A Conversation with Denis Reggie

The man who revolutionized wedding photography explains why he loves creating "all-natural" images of people on the biggest day of their lives.

A-Conversation-with-Denis-Reggie
A-Conversation-with-Denis-Reggie

During his 25-year career, Denis Reggie has almost single-handedly redefined the art of wedding photography. Named to American Photo's list of top ten wedding photographers in 2007 and a consultant on our 2008 list, Reggie has shot hundreds of celebrity weddings, including that of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver as well as John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette. Reggie's renown -- he has been featured on Oprah and other television shows -- rests on the stylistic revolution he ushered into wedding photography. He practices what he has termed "wedding photojournalism," an approach that broke with the contrived, formal portraiture that once characterized wedding photography. Reggie doesn't merely photograph a wedding; he "covers" it, hoping to capture the reality of the event with naturalistic lighting and composition.

Reggie has been a vocal advocate of wedding photojournalism in workshops throughout the country, including, for the past three years, his own exclusive workshop, which he calls Conclave Atlanta. The two-and-a-half-day workshop, held in Reggie's home several times a year (visit denisreggie.net for details) is limited to ten students each session. Reggie also takes his students to a nearby church to teach his techniques on lighting. "It's about how to create light that doesn't look created," he says. "The idea is to make images that are sophisticated, that don't look like snapshots, yet are also naturalistic."

Here, Reggie gives popphoto.com readers a private workshop, explaining his style of wedding photography and why it has become so popular among brides and wedding planners. As Reggie points out, his photography doesn't result from a particular style, but an entire philosophy of human emotion and marketing savvy. Who else but Reggie could discern the similarities between a trip down the aisle and a trip to Whole Foods?

David Schonauer: Denis, what is the one thing you tell the photographers who come to your workshop?
Denis Reggie: My goal is to help people wake up from within, to take the creativity they have and to make the most of it, to avoid the mistakes I made early in my career. But the whole workshop begins with a philosophy of wedding journalism and where it has its fit in the marketplace.

DS: How do you describe your niche in the wedding market?
DR: There is clearly a demographic group that understands and enjoys the idea of wedding journalism. I often talk about the Whole Foods chain of grocery stores. They've become a huge success by landing on the concept of organic, natural, real things. The kind of person who understands Whole Foods will want to find the same qualities and attributes in their wedding photography. What I preach is to make wedding photographs that are distinguished by a feeling of honesty. I want to make photos that are not orchestrated, enhanced, or improved. I also try to get across to students that this type of photography goes beyond just being a quiet observer being a historian of the event -- though that is certainly a part of it. But this same concept follows through into the production of the imagery until the very end. Are your images going to be over-Photoshopped? Are the colors going to be over-saturated? Is the contrast going to be boosted? Is there going to be post-production sharpening? What about darkened corners -- the kind of vignetting that so many wedding photographers do? All of these techniques we see create a falsity in images. We're in a world, one could argue, in which photographers are overworking images. And that runs counter to the Whole Foods concept. Whole Foods isn't going to inject a chicken with hormones or antibiotics.

DS: This is the first time I've heard anyone draw an analogy between taking pictures and growing chickens.
DR: It's all about trying to create something natural. Whole Foods doesn't put chickens in cages; it lets them run free in yards. I try to let the people at the weddings I shoot do what they would do if I weren't there. I'm not trying to make a wedding be something that it's not. My message to students is clear: Less is more, and reality is king -- at least for those folks who want reality. There is obviously a huge market in America and the world for fantasy wedding imagery. Those kinds of pictures don't depict what you are, but what you wish you were for the day. I respect that, and I know that dreaming is a part of Americana.

DS: So that is your message -- natural is better. How do you put that into effect?
DR: It's about specific techniques. It's about concentrating on being part of the moment. It's about doing less prompting and posing. It's about using less verbal interaction with your subjects. It's about working in ways that create less camera awareness among the people at the wedding. I'm there to be the witness, the person there to discover moments, not to create them. Having said that, of course I'm going to do some family groupings for historical purposes, but that's only about five percent of what I do. For 95 percent of the time I don't even speak at weddings.

DS: Let's get specific for a moment: What do you teach about lighting?
DR: We actually rent a small church and we go through various techniques. First, try to use natural light. Or use flash that doesn't look like flash. In a wedding environment, flash is in fact very challenging. Metering is based on averaging all the tones in a scene to a middle-gray; but at a wedding there are no grays. You've basically got white and black -- a wedding dress or a tuxedo. Happily, digital cameras are metered with histograms based on white, not gray. We use the right side of the histogram, not the center of it.

DS: What about the marketing aspects of the job?
DR: Well, one thing I tell the students is that you really can't advertise to this demographic. The kinds of people who want this type of wedding photography want to discover you, or they want word-of-mouth referral. You won't get hired to do this because you've been to a bridal fair or because you've got an ad in the Yellow Pages.

DS: What can you do to get discovered?
DR: You've got to have a great, great Website.

DS: What makes for a great Website?
DR: You want to create something that conveys the experience of the type of wedding that you photograph. And as part of the marketing you have to think to the final product -- the wedding albums. To tie into that Whole Foods mentality, the album will have to be made of some natural material -- cloth or leather. It's not going to be pleather or plastic. Anything but that!

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