Wedding Photography: Death of the Formal Portrait?

Oh Formal Wedding Portrait, we hardly knew ye.

It seems that lately I am beginning to see more wedding photographers who are “photojournalist only” or “natural light.” I don’t want to get into a debate about the merits of these specialties as I’m a big believer that whatever works for you and your clients is great. Everyone doesn’t have to do it the same way. In fact, it’s a good thing we don’t because then wedding photographers would be like gas stations: Whoever has the lowest price gets the business.

That being said, it still seems like we are starting to move towards a complete elimination of the “formal” wedding portrait. I know for a fact that many photographers hate to shoot them and some flat refuse to. I don’t understand that mentality.  

First, I completely understand photojournalist wedding photography. I consider myself a photojournalist photographer. When you look in bridal magazines the wedding pictures are all in that style. Ads in fashion magazines are mostly in that style now. It makes perfect sense that the modern bride wants that style of photography. But, pick up that same bridal magazine with all the candid wedding photography and look at the articles that showcase gowns: they are all in a “formal” style. The ads for gowns: formal. There can be no denying the fact that no matter how “modern” a bride is, the dress is presented in a beautiful, perfectly lit, formal way. Yet, so many photographer’s are moving away from photographing the bride that way.   I’m a wedding photographer in tampa and I see it all the time.

Why can’t we do both? Is there a law some where that says you can’t be a great photojournalist wedding photographer and also know how to take a formal style, off-camera lighting, portrait? Why can’t a bride have this:


And this:


Or this:


And this:


Here’s what I believe:   I believe that photojournalist wedding photography tells the story of the day, conveys emotion and captures fun. It’s a far cry better than the old days when a wedding photographer just posed people and took the shot. But, I also believe that it’s the classic wedding portrait that stands the test of time. One hundred years from now when your great-grandchildren are looking at your wedding pictures it’s the posed shots with the perfect lighting that will be most treasured because they won’t be concerned about the emotion of the day. They will want a good portrait of the family (or great-grandma, etc). I’m a professional photographer and my children are photographed more than any children on the planet but my wife still insists on buying their school pictures.   There’s something about the formality of it that appeals to people.

I sometimes get brides that only want informal photography. That’s fine, less work for me. But, I always try to nudge them into letting me do a few things that are a step above “snapshot.” Why? Because right now  she is a 25-year old bride who loves fun, candid pictures from her wedding, but 40 years from now it will be the nice, beautiful formal that will have a place of honor on the wall of her bedroom or on a nightstand. Plus, her parents and grandparents will want the formal now. Look at the first two pictures in this post.   I love the first one because it’s so fun and shows the personality of the bride and her friends. However, I can’t imagine my mom hanging that picture in her home today, even if she’s the bride in the shot.   No, she would have put that picture away years ago and it’s the second one that would be hanging up now.

It’s very common for me to have two clients book me after looking at the same collection of wedding images and give me separate reasons for choosing me: one will say they booked me because of my great eye for candid pictures and the other will say they loved the formals. If I shoot just as well as the photojournalists they looked at and I do great formals …   if I shoot formals as well as the formal photographer’s they looked at and I take great candids … doesn’t that make me a more valuable photographer?

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. I just wanted to say that I completely and 100% agree with you, and have been saying thing, in my own little groups, for a while. Brides love the look of a candid shot, the great expression and emotion of the day. That being said, the more traditional formals are the ones that will be hung on their walls at 16×20 or 20×30. Great article, thank you.

  2. A thought provoking article for sure. It has made me sit up and think and yes, I completely agree with you. The pics of the bride on the D-Day should have all the emotions captured as well as some formal pics be clicked as well which can be proudly shown to, yet to be born, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren-with pride!!

  3. Well…

    1, 2 and 3 are examples of what Not to do when shooting photography, that means messy backgrounds and intersecting lines with bodies.

    I pay a lot more attention to all that stuff in the kitchen’s background than the couple kiss.

    In the other side… I don’t know if Jeff Ascough ( is killing “the formal portrait”… do you think so?…

    maybe because I don’t know if the right word is “formal” or “fake”.

    A wedding is a special moment, not to pose, but to just live it, a fake pose is not telling you the story, not even the idea of a special moment, is just a common idea of how wedding photography has to be.

    Maybe people is waking up, maybe this is the time for the best ones to prevail. Renew or die.

  4. Right on the money. I was focusing heavily on the photojournalistic style – but after a few weddings realized there was just something missing. When photographing subjects, our role is to create images our clients will treasure for years – not just follow a trendy fad. Blending talent, style, composition, positing and current trends is at the core of solid wedding photography. Thanks for the article! It spoke to something I was also contemplating.

  5. “…it still seems like we are starting to move towards a complete elimination of the “formal” wedding portrait.”

    On photographers’ blogs and forums it may seem that way. In the real world I suspect the vast majority of photographers are offering and will continue to offer both. About half the Brides I speak with express to me that the PJ style coverage is what is most important to them, but they still want some posed photos. The other half think both styles are important. I also think what is desired and expected from the wedding photography varies in different parts of the world. I live and work in the midwest USA, and I don’t see much demand for photographers who specialize in only one style or the other. Brides expect both.

  6. I embrase the use of ‘Candid, Formal and Photo journanistic’ styles which work well together in telling a brides story. But its the Formal Portraits (with controlled lighting) which builds our creativity as Professional Photographers in keeping us at a ‘cutting edge’ above the ‘occasional Wedding snappers’!

  7. Wow, great comments from everyone and only one person attacked my actual pictures. 🙂

  8. I think it should be 95% PJ, 5% formal shots. I believe that if you want a formal photos for wall, they should go to portraits photographer for that, Formal photographers with studio lighting and stuff is not wedding photographer job. Wedding photographer primary job is to document the event.

    Good formal photography takes time, it is not a 5 minutes set up. If you try to setup formals photos in the wedding day, you’ll end up taking a big chunk of their time, and it is not fun for u, them and their guests.

    Many photographers thought that candid is easy, just bang bang bang and you got it. But it is not. It is actually one of the hardest, because it takes a lot of your concentration and mental power in and out. Many things need to be considered such as perspective, timing, geometry, lighting and so on.

    Today, many photographers advertise themselves as a candid photographer, but in practice they are far from that. They just shoot endlessly like machine gun and hope something great will show up later on,.. or if that doesn’t happen, they will photoshop it, which is a shame.

  9. I sort of agree, but sort of disagree at the same time. For the most part, there are some really good points there, and a very valid argument, Booray.

    I would be inclined to agree with Matt Needham: Sure, a lot of photographers would predominantly market themselves as photojournalists/natural-lighters (I try not to “categorise” myself too much, at least to clients, so much as display and discuss the images that are most representative of my style, which is a candid, perhaps a little bit of a fine art, approach). But those same (photojournalist) photographers (except purists) would *probably* also integrate some formal portraiture too – yet probably don’t advertise those shots as much or at all on their site or their blog. In that way, I sense that – even though a shift is probably occurring, toward photojournalism – more formal portraiture isn’t as dead as it may seem.

    I agree with Enche Tjin as well, where he said that it should be 95% photojournalstic, 5% formal. That sounds like a good balance to me – unless of course you are a purely formal photographer, in which case I think the reverse would be more appropriate.

    The other thing to note is of course that traditional, formal posing doesn’t always have to involve off-camera flash in order to be effective or suitable for aesthetic or sentimental longevity.

  10. I am a relatively new wedding photographer in the Nashville, TN area. What we’ve discovered mirrors some of the other comments posted here. Brides love the photojournalistic style and prefer it over the formals by far…BUT, they won’t entirely let go of the formals either. Even if the formals don’t tell the story of the day or convey much in the way of emotion, the brides feel like they would be missing out…or their mothers or grandmothers would be missing out.

    Now having said that, I do believe there is a place for formal wedding photography. I should note however that when I say formals, don’t think plastic plants, long candles, steps at the alter, etc. Even the most conservative of brides do not like that style now. I’d say there is a new ‘formal’ shot that is modern and more relaxed, with backgrounds not quite so sterile. #2 above lies somewhere in between. A better example would be the traditional groups posed in front of a nice garden or something.

    Just a few thoughts.

  11. I’m very new at wedding photography, but I’m surprised at the notion that you;d do just formals or just photojournalistic. You gotta have different picture styles for different purposes.

  12. I have been in full time in wedding photography for about 2 years, im cant believe that people would just do one or the other, I definitely think there is a place for both and always do both with my couples

  13. Great article. It’s an interesting trend, but I think that wedding photographers generally don’t post the family portraits on their blogs. I think most photographers would do them on request but are less likey to post them perhaps.

    Or perhaps its era of the selfie and people aren’t as focused on the ‘old fashioned portrait’?

    Great article!

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