Wedding Photography 101 by Professional Wedding Photographer Antony Hands

Lesson 3: Equipment - what will I need?

Well now we get to the gearhead's paradise. I am sure some of my readers following this series will have been waiting for just this topic, because it might give you an excuse to buy something photographic in nature. Well, it might, but that is not what this lesson is all about. This entry is about the tools that will help you shoot a wedding and get results that are of a professional standard.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not one that believes that better gear will make a better photographer. Photographers become better with experience, training, and a commitment to improve. That said, there is a basic level of equipment needed to capture images that will make a couple look their best, and make the photos something of which you can be proud, and they can be proud to display.

Where to start? Well let's start with the camera and go on from there.

1. What camera do I need?

Well, to shoot a wedding properly you need a camera that can do several things. Firstly, it needs to be able to capture a range of different angles, from wide angle to telephoto. Secondly, it needs to support an external flash. Thirdly, it needs to be able to shoot in low light and get reasonable results. Next, it must be able to shoot in RAW mode, and finally, it needs enough resolution to give you some capacity to crop and still have enough pixels left for a good shot. What does this mean? Well what it means is that you really need a digital SLR.

A DSLR offers the greatest amount of flexibility for the modern wedding photographer. I don't want to knock shooting film, or some of the great wedding photographers who shoot in a photojournalistic style with Leica rangefinders or the like, but hey - this blog isn't directed at them. As detailed previously this blog is focused on the aspiring beginner, or enthusiastic amateur who has been asked to shoot a wedding, and these days 99% of these people will be shooting digital.

So you really need a DSLR, but what does that mean? There are dozens of different cameras available, different brands, different price points etc. Some are deemed "professional", others "prosumer" or "amateur" or even "entry-level". What is good enough?

To be honest, it doesn't really matter what type of camera you have to a large degree, what is supremely important is that you know your chosen tool inside out. You need to understand exactly how your camera will respond in a given circumstance, and if this is the case you can get the most out of it, and get the results you expect, and that your bridal couple are looking for. That said, I won't try to kid you that some cameras aren't better than others for wedding photography, but effectively if your camera can achieve decent image quality at ISO 800, and is say 8MP resolution, it should be fine. Higher resolution cameras give you more capacity for bigger enlargements and also give you more room for cropping without affecting image quality too much.

Finally, and importantly, if you are the official wedding photographer for someone for their big day you need to have two cameras. This is an absolute must, no questions about it issue. If you only have one camera, borrow a camera from someone, or make sure someone at the wedding will have a camera you can use if yours craps out. If you are doing this, also make sure that the second camera has the same settings as yours. If I ever shoot with another photographer on weddings and we swap cameras for some reason we invariably end up cursing each other, because we set up our cameras differently in terms of selecting focus points etc. These leads to us missing shots as we get used to the different controls. You need to make sure that you can confidently use your spare camera if required.

Having a spare camera is also a bonus for fast changing circumstances, where you might otherwise want to change lenses but don't have time. Simply grab camera 2 with the different lens and shoot, before going back to camera 1.

2. Lenses, or "I have the kit lens - is this good enough?"

In the old days of film, it made sense to spend money on lenses rather than the camera, as after all, the camera was just a light tight box that held the film. This changed with the development of digital photography, and we have seen a very quick improvement in camera bodies. However as detailed above, virtually all modern DSLRs meet the requirements needed for professional quality results. This means that once again the focus for the photographer buying a new camera should be on the lenses rather than the camera to a large degree.

Different lenses enable you, as the photographer, to achieve different results in your pictures. In terms of focal length, wide angle lenses can capture a large crowd or the feeling of a vast church interior. Telephoto lenses can provide a flattering compression of features and great seperation from the background in portraiture. Zoom lenses can help you quickly respond to changing circumstances. What do you need?

In terms of focal length, a friend of mine worked for a couple of months with a Canon 20D and a 28-70mm f/2.8 L lens when she first started shooting digital. That was an equivalent focal length of 45mm - 112mm on a 35mm film camera, and quite honestly, it wasn't wide enough. You should aim to have a lens that can cover at least a 28mm field of view in on a full-frame camera - this gives you capacity to shoot the church, large family groups, the congregation and in America anyway, the wedding party (my wife had 8 bridesmaids!). For the vast majority of DSLR users using crop cameras, this means a lens with a wide angle of say 17 or 18mm.

At the other end, you probably don't need more than an 85mm equivalent in terms of focal length. I often shoot at longer focal lengths to get close ups of the bridal party during the ceremony, but for the portraiture 85mm is generally enough, and unless it is a massive wedding you can normally get close enough without a long telephoto.

Based upon the above, I am sure there are people out there that are concluding that their Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens will be fine for the wedding, after all it is an effective range of 29mm to 88mm on a full frame camera. Well that is true, but focal length is only one aspect of a lens, there are also other factors, such as speed and image quality.

The speed of a lens determines two important things, being the level of light you can shoot in, and the control you have over depth of field. Well three things actually, if you count cost - fast lenses have a tendency to make your wallet a lot thinner. Joking aside, in wedding photography the speed of a lens really has an impact upon the flexibility of the lens, and your capacity to get good shots.

This is because wedding photography generally involves shooting in a lot of marginal light situations. Circumstances like dimly lit churches or poor lighting indoors on overcast days can cause real issues quickly if your lens' fastest speed is something like f/4 or above at the focal length you are shooting at. In these circumstances shutter speeds can quickly drop to levels of under 1/30 sec even at ISO 1600, resulting in camera shake unless you are using a tripod. The way most photographers respond to this is to use flash, with the result that while your subject might be lit correctly, the background is underexposed so much that it looks dark, or even black.

If you have a faster lens you can shoot at a wide aperture and get a lot more ambient light in your photographs, making the background look brighter, and more like it really was on the day. Photographs like this are really what capturing the details of the day is all about. The feel of the ceremony can be portrayed in the photographs the way the couple remembers it - not as them well lit but in front of a very dark church.

The other factor of fast lenses is that they enable you to restrict the depth of field, meaning you can create real seperation from the background, something that is much harder to achieve with slower lenses. If your fastest lens is f/5.6 at its telephoto end, you are simply not going to be able to get the same portraiture results that can be achieved with a faster lens. Your shots may still look great, but they just won't be the same. For example, the shot below was taken in front of a really ugly walkway, but it was the only place at the bride's house where we could get any light. It was taken at 85mm and f/1.4, resulting in the ugly background being so blurred that it is not distracting. If I was shooting with a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 this background would have been very obvious

So how do you deal with it? Well that depends on what your current gear is. If you have a DSLR with the kit lens package you probably don't have a lens fast enough to achieve this sort of result. If that is the case it's no big deal - most manufacturers offer lenses that will enable you to get results like this quite inexpensively.

If you are a Canon shooter without any fast primes and are on a tight budget the 50mm f/1.8 II is a very inexpensive fast prime lens that on a crop camera has a field of view equivalent to a traditional portrait lens. Price in the USA is a tiny $80, and this lens alone is enough to expand your ability to shoot low light shots in the church, plus shallow depth of field portraiture.

Sure it's a cheap lens, but the idea here is to help you achieve your goals of successfully photographing the wedding with a very low budget. Nikon have a similar quality lens, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D which retails for a little more, about $115. These two lenses are probably the best value glass that money can buy.

Of course, if you have a bigger budget the world is your oyster, all the manufacturers make great prime lenses that will perform very well in low light and enable you to take shots without flash, or with flash fill, giving you very natural photos in the church and other dark places.

Ok, so the rules re: lenses are as follows:

  • You really need lenses that cover at least the 28-85mm range on a full frame DSLR (ie. wide angle to moderate telephoto).
  • If the wedding will be conducted indoors you should have a faster lens that will enable you to capture more natural shots than the kit lens, with more ambient light. The same lens will help you isolate the subject for better bridal portraiture. If you don't, you better have a tripod!
  • Just like the camera, you need a spare lens that is at least able to cover most wedding shots. If you are shooting with just one lens and God forbid it malfunctions, or you drop it, your day of shooting is over. Remember, the bride and groom are relying on you, you must be prepared.

Remember, as with all of your tools you need to be fully familiar with your tools before the wedding. Go to a local church or building and practice shooting in low light with your camera. Become familiar with changing the settings moving in and out of bright light. Determine at what speed you can reliably hand-hold the camera, to make sure you don't take the whole wedding just to find that your photos are ruined by camera shake.

3. Flash photography

To shoot a wedding, you MUST MUST MUST have an external flash with bounce and swivel capability. This is an absolute priority, above even getting a fast lens. All the manufacturers have flash units with this capability, the most affordable for the Canon system is the 430EX at $250. The Nikon equivalent is the SB-600 at about $180. Alternatively, I understand the Sigma EF-530 DG for $190 is a good alternative for those Canon users on a budget.

So why do you need an external flash? Because internal flash units are appalling, providing flat, harsh and unflattering light, with the risk of red eye. Additionally, as they do not light up the environment, this leads to the "deer in the headlights" look, of overexposed people in front of a black background.

By using an external flash you can bounce light off the ceiling or walls, providing a much more natural appearance to your subject, and lighting up the room at the same time. After all, we are used to seeing people lit from above, it's not surprising that it looks better. As well as this, by bouncing the flash you achieve a much more diffuse light source, resulting in much softer shadows, as shown below.

Even for general event photography bounce flash is preferable where you are able to use it. The quality of the light is just so much better. Here's an example of a quick shot at an event - sure it's not the most interesting photo, but look how natural the light is.

Direct flash is still often required, such as when you are shooting from a distance, or do not have a suitable surface to bounce from, or for fill of course. If you are unfortunate enough to have to shoot a wedding in full sun the use of direct flash to overpower dark shadows (as explained in lesson 2) can be invaluable.

Ok so there are the key things that in my opinion you must have to shoot a wedding at an acceptable standard. Sure it's only my opinion but I think it's pretty justified. As the chosen photographer of a couple you have an obligation to deliver the best photographs that it is in your power to provide. If this means you need to buy some gear to get the right results, then you really should consider it. However, remember, if you buy new gear make sure you are fully familiar with its use before the big day!

4. Optional extras

In addition to the above items there are literally dozens of things that you can do to improve your photography and provide better results to your bride and groom. Some of these things are as follows:

Flash Bracket: By lifting the flash to a position where it is always above the camera, even in portrait orientation, it ensures that when direct flash must be used that the shadows fall behind, and not to the side of the subject. This can be quite objectionable, particularly if flash is the main light and a light coloured wall is close behind. I use a product called the Stroboframe Pro-T which suits my requirements very well.

Tripod: A tripod is essential in a lot of cases, particularly where light is very poor and even with a fast lens you struggle to maintain a handholdable speed, or for some reason you wish to shoot with a smaller aperture. Quite often it will be used in the church, or even for bridal portraiture in the home before leaving for the church if the light is particularly poor.

Reflector: A reflector is a large, generally circular device which is used for reflecting ambient light onto a subject to help fill the shadows naturally, without the use of flash. These fold up and can be easily carried, but remember you will normally require an assistant to effectively use a reflector. This is probably the most inexpensive lighting tool that can deliver the best results for a user who is familiar with it. I prefer a combination of gold and silver on my reflectors to get a nice subtle warm fill. Reflectors are also great to provide shade where there are nasty patches of sun coming through trees or something and making bright spots on the couple or group you are shooting.

Flash diffuser: A flash diffuser such as the Omnibounce provides a diffusing effect on a flash, sending light in all directions and making the light in a room more gentle, even than normal bounce flash. Additionally, it sends some of the light directly onto the subject, filling in eye sockets etc that sometimes is hard to manage with direct flash.

Polariser: A polariser is a filter that enables you to block reflected light coming at a particular angle from glass or foilage etc. You adjust the effect by turning the filter while looking through the viewfinder, but the effect is quite impressive. By eliminating reflected glare foilage gets greener, and reflections off glass or water can be eliminated. This is great for shots where your subject is behind a window etc. I use one for shots where there is a specific need, as they can be quite fiddly taking off and putting on all of the time. Polarisers reduce the light getting to the lens by about 1 stop, so generally you do not leave them on all of the time. Modern cameras also need a certain type of polariser, called a "Circular Polariser" to avoid affecting the beam splitter used in the AF system, so make sure you get this type as opposed to a cheaper "Linear Polariser". These are also great for landscape photography, because they can make the sky markedly bluer by reducing reflected glare off dust particles in the atmosphere.

5 One last recommendation

This shouldn't really be a recommendation, personally I think that this should be compulsory. Please shoot RAW format for every wedding you do. Sure it takes up more card space and requires more work later, but only through shooting RAW do you have a real chance to address any mistakes you may make on the day. The ability to adjust brightness, white balance, saturation and contrast after the event is critical to ensuring consistency in your photos, and making them the best they can be. I cannot express just how important this is. Sure some professional photographers shoot in jpeg, but these are people who know exactly what they are doing and have done it hundreds of times. For everyone else - please use RAW.

Anyway, I have spent hours typing this so far, I am sure I will think of more later but for now that's it. Next lesson will be "Lesson 4 - Planning the day and dealing with change". I hope you visit again soon. By the way, if you have any questions don't hesitate to post a comment and I will respond as best I can. Similarly, if you have suggestions I haven't mentioned, please pipe up!

About the author

Antony Hands is an experienced professional wedding photographer based in Coffs Harbour, NSW. He is the principal of Chasing Summer Photography, a studio which specialises in wedding photography and stop motion wedding films and services the surrounding districts including Tamworth, Armidale, Port Macquarie, Kempsey, Nambucca Heads, Grafton and as far North as Ballina.


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