How to photograph a wedding
Here is a situation that must happen somewhere in the world every few seconds:
A couple is getting married and needs a photographer for the wedding. They have a friend who is "into photography", so they ask him or her to be their wedding photographer. Of course, they don't have a lot of money, so they'd rather hire a friend for a few hundred dollars instead of paying a professional. The friend is flattered and excited to get into weddings, so he or she accepts.
Here is what almost always happens a few months later:
The big day finally comes, but the photographer isn't prepared to handle the wedding. The photographer doesn't know how to wrangle a crowd of crazy in-laws and drunk guests, doesn't have the right equipment for the lighting conditions and doesn't have enough experience to know what shots to get. Before the end of the wedding, flash batteries go dead, memory cards get full and equipment fails. Key moments are missed or come out too blurry to use and the resulting photos don't look anything like the bride imagined. The bride is crushed and the friendship is ruined.
So now a couple has come to you and asked you to shoot their wedding. But you think that you are different. You've taken pictures of your pets that friends all think they look cool. You even have a flickr page where people comment about how great your vacation photos look. How much different is a wedding? Weddings couldn't really be that hard, right?
Well, no. They actually are that hard.
Should you accept the assignment?
With the rapid advances in digital photography technology and accessibility over the past decade, photography has become a really popular hobby which has flooded the market with new photographers. Weddings are one of the few areas of photography where a photographer can still make a reasonable amount of money with some reliability. Because of this, a lot of photographers are looking to get into wedding photography.
The reason that wedding photography actually pays good money is because it is really hard. It is a high-stress job. Wedding photographers are capturing the most important day in someone's life with no second chances. The clients are going to be looking at these photos for years to come. A client who has a bad experience will remember it for the rest of their lives when they look back at the wedding photographs. Bad experiences can (and often do) ruin friendships.
If you have any doubt about your photography skills, this is not the time to test yourself. Don't agree to shoot a wedding unless you really know what you are doing and feel completely confident in your ability to take good photos in almost any situation. Politely turn down the request and enjoy the wedding as a guest. You can still take your own pictures from the sidelines and share them with the bride and groom.
Still think you are up to the task? Here's a quick quiz. You have two seconds to answer each question out loud and you must answer them in order with no back-tracking.
You are shooting in a dark room. There is a large window on one side and a few candles around the room, but otherwise there are no lights. Overall, it is quite dim. What aperture do you set your camera on? What ISO? And how do you set your flash's exposure compensation? Where do you point your flash?
You are outside in a park. It's noon and the sun is beating down. You are posing a group of 30 people. What is your ISO setting? Your aperture? Your shutter speed? What lens are you using? How far back are you standing from the group? How are you keeping everyone from squinting in the sun? Which direction is the sun relative to the group? And how are you going to make that three-year-old in front smile?
You only have space for 10 shots left on your current memory card. The bride and groom are about to do 'the kiss'. Do you change your memory card now or wait until after the kiss?
You are outside in front of a church. You have taken bridal portraits and family portraits of the bride's family, but not the groom's family. It starts to rain. What do you do?
If you stumbled through any of those questions or had to look anything up, you are not ready to shoot a wedding. Instead, go find another wedding photographer and ask to be a "second shooter" on one of their jobs. You will be able to pick everything up without putting someone's lifetime memories on the line. It's a great way to learn. You can also check out some of our other guides to help you bone up your photo skills.
If you easily answered all those questions without any hesitation, you might be ready to give this wedding thing a try. But read on.
The best way to be successful shooting a wedding is to prepare. You have two main goals for your preparation:
You need to fully understand what the bride and groom want so that you can do your best to deliver it.
You need to know exactly what you are going to be doing each moment of the wedding. Your execution on the day of the wedding should be almost automatic.
Meet with the bride
The first step in your preparation is to meet with the bride. You to find out what she wants so that you can be sure to make her happy with your photos.
You need to find out of the bride desires more traditional photographs with lots of posed shots or a more journalistic style. Right now, the journalistic style is very popular. However, resist the urge to completely skip the posed family shots, even if that is what the bride initially requests. Brides and family members will almost always value the posed family shots more than they think. Tell the bride that she should at least do some basic family portraits to share with the family. She will thank you later.
This is also the time to cover any payment details. Make sure you both fully understand how much you are getting paid and when you are getting paid. It is customary for you to get paid before the wedding, not after.
Make a checklist
Your next goal is to make a checklist of the key shots that the bride wants. This should cover every phase of the wedding with times noted. You can start with a rough draft and fill in the details with the wedding planner as plans for the wedding become formalized.
Here's an example of what you need to create:
Remember, the photographer is the boss while formal photos are getting taken. Everyone is going to be looking to you for direction. If you don't step up and direct people, the crowd will get bored and wander and you will run out of time. Any planning you do here will be worth it's weight in gold on the day of the wedding.
Make sure you get names of each person in the main family shots and put those names on your shot list. This will make it much easier to gather the right people on the day of the wedding. It's a lot easier to call for Dave, John, and Bill if you know their names. This will save you a lot of time and make things run much smoother.
Understand the venue and make a plan
Once you know what shots you need to get, make sure you fully understand the layout of the wedding venue.
Weddings happen faster than you think. One second you are putting batteries in your flash and the next second the bride is walking down the aisle with her father. You have to be in the right place and ready to go. There are no second chances.
Use your time with the bride or the wedding planner to sketch out a quick diagram of the wedding venue. This is especially important if the wedding is outdoors or somewhere non-standard. You need to know the entire flow of the ceremony so you can be in the right place to capture a photo of all the key moments.
Take the sketch and create a diagram for yourself:
Using the diagram, think through the wedding ceremony and make a battle plan. Make sure you know exactly where you are going to be when the groom walks out, when the bride walks out, when the vows are taken, etc. Don't depend on improvising.
This will also help you identify potential problems. For example, it may become clear that there is no way for you to get a shot of the bride walking down the aisle from the front while still being able to get the shot looking down the center aisle of the vows being exchanged. It may turn out that you need a second shooter during the ceremony. Make sure you identify issues like this now, not when it is too late.
Review with the bride
Once you have your plan together, meet with the bride or wedding planner again and run through it briefly with them. This will help you identify anything you missed, help burn it into your brain, and it will also make the bride feel a lot more comfortable that you know what you are doing. The less she is worrying, the better for you.
Shooting the wedding
By the time the wedding arrives, you should be confident in your plan. Now you just have to carry it out.
What to bring
At a minimum, you need:
Your main camera
Fully charged camera battery
An extra camera battery
Some sort of backup camera
Portrait lens with a large aperture
Wide angle lens
Flash sync cable or remote flash trigger
Extra flash batteries
Camera bag to carry everything easily
A lot of memory cards. Bring more than you think you can possibly use.
Print-out of your shot checklist, with times notated
Pen to write notes or check off your shots
Assistant to help you, even if they aren't a photographer
Depending on the type of wedding and the location, you may have extra lighting equipment for portraits or whatever else you think you need. But don't use this as an opportunity to try a new piece of gear or a new camera. Use only items that you have used previously. Save the experimentation for another day. If you are renting any new lenses or other gear to use during the wedding, do not have the rented gear show up the day before the wedding. Give yourself an extra week on the rental ahead of time to practice with the gear before the big day.
Since you are fully prepared, the day should be a breeze. Just start working through your shot list and have your assistant mark off things as you go.
Before the ceremony
The bride may want you to capture shots of everyone getting ready. This includes things like the wedding dress on a hanger, the bride finishing getting the dress on, etc. Just go with what the bride wants so that she feels comfortable.
Often, brides will want some photos taken of them in their dress before the wedding or after their wedding, depending on the customs in your local area. Hopefully you have experience doing portraits, so this part should be easy. Just make sure to take lots of shots and try to shoot in two or three locations so you will have a lot of material to work with later. This is also a great time to capture the bride and groom together if they will be seeing each other before the ceremony.
Efficiency is the key to group shots. It's common to have a bride want photos of every family member and relative in all sorts of configurations. Since you will have planned the order of all the shots in advance and know exactly which family member is in which shot, this should be easy.
Don't try to shoot family portraits in different locations. Pick one spot to save time and so that all the shots have a matching background. Make sure both you and your assistant know the order of shots and just work through the checklist as quickly and efficiently as possible. Have your assistant gather the next group while the current group is being photographed. Everyone will appreciate you making this part as painless and as quick as possible.
While shooting large groups, make sure you take several of pictures of each group. Five is a good number. You can take them in rapid succession. That sounds like a lot of shots, but someone will always be blinking, looking away, or making a funny face in each shot. A split second will make all the difference between a great family picture that will be cherished for years and a horrible picture where the mother is grimacing accidently.
Hopefully this will be the easiest part of the job because you will have planned properly. All you have to do is be in the right places at the right times. Of course, take lots of pictures of the key moments in rapid succession to make sure that you get some usable shots with good facial expressions. Just mentally follow your shot list. You may not have time to actually pull the list out and check it off during the ceremony, but you should have a good idea of what you need to capture.
If you have free time or a second shooter who can help, get some wide shots of the entire ceremony. If you are in a church, see if there is a balcony that you can use. If you are outside, look for a high vantage point to use to capture the scene.
Shooting a reception is a lot like shooting any other dinner party. The most important tip is to make sure you get pictures of everyone at the party. Many new photographers make the mistake of focusing only on the bride, groom, and immediate family while neglecting to capture photos of all the guests. After the wedding, the bride is going to want to see pictures of all her friends and family enjoying her wedding. In addition, everyone will want to see at least a few pictures of themselves. The more you capture, the happier everyone will be with your photographs. Don't leave anyone out.
Make sure you get enough shots to capture the feel of everything that was happening. The bride spent a lot of time planning every detail from the color of the table cloths to the food to the table decorations. Make sure you capture all of this for the bride.
After the wedding
The first thing you should do when you get home is backup all of your images. Pretend the files don't exist until you have at least two copies in addition to the originals on your memory cards.
For the most security, adhere to the "3-2-1" backup rule. That means you need three copies of the files on two different types of media (i.e. hard drives and compact flash cards) with at least one copy off-site (i.e. not at your house, in case it burns down).
You probably already have a workflow for post-processing your images. There's no reason to do anything different for a wedding.
If you don't have a good workflow, here are some suggestions:
Learn how to use Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture to import, manage and edit your images. A tool like Adobe Lightroom will let you edit many images at once and transfer the edits between similar images. This will save you many hours of work versus trying to edit hundreds of images directly in Photoshop.
After you import all your images to your computer, you will likely have a 1000 or more images. Work with the images in passes. First, go through and rate all the images really quickly. Mark the images as unusable, workable, or great, making sure you have at least a workable image of every key moment in the wedding ceremony. This will allow you to discard probably 75% of the raw images before you even do any image editing. A tool like Lightroom or Aperture helps enormously in this process.
Once you have edited down all the images, you get to enjoy the fun part - sharing the images with the bride and groom!
Whether you post the images online, burn a DVD, or produce prints will depend on what you have worked out with the bride. However, this is a great time to pick a few of the best images and post them as previews on Facebook or another website that the bride and her friends use. This will get the bride excited to see the pictures, get the friends excited about the wedding again, and also give you a little bit of publicity.
Whatever you do, make sure you deliver the final images within the amount of time you promised the bride. If you promised two weeks, you had better have them ready in two weeks. Nothing will ruin an otherwise great wedding photo shoot like long delays and broken promises.
Working with clients is just as much about making them feel good as it is about delivering a good product. Just like any other business, you want to under-promise and over-deliver. If you think it will take two weeks to edit the photos, promise three weeks and deliver in two. You will have an estatic client who is more likely to fall in love with the images and tell all her friends about how great a job you did.