Intentional Blur: Why It’s Hot in Wedding Photography

November 11, 2016

By Libby Peterson

Each month, we ask photo industry leaders to discuss a photographer and trend that’s caught their eye this year. Carrie Schwab, the editor-in-chief and general manager for Junebug Weddings, told us why intentional blur via the very talented Tomasz Wagner piqued her interest.

“I love how a lack of focus can create such a transient, yet wild sense of movement,” Schwab wrote in Rf’s October issue. “There is an element of intrigue that exists in not being able to see the subject clearly, and I have learned to embrace that feeling of momentum rather than attempt to pin it down. In Tomasz Wagner’s out-of-focus bridal portrait, we are immediately thrown into the motion of the photo. The bride is walking swiftly down a sidewalk, gathering her dress and looking determined as she moves forward. As the viewer, you feel an enormous sense of hurriedness, a feeling you wouldn’t be able to gather from a still portrait. While focus gives you beautiful detail and clarity, stepping outside of focus, or even neglecting it altogether, can connect the viewer and subject in new and exciting ways.”

Photo © Tomasz Wagner

We wanted to get Wagner’s take on this shot and technique, so we took a second to pick the Vancouver photographer’s brain:

Rf: Can you set the scene for us here?

Tomasz Wagner: While standing beside his car and waving at us from a few blocks away, Vivian’s father encourages us to make haste for the ceremony. Vivian slightly hikes up her dress and we make a mad dash for the car on some uneven cobblestones in the narrow and busy streets of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. I wanted to capture the frenetic energy and feeling of this moment, something that I knew would be so transient but also carry over during the drive to the venue.

Rf: What did you use in terms of gear and settings?

TW: A Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 24L II lens at f/2, 1/40th of a second and ISO 500.

Rf: Why did you decide to keep some blur here, rather than freeze it completely?

TW: It seems like I’ll be forever exploring what it means to be a “documentary” or “photojournalistic” (wedding) photographer and conveying real, authentic moments within a larger narrative. It sounds a little complicated but I’m finding the process incredibly valuable—and enjoyable—to understanding what I’m trying to do as an artist. To that end, intentional motion blur is a few things for me: It attempts to draw the viewer into the moment, it surprises the viewer with something unexpected and it embraces the beauty of imperfection.

It sounds simple, but Vivian is walking quickly in this image; walking is not a static activity but one that causes the body to shift and move. I lowered the shutter speed to where I thought it would suit Vivian’s movement adequately and thankfully, I was able to achieve something I’m quite happy with. If I had frozen the motion I believe the image would have lost something interesting and visually appealing about it, for example, the kind of frenetic but mysterious mood created by Vivian’s movement.

Rf: We’ve been seeing some more intentional blur this year, especially in wedding photography, which we hadn’t seen so much before. Why do you think this technique is being used more now than in previous years?

TW: I think once an idea gets planted it’s easy for it to travel these days, especially in the wedding photography world as we’re all constantly sharing, experiencing and comparing (for better or worse) each other’s work. When I first posted this image on my Instagram, I wanted to be a little cheeky with the caption: I gave a nod to how we were rushing to the ceremony but also to the concept of wabi-sabi [the Japanese aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection]. I can’t say for certain if my image “inspired” anyone to explore intentional blur in their own work or other kinds of nods to wabi-sabi, but maybe a seed was planted.

Given that there are now more (wedding) photographers than ever before, differentiating yourself is crucial to avoid getting lost in the mix. Intentional motion blur is different and may never become quite as popular as other techniques (like prisming or double exposures) due to its unpredictability and lack of refinement. Client expectations may enter into this as well. It could also be a response to some people’s (photographers and clients alike) near obsession with having images be “tack sharp” in order to be considered good and worthy of attention.

From my own experience, I have had some slow shutter mishaps while shooting film that turned out surprisingly unique and different once I was able to see what I had created, so you could perhaps argue that film photography has had an influence as well.

Rf: So when did you first discover intentional blur as a technique?

TW: Roughly two years ago when I was diving into film photography as well as cinematography. Everything I do as an artist and person tends to blend into each other, so I’m sure what influences my photography also influences my cinematography, and vice-versa. I enjoy the mix.

For me, intentional blur is definitely not about having another technique in my “bag of tricks” to force an image. I’m not really interested in approaching wedding photography that way. I like encouraging a wild mix of quiet, play, exploration, surprises, fun, contrasts and moreover something real. Intentional blur fits into this quite nicely.

Rf: What are some other techniques that you’ve been doing lately, perhaps more than in previous years?

TW: I’ve been experimenting with refractions and enjoying the sometimes-unpredictable results, from adding bits of the environment into a portrait to adding color to creating an entirely new composition. I love how objects and subjects tend to blend seamlessly using this technique.

Less a technique or approach and more a mindset: revelling in the quiet moments. For me, this isn’t just about blending into the background and being as unobtrusive as possible, but also helping to create an environment where silence and stillness can happen and be enjoyed. This could be as simple as encouraging clients to get ready together in the morning without friends and family—or to escape briefly during dinnertime for a breather and a few portraits.

Ultimately, what I want to achieve are images that produce an emotional reaction—sometimes that’s encouraged with a double exposure, intentional blur, minimalism or refraction. However, I don’t want to force any images either if they don’t work for the situation, the clients or myself. To that end, my approach has really centered on observation in the last few years. This was always something I assumed as part of my role, but it wasn’t until recently that I fully embraced it in order to understand what I wanted to achieve as a wedding photographer. Being patient, quick on the draw and decisive with my shots—doing all of these things constantly and consistently has made me a better photographer over any specific techniques I’ve learned.