Sweeping into town exactly a month after their wedding ceremony in Chicago for a stylish Milwaukee reception, I was lucky enough to cover it... kicking off at the lake front, the weather was chilled but easily better than their frigid day in Chicago, and my last wedding come to think of it...after some awesome on the beach and ushering the unwashed public out of the shots, it was off to the rickety bridge in the third ward, and after risking life, limb and high heels, back to Bacchus for a slick and stylish cocktail party and dinner reception... when you're this awesome, it should be mandatory to have two weddings.
Sarah & Matt. Married Again. from Steve Bowman on Vimeo.
So this was one of those weddings. The kind where it's not an actual wedding, just the reception, usually as a result of a prior destination event. It's always a nice break from the usual format however, (though I still get somewhat surprised that I miss the other components I quietly curse about on the day).
Though in one regard it's easier on me because it's shorter, it does bring certain issues of it's own, namely that you have fewer opportunities to tell your story. A wedding is usually split into about 10 different sections for me, and with this event you basically have two; the portrait session and the cocktail party. The result is that you really have to work much harder to introduce variety.
As I discussed in the previous post about dancefloor shots, you always have several different approaches and techniques to call upon for each of these different portions of the day. The challenge you face at an event such as this one is that you need to produce volume to create the body of work, yet cannot allow too much repetition.
Any time you introduce 'volume' into the equation, you increase the risk of mediocrity. That awesome shot doesn't stand out quite so much, and isn't quite as awesome, when you have another six just like it.
The added challenge was the venue for the reception. Bacchus is a fine restaurant. A very fine restaurant. However, it's just that - a restaurant, and though the food is incredible, the aesthetics are excellent, if you jam over one hundred folks in there, for the photographer it becomes tough. Let's just say I was saying "excuse me" a lot.
So, to my point...
As with the dancefloor, you really have to develop certain techniques and shots that work, and have a stable of them. So many cocktail and reception shots I see from my peers are exactly the same, and it's mind-numbing; a thousand different 'detail' shots, posed guest pictures nuked to hell and black and white candid shots of guests. All very well, but does that give an accurate representation of what was going on? To me, no.
It's not just about recreating an atmosphere, as I've discussed before, it's about making it interesting. To anyone not in the wedding, cocktail hour shots are dreadfully dull. You have to have them, but they're very repetitive.
Remember, 'Interesting' is the absolute foundation of what I do. I don't care if you like a particular shot of mine, or if you hate it. If that shot made you spend an extra few seconds looking at it than you otherwise would (even if it's just to list the reasons you think it's crap and question whether I had my eyes closed and hit the shutter button with my ear), then I absolutely won.
At events like this, the skill set you develop in terms of being creative or strange, it's worth it's weight in gold. Not only does it break the monotony of posed shots I'm conscientiously prevented from displaying, but it builds into immersing the viewer by engaging them in thought, not just visuals. So, here are a handful of shots from the cocktail reception and a brief rationale...
Always a favourite shot of mine, you'll see this crop up at every candid section of a shoot. It's such a strong shot in the sense of conveyance and immersion. One of the strongest pulls you can achieve in candid work plays on a sense of voyeurism. Not only are you looking in on something happening, but you're doing it from another room. We all have a love of being a Peeping Tom, so looking from behind cover or in this case from a different room plays that up. Loosely conforming to the rule of thirds which reinforces the composition, and use of a shallow, natural DoF, you have a myriad of things here, several people engaged in different things...plenty to look for, all neatly packaged in a stealthy journalistic, titillating shot.
Sarah's dress obviously deserves a little love from the camera. The backs of gowns can often be quite intricate, though often ignored. This was one of those fortunate moments where I saw the chance to not only pick up a detail shot, but to do it in context, so we get a snippet of story too. Invoking the voyeuristic element again, we're looking into a 'closed' event of Sarah talking to a couple of friends. Narrow DoF shifts the focus from the two girls and on the dress (pushing the viewer one step further out of the conversation), and also prevents there being too much going on to distract. It's also a demonstration that by essentially decapitating her, we keep the focus where I want it, but do not detract from the context. This was actually one of my favourites from the set.
A more traditional shot of this situation would have demanded I step back, and get everyone's face in the shot. How incredibly boring would that have been? It would have ended up just like the common or garden cocktail candid. So by chopping off Sarah's head and blurring the girls faces we instantly made it more interesting, (there are probably a lot of people you could say that about)...
Another environmental shot, along the same lines as number one. The goal here isn't to show anything in particular, instead just add to the sense of immersion, and let the viewer attach themselves to whatever they want to take in. The trick here was using the mirror. Now, using the mirror isn't that unusual, rather a common device actually to put a different spin on an ordinary scene. The thing about reflections however, is that humans have a tendency to want to see what they're reflecting for themselves. When I look at this, I find my eye pulled away from the mirrors towards the objects they're showing me proper. There's a sense of frustration at this, and again, it goes back to engaging the viewer and making them work for what they want. The inherent distortion in a mirror, especially using a wide-angle really makes you work. There's enough of 'normal' on the right of the frame (again, use of the RoT) to tease you, and strong use of a diagonal set of lines leading you up there... but if you want the honey, you have to really look at the mirror. Flummoxing, frustrating but interesting.
The final shot here is just a quick nod to that ubiquitous reception event, the speech. Of course, I always provide the off-camera lit shot, but the candid shots like this one are my favourite to use in the slideshow. The usual shallow DoF, shooting from behind something (a guests shoulder in this case) as well as shooting from a lower angle and placing him in the lower right third facing out of frame, just to give that extra edge. Just a quick example of how something pretty ordinary can quickly be made interesting and different.
Of course there are infinite variations on these techniques, how you prioritize and put them together, how far you stray from conventional, but it all goes to protect your collection from being too predictable, and really turning off a non-related viewer because of too much of what they expect.
The truly brilliant thing about this is that not only does it keep viewers stimulated, but as a photographer, it keeps you stimulated too. There's nothing worse than feeling like the 'hired help' taking couples photos as you aimlessly wander around the party, helplessly watching people eat good food and drink cold drinks.
By taking a handful of different techniques, some of which are discussed above, some of which are like Colonel Steve's Secret Recipe, you can (like photographic Lego) put them together in infinite combinations and produce images that are engaging to shoot and engaging to look at.
Welp..see ya later. Enjoy the Big Gulps.