We’ve all seen them: vignettes and faux hand-tints; cross-processed images that overwhelm the senses with an unreal look; a heavy-handed use of flairs, starbursts and diffusion effects; cheesy frames. They cry for attention, hijacking the image in the photographic equivalent of a velvet Elvis painting.
Where is the value, the poignancy, and the essence in these photos?
Today’s digital post-processing tools can be a force for good in the right hands, but can create visual mayhem when used without the proper judgment or in lieu of an essentially good image to start with.
Wedding photojournalism is all about the image and how it captures the moment and emotions. Any manipulation in post-production should be considered very carefully, beyond the temptation to incorporate trendy effects at the expense of the visual and documentary essence that make an image great in the first place.
Remember, they’re called trends for a reason. That cool halo effect you put around the groom’s head ten years ago will likely look garish and dated today. If you approach the artistry of photo editing with a long-term plan, you’re more likely to achieve timelessness in your work.
A QUESTION OF RESPONSIBILITY
Wedding photojournalists have an obligation to help clients understand what is good and what has longevity. Certain effects are going to impress some people, especially a bride and groom who may not be trained in photography. As an accomplished professional, you have a responsibility to give them something that will resonate years from now with true quality.
Couples spend thousands of dollars on albums that are intended to last a lifetime, and sadly, some of the results can be very gimmicky. Put away the tilted frames, the jagged photo edges and the opacity sliders. A simple journal that focuses just on the images themselves is far more elegant and is often rewarded with a much longer shelf life.
It’s important to keep in mind that it is your name on that album, and the photos you put in there are a reflection of your talents. How do you want people to remember that name five years from now? Ten? Fifty? Unlike padded shoulders and jeggings, couples can’t trade in a wedding album when tastes change.
TRENDS AND TIMELESSNESS
Trends in image manipulation are not unlike trends with fashion or anything else— they’re always going to shift and change. It’s therefore much better just to keep your photos simple, elegant and about the imagery itself.
Think about this… A photojournalist’s approach to covering weddings is not much different from covering events for a newspaper or magazine. In those cases, the photos are expected to be unassuming and objective. The power of the image resides in its unadulterated emotion and honesty. Once you start doctoring scenes with special effects, you’re basically working against yourself, and betraying your skills as a documentarian.
Of course, older photos are always going to look dated in some respect, and that’s okay. After all, fashions and hair styles change. That’s called nostalgia. And it’s driven by the subjects, not the artist.
One look at a photo shot with a fisheye lens or an image all in black-and-white except for the bride’s red lips screams cliché. For the viewer, you’ve now replaced nostalgia with myalgia. Let the pictures speak for themselves, as they always have the truest voice.
DRAWING THE LINE
What makes a photograph great can be traced back to the basics of photography: there should be emotion in the imagery, the light, the composition and the background. Then, the essence of what makes the photo memorable is already there.
How many times have you experienced an overseasoned sauce at a restaurant? Where too many strong ingredients fight against each other, sometimes masking the flavor of the very entrée itself? Photography is exactly the same. The image should always be the entrée. Too much manipulation and you’ll turn a fragrant au jus into an over-peppered sriracha. And in both cases, you’ll pay for it in the end.
Wedding photos should always get extra consideration in these matters. Because those images serve your clients as the only visual record of their wedding day.
Here’s a great rule of thumb. If someone looks at an image and sees what’s been done to the photo before seeing the content itself, you’ve crossed the line. Basic alterations like slight dodging, minimal burning and cropping are fine. But if your digital pen starts wandering over to Texture Fill and Gaussian Blur, it’s time for an intervention.
WATERING-DOWN THE TALENT POOL?
The proliferation of the third-party market in Photoshop filters and actions could be cited as watering down the overall quality of the community of professional photographers, wedding photojournalists included. Some contend that this development has created a class of relatively inexperienced and incompetent shooters who can pick up jobs on the basis of others’ talents.
But surprisingly, this can be a good thing. Present your work in its most pure, unaltered state, and clients will more likely be drawn to the simple emotion; to the unfiltered truth in front of them. It will serve as a stark contrast to all the overworked imagery out there on the web, busking for people’s attention with their shiny digital toolbox.
DOING IT RIGHT
Can you stand by your wedding album five or seven years later? That’s a short period of time, and it’s a bellwether for the sustainability of your talents. Take a look at your parents’ old albums. Sure, they’re linear and straightforward in imagery and design, and some may dismiss them as “boring.” But look closer and you might see an unflinching focus on the people at these events; memorable moments frozen in time with couples enjoying themselves in a genuine and unaffected way. That’s called timelessness.
And that’s a win-win situation for the photographer, the client, and for posterity.