Wedding-day photography is an art. Knowing when to anticipate the dramatic changes of a wedding day is an art form. From deciphering drastic ISO changes between the high-noon portraits and the dark, subdued chapel, while still capturing the elation of a new bride and the bitter-sweet emotions of her proud father, to orchestrating eight family members into a well-poised portrait, you will be sure to feel like a maestro by the end of this whirlwind day. This guide serves to help you get a handle on the day before it unfolds.
Photographing the bride as she prepares for the wedding requires that you remain alert and tactful. The wedding day generates tensions on all sides—and as a neutral party, you should be an understanding, positive force for the duration. Be courteous and encouraging to everyone, but especially the bride—treat her like the princess that she is.
Arrive at the bridal suite or home early. Plan to arrive at least fifteen minutes early, and be sure to have camera in hand when the comings-and-goings begin. If your contract requests photographs at the groom’s home as well, the same rules apply. You should have made sure to budget in the extra time and added costs of hiring crew and additional equipment when you prepared your price quote for the assignment.
Fitting the gown; applying makeup; styling hair; adjusting the father’s cufflinks and necktie; smiles or embraces caught in the reflections of windows and mirrors—these unstaged moments add warmth and emotion to the photo document. Wedding-day details such as boxes, packages, flowers and other objects can visually capture the special atmosphere of the day. Pay special attention to hands, small details and expressions of emotion. It’s these memorable moments that help to set the tone for a successful wedding album.
Be sure to take up as little space as possible—rely on just using your cameras, and if necessary, a shoe or handle-mounted flashgun with a light modifier, from companies such as Impact, ExpoImaging, Gary Fong, LumiQuest, Pearstone, Sto-Fen and Zeikos. It’s also a good idea to have an off-camera TTL flash cord handy.
Keep things simple by sticking with two or three fast, fixed focal length lenses, such as a 24- or 28mm, a 50mm and a fast 85- or 105mm lens. By using wide apertures, you can make good use of shallow depth of field as well as maintain faster shutter speeds, which translates into brighter exposures when using only available light. If you prefer zooms, a lens along the lines of a 14-24mm f/2.8 or 16-35mm f/2.8 on a full-frame DSLR would do the trick.
A fast medium-telephoto 85mm f/1.8 or 1.4, or a 100mm or 105mm f/2.0 or f/2.8 can also be handy for tight close-ups and details, as will a zoom lens in the 70-200mm f/2.8 range. If your camera or lens features image-stabilization technology, remember to turn it on.
A number of fine, wide zooms are available for APS-C-format DSLRs but, unfortunately, with the exception of a handful of f/2.8 zooms, most of the current models open up no wider than f/3.5 to f/4.0, and they often have variable-aperture diaphragms. Although most of the currently available slower, variable-aperture optics capture sharp pictures, you’ll have to goose the ISO numbers a notch or two or use fill flash in dimmer light, because they are slower.
If using a flash is too distracting and makes your nervous subjects self-conscious—a higher ISO setting, using window light, house lights or the light from a makeup mirror delivers better results. A small or mid-sized folding reflector for bounced lighting can also be helpful here—an assistant can hold it to open up deep shadows.
Throughout the day, it will be your job to photograph the bride and groom, along with their respective parents, grandparents, best man, groomsmen and bridesmaids, in any number of permutations. There will also probably be a short (or long) list of other people the newlyweds will want to have photographed during the course of the day. You’ll need to be familiar with this list before the day arrives.
The shot list is the list of all the photos you will be expected to produce on your clients’ wedding day, including portraits of individuals and groups. It will determine the equipment you need, the number of assistants—in short, everything required to carry out your assignment, and allow you to keep track of your progress. You should consult with the bride and groom to produce this list. They may well want your opinion on which photos are necessary and which are extraneous. They should also designate an official spotter—someone who not only knows everyone on the list, but can pick them out in a crowd and help corral them for the photos.
You should also make a point of capturing spontaneous moments that occur between guests, which will serve to balance out the formality of the traditional portraits, and more often than not, sometimes will turn out to be the best pictures of the day.
Friends and family arriving, informal portraits of the groom with the best man, the bride with her maid of honor, her parents and friends, are all good opportunities to capture touching, emotional photos. Don’t forget the standard pictures of the limo coming up the street, the wedding party boarding, or the newlyweds’ car being dressed up with wedding-related decorations. These are expected. If you need to follow the limo to the wedding location, be sure to communicate with the driver beforehand so that they are aware that you are following and need a moment to park and be there to take pictures of the bride alighting from the limo.
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 or reciting 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. Discuss with your clients, way in advance, what you should expect during the ceremony. This is where the variations in ritual will be apparent and there won’t be any possibility of a re-shoot, so be prepared.
You’ll need to take pictures of each person in the wedding party as he/she enters the ceremony space. Who walks down the aisle, and when, is established by whomever is conducting the ceremony, or frequently in the case of catering halls, the caterer. You should have a list with the order of appearance of these participants.
Electronic flash is the preferred light source for photographing wedding ceremonies because of 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 flashes 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 enable 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 faces during the officiant’s service, the ring as it is being slipped onto the bride’s finger, the bouquet, first kiss and other details.
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.
The wedding reception is where you win your battle stars. Events unfold quickly and sometimes simultaneously. You have to be very organized to stay on top of the action here. Enter the arena armed with cameras, lenses and battery-powered, on-camera or handle-mounted flashes.
Capture a selection of wide shots of the room from several angles using a wide-angle or software-correctable fisheye lens attached to a tripod-mounted camera. If you have the time, set a custom white balance, or at the very least, use auto white balance or other setting that matches the existing light in the room. If necessary, you might want to use an on-camera flash if the ambient light levels are too low, or if you want to play with the lighting ratios of foreground and background light. If you do go this route, make sure you drag your shutter at a slower speed in order to avoid black or shadowy backgrounds. A tabletop tripod or super clamp could come in handy in this scenario.
Using a macro lens, you should also make a point of shooting details, including rows of seating cards, flower arrangements, table settings and other vignettes that capture the mood and atmosphere of the occasion.
Allow yourself or your assistant enough time to photograph the hall and still be ready to capture images of the newlyweds as they arrive, as well as when they make their grand entrance into the reception hall as husband and wife.
As the newlyweds make their dramatic entrance, you’ll want to precede them, and using a wide-angle lens, capture them together as they’re surrounded by guests. Once you’ve photographed the newlyweds, let them pass and follow them from that point with the camera held above them as they make their way through the crowd towards their table. At the same time, a second camera, if possible, should be covering this portion of the event from another angle.
The caterer, DJ, or whoever is directing the reception can key you in to the order of events before they occur. This should be discussed in your pre-event consultation with that person. Prepare a list based on this meeting and have it with you during the reception. Make sure to take it out of your pocket and look at it, too.
Depending upon the cultural, religious or regional customs being followed, the first dance might be followed by the newlyweds being hoisted aloft in chairs, with everyone but the wait staff, emcee and band joining them on the dance floor, or by some other similarly all-encompassing and totally photo-worthy event. You’ll be busy trying to capture the moment from as many angles as possible using your on-camera flash, perhaps with support from an assistant wielding a slaved fill flash overhead, attached to a boompole or similar mount.
It’s worth spending a bit of time capturing tighter close-ups of guests dancing and mingling using a mid-to-long telephoto lens. Candid and casual grab shots of guests enjoying the occasion are important to capture. You should try to avoid pictures of guests hoisting forks to their mouths, chewing food or caught in similarly awkward or unflattering moments. When food is around, always allow your subjects a moment or two to swallow and use their napkins before firing off a shot.
Speaking of food, table photos may be required of you as well. (Be sure to ask your client when you're creating the shot list.) They should be taken earlier rather than later, while the place settings are still fairly tidy on the table and no guests have departed yet. A moment or two before the main course is served is a good time to corral the guests for these photographs. You’ll also be allowing the bride and groom the opportunity to catch their breath and enjoy their dinners.
Depending on the size of the hall and the number of guests, table shots often require an ultra-wide lens and a flash that will cover the lens’s field of view. The guidelines for shooting tables full of guests are fairly straightforward. You’re going to politely ask half the table to rise and stand behind the luckier half that gets to remain seated. Then you’ll line everyone up evenly, being careful not to lose anyone behind a plant, bottle or tall guest. If a large floral centerpiece is sitting in the middle of the table, you’ll move it out of the live picture area. Make sure that everyone looks neat, that no one is sticking a bite of food into their mouth, and that the table itself is neat—straighten up or move away (you can ask the guests for help with this) any messy dishes or rumpled napkins.
An assistant holding a boom-mounted fill flash could round out the lighting and fill harsh shadows. To avoid "frozen-smile syndrome," ask everyone to look away or close their eyes, relax, and then on the count of three, look at the camera and smile. Take an exposure and repeat the process at least one additional time, in case someone blinked. (Trust me... it works!) Assuming your flash can recycle as quickly as your camera’s top-end burst rate, a quick burst of five or six frames will invariably yield one or two blink-free keepers.
Keep a checklist with you and cross off each table after you photograph it. If you see an empty setting, ask who is missing. If you can’t locate them, make a note to come back after you’ve covered the other tables. If guests are wandering, take note of their table number and keep returning until you can cross it off the list.
Capture dance shots from as many perspectives as possible. If you’ve brought along a stepladder, use it to capture the bird’s-eye view as the floor fills with guests. If a group is dancing in a large circle, try to get into the center and pan in the same direction as the dancers. While you’re at it, try turning the flash off—depending on the ambient light levels—and maybe bump the ISO up a bit, slow down the shutter speed and try to grab a few pan shots under these conditions. Quite often, the blend of motion and facial expressions can make for powerful still images.
After all the formal and candid photographs have been taken and dessert has been served, leave some space on your memory cards to photograph the happy couple as they escape via limo, motorcycle or whatever mode of transportation they have chosen for their dramatic exit.
A quick 12-14 hour day has passed, one that your newlyweds are counting on you to have captured beautifully. If you can, remember that each wedding day, no matter how non-traditional, is still a day full of tradition and ritual, and if you manage to capture it with emotion and grace, you will immortalize this blessed day for all involved.
For more information about the equipment that will help you make it through this wedding day, speak with a B&H sales professional in our New York SuperStore, over the phone at 1-800-606-6969 or online via Live Chat.