Wedding photographers know better than anyone else that no two ceremonies are alike. For many, the opportunity to capture the unexpected with their camera is what got them into wedding photography in the first place. Nothing about photographing the ceremony is ever rote. It’s impossible to rely on the same cues to take a picture because the setting, lighting, and people are in constant flux. There in the middle of all of this animation stands the wedding photographer, watching and listening, ready at any second to freeze that spontaneous kiss on the steeple steps or the flower girl’s unrehearsed tumble down the aisle.
Needless to say, there is a constant (and sharp) learning curve in this field. Many valuable tricks and techniques cannot be acquired through a textbook but through honest, hard-earned years of experience. We’ve talked to three Wedding Photojournalist Association (WPJA) award-winning photographers to find out firsthand what all their years of documenting the ceremony have taught them. From correcting poor lighting to looking beyond the typical ring and ceremony kiss pictures, our experts have bestowed some of their most valued advice upon us.
Can you become invisible? Well, you can get close. With the guests’ attention focused upon the action of the ceremony, it’s critically important for the photographer to not cause any distractions. The importance of making yourself nearly invisible cannot be overemphasized. This does not only involve dressing in the style of the guests — black tie, formal or semi-formal attire — but also relates to your demeanor and how or where you position yourself and your camera equipment. Walking around during the ceremony is distracting to guests, while kneeling or sitting on the floor in the front takes the photographer out of the spotlight. Work quietly, walk softly, and strive to be ultra-discrete when changing lenses, lights, cards, or film.
WPJA award-winner, Brian Phillips, does more than move about discretely and blend in with the crowd.. He explains, “I will focus on them, then I turn my camera in a direction other than theirs, but with my eyes still glued on the guests. When another moment happens, I am ready to swing my camera back in their direction, pre-focused, and I shoot.”
Phillips’ technique works so well due in part to the power of the camera. When it is focused on most people, it doesn’t matter that the most important event of the day is taking place before their eyes, they often become self-conscious and react by stiffening up. As soon as the camera turns away from them, they relax and take on a greater degree of self-assuredness. “This technique has served me very well in capturing extremely candid guest and family pictures,” Phillips notes.
WPJA award winner Stacey Kane’s protocol during the ceremony is to position herself out of the view of the guests. She explains, “During the processional, I’m in the front when everyone is looking in the back, and during the ceremony and recessional, I’m in the back or on the side of the venue when everyone is watching the front.”
A major part of capturing subjects in the ‘best light’ is finding that best light. This is not an easy task when many ceremonies take place in a church, mosque, or temple, where the lighting is often muted and inconsistent. Through trial and error, the photographer must come up with special ways to deal with these lighting challenges. Phillips has come up with an excellent solution for low-light settings. He explains, “My Canon 30D cameras have a lens crop factor of 1.6x, so a 50mm lens actually acts as if it were 80mm. Shooting wide open with shallow depth of field makes for unbelievable shots. No flash to distract, and perfect natural light in very dark venues.”
Matt McGraw, WPJA award-winner, takes a creative approach to dealing with the issue of poor lighting. His results lend a uniquely artistic style to his photography. When he wants to create a particular mood but the lighting is poor, he manipulates the Kelvin temperature, adjusting the white balance on his camera’s manual controls, to bring out a romantic mood in the photograph.
Though there are certain moments and situations that come with every wedding, there are thousands of different ways to capture them. It takes creativity and experimentation to find these ways. Phillips notes, “All weddings are similar in many facets, but each family, each bride and groom are uniquely different.” Acknowledging the differences allows him to see the wedding, and thus the typical ring and kiss pictures, in a new and exciting light each time.
In capturing these classic images, Phillips likes to have a little fun with the composition. He explains, “I do like to mix it up just a bit and tilt the camera a lot more than I ever used to. This sometimes gives an extra bit of drama to an image and can help create a well-composed image by filling the frame more completely.” However, as to not overwhelm his clients with this type of creative composition, Phillips never provides too many ”crooked horizons.“
Beyond the ring and kisses pictures, there are many moments that help tell the story of the ceremony. These may be pictures of the guests arriving, the musicians, and the handing out of programs. While not the main attraction, these images add color to the bigger picture—the ceremony. Similarly, capturing those spontaneous moments that seemingly pop out from nowhere has the same effect. McGraw recalls a couple who was kissing and then, “she whispered something in his ear and bam, I got the shot I wanted.”
For some, mastering the technical side of photography doesn’t come as easily as the creativity. That’s why it’s good to get advice from tried and true masters of their craft. Phillips regularly uses a 1/30th of a second shutter speed. He finds, “So many photographers are scared to shoot at such a slow shutter speed for a fear of a blurry picture, maybe. But the flash stops the action, and the slow shutter brings the background light up so as to not have a dark or near-black background.”
McGraw uses a digital camera and up to four different lenses throughout a wedding. Though unlike many, he also has an old Mamiya box camera that gives his work an antique feel using black-and-white film. He’s tried to recreate this style using his digital camera, but has been unable to duplicate it.
For Kane, the secret to a great wedding is to never go to the ceremony venue ahead of time. She doesn’t plan out a thing and relies solely on her ability to anticipate and react to whatever is thrown her direction. As she notes, something always goes wrong or at least not according to plan at a wedding. It is the photographer’s job to be able to respond with her camera to what arises. She says, “If one little thing gets thrown off, then you’re spending more time trying to figure out how to recreate what you had planned to photograph instead of doing what you should be doing, which is just taking the pictures.”
Phillips’ years of experience have taught him that his ears are just as important as his eyes. He explains, “This allows me to shoot other things going on around me, but remain careful enough to still be going along with the ceremony so as to not miss an important picture like the candle lighting.” Opening up your senses to what’s going on around you is essential, and perfecting this ability can take years.
As with all practitioners of the creative arts, photographers are constantly discovering and strengthening their art form. It is essential to the growth and success of their work. And as with the art itself, becoming a better photographer involves gaining inspiration and knowledge from all sources — personal experience, mentors, contemporaries, and the WPJA!
— by Lauren Ragland for the Wedding Photojournalist Association