Why I love Grain in my Wedding Photography
Modern digital cameras are amazing. There’s more technology in a basic entry level one than was in the spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Co to the moon. As a tool they make things ever easier for people to take great photos with (but they’ve not yet replaced the need for a talented and creative eye – an idea for a future post, perhaps?) and can do things that photographers in years gone by could only dream about. The sensors in most camera bodies now allow photographers to shoot handheld in low light conditions whilst still giving us clean and sharp images without the need for the harsh and artificial light of flashes.
As a wedding photographer I prefer to work with natural light wherever I can. That’s not because I don’t know how to use on camera flash (or even off camera lighting) – I do, and spent a lot of time learning how to do it. It’s simply because I think natural light is more flattering 99% of the time for wedding photography. It’s certainly less hassle and, as a documentary wedding photographer who specialises in capturing real moments and emotions, it doesn’t slow things down. The only time I really resort to using a flash is during the dancing of the evening reception – but again that’s an article for another time.
Now of course this is all sounding great so far, but the big problem I have with modern digital cameras is the fact that they produce images that are almost too clean, too perfect. This may sound odd – how on earth could photos be too good? Well, let me explain…
The Beauty of the Flaw
You’ll often hear a lot of photographers bemoaning that digital images don’t look the same as film photos used to, not quite a good. Of course, this will be photographers like me who are old enough to pre-date digital cameras. But it also explains why film has refused to go away and in fact has seen a recent trend and popularity for film in wedding photography. I firmly believe the reason digital never looks quite like film is because back in the “old days” film often produced flaws that gave the images more of a mood and atmosphere that is lacking in pin sharp and crystal clean digital images. If you think about it, that’s why Instagram is so popular – it actually recreates those old film flaws, making the images less perfect but arguably more beautiful.
One of those old film flaws that I always loved was a bit of grain in photos. In fact, it’s no coincidence that a lot of my photographic influences and inspirations like Anton Corbijn or William Klein were not only were happy to increase that grain in their photography, but often made a feature of the grain itself.
Sensor Noise & Film Grain
In the modern, digital world grain is known as “noise” and is often sneered upon as the best cameras (and sensors) can make it possible to do away with noise in the vast majority of cases. Without becoming too technical, noise is more of an issue in lower light shooting where you have to increase the ISO settings on a camera to let in more light, without having to risk a slower shutter speed (that increases the risk of blurring) or resorting to the use of flash.
And that’s the problem with modern digital photos for me. They look almost sterile and lacking in mood for my tastes. That’s why, especially in low light situations, I’m not afraid of incorporating and making a feature of “noise” in my images
I firmly believe that noise (or grain as it was called in the film days) used and enhanced in the right way actually adds to the characteristics of photos. As I say above it adds mood and atmosphere and it’s definitely part of my style and approach. It’s what makes me different from a lot of other wedding photographers who do everything to eliminate noise in their images (either in camera or in post production). Now I’m fortunate that, as a documentary wedding photography, I’m more interested in capturing the real moments and true emotions of your wedding day rather than fretting about technical perfection and missing those shots.
The Idiosyncrasies of the Paints
Fortunately I choose to shoot with Olympus OMD EM1 MKII cameras which, in mine and a lot of others opinions, actually create a “noise” that is quite beautiful and similar to how film grain was. Yes, some cameras can produce a really ugly noise – so I’m always clear that not all noise is good. You have to understand how and when it works as an enhancement to the photo – and as a wedding photographer, that’s my number one priority: doing what’s right for the photo itself. Sadly modern digital photographers who have never shot with film don’t really understand, or appreciate, how to use grain to their advantage. Like any great painter, it’s not just the colour of the paints you paint with, but the texture and idiosyncrasies of the paints itself that can make, or break, a picture.
Also, being passionate about b&w photography – which is synonymous with a photojournalistic approach – means I shoot a lot in b&w and there’s no argument that noise (or even old film grain) looks better in b&w images. Again I think that’s all to do with b&w being more about mood and atmosphere, which the noise/grain helps to enhance.
It’s Soul Music, Baby
Another good way of explaining this whole issue is to draw parallels with the music industry. Think of modern digital music – with its state of the art production, note perfect vocals, cutting edge technologies that all sound amazingly crystal clear. Now think of those old soul classics from the 60’s or jazz standards from before then. Often recorded in mono, on inferior technology and with the hiss and crackle of needle-to-vinyl static. There’s no arguing about which recordings are technically better but which are more real, more authentic? Which stand the test of time and evoke feelings and emotions in the listener more. I’d argue those old soul classics are more fondly recalled that the modern overproduced by technically perfect recording by the latest X Factor contestant. Noise, or grain, in digital photography is very much the static of vinyl recordings. It’s the heart and soul of the picture, it’s what creates that undeniable authenticity of your wedding photography.
Of course, none of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with modern digital photography. There’s plenty of wedding photographers who produce outstanding images that are completely clean, snappily crisp and dangerously sharp. It’s just not me or how I do things. I want you to feel my wedding photography, imperfect or not; to feel its heart beating from the inside out. Because for me, the very beauty of wedding photography that is compelling and genuine go beyond the surface. I love nothing more than when people say they feel my wedding photography. And isn’t that the very thing you want from your wedding story? Feeling and emotion? So as a wedding photojournalist that’s what I strive for – and clearly it’s not about capturing all those special moments and expressions in a candid and natural way. It’s how that mood and atmosphere of a scene or moment are expressed.
So yes, in the right circumstances, I love noise and I’m happy to shout about it! Or, rather, given my wedding photography style is often called melodic, I want to sing about it. So let me be the Marvin Gaye to your wedding photography.
If you are getting married and think my unique and creative approach to wedding photography will capture the narrative and authenticity of your personal wedding story, then I’d genuinely love to hear from you. You can either call me on 07920 422144 or send me a message via my contact page.