There is one piece of photographic advice that is guaranteed to change your images.
It is rooted in Robert Capa’s famous quote, “If your pictures are not good enough you are not close enough.”
Simply put, conquer your fear of getting closer to your subject.
I first learned this lesson from a college professor who was looking at my photographs and asked why I was so far away from the subjects? I replied that I didn’t have a telephoto lens. Which of course was the wrong answer. He asked if I had feet! Confused, I replied YES. He fired back by pointing at my feet, saying “There’s your telephoto lens. Get off you’re a$& and go make the picture!”
Fifteen years later, I still think about that lesson when I’m faced with the challenges of putting myself in the middle of the action at a wedding.
When asked how they work on a wedding shoot, most photographers say, “I prefer the be a fly-on-the-wall and use my trusty 70-200. It is much less intrusive.” While this might be the most comfortable way to approach a scene, it ultimately lacks intimacy. When I first started shooting, I fell into this same trap. My 70-200 was my favorite lens. It was easy, I knew how to use it and it made everything look good. But it made me lazy. Over the years, I became inspired by photographers who captured fleeting moments that were full of information, emotion and story.
Then, a photographer I admired challenged me to leave my zoom lenses in the car and work only with fixed-focal length lenses. It worked. Today I primarily shoot with two lenses – a 35mm and an 85mm. If I had to choose one lens to take on a wedding shoot, it would be my 35mm without question.
Getting “close enough” is not just about your lens choice. It is fundamentally a mindset that requires tenacity, anticipation and most important –confidence!
Getting closer requires a certain degree of fearlessness. Your passion for the photograph and for capturing the decisive moment has to be greater than your fear of being intrusive.
Always respect the mood of the moment, but don’t hesitate to get closer when the moment calls for it. Building trust with your subject is the first step to gaining access to their lives. You can knock on the door; they have to let you in. Personal confidence and charisma carries you a long way in this process. Confidence not only matters when asking for access, it matters most in the moment. Your subjects feed off your ability to remain calm in stressful situations or emotionally-charged moments. Move with purpose and respect. You’ll be amazed where you are allowed to go.
At a wedding it’s usually pretty easy to get close and gain access. Yet many photographers are crippled by their own assumptions of what is “acceptable.” One way to get over that preconceived fear is to simply ask for access. Once access has been granted, all things are possible. Establishing trust early in the day allows me to be confident to push photographic boundaries.
The most common area of boundary-pushing is the ceremony. There are times when a church or an official has denied me the access I need. Of course, I have to be as professional as possible. But when there are no barriers, the only barriers are within yourself.
One case comes to mind. I was documenting a large, high-end Jewish wedding. There was physically no way to shoot from behind the Rabbi, so I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to capture the bride and groom during their vows. I had talked to the bride in advance about being able to be there during the ceremony and she said, “do what you gotta do to get the shots!”
I found myself searching with no avail for an ideal angle on the ceremony. I finally realized that I had to climb onto the stage if I was going to capture the images that the bride and I were expecting. That was my motivation. So, I started working on my approach. I caught a lucky break when the Rabbi directed everyone’s attention to the side of the stage opposite of me! I quickly put down one of my cameras, walked up on stage and placed myself to the right of the bride and groom. To stay small, I crouched on my knees.
My heart was beating out of my chest, but I was up there and acted like it was no big deal. It paid off. I made images that truly captured the feelings the couple and their families experienced during the ceremony. That result trumped my nerves. The bride later thanked me for taking a risk. That was icing on the cake! Being able to capture and show the bride’s joy and the joy in her mother’s face was worth everything.
Getting closer to your subjects allows for a more intimate feeling, not just a feeling of voyeurism. Getting closer enables viewers to be drawn into the action and feel like they were there. In addition, people who actually witnessed the event will in turn be transported back to that powerful moment many, many years later.
“If you photos are not good enough you are not close enough” It’s such simple advice. Sometimes the most simple concepts take years of practice and planning to perfect. Thank you to Mr. Capa and my professor 15 years ago for this lesson.
Tyler Wirken is a photographer based in Kansas City, Mo. As a husband and father of two amazing boys, Tyler realizes the importance of family and preserving it. In his own words, “being able to look back on what life was, to remember tiny moments of significance in a photograph that you can hold in your hand is a gift I want to give.” Tyler draws from his background as a newspaper photographer to do just that. His mission is to be a personal photojournalist for his clients. Believing in living life to its fullest, flying by the seat of his pants, thinking outside of the box, and questioning the status quo are all hallmarks of Tyler’s approach to photography and life.