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Documentary Wedding Photography with Fuji cameras

Documentary Wedding Photography with Fuji cameras

They say you don’t find religion. Religion finds you. In the most unexpected of places and at the most unintended times. That’s how I can best describe what happened to me recently when I got my hands on the Fujifilm XT2 and X100T cameras. I underwent a tectonic shift in philosophy. I’ll get into that in a bit. But first, some backstory.

To me, an image must tell a story, beyond the obvious. In this image of youngsters practising for a sangeet dance performance, the story was the grandmother silently observing she was not quite familiar with.

I love documentary storytelling. The reason I got into wedding photography was because I loved the idea of documenting the roller-coaster emotions at weddings.

I first shot a wedding as second shooter to UK-based reportage photographer Cairo Sealey way back in 2005. Since then I have been shooting weddings in the only style I know and love – documentary. The idea of being there to document one of the most important days in a family’s life. And having such intimate access, is more than any documentary photographer could ask for.

At weddings I prefer to become as inconspicuous as I can. Over the last few years, I have been shooting with a Canon 5DMk3 with 24-105, 70-200 (f4) and a couple of primes like the 24 1.4, 50 and 85. But what had happened, almost without realising, was that the gear had begun to get in my way of being truly one with my subjects. Somehow the gear had created a barrier. Every time I lifted my 5DMk3 w/ 24-105 to make an image, it meant my subjects became aware of my presence and unknowingly, despite themselves, put on an act for me – subtly, yet surely.

Sometimes its best to just go behind the scenes. Being silent and un-obtrusive when shooting helps greatly in this 🙂

Switching to a longer lens to eliminate subjects becoming conscious of my presence meant being some distance from the action. And as Robert Capa said, “if your images are not good enough, you are not close enough.”

So this has meant a catch-22 situation. Go close and the gear will clamp my subjects, go back and I lose the soul.

I knew it would be nice to go back to the film cameras used by the amazing photojournalists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and others. But unfortunately, in the quest for advancing technology, the gear had become bigger and bulkier over the years. I was resigned to this fact.

Then one day, by a freak of the Cosmos, a friend of mine had come over to my studio and happened to have with him a Fujifilm X-Pro2 and XT2. I played around with them for just a couple of minutes. But something inside me resonated with these cameras. I was hooked, it seems.

Wedding photojournalism is about finding the moments between moments, when most photographers will put down the camera and walk away. Getting ready shots are not just about make-up going on the bride.

The torment in my head was so strong, that in less than a week I had put up all of my Canon gear for sale – cameras, lenses and accessories. In the meanwhile, I zeroed in on the Fujifilm XT2 and X100T cameras.

Suffice to say, I managed to sell off my Canon gear. In a matter of days I got my full Fujifilm kit – the XT2 and X100t and 16mm, 35mm, and 56mm lenses. That’s thanks to the wonderful folk at Fujifilm India who saw my enthusiasm and wanted to help!

I took the kit to my first non-Canon documentary wedding ever. How would things work out?

Waiting a bit longer with the bride after she got ready got me this image of her and the entourage as she looked out for her groom in the baraat.

Well both cameras are amazing for documentary photographers. I will not get into any technical reviews of the cameras here. There are plenty of good reviews out there, on both the positives and the negatives of the cameras.

The biggest draw for me was the size of these beasts! Yes! They are beasts given the amazing quality of the images. You’d expect some heavy-duty gear. But no! Both cameras together felt lighter than any single Canon kit I ever carried. I could go through a whole wedding day’s shoot without ever feeling tired and burdened with the gear. It’s almost as if the gear were just an extension of myself!

And it is an extension of myself – my brain. What I mean here is that, the camera is intuitive but it also requires you to think and then act. The physical dials on the camera force you to think of the scene before you, set your camera according to the kind of images you want to make and then shoot. The cameras have physical dials for shutter and exposure compensation at the top, the aperture is controlled by a ring on the lens (old school style). The XT2 even has film speed controlled by a physical dial at the top. It sounds like a great deal of work, when compared to the other DSLRs out there today. But then think of it. This was the process followed by every great photojournalist in the film days. What Fujifilm seems to have done is create a camera system that’s inspired by the thought process of the film-day cameras. But infused it with the very latest technology on offer today. So of course, you could go ahead and put the camera in full auto and just shoot if you want to. But that’s missing out on a great deal of what the camera has to offer.

Weddings are all about emotions. I make it clear to my couples to completely ignore me at all times through the day and just stay in the moment. A bit of Zen philosophy goes a long way in memorable images!

Yet one more way the cameras make you think is because of Fujifilm’s super film simulation modes. Now Fujifilm has been essentially a film stock company. What they seem to have done is taken all those years of experience making film stock and put that into their new digital cameras. So the images coming right out of the camera, using any of their film simulations is just amazing, needing minimal post production time. The black & white and color simulations in camera are great, depending on the kind of image you are looking to create.

The groomsmen and the groom had got ready in their room and were on the way to the ceremony. They stopped outside the room for a quick once-over. I hung around a bit and along came this image as a reward for my patience!

Now this means I could consider shooting in JPG with a film simulation instead of RAW. This coming from a guy who has only shot RAW in my Canon days. But this means thinking about the final image while shooting. No more – shoot in RAW with the ability to decide in post. So for instance, I created some images using B&W simulation in JPG, knowing it can’t be changed in post. It’s a gamble for some photographers. But for me it was a challenge that forced me to think doubly more than normal, while shooting. In the process, I actually found myself having more time to think about, and see the story beyond the story before me.

Now if that’s what it did to me, imagine what effect the gear itself had on my subjects. Through the day, I found myself going in close and practically becoming one with the people around me. But at no point did anyone feel my presence. It was as if I – the photographer, did not exist!

Its the quiet moments that just wizz by at a wedding that are the most interesting to me as a documentary photographer. The little flower girl couldn’t help peeking at the bride getting ready and being right there, I instinctively pulled up my camera and took this shot. The next moment it was gone.

Then there’s the WiFi capability of the cameras. This meant I could even upload images from the wedding, during the day, using the Fujifilm app on my phone, so the couple could see a selection of their pics even before the day was over!

Here’s a message I received from the bride, sent at 2.30am on the night after the wedding day.

“…ur professionalism of putting even the most nervous of brides at ease is simply outstanding.. thank you for making our wedding even more special with ur undisturbing, relaxed way of filming wherein we didn’t even realise we were being filmed or shot, u being omnipresent with the result being such beautiful photos..thank’s a billion.”

I think Fujifilm has something really special here. I used the X100T and the XT2 mainly with the 56mm. But the bulk of the shots pre-ceremony and at the ceremony were with the X100T. Working at close quarters with a nervous bride as she was getting ready worked really well with the X100t. The camera with its beautiful 23mm f2.0 lens (that becomes a 35mm) is just the right size and focal length for documentary photography. And the camera works dead silent. The bride never heard me “clicking” a shot even right next to her. As for the kids, they were oblivious of this guy with his strange looking toy camera! Yes! I’d take this one camera anywhere I go. It’s perfect for street and documentary photography. The XT2 is also a nifty little camera. Perfect size to remain inconspicuous. There’s loads already written about this camera and I won’t get into it here.

Working in close quarters is a challenge. I had just an instant when the mother of the bride came over to look at her daughter as she got ready.

Finally, as if all of this were not enough, Fujifilm’s lineup of lenses makes it a no-brainer for me in switching to this brand from Canon. I picked up the 16mm, 35mm and 56mm. The X100T is a fixed 23mm.

The only downside to using the Fujifilm cameras was the battery life. The Canon battery would cleanly go right through a wedding day’s shoot. I wish there’s some enhancements in the camera’s power usage in the near future. But, given the positives of the cameras, I’m happy to look past this. After all, stocking up on extra batteries is not such a big deal. From my experience with the cameras in 4 weddings now, 3 batteries for each camera would be more than enough for a day’s western-style wedding shoot. For Indian wedding photography, I’d stock one more set for safety. The T2 has an optional battery grip that holds 2 additional batteries. I personally don’t like it for documentary photography as it adds bulk and volume to the camera that I’d rather do without. But if I do use the camera for video, I’d surely add the grip.

What’s my ideal kit? Since I like documentary, for cameras I’d say 2 XT2 and a X100T (or X100F if you really want to wait for that). For lenses, I’d go with Fujifilm’s fine range of prime lenses – 16mm, 23mm, 35mm, 56mm. I haven’t bothered with a long as I do believe in that famous quote from Robert Cappa:
“If you’re images are not good enough, you are not close enough.”

Here I was sitting on the bed right behind the bride as she got ready when a couple of her friends came up to check out the progress. None of them cared about my presence and that’s the way I like it. Pure documentary wedding photography.

That brings me to the end of this rather informal “review/opinion piece” of the Fujifilm X100t and XT2 cameras at my first “non-Canon” documentary wedding shoot since I did my first wedding back in 2005 with the Canon 350D. And while I’ve had a great time with Canon cameras, I have no regrets of having sold my entire set of pro Canon gear. I think Fujifilm have something remarkable here and it works for me. That’s all I care about right now.

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