© JOSH GOODMAN
Los Angeles-based duo Josh and Jill Goodman describe their style as "vintage feel, contemporary appeal."
In the classic song “I’m Old Fashioned,” popularized by Fred Astaire in 1942, the lyrics read: This year’s fancies / Are passing fancies / But sighing sighs holding hands / These my heart understands. Astaire ends singing that he’ll stay old-fashioned— As long as you agree / To stay old-fashioned with me. Even in 1942, the idea of being old-fashioned had a romantic pull. Even then, the past symbolized enduring love. That generation had their reasons and their particular notions of old-fashioned, but the same impulse remains today for a new generation—expressed most visibly in weddings. From polka dots to typewriters to pillbox hats, a vintage style is a strong trend in contemporary weddings, and couples want their wedding photography to also reflect a sense of the old-fashioned and enduring.
I spoke to three professional wedding photographers who specialize in creating a vintage look to see what they think about this popular style, how they create it, and what advice they have for photographers interested in trying it out. One thing they all agree on is that the demand for vintage-looking wedding photography is higher than ever. Amanda Nistor, who runs a popular vintage wedding blog called Ruffled, confirms their observation, “When I started Ruffled in 2008, vintage weddings were not yet as prevalent as they are now. This style slowly started popping up on the wedding scene and in 2009 it exploded with a wide range of styles from a bygone era. Today I am happy to say that vintage weddings have a firm place on the map of wedding styles—and the same can be said for that style of wedding photography.”
Figuring out exactly what is meant by “vintage style wedding photography” can be tricky, and varies from photographer to photographer. As Nistor explains, some photographers “may show a vintage influence in their portraiture style; while others may be inspired by the type of medium used fifty years ago. Others may take inspiration from the color tones in old color photographs. Often times we see a combination of all of them.” She does feel, however, that a vintage style of photography is best when it focuses on classic compositions and “celebrates emotion and simplicity in the smallest of details.”
Heather Hester is a wedding photographer based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama who shoots in film and describes herself as “constantly inspired by all things classically beautiful, enchanting, and vintage.” She notes, “To me, vintage style can be summed up best in one word—timelessness.” Timelessness is a word that comes up frequently when talking about wedding portraiture. Other kinds of portraits can certainly be deeply meaningful, but couples typically imagine that their wedding pictures will remain in their families’ albums for decades and even be gazed at by future generations—they are seen as timeless family heirlooms. Photographer Marianne Wilson, who works in Southern California, adds, “I think that many couples want their weddings to reflect the timeless love of classic moments they have seen in movies and photos that have withstood the test of time.”
Couples imagine a variety of styles when they ask for a “vintage” look. The photographers I spoke to mention that their clients might ask for the drama of old Hollywood, a faded early 1960s palette that looks “Mad Men-esque,” or a romantic rustic look, generously gilded with warm natural light. Wilson tries to emulate the classic poses of elegant silver screen stars for brides, or a very masculine, debonair pose for grooms. But keeping things simple is essential. Certain accessories add a strong sense of the past—such as rings set on a worn piece of furniture, a lace curtain hanging in the window, or a bicycle-built-for-two. Yet while props can make a shot look instantly from another era, if it doesn’t fit the couple, it can look forced or insincere. “The last thing we want to do is make a photo that doesn’t reflect the couple just for the sake of incorporating props,” Wilson adds.
But it’s not all desaturation and nostalgic poses all the time—each of these photographers receives requests for traditional styles of portraiture too. It’s a balance to capture the event for the couple as well as other generations of their family—who might have different notions of classic portraiture. As a wedding photographer you might have to give the couple their candid, golden-hued shots with their closest friends, as well as some more conservative poses. “Every now and then the bride will ask me to shoot a few ‘traditional’ family shots for her mom or grandmother,” notes Hester. Wilson agrees, mentioning, “we jokingly tell our couples ‘and now a few prom pose shots for the parents.’ The couples typically agree that it’s a good idea.”
So how do photographers achieve a vintage-feel in their work? First, it’s important to note that while digital tools help to create that desaturated, tea-dyed look that is so in demand, effects can be taken too far. Amanda Nistor recalled that when she started looking at wedding photography about five years ago, the prevalent style was overrun with hokey post-production effects. Photos often looked overly sharp, used dramatic heavy vignettes or sepia tones, or had too much grain added. She has noticed a refreshing trend back to simpler images, often shot on film, which achieve a rich and classic look without distracting digital frills.
Josh and Jill Goodman, photographers based in Los Angeles who advertise their style as “vintage feel, contemporary appeal,” perceive a technological basis for the rising vintage preference, also noting the switch from film to digital photography in the wedding industry. “Digital photography is a blessing to photographers and clients in so many ways but it has one issue—it can be too ‘perfect’. We grew up shooting film and there’s no doubt that film has the ability to feel more organic and ‘real’. There’s something soft and inviting about good old fashioned film and our signature vintage look really helps make the image feel more real, authentic and tangible.” They like to use the RAW program in Lightbox, noting, “No two images are the same or have the same issues that need addressing so there is no magic action or button that fixes everything. It takes time and experience to make each image look great.”
Hester not only shoots exclusively in film, but also uses older models of cameras. She mostly wields a Contax 645 but also brings in a 35 mm, a Holga, and several Polaroids to offer variety and achieve a warmer, more nostalgic look. “What better way to get the look of past photographers than to use the same medium?” she asks. “Shooting film forces me to concentrate on what’s important—like framing a quality picture and getting the lighting right, and minimize what’s not so important—like keeping up with the latest Photoshop actions. Don’t get me wrong—post-production tools can be outstanding when used properly, but for me, it does more detracting than adding value. Using film gives me a vintage look right out of the camera, without having to spend hours at a time behind a computer.”
Wilson agrees that capturing a near-perfect image is essential, and favors a back-lit pose for sun-flare and a slightly washed-out palette. She then edits in LR3 and sometimes Photoshop, and notes, “a great tool to learn and utilize is split toning. This will allow you to achieve warm black and whites and really have a good time with making slight color adjustments to shadows and highlights. I also like to add a little bit of grain when going for a vintage style.”
The price tag for shooting a wedding can range from $1,500 to $6,000, depending on whether the couple wants digital images or a complete album of prints, and whether they would like to include an engagement portrait-session as well. To try out this particular style, Wilson recommends playing with dramatic poses for an old Hollywood look, and to “play with the sun and have fun with it.” Start by looking at a lot of vintage wedding shoots and see what you like best about them, recommends the Goodmans, who also advise, “We suggest that you really think about what inspires you before you dive into any particular style. We don’t recommend doing something just because it’s popular at the moment.” Indeed, a natural affection for a vintage look will certainly help. These photographers have worked for years to build up their portfolios and hone their signature styles, but it was based on an affinity and enthusiasm for the creative possibilities of vintage-style photographs. Ultimately all of them agree that the need for authentic, simple, and most importantly, timeless images are key. Otherwise a photograph might soon look as out-of-date as a 1980s wedding dress with puffy sleeves.