Photo: © Aaron R. Whitney/Bigstock
By Aaron R. Whitney, Bigstock contributor
Part 1. Preparations
The story for most photographers begins this way: You're good friend is getting married and wants you to shoot his/her wedding. For many this sends a chill down the spine. You know the friendship somewhat obligates you to this duty. But is your skill level ready for this challenge? Are going going to be hated if you blow it? The truth of the matter is that there are a whole lot of really BAD wedding photographers out there, doing “point and shoot” work and charging way too much for it. the question is, how do we not become one? It does not have to be hard to do a good wedding. If you have the proper equipment and are comfortable with your knowledge of it, then you are probably ready to take the jump into the wedding world. You will find out very fast if you jumped in too soon or it is just not right for you. For some though, this is the start of a new career.
This end of the photography world is not for everyone. It is arguably one of the toughest avenues of professional photography. You work more closely with people than ever before, usually under extremely emotional and stressful circumstances, and working with the public can be a huge challenge. Like any other challenge though, the way to insure success is to prepared. If you do not have time to get prepared before that first wedding, you should probably (very nicely) decline. But given some time to prepare, there are some things to work on to get you up to speed.
PREPARE YOUR SKILLS
I would not recommend jumping into the wedding world unless you have worked a few weddings with another photographer who has a lot of experience. Many photographers are willing to let you tag along and assist. The wedding day is a sort of organized chaos, so we all can use a few extra hands around. Assisting on even one will make a world of difference to you. Start by contacting some photographers in your area to find out who is looking for assistants or interns. Don’t be shy about interning for a while under someone with more experience than you. Leave your ego at the door and recognize that no matter how good you think you are, there is much more you can learn.
Next, set up some practice shoots. Someone in your circle will probably have a dress to borrow or pose in it for you. If not you can rent one as well. This will help you learn to get your settings for all that white material. If you can get a TFP (time for print) model to work with that is even better. You may be able to sell your practice shots. If not, just grab friends, family, or anyone else willing. Get used to being able to quickly set up outdoor shoots with natural light. Also get used to quickly setting up you light for indoor shoots. Never trust in having nice weather or light to work with. Even if it rains, the wedding must go on.
Spend some time getting to know your flash. Most of us do not spend enough time doing this. Your candid work will become very important at the reception, and receptions are almost always too dark. Knowing how your flash well will save a lot of work as well as key shots. Church weddings can also tend to be dark, so if you can, arrange to shoot in a church for a while to get yourself familiar with your settings. Familiarizing yourself with location of any wedding will help tremendously with your skills as well as your comfort level. As with all training, the closer you can come to the actual challenge, the more effective that training becomes.
Get comfortable with changing your camera setting on the fly. Weddings tend to always be crunched for time and the sacrifice made is usually the photographer's time. You will also be constantly changing from places with lots of light, to places with little light. It is helpful to know how to make the necessary changes in your settings very fast. Going with a two camera system, one for each type of location, is a good method to save time as well if you have the luxury of extra gear.
PREPARE YOUR GEAR Look inside your camera bag and see if what you have is really up to the challenge ahead. This is not to say that you need to be a total, “gear junky” to be able to properly document a wedding. I tend to run the other way myself, and do a whole lot with the minimum amount of gear I can get away with. So what’s in your bag?
Start with your camera. If you look in your bag and only see a point and shoot, then this is probably not the job for you. There are many great point and shoots out there… I use them myself, but across all the brands they all share enough deficiencies to keep them from being effective in this environment. A good SLR, film or digital, is what you should see in the bag. If you are lucky enough to have a medium format shooter, even a bad one, that is a plus as well. Medium format is great for your formal shots. I have seen good results from wedding photographers using the very “bottom of the line” medium formats. Throughout the day though, you will need the speed and versatility of a good SLR (or two).
What do you have for light? I probably would not take on a wedding unless I had some sort of plan for light. Never plan for good weather. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, so bring some lights. The good news is that this does not have to be expensive stuff. A cheap set of hot lights can be picked up for a few hundred dollars. These will be enough to get you through. If you have a strobe system that is probably better. However, be sure you have the experience with them to allow you to set up fast. Also have someone in charge controlling bystanders. You don’t want every guest there firing your strobes all day with their disposables. Usually guests are understanding if you tell them to refrain from shooting until you are finished with the shot. However be prepared for those that don't listen.
Take a look at your flash. Don’t count on the pop up flash so common to digital SLRs these days. These do a great job up close, and give you a good fallback position should something go wrong with your real one. However, you will need more power for full length formals, so make sure you have a good quality flash that works well with your camera system.
Never forget your tripod. You are going to need the stability for your posed shots. You can never hold still enough to get the crisp, clean shots of formal poses. Off and on throughout the day you may be setting it up for set shots as well. I like to use a tripod for the first dance on occasion and do long exposures of the couple or others This piece of gear again does not have to break the bank. A good functional tripod will do.
Will your lenses work? The easy answer is yes. You can make do with just about anything out there. You could probably shoot a whole wedding with a 200mm-400mm, but the couple might find it strange that you are shooting their wedding from across the street. So take a look at the kind of shots you will be shooting. There will be three types of shots: the formals, the ceremony, and the reception.
The FORMALS are to be a pure portrait style. So what do you normally use? If it worked in your studio or for portraits in your backyard it will probably do the trick here. A wide angle zoom, or fairly wide prime is a safe bet. I prefer zoom wide angles just so I don’t have to reposition so often. I get nice results with a 28-80mm. Many prefer prime lenses for this or pull out the medium format. I believe in shooting portraits with the lens you are most comfortable with. Go with what you know. These are the shots that will make or break you that day.
The CEREMONY shots are kind of a photojournalistic endeavor. You are shooting the ceremony, not a part of it. So you need something with some reach to get in there from a distance. I would recommend a zoom with a broad range. I use a very cheap 28-300mm that works just fine for this. You are just trying to grab a few key moments, some of the wedding party, and don’t forget to catch “the kiss”. If you have a couple willing to let you in close for a few shots that is always nice.
Try to grab candle lightings or other intimate opportunities. Be sure to get the best shot of the crowd you can as well. I like to set up a panorama while the preacher is talking. Usually you have a bit of time there.
The RECEPTION is all candid shooting. A nice wide angle lens works well here, but be sure it is a good fast lens. I usually switch to a 50mm f1.8. I like to stay just far enough away that they don’t know I am catching them acting silly. Pre-plan what you will need to shoot your key reception moments. You have first dance, garter toss, parents dance, cake cutting, and all these others to think about. Just be ready at the right time with the right lens, or bring your vest and carry them all for the reception.
Odds and Ends Your odds and ends bag should hold all the support you need for the other gear. Memory Cards, Film, BATTERIES (never forget to look at what batteries you need for ALL your gear), white sheets and lots of them, white waterproof drop cloth (for shots outside on wet grass), bulbs for your lights, extension cords, power strips, camera cleaning equipment, duct tape, etc. A bottled water supply enough for a full day. Trust me… you will need it. A box of tissues is a must also for mothers tears and little Timmy’s nose goblins. Always have some around. Try to think in redundant planning. Have a backup for each thing that could break. If you think you will shoot 1 gig of material, have 2 gigs worth of card. Redundancy includes your camera. Have a back up. Another small secret… put a CD of the wedding march and a few other wedding type songs in your bag. It sounds silly, but it has happened to me that someone forgot the wedding march music. I looked like a hero when I showed up with a CD. Your odds and ends bag will grow with every wedding you do as you run into more and more things that you need and don’t have.
PREPARE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CLIENT
The most important part of wedding photography is your relationship with the client. The interview with the couple before the wedding is crucial. Get to know your clients and their expectations for their wedding and photographs. Show the client what you do. What does your style look like? Does this mesh with what they want to see? Most problems with wedding photographer and client relationships can be traced back to this stage. If someone is not happy with the final product, it probably started here and unfortunately, if you did not take this step seriously most of the blame does fall on you.
This stage is something like a first date. You need to find out if you are compatible with the client. If you are a very artistic photographer and the client is very traditional, then that tilted portrait in their album is going to look very strange to them and that soft focus shot you are so proud of will be called “blurry”. If your style does not match the desire of the client, I believe in bowing out at this point. Help direct them to another photographer if you know one who is closer in style to what they are looking for. There is no need to push an impossible situation. Later when you have more wedding experience you may be able to shift your styles better. Early on though, you are going to need to shoot within your own comfort zone. If you can find common ground between your style and their wishes then it is time to really look in to what they like and don’t like. Show them lots of work, not just your own. Print off picture examples from other photographer's web sites. Pull out the bridal magazines if you have to. Keep notes on things they loved and things they hated. Really LISTEN, to what they are telling you. Keep a notebook or checklist of your “mandatory” shots. Study this before and during the wedding day. These are the ones that your clients really want. You are working for them, so for this job they are the boss. Too many photographers let their ego get away from them and forget that. I like to spend a minimum of two hours talking to the client for the first interview. I want a very good idea of what they are looking for and how involved they want me to be. Find out if you are allowed to get in close for a couple quick snaps at the altar, or should you be invisible? Do they mind posing for a second during their first dance or not? I get as much information from them as I can. I also meet with them again closer to the wedding day to finalize plans and go over the itinerary for the ceremony.
Once you have the itinerary, you need to prepare your clients for what is to be expected of THEM. I usually tell the groom to appoint one of his groomsmen as “the enforcer”. This is my guy that is tasked with keeping everyone away while I am shooting formals and keeping the other groomsmen in line (and this means attitude as well as formation). Now is also the time to discuss how you like to do things to make sure they are comfortable with that. For example, I like the bride to do a “fake out” toss of the bouquet. She rears back and looks like she is going to throw the bouquet, but instead I have her hold it at the top and freeze. This gives me a nice still way to do an action shot. Not to mention the reaction of the crowd is better. Plus I get another crack at it during the actual toss. Remind them of other important photographic moments like their first kiss. You need to let them know that this is the "first" kiss as a couple so make it a good one that can be captured well. Too many times people are shy and you get a split second peck up there. Remind them that you could really use at LEAST a second or two long kiss to make sure you get it. Encourage them to practice once for you. This makes people giggle, but they seem to remember it better when it comes time for the real thing. Next, find out if there are any the special requests? Does the bride wish to be hidden from the groom until the ceremony? (grumble) So you will be shooting formals before AND after the service. Or can they be talked into a “first look” shot where the groom comes out before the service to see his beautiful bride? Just take a good long mental walk through of the itinerary and discuss what you need to have happen, in order to get them the shots that they want. Learn to roll with it when they are requesting things that make your life more difficult…..like staying hidden until the ceremony, (insert more grumbling here), but remember that it is their day, not yours. So we will keep the grumbling to ourselves.
PREPARE FOR THE SHOOT
Scouting your locations is a must. Go to the locations of the events. If the reception is at a different place than the ceremony, you will need to check out both. When possible meet with the official before hand. If the ceremony is going to be in a church or other religious place be sure to ask about shooting restrictions within the facility. Some places will not allow flash and some officials just don’t like flashes going off while they are speaking. You will make big points by asking before you even start.
Take a look around for the likely places to shoot. Be creative. Don’t just go for the obvious. Use the building. Are there nice angles that might give a different view? Where is the good natural light? Where is the sun going to be at the time you shoot? Where is the moon going to be at the time you shoot. Spend as much time as you can looking around while you have the time. Once you are there for real, you will find that you have NO time. It is very nice to be comfortable with the place you are shooting. I have found most facilities receptive to allowing me some time to come in beforehand. If not however be VERY early that day and give yourself some time. I try to be there 2 hours before I shoot anyway.
PREPARE WITH YOUR ASSISTANT
If you do not have an assistant, now is the time to get one. I would not try to shoot a wedding by myself. Photographic experience is a plus, but not a necessity for them. You want a person that really likes people and who people respond to. Work out ahead of time with your assistant what is to be expected of them. Sit down and go over the various poses that you would like to use. Primping and posing, running to fetch people, holding back the crowd, organizing groups and having them ready, reminding you to stay calm when they are NOT ready, and an infinite number of other small but crucial tasks fall to the assistant. It is my experience that a good assistant can make the day much less stressful. A very experienced assistant can learn to run interference between you, the wedding party, and the wedding coordinator. When things go wrong, and they always do, it tends to be the photographer who becomes the target at which everyone lets loose their stress. It is easy to get caught in the middle. As artists we tend to bruise easily and get our backs up quickly. Your assistant can take some of this load and help to remind you that it is NOT your fault that the bridesmaids are late, the groomsmen are drunk, no one can find the wedding coordinator, someone spilled cranberry juice on the brides dress, or any of the other things you are bound to deal with. Your assistant will help to remind you that you are there to do a job, but not be bossed around or boss others around. They should be free to give you a nudge when you need to grab a special moment, or kick you in the rear when you are letting people get to you.
PREPARE TO THROW YOUR PLANS OUT THE WINDOW
So we have now spent some time looking at what we need to do just to be ready. In my next segment I will talk more about what really happens…. When all of your planning, preparation, meditation, hoping, praying, and knocking on wood get put to the test. How do you make sure you stay on track, and that all of your planning pays off? There are going to be hundreds of eyes watching everything you do. Responsibilities way out of the realm you expected are going to befall you. You have to impress the bride and groom, the wedding coordinator, the caterer, the facility owner, the limo driver, the DJ, the guests, and most importantly… the PARENTS. Your next client is probably in the room. It is a daylong “first impression” for all that see your work, and once the whistle blows in this game, there are no time-outs. Your reputation is on the line. Are you ready for it?