Today’s wide-open marketplace for camera bodies, lenses, lighting systems and assorted gadgets provides an unprecedented range of choices for enabling your creative flexibility. Yet everyone knows that good equipment alone does not ensure success, and there’s undoubtedly a point of diminishing returns when you add to the complexity and weight of your gig bag.
So when all is said and done, is it best to work light, or follow the old Scout motto, “Be Prepared”? What combination of equipment is the most useful for the successful wedding photojournalist, balancing results against weight, bulk and convenience?
We decided to poll a few of our award winners on what equipment they bring to weddings and why, and they agree that success really comes down to innate photographic talent, seasoned with just the right amount of gear, plus a dash of extras to keep the creative juices flowing.
With the variety of photography gear available today, it would be easy (and tempting) to stock up on all the latest gadgetry. With so much on hand, you could cater each picture-worthy moment to a particular lens or flash. The problem is you’ll spend a lot of time looking for your equipment and putting it together. Instead, find what works for you and stick with it.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t have the highest quality gear for what you’re doing. That perfect moment cannot be captured with a shoddy flash system. If it is one that does not work fast enough, the moment will be lost.
The majority of photographers that we spoke with work by the motto: less is more. In fact, they will not retrieve a flash from their bags many times because natural light is available. You have to walk that fine line between utilizing the gear that garners you the best results and making use of the natural elements surrounding you.
“Keep it simple,” says Eric Francis, a wedding photographer based in Nebraska, USA, who says that he’ll often walk into a wedding with just two bodies and three prime lenses—no zooms—adding that it helps his creativity to “just make it work” with a basic setup in his hands.
If light is not an issue, such as in an outdoor wedding, Francis puts a 1.4 converter on his 80/200 and will have a 16/35 on the second body. “I’d have everything I need in those two bodies and virtually nothing in my fanny pack,” he notes. “It lets me get back in touch with that creative part of my brain without getting bogged down with all of the lenses and technology.”
Francis put this minimalist creativity to work in capturing his WPJA award-winning photo of a grandmother greeting the wedding couple from her hospital room. “The camera was pre-focused using an on-body flash set to bounce off the ceiling,” he recalls. “I literally reached out with my arm around the groom to grab that moment. When I get into a situation where I know I might not have much time to think about it I’ll put the flash on with omni-bounce, just so I have it.”
Award winner Marianne Earthy, based in Sweden, also tries to keep the weight down, working with two Canon EOS 5Ds, one of which has the add-on hand grip. “The 5D is just so good, it weighs a lot less than the other pro Canon cameras yet gives in my opinion equally good results—especially at the high end 1600-3200 ISO,” she notes.
She also routinely brings along two Canon Speedlite 580 EXs and an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS with two FreeLite A lamp heads and a couple of large soft-boxes, all triggered with Pocket Wizards. The battery-powered Elinchrom setup with light boxes is big and bulky, she admits, but is good for the formals.
Her WPJA winning shot was taken with her favorite set up of a 24 105mm/4.0 on a Canon EOS 5D. “I had chosen the close up angle from the side as I wanted the picture to be free of the wedding guests, yet at the same time I wanted to catch the petals and rice in the air,” she says.
There used to be only one lens strategy for serious photographers: prime lenses with fixed focal lengths. Sure there were zooms, but they just weren’t fast enough—a tradeoff that was untenable for pros whose success depended on getting the shot. Now zoom speeds have improved significantly, making that category a viable tool for professionals. The WPJA’s top shooters tend to routinely use a mix of prime and zoom lenses, depending on the weather and other environmental factors. Of course, the zooms bring the benefits of lighter weight and improved reaction times, making it easier to capture those fleeting moments.
Earthy and her husband use a range of fixed and zoom lenses, as well as a prime 85mm/1.8. “The primes give you light weight (which is important for me) and are beautifully sharp,” Earthy notes. “However you cannot beat a zoom when you’re in the thick of the action.”
“I would like to use zooms all the time but in the dark Swedish winter months they are not good enough and I need really fast prime lenses to cope with the light,” she explains. “During the bright summer, I love using the 24-105mm for its light weight and the way it fits neatly on the 5D. The focal range is great from wide angle to portraits, it’s my number-one set up if the light conditions allow it.”
The ideal scenario is that you have your go-to body and lens combination that you use all the time. It is one that can be used in many different settings, under varying light conditions. Finding out which combination works for you can only be done through trial and error. Though once you’ve found it, it can be your lifeline to getting the images you want quickly, efficiently and with total ease.
Depending on the wedding, the layout, indoor or outdoor, a lot of light or none, Francis’s favorite setup is with fixed lenses—with a 20mm, 50mm and 135mm being his faves for now. “That gives me the fast glass to work in low light,” he explains. “My strobes are on most of the time used for just a little shadow fill. I very rarely use them as a complete light source.”
If he’s shooting an outdoor wedding, and light’s not an issue, he’ll go with a 16-35mm and 80-200mm, with a 300mm pressed into service during the ceremony from the back of the church, or from around the edges.
The overall sentiment toward a light and flexible approach doesn’t mean that our experts don’t ever bring additional equipment and assorted gadgets to their jobs.
“Even though I was never a Boy Scout, I go with that mentality,” Francis says. “I bring whatever I might need for any situation, and often leave it in the car. That way, if I absolutely have to have it, I can have it in my bag or run out to get it.
Earthy follows the same philosophy. “I have a lot of equipment that I take to my weddings, and a lot of it may stay in the car or I might use it all—it depends on the wedding and how I want to shoot it,” she says.
“The most valuable piece of equipment I own is my monopod,” she says. “It is one of the cheapest bits of equipment I own, but it’s worth its weight in gold, since it always ensures that I get sharp shots from the darkest of dark churches.” And there are plenty of those in Sweden in the winter.
Earthy also swears by the Lastolite Ezybalance greycard, which is small, collapsible and fits neatly in the camera bag. “I white-balance my camera with it at the church and reception venue, saving me hours of post production computer time as I hardly have to do any color correction.”
Even though Francis essentially believes that less is more, he recently has borrowed an idea from sports photography and has been taking up to four bodies to weddings, using up to three of them as remotes, triggered by a Pocket Wizard. He sets them up in places not easily accessible during the ceremonies, providing interesting angles that might otherwise be impossible to capture. “A lot of the shots end up being deleted,” he says, “but if I can get one picture I really like, I’m happy. When you’re talking about some of the shorter ceremonies—20 minutes top to bottom you don’t have a lot of time to run around, get different angles and try different stuff. So it’s nice to have those other angles to put in your coverage.”
And when it comes to creative gadgetry, Francis doesn’t stop there. He bought a few of those small orange hand clamps at the hardware store and put hot shoes on them, creating a set of homemade, extremely mobile remote flash mounts that can be triggered with his camera’s TTL-enabled infrared transmitter.
“This means that I can walk in the room and if it’s really dim, I can clamp flashes on door jams, windows, bookcases—almost anything—and that gives me an indirect light source,” he states. “With those I can almost create window light with two or three hanging on a door.”
If this seems like a lot of gadgetry for a “keep it simple” guy, Francis has a reasonable explanation. “Sometimes you can get bogged down in the ‘same old, same old,’” he says, “So you’ve just got to try something else once in awhile to jumpstart your creativity.”
“Remember why you’re there— to capture moments,” he adds. “And remember that with all of its bells and whistles now, photography is still all about f-stops and shutter speeds.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association