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Chapter 5

Ultimate Guide to

Wedding Register Signing Photography

Photographing the Signing of the Register


Couple signing register at Old Marylebone Town Hall

During the ‘actual’ signing of the register, focus is purely on the job at hand.

The signing of the register usually follows shortly after the vows. In a church wedding, this may be slightly different depending on the order of service.  The signing of the register is the most important wedding day legality that must be observed.  However, for a reportage photographer it is often one of the most frustrating times.  This is no fault of mine or the couple’s but I’ll explain why here…

Signing at Chelsea Old Town Hall

The registrars’ at Chelsea Old Town Hall are very relaxed and have no qualms at letting the photographer shoot the signing.

I love natural photography.  Apart from any required posed shots, I try to take natural photographs all day.  But at the signing of the register I often encounter problems.

Take a look at the following two photos and think about which one you prefer.  Forget about lighting and composition.  Which one resonates best with you regarding what is happening within the photo?

Groom poses for dummy wedding register signing at LGBT marriage

Mateusz does a very good job at pretending to sign at his same-sex marriage to Matthew at Bromley Civic Centre. However, there’s something not quite right in this image and it is saved slightly by the fireplace and portrait in the background.

Bride signing register with groom looking on

An overview of the signing: You can see where everyone was around the table at the time of the legal signing at Old Marylebone Town Hall.

Which Photo Did You Prefer?

That’s right: it was the second one!

(In the first photo I think the couple look slightly uneasy with an awkward sense of bemusement…)

Really, if you preferred the first that’s fine too – some people do.  It could largely be a matter of taste and what’s important to you.  But couples who book me generally want a natural record of their day.

So with the second shot, the Westminster registrar was more than happy to let me continue photographing the signing with no restriction.  They showed no concern that I was distracting or that I might photograph any data on the page.  This was great.  It also gave me the chance to move about and shoot wider, as here:

Couple at Westminster Register Office Looking at Register Whilst Guests and Videographer Watch

Tray and Dan’s wedding was only small with just them and the witnesses. By being given freedom to move freely, I could photograph everyone in the room, including the videographer. In future years, it will mean far more to them to see things as they were than to just have the posed shots.

Groom Signing Register with Large Bay Windows

For the sake of balance, here’s a posed shot taken at De Courceys Manor near Cardiff that I actually quite like:  Rory and Liz felt slightly awkward with the posed signing shots. My favourite one was when they looked away from the camera at each other to share a reassuring smile.

The Dummy Register:  A Source of Amusement and Bemusement

At weddings at Cardiff City Hall, (as at many register offices and civil marriage venues) the registrar politely requests that I stop shooting until the signing is complete.  I always respect the rules of the house so turn my camera on to the guests until the signing completes.  The registrar then takes out a ‘dummy’ register and lets me pose the couple pretending to sign the register.  I often coach couples that this may happen and it often causes looks of bemusement and a slight awkwardness, but we carry on regardless.  As a reportage photographer, this can be funny but does not resonate well with me at all!

The only posed shot I take at this time by choice is of the couple with their witnesses.

Wind photo of couple signing register taken from back of room

I was a bit sneaky during this signing at Stoke Newington Town Hall. Had the registrar spotted me, she may or may not have said anything. I was too far back to either be a distraction or capture any data.

So Who is Right?

I’ve researched all this extensively and find it incredibly difficult to find anything official online to confirm who is or isn’t right.  Or is it a bit of both?  If it were just the current couple’s data on the page, would it be OK then?  Are any restrictions purely at the discretion of the authority’s registrars.  And if so, is it more a distraction issue rather than for data protection?

As it is a public document, there should be no issue around your photographer being able to shoot the actual signing. However, from what I can gather, government guidelines (not law) state that photographing the signing should be discouraged as often other couple’s signatures are on the same page. Many registrars uphold this and arrange a staged signing for the photos afterwards with a blank book.

Oddly, these guidelines don’t seem to apply to the church, with the clergy generally being much more liberal in this area.

Groom signing wedding register in church wedding with vicar, bride and guest watching

A lovely church signing shot: As well as showing everyone watching on, it is also a good impression of what the venue was like.

Bride signing register in church in Crystal Palace

Exactly the same place as for the groom above. But changing my shooting angle and going wider shows off amazing architecture not previously apparent.

Register Signing Photography Vs. Data Protection: My Thoughts

Of course, I understand the need for data protection.  But if you zoom in and look closely at any of the signing photos on this page, you won’t be able to read any personal data from the registers.

There are several good photographic reasons for this: 

Firstly, the photographer will normally focus on the faces of the couples and not on the book.  This means that anything else not on the same plane will be slightly out of focus.

Also, the couple’s faces will be what the photographer is exposing for.  Skin is darker than paper, which means that the paper looks lighter in a photo than it really is.  This makes the writing more difficult to read.

These two reasons make reading what’s on the page tough enough, but combined with the fact that handwriting can be difficult to read anyway, any personal information is illegible.

Groom signing register at Camden Town Hall

Getting the registrar in the shot adds a new element that is not usually in a posed register photo. This was a wedding at Camden Town Hall.

And if Distraction is the Reason?

The wedding register is the most important aspect of the wedding and it’s very important that the registrar gets it right.  One mistake would make the whole marriage null and void.  So the ability of the registrar to fill in the details correctly is critical.  They should not be distracted from their official duties.

However, if the photographer stands back a bit and is discrete and respectful, then they should present no distraction.

Mature couple posed shot in Cardiff register office

Another Cardiff posed shot: This makes for a lovely photo as these mature newly-weds were fun and easily showed their happiness. When a couple can forget about the photographer and interact with each other, it does help.

From the couple’s point of view, they have hired their photographer to document the day discretely and naturally.  They have the resulting photos to look back on and cherish for a lifetime.  Many couples express to me a wish to have the actual signing photographed rather than the dummy signing.  But I have to respect the directions of the registrar.

Group photo of family members at Caerphilly Castle wedding

Sometimes the place of signing is so attractive that it’s good to take some small family group shots there too. I took this in the Great Hall at a gay wedding in Caerphilly Castle.

Where to Have the Signing for Photographic Aesthetics

As with all photography, it’s all about the light. Most wedding venues have a dedicated signing area, but if you do get a choice of where to sign, choose somewhere with good directional light such as facing or adjacent to a window.  Having the window behind you is not ideal though as it causes glare and hazy images.

Groom signing dummy register with Bride - both grinning broadly

Finally, I include my all-time favourite ‘dummy’ register signing photo. Sam and Mark were so enjoying the occasion that this didn’t phase them at all. It’s also enhanced by the fact that Sam isn’t posing – she’s spotted some friends to make eye contact with instead. This gives a more natural appeal to the photo. I rather think that Mark saw the funny side too…

Chapter 6: Presenting Mr & Mrs – Confetti & Congratulations – Next>>>>

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Bride at Old Marylebone Town Hall Signing the Register

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Guy Milnes Photography is based between London and Caerphilly covering South Wales, Bristol, London and the home counties.
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