Wedding Photography 101 by Antony Hands

Lesson 4 - Planning the day and dealing with change

Shooting a wedding can be a very challenging experience for an inexperienced photographer, or even for an experienced photographer if he or she has never done a wedding before. Heck, even a professional wedding photographer with hundreds of weddings under his or her belt can make errors at the start of the wedding season, because it will be some time since they shot a full day, and they will be out of practice. If a professional wedding photographer needs to plan to make sure everything is done properly, you can see how this is even more important for an amateur who is doing this for the first time.

In terms of this lesson, it will be broken up into four sections:

  1. Preparation to conduct in conjunction with the bride and groom.
  2. Your preparation for the day.
  3. Gear preparation.
  4. Dealing with change on the day.

Some of you might think that this is overkill, but let me assure you it is not. I know I have harped on this in every lesson so far, but you need to understand that a wedding is not like any other type of shoot, it is a once in a lifetime (hopefully) event that can't be repeated. It's not like an advertising or modelling shoot where just money and time is at stake, it's a couple's memories of their most important day. It is not something that one walks into without serious preparation.

1. Preparation to conduct in conjunction with the bride and groom.

So your cousin or friend has asked you to photograph their wedding, and you have done the whole "Lesson 1" thing with them and they still want you to shoot it. The first step is to sit down with them and get a sound understanding of the type of coverage that they want.

Wedding coverage generally falls into two types, photojournalistic or traditional, or commonly a combination between the two. Photojournalistic coverage has grown in popularity in recent years because it emulates the style of photography used in some of the larger wedding magazines. It is a more candid approach, with less posed photographs and more focus (pardon the pun) on capturing the story of the day. Traditional coverage is just that, a more traditional approach that involves posed photographs that are designed to capture the feelings between the bride and groom.

As the photographer you need to determine what your couple is looking for. In my experience the vast majority of couples will say that they want a less formal, more candid approach to the day. However, this doesn't always mean they don't want any posed portraits. If you ask more questions they will normally say that "Oh, yes we do want some posed photographs, they just want them to be natural looking. Oh, and we want the formal family shots, because Mom and Dad will want those", etc.

What most couples want is a degree of traditional coverage, but with shots that don't look posed. Sure they want some candids, but it is a very rare couple that wants a true photojournalistic wedding without some traditional coverage. If they actually do want this, I would strongly recommend that as an amatuer you do not agree to shoot the wedding. Why? After all, you are probably thinking that it is easier to successfully shoot a candid, photojournalistic style wedding than a traditional one right? Well if you are thinking this, sorry, but you are quite wrong.

I can't tell you how difficult it is to successfully shoot a wedding in this style. Personally, I think it takes a much more talented photographer to shoot a photojournalistic style wedding and get a good result. This is because it takes a great deal of experience to candidly capture the special moments in a wedding consistently, and still get an even and full coverage of the day. I really do feel sorry for couples that choose this type of wedding photography and do not get a truly talented photographer, because often they will be disappointed with the results.

If a couple requests you to shoot the whole event candidly I would strongly encourage you to get your couple to understand the risk associated with having an entire wedding shot in this style, and get them to agree to some posed, but casual shots if at all possible. Sure if they are dead against it, don't force the issue, but make sure that they know you can't guarantee the results in these circumstances.

Suggestions about the best way to pose people in different circumstances, including trying to make the photos look less posed and more natural, will be covered in Lesson 5, "Wedding poses 101". In the interim, you need to just reassure the couple that you will do your best to capture some truly candid moments, some posed but very natural looking moments, as well as their formal shots. By doing this you can work with them to organise the wedding day best to enable you to do your job, while not getting in the way of them enjoying their day. As well as this, both you and the couple will be "on the same page" regards the way the day will go.

Once this is settled, you need to get an understanding of the time you have to work with. This is something that will vary with every wedding, because people have different timeframes etc. for the big day, as well as different cultures having different traditions. In Australia for example, couples often have some time, up to several hours, between the wedding ceremony and the actual reception enabling plenty of time for photographs. In the USA I understand this is somewhat unusual, with most weddings having the ceremony and then the reception with a short break in between. Whatever the arrangements for the wedding, you need this planned very well beforehand. The best way to do this is to start with a schedule. Draw up a standard document for the bride and groom to fill out with the following details:

  • Bride's full name
  • Bride's address and telephone numbers
  • Bride's parents' names
  • Bridesmaids' names
  • Bride's email address
  • Groom's full name
  • Groom's address and telephone numbers
  • Groom's parents' names
  • Groomsmens' names
  • Groom's email address
  • Address where bride will be getting ready
  • Address where ceremony will be held
  • Address where reception will be held

These are all the key items of information that you will need prior to the wedding, excluding the timetable. During the day, you will have a copy of this in your pocket all the time to help you remember everyone's names if needed. At the bottom of the document, draw up a timetable with the following key items and the times they occur, adjusted as required for your specific circumstances. Add whatever extra items in you need to enable the timetable to accurately reflect the day:

  • Arrive at the bride's house
  • Leave the bride's house
  • Arrival at the ceremony - photos of groom and parents
  • Ceremony
  • Formals
  • Portraiture with wedding party
  • Reception
  • Finish

In discussion with the couple you need to settle on the times for each section. Don't forget to include travel time, set-up time etc. After the ceremony remember you will generally need to allow the couple to mingle for ten minutes or so, and then you will need at least 20 minutes to take the family formals unless they have very small families. If there is limited time between the ceremony and the reception find out if the couple are prepared to see each other beforehand. This would enable you to take some of your portraiture early when you have a little more time and a lot less pressure.

Between your discussion on styles of photography and settling on the timeframe both you and the couple will normally have a good understanding of the way the day will run, and what is expected of everyone.

In addition to all of the above, it is a good idea to ask the couple if there are any key photographs that they must have. Sometimes there will be a special group of friends they want photographed, or a grandmother who needs to leave early because of bad health, or they will want a group shot of all of the guests. At the same time, ask them to have a think about what family formals they will require (ie. who needs to be in the photos) and if possible get them to prepare a list. On the day, get a trusted family member on each side to round up the people who need to be in the shots so when you go to shoot the formals there is as little delay as possible.

2. Your preparation for the day

In previous entries I have talked about how you need to be totally familiar with your equipment, the use of flash, fill flash, moving between different lighting situations etc. This section is simply to reinforce this requirement. You need to be totally comfortable with your equipment so that on the day you spend virtually no time changing settings or fiddling around etc.

To help with this, start experimenting at home. The bride's house is likely to be similar in terms of brightness etc. Shoot a friend at home, experiment with window light etc. Make sure you know what looks good in terms of your settings etc. Find out how slow you can shoot without camera shake becoming an issue. Importantly, get an idea of how your flash behaves indoors, when being bounced. This is also a great time to practice your poses.

Next, go outdoors in full sun and practice using flash to overpower shadows. This should only be needed when the actual ceremony is in full sun, because you will normally be looking to have your portraiture, family formals and in fact any photo where you have control over the location, shot in the shade on a sunny day. Nevertheless you need to be ready to tackle full sun just in case. On an overcast day we simply need to praise the Lord and thank him for the giant softbox that an overcast sky provides.

In the shade, take portraits using fill flash at different settings. Later examine the shots and determine what looks best for your system. As I said for my Canon gear I prefer -1 2/3 to -2 FEC, but your gear may be different - you need to test this.

Test your lenses at various apertures for portraits. Know what will and won't be in focus at any given aperture. If you plan to shoot with shallow depth of field practice achieving these results. Review the shots later to make sure they are what you expected.

If at all possible, visit the church and reception venue that will be used on the day. Get an idea of the brightness of the church, and determine what sort of results you will be able to get in terms of ambient light. Plan for where you will stand during the ceremony, and determine if you will need a longer lens to adequately photograph the couple. Will you need a tripod? If so, determine where it will be set up. If using a tripod, make sure you have some form of quick release system, so you can quickly release the camera if required.

Outside the church look for a suitable location close to the entrance where your family formals can be shot. Make sure you determine a nice shaded spot (in case of bright sun), and ensure that the spot you select has a non-distracting background.

At the reception centre scout around for suitable locations for photographs. If you have plenty of time between the ceremony and the reception look for nice locations close to the venues where you may be able to take shots. Ask the venue manager if they have sample albums left by professionals with shots that were taken at the venue - these may give you good ideas.

In summary, do your best to be fully prepared - this way even if things don't go right you can rest comfortably in the knowledge that you were as prepared as you could possibly be. The alternative is to think afterwards "If only I had done that before the day...." etc.

3. Gear preparation

This is pretty straight forward, but you would be amazed at how often little things can catch you out. The day before you need to do the following:

  • Charge all of your camera batteries
  • Ensure you have new batteries for flash units, and at least one set of replacements
  • Format all flash cards. Make sure your spare flash cards are handy, and that you have a way to know what you have already used on the day, and what is still empty.
  • Make sure the cameras are set up the same - this is particularly important if you have borrowed or hired a second camera.
  • Make sure the date and time on both cameras is correct
  • Check that the cameras are set to RAW capture, and auto white balance. You can use other forms of white balance, but if shooting RAW you can adjust later, and trust me - you will have enough to think about on the day without this as well.
  • Clean your sensors to remove any dust
  • Clean your lenses, and check they are set to AF. Preferably remove protective filters.
  • Make sure you have the lens hoods in your bag (this is something I should have covered in the previous lesson - you should never take a photo without a hood, except at night. If your lens didn't come with a hood, buy it. The difference in terms of flare, colour saturation and contrast is astounding).
  • Check everything thoroughly, make sure it all works.
  • Put a bottle of water and a snack (eg. an energy bar) in your bag - you will be amazed at how draining a full day of shooting can be.

4. Dealing with change on the day

No matter how well you plan, there is going to be change on the day that means things don't run the way you expected. You need to be able to roll with the punches and keep on shooting if you are going to get through the day with coverage to be proud of. Here are some quick issues that you may face:

  • You will forget to take some photos you planned to take. For example, perhaps you forgot to get a shot of the wedding dress before the bride put it on. Yes, it's an important shot but don't fret - if it is really important you can take it another day. Only stress about the must have shots - all of the rest just form a part of the overall picture, and the couple probably won't notice that you don't have a shot of this or that, as long as you get the key shots.
  • You may arrive to take the photos of the bride, only to find she is late from getting her hair done. All of a sudden your one hour of photos has become 30 minutes, or 15 minutes. If this happens do the shots you can do while you wait. Get the close ups of the flowers, perfume bottle, dress etc. Don't get stressed, it is not your fault that she is late. When she is ready get what you can in the time you have available.
  • The couple will spend more time than you would like getting congratulated by guests after the wedding. If you have plenty of time, let them relax and enjoy themselves before the formals. However if you are on a tight timeframe give them the time agreed upon in the schedule, and then gently and politely suggest that they start to move to where the formals will be taken. The crowd will follow them, and you will be able to stay on-time.
  • Don't be a tyrant, if things are going pear-shaped in terms of time explain it to the couple and let them decide what is important. You can normally pinch 15-20 minutes from the start of the reception if absolutely necessary, but let them make the call. Keep an eye on the time, and don't let your photography cut into their reception without their consent.

The important thing is to try not get stressed. I know that this sounds easy to say, and hard to do, but hey - the more practice you do the less stress you will experience. There you go, another incentive to practice! If you are stressed or flustered you will make mistakes, and as well as that the bride and groom will not enjoy themselves. It is very important to ensure that the bride and groom are having fun, because if so that will come through in the shots. Joke with them, provide positive feedback, make them feel good about themselves etc. All of this will contribute to them having a better day.

Summary

You know what I am going to say. Practice practice and practice some more. Know your equipment and your locations. Know what your couple wants from the coverage. Know what is important to them. If you do all of this you will do the best job you are capable of, and nobody can ask for more than that. Most of all, you will know that you gave it your best.

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 fun 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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