Candid Wedding Photos vs Documentary Wedding Photography

February 22, 2023

A question that comes up now and again when I am talking with people about wedding photography styles is how to differentiate documentary wedding photography vs. a photographer telling you that they take candid images at your wedding. So let’s compare candid wedding photos vs documentary wedding photography, as well as some of the other wedding photography styles.

Candid photography has long been used to describe any photo that isn’t posed. But if you ask somebody about a photo from their childhood where they were decorating a Christmas tree, they would likely tell you it was a candid photo, even if their parent directed them in the shot. So we’ve come to understand that candid means photos that aren’t stiff or clearly staged… even if they were 😉

Candid photography is essentially anything that the photographer didn’t explicitly direct, but still happens between directions. At other times, there may be no direction at all. Like this candid one: I told her to jump on his back. The result is a candid photo of them smiling.

Documentary photography however, is photography that is not manipulated in any way, before or after. Think of photojournalists: they don’t direct anything; they capture the story as it happens. The intent is the storytelling, which is what makes documentary wedding photography what it is. It’s storytelling as opposed to directing a moment for the benefit of making a photo.

Instead of fabricating something so that the photographer is ready to make the photo, with documentary photography it’s the photographer’s job to anticipate composition, movement, and light, often in split seconds and then pull all those images together into an interesting and impactful story for you. 

The result is photos of you and the people you love as you actually are, not a photographer’s rendition of what you should or shouldn’t be doing for the camera.

Where to Start: candid wedding photos vs documentary wedding photography

Pay attention to the words photographers use to describe their work on their websites, blogs, and social media. In my experience, we documentary photographers are very vocal about our love of documentary work. Along with photos that look like real moments, you should find clear language surrounding why we are passionate about this style of photography. It’s borderline obsessive for me! It’s incredibly satisfying to make creative, emotive images while something is happening, instead of telling people what to do. It’s so much more honest and real, and I love the pressure of being ready at all times. The result is magical images that just can’t be made up.

Because of the nature of weddings, all wedding photographers will deliver unposed or candid photos. Photos during the ceremony, dancing photos…these aren’t moments a photographer controls. All wedding photographers capture that part of the day in some fashion. That does not mean they do “documentary” wedding photography.

Below is a documentary take on wedding party portraits. The maid of honour is congratulating the bride, while the best man is looking at the groom’s wedding ring. Nothing about this was scripted or suggested. It’s documentary because this is the story of what they’re sharing with their wedding party.

So What Styles of Wedding Photographers Are There?

That’s a really good question! Because photography is an art form, there are no standards…we can basically call ourselves whatever we want. But, like art forms, there should be a “look” that you start to recognize as you look through wedding portfolios.

Some wedding photography style terms are commonly used, so let’s start there.

Traditional wedding photography is characterized by a classic and timeless style emphasizing posed portraits of the couple, family, and bridal party. The photographer follows a predetermined shot list and uses formal poses and traditional lighting techniques to create a polished look. You can expect to spend significant time doing posed and formal photos with a traditional photographer.

Contemporary wedding photography is more modern and creative, focusing on both the traditional poses and spontaneous moments of the day. The photographer may use innovative techniques, creative lighting, or unexpected compositions to create artistic and visually striking images, and there is an emphasis on creative portraits. While there may be less time spent doing family photos with a contemporary photographer, you will still spend time with the photographer during portraits to get the more creative shots they have envisioned.

Luxury or editorial wedding photography is heavily influenced by fashion photography and emphasizes glamour and style. The photographer may incorporate fashion-inspired poses, and there’s lots of attention to the carefully curated details of the venue and florals as well as the couple’s dress, hair, and makeup to create highly curated and visually stunning images. You can expect to spend a great deal of time on your day to achieve these photos…and in some cases, the photos are done before or after the actual wedding day.

Documentary wedding photography is how I describe my work. I blend into the background for much of the day, allowing events to unfold naturally and focusing on the genuine experience, emotions and interactions throughout the day. It is relaxed and fluid, with compositions that include the context of your story. Take the photo below: it started pouring rain just before their wedding. It was the first rain in months, and the air was heavy with wild fire smoke. The rain was a relief, just as it was for them to be able to get married during the pandemic. So I made an image that incorporated the rain and its metaphor into their experience.

There may be some portrait work during a documentary wedding, but it’s structured in a way that feels very organic to you and your needs. Sometimes we don’t even do portraits, but I still focus on the intricacy and intimacy of the moments you share. Those moments are never manufactured; they come from your heart and the day’s feelings. The result is your real life love story, rich in emotion, feeling, light, and love. And often, some great humour because human beings are funny sometimes! 

Lifestyle photography. While that’s generally used to describe a less structured, candid approach to portrait photography, I have seen it used by wedding photographers. Find out what the photographers mean by that description and how it impacts the photos they take and deliver. Like the image below–I directed this shoot for the couple. They’re big fans of SUP, so we did their pre-wedding session on the paddle boards.

A Good Rule of Thumb: If a Wedding Photo Looks Posed, It (Probably) Is

If you want to check this out for yourself, look for signs of artificiality in the image to tell if a wedding photo is staged or posed. The expressions may look forced or exaggerated, and the background and surroundings may appear produced or just too perfect to be true. Posed photos often feature stiff, unnatural body language.

In contrast, documentary photos are more relaxed and spontaneous, with people engaging in natural gestures and movements. The expressions are genuine, and the background more realistic. It feels like a “moment in time” that you may have experienced in your own life. If it’s done well, you’leven get the feeling that you are “peeking in” to a moment in their lives! 

Take some time to look at the photographer’s overall style and approach on their website. A documentary photographer will have a portfolio filled with photos that tell a story, while a traditional photographer may have a portfolio focused on candid or posed portraits. In the image below, the story is this: the couple walks towards their wedding car, a car that’s been the wedding car for multiple couples and generations. They’re surrounded by their family, on the family’s lakeside property. Everything about their wedding is in this photo.

When Considering a Wedding Photographer…

Be absolutely honest with yourself and what you like. If you love the idea of awesomely-lit Kardashian-style photos during your wedding, then friend, that’s what you should have (and you should definitely not hire me). 

Pay attention to how you FEEL when you look at their websites. If you find yourself smiling and having an emotional reaction to their work, that’s probably your photographer. If you feel like the photos you see on a photographer’s site are photos you can see on your walls, that’s a great start. Find a photographer whose portfolio speaks to you and emphasizes what is most important to you, whether that’s incredible portraits of you, or shared moments with your loved ones, or epic landscape images. 

Read their reviews and portfolio carefully to ensure that the photographer you choose will photograph your wedding in a way that is meaningful to you. And most importantly, ask for full wedding galleries to look through; I really can’t stress that enough! It’s the best way to see the breadth of how they actually work.

You might also want to check out my article on why I believe candids are more important than portraits.

Searching for a Documentary BC Wedding Photographer?

Our relationships, and the stories we tell as a result of them, ground us, make us feel connected and human, and prove that if love isn’t the meaning of life, it at least makes life worthwhile. Documentary photography has my heart because it showcases the genuine connections and magical moments of real life love stories that can never be reproduced. It’s the actual experience the couple has with their people. 

I hope this was a helpful review of candid wedding photos vs documentary wedding photography. If documentary wedding photography sounds like something you want for your wedding day, then we should definitely talk. Click here to email me. I can’t wait to hear about all the goodness want to remember forever!