What is timeless wedding photography?
Timeless wedding photography is one of those terms casually thrown around by couples and photographers alike. Wedding photographers use it to elicit a sense of confidence in their work and to add a superficial touch of class. Couples seek it because they want what it promises to deliver (timelessness) but often fail to understand what it actually entails and make hiring decisions that contradict their initial intuition by opting for the opposite quality (trendiness). Unfortunately, when neither wedding photographers nor couples understand the true definition of the term, it loses its significance as a descriptor of a particular quality and becomes hollow marketing lingo. Allow me to set the record straight about the real meaning of timeless wedding photography, the factors that affect it, why many wedding photographers get it wrong, how I get it right, and why it’s a far better value in the long-term than today’s latest trends.
Timeless wedding photography
At its very essence, timeless wedding photography is photography that is not affected by the passage of time or changes in trends; just as it had on the day you first saw it, it should continue to look fresh and current for many years into the future. This is easier said than done because photographs are both historic documents and creative works that up until recently existed only as physical objects that were susceptible to the ravages of time. Below I describe three elements of wedding photography that work against its timelessness.
The content of timeless photography
The content of a photograph refers to every person, place, and thing represented within it. In the context of documentary photography, the content will almost always serve to date the images to an identifiable era. Various combinations of the represented elements, such as styles of hair and makeup, fashion, technology, cars, furniture, architecture, etc., are all unique to particular periods. In a couple decade’s time, the collective style of this decade, the 2010s, will become as recognisable as the aesthetics of the 1990s and 1980s are to us today. That period-specific content dates a photograph is an immutable fact.
Formal elements 1: Creative expression and timeless wedding photography
The creative choices made by wedding photographers will also affect the apparent period in which the images were captured. For instance, decisions made before taking the photograph can include whether to pose the couple and how to do it, how to compose the frame, and what camera settings to choose for the desired exposure and subject isolation. Regardless of this, the creative decisions involved after a photograph is captured and brought to the editing suite has a greater impact on its perceived timelessness. This stage of the process is most prone to the influence of trends. Using modern software, wedding photographers have limitless options for manipulating style. It can be as simple as a few clicks of the cursor or involved and deliberate like a professionally retouched image.
Formal Elements 2: physical properties and timeless wedding photography
Before photography existed in the abstract realm of binary code, it occurred largely as dyes and silver crystals suspended within the emulsions of films and prints. Depending on their age and storage conditions, the dyes in early colour photographs were susceptible to fading and degradation that resulted in colour shifts. Uneven loss of colour in early films and prints causes what we now commonly refer to as a distinct vintage look today. Other physical properties of photography include film grain and texture, and the unique light rendering qualities of older lenses. Lastly, elements such as dust and scratches, stains, and other defects and damage serve to manipulate our perception of a photograph’s age.
Timelessness is inherently incompatible with trendiness
Wedding photographers who refer to the quality of timelessness to describe their work are not always being honest or correct. Really wanting wedding photography to be timeless will not make it so; it has to exhibit that quality. Frequently, their statements are immediately contradicted by their photography.
Timeless photography is difficult to date or assign to a specific period based solely on consideration of its formal photographic elements. It achieves this by spurning contemporary trends that affect formal qualities such colour, tint, tonality, texture, and, to a lesser degree, composition and posing. (I have written articles about photographic trends and the faded vintage look and I encourage you to consult them for reference.)
It’s important to understand that post-processing trends in photography are frequently used as a quick solution to making sloppy photography look more presentable than it otherwise would with a more neutral or less heavy-handed presentation. Applying the latest filters and presets onto a dull photograph has the effect of pulling the wool over the eyes of the viewers. The effects are used to minimise the prominence of poor lighting, bad composition, or a lack compelling emotional content.
Timelessness and black and white photography
At this point, it’s appropriate to address the elephant in the room: monochrome photography. Timeless photography is frequently associated with black and white images because they lack colour, which is the most prominent signifier we use to mentally assign a particular period to a photograph.
Beyond the fact that they lack colour and thus not affected by photographic trends that manipulate colour, there is nothing inherent in black and white images that make them more or less timeless. A neutrally rendered colour photograph is just as timeless as its black and white rendition, assuming all other things are equal.
In addition, black and white photographs are just as susceptible to their own signifiers of age. For instance, consider sepia-toned monochrome images; they’re looking long in the tooth these days. Sepia toning was originally a chemical process used to increase the longevity and resistance to fading of monochrome prints. However, there is no good reason to mimic the effect in digital photography today. It connotes an identifiably different period in history making it the opposite of timeless.
How I create timeless wedding photography for my clients
Emotional content transcends time
Documentary wedding photography has an advantage over the posed alternative with regards to being timeless. The singular element that manages to transcend all time is the emotional content of a photograph. Emotions cross all boundaries of time, place, and culture: they are timeless. Photojournalistic wedding photography excels at capturing the genuine emotions of momentous events.
Timeless image processing
Whenever I edit wedding photographs, I try to channel my visual memories from the day. Black and white photographs notwithstanding, my ultimate goal is to closely mimic the colours and tones as I recollect them. For example, if your reception was cast in the warm light of dimmed chandeliers and candles, then your wedding photographs should depict that warmth more or less faithfully. I frown upon heavy fading and tinting because they do not serve my purpose of providing you with an accurate representation of your wedding day.
Wedding photographers have spilt many words trying to convince their clients to invest in printing their photos, specifically as wedding albums. On this point, I can agree with the majority of wedding photographers. Wedding albums are a great way to preserve your cherished memories and protect them against loss. Queensberry albums are even better. Their designs are classy, the photos are printed on archival paper, and they’re crafted by hand from materials of the highest quality. Whether stored on a bookshelf or the coffee table, they beckon to be looked at and paged through, and their unparalleled craftsmanship will ensure they survive decades of viewing.
Timeless wedding photography serves to preserve your cherished memories faithfully and without a reliance on photographic trends to hide poor technique. Do your future self a favour and resist the temptation of choosing contemporary trends. Wedding photography is a personal historic document whose true value increases with time. Select a photographer whose work will age gracefully.