Capturing the Main Event

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The details of a wedding ceremony might vary according to cultural or religious factors, determined by the two families. Despite these variables, the logistics, necessary photo gear and strategies for success aren’t wildly different.

Certain rituals will appear in some form in almost every wedding ceremony.  Reading, reciting or chanting of marriage vows by the officiant, and sometimes by several other parties, an exchange of rings, sips of wine or some other symbolic beverage, and perhaps the first kiss between the newlyweds are all likely to occur in some form. (For a more detailed explanation of various cultural and religious wedding customs and traditions, see our separate guide, Multinational Wedding Traditions).

You’ll need to take pictures of each person in the wedding party as he/she comes down the aisle. Who walks down the aisle, and when, is established by whomever is conducting the ceremony, or in the case of catering halls, the caterer. You should have a list with the order, and you should have requested an advance briefing regarding what to expect during the ceremony. This is where the variations in ritual will show themselves, and there won’t be any possibility of a re-shoot, so be prepared.

Electronic flash is the preferred light source for photographing wedding ceremonies, for its ability to freeze movement in dimly lit environments. Because of the constant flow of participants during the ceremony and, therefore, of flash-to-subject distances, you will most likely (and preferably) be using a shoe or handle-mounted flashgun, probably with some type of light modifier to tone down the specular (harsh) light of a flash tube.

For triggering your flash and dedicated slave units, use a multi-channel radio slave system to ensure that your slaved strobes don’t fire helter-skelter whenever a guest raises their point-and-shoot camera and takes a flash picture.

Your main flash should be mounted on your camera or tethered off-camera using a camera-mounted flash bracket, triggered through a TTL flash cord or a radio or IR transmitter, to fire your dedicated slave lights. Each person operating a camera under your direction should be working on a separate channel. Each group or individual in the procession should be photographed at least two or three times at pre-established distances as they walk down the aisle. Seasoned caterers and party organizers will remind everyone in the procession to smile as they begin the walk.

There are times you may not be able to use a flash during the ceremony, due to religious or personal considerations. Your best bet is to mount your camera on a tripod, bump your camera’s ISO sensitivity up a few clicks, create a custom white balance or possibly Auto WB and shoot using your fastest prime lenses. Use of any lights during the ceremony should be discussed well before the day.

For the times that you are able to work with flash, it’s always a good idea to have an assistant hold a second dedicated slave-triggered unit on a boompole to fill in shadows or light up the background of your shot. Dependable, self-contained flash units designed for this sort of use are available from Quantum and Impact.

Any fill lights you set up along the perimeter of the chapel should be secured in place, and all cables should be gaffer-taped to the floor. If you’re using overhead floodlights to illuminate the rows of guests, make sure the light stands holding them are securely locked and preferably weighted down with saddle-style sandbags. This is especially important if you plan on using high-temperature halogen lamps. (You really don’t want a 1000W lamp—or any lamp for that matter—to come crashing down on any guests.)

You can use two-way radios in order to ease communication between all members of your photo crew during the quieter moments of the ceremony as well as amidst the higher decibel levels of the reception.

In terms of lenses and camera bodies, you will most likely be using two lenses (preferably on two camera bodies) for this segment of the assignment. To capture each member of the wedding party, you will most likely need a mid to longer range telephoto, i.e. a 70-200mm zoom. Once all of the members of the wedding party are assembled, you can use a wide zoom as well as a short telephoto lens in the 85mm to 105mm range for close-ups of facial expressions during the officiant’s service, the ring being slipped onto the bride’s finger, the bouquet, first kiss and other details. (For more information, see The Wedding Photographer's Guide to Lenses.)

Be mindful of how you set your AF and exposure modes. Because of the range of contrast and brightness levels you’ll be dealing with, it would be wise to make use of your camera’s spot meter. Unless you have a different preferred shooting method, this should be linked to your AF focus point.

And remember—a short stepladder or step stool is always useful for capturing a bird’s-eye view of any room.

If you have any questions or comments, or would like to share your own experiences photographing wedding ceremonies, you can do so in the Comments section below. Any memorable stories in connection with a particular ceremony you covered? Let us hear about it.

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The article mentions it briefly, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of checking with the pastor/priest/rabbi ahead of time to find out what is permitted. I am speaking as a pastor who has experienced photographers who think the wedding is simply a photo opportunity and that they are the paparazzi with authority to climb over altar rails, move all the way in for closeups, run around the altar... If a couple wants to get married in a church/synagogue, then it first has to be treated as a religious ceremony. For myself, I usually allow some freedom during the procession/recession (i.e., the photographer can get that coming-down-the-aisle shot and use flash), but once the wedding party is all in place, I do not want flash used. I try to suggest possible locations for photographing which will not interfere or be intrusive. Photographers may also want to consider staging moments before or after the service.

I agree with the pastor 100%!  I'm a professional photographer who shoots weddings.  I always ask the officiant/priest/pastor/minister what is allowed in the church.  I never use flash during a ceremony and  I stay behind the seated guests while shooting.  There is no reason to get closer than that if you have the proper lens.  I've gotten some stunning images of the ceremony from the back of the church and the balcony using a 200mm lens and nobody even knew I was around. 

 I recently shot a wedding with another photographer who asked me to step in as a replacement for a photographer who backed out at the last minute.  I had never worked with him before and had no idea how he worked at a wedding.  I was horrified to see him walking all around in front of the seated guests shooting pictures.  He walked right up next to the officiant to get a close-up shot of the ring exchange, he was behind the unity candle table shooting close shots of the lighting ceremony, he was the center of attention during the entire wedding ceremony!   I was in my usual position behind the guests in center aisle, on tripod and he is actually IN most of my shots!  Who wants photos of the photographer in their wedding album? 

He disrupted the ceremony and was disrespectful of the bride and groom, the guests, the church and the beauty of the religious ceremony.  He treated the ceremony as if it was a photoshoot and he was the star photographer.  A wedding is not about the photographer and the pictures.  I was embarrassed to no end.  Needless to say, I will never shoot another wedding with him.

Nice artical, Thanks. Now for people that dont allow for flash at weddings, 30 years from now the only thing the couple will have are the pictures of there wedding. If they are grainy and blurry because of not being able to acheve a fast enough shutter speed to take a decent picture then that will be a bad memory of not using that church again as i will explain to them what the pictures will look like without the use of a flash. My pictures are whats going to last and be the memory of that day for a life. I think Phographers should use discreation as to not intrude on the wedding and be as invisable as possable but the no flash thing just kinda sucks.

In reply to the pastor who commented first, I couldn't agree more. I shot my first wedding in March, and while I used a 5DM2 with a 50mm/1.2 for much of the pre-ceremony activity and First Look portraits, during the ceremony itself I mounted my 70-200mm/2.8 IS II and kept crouched off to the side, with an occassional shot straight on from far back in the center aisle. There is no excuse today for flash during a ceremony, we are not bound by the chains of film's limtations like we were for years. A 5D Mark II or a D3s set at ISO 1600 using a 70-200mm/2.8 with image stabilization will give you more than you need to get the shot without flash. Viveza 2 from Nik is great for lighting up shadowy areas, and if you're shooting a low-light or candle-lit ceremony where you don't want a flash anyway, get yourself a monopod and sit in the first row. You can shoot at 1/10 of a sec at 200mm with the new IS and VR lenses, plus ISO 1600 is no problem on a full-frame (not to mention that a little Noise Ninja fixes any noise wonderfully). I should add that I don't even own a flash, and haven't needed one, lol!

While I understand the respect you have to have for the ceremony, don't go to either extreme. Don't be the superstar jumping in front of everything, but also don't be the guy hiding like a sniper in the distance and never stepping up for the closeup a long lens will not give you.

Every situation is about a balance. I use a flash when I need to, not on every shot, but I do always ask the officiant ahead of time where I should avoid and if they allow flash. If they don't, respect it and be ready. If you need to step in front of people during the wedding to get a shot, then do it. No single long lens will cover all the shots you want, and you have to move your feet. When you get the shot you need, get out of the way. And, when you know your shot, you don't have to act like that 'superstar' lwgsp described well. If your flash is going off all over the place, a dozen times per shot angle, you're just hoping and not planning accordingly.

Your priority is to get the shots the bride and groom want, not worrying if you ended up in Aunt Sally's shot. They hired you and expect you to do your job. If you miss a shot because you felt you were in the way and took a secondary shot that wasn't what you had in mind, then you didn't do your job. I know that's blunt, but I've done the long lens and short lens (keep both on cameras to switch). I've never had a complaint in any event. Just be aware that once you have the shot, take it quickly, move and find another. If you stand still in the center like I see a lot of videographers doing, you're still going to block people in the back anyway so it's best to just block someone here and there and change it up and move around. Don't run around non-stop. Take your time to plan and think about your shots so you just guess and become that center of attention.

People understand it's your job! Actually, sometimes you can get great smiles if you involve the crowd taking the photos as well. They'll smirk and smile, especially the children, and you'll get some great shots that no family member would get.

This is a tricky one. I always check with the celebrant of the ceremony and ask the bride and groom, wayyyyy, before the wedding day, to speak with the person conducting the ceremony regarding guidlines, rules, traditions, etc. When the feedback comes from the bride and groom on that I work with them for a plan that is suitable to everyone. The bride, sometimes, doesn't mind all the action, attention from my camera lens. Many brides I met actually love it. It's their day and they want THE photo and the energy that comes from a photographer around. So at the end of the day I let the couple decide what they want and I tailor my style and technique accordingly. I do whatever it takes to get what the couple wants, not what the pastor wants. Some pastors thinks that the ceremony is about them as well and the less movements there are the Holier the ceremony or they are. Not necessarily. I've photographed religious events, including ordination of priests (which are like weddings and more serious) and the whole atmosphere was energy, movements and dancing. No one noticed or felt distracted by the photographer. I've photographed wedding from way back on the side of the church (requet of the priest). I was no where in sight and the whole ceremony was dull as ****. The audio system in the church was awfull, you can hardly hear it, the church was too dark, the aircondition didn't work, if there was one, everyone was sweating like ****. So many distraction and no photographer in sight. So I think it requires clear communication between the couple, the photographer and the celebrant of the ceremony to try their best to make it a happy occasion. I don't think there is a "way" to do it. It depends on the people involved.

At the last minute I was asked to shoot a wedding in a wedding hall. It was so dark that even my 5D @ 1600 iso with a 70-200 F2.8 stuggled to get enough light. I used 2 580's, one camera and one bounced off the low ceiling. They saved the day. I also used my 1DMKIII at 3200 with a 17-35 F2.8 for close ups.  The wedding chapel said the brides liked the low lighting for atmosphere. The bride and groom were thrilled with the results but if I hadn't used the 580's it would have been hit or miss at best.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the practice run through a week before (the day after I was contracted) so I was prepared on the wedding day.

Be prepared whatever and ask questions.

One other commenter mentioned it, but is there any advice on how best to deal with churches (and there are MANY of them) where some of the light is natural (windows) and some of the light is incandescent (usually; occasionally even fluorescent)?  Even shooting RAW is a challenge with mixed sources.  Obviously one way out is with a flash, but what if that is not permitted?