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Dear Churches, Your Photography Rules Might be Making it Harder on Both of Us

Working as a wedding photographer is often an exercise in mutual respect with other vendors who have parallel, yet sometimes different, priorities in serving the bridal couple and their family. Most of time everyone is on the same team, but occasionally we photographers run into rules that don’t serve anyone properly. When those rules come from the church, it’s often hard to explain them away.Today I’d like to address rules regarding the photographer’s position during a church ceremony. So here goes my open letter to churches.

Dear Church,

Most of you guys are fairly easy to work with. My critique is geared towards a small percentage of churches that seem hell-bent on proving a point that photography is a barely tolerable byproduct of a wedding day.

Though I may find some rules to be frustrating or even unnecessary, I do expect there to be rules and am generally happy to have some restrictions if it best serves the sanctity of the religious ceremony. Really, I am.

The first area where these rules becomes a problem is in their diction, either written or spoken. I’m an adult with a great amount of respect for my clients and the customs they’ve chosen to follow for their wedding. Please, don’t assume anything less. I sometimes am given a list of rules that lectures me by saying things like, “This is a church, not a photo studio,” or refers to some of my potentially more obtuse actions as “a nuisance." I’m not a 13-year-old boy with impulse control issues, so talking to me as such is just rude. I would never be condescending toward another vendor, yet I seem to be the victim of bad attitude quite a few times during wedding season. It's a pretty basic idea, but if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice in return. Actually, I'll be nice either way.

That's me way back at the front of aisle, with all of the guests looking away from me. Perfect spot, and offers a quiet escape to the outside of the church.

My next biggest bone to pick with the church as a venue is when processional rules are set up to make my job harder, and for said struggle to take place in the direct gaze of the guests.

It's plain and simple. The best place for me to stand/kneel during a processional is at the head of the church between the first pews and the sanctuary. Not only does this provide the best available line of sight to the bridal party as they proceed, it assures that during the majority of the procession, guests' heads are turned away from my position. Even if I have to escape between some standing groomsmen as she approaches the end of her march, I’m less in the way than anywhere else and am able to slip along the often-empty side pews.

Placing us “halfway down” the aisle leaves us sticking out of a pew, obstructing the procession and in the direct view of the guests. Without question, I am more noticeable when I’m standing next to a guest with one foot out in the aisle clicking away. Furthermore, I’ll then need to exit my processional position by walking right down the aisle passing guests the entire way.

From here I can get an actual view of mothers lighting candles. What's more important is that from here ( I circled my position), I can stay low and when the bride walks down everyone's gaze will be in the other direction (The arrow pointed away).

Cosmetically speaking, this gives me less time to photograph the bridal party entering, and gives me less depth to work with. So really, it’s a lose-lose situation that a lot of churches seem to require in order to “keep us out the way.” I’ve yet to be required to photograph from such a position where it was actually aiding in keeping me discrete. It just doesn’t work. Sorry, guys. I’m not making this up. I don’t want to be seen. I’m not making this about me. I’m trying to make this better for us both. Promise.

See, all eyes on the bride.

From here, really there isn’t a lot to complain about. If we are given decent access for photography even from the rear of the center aisle, we’ll be happy. Some additional wiggle room to shoot from the side or a choir loft to assure some variation is always a plus, and we’ll do it with the quiet and cunning of a ninja.

I realize that this isn’t likely to make it into the hands of a lot of clergy or church coordinators, but I can’t help but put it out there. I think that explaining calmly and politely to church officials BEFORE the wedding that these rules don’t seem to serve the greater cause all that well is something we should all be doing. It probably won’t lead to any sudden revelations, but over time maybe less of us will be standing with Aunt Linda on our hip while we jut out into the aisleway?

What’s the worst or most pleasant church set-up you’ve experienced as a photographer or cinematographer?

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Kris Van de Sande's picture

This feels like such a weird this, as a Belgian shooter every church here is completely open and accommodating for us, allowing us to roam everywhere, even stand next to the couple when exchanging vows ands rings. Most pastors even greet us before and tell us to do whatever we need to capture the couple's happy day.

John Ohle's picture

It is the same in Ireland where most celebrants will let the photographer anywhere they need to be. A small number of celebrants might have restrictions on flashguns which is understandable.

Daris Fox's picture

I think it's more a case of a kirk being burned by amateur/semi-pro photographers who make a nuisance of themselves. I've shot in a kirk and I basically had to mollify the Padre before being able to shoot there. The last guy actually tried to interrupt the ceremony! It's the same for a lot of historical sites, some people have little respect for their surroundings cause grief for those who actually want to record what we see.

Rob Mynard's picture

I agree, I don't think I've ever been given rules or restrictions on where I can shoot from in a church and I've shot in multiple countries. Maybe this is a USA thing... Maybe getting the name of the priest before the wedding and discussing it with them would alleviate a lot of these problems...

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I don't deal with churches, I deal with museums and historic places. I cannot even count the number of times I have been gently reminded not to touch things. Yes, it's insulting because I haven't needed that reminder since I was 4. You think I'm going to go into a museum and lick the paintings or something? I'm probably more trained to handle fine art and antiquities and historic building materials than the person pre-scolding me like a child in an antique store. But they don't know that because they didn't hire me, someone else did, so I try to be as patient as possible. It's important to remind ourselves that while we may not act like buffoons, there are a LOT of people who do need the scoldings and reminders.

I often think the rules imposed on these venues are because so many people had Uncle Joe photograph a wedding instead of a true professional. It doesn't really make much sense why they are so uptight about where you are standing because the better shots you get, the better their venue looks for their 8000 closest Facebook friends to see. I do get the "this is a church, not a photo studio" though, they don't want to "pause" the ceremony for the photographer.

Patrick Hall's picture

I understand churches not wanting photographers clicking every second or intruding on the ceremony itself, but having dealt with this a ton myself, sometimes their reasoning just doesn't make sense.

How many times have you had to sit in the back in silence not taking any photos while some baby is screaming their lungs out? Or uncle Ben and aunt Jemima are flashing and iphone snapping away from the 4th row? But rules are rules, not much you can do about them except to follow them and not get black listed from that venue.

Graham Marley's picture

Every time I encounter a rule that totally baffles me, I end up running into a vendor that does something powerfully stupid that justifies over-reaching rules.

Last week I was in a Catholic church, shooting long, from the back, out of respect, and the videographer was running tight circles around the couple and priest. For minutes. Guests were visibly horrified. I imagine any number of videographers have the same exact story about photographers, but I think a lot of these rules come from a small handful of boneheads who ruin it for the rest of us.

Adam Sparkes's picture

Egos are so fragile, Patrick, that I nearly avoided this topic. However, I feel like people are a little afraid to push back because they want to respect the church?

Patrick Hall's picture

In my experience, the churches that have these strict rules never budge and honestly I don't really care one way or another. If a bride books her ceremony at a church with photographer restrictions, I view that more as her decision than something I need to push back on and fight.

Adam Sparkes's picture

Good point, Devorah. Sometimes I have a hard time not "doing me" when I write.

Brad Barton's picture

A wedding for a lot of churches is a solemn, religious ceremony filled with pomp, circumstance, and reverence for hundreds of years of tradition that date back to long before photography, let alone wedding photography, was invented.

It is not a photo op.

That they let someone who is not a member of the church into the ceremony to document it takes a great deal of tradition bending that they may already not be comfortable with.

Stop whining and show some respect. Offer solutions, not complaints. It'll get you a lot farther than a snide open letter.

Jason Ranalli's picture

I don't know much about wedding photography but he offered a well thought out solution right in the article. I was raised Catholic which is one of the stricter denominations and his solution seems like a fair compromise for the benefit of everyone including the sanctity of the church.

Allen Gambrell's picture

In your image with the circle and the arrow you and the videographer would be cussed out (in church) by the guests, preacher and bride for being there. It is just church etiquette and it is not done that way.

I guess I am from the south, but I was taught that you mostly shoot from the back of the church and the sides. You Never go down the asile during the wedding! If you want other shots you walk around the sides of the pews, but never in front of them. If you want closer shots you get a longer lens, this is why I carry a 300mm 2.8 to a wedding.

At a church that has no rules for this stuff, a preacher told me at a wedding that the week before he had to stop the ceremony and ask the photographer to go to the back of the church or leave. The deacons were in the process of making some rules.

Anonymous's picture

Years ago, before photography, I drove a truck. I was to pick up a load of Christmas trees. When I checked in I had to sign a waiver which stated that I would yeild to helicopters. I thought, how stupid. Who wouldn't yeild to a helicopter? Then it dawned on me that obviously someone hadn't, else I wouldn't be signing a waiver.

J D's picture

I have only run into an issue in one church in town and I will turn down any 2nd shooter job if the wedding is at that church. It's just not worth it to me. Apparently, he already has a reputation of being extremely difficult to deal with and was the exact same way at his previous church. It's hard not being able to provide what the client has asked for because the church will not allow it to happen.

David Faulkner's picture

I am an amateur photographer who is a British Methodist minister. I am sorry some of you have had these hassles. Some of it comes from fearful clergy concerned to protect solemnity, some of it from poor experiences with amateur Uncle Joes. I ask couples to invite their photographer to the wedding rehearsal, so we can amicably agree together what would be best for all parties. They also get a good chance to assess the light at the church and not have to make snap decisions on the day about white balance or other things, so I hope it reduces their stress.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I've oft been reminded that "this s a solemn occasion." Surely it is a joyous time and we should be recording the moments where a couple pronounce their love for each other and we can relive those expressions of joy, tenderness and realisation.

It turns out much of the time, the vicar is worried that any distraction may put THEM off. Woe betide them if they forget a line or pause for a moment...

Many officiants seen to regard their church as a place to be defended. I've been refused permission to move a small raggedy pot of flowers popped on a random table when it completely blocked my line of site from the 12 inches of space allowed to my lens.

I've been refused permission to shoot the couple at the signing table when 20 guests are allowed to descend like a pack... (I did take a picture of it happening from he side - it looks like the paparazzi have arrived).

I've been told never to move - ever... because the assumption is that I'll start climbing over guests or swing from the pulpit I guess.

Photographers are often treated like children. The ceremony treated like some sad event that should have no other record than a signature.

If churches could loosen up, make reasonable demands that allow the couple to celebrate their day and record it appropriately, then photographers could do their job easily, without fuss or interruption and we could all get along.

Sometimes I'm amazed the guests are allowed in the building in case their ties are too loud.

Anonymous's picture

In my wedding photography career that started in 1975 and virtually ceased about 5 years ago(still occasion ally doing a wedding) I only had about 2 or 3 occasions where I was severely restricted by the officiating clergy. As a Christian and sometimes lay preacher, I am always conscious and aware of the religious significance and solemn parts of the wedding ceremony.I had more problems I think with outdoor ceremonies conducted by celebrants who were often restrictive in some ways. eg. "Everyone come in real close." Not much of a look in for the photographer when they do that.I usually made it a practice with clergy to try and ring and have a chat before the wedding day. I would otherwise seek them out before the ceremony on the day to introduce myself and ask them what I was allowed to do. Joining in with some of the hymns and the Lord's prayer during the service was something I usually did as well where possible. I remember a wedding once with a packed congregation and a couple of hymns on the order of service.The congregation ,I think all of them were not regular churchgoers or hymn singers. I found myself singing a duet from the the back of the Church with the minister at the front.Sounded great! At least he knew I was on his side.It surely just comes down to commonsense and our modern technology makes this part of the shoot a lot easier.As wedding shooters we have to be all things to all people but taking control(nicely) where possible. The Church service is a place we need to be prepared to not be so precious about our images and our creativity.One of my friends was a minister and a wedding photographer. It was great to do the wedding where I met him the first time and he was officiating as he was as knowledgeable as I was and very helpful.Sadly some few people have made it hard for other photographers by their poor behaviour.

Thaddeus Badowski's picture

I shot a wedding last summer at a synagogue, and the rabbi started the ceremony by saying to the congregation, "now is the time in the Jewish wedding ceremony for the tradition called the "Photo Opportunity." He then invited everyone to stand up, take photos, then turn their camera/cell phones off for the rest of the ceremony. This was an outdoor ceremony, and I moved around a lot, with the 200-2.8 lens; at the end of the reception the maid of honor commented that she noticed that I was getting all the shots, but she didn't "See" me... I appreciated the feedback-

Andrew Freeman's picture

I have to say, to me it seems that in the image above where you circled yourself, you seem to be in the way and at a busier wedding would be a serious obstruction. Your assistant with her tripod appears to be even more of an obstruction. You think you are staying low? Pfft.. could have fooled me....

Adam Sparkes's picture

That is a video guy not associated with me. That candle lighting took place before the actual precessional and he did move after that, putting the tripod at the back of the aisle. I only used the image because of the view it provided, to illustrate position. I realized in using it, I wasn't showing the actual situation being discussed, and perhaps that was erroneous on my part? I'm sorry for that. However, I do think we just fundamentally disagree about the visibility of this position. Particularly, when compared to where I'm often "assigned". I shoot 30 weddings a year, and I can assure you that a large part of me developing this opinion is based on a priority of being discreet. That experience isn't for nothing.

Justin Haugen's picture

I start the ceremony up close by the couple when they do the hand off from the father to the groom. I hang out there for a short while and get some close photos of the couple and the wedding party. Then the rest of my time is spent down the aisle, along the sides, and seeking out my spot for the kiss photo.

I don't like it, but when I'm told I'm not allowed to come up to a certain point, I just work with the house rules. The worst experience I've had was an officiant who insisted that he have his back to the guests as he looked forward towards the bride and groom. Which was terrible as we were at a country club with a stunning view of the city and the last thing I wanted was the back of the officiant in my photos.

I politely mentioned my experiences photographing the venue and how amazing the view was in the other direction. He said something to the effect of "This is how I do every wedding. Why don't we let the bride and groom decide what's best." in his worst Andy Rooney asshole voice.

The mother of the bride kindly stepped him and let him know the view was more important than his opinion :)

WM Photography's picture

Have any of you ever tried to bribe the pastor? I’m shooting a wedding soon and learned I’m not allowed to be anywhere on the ground floor at any point! Of course, guests are allowed to take photos. Huh?? I’ll add that I’ve seen example photos from other photographers at that church where they used the baIcony and all the shots are badddd.

I’m 99% certain I’ll try to blend in as a guest and sit in an aisle seat halfway down the aisle thoroughout most of the ceremony. Thoughts on this? I didn’t see anyone else mention this strategy. Thanks!