ve even seen some take Instagram selfies of themselves “working the event” while the wedding is occuring, posted to social media during the ceremony.
The issue isn’t if they have talent or not—in my experience it is hit or miss, but some are very talented—it's about how they view your wedding in terms of their career goals. Often, the bride and the groom are viewed as interchangeable clients—stepping stones to getting some cash and building a commercial social media following. You should be looking for videographers who view their job as intimately connected to getting onto your level and telling the real story of your day. The same rules apply for photographers.
The big point here is that vendors should be looked at in terms of the impact they can potentially have upon the real interactions of your day, and vetted accordingly. They can contribute to your emotional state, and the rhythm of all the guests that participate, in very positive ways or in profoundly negative ways. Make sure that those who participate in the critical parts of the day are people who are there to serve you, and who take their professional behavior very seriously. Remember that weddings can be extremely difficult and high stress for these vendors as well. Not everyone has the maturity or emotional resilience to do great professional work under those conditions. And when they get awkward or interrupt the event, it shows in every photograph and on every face of every attendee. It’s amazing how often I have to discard pictures of uncomfortable groups or even full on group-cringing sessions. Those awkward pictures may be the only ones you have of that part of the day.
Yes, everyone should laugh it off an move on, and most do. But it’s a mostly avoidable situation if the right care is shown ahead of time.
And never, ever, hire a vendor or creative contributor to your wedding event sight unseen if they will have a meaningful interactive role with you or your guests. Be most selective with these vendors over all the others. DJs, photographers, and videographers are extremely important parts of the wedding experience, and worth getting right.
4. Optimize the day around relationships, not checking things off of lists (that’s what a good planner is for).
This has already been covered, but with one major caveat needed—the checklist mentality. Because weddings can be absolutely monstrous events to plan and pull off, they are driven by checklists. And they probably should be; there’s a lot of stuff to keep straight.
The problem is when that checklist thinking is adopted, without awareness, into the wedding event itself. Sometimes the bride and groom get so nervous, and so swept away by it all, that they just start trying to check off boxes. As a photographer, you see this come through the camera and it’s not a good effect. “Okay, first dance is over, check, now the next dance, check, okay onto the cake, check, now to the bouquet toss…..” Before you even notice, the family starts leaking away into the night and you suddenly realize that the whole thing passed you by in a series of tasks. You never actually tasted the cake, noticed the details you spent weeks agonizing over, appreciated the subtlety in your flowers (the reason you selected them to begin with), or allowed yourself to be drawn into the significance of the first dances (which all too often are some of the last dances some families have with one another).
One of the great reasons to have a planner is to offload the rigorous checklists, and the responsibility to march through them, so that you can focus your attention on more important things. But it’s more than this. Many couples forget to plan the interactions they really want to have. Have you considered the 5 or 10 most important guests, hosts, or friends that you wanted to spend time with and thought about how to ensure you really get a few good moments with them? The bubble vials can be handled by someone else, but the guests cannot. Grandparents leave earlier than you want, some aunts and uncles always drink too much before dinner, and dear college friends with babies will almost always have to leave earlier than they planned—think about these connections you want to have, and how they best fit into your crazy day.
Then offload the administrative and sequential checklists to someone else’s capable hands (if at all possible).
5. Embrace the emotions, moods, anxieties, and eccentricities of the day.
And this is really the heart of the whole thing. This day is going to be intense. It’s a wild cultural moment for all families. You are introducing a new couple into the community. Families and friends connect across great distances, sometimes for the last time the whole group will be together. In many ways it is a sacred day in family history that isn’t recognized as such until years later. The details create a heightened sensuality of textures, aromas, tastes, and experiences. The emotional content of the day is incredibly unique, but also fleeting. There is a lot going on.
A great photographer sees all of it. We can see how facial expressions change when they are consumed by stuff and things versus people and experiences. We can see fatigue, and delight, and we can tell the difference between tears of anxiety and tears of intense fondness and love. The more real, and meaningful, content you allow into your day the more the photographs will reflect these things. How do you want your grandkids to feel when they view your wedding pictures, and get a glimpse into the day this new part of the family burst into being? How do you want future generations to be introduced to you? Photography is truly one of the only real investments you make in your wedding, because it is one of the only parts of the day that endures for as long as families show the care to preserve it. The food gets eaten, the bar tab paid. Flowers wilt. The dress gets vacuum-sealed into a plastic husk and tucked deep into a closet. This is the way of it.
But across time your photographs will introduce you, and other generations your family creates, to who you were and who your family and friends were at that unique moment in time. The value of those images increases exponentially as time lapses and as people age, pass away, and welcome the births of new family and friends. As time passes, the more the wedding event tapped into that 180-proof, cask strength personality of the couple and those who surrounded them, the more the photographs became irreplaceable fragments of those personalities. Uncle Birch’s villianous grin, Grandma Margo’s wind-tunnel hairdo, the maid of honor’s endearing habit of putting a gummy bear into her champaign glass, and Dad’s tears when he clutched his daughter’s elbow as they waited (for what felt like hours) for the wedding party to shuffle down the aisle—these things whisper back to us through our whole lives.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you accidentally tossed the cake and ate the garters. Or if your Pinterest-perfect, hand made candles discharged like road flares and set off a smoke alarm.
These moments are not the ruination of all the details—the are the object of them. Everything chosen should be in service to these moments. No, you cannot plan for all to be happy. And no, everything will not go exactly as you had planned it. But I have yet to see a wedding where the couple (and their families) really took the relationship aspect of the day to be most sacred who regretted it.
We have seen many couples cry with happiness when the images from the wedding are delivered. On pattern, these couples are most often the couples that built the theory of their wedding according to the counsel above. They built their portfolio of vendors, setting details, and human interactions in service to the human side of their event. And as a result, their photographers got to tap into this fabric of relationships as they captured the images of the day. If you could go home with them and look over their shoulder as they sort through the images, you would be floored by how big of a difference there is in the quality of the photographs taken when compared with other events that don't cultivate these interactive connections.
Photographers collect many secrets about the people we work with. We see them at their most beautiful, and at times, at their most raw and unvarnished. We can see the map of their emotions over the full course the day. We can see who they like, and who they don’t like. Who see who they deeply love, and who surprises them. And mostly, we keep these secrets to ourselves, sorting through them with empathy and an understanding of the complexity of the day.
How you design your wedding, and what you prioritize, has a huge impact on which of those secrets we see.