There are a lot of reasons to like the New York City area, but weather usually doesn’t make the top 100. Every summer, we are reminded that we are the Northernmost U.S. city considered “humid subtropical,” and every degree of heat gets compounded with sticky wetness, reflected from concrete and asphalt on all sides like the interior of an Easy-Bake Oven, and filtered through the smell and collective grumpiness of closely huddled masses. But each winter we miss summer, because that same humidity makes the cold settle into our bones. There are reasons the New York wedding season drops off a cliff after November—no winter wonderland this; winter here brings mostly closed airports, logistical hassles, and brown slush.
It wasn’t my plan to become so practiced at shooting in bad weather conditions—I would have loved a career of golden light filtered through a pleasant marine layer—but after 500 weddings, mostly centered in the New York region, I became an expert against my will. Harsh sun, freezing cold, flash floods, even the occasional hurricane; we get it all and, somewhere out there, someone is shooting a wedding in it. Here are some of the hard-won lessons I’ve learned in the most common problematic conditions.
Be Prepared for Everything
Admittedly, I’ve always been a bit of a weather enthusiast, which is shorthand for “huge nerd,” but over the course of my wedding career, I’ve become a fanatic. The first thing I do every morning is open 10 different weather websites, even if I’m planning on staying in the studio and editing all day. You probably don’t need to go this far, but here are a couple of my favorite tools for figuring out what lies ahead.
All photographs © Ryan Brenizer
I love the Weather Underground—not that Weather Underground, but the weather site wunderground.com—because the data is laid out in such a clear way. But to get this sort of view requires some customization. I haven’t changed too many wedding schedules because of the air pressure reading. What I want to know is: How hot does it feel? (Purple line: the actual temperature is superfluous to me). How much cloud cover will we have? (Gray line). What are the chances it will rain or snow? (Blue line). If we do get precipitation, will it be misting or hit us like the hand of an angry god? (Green line). No one can predict the weather perfectly a week out, but the meteorologists are getting better and better tools all the time. At about five days ahead of the shoot I start paying closer attention. If something comes up that’s worrisome, like a massive storm coming during the middle of an outdoor wedding, for example, it’s time to get on the phone with my couple. Almost all of the best solutions for bad weather come from planning ahead.
Be sure to check the weather forecast five days before the event to determine your game plan.
There is no sense checking the weather 10 (or 30) days out but, at 5 days, if things look bad then it’s time to lay groundwork for a success. Remember that this is probably the couple’s first time at this; any expertise you can lend them will be extremely helpful. Anything that makes the wedding flow more smoothly will not only make the couple think better of you as a photographer, it will also make the photos better. Comfort allows real emotions to come to the surface where the camera can grab them and, in this world, joy is generally preferable to stress and disappointment.
First, I make sure that the couple knows that whatever happens with the weather, we can take good photos anyway. Keep “bad weather” shots in your portfolio to explain to your couples and get them on board. It will make them less stressed and also give you leverage to make helpful changes. Then, talk through options: Are there indoor places we can shoot if the weather takes a turn for the worse? Can we get into the venue early enough? Do we have the tools we need to solve common problems? (Umbrellas for rain, shine reducer for hot days, etc.) Would any sort of schedule change help? Adding in a few minutes for night portraits is a good end-run around heat problems, and can also help you work past afternoon showers.
Be open, communicative, and helpful. You may not be able to get that golden sunny photo the couple had envisioned when hiring you, but communication is the key to showing that you are giving your best effort, and may even take photos that are more striking than Plan A.
Situation 1: Rain
If not the most common weather issue, this is the most obvious. Sorry, Alanis—rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, but it’s a giant pain. Perhaps the worst aspect is that you might be starting the day with people who are bummed out; they’d spent months hoping it wouldn’t rain, to no avail. Remember that the human element is crucial.
Rain falls into a few subcategories and each brings opportunities, as well as problems.
Light, misting rain Well, you’ve solved your heat and sun problems! This isn’t enough to mess up your cameras as long as you’re not pointing your front element into the sky. For this, we’re most likely making sure that the wedding party has umbrellas… which also solves the problem that they don’t know what to do with their hands. Your biggest challenge here is that the ground is wet, so you want to scout your shooting locations requiring the women to move as little as possible, since movement means sinking heels and dirty dresses. I wear a vest to weddings and many times have used it to allow brides to sit on a wet chair or protect their dress from wet grass, which instantly gets major client points. Know your clients! Light rain can be incredibly romantic, and it is easy light to shoot in, but it is a nightmare on hair and makeup. Some brides will play in it all day, while others will swear eternal vengeance on you for ruining hair they had to wake up at 4 a.m. to have styled. Updos will tend to be more resilient, but in case it hasn’t been driven home enough, the human element is as important as all others.
Heavy rain is coming, but it’s not here yet. This can sometimes be a jackpot. Clouds are awesome. If you can get dark storm clouds and your subjects are still in the sun, nature has just handed you amazing portraits. The crux here is that you need to balance the amazing scenes in front of you with the fact that you really, really don’t want people to get caught in it because you were taking too long to photograph. The Dark Sky app is a magical lifesaver at knowing generally when rain will come, but nothing is 100-percent accurate. If you’re shooting in these locations, pick spots where you can get out of the rain very quickly. For the shot below, menacing clouds rolled over the horizon, and Dark Sky told us we had five minutes before heavy rain would hit us hard. Knowing my equipment, I knew that we could pull off a bridal portrait in three. With just one flash and a softbox—held by an assistant, no time for stands—we lit the bride dramatically, allowing an exposure that would show how crazy the weather was. Three minutes later the wedding was soaked, but the bride was safely under the tent just behind us.
Heavy rain Heavy rain at morning, photographers take warning. Heavy rain at night, photographers delight. If you’re shooting before the ceremony, this is where it is helpful to be able to shoot dramatic images indoors; lighting and posing can get you 90 percent of the way to a great photo in even flat, boring locations, and dealing with the lower ambient light of outdoors means you can achieve dramatic light very easily with flashes through light-sucking modifiers like umbrellas, or even quick, easy-to-use video lights. Maybe some clients will want to re-enact The Notebook in the daytime, but most won’t. This is why you didn’t skip the above paragraphs and you helped them plan beforehand.
At night, heavy rain is awesome. The quick strobe effect of flashes will freeze rain to extremely dramatic effect. Pull these off well and clients will remember it forever, because you’re turning a negative situation into a positive one. The photographic settings are easy. Stick a flash on the other side of the couple and aim it straight back at the camera. It will look better at waist level than on the ground, and ideally it will be in the hands of an assistant, because of the truly challenging things about these shots: Lighting gear, particularly radio transmitters loves to short out. The photo at the top of this article required seven different umbrellas to keep the couple dry, the gear dry, and the people holding umbrellas for others dry. Keeping some plastic bags handy will help as well. Battles like these are won or lost with prior planning and communication long before the photo is taken, even though taking the photo should be a quick experience. Going out in the rain for a few minutes to get an amazing photo is exciting for many clients. Getting soaked for 20 minutes or more turns into an unpleasant memory.
Situation 2: Temperature
Quick, how hot will it be in exactly 18 months? You don’t know, but if you’re planning a wedding, you’d sure like to. I’ve done a wedding in October with a foot of snow, and a wedding in October that was 97 degrees. Sometimes, it stinks to be outside, but the plans demand it. In both cases, you want to take a page from commercial photography: when shooting a celebrity or CEO, the photographer will often wait and plan out the photo, testing every aspect of the photo's aesthetic or technical aspect, and then when the subjects come in, the session lasts only a few minutes. If I’m asking tuxedo-clad groomsmen to come into 100-degree-plus sunlight, or someone in a strapless dress to stand in the snow, I already know exactly what photo I’m going to take, how to achieve it, and have probably already taken a sample photo using my assistant to make sure. One of the photos above was uncomfortably cold; one was uncomfortably hot. If I’ve done my job right, you didn’t know until I told you. In between takes on the cold November wedding, the bride sipped coffee that I’d gotten her. The human element is always a crucial part.
As mentioned above, one of the easiest ways to deal with extremely hot days is to keep options open for night-time portraits. Generally, I do these after the last scheduled part of the reception, usually the cake-cutting. Continuous lights are your friends for working quickly, and a tripod may allow you to bring out the often-gorgeous ambient light of nighttime.
Situation 3: Weather so bad that it defines the day
Given my location, I never expected to become an expert on hurricane weddings, but given the timing of Hurricane Irene and the extreme destruction of Hurricane Sandy, I’ve now done six or seven weddings adversely affected by hurricanes, each of these are articles in and of themselves, and bring important caveats like, “Safety first ...” But on a day where the weather has truly wreaked havoc on the wedding, it is crucially important to tell the story of the day in all its facets—there will be disappointment and sadness but, if the wedding is happening, there will also be joy and celebration. It doesn't need to be a central feature of every photo, but it will be a key part of your couples’ memories, so there is no reason to ignore it.
When Erika and Chip’s wedding had to be moved from a large, fabulous venue to a tiny bistro because Hurricane Irene shut down the city, there was no ignoring it. They knew they would do this all again, and didn’t even put on their wedding clothes, so I made Irene the third subject of one of their portraits.
With Leigh and Bernie, Hurricane Sandy had blown through two days before, and while this time guests could physically come to the wedding, they arrived to a cathedral with no power and a reception venue filled with industrial equipment sucking water off the floor as fast as possible. Most of the day was about the crazy amount of fun they all still had together, but there was no ignoring the situation, and so we also took this photo, natural light at f/1.8 and 1/8th of a second, to show both their togetherness and resolve and the receding storm.
In a real way, bad weather is an opportunity. Your subjects are in the middle of it, and they know it’s bad. If you can come out of the situation with good photos anyway, and make the experience more pleasant along the way, they are likely to see you as far more than just another vendor. Word of mouth is the most important source of income in this industry; you don’t just want fans, you want evangelists, people who will fight their friends if they don’t hire you. Turning bad weather situations into good photos goes a long way to getting such clients.