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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.