Wedding photography restrictions and documentary wedding photography. The latter depends on the former to obtain the best possible storytelling photographic coverage from a wedding day.
What I really want to get across in this article about wedding photography restrictions is communicating the approach of a ‘pure’ documentary wedding photographer like myself – and a handful of others trading in the UK – across to the officiant of your wedding day beforehand. This will hopefully allow for the best possible results. And to achieve those results, all parties involved on the wedding day need to be fully on board with the documentary wedding photographer’s ethos and way of working; the bride and groom, their friends and family, other wedding vendors and probably most importantly – the officiant of the wedding ceremony.
What if the officiant doesn’t allow photography of the most important part of the day, or only certain parts of it? The final narration of the day will be akin to buying a jigsaw puzzle with a quarter or even three quarters of the pieces missing – totally incomplete.
If you don’t yet know what a documentary wedding photographer is and how they work, I’ll give you a short summary.
Documentary wedding photography involves taking story telling pictures without contrivance. It’s all about observing, anticipating and capturing real moments of emotive human interaction at weddings. Moments that can’t be set up. Moments that will evoke real memories in the future for those who were present. And for those who weren’t present, you’ll feel like you were by just viewing the narrative afterwards. These photographs will seamlessly tell a story of the wedding day when skilfully crafted into a narrative within a wedding album or put together in a slideshow.
Don’t fall for the commonly used label of ‘documentary wedding photographer’ however. A lot of traditional, mainstream wedding photographers today have hijacked the ‘documentary’ label and are using it as a marketing ploy, but that’s all for a completely different article another time – watch this space for that one!
Restrictions regarding photography at my couples chosen ceremony venues are always a key part of any pre-wedding discussions we’ll have. Some couples find out about any such restrictions during initial dealings with their chosen venue, but some are unaware. It’s only when I raise the subject with them at our initial meeting that they go away to find out if they can have their ceremony photographed without any restrictions.
I’ve had mixed dealings with officiants over the years. I think the majority of my fellow professionals will agree with the following statements though.
Catholic priests are mostly very relaxed about wedding photography and in some cases they positively promote having the wedding photographer in close attendance during the ceremony. I can only recount one Catholic priest in all of my years of shooting weddings that threw up barriers.
Church of England vicars are definitely more of a mixed bag. Some are totally happy for the photographer to work without any restrictions at all as long as they are discreet, quiet, respectful of the ceremony and do not use flash.
Other vicars will only allow photography from the back of the church. Some will only allow an image of the bride entering the church with her father, a staged image of the signing of the register and the happy couple leaving the church. A very small percentage will not allow any photography at all. I’ve yet to encounter this rare animal, but do know of fellow photographers who have. They’ve sat outside the church all the way through the ceremony waiting for the happy couple (or the not-so-happy-because-we-have-no-photographic-record-of-our-once-in-a-lifetime-event-couple) to emerge.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that it’s a no-brainer that all photographers work like in a discreet and respectful way, but, unfortunately, some don’t and give the industry a very bad name. I can understand why certain vicars are a little more strict regarding their rules if they’ve been unfortunate enough to have an inconsiderate photographer working in their church. If you ever come to see me for a consultation, ask to see the video I have of one such plonker spoiling the wedding ceremony by acting totally unprofessionally in the church and getting booted out by the vicar.
Asian weddings are normally a free-for-all with no restrictions. I covered one such wedding in Leicester many years ago, it was my first Hindu wedding and the priest interrupted the ceremony. He told me to take my shoes off and called me into the mandap to record the proceedings from closer in. They had a formal civil ceremony after the very informal Hindu one to make it all legal. The stiff-upper-lipped registrar made it perfectly clear – in no uncertain terms – that photography of the ceremony was only allowed during certain moments. The same day, the same couple, but two totally different ways of working under two officiants.
And then there’s humanist weddings… pretty much anything goes bar hanging from the ceiling upside down to get that great angle.
I’ve also covered weddings in the same church but under different priests. The ‘regular’ vicar at one particular C of E church very local to me will only allow the photographer three shots. The bride & her father coming into the church, a faked signing of the register and the bride and groom walking down the aisle after the ceremony.
On one particular occasion at this church, the ‘regular’ vicar was unavailable and his understudy was called upon to take the ceremony. As I hadn’t worked with the understudy before, I decided to go along to the rehearsal on the Thursday evening before the ceremony. I wanted to see if the church’s restrictions were set in stone or were, in fact, different from priest-to-priest. My luck was in. I introduced myself with a smile and a firm handshake and rather cheesily mentioned that my middle name was ‘discreet’. It seemed to do the trick. I was allowed to have the full rein on the day of my couple’s wedding as long as I shot from the rear of the church. There was no room behind the vicar as the choir stalls were filled completely with a male voice choir. I also shot from any position along the two outer aisles of the church. The coverage of their day was great, much better than any other wedding I’ve shot at that church before or since.
Another wedding in Coventry presented me with another different scenario. I was informed by my couple that photography in the church on the day was fine, only to be welcomed at the church doors by the churchwarden with a very insistent manner. “You can only photograph the bride coming through the door with her father. You are then allowed one shot only of the ceremony from the balcony at the back of the church during the first hymn. After that, you aren’t allowed another photograph until the register signing.” I explained to her that that wasn’t what my couple had told me, but she wouldn’t have it. We chatted to the vicar and he backed his warden up saying that it was the same rules for all weddings and all photographers at their church.
The ceremony itself was incredibly emotional and I would have taken some wonderful images. The irony is that the cinematographer was allowed to sit quietly at the front of the church and record all parts of the ceremony because his camera “didn’t make any noise”. At least those wonderfully emotive moments during the ceremony were recorded for posterity.
Meanwhile, I sat on the floor at the back of the church twiddling my thumbs and being watched closely by the church warden. If a church or venue sets these rules, then I’m not going to rock the boat by trying to break those rules. It’s disrespectful to the venue and it’s disrespectful to the couple and their ceremony – even if it is a massive shame.
To be fair to the church, they did let me shoot the signing of the register as it happened, without having to set up a ‘faked’ signing shot. This part of the day can also be another bugbear. Quite often, officiants will not allow photography of the ‘real’ signing of the register. I sometimes win them round by promising to shoot from down low and from a decent distance back. The certificate can’t be seen and some are fine with that – others though are sticklers for rules and simply won’t budge an inch.
Rules even vary for civil ceremonies at venues and registry offices. Warwickshire registrars are well known throughout the wedding industry for only allowing photography during certain parts of the ceremony, but I believe their rules are a little more relaxed nowadays. At the other end of the scale, I’ve covered weddings in North West Leicestershire and the registrars are great. They’re adamant that I stand in the best position to get those shots of the bride coming down the aisle, the ceremony, and the first kiss. I even caught one registrar having a sneaky glass of red before the ceremony. I can only assume she needed it to calm her nerves!
My one piece of advice to couples looking to have the full story of their day documented is to make sure that you speak with the officiant of your ceremony beforehand. If you’re looking to book (or have already booked) a documentary wedding photographer, explain to the officiant how your photographer will work. A documentary wedding photographer will always be professional, courteous and will have respect for the couple, their service and the ceremony venue and will quietly document the service with the minimum of fuss and disruption. They’ll be experts at shooting in low-light situations without having to resort to using harsh flash.
Once the ceremony is over, the officiant will have hardly known that the photographer was there. Who knows? It may just have restored their faith that not all photographers run around like headless chickens, machine-gunning their cameras and filling the venue with a flash every few seconds. There is another way you know!