Thanks to these Fearless Photographers members who contributed their excellent images to this article: Curtis Moore, Pasquale Minniti (Instagram), Marius Stoian, Frank Boutonnet, Steven Herrschaft, Soven Amatya, Gabriel Scharis, Fabio Mirulla, Ken Pak, William Lambelet, Florin Stefan, Mateo Boffano, Tünde Koncsol, Leonard Walpot, Marius Barbulescu, David Almajano Maestro, and Pedro Bento.
Photographic moments are little snippets of stories wrapped in a cohesive image. Moments give us glimpses of our humanity and let us connect with the lives of others, making our own world a little larger and richer. It also makes us feel good.
Below are common things that make up the best photographic moments, plus tips so you can make your own moment-driven photography more successful.
Tension and resolution
All great art contains tension and resolution. The obvious examples are in movies—will the good guys beat the bad guys? Will the romantic relationship work out? Will the zombies get everyone?
Wedding photography tension can be conveyed by things like:
- Creating expectation, where you set us up to expect a certain image or outcome by the main context of the photo, then show an unexpected conclusion.
- Unorthodox cropping, where our attention is forced to focus only on the elements provided and must imagine the rest.
- Breaking societal norms, where we have to face different customs, etiquette, etc.
- Strong contrasting elements, which we discuss later in this article.
- Anticipation, where you show the beginning of something about to happen.
- Anything that has a “visual gap” where our imagination has to fill in the holes.
Resolution comes as we finish scanning the image and all the pieces fall into place. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle at warp speed and gives our brains a little shot of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel excited, interested, and alive.
The basic human emotions—happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, anger—are universal across all nationalities, cultures, genders, and religions. When we see someone smiling we feel like smiling with them.
If you’ve ever been to a live concert, or religious service, or funeral, or… wedding, and felt like you were one with everyone else and connected to something bigger than yourself, then you’ve experienced something known as limbic resonance or emotional contagion. Similarly, your photos can be seen by someone on the other side of the world who can spontaneously feel the same emotions that were felt by your subjects at the moment you took the photo. How cool is that?
Clear message and focus
The photo should be clear about what it wants us to feel, because mixed messages confuse your viewers. What feeling do you want us to feel when we see your image?
Obviously, this can be a bit tricky to work out on the fly, but over time your instincts will draw you to the peak moment, and practice and discipline will allow you to capture it without distracting elements. As Lanny and Erika Mann both said in the last article here, the key is to be present and allow yourself to open up and feel the emotions of each moment. You’ll automatically find yourself drawn to the key moments.
Also, know your gear, because it’s impossible to be in the flow when you’re fiddling with your settings. When you’re highly proficient in your craft the self-critical region of your brain shuts down while you improvise. The more you know your stuff, the more you’re able to react instantly and mentally get out of your own way.
Intensity and Energy
The more intense the energy and emotion being shown in the image the more intense the emotion being felt by the viewer.
Intensity doesn’t necessarily have to mean big, loud, boisterous images. It can be a quiet moment with emotional depth.
Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal with your couples! At the start of the day invade their comfort zones for about half an hour so they get comfortable with you in their space (you can joke about it to lighten any tension). Then pull back to a more reasonable distance and you’ll be practically invisible.
Surprise and novelty
Surprise forces us to mentally sit up and pay attention and intensifies our emotions by about 400%. (Which is why good surprises feel awesome and bad surprises really, really suck).
We also love novelty.
When you show us something we haven’t seen before, or something familiar in a new way, we pay extra attention to it and our brain rewards us with little spurts of feel-good chemicals.
So, explore the space to find new angles, experiment with different lighting techniques, etc. (More on this in future articles). But most of all, be curious about your surroundings and the people you’re with. Allow your curiosity to show you life with fresh eyes.
We experience time in a weird way where fun and exciting moments seem to pass in the blink of an eye and then our brain spends days revisiting them to try to recapture that split-second. When you freeze time and show us the blink of an eye frozen in a photo it gives us a heightened sense of wonder and appreciation for the moment.
Plus, we love to see moments captured like this, because we know it takes skill and being in the right place at the right time.
The more you practice observing people, the better you’ll anticipate upcoming moments. To paraphrase the late Terry Pratchett, one-in-a-million chances happen at nine out of ten weddings. By observing people and sticking to them until the energy peaks you’ll find the best moments.
Humans love patterns, because they bring order and predictability into our lives. We are attuned to patterns on a deep level because life ebbs and flows in constant patterns—the seasons cycle annually, night turns to day, our hearts beat, we inhale and exhale, we grow old and die and more people are born who continue this pattern. Our entire life cycle is based on repeated patterns and so we naturally gravitate to them.
When you use repeating elements in your images it grabs our attention, because deep down we have a primal desire to ascribe meaning to the pattern and learn from it—what does the pattern mean?
Depth and texture.
Photos that look real immerse us in the image. For example, some things that help create images that make us feel like we’re right there, experiencing the moment with you include natural use of flash, realistic dodging and burning, appropriate depth of field, and so on.
On the other hand, images that are obviously unrealistic—e.g., too much HDR, excessive saturation, badly dodged and burned—draw us away from the moment, because it’s harder to believe and feel.
Multiple areas of interest are exciting for our brains, because this keep us interested and looking around the photo longer.
Sense of place
From the moment we can crawl we want to explore our world and learn about it. As adult photographers we probably aren’t putting everything in our mouth anymore, but we still want to get a feeling for the place the photo was made.
So, show us the sand beneath his feet, the wind in her hair, the goosebumps on their skin! Show us how your subjects interact with the world they’re in.
The more you can bring the space your subjects occupy to life the better we’ll connect to your images.
Here are some more specific tips on capturing the best wedding day moments:
Capture the moment, not the event
Most wedding photographers focus on recording the event but ignore the moments. This is known as Shot List Syndrome. It’s easy to get caught up in making sure you record all the important points of the day, but it’s more important to keep your eyes open and be present to what’s happening around you.
Connect with your clients and their guests. Get comfortable together. That way when you’re photographing them you’ll gravitate to the moments that are most meaningful to them and not just the shots you think you should get.
Find the moment, remove all else.
I like to think of each image starting as a black frame, with nothing in it. Into this frame I put the most important elements of the photo—and nothing else. Every element should exist in your frame to support what you’re trying to say. The fewer elements you use to tell your story the better.
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by many things happening at once. When this is the case it often works better to divide the scene and build it with multiple images than trying to capture everything at once. Get multiple “hero” shots instead of one busy frame.
Find the love
As a wedding photographer you don’t need to create feelings of love between your couples. You just have to show what they already feel. The best way to show it is to allow them a space where they feel safe enough to open up in front of you. If they seem awkward, talk to them about their love for each other by asking them questions—where they met, what’s their favourite memory together, etc. (More on this in future articles).
In the wise words of portrait photographer Anna Kuperberg, people show their love in a variety of ways; find those ways.
Contrast is one of the main ways we make sense of our world—today is hotter than yesterday but cooler than last week; Alex is sexier than Drew, who is fitter than Sam; our car is faster than our neighbour’s car but smaller than our friend’s car. And so on.
Moments can have more impact if the main subject is contrasted with something very different. For example, the young bride with her old grandmother; or the innocent daughter of the bride playing with her doll while her mother steps into sexy wedding-night lingerie.
Find the character
The best musicians have a sound that’s unique to them—Sting’s voice, Hendrix’s riffs, RUN DMC’s beats. But everyone has something that shows their unique character.
What about the person makes them them?
Show who they are through their expressions, clothing, body language, the environment, and whatever else you can use to capture them.
Humour is a cross between tension and resolution and surprise, with some relatability thrown in. We laugh at the unexpected, at things that confront our expectations of the world, and at truth presented in a way that seems suddenly obvious.
Wedding days are often filled with funny moments that happen without our input. However, our unique vision can also create a humorous scene that’s not necessarily exactly what’s truly happening.
Funny wedding photos often just show us something familiar in a different and unexpected way. Or they put two or more normal things in unexpected combinations. By the way, this is the first form of humour we appreciate in life, which is why toddlers will laugh hysterically if you put your shoe on your head—it works for wedding photography, too.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment to jump in front of you.
In the grand scheme of life, finished is better than perfect, and capturing a good image is better than missing a great one. Just get the shot.
Then get a better shot.