There is one piece of photographic advice that is guaranteed to change your images.

It is rooted in Robert Capa’s famous quote, “If your pictures are not good enough you are not close enough.”

Simply put, conquer your fear of getting closer to your subject.

I first learned this lesson from a college professor who was looking at my photographs and asked why I was so far away from the subjects? I replied that I didn’t have a telephoto lens. Which of course was the wrong answer. He asked if I had feet! Confused, I replied YES. He fired back by pointing at my feet, saying “There’s your telephoto lens. Get off you’re a$& and go make the picture!”

Lesson learned.

Fifteen years later, I still think about that lesson when I’m faced with the challenges of putting myself in the middle of the action at a wedding.

When asked how they work on a wedding shoot, most photographers say, “I prefer the be a fly-on-the-wall and use my trusty 70-200. It is much less intrusive.” While this might be the most comfortable way to approach a scene, it ultimately lacks intimacy. When I first started shooting, I fell into this same trap. My 70-200 was my favorite lens. It was easy, I knew how to use it and it made everything look good. But it made me lazy. Over the years, I became inspired by photographers who captured fleeting moments that were full of information, emotion and story.

Then, a photographer I admired challenged me to leave my zoom lenses in the car and work only with fixed-focal length lenses. It worked. Today I primarily shoot with two lenses – a 35mm and an 85mm. If I had to choose one lens to take on a wedding shoot, it would be my 35mm without question.

Getting “close enough” is not just about your lens choice. It is fundamentally a mindset that requires tenacity, anticipation and most important –confidence!

Getting closer requires a certain degree of fearlessness. Your passion for the photograph and for capturing the decisive moment has to be greater than your fear of being intrusive.

Always respect the mood of the moment, but don’t hesitate to get closer when the moment calls for it. Building trust with your subject is the first step to gaining access to their lives. You can knock on the door; they have to let you in. Personal confidence and charisma carries you a long way in this process. Confidence not only matters when asking for access, it matters most in the moment. Your subjects feed off your ability to remain calm in stressful situations or emotionally-charged moments. Move with purpose and respect. You’ll be amazed where you are allowed to go.

At a wedding it’s usually pretty easy to get close and gain access. Yet many photographers are crippled by their own assumptions of what is “acceptable.” One way to get over that preconceived fear is to simply ask for access. Once access has been granted, all things are possible. Establishing trust early in the day allows me to be confident to push photographic boundaries.

The most common area of boundary-pushing is the ceremony. There are times when a church or an official has denied me the access I need. Of course, I have to be as professional as possible. But when there are no barriers, the only barriers are within yourself.

One case comes to mind. I was documenting a large, high-end Jewish wedding. There was physically no way to shoot from behind the Rabbi, so I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to capture the bride and groom during their vows. I had talked to the bride in advance about being able to be there during the ceremony and she said, “do what you gotta do to get the shots!”

I found myself searching with no avail for an ideal angle on the ceremony. I finally realized that I had to climb onto the stage if I was going to capture the images that the bride and I were expecting. That was my motivation. So, I started working on my approach. I caught a lucky break when the Rabbi directed everyone’s attention to the side of the stage opposite of me! I quickly put down one of my cameras, walked up on stage and placed myself to the right of the bride and groom. To stay small, I crouched on my knees.

My heart was beating out of my chest, but I was up there and acted like it was no big deal. It paid off. I made images that truly captured the feelings the couple and their families experienced during the ceremony. That result trumped my nerves. The bride later thanked me for taking a risk. That was icing on the cake! Being able to capture and show the bride’s joy and the joy in her mother’s face was worth everything.

Getting closer to your subjects allows for a more intimate feeling, not just a feeling of voyeurism. Getting closer enables viewers to be drawn into the action and feel like they were there.  In addition, people who actually witnessed the event will in turn be transported back to that powerful moment many, many years later.

“If you photos are not good enough you are not close enough” It’s such simple advice. Sometimes the most simple concepts take years of practice and planning to perfect. Thank you to Mr. Capa and my professor 15 years ago for this lesson.

Tyler Wirken

Tyler Wirken is a photographer based in Kansas City, Mo. As a husband and father of two amazing boys, Tyler realizes the importance of family and preserving it. In his own words, “being able to look back on what life was, to remember tiny moments of significance in a photograph that you can hold in your hand is a gift I want to give.” Tyler draws from his background as a newspaper photographer to do just that. His mission is to be a personal photojournalist for his clients. Believing in living life to its fullest, flying by the seat of his pants, thinking outside of the box, and questioning the status quo are all hallmarks of Tyler’s approach to photography and life.

10 Comments

  • Tyler, I’m sorry, but I have to agree with David Huber, it’s not intimate, it’s disrespectful…You are not part of the ceremony, and telling yourself that your body and motions clicking and whirring away during a ceremony in front of the entire congregation who are there to celebrate the tradition and moment…I’m sorry to say, is a testament to your type of photography, not that it’s better.

    Telephoto is made to seem like a bad thing, but the lovely shots you took if you ask your clients, or their guests or family, if they would rather you NOT be in those spots, I think you might find yourself chastened.

    That being said as long as you describe to your potential clients that you do in fact climb onto the altar, under the Chuppa or get within the personal space of your clients while they experience a memory, then I suppose there is nothing wrong with that.

    I on the other hand, observe my clients, get to know their movements, and watch for the decisive moment. To be within 6 feet of a bride and her father as he whispers those loving words for only her to hear strikes me as incredibly insensitive to the moment, and sorry to say, but in very poor taste

    • John Mathis says:

      It sounds like you guys are looking at it like its a theoretical discussion. I have a certain style and my clients are aware of that. We discuss this ahead of time and even practice this ahead of time. Though it is my style to shoot everywhere, this is cleared ahead of time with the venue, clergy, bride and groom, parents, etc, etc, etc. I work within whatever restrictions there are, if any, but I was hired to get those shots and that’s what my clientele tell me. Insensitive? Only if I failed to do what they wanted. I think it is just a matter of open and honest discussion ahead of time with everyone involved. Don’t think so? Send your brides to me!

  • J says:

    Yes, get closer! I too think that we need to push ourselves in what we are comfortable with…we are hired to create, so create. Respect!

  • Hardy says:

    I agree and disagree. I agree to Robert Capa, but I don’t think he meant close just in a meaning of a distance. I think he had the adjectives thorough, vigilant, watchful, keen and alert in mind when he said that. Stepping on the couples feet during the ceremony is disrespectful and the opposite of Capa’s “close”. I can be close with a 70-200 mm lens as much as I can be far, far away with a 35mm, even though I haven’t use the 70-200mm in a lone time. I think a big part of a photographers job is to judge the moment and stay away when he wants to be close.

  • Fer Juaristi says:

    Thanks for sharing sensei. Fuzzy

  • norman yu says:

    It’s an excellent write up! For those of you who think it’s too intrusive then you don’t know your clients. Get to know them, find out what’s important to them. You are still able to get close without being distasteful and disrespectful. when you get close, you don’t stay there waiting for a moment you anticipate it, doing so keeps you in close and out. Get the shot and get out. simple.

  • Ivan Luckie says:

    I know what you say Tyler, I understand that warm feeling to be close and still have the “reality” point of view of what we are chasing while we get a “moment” thanks for teach us this wise huge tip 🙂

  • julio Rivera says:

    Tyler, this is great. Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us. It inspires me to keep getting closer and closer and to not have fear.

  • Mike Garrard says:

    Great article Tyler, I wholeheartedly agree. I struggled with getting close for a few years, but changing this approach has made the biggest impact in my work – images can have far better context, impact and emotion. I’m still incredibly sensitive to the occasion and you can work discreetly by getting underneath an eyeline, or perhaps selecting your moment better rather than using burst mode! Gaining trust and access is 100% the key to this approach, and client will thank you for it.

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