A lot of wedding photographers are calling themselves wedding photojournalists these days. It’s hip, it’s trendy, and for the sake of marketing, many photographers have those words on their websites. If authentic wedding photos are important to you however, you should know how to spot the real thing before you hire someone.

Less than a handful of the Denver wedding photographers who advertise themselves as wedding photojournalists have ever worked for a newspaper, a magazine, or a news agency. Fewer still have done long-term documentary projects, the sort of in-depth reportage and immersive exploration of a subject that means everything to the committed photojournalists I know. It’s why most of us got into photography in the first place, to tell stories we think are important. Look for that work, google their names and search for pictures that are about anything other than weddings, family photos, or senior portraits. I’m not trying to pick on anyone, but I don’t think it’s fair to one’s clients to claim a background or qualifications that simply aren’t there. But why should it matter to you? The proof is in the pudding, right?

Covering a wedding as a documentary photographer or wedding photojournalist entails a fundamentally different approach. The intentions are different, the skill set is different. And the pictures are different too.

They’re real.

They are about individual people, with their own personalities, quirks, feelings, and interpersonal relationships. There should be something specific about the images, as opposed to universal. Specific to the individual, to the moment in time. They should make you think of the person in the picture, not remind you of other pictures you’ve seen. Not pictures of a Bride, but of a distinct individual with a name, a history, and her own idiosyncrasies.

It’s not about novel lighting or bold graphics. If the images look like they’re from a fashion magazine, well, there’s a reason real life does not appear that way. If you want to remember the time, the moment, the emotions of the day, someone who creates scenarios and focuses on glamour is seldom able to pull that off. The beautiful mountain meadow at sunset is wonderful in that portrait session, but most weddings are kind of crowded, somewhat chaotic, and the light is usually challenging. Can they extract compelling images under those conditions? Because that’s where real life is taking place. Look at their website. Are there a lot of pictures of the bride and groom off by themselves in nature, in wide spaces devoid of others? How many weddings have you been to that were like that? Were the couple plucked out of the most important day of their lives to do an hour-plus photoshoot? Or were the pictures even made on the day of the wedding?

Wedding photojournalism is not a look. It’s not pictures with a natural feel to them, it’s pictures that are natural. It’s not about grainy effects made to look like film, or Instagram-like filters that turn everything into a palette of pastels. Go to an art museum — can you find any pictures that look like that?

A wedding photojournalist is practically invisible, even in plain sight. They don’t control the environment or events, tempting as it might be to guarantee a particular picture. But for all they give up, they get something else in exchange. If they’re paying attention and sensitive to the people around them, they’ll get glimpses below the surface. They’ll convey the chemistry between people, not just the couple, but in their relationships with their families and friends. They’ll get images the couple hadn’t anticipated and show things they never expected to see in a photograph. They’ll get documentary photographs made at a wedding, not wedding photos in a documentary style. It’s not semantics; it’s a fundamentally different approach with demonstrably different results.