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Greg Gibson trades photojournalism for documentary wedding photography

“I went from the White House to the white gowns” is how Greg Gibson refers to his move in 2002 from a 20-year career as a photojournalist, during which he twice shared the Pulitzer Prize, to documentary wedding photography.

As he made the transition, he made adjustments in approach, style and content to account for the differences between photojournalism and weddings in the photojournalistic style.

The photojournalist, he knew, is always looking for the grabber image. If the reader’s attention isn’t instantly caught, the page is turned. But a wedding isn’t a news story. People linger over wedding photos, and they return to them again and again.

Greg also realized that while there’s a “catch the moment” aspect to wedding photography, there’s also a fashion and beauty side, a “bride as model” consideration, and he was able to balance those elements in order to present the complete aspects of wedding photography.

He also had to adjust his ideas about composition. “As a photojournalist, I was taught to shoot tight, to get big, bold images that fill the frame,” he says. “There was very little negative space, very little white space. A lot of the photos I take for weddings are actually pretty much environmental portraits, and I had to learn how to put people in a really big space.”

Greg photographs in and around Washington, DC, and often his clients want specific locations as backgrounds. “They’re Washingtonians, and that’s important to their relationship,” he says. “Sometimes their choices are based on what they saw in photos from my portfolio or website, and that can be difficult because I don’t want to do the same picture. I need to make their photo different for them. I tell people that being a wedding photographer is sometimes like being in Groundhog Day. You’re basically living the same Saturday over and over again. But that’s the challenge, handling the similarities: anticipation, buildup, the bride in the white dress, the ceremony, the party.”

What goes a long way toward meeting the challenge is choosing a place that makes the couple comfortable, and that often means a place away from the rest of the wedding party. “I want it to be just the two of them,” Greg says. “I don’t want people hanging around. Sometimes they want the wedding party along for some photos, but I tell them, ‘That’s okay, but when I’m photographing the two of you, I want the wedding party to stay in the cars.’ The thing is, I can take them out to the Jefferson Memorial, in front of a thousand people they’ve never seen, and I can get the response I need. I can get them to be comfortable and relaxed because they don’t have to worry about the people around them; they’ll never see those people again. But if I put that same couple in the same place and the best man or the bride’s sister or the groom’s buddies are there, they become inhibited because those people are not only likely to give them a lot of kidding, they are also going to see the photos. It’s easier for them to relax among strangers.”

A comfortable place; a minimum of distractions; sometimes, with the right couple, an invitation to be adventurous; and the suggestion to discuss important things to get real feelings going between them. “And then it’s up to me to pull it all together.”

Online Exclusive: Tips from Greg Gibson

"Where you place the highlights is the secret sauce of photography. Your eye is attracted to the brightest part of an image, and how you place the highlight is how you guide the viewer through the image. For the photo of the bride and groom on the stairway, I wanted to underexpose slightly, half a stop or so, but have very crisp light on them so your eye goes right to the kiss. Then I toned the edges of the photo in post production to further draw people's attention into the image."

"As a photojournalist, I was taught to shoot concise, to tell the story within the confines of one frame. Today I still try to include as many elements as possible to covey information about what's going on."

"When I photograph people with buildings or monuments in the scene, I often try to place them some distance away from the buildings. Then I can use a long lens and lens compression to pull everything together, make my subjects pop and shoot the building slightly out of focus so you get the feeling of what it is without having to be beat over the head with it."

"Working [with the couple] in one or two locations maximizes the opportunities [but] often they want four or five locations, and I have to talk them out of it. They think, we'll go to the Capitol and bang off a couple of pictures, and the Jefferson and bang off a couple, and the Lincoln, and then down by the river. It doesn't work like that. Those results are not what I'm showing them in my portfolio or at my website. Those pictures take an investment in time—time to get them in the location and comfortable with one another, time to get them in the moment and then time to dial it in and nail it."

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