I am 6’5” tall, weigh around 16 stones and have size 12 feet. When I want to use it I have a voice like a fog horn, I’m naturally fairly clumsy and I have been told that I have a certain “presence” – in a good way I think! I therefore take it as a huge compliment when my wedding clients remark that they hardly noticed me taking photographs at their wedding, that I was discreet and, as one wrote to me “I don’t understand how someone so tall can be so unobtrusive!”
My natural photographic inclination is as a photojournalist so blending into the crowd is of paramount importance. I don’t want to influence events unfolding in front of me and the less my clients and wedding guests notice that I am there the more natural and telling my photographs can be. I want to observe and record, my presence has to be one of neutrality.
Consider How You Look And Sound!
It’s important that, like any animal trying not to draw attention to itself, that you are camouflaged. I’m not suggesting that you go to a wedding in full army gear but rather that you blend in with the surroundings! Wear what everyone else will be wearing in a slightly low key way. Here in the UK most men would wear a suit, shirt and tie to a wedding. I therefore wear a shirt and tie (no jacket as I get too hot) and suit style trousers, but I always tend to wear rather subdued colours. I have some hideously garishly coloured ties for example but they are simply going to draw attention to me so I just wear plain dark colours. Blend in and then tone it down!
Shoes are also really important. Not so much how they look but how they sound, they really need to be completely silent so that you can walk quietly around a church during the ceremony for example without drawing attention to yourself with clicking heels and endless squeaking!
On the subject of noise, it’s also imperative that you switch your phone to silent for the whole day. There’s no point in trying to be a ninja photojournalist with a constantly blaring phone in your pocket!
Go Anti Flash Gear
There’s nothing screams “photographer” more than a huge DSLR with a massive gleaming white 70-200mm lens stuck on the front. At the very least using a smaller body and smaller, possibly prime lenses, is considerably less intrusive. The new generation of mirrorless cameras are also considerably less intimidating and quieter as well.
Even if you are still using a DSLR switch off the focus beeps, put it into silent or quiet mode and consider black taping over the logos so that it looks much more low key. Even the straps you use carry a subconscious message, large hand or belt straps are much more conspicuous than the basic neck straps that are generally provided. They may be a little less comfortable but they are far less conspicuous.
However, the most obvious thing to avoid is using flash. Nothing makes the photographer more obvious than a firing flash and using natural light wherever possible is an absolute must. There are very few situations where a modern DSLR, used with a reasonably high ISO setting and a fast prime lens, can’t cope.
Super Stealth Body Language
The photographer’s physical demeanour is of paramount importance and probably most important of all is that you look happy, alert and relaxed. I am aware that when I am concentrating I often frown and this sends completely the wrong message to people around me – I consciously try to keep a more pleasant expression on my face and this does have a noticeable effect on how people perceive you. Having a silent frowning photographer taking your picture is much more stressful than being photographed by a happy, confident looking one who displays open body language and this will often show in the pictures.
However, despite needing to look happy and confident in your work it can be a good idea to actually try to avoid eye contact and looking intently at people for too long. Remember, as a photojournalist, you are trying your utmost not to influence the scene before you so drawing attention to yourself by smiling and making eye contact with your subject can be detrimental to the authenticity of the final image. That’s not to say you can’t be friendly and often a subject will realise they have been photographed after the moment has passed as you take the camera from your eye and at this point it can be nice to smile and possibly say a thank you.
Avoiding actually looking at your subject is hard but can be an effective way of ensuring that they do not react to you. Try approaching them whilst looking intently at something beyond them or to the side of them so that it seems as though your interest lies elsewhere whilst all the time keeping a watch for the decisive moment through the corner of your eye. Using wide angle lenses can be extremely helpful in such situations as they allow you to have a subject in the frame whilst it looks as though you are not pointing the camera directly at them.
Another way to make your presence less felt is to keep circulating around the wedding party. Try to be “everywhere but nowhere” at the same time. Not only does this have less impact on people it also increases the chances of you being in the right place at the right time to photograph important developments and action. You should be constantly looking for images and positioning is vitally important – often it can be possible to be observing two or three possible scenarios from a distance without influencing any of them before decisively moving closer to one of them at the vital moment to photograph.
The “floating about” technique isn’t always appropriate however and sometimes it can be just a case of seeing the potential in a scene and waiting for something to unfold and happen. Again, during this waiting game, it’s important that your presence doesn’t influence the scene and often waiting crouched down, standing casually, leaning on a wall or even sitting can make you much less noticeable. Other times, I will stand waiting to take the picture looking through the viewfinder of the camera and not moving – this is pretty obvious to anyone the other side of the lens but, after a certain amount of time, assuming that you haven’t moved, you just become part of the surroundings and life carries on fairly much as normal around you.
All of this incognito photography can become quite taxing after a while and it is vitally important that you have regular breaks and down time. Obviously there are times during a wedding day when you need to constantly on the go but, at a typical reception for example, it isn’t necessary to be constantly photographing and having regular breaks will help keep you alert and also will mean that there are times when, from the guests point of view, you are completely absent. A break can be as brief as just heading back to my camera bag in the corner, having a quick drink and checking the timing schedule or can be a slightly more prolonged. On longer breaks I am careful to leave the main part of the wedding and to get away from the guests – this helps me to clear my brain a little and again means that I am intruding on the wedding as little as possible as well. I am always happy to chat to people if they approach me but I don’t see it as part of my role as a documentary photographer to socialise with guests, at least not until I have finished work for the day, the camera is back in the bag and I am having a well deserved drink before heading home.
Whilst maintaining some of the tactics above it is also really important to balance this with your emotional involvement and empathy for the people you are working with. You are an outsider who has been given the privilege of recording a very personal, emotional and often private event and, as such, it is the photographer’s duty to be as respectful and unobtrusive as possible. With the correct balance of unobtrusive behaviour and emotional empathy it becomes possible for the photographer to record the day with authenticity and integrity and produce images that will resonate for the people in them in a genuine and meaningful way. This is a hard balance to achieve but, when combined with technical mastery is the key to producing the very best photojournalistic photography.
Mathew Donovan says
These are amazing tips, I’m not quite as tall as you but gangly sure fits. I’m such a clutz, except when I’m focusing on the next photo, but I get told my face is garishly scary when I’m concentrating, so these tips are going to go a long way. I have a wedding booked for next month with a nice fall theme, so am planning to go with a pumpkin colored dress shirt, no tie, and black slacks and belt. I feel more informed now, and being at ease and setting a tone will help me AND the wedding party!