Not giving up the day job

Some very close friends of mine asked me to be the ‘official’ photographer at their wedding this weekend. I reluctantly agreed, against my better judgement, as they weren’t going to have a photographer otherwise. Having lived through the experience, and found surprisingly little useful advice on the internet prior to it, I thought I’d add my bit to the body of knowledge on the subject.

So, some things to remember when asked to photograph someone’s wedding:

  • Unless you’re already a professional wedding photographer, don’t. Its an enormous responsibility. If a paid professional screws up a a crucial shot, some form of financial compensation can be negociated, and even if the wedding party end up hating them, they’re highly unlikely to meet them again. The same cannot be said of friends. So you’d better be very, very good friends with the bride and groom, and even if they forgive you for missing a vital shot, you’re still going to feel pretty bad about it.
  • The better you know the couple, the higher the chances are that you are supposed to be in some of the photos. Better have a photographically inclined friend around who is not in the same groupings that you are.
  • Use a good digital SLR, quality lenses and shoot raw. Unless you really are a professional wedding photographer, steer clear of film. You have to be able to rattle off shots like crazy, and check them in the field. You should expect to take between 200 and 500 shots.
  • Have a manic eye for detail. Jackets, ties, buttonholes, pocket hankies, bride’s veil, people’s hair, backgrounds, head heights, positioning and spacing all need to be checked by you. Nobody else will notice at the time – its your responsibility to make sure everyone looks their best.
  • You have to be able to impose your will on complete strangers. Get comfortable saying things like, ‘You, madam, in the hat! Is that your husband next to you? Could you at least pretend to like each other and stand a little closer together? Thank you so much,’ with sufficient charm to keep everyone smiling. This is surprisingly hard work – I was exhausted by the end of the day.
  • Buy the most powerful flashgun you can find. Churches are usually lit by a combination of daylight, stained glass, tungsten and fluorescent lights, often all at the same time. Your flash needs to be powerful enough to fill a substantial space and overpower the other light sources to avoid colour casts.
  • Photograph outdoors if possible. Avoid dodgy backgrounds like gravestones, and use fill flash.
  • If photographing indoors use bounced flash whenever possible. Make sure you extend your flashgun’s reflector card if it has one, to form catchlights in people’s eyes. If the ceiling isn’t white or very close to it, use direct flash, and look for sources of daylight.
  • Consider finding a high vantage point at the back (some churches have an organ loft or mezzanine) during the service and using a long lens with a wide aperture (f/2), beanbag or tripod and no flash to capture the exchange of vows. The couple will often turn around to be applauded after exchanging vows – be ready to capture this. Make sure you can get rapidly from your vantage point down to the couple if you need to capture the signing of the register, or anything at ground level during the service.
  • Practice changing lenses – it should take you 5 seconds or less.
  • Don’t use any equipment you’re unfamiliar with, or storage media you’ve never tested.
  • Keep spares of everything in your pockets. Batteries for camera and flash, and several memory cards. Don’t keep your full cards/batteries in the same pocket as the used ones.
  • Use a proper camera bag that opens up easily. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just easy to put stuff in and out of. Keep everything in the bag or on your person – you may need to grab it to get quickly to the next location.
  • Use a zoom lens for the group photos. I took the majority of pics towards the 70 mm end of an 18-70 mm lens.
  • Make everyone stand very close together – they need to be inside each other’s personal space to avoid ‘broken up’ looking groupings. People will not generally stand close enough to each other if left to their own devices. Make sure the bride and groom are dominant (in the middle, at the front generally works, with clear space between you and them), and get everyone else to turn towards them by 45 degrees or so. This lets you stand people closer together, and emphasises the wedding couple.
  • Heads. Get the bride and groom to embrace and lean their heads towards each other, touching if they’re similar enough in height.
  • Take several shots of each group – its very hard to get everyone looking their best at the same time, so you need to give the couple a selection to choose from.
  • Crop in close. Sometimes the only difference between a ‘pro’ looking shot and a merely average one is the tightness of the framing.
  • Did I mention not doing it?