Warning: Church Weddings May Seriously Damage Your (Photographic) Memories

If your wedding photography matters to you enough to hire a professional wedding photographer, and if you’re planning to get married in a church, you may want to think carefully when choosing your church. It’s been happening increasingly of late. I arrive at a church wedding, go and politely introduce myself to the vicar, only to be told “There’s no photography at all during the ceremony so you’ll have to stand at the back and not take photos. I’ll call you forward when they’re signing the register.” Some aren’t actually that polite. Some are quite rude.

It happened several times recently. On one occasion I was attending a wedding at St Stephens Church, Tonbridge where the vicar was brusque, and dismissive. He told me to stand at the back of his dimly lit church and not take any photos during the ceremony. I politely protested and he conceded slightly, allowing me to take some photos but without any flash. So with the camera at as high an ISO setting as I could muster without sacrificing all the picture quality, with my shutter speed stuck at around 1/20th of a second and my best paparazzi lens image-stabilised and at full zoom, I decided to go for quantity to ensure I got at least a few good shots. But it was worth it to hear the vicar going on and on about sex in his address; not a sentence could pass by without at least three mentions of the word. My how the congregation squirmed, especially those with children present.

I was also invited to be photographer at a friend’s wedding at the Parish Church of St Cosmas and St Damian in Keymer, West Sussex. At the rehearsal the guest vicar said I wasn’t allowed at the front and that I’d have to manage from the back; and possibly I could come down the left-hand aisle and get some beautiful images of the back of the bride’s head. The church warden then intervened and pronounced chapter and verse of parish policy, stating that no photos were to be taken at all during the ceremony. Apart from this the rehearsal was a shambles, with the vicar totally unfamiliar with the very standard order of service. So on the day of course I took photos, this time electing to go light and using just my trusty Canon 5D and my lovely 50mm f1.4 lens. The church warden’s glares didn’t phase me at all. I wasn’t being paid so I was there in the capacity of friend and private individual, not as professional photographer. If there had been any complaint I would have pointed out that the little envelopes the couple had been asked to supply with cash payments for all involved would have provided much interest to the local branch of HM Revenue & Customs. Perhaps if more of the money made it into the church’s accounts, they’d be able to afford a new sign to replace the tatty, weathered one in place currently.

Of course, on both occasions I was able to get some good shots, but not without some cost. Unless the couple turn away from the vicar, they mostly present a rear-view to the camera. Standing at the back I’m forced snap away almost continuously, and the shutter on the 5D isn’t the quietest thing in Christendom. Were I standing near the front and using carefully bounced flash, I would be able to approach the job surgically, taking only a few shots at strategically chosen moments. I’d be able to get close-ups of the exchange of rings. Above all I could capture the emotion of two people declaring their love and commitment before all their family & friends.

All is not lost, however. The Catholic church appears to be generally much more welcoming to photographers. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s policy or luck of the draw, but all my Catholic weddings have started with a priest who meets and greets me with a broad smile and an invitation to do what I like, stand where I like, move around at will, take as many photos as I like when I like, with or without flash.

But even in the Anglican world, just as it’s the people you deal with in companies who make the difference, the right clergyman can work wonders. Take Father Martin Morgan at St Margaret’s Church in Rottingdean, for example – not only is his church lovely, ancient and characterful, Father Martin is a treasure in his own right. With his vaguely Hancock-esque glibly humorous outlook on life (legend has it he was once a script writer for Frankie Howerd), and his genuinely warm attitude to his congregants, happy couples and even photographers, Father Martin Morgan will do everything he can to help your photographer to get the best possible photographs . He even tells fabulously funny jokes at appropriate moments, such as when the bride is having a little wobble.

Of course this is my personal experience with him, but I think he’d be the same with any well-mannered photographer who knows his job and introduces himself properly. I may however be in a small minority of photographers who do this. Unfortunately Father Martin is also in a minority. Hopefully when he retires he’ll run some sort of priest training college where he can teach clergy to serve their customers in the same way he does. Lord knows the Church of England needs it.

The moral of the story is this: if you’re planning on a church wedding, and if the photographic record matters to you, make sure you choose a clergyman and church who will share your cares instead of stamping all over them. You’re their customers – so demand a service.

Jon Silver is a wedding photographer in Brighton & Sussex.

This entry was posted in Photography Blog.

18 Comments

  1. northwest photography November 14, 2009 at 12:58 am #

    I 100% agree. I am a professional wedding photographer based in Cheshire and I would say at 50% of all weddings I am not allowed to photograph the wedding ceremony!

  2. Tim Driver November 7, 2009 at 7:52 pm #

    I occasionally encounter similar issues, normally the couple are aware of the restrictions before the wedding day. I have also encountered the other extreme with viars offering to move lights to ensure the couple are lit well and opening additional doorsso I can move freely around the church so all in all a bit of a lottery – Best thing is to stress how important it is to you when you visit with the vicar and see what the reaction is

  3. Jon Silver November 4, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    You’re absolutely right – what a terrible mistake considering I’ve been there on so many occasions. Thank you for the correction.

  4. Homer Perly October 24, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    Just a postscript. Father Martin Morgan is a wonderful parish priest (not just from a photographer’s perspective) but you’ll find him at the Anglican church in Rottingdean which is dedicated to St Margaret rather than St Mary.

  5. Russ Nolan August 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    Great post. What I do to try and avoid these type of situations is to speak to the minister either in person or by phone well prior to the event to make sure we are both on the same page. I think the church’s need to remember that the photographer are getting paid a lot more than the cost of the church to do their job. I also put it in my wedding contract to for the client to check with the minster.

    A friend of mine recently had a similar situation happen to him, where he was told not to take pictures in the church and to sit at the back. He tried to take some discreet shots from the back and the minster stopped the ceremony and walk half way to him and told him loudly to put the camera down and to sit. Which embarrassed both him and his clients. Plus when he got outside to do his group shot the minster had moved his ladders and caused right problems for him. He wrote a letter of complaint to the church and he told his clients to do the same.

    I think sometimes people forget that at the end of a wedding day all you have left from the mountain of money you have spent is a dress, two rings and you wedding album.

  6. Guy Hearn June 14, 2009 at 7:28 am #

    Jon you hit the nail firmly on the head. I stumbled across your blog somehow and wanted to say you have expressed this issue perfectly. Also I agree re Father Martin. The best one I had was a catholic priest who pretty well dragged me up the front of the church so I could get the best shots, and after the service came running out the church with his 1Ds3!! Thanks for a great post
    Guy

  7. atunbi May 11, 2009 at 9:02 am #

    I sure hope clients do not expect miracles if their church are overly strict. It just amazes me what Rules some churches have in place.

  8. Peter Burnett March 27, 2009 at 12:34 am #

    I get the same kind of problems. At one church I go to they hand out a pre-printed list of what the photographer can’t do, completely disregarding what the couple want or what the photographer might ask for. I had one vicar at a christening being very worried that my camera might make too much noise and disrupt the sacred atmosphere of the service, he then proceeded to hand out bits of paper and had a “spot the difference” competition with the congregation! Then invited all the noisy kids to stand around the font, believe me my camera noise was drowned out completely. I’ve also had vicars banging on (excuse the pun) about sex and a lot of them seem to think they are there to be entertainers rather than to conduct a religious ceremony.

  9. Nick January 29, 2009 at 12:08 pm #

    The choice should be with the couple, not the vicar/priest. Afterall it is their ceremony and the minister is simply doing his day job. The photographs are often the only memory aid to peoples 1 special day!

  10. Jon Silver January 5, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    Actually I had one (Anglican) just a few weeks ago who pretty much told me I could do what I liked as long as I didn’t get too close… however he then turned to me as I was taking long shots of people smiling at his witty address, and said “Could you go away please”. How rude. I could have said the same actually, he was ruining my view. I wasn’t stopping him doing his job, but he was sure as hell stopping me doing mine. But once again I did another Catholic one last week where it was all remarkably unrestricted and ever so friendly. Archbishop of Canterbury take note, if you don’t want congregation sizes falling even more.

  11. Fazackarley January 5, 2009 at 2:25 pm #

    I had one last year where, 2 months prior to the ceremony, the bride gave me a 30pg ‘guide’ the vicar demands all photographers read before entering the church!

    I read it, bit patronising, but nothing out of the ordinary…then on the day of the wedding he confined me to the organ loft or ‘somewhere I can’t see you’ with the comment ‘If I see or hear you at all, I will stop the ceremony!’

    Quite a challenge!

  12. Chris Chapman December 8, 2008 at 10:56 pm #

    What a well argued article! And it echoes my experience comepletely. Whenever I photograph in a Catholic Church, I experience the same welcome; do what you want, go where you want, etc. – and the photographic record is, as a consequence, is insightful, intimate and vibrant. I always advise couples to check closely with the church just what is allowed and what is not – before they finalise arrangements if possible. In any case, it is better to explain to the church what is wanted, rather than leaving it up to the church alone.

  13. Adrian November 19, 2008 at 2:23 pm #

    We got married in July 08 and the vicar normally does not allow photographs duringt he service, stating it distracts from the religous elements. But having built up a great relationship with the vicar as part of our pre wedding activity she made an exception.

    Like many things in life, having great relationships with people can move mountains.

    Regards
    Adrian

  14. Dror November 3, 2008 at 9:02 pm #

    Nicely written. I often end up in situations, this is in South Africa, where even at wedding/conference venue, the priest turns to me at the beginning of the ceremony and says no photos during the ceremony, loud enough so that everyone can hear him. I always smile. My policy is to not photograph during prayers – the rest of the time is fair game.

  15. Alex from Suffolk October 16, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    You know, you are so right about Catholic priests!

    All the Catholic weddings I’ve covered, the priest has been very accommodating.

    I make the effort to discuss this issue with my couples beforehand and to get them to check with their church/vicar etc.. If everyone is on the same page beforehand then their should be less cause for tears later on.

    Brides and grooms should have the final say, but till that happens, we have to work around the issue as best we can.

    I’m tinkering with the idea of shooting in the church with a rangefinder f1.4 fixed which I can hide in my coat a la Bresson 😀

  16. Aleksy October 2, 2008 at 2:02 pm #

    I inform my clients about such possibility and I always ask them to ensure that I am allowed to take photos in the church to avoid disappointment on the day.

  17. Rod Pascoe October 1, 2008 at 8:46 pm #

    This is something that I and many of my wedding photographer friends discuss on frequent basis. What right to the various clergy have to ruin the happiest day in a couples life?

    I would be interested in hearing what the various church central offices say about their pompous and officious clergy.

    A well written and insightful article Jon

    Rod

  18. Alan Spencer September 30, 2008 at 9:45 am #

    My wife and I were recently affected by exactly this sort of situation. Karen wanted a church wedding and she chose the local parish church in her home town in East Sussex where she was christened and confirmed. We didn’t even think to ask if our photographer could take photos or where he could stand. Sadly our wedding photographer didn’t warn us either and dutifully obeyed church policy and stood at the back of the church taking no photos at all except of a sterile mocked-up signing of the register complete with forced smiles. The lost moments – Karen walking up the aisle; the first time I saw Karen that day; the lifting of her veil; the exchanging of rings – leave us feeling genuinely sad. Even in a church wedding everything moves so fast and it’s all a blur, and we regret having no photos from the actual ceremony to remind us. Thank you for highlighting this ridiculous abuse of power by the church and for warning other couples who might have their wedding photos ruined in this way.

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