How to Photograph City Weddings (and Embrace the Space)

Every year, the goal posts for epic wedding photography move. The mountains get higher and the locations more remote. As a photographer based in the UK, I like to think of wedding photography as being a little less about the epic and more about the realistic. Of course, we have panoramic views, lakes and mountain peak lookouts (well, hillsides), and occasionally, we even get ethereal light. However, I am going to demonstrate that we don’t need to climb a mountain to make great photographs. With locality restrictions upon most of us from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a great time to focus on creative ways to photograph couples in your local town or city.

[Read: How Photographers Make Good Portraits in Lousy Settings]

I will share four simple ideas that can be used to bring an image to life:

  1. Working with the shapes within the urban landscape.
  2. Introducing and encouraging movement to create unique and natural images.
  3. How I like to use the space to create a stage for my couples for them to “just be themselves.”
  4. Finding color to improve for poor or flat light.

Let’s also talk about the amazing opportunity for photo shoots in cities around the world right now. With few tourists around and locals working at home, we can now shoot at locations that would otherwise be too crowded. Smaller weddings are also more flexible and the timing of everything is not being dictated by a tight reception schedule. This flexibility gives couples and photographers more freedom to shoot at the best time and locations with the best light. As photographers, it is a time to take creative control and make the most of these challenging times.

[Read: Tips to Grow Your Elopement Photography Business in a Pandemic]

1. Work with the Shapes of the City

photograph shapes in city for wedding photos with couples
Photographed at the Old Marylebone Town Hall in London on a Canon 5D Mark IV and 35mm f/1.4 lens at f/2.5, 1/320 sec. and ISO 320.

The Old Marylebone Town Hall in London is a much photographed venue, so my objective for this winter wedding was to frame things a little differently. Capturing a couple of classic shots, I quickly moved around the scene, playing around with leading lines and perspectives. These compositions don’t always work out, but you only need to take a couple of minutes to experiment. Try a few less conventional shots on your next shoot and see how it starts to change the way you see things.

[Read: Shooting in Urban Landscapes—How to Turn Grit to Glamour]

Using shape and form in the environment is also a great way to create interest and structure when the light is flat and there are no highlights or shadows to work with. I believe this image works because the leading lines direct the eye to Caroline and Tom. I also rather like the juxtaposition of classical architecture behind them and the gritty texture of the bricks in the foreground. I contemplated removing the blue arrow on the sign, but I decided to leave it. I thought it added a little bit of playfulness to the image and a spot of color.

incorporate urban scenes in wedding photography outside
Photographed around London’s Hackney Town Hall on a Canon 5D Mark IV and 24-70mm lens at f/2.8, 1/800 sec. and ISO 200.

In absence of open space and, sometimes, a visible skyline in an urban landscape, I look for large walls or glass to give the feeling of space, which, in this example, also creates the feeling of a sky. Here, I also used the street furniture to structure the image and to create a foreground. I was initially drawn to the lines and squares and the soft grey tones. Taken with midday sunshine, this area was cast in shade. I seem to remember there was an ugly rubbish (trash) bin to the left that I hid from the scene with this framing.

Always walk a few minutes away to the next street for different ideas and inspiration. With clever framing, even the back of an office building can make for an interesting photograph!

2. Play with Movement

photographing movement of wedding dress going up stairs
Photographed outside London’s Islington Town Hall on a Canon 5D Mark IV and 35mm f/1.4 lens at f/2.5, 1/640 sec. and ISO 100.

Movement often lends photos more interest, in addition to making them look more natural. As photographers, we don’t always have control over movement, and you never really know what you will get. However, when it all comes together, it’s magical.

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I knew the back of Genevieve’s dress would look amazing and that the stairs would enable the train to fall gracefully. This dress was very much designed for movement, and I wanted to capture that.

When you work in a documentary style like I do, photography is all about capturing moments as they unfold, however, sometimes it’s a good idea to have a couple of shots in your head.

During the walk to the town hall and seeing how the dress was moving, I imagined this shot. When we arrived, I hung back and let them enter before me. This was the second frame of eight shots capturing their entrance into the town hall, and it’s probably one of my favorite shots from this whole wedding. It says a lot about their relationship, with Moss holding Genevieve’s hand, leading and guiding the way to be married. They entered the town hall together, so this was an important choice they made about their day. 

Tip: Anticipate what you think may happen. You can also create opportunities to photograph your couple walking, dancing—running even!

[Read: The Best Walking, Standing and Sitting Poses for Fresh Senior Portraits]

bride twirls in dress for interesting wedding photos with movement
Photographed inside Islington Town Hall on a Canon 5D Mark IV and 24-70mm lens at f/3.5, 1/250 sec. and ISO 640.

“Let’s dance and spin!” Suggesting movement is an excellent way to create free-spirited moments for photographs. The key is not to tell your couples how to move; merely invite them to do so. That way each couple will have their own take on it and you’ll capture distinctive photos from session to session. This action and distraction also works to relax couples. What’s more, it is not always the action itself that creates the amazing photograph—it can be in the moment of stillness just after or their reaction to it.

Pictured above are Tom and Emma in London’s finest corridor at Islington Town Hall. The wedding was informal and fun, and I wanted their photographs to capture that spirit. With Emma’s skirt and its twirl factor, suggesting she do a quick spin was a no-brainer. This is one frame of about 15, and I love them all.

3. Give Your Couples a Stage by Framing Open Spaces

creating stage with open urban space in wedding photography
Photographed at Hackney Town Hall in London on a Canon 5D Mark IV and 24-70mm lens at f/5.6, 1/320 sec. and ISO 500.

I like to think of making a stage carved out of the busy city landscape. With quiet city streets and few tourists, there are wonderful opportunities to make images in stunning city locations for couples portrait shoots and weddings. The more flexible timing that comes hand in hand with micro-weddings means you can plan to shoot in locations when you know they will be quiet. And, of course, photographing in locations with space and very few people around is ideal when you’re dealing with social-distancing restrictions.

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Katie and Harry live in Hackney and married there. I really wanted to capture this visual reference and iconic building. This photo was taken at the end of the day when the building had closed, enabling them to have the space to themselves.

wedding couples can pose themselves in urban settings with stairwell
Photographed outside Loft Studios in London on a Canon 5D Mark III and 24-70mm lens at f/3.5, 1/400 sec. and ISO 500.

I found this industrial unit located about 3 minutes from the wedding’s reception venue. The late summer golden light appears to have given the scene a touch of Los Angeles. I did not pose Sam and Ben. I just suggested one of them should use the stairs. I want my couples to be “them” as they direct themselves. I will, of course, intervene if things don’t quite look balanced—however, I usually roll with it. I say to my couples, “I photograph you as you so that you look like you.”

4. Look for Inspiring Color

using colors of city walls to create cool wedding photos
Photographed outside The Fentiman’s Arms in Kennington, London, on a Canon EOS R and 50mm f/1.2 lens at f/2, 1/6400 sec. and ISO 100.

From a recent micro-wedding in London, this photo proves that you can make stunning photographs in any location. Suzannah and Gus went to their local pub in South London with eight friends after their short legal ceremony. It was midday, the light was harsh, and there were cars and delivery vans all around.

However, I saw this yellow wall with a small step, which came alive with the harsh yet dramatic sunlight. Afterwards, I realized the significance of this photograph with the color: Yellow is the color of happiness and optimism; it is the color of sun shining. Their (postponed) big wedding will (hopefully) be in Seville, Spain. So, I thought the sunlight and yellow tones are the closest to Seville that London could offer. Until that time, there’s always Spanish wine.

[Read: 9 Tips for Sculpting Natural and Artificial Light at Weddings]

bold wall colors photographing in city with wedding couples
A micro-wedding photographed on a Canon 5D Mark IV and 35mm f/1.4 lens at f/2.2, 1/250 sec. and ISO 500.

This image incorporates elements of all of my ideas here. The light had gone, and I knew the blue shiny tiles would really lift the image. Of course, there’s movement; they had a little dance—the joy of finally being married. Natural, unposed, joyful, and most of all, it’s “them.” I never overtly pose but instead suggest scenarios and see what comes naturally with just a sprinkling of direction.

using cool colors around city environments for wedding photos
Photographed in Peckham, London, on a Canon EOS R and 50mm f/1.2 lens at f/2.2, 1/250 sec. and ISO 12,800.

The painter Wassily Kandinsky once said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” Color is also a great solution to lift an image when the light is poor.

This was taken on a dark and rainy day in January. Weddings can be dark, very dark, even when it’s the middle of the day. They can also be cold and wet, too. So finding a covered stairwell (that was an entrance to a noodle bar!) was the perfect location for the weather and light conditions. This photograph also shows that the image quality is not compromised at a high ISO of 12,800.

I had visited the location the day before to have a quick scout as I knew the light was going to be challenging. I found this red stairwell with a window that we could use if the weather turned terrible, which it did. I also knew the color of Laura’s dress would complement the scene.

There’s always a solution, there’s always a creative idea, no matter what location and light situation. If you don’t often shoot in urban landscapes and city venues, now is the time to take to the streets and have a play before they are reclaimed again by daily life.

Heather Shuker is the wedding photographer behind Eclection Photography, based in London. She was chosen as a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star in 2016.

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