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Tips for Storytelling

I am not a photojournalist. I am not a traditional wedding photographer. I actually don’t really claim any particular genre at all. When it comes to wedding photography, I am sort of a jack of all trades. But I try to be the best jack that I can possibly be. I will never be the best photojournalist out there. I will never be the finest at portraits or fashion or architecture or details. Someone who specializes will be the best at those things. And do you know what, I’m very okay with not being the best. But do you know what I am? Pretty darn decent at most of those things. And I think that this has been the simple key to my success. Consistency across the board and good solid storytelling. So today I want to share with you some tips for how to tell a great story and remind you that you don’t have to be the best photographer, you just have to be the best at what you do. There is a market for everyone, you just have to find yours.

If you are a storyteller like I am, you know very well that some weddings are more exciting to photograph than others. Some weddings are just bursting at the seams with emotional moments and exciting things happening all around you. There is almost too much to shoot. Other weddings not so much. Sometimes we have to create stories. And I think that’s okay, it depends on your angle. And do you know what, they might already be there if you know how to look for them. My goal is usually to tell a complete story within one frame. It doesn’t always happen but I try. Sometimes the story is complicated. Sometimes it’s simple. But I want the viewer to feel like they can step right in and look around, as if they are there. I want them to have a sense of place…and of time.

So here are 4 tips to get you all thinking about what you’re doing (or not doing) to tell the story of a wedding day.

1. Be a backseat driver. I am the worst back seat driver I know. Even when I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat of someone else’s car, I am always scanning the road…the road directly ahead of me, the cars far far up ahead and even the shoulders. I always have my foot on some imaginary break pedal which I will stomp on hard if I see brake lights 100 yards ahead. I’m sure it drives my husband crazy. Maybe this makes me a control freak. I’m not sure, but I think it makes me a better wedding photographer. Because I apply the same rules to my shooting as I do to my backseat driving. When I’m framing my shot, I am not only sizing up my main subject but my eye is scanning the whole scene at the same time. What’s in the background, what’s in the foreground? Are there secondary stories in the frame that help to tell my story? I’d rather do this in one image as opposed to 3 or 4 images on an album page to tell the same story. A great photograph takes more than a quick glance to take in.

I shot the image above at a wedding about 2 weeks ago. In the foreground, the groom is dancing with his mother. Of course my main subject was the bride watching as she holds her grandmother’s hand. All the way to the left is the bride’s father with his camera. I don’t know who the rest of the people are in the frame but I know they are important to my clients. You can also sort of get a feeling for the room, the carpet, the table and chairs, the sconce in the background. There is a lot of information in this one image. I could have shot the groom and his mom, the bride and her grandmother, her father watching and the guest reactions separately in 4 or 5 different frames. But instead of just firing away, I can instead take an extra 1 or 2 seconds to choose my position, compose my shot, and tell a complete story in one frame.

2. Dress your background (or your foreground). My husband is a Production Designer for television shows. This means that I am always hearing about “filling in the background” and depth and other such nonsense that most people don’t even realize goes into what they are watching on tv. So why not apply some of those elements to your photography?

It’s okay to move stuff around to create your story. I shot an Indian wedding recently and I wanted to photograph the clothes. They were incredibly heavy though and it was hard to figure out what to do with them. I finally found somewhere to hang them but it was this little tiny space. So instead of photographing the clothes by themselves, I decided to make them my background instead and I shot this one on the left into the mirror. The image on the right is about the shoes. But it’s also about the dress and the hotel room. It says a little more than “here are some shoes”.

3. Anticipate & move your body. Most of the storytelling I do while shooting a wedding is not about moving stuff around. Most of it is already there, you just have to learn how to see it and to be ready for it. Truthfully you need to see what is about to happen. Being reactive is not always enough. So try to consider where your body position is relative to what you’re shooting and think about what is going to happen next. Are you high, low, left, right of your subject? Learn to position your body so that you are ready for what is about to happen. Even better if you can also nail that supportive/ secondary story. You have to move and wait. Anticipate where you need to be, move your body and then wait for the shot to come to you. With practice you’ll know where to be and when.

4. Allow your details to say something. We all shoot details whether it’s for the purpose of giving to other wedding vendors or just so that the couple can remember all of those little things they labored over for months. We all shoot them so why not shoot them in a way that helps to tell the complete story and make them images your clients love? Below are a couple of examples. I hung the dress on the left so that I could photograph it. But then I noticed that the bride’s little dog was hanging around so I got my angle and then called the dog over. I knew that having the couple’s pet in the dress shot would make it more personal to them. This image of the rings gives you a city reference, right? There is the Lincoln Memorial just chilling in the background which hopefully prompts the viewer to think Washington DC. This was the bride’s hotel room key card which I just leaned up again the wall for a background.

Well that’s all for now. I’m going to be hanging around at PartnerCon in NOLA so if you’re there/ here, please say hello and introduce yourselves. I look forward to meeting anyone who takes the time to read all of my silly ideas and advice. 🙂

Written by Justine Ungaro

Justine Ungaro has been photographing weddings in her own clean, classic style since 2003. A second generation photographer, Justine grew up in the Washington DC area and moved to Los Angeles in 2006 where she expanded her business to include children’s and music industry portraiture and soon after began giving workshops and speaking at photography conventions. She currently maintains studios in Los Angeles and DC.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!