My favourite maths teacher in secondary school introduced me to the concept of a mnemonic. For those of you who don’t know, a mnemonic is basically where you use an easy-to-remember word or phrase as a prompt for something harder to remember. I think one of Mr. O’Brien’s ones was “Soh Cah Toa”. (Can you tell what it is yet?). I’m sure he didn’t invent that particular one, or indeed any of the ones he told us about, but as the person who introduced me to the whole concept, I’ll always think about him when I come across a mnemonic. Which is why, during a photography seminar last Sunday, Mr. O’Brien popped into my head. Which brings me nicely to the question I’m sure you’re asking: “Who’s Roger, and what’s this about a giant pear?”
The Roger in question is Roger Overall, who was giving his seminar on documentary wedding photography for the first time last Sunday, one that I signed up to within minutes of it being announced a few months ago. I had high hopes for the day, knowing the presenter’s photography as I do, and having seen many times over his ability to take pictures that I wish I had taken. The greatest compliment a photographer can give a photograph is to wish he (or she) had been the one to take it, and so when I say I have had this feeling many times over looking at Roger’s work, you might understand why I didn’t hesitate to register for the course when he revealed his plans to tell a room full of photographers all he knows about documentary wedding photography.
He didn’t bring a giant pear with him. Truth be told, the pear that I’m referring to wasn’t giant – I just liked the “James and the giant peach” sound of the title of this post – nor was it even real. No, in fact PEAR was the mnemonic that reminded me of the afore-mentioned Mr. O’Brien. Not that Roger referred to it explicitly as PEAR either, but when, during the second part of the day, he put up a slide showing the four things a photographer needs to master to be a good documentary wedding photographer, PEAR jumped out at me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The course was an all-day one, and covered almost all that I could have expected anyone to cover on this particular topic, and having gone in with high expectations, I left with them exceeded. If you consider this post a review of sorts (and if you’re not really pushed about the pear), the the short version of the review is this: the course was excellent, and if you have an interest in documentary wedding photography (or even just documentary photography) and it comes your way in the future, you should seriously consider booking yourself a place.
Roger split it into five sections – what is documentary wedding photography, seeing the narrative, surviving and thriving during the wedding, a walk through of a full wedding, and a Q&A. I took something away from each section, but the second and third parts were particularly useful. It was during the second part that one of the slides summarized four things you need to master when doing documentary wedding photography:
The one I found most thought-provoking was empathy, and while I probably knew much of Roger said on that aspect, to have it brought into focus in the way he managed to do again and again during the day – especially later as he walked us through a full wedding which he photographed, of all places, in Lapland – was particularly educational. It always helps too when the presenter is clearly passionate about his subject (and, in Roger’s case, passionate about the importance of documentary wedding photography as a genre, and the importance of it being practiced correctly). In fact, it’s not often you see a presenter get emotional about what he is presenting, and for that emotion to be absolutely 100% genuine and well-founded, and that just served to underline the message he was trying to give over the course of the day.
One of the key traits of this style of photography is its storytelling ability, and it puts on a requirement on the photographer to tell that story well, but also succinctly. It was appropriate, therefore, that Roger presented just the right amount of material to send you away knowledgeable and keen to investigate further, but not too much as to dilute the key message. Pretty much everything that needed to be covered was, and nothing more.
I would, perhaps, have liked to have seen a walk through of the post processing of one or two of the images that we were shown – and I mentioned as much on the feedback form – but that was a minor gripe. You could argue that that’s getting overly technical and outside the scope of the discussion, but the nature of the genre is that many of the images are taken in technically challenging environments, with often very low light levels, and what many might consider to be underexposed images, or at least dark ones, even when working at high ISOs. It would have been interesting to see one such image straight out of the camera, and how Roger deals with it in post-processing. But then again, perhaps that’s just my technical mind kicking in.
I felt it was a little unfortunate that the Q&A session at the end got a little bit bogged down in the never-ending argument about disc only versus album packages, which, in a room of 10 wedding photographers, is never going to come to a resolution. We might as well have discussed why Nikon is better than Canon, or why HDR sucks (or not, depending on your point of view). But this was a discussion prompted by the class as opposed to the tutor, and, initially at least, had some relevance to the topic we were studying – Roger has written in the past about the importance of a wedding album, and his concerns about the only media for brides and grooms getting their photos being a digital format that may well be obsolete in ten years time. His argument is a valid one, but equally, there is a market (and a growing one at that, it seems) that wants disc only coverage. So it’s a difficult thing to resolve. And we were never going to resolve it in the 30 minutes before we were due to wrap up.
But none of that took away from what was an educational and enlightening day, and one that made me want to go straight out with my camera and photograph a wedding. Given that it was the first outing of the course, it was all the more impressive that we finished on time too.
So it’s definitely a seminar to watch out for. Also, if you don’t already visit Roger’s blog, you should.
Incidentally, here’s a particularly grainy iPhone capture of Roger as he presented in the darkened room (taken, of course, in a true documentary style without imposing myself on the photo, nor drawing attention to myself as I took it – at least, I don’t think he noticed!):