For a beginner, few things seem more intimidating than photographing a wedding. A sense of anxiety is perfectly normal if you haven't yet spent much time in the field. It's important to remember that we all begin somewhere, and even the most experienced pros were also novices at one point. With practice and education, nerves begin to morph into confidence. No two weddings are the same, but whether traditional or unconventional, the goal is to be properly equipped to document the key moments of the day. Familiarize yourself with the important shots and the most efficient gear, and you will be more self-assured starting out in your career as a wedding professional.
At the Bride’s House
In the few short hours before the ceremony, everyone will begin to get ready. Preserve the details. Brides want to remember every little aspect of the day, so simple, elegant shots of her bouquet, the rings, her shoes and her gown hanging in the window are invaluable. Take photos as the bridal party laughs together, gets their hair and makeup done, and as the bride steps out in her dress. There will be onlookers who are catching a glimpse of her for the first time: siblings, grandparents, her father. Their expressions are something you can never recreate, so be ready to capture them as they happen.
Before the wedding day, meet with the bride to discuss her style. While some may want a strictly traditional approach, others may expect you to flex your creative muscles, and knowing ahead of time will save you the guesswork as well as the risk of delivering a product that does not meet expectations. Some brides may want to have glamour-type portraits done as they’re getting ready or after they’re in their gown, and once again, it’s helpful to understand their personality and vision before you decide on an approach. If you have access to the groomsmen as well, shoot their interactions as they joke and adjust their tuxedos. The best man pinning the groom’s boutonnière is always a wonderful image. Family portraits can also be done for both sides.
A camera is the first obvious necessity. Many up-and-coming wedding shooters use mid-range DSLRs, such as a Canon 7D or Nikon D7000. Neither of these camera bodies are full frame, so if that's a bothersome issue, consider making an upgrade to the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D600. Full-frame bodies are heavier and more expensive, so weigh your options. Many people aren't bothered by the cropped image sensor format of APS-C, while others prefer the slightly better image quality and increased wide-angle flexibility of full frame.
It may seem obvious to bring a memory card, but make sure that you have a few on hand. Memory cards, like any technology, can fail. Absolutely have additional camera batteries charged and ready for use. The same can naturally be said for cameras, and planning to invest in an additional entry or mid-level backup DSLR is worthwhile, down the line. This also makes switching between lenses a quicker process, as you can equip each camera body with a different lens.
Quality lenses are a must, with macro and wide-angle being the pre-ceremony necessities. A fast, razor-sharp macro will capture the details in jewelry or flowers perfectly, and can double as a portrait lens in a pinch. Wedding parties typically get ready in small rooms, and a wide-angle lens will incorporate more of the scene into the shot and into the story. A reflector can be used to bounce and fill natural light for portraits, and wireless flashes can be used both on the camera and, if there is room, off camera with umbrellas. A more advanced photographer may choose to bring along additional flashes and modifiers such as snoots, barn doors, or beauty dishes.
One of the photographer’s goals during the ceremony, more than any other time throughout the day, is to be as invisible as possible. Before the procession begins, take some time to photograph the environment. Document the altar, the flowers and décor, and the guests being ushered to their seats. When the ceremony starts, shoot the bridal-party members as they walk down the aisle. Before the bride makes her entry, turn to capture the groom’s face as he sees her for the first time. He will remember that moment for the rest of his life, and for you, that’s an important shot.
At the altar, the bride will be given away. She and her groom will exchange vows and rings, and possibly be treated to a reading or two from speakers of their choice. Some couples present their parents with flowers as a token of their gratitude, and many solidify their new bond with customs such as the lighting of a unity candle, or breaking of a wine glass. Each and every step of the ceremony is a piece of the story. Finally, you’ll arrive at the primary don’t-miss photo of the day: The Kiss. Some kisses linger, while others are quick. Make sure you are prepared for either before the couple retreats hand-in-hand back down the aisle.
An assortment of lenses will aid you in shooting the service from an all-encompassing view. A fast mid-range zoom lens (such as a 24-70mm f/2.8) is great for the comfortably distanced subjects, such as people gathering at their seats or someone walking down the aisle. Your wide-angle lens is, again, perfect for capturing the event as a whole. It has the capacity to cover the entire wedding party as they stand together at the altar, or even include the majority of the crowd. A telephoto zoom (such as a 70-200mm f/2.8) is vital for shooting from a distance, allowing you to catch an intimate moment without being intrusive. With increased zoom comes increased camera shake, so remember to shoot at a higher shutter speed or utilize a tripod. Wireless flashes, on camera and off, will provide you with needed light inside a dim venue, or act as fill outdoors.
Wedding Party Formals
Post-ceremony, the initial jitters start to die down. Your subjects will be more relaxed and candid as their excitement takes over. While you’re arranging to shoot formals, keep an eye on the bride and groom. From time to time they’ll exchange a knowing smile, a moment of pure joy that makes for a beautiful photo. A location for formals is dependent primarily on where the best light is. Many venues have elegant landscaping or architecture that provides a scenic backdrop, so use that prime spot you scouted out before the wedding day.
If you’re shooting at a separate location (such as a park), be conscious and respectful of other wedding parties in the area. You won’t be able to control the number of people visiting a public place, but try to keep them out of the frame. Poor weather conditions may limit you to shooting indoors. If this is the case, try to utilize interior space as best as you can, and be adequately prepared to use speed lights or studio flash setups. Many churches, for example, have extravagant foyers you can use as a setting. Indoors or out, group shots and portraits will be your primary focus. Your specific approach should depend on what the bride wants. If you’ve met with her beforehand to get a feel for her style, the process will be much faster. It’s also beneficial to know which family members the couple wants to include, and to have those people prepared ahead of time.
Your wide-angle lens will handle the group shots, while your mid-range or telephoto can be used for portraits. A tripod is useful to hold your camera in place as you shuffle and organize bridal party members into a pleasing composition. Reflectors and wireless flash units can provide bounce and fill in less-than-perfect lighting conditions and polarizing filters on your lenses will boost saturation and minimize harsh glare from the sun. Additional flashes and modifiers will cover your bases for shooting indoors. For additional height and a bird's-eye perspective, consider bringing a step ladder.
At the reception, which may or may not be the same location as the wedding venue, the atmosphere shifts to one of celebration. As you've done with the ceremony, document the details. The cake and sweet table(s) will be on display as a focal point in the room. Centerpieces, place settings and decorations are the result of months of meticulous planning. The bride will want to remember how beautiful the space looks. Agendas vary from wedding to wedding, but generally the bridal party will be announced as they make their entrance. The couple’s first dance is very important, as are the dances with their respective parents. Heartfelt speeches and toasts will be given and dinner will be served. The cake will be cut and the bouquet will be tossed. As you photograph each aspect of the reception, remember to also go for the candids. Guests laughing together at their tables and dancing out on the floor are every bit as much of the narrative as the milestone shots. You can also do additional, more casual family portraits at this time.
You will most likely need to manipulate light inside a reception hall, so have your wireless flashes ready to go. If using the latter, be aware that many venues have strict safety policies about power cords, and require you to either secure them to the floor with gaffer tape or use battery packs instead. Extension cords and additional batteries are a good precaution. There is a place here for every lens in your kit. Get creative and switch between them, varying the viewpoint. Some venues have second floors or balconies from which you can shoot looking down, which makes for some great opportunities to play with your telephoto lens. If the location will allow it, you can also use a ladder.
Extra Credit: Night Shots
As the evening winds down, the couple may want photos outside in front of the reception hall. Maybe the reception itself is an outdoor evening affair. In either case, you’ll want to employ long exposure and dragging the shutter. With long exposure, you have the creative options of capturing motion or inviting guests to “light paint.” They can draw and write their sentiments in the air with sparklers, glowsticks or flashlights. Be mindful of your ISO. If it’s cranked to a higher setting, your image will be overpowered with grain and noise. It’s easy to lose background information in the dark, so practice techniques ahead of time if you're not as familiar with shooting after sundown.
First and foremost, you’ll need a tripod. You will want the camera stabilized for long exposures. Wireless speed lights or studio flashes for illumination and fill, plus modifiers of your choosing, are also a given. Choice in focal length is dependent on the types of images you hope to create, but a fast wide-angle and medium telephoto are usually great to work with. You are limited only by your imagination.
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