Craig Fritz got drenched this summer. The WPJA award-winning photographer and his wife Kitty--also a WPJA member--were shooting an outdoor ceremony in New Mexico, USA, a good quarter mile away from any type of structure, when the weather quickly turned nasty.
“The clouds were piling up and we were looking around thinking ‘this can’t be good,’” Fritz recalls. “And low and behold, just as the wedding couple were starting on their vows, there’s this gigantic crack of thunder directly overhead. There was no preliminary drizzle - the heavens immediately opened up. Most of the 75 guests grabbed something and started sprinting. Our cameras were drenched but we kept shooting, tucking equipment into bags to the extent we could.”
Such is the reality of wedding photojournalism in a world where outdoor ceremonies and receptions are more popular than ever. Whether it’s harsh or uneven sunlight, the black of night, wind, rain or heat, the photographer covering your wedding often has a critical set of challenges that must be overcome - or creatively used to advantage - in order to fully capture and preserve those unique moments of love, joy and good times.
A sunny wedding day is a dream come true, supercharging the color and the scenery around your event. However, direct sunlight actually creates issues for those capturing the festivities. A bright sun setting directly behind the wedding altar is going to make quality exposures more difficult for your wedding photojournalist, no matter how good he or she is. Midday sunlight has the potential of creating harsh shadows and dark rings under the eyes. Dappled light, created by sunlight filtering through the branches of a tree, creates even more challenge for a photographer striving to balance lighting.
“Harsh light is the biggest challenge, depending on the time of day,” Fritz states. “Figuring out where to position yourself, and where your subjects are going to be looking, is critical for great photos.”
“Avoid a high-noon wedding in direct sunlight,” he recommends. “If the ceremony has to be at midday, choose a location with open shade. If the sun's beating down, not only will the bride and groom look hot and exhausted in photographs, so will all the guests and family.”
“Start the wedding in the late afternoon if you can,” suggests medallion winner Alex Ze’evi-christian, who is based in New York, USA. “Images shot during that time of the day will have a beautiful golden tone and very dramatic long shadows.”
Fritz agrees. “When the sun is closer to the horizon, it creates the horizontal, "golden light" that photographers drool over,” he says.
However, low sun can also create backlighting problems if an outdoor ceremony is not planned carefully. “One of my most challenging situations was a wedding on Cape Cod,” recalls Connecticut, USA-based wedding photographer Todd Hougas. “The wedding party had positioned themselves so that the late afternoon sun was directly behind them. I was shooting right into the sunlight. I really had to push my flash to fill in the shadows on faces. I was working straight off batteries instead of a power pack, which was a tough situation.”
All that said, direct sunlight also enables creative possibilities. “It can actually create fantastic shadow patterns,” says Ze’evi-christian. “When I do portraits outdoors, I look around. If there is a shady spot, I’ll take the subjects there. If there’s not, I’ll use fill flash, and then I’ll use another camera with no flash at all to get some variety and create animated silhouettes, making the shapes the focal point of the image.”
Weddings and receptions extending into the night can enhance atmosphere and creativity for those skilled in using nighttime settings to maximum advantage. “I’ve done quite a few night weddings under large tents,” notes Hougas. That’s fun because people use so many types of light…vapor lamps, every kind of light you can imagine.”
“Tiki torches can be especially interesting because there are so many fascinating things you can do with them using natural light,” he notes. “You can over-expose them to get that wavering flame appearance, plus all of the motion of the dancing makes the result quite compelling.”
“We shot a night wedding where we had set up a strobe,” Fritz recalls. “We’d hold it for each other, go low on the exposure and try to gather as much ambient light as we could. And when lighting gets difficult, we’ll switch to black and white film as opposed to color.”
“I love outdoor night weddings,” claims Ze’evi-christian. “I do long exposures with my camera on a tripod to create ambiance. I also shoot slow shutter speed exposures with fill-flash so the subject is well lit and the background is creatively blurry, but illuminated enough to tell a story.”
And then there’s rain, the bane of any outdoor event outside of marathon races. Rain is the one condition that absolutely must be planned for. And yet, when it does arrive, most wedding photojournalists, trained in the rigors of news photojournalism, tend to take it in stride.
“I was a photojournalist for so long that I don’t even worry about it,” says Hougas. "You’re just going to have to deal. I don’t worry about my cameras getting wet. I constantly have some kind of towel on me, or something to wipe down my cameras; plus something to wipe off my lens. I’ve found that Canon cameras are troopers.”
“I work with the bride and groom beforehand and plan a back-up shooting location in case it rains — either a covered balcony overlooking the outdoors or dramatic indoor location,” says Ze’evi-christian.
“Have a fallback plan. If the weather looks iffy, make sure you and your guests know where to hightail it in case of crazy wind or rain,” recommends Fritz, who gained his wisdom first-hand in that New Mexico thunderstorm. “Many couples get reluctant and emotional when they realize that their outdoor venue might not be a reality, but be ready for it, embrace it, and be prepared to enjoy every moment of your wedding whether it's inside or out!”
Planning your outdoor wedding in the heart of the summer? Be aware that while heat isn’t usually a technical problem for wedding photographers, it definitely puts more personal stress on them and the people they’re photographing. Make sure that you have plenty of water on hand, as well as well-located places where they and your guests can cool off if only for a few minutes.
“Heat is a factor only because it affects me personally,” says Hougas. “I’ll bring extra clothes with me, so if I sweat through one pair I just put another on.”
“I’d suggest brides and grooms bring a small towel to wipe themselves off as the sun beats down,” he suggests. “That helps to keep the sweaty highlights down in the photos. And someone in the wedding party should bring a cooler full of water bottles so everyone (including the photographer) stays hydrated and doesn’t get sloshed immediately after the portraits as they hit the reception.”
“I actually shot an August wedding just across the river from NYC,” Ze’evi-christian remembers. “The location had no set up at all and they had to bring in everything, from the caterer to the portable bathrooms, which were all the way up a hill...to the electricity! Plus, the caterer ran out of water.”
Your wedding photojournalist is a pro, so he or she is going to capture great memories no matter what the conditions. “I’m not a traditional photographer,” Ze’evi-christian says, “so anything different is like, ‘yeah, sure!’ I do 40 weddings a year, about 65 percent outdoors, and even though perfect weather conditions are optimal, I find extreme conditions exciting.”
“For example, wind can actually be good. It can blow the bride’s veil, providing a striking shot,” she continues. “I’ll turn the bride around to face the wind, obviously, so that the hair is blowing back but then have her turn again so the veil is covering her face. These humorous moments break any unnecessary tension and create untraditional images."
“If all I get are all perfect conditions, I’m going to hate my job. Being creative is what keeps me going."
— by Michael Roney for The Wedding Photojournalist Association