Some weeks ago, I photographed my first wedding. My good friend Steve knew someone who knew someone, so when Karen and Paul needed someone to take pictures at their wedding, they asked Steve. And Steve asked me if I’d like to help. Absolutely!
We met up with Karen and Paul in a local coffee shop a couple of months in advance to discuss what they were after. Nothing big, just some good pictures of themselves and their guests having a good time. Karen was very relaxed about it, and Paul seemed to be happy as long as Karen was happy. We made it clear that it would be our first time as the “official” photographers, but they were happy to trust our instincts for getting it right anyway. So quite some flexibility to us photographers – or maybe some expectations of us just knowing what to do, based on our “extensive” experience.
The various photography fora on the web are full of posts about someone shooting their first wedding. It often starts with the hopeful photographer stating “I’ve got this nice camera and a kit lens, and I’m thinking about buying a flash, and tomorrow I’m going to shoot a wedding, so should I quit my day-job today or should I wait until next week?”, after which there normally comes a barage of advice from more experienced people, suggesting that shooting a wedding is a hard and stress-full job that requires loads of jobs as “second shooter” (aka gofer), helping someone more experienced, before it should even be considered. Many go as far as deriding the newcomer for daring to risk the couple’s happiest day by being there. They point out all the things that can go wrong, and insist that unless he has 50 year’s experience (and the agility of a 20 year old) and a kit bag costing the same as the annual UK defence budget, then he really, really should leave it to someone else. And if he dares to mention that he’s not charging the market rate, or (shock, horror) doing it for free, as a way of making up for his lack of experience, he will typically receive a long lecture about how it is amateurs like him that ruin the profession and cause the professional photographers to have to live in shelters while their children starve.
With my extensive experience (ahem!), I think the reality is somewhere in between. Yes, it is hard work and stressing at times. There are many things one can only learn through experience, even with all the internet fora and books in the world, each promising to make you a successfull wedding photographer overnight. At the same time, it is not that different from shooting other formal gatherings of people. The stakes may feel higher, and the consequences if you mess up may be worse, but whether it’s the groom putting a ring on his bride’s finger or the Mayor cutting the red ribbon for a new community centre, the pictures are not that much different. Except, maybe, that the wedding takes many hours with many different subjects, each requiring due care, attention and skill, whereas most other photo journalistic assignments are over a lot faster. I think it’s about taking good pictures of important moments, while making the subjects look their absolute best. And as far as getting the experience is concerned – well, the best way to learn to take pictures is to take some pictures.
If you’re an experienced wedding photographer wanting to lambast me for my over simplistic explanations that totally misses the point, please feel free to do so in the comment section. I’m declaring as many of my mistakes as I can in this post, in the hope that they might help someone. And if nothing else, at least I can use it myself as a checklist next time I need to shoot a formal occasion.
So how did we approach this wedding shoot? Well, after the initial meeting with Karen and Paul, Steve drew up a list of the group shots and formals we had discussed and a few additional ones, and sent it to them for approval. So we now had a list of documented expectations. He was able to meet up and see the park where the reception was to be – it was a mid-week day, so I was at work and was grateful that he snapped some pics so I got a sense of the area as well. We saw the hall where they were going to have the party, and I went to speak with the registry office about their photography rules. In addition to that, I spent some time on the internet, read a couple of books on the subject, and practised on-camera bounce flash on a makeup-doll I found at a local boot sale. So when we got to the big day, I felt that I had done as much preparation as I could.
The day went well. Even on her big day, Karen was still relaxed, and Paul still seemed to be happy as long as Karen was happy. Their calm approach to it all most definitely made the job for Steve and me so much easier.
Steve started with shooting Karen getting ready, and I started at the registry office waiting for Paul. After the brief ceremony at the registry office, there was lunch at The Artichoke, then back to Karen and Paul’s place for speeches and the formal shots of the happy couple, and finally to Poplars Hall for the party. The various locations are, fortunately, within quite short distance of each other.
As I was sorting the pictures the next day, I made a number of observations. Here are just the highlights, in no particular order:
We had agreed a list of formal shots. Happy couple. Bride with usher and best man. Groom with bridesmaids. Couple with his parents. Couple with her parents. Couple with all parents. Couple with… you get the drift, I’m sure. There were around 20 different shots planned. We didn’t manage all of these, mainly because the happy couple were celebrating their wedding rather than being photo models, and that’s a good thing. If I were to shoot another wedding, I think I’d suggest a shorter list, and set better expectations for how much time will need to be set aside for pictures if they really want all the formals.
We were two photographers, and apart from the situations where we had specifically agreed who was going to cover what, we ended up shooting a lot of the same scenes. In many ways that’s a good thing, because Steve and I work well together. We can be standing right next to each other, shooting exactly the same scene, and yet come away with very different views. We complement each other well. But having two photographers next to each other makes it harder for the couple to know where to look. And yes, the worst case outcome of this did happen: When we got to cutting the cake, it seems that Karen was very focused at Steve’s camera, and Paul was very focused at mine. So I think we both need a bit of practise in calling out “look over here for a second, please”.
Things sometimes happened quite quickly, and I sometimes simply reacted to the scene without thinking first. I’ve got pictures shot outside at 1/2000 sec at ISO 800. Fortunately ISO 800 is still quite clear and free of noise on my D700, but all other things being equal, it would have been better to shoot the same pic at 1/500 at ISO 200. I know this. I just focused solely on getting the shot, even where it wouldn’t have hurt to spend another second or two adjusting the camera settings first.
I like shots with the lense wide open. It gives a lovely blurry background that really emphasizes the main subject. And for the indoor shots, it goes without saying that it’s great to open up wide to allow the ISO be as low as possible. But looking at some of my pictures, I can see that I sometimes overdo it. With a portrait of one person, it’s sufficient to have the eyes fully in focus, so even my 85mm f/1.4 can be used wide open and give great results. But when there are two people, this won’t always give sufficient depth of field to make both set of eyes sharp. So the next time I’m shooting low light group portraits, I’ll remember to bracket my aperture.
Simple stuff, but still worth mentioning: When shooting people at a party, chances are there are bottles and glasses in the foreground. Remember to remove them. I didn’t always. Likewise, when posing people for a group shot, chances are that some women will clutch a handbag under their arm. Remember to get them to leave bags outside the frame of the picture (Margareth Thatcher being the exception to the rule, but I don’t expect to take many pictures of her).
Use the entire frame of the picture. Even though I am conscious of this, I still sometimes end up having to crop a landscape format picture to portrait format during the post processing, and that’s an immediate waste of 50% of the pixels. With pictures destined for viewing on a computer, it doesn’t matter much as we’ve got loads of pixels for that, but if they are meant for printing as enlargements, then it’s worth preserving as many pixels as possible.
The automatic white balance system of the camera works by analysing the colours that are in view when taking the picture. That means if you take a picture of a white dress on one frame and a picture of a purple dress on the next, then the camera might chose different auto white balance for the two shots, even if the light hasn’t changed at all (or maybe it won’t, the “beauty” of automation is that you just don’t know). This leads to inconsistencies when shooting a series of pictures that might end up being printed next to each other. I was aware of that, so I set the white balance manually instead. However, at the registry office, the light was a mixture of sunlight through the big windows and tungsten lights from electric bulbs on a wall. Why was that a problem? It wasn’t. Except that halfway the ceremony, the clouds went away so the sunlight portion of the light suddenly increased dramatically, thereby wrecking the carefully measured white balance. And the you-may-kiss-the-bride happened far from the window, whereas the register-signing was right next to it. The only solution I have is to live with the problem and carefully adjust white balance for each shot during the post processing.
It sounds like a lot of negatives, but by and large I’m very pleased with the pictures. And what’s more important, I think Karen and Paul really are as well!
There is a slideshow with slightly larger versions of the pictures on this page, and a few extra pictures, here.