Don’t Put Me in This Position

wedding photography

Sometimes my camera frames a story I’d rather not have to tell.

When I shoot a wedding reception, I try to get photos of everyone there. If a group of people look like they’re having a good time, I take their picture. When there’s a nice moment going on, I catch the moment before it changes. Don’t ask–just shoot. I want to give the wedding couple a true picture of the day. 

Sometimes people decline to have their picture taken, and when they do, I respect their wishes.

On this occasion, though, I wish this particular couple had refused. This man and woman were sitting at their table, chatting and making dreamy eyes at each other. It was a dimly lit reception hall, and they didn’t make any effort to avoid the camera. Cute couple, I thought. 


Later, on the dance floor, the same two people were swaying to a ballad. I moved around and shot from a distance, to avoid flashing the camera right in their faces. They kissed right as I pressed the shutter. I moved on without a second thought.

After a wedding, I don’t immediately post the photos on my website or social media. The wedding couple are the gatekeepers. I always send them–and only them–a quick handful of photos within a day or two after the wedding, and later I post the full proofs in a private gallery. Only the wedding couple can share the gallery link with others. I won’t give the URL to guests, family members, or vendors. 

There have been times when couples have been slow in getting the photos out to their guests, and relatives of the couple have nudged me for the photos for weeks. But unless I have the go-ahead from the wedding couple, I don’t give them the key.

It’s because of photos like this.

Turns out the two people snogging hadn’t come to the wedding together. Both of them had spouses, neither of whom was in attendance that night. 

Who knows what they were thinking. Probably a combination of alcohol and the romantic atmosphere of a wedding conspired to push them into some bad choices. And either they forgot I was there with a camera, or they were too wrapped up in each other to care.

It’s not my job to judge. But it is up to me to try to make life easy for the wedding couple.

When my clients saw the photos in their private gallery, they were shocked. They decided they would spare their friends’ spouses the misery of seeing these moments. I don’t think they wanted to be responsible for starting a scandal, and neither did I.

The groom asked me to remove the photos from the gallery, and I agreed. I’m a photographer, not a private investigator. I don’t want my job to become a lower-stakes version of Rear Window. I wish I hadn’t taken the pictures in the first place, but how could I have known? My camera doesn’t come with an affair detector.

I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get a photo like this at some point. If you give a hundred monkeys a hundred cameras and tell them to shoot a hundred weddings, one of them is going to catch some people messing around.

This bit of awkwardness reinforced my belief that the wedding couple should be the sole gatekeepers of the photos. Nothing goes public without their say-so.

And a quick aside to guests at weddings: if you must make out with someone who’s not your partner, please avoid the camera. Better yet, don’t do it at all.

The Bride Without a Game Face

wedding photography

Letting the couple be their private selves on their most public day.

Wedding photos are a kind of performance, and not just because they’re posed for the camera. We’re performing for the people who will see the pictures, including our future selves. 

When we look back at our wedding albums, the images should help us remember what happened and how we felt. The pictures call forth our memories of the day.

As time passes, something else starts to happen. The pictures don’t just help us remember. We grow closer to the images and further from the moments that actually took place. Over time, the pictures become the memories.

For people who are comfortable having their picture taken, this isn’t a problem. When they look at photos from their wedding, they see themselves. But what about someone who’s not at ease with the camera? Will the pictures bring up memories she wants to relive?


I’m standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, surrounded by five affable guys in tuxedos. The bride is on her way. 

I have taken the groom and his mates out to the downtown streets, to the spot where we’ll meet the bride for the first look photos. So far, we’ve had a grand time taking shots of the guys goofing around.

This couple is a lovely pair of artistic visionaries. Both work in theater, but they’re not the typical theater couple, if there is such a thing. The groom is tall and outgoing, with a quick wit. He naturally clowns for the camera. The bride is tougher to read–she’s quiet and elegant, with large, dark, perceptive eyes. 

When I checked in with the bride getting ready in her hotel room, I could see a hint of concern in those eyes. Not fear or regret–I wasn’t worried that she’d call off the wedding. But I didn’t see the game face that brides-to-be often wear.

Her hair and makeup weren’t fully done yet, so I had no problem waiting to take any photos until she was camera ready. Still, she seemed more apprehensive than the average bride with me being in the room.

So now I’m in position for her arrival. The groomsmen retreat, the groom stands at the ready, and I try to get a good angle on the bride crossing the street. There’s so much pedestrian traffic on this beautiful day, I have a hard time getting a clear look at her. When the crowd in front of her clears, I can see that she’s lovely in her gown, but she still hasn’t put on the game face. 

When she and the groom see each other, she finally reveals an effortless smile. She walks to him and they clasp hands. They look into each other’s eyes, and she seems to find a peace that has eluded her until that moment.

I realize she’s finally feeling like herself. 

Until now, she’s been a bride preoccupied with all the pressures of the day. She’s gone to great lengths to put on makeup and a gorgeous dress, to plan locations, hire a photographer, and invite a hundred people to be a part of it. She wants to create and enjoy a beautiful, personal experience with people she loves. But she doesn’t feel like herself when she’s conscious of the camera.

At that moment, I remind myself: Not everyone is comfortable performing on their wedding day. Because I’ve done a lot of theater photography and actors’ headshots, I’m fairly well connected in the performing arts community–I’ve shot weddings for performers of all kinds. For most of them, yukking it up for the camera comes naturally, or at least serves as a comfortable photo front.

Not for her. 

When she walked across the street toward me, I could see the tension in her eyes. The few times I asked her if she’d like to pose for a photo, she went stiff.

She’s at home acting in plays and giving formal speeches. How can it be that she feels awkward having her photo taken? 

Quick side note: This may seem strange to people who don’t know many actors, but a lot of them are much more comfortable in character. When they have a script, the confines of a stage, and a well-rehearsed set of character traits, it’s easy to face the audience or the camera. These folks are much more vulnerable performing as themselves.

I think about the concern I saw on the bride’s face in the makeup chair, when she was getting ready to go “on.” She was about to dive into a day that requires her to be agonizingly public, and she has to face the cameras without a script, without a stage, without a persona other than her own.

Being comfortable on camera isn’t something you can just switch on. She’s trying, but I can see that it’s a struggle.

As I shoot, I do my best to give her space. I try to let her be herself without making her feel like she has to perform herself. We take some traditional group photos, of course, but I keep those setups brief. I spend much of the day finding angles where I can shoot unforced moments between the bride and groom. When the bride is alone, I avoid asking her to pose. 

The ceremony is cozy, and the reception is full of humor, style, and warmth. At the reception, the room is full of people who love to play to a crowd. The bridal party puts on fake mustaches and does a sketch. The photo booth has an array of masks and props. There are plenty of opportunities for the bride to ham it up. And she doesn’t. It’s not her thing.

My efforts to shoot with discretion pay off. When the bride forgets about the camera, she comes alive. The shots in which she’s lost in the moment at the reception are lovely. Her husband remains a goof, and I give him plenty of chances to put on silly photo fronts, but only when his wife is socializing in another part of the room.

When the bride and groom are together, I observe with my camera from a distance, and I see their real affection and tenderness for each other. Their chemistry is beautiful; I’m relieved that in quite a few photos, I figured out how to capture it without destroying it.

Joy takes many forms. For some people, it’s posing for a big group photo, champagne glasses held high. For this particular couple, I think the photo that’s true to them is quieter. It’s a gentle moment in which both of them are walking away from a crowd, neither aware of the camera, and the groom puts a coat around the bride’s shoulders. That’s where they live. That’s their joy, pure and unperformed.

I keep this couple in mind when I’m getting to know potential wedding clients. I realize that years from now, each couple will look at their wedding photos and refresh their happy memories. I hope they’ll get to relive the personal, genuine moments as well as the big, showy ones. If the pictures are going to shape their memories, then I hope the pictures and the memories will be true to each other.

The Off-Duty Dilemma

wedding photography

The one night I think I’m out, a wedding pulls me back in.

The ceremony’s almost over, and she hasn’t moved. The official photographer—the woman who’s being paid to shoot—is sitting in the back, looking almost bored. Once in a while she halfheartedly lifts the camera to her eye and takes a shot. 

What is she doing? Should I do something about this?


Vance and Lindsey are great friends of mine, and both have delightfully theatrical tendencies. When they invited me to the wedding, I knew I was in for a marvelous time. They asked me if I wanted to be the official photographer, or if I’d prefer to come as a guest. Without hesitation, I chose guest. I wanted to enjoy this evening without having to be “on.” Besides, I told them, I might bring my camera and take a few shots for fun.

Anne and I haven’t been out on a grownup date for a while. The day of Vance and Lindsey’s wedding falls right after our daughter starts kindergarten. I want, for once, to enjoy my wife’s company at a wedding without having to set up lights and round up guests. I’m never good company when I’m working. Too much to do.

But tonight, dammit, I’m going to do it right. I resolve to keep my camera away from my face until somebody specifically asks me to take a photo.

As we walk into the small, stylish restaurant, I notice the official photographer. I remember that she took Vance and Lindsey’s engagement photos at a park, and they turned out pretty well. I don’t immediately clock her as the official shooter. She looks about 17 years old, and she isn’t carrying much gear. I ignore these red flags, find a seat, and settle in to enjoy what I hope will be an entertaining ceremony.

Lindsey and Vance don’t let us down. The ceremony starts with a dance flashmob – bridesmaids clapping, nailing their choreographed moves to Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” An adorable floppy-eared dog trots down the aisle as the ringbearer. There are laughs and tears and playful tension—all the moments you want from a wedding. And I’m loving every moment of being a guest.

Yet as the ceremony comes to a close, I can’t help thinking I should jump up and start shooting. The official photographer is parked in the back corner, in no position to get a good angle on anything. 

She’s carrying one camera with a 50mm fixed lens. She has no way to zoom in. I can tell from the angle at which her flash is pointed, it has to be picking up a blue-gray hue from the painted ceiling—it’s bound to look horrible on everyone’s skin tones. There’s no way she’s getting good shots. Either she doesn’t know what she’s doing, or she’s not even bothering to try.

As much as I’m horrified, I also feel bad for her. I remember the early days of my event photography career, being in over my head like she is now. Flash in hand, no clue how to use it, praying that by some miracle the pictures will be up to snuff.

I’m certain that when Vance and Lindsey see this woman’s photos, they will be crestfallen at best. Homicidal at worst.

But I keep my promise to Anne. I stay seated, hands off the camera (except for a few quick shots of Lindsey with the ringbearer dog).

The canine ringbearer.

The maid of honor, Lindsey’s best friend, is also a professional photographer. She hasn’t been shooting either, since she’s been heavily involved in the ceremony—she’s the one who started the flashmob. In the receiving line, our eyes meet. We both glance at the official shooter and shake our heads gravely. I ask, “Do you think we should say something to Lindsey?” We both agree it’s probably not a good idea to bring our concerns to her attention right now. (Principle #2: Reduce stress for others.)

I motion to my camera. “I think I might take a few pictures of my own,” I say. The maid of honor puts her hand on my arm, opens her eyes wide, and says, “Yes! Please do.”

I catch up with Anne at the bar. She’s just gotten herself a drink when I discreetly explain what’s going on with the official shooter. She understands. She knows what I’m going to ask. 

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I can’t not work.”

Anne nods. She shoos me away to get some shots during the cocktail hour.

After a few minutes of sneaking around, pretending to shoot just for myself, I bite the bullet and commit to working the wedding like a professional. I start openly asking people if they’d like a picture. I take photos of Vance and Lindsey (especially Lindsey) any time it looks like they’re enjoying themselves.

The bride and her father.

I make a point of avoiding the official shooter. I’m not looking to make an enemy. And the truth is, I feel bad for her.

As the cocktail hour ends, I put away the camera. I decide I can safely return to being a layperson. For once, I’m glad that every guest has a camera phone and they are all collectively documenting the reception.

I sit down at our banquet table next to Anne. By now, most of the romance has fizzled out of our date. “Did you get anything good?” she asks. 

I nod, give her a kiss, and thank her for lending me out to our friends. The rest of the evening is absolutely lovely.

My wonderful wife Anne on the night of Vance and Lindsey’s wedding.

As expected, the official photographer’s photos turn out to be… unsatisfactory. I give Vance and Lindsey my photos and my condolences.

Part of me wishes that I’d accepted Vance and Lindsey’s request to be the official photographer in the first place. It’s a crime that they ended up without a single decent shot from their glorious flashmob. Still, I’m glad I could give them a gift of unexpected pictures. I took some unexpectedly meaningful photos of other people that night as well.

And I’m glad I had a chance to take my wife on a date. Even if I spent part of it on the clock.

Barefoot and wet on the busiest day of their lives

wedding photography

Does the stress of the wedding day give some couples the courage to kick off their shoes and get soaked?

On three separate occasions, I have seen wedding couples walk barefoot, on purpose, into a body of water on their wedding day.

On each of those days, the couple also had family members or members of their bridal party remove their shoes and get in along with them.

In none of these instances were the wet feet premeditated. No one had a plan for what to do when they stepped, dripping, back onto dry land. No one had a towel handy.

I love it when couples have a spirit of adventure on their wedding day. But after they’ve spent hours getting dolled up, why give in to the urge to go wading like five-year-olds, and take their equally dolled-up loved ones in with them?

I think it may have to do with how people respond to stress. Let’s face it, a typical wedding is about the most stressful happy occasion there is.

Let’s quickly put the stress in perspective: Take the whole concept of marriage out of the equation. Imagine it’s an ordinary weekend. You’re off work, and the moment you wake up, someone hands you a To Do List with everything that wedding couples have to manage that day:

  • Supervise and approve the work of a bunch of independent contractors
  • Get yourself and a group of people to several locations (sometimes without being seen by the person you’re closest to)
  • Be on time to each location–if you show up late at any point, people may be frustrated with you and/or assume that something has gone horribly wrong
  • Visit with every one of your relatives, and their plus-ones, in the span of a few hours 
  • Let photographers and videographers follow you around all day
  • Get dressed up in formal wear and/or elaborate makeup; maintain your pristine appearance while taking care of everything on this list
  • Stand in front of a large group of people while they watch you have a series of personal, tender moments
  • Host a party attended by many people whom you love dearly; talk to all of them because you may not see them again for years

On any other day, just one of those items would be a significant source of pressure. And on top of it all, you’re going to make an official lifelong commitment to your soul mate.

Everyone deals with wedding stress in their own way. Looking at that list, it’s easy to understand why most people stay focused, follow the plan, and don’t even consider getting wet.

But for some, the wedding fills them with a sense of opportunity. A license to act on any whim they like. For these people, the buzz that accompanies the wedding day is about two drinks’ worth of “what the hell, let’s do it.” 

I’ve seen all kinds of reactions to wedding day pressure. I get them. I get every one. But I sigh with admiration when I see people who can turn that stress into a spontaneous barefoot celebration. For these adventurous souls, the question is “Why wouldn’t we wade into a lake on our wedding day?”

If you’re that kind of couple, then God bless you. I tip my hat to you, and as a photographer, I absolutely adore that you give me great moments to shoot. I’d just like to offer one bit of advice:

Bring a towel.