Editorial or documentary wedding photography?

March 7, 2024

Let’s talk wedding photography styles. Do you do editorial or documentary wedding photography? How do you know if it’s EDITORIAL, FINE ART, TRADITIONAL, LIFESTYLE, DOCUMENTARY or PHOTOJOURNALISM? What do these words even mean? I’ve written the definitive description for how to describe your style. I’ll also share with you what matters most about wedding photography styles when talking to your clients.

First off, let’s acknowledge there’s no governing body dictating what a photography style entails.

And thank goodness for that! We photographers love to blur lines and mix styles because we’re all unique people with unique perspectives.

But without an agreed language, people looking for wedding photographers might get confused as to what the jargon means.

Worse, they may not get the style they were hoping for. Clients wanting photojournalism might be really annoyed by the careful posing and attention to detail if they hire an editorial style wedding photographer.

The reason for me writing this blog post is that there’s a groundswell of wedding photographers using editorial, documentary and photojournalism interchangeably.

And that’s not exactly accurate.

There are very distinct aspects to each style, both from the method of making the photo, and the photo itself. So let’s take a look at the meaning of each, and we can help our clients (and us, too) better understand what we offer.

Wedding photography styles, from editorial to photojournalistic wedding photography are on a spectrum. I’m going to put fine art wedding photography on the left side, then editorial, then traditional, then lifestyle, then documentary, then photojournalistic wedding photography, as we move right. You’ll see there’s overlap between each of the genres, hence the idea of a spectrum, not individual silos.

(Please note: I’m not including images because I respect others’ work and encourage you to go to their websites for examples!)

Fine Art Wedding Photography

Fine art wedding photography has a very specific aesthetic. Generally considered light and airy, usually shot on film or hybrid with digital, images are carefully crafted. It’s similar to editorial wedding photography, but with generally softer, more romantic vibes and exquisite natural-looking light. Photographers are meticulous with the details and they continually guide their couples through posing. Think graceful hand placement and introspective connection between the couple. Nothing is bold, everything is flowy. Elizabeth Messina is a good example of fine art wedding photography.

Editorial Wedding Photography

Editorial wedding photography is closely related with fine art wedding photography, with similar emphasis on light and posing details. Editorial is defined by a luxurious and glamorous vibe, with a focus on intricate details and fashion-forward people.

The very reason it’s called editorial is because this style is generally what’s expected in high end, trend-setting magazines. The venue, details, design and fashion are forefront. Posing is intentional and portraits, while “natural,” are often *chef’s kiss* perfect. Think of these photographers as leading magazine shoots–carefully crafted to not look posed, but they are indeed posed. Ashton Jean-Pierre is an excellent example of an editorial wedding photographer, as is Sarah Falugo. While they’re quite different in style, both have that high-end feel, carefully curated to not look stuffy, overproduced or prompted.

Traditional Wedding Photography

Traditional wedding photography is right in the middle of the wedding photography style spectrum. Classic or traditional wedding photography is an homage to what we see in our parents’ wedding albums. The images are pretty and straightforward photographs of what we would “expect” to see at a wedding… and may not be super creative in terms of perspectives. Most images are generally formally posed by the photographer. If we think back to the gear photographers were using, they had to pose their subjects!

Because this was the origin of wedding photography, there’s an heirloom feel to them. Their formality may very well stand the test of time.

Lifestyle Wedding Photography

Lifestyle wedding photography starts to move into the documentary space on the spectrum. “Lifestyle” is a term meant to evoke both style and true-to-life, meaning less direction from the photographer but still with a crafted aesthetic.

Lifestyle wedding photographers tend to set something up, then let the rest unfold with little direction. “Unscripted” is a bit of a buzz word right now, but where editorial and fine art have a script defined by the photographer directing the naturalness they want to create or bring out in the couple, lifestyle photographers are more loose with the outcome.

Lifestyle is a middle ground between spontaneity and a styled photoshoot. There’s lots of candid imagery (we’ll come back to the word ‘candid’ later), yet with some direction and styling: the result is an “approachable” feel. Charmi Pena and Allan Zapeda do this well. You’ll see in each of their work, it’s also arguably editorial… but the PROCESS is different.

So is it editorial or documentary wedding photography?

We can find the answer is in the process. As we move to the documentary end of the spectrum, the involvement of the photographer changes drastically. Where fine art, editorial and traditional wedding photography have lots of input and direction from the photographer, that dissipates as we move toward a photojournalistic style.

And there’s a greater emphasis on something else: The Story.

Documentary Wedding Photography

Documentary wedding photography is less strict on the rules that photojournalists follow, and there tends to be more creative interpretation in the images.

Documentary, or reportage, tells the entirety of the story. Compositions are often complicated with multiple subjects, revealing everything that goes on at a wedding.

We documentary wedding photographers intentionally document entirely non-staged scenes throughout all aspects of a wedding. We limit direction even when there are family portraits, and we do not impose what we think should happen on the couple or the guests. We instead allow our subjects to entirely be themselves, so we can be truthful about their experience as we photograph it.

Here’s the rub: unfortunately, many people think they need to be told what to do in order to “look good” (whatever the hell that means). A really good documentary wedding photographer however, provides a supportive and welcoming environment, instilling trust in the couple and their guests so there is no need to tell them to look a certain way. We photograph it honesty and openness, so people feel comfortable to actually be themselves and remain in the experience with their people.

Which, beautifully, creates images where people look good because they feel like themselves 🙂 And that’s where the story comes in–documentary wedding photography is true to the narrative because it’s not what we think should happen, rather, it’s what IS happening.

I’m a documentary wedding photographer. You can see my work here.

Photojournalistic Wedding Photography

The exact opposite of editorial wedding photography is photojournalistic wedding photography–which is ironic, because they both have their origins in printed publications!

Photojournalists are literally journalists with photos. The photos literally describe what happened at the event.

Wedding photojournalism therefore, shows what the wedding was actually like, wholly without direction from the photographer. Importantly, editing is minimal because editing *changes* what it looked like. Photojournalists (in theory) follow a strong code of ethics where they cannot intervene in any way while making the images, nor while editing or printing them. Things are as they are, without considering aesthetics. There are very few photographers who staunchly follow this approach, but Ian Weldon is one of the most true wedding photojournalists working today.

Did that help?

I don’t want to split hairs between each of these genres. There’s obviously a blend between them, but I hope that thinking about them on a spectrum can show you where they overlap.

Wedding photography style isn’t just about what the photo looks like, it’s about how the photographer goes about getting that image. There are certainly editorial wedding photographers who have a photojournalistic feel, and documentary photographers who have a fine art edge.

If you don’t know how to categorize yourself, think about how the photograph looks and your process to make it.

But there’s one more thing we need to acknowledge. The reason I wrote this blog is to bring up the fact that people are now using “editorial” and “documentary” in the same breath, when they are in fact quite different.

So why are these clearly different styles described as the same thing?

Because… Candid.

Candid did this. The word has utterly EXPLODED in the photographic lexicon.

Candid is anything that is unstaged, unposed, unscripted.

Candid is the backbone of photojournalism and documentary, and featured often in editorial.

Candid is an accessible word, so non-wedding industry folks use it when they’re looking for non-stiff, non-stuffy wedding photography. Folks who say they want candid photos might actually want editorial… or lifestyle… or photojournalism.

So we photographers can help them by understanding what our own style is, and clearly guiding them through that in our website copy and in our portfolio.

But if I’ve left you with a furrowed brow, consider this:

You are a creative, you run your own business, and by virtue of those facts… you get to do whatever you want. Mix the styles together. Staunchly stick to one. Do whatever floats your boat.

But when we are clear with our language, our clients can better understand what sets us apart. And that helps your clients choose you.

If you need help defining your style and brand, or you want to break out of the mold you currently shoot in, let me know. I help documentary-inspired photographers build outstanding brands by teaching them how to understand and share their innate perspective. My flagship group mentorship program is “Storyteller’s School“, which takes you on a journey through defining your why and elevating your documentary skills so you can make impactful, meaningful photos for your clients and build and fulfilling, sustainable business built on the foundation of your WHY. You can contact me here.