What’s the actual deal with Signing of the Register shots?

[H]ey there wedding photographer, how is the season working out for you so far? If, like me, you shoot weddings mainly in England then no doubt at a particular part of the day you will be dealing with the very uniquely English dilemma of the signing of the register shot. A weird little performance that occurs as part of wedding ceremonies the land over. Let me break it down for those that don’t know what I’m talking about.

Picture this… you are shooting a wedding ceremony at XXXXX registry office/civil venue/church. You spend the entire ceremony discreetly shooting with the available light, capturing moments in the ceremony from the first glimpse of each other to the first kiss. You are a wedding photography ninja blending into the wallpaper or giant floral arrangement better than Mystique from the X-Men. Then it comes to signing the register and there might be some kind of announcement made about how this can’t be photographed due to ‘data protection’ and the celebrant gives you the “I’m talking to you’ look. This is duly followed by the setting up of a fake signing shot which is usually a complete surprise to the couple who let’s face it, just want to get to the party now and start celebrating. But wait.. suddenly they are expected to method act like some kind of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Like little kids at Primary School they dutifully do as they are told and pose with a comedy quill pen, a blank page in the register and a blank look of ‘What the heck are we doing?’ on their faces. And you know what.. not once have I been asked by a couple beforehand to ‘make sure you get a nice picture of us signing the book’. They don’t care, we don’t care and yet there we are weekend after weekend all doing this merry little dance.

Sound familiar? Now please don’t get me wrong, this happens a lot but not all the time, I find in London and plenty of other places, the officiants totally get that a lot of couples want unstaged wedding photography and this little farce doesn’t have to happen. However, I’ve also been at ceremonies where I’ve been told that if I take one single photo other than the fake signing shot, then I would be forcibly removed. I’m not kidding… this has happened to me and I assume many others in churches and civil venues up and down the land. If you’ve been married, you will know that the ceremony is an utter blur, so who in their right mind would just want one photo from it of them doing the only unreal thing in it?

So let’s look at what the deal actually is in regards to the law and how we can get the best for our clients.


Elle and Scott's Wedding at Hackney Town Hall and The Roost in London by Devlin Photos

The data contained within the register is not protected, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s in the public domain and can be viewed by anyone. But imagine this.. you do photograph a close up of say the hand on the book signing and it shows their address, then you put that on your blog and the couple’s house is broken into while they are on honeymoon.. would you feel bad?

There is no law that says that you cannot photograph the signing of the register.. I know as I’ve checked with both the General Register Office and The Home Office. HOWEVER, individual registry offices are able to make their own rules and you simply have to stick within them. Personally I think it’s plain mean if they ban photography altogether apart from a fake signing, there is usually a happy medium.

And I’d love to meet this one photographer going about putting everyone off and flashing in everyone’s faces. They seem to have been at a lot of places that I subsequently shoot at and get told that this is what the rules are based on. In fact most of us understand the fine balance between recording the event for the couple and not distracting anyone. I actually don’t take images at all in the vows, it never looks amazing as mouths are talking. I know what’s it’s like just trying to get those words out. I’d hate for the sound of my shutter to be the tiny little thing that put somebody off. Instead I wait for the moments in between when the tension is broken.

My advice is talk to your couple beforehand and encourage them to express to whoever is conducting their ceremony what they would like for photography. After all they are paying for this and can have an input upfront. On the day, introduce yourself to the celebrants/registrars if you can and ask what restrictions they have. If they say there is no photos of the signing, then explain politely that your couple want natural photography and would prefer some discreet shots of it actually happening rather than something staged. I suggest that I can be a distance away with a long lens and not focused on the entry. Sometimes they refuse and we all go through with the ‘fake signing farce’ but sometimes they don’t mind at all. One registrar told me that he just likes that time to double check everything is entered correctly and to get the certificate ready. Which brings me to my last point.

They do have a very important job to do and they are dealing with people in a highly emotional state. There are specific set things that need to be in place for a marriage to be legal. So I don’t blame registrars for having rules. I think that we can work with them to still create great photographs. The more we do our job well and discreetly, the more relaxed they will be and stop treating us like we are out to ruin things. We are just doing the job we are paid to do and I think we can all work together with celebrants to ensure that couples have great ceremonies and great photographs from them.

Now don’t get me started on the registrars that then try to set up the photos for you …

Elle and Scott's Wedding at Hackney Town Hall and The Roost in London by Devlin Photos

Lisa Devlin has been photographing fake signing of the register shots since 2000