Learn Wedding Photography from the Pros

Wedding photography is one of the fastest-growing areas of the photography industry. But if you’re looking to join this trend or expand an existing business, it’s important to do your research first. Once you have a handle on the job’s technical and creative requirements, you’ll be better equipped to make your clients happy and attract new customers.

I spoke with three professional wedding photographers to get their take on these key areas of wedding photography:

* Gear to bring
* Flash vs. natural light
* Best ISOs
* Best shutter speeds and aperture
* Must-have shots
* Contracts
* Back-ups

Gear Check
A “typical” gear checklist is about as varied as the photographers themselves. Dan Harris, a wedding photographer in Jacksonville, Florida, uses up to seven different cameras at a large wedding.

“I have two cameras on me at any given time, usually one with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens and the other with a 70-200mm VR f2.8,” says Harris. “Grabbing a different camera is quicker and safer than changing a lens, and it insures that if a camera has a malfunction, I can quickly change cameras and only lose a small percentage of the images from the wedding day.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Dan Harris.

Harris carries special lenses and filters, as well, such as a 10.5mm f2.8 fisheye lens, an 85mm f1.4 for dark reception halls, and a 105mm f2.8 macro for extreme close-ups of small details. “Occasionally, I’ll use a star-filter for candle-lit special effects,” adds Harris.

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Dan Harris.

“I have two Nikon D3 digital SLRs that I take to every wedding, and I have a pair of Nikon D2Xs as backups,” says Corey McNabb, who’s been listed as one of the top photographers in the world by the Wedding Photojournalist Association. “I have myriad lenses, but I typically limit the majority of my wedding photography to only two: the 14-24mm f-2.8 and the 70-200mm f-2.8 VR.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Corey McNabb.

Flash vs. Natural Light
Although there can be negative aspects to flash photography, in some cases you have no choice. “If there is no light, there is no picture,” says Armando Solares, an award-winning photographer. “The trick is to learn to balance flash with ambient light, even if it’s scarce,” says Solares.

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Armando Solares.

“I prefer perfect natural light, but as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ photojournalist it doesn’t always follow me!” says Harris. “If possible, I always start with natural light. When that doesn’t work, I still use the natural light as my main light and add a little bit of fill with a reflector or the flash. If that doesn’t work, then I use off-camera or bounced flash.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Corey McNabb.

ISO Settings
Because the lighting is apt to vary widely during the course of a wedding and reception, you’ll likely use several different ISO settings. Lower ISOs let you capture more rich detail, but you need more light. When there’s less light, you’ll have to crank up the ISO setting despite the possibility of resulting noise.

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Corey McNabb.

“When using film, I prefer to use 400 speed the most, 160 speed for the group shots and 800, 1600 and 3200 ISO for special situations, dedicated cameras and for special effects,” says Harris. “The same holds true for digital, but with some of the newer cameras, 800 ISO has become the new 400 ISO.”

“I use very low ISO. In sunlight, I’ll go from 100 ISO up to 400 ISO,” says Solares. “If it’s dark, I’ll go to about ISO 1250.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Armando Solares.

“I change my film speed settings as often as I do my shutter speed,” says McNabb. “I’m a huge fan of the quality of images, even at high ISOs, that my D3s provide. My most recent wedding, for example, I never shot below 1600 ISO and was comfortable shooting at 5000-6400 ISO regularly, even shooting a few images at 25,600!”

Shutter Speed and Aperture
As you might expect, the best aperture and shutter speeds depend on the situation and the effects you’re trying to achieve. “If a group shot is several people deep,” says Harris, “it requires a higher aperture to ensure acceptable depth of field, depending on your lens, ISO setting, and camera. An f-stop of f8 or higher would be the rule of thumb.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Corey McNabb.

The dance scenes and the close-ups of the couple may require a softer look. “Generally speaking, if you’re portraying a softer, more romantic image, a wider aperture with softer focus, like f1.2-f2.8, will help to portray the ethereal, romantic feel,” says Harris.

“It really depends on the location, the lighting set-up, and the equipment being used,” says Solares. “I have shot group shots with studio lights at f/11 to f/16, right down to natural light at f/1.2.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Armando Solares.

Instead of using manual mode, using aperture priority mode lets you control the depth of field without worrying about adjusting the shutter speed manually. “I typically use aperture priority because I like really shallow depths of field,” says Solares. “I’m constantly adjusting aperture and shutter speeds depending on the light and what I want to achieve.”

“Though still vital to a complete wedding delivery, I don’t spend a lot of time on group shots,” says McNabb. “Rather, I quickly document the important players so that my clients can get back to enjoying their special day. I shoot wide-open apertures throughout the day, and group formals are no exception. Faster lenses help isolate the subject by delivering quality bokeh and allow for the faster shutter speeds needed when shooting without a tripod, as I do.”

Must-Have Shots
While there are specific points in the day you should document, your clients will also appreciate shots of behind-the-scenes moments.

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Dan Harris.

“Of course, the first kiss, first dance, and cake cutting have historically been the shoots to not miss, and they still are,” says McNabb. “But now, just as important if not more so, are the not-so-obvious aspects of a wedding. The tension of preparatory events, the quiet tears, and the laughter at the reception are all moments that I definitely want to capture for my clients.”

“If a wedding photographer captures the main events reasonably well in a polite and unobtrusive manner, the bride will most likely consider the job to be acceptable,” says Harris. “If the photographer is able to capture more detail than expected, they’ll be considered a good photographer. But if the photographer is able to capture all the events and details along with some unexpected moments and some great group photos in an interesting and artistic manner, then they will be praised as a phenomenal photographer!”

“While keeping my clients’ needs in mind at all times, I still take the artistic liberties that I know will help me deliver the caliber of imagery my clients have come to expect from me,” says McNabb. “I’ve done my best before the wedding to help educate my clients about my creative style so that by the time the wedding takes place, we have already built a relationship in which they trust that I’ll deliver imagery that not only meets their needs, but that also maintains the integrity of my artistic vision.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Corey McNabb.

Write a Good Contract
Shooting a wedding is a highly charged event. It’s also a business deal, and everyone involved should recognize that from the beginning. “Without a good contract, your business is in jeopardy and it’s only a matter of time before one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” says Harris.

“Make sure you have an iron-clad contract that has been reviewed by an attorney,” says Solares. The contract should limit your liability and grant you permission to use the images in certain situations, such as advertising.

“Keep your copyrights, no matter what,” adds Solares. That allows you to charge for prints of the images, instead of selling all rights to the image to the couple.

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Corey McNabb.

Back It Up
If you lose a memory card or your hard drive goes south, the couple’s not going to re-do their wedding, so it’s important to back up your photos.

Some digital SLR shooters back up their data on site with a portable media storage device. But don’t stop there. “The day after the wedding, I back up at least four copies of every image on three different types of media,” says Harris. “I have a clause in my contract that says I will store every image from a wedding for up to three years on an archival DVD in a fireproof media safe.”

“The bride assumes that you have a tried and true, redundant backup system,” says Harris. “She may not ask you to prove it and may not pay you more if yours is better, but you can quickly be put out of business if you don’t have it.”

Click on the image for a larger version. Photo by Dan Harris.

Just the Beginning
When starting out in wedding photography, it’s imperative to invest in education. “When I got started in the wedding business, I didn’t know about wedding photography workshops or forums,” says McNabb. “Though equipment improves and techniques and styles evolve, education only builds on itself and can never be taken away from you.”

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Posted on: June 25, 2008

4 Comments on Learn Wedding Photography from the Pros

  1. Says Solares, “I typically use aperture priority because I like really shallow depths of field,”
    If the image above this statement is meant to show how aperature controls depth of field, then somebodies needs some photography help. It’s obvious that the image was manipulated in software such as photoshop. How can the two women beso out of focus and the wall be so sharp?

  2. Now I see, the OOF rendering of the women which are probably photoshopped into the picture looks extremely ugly. The photographer forgot to mention that fast prime lenses have the better bokeh, while the bokeh of a 105 mm macro lens is of less quality. As far I remember 20 years ago the slides of my portrait was stored for at least 7 years, therefore I feel 3 years are too less. As a potential customer I feel bad about a pro caring so much about his rights on the pictures. The package is expensive especially for the client, therefore I expect from the photographer that there are no hidden costs. The deal is right as soom both parties are happy with what they get or earn. Once a calculated price is exceeded, I as a customer feel very unease.

  3. where can i see the pro wedding photography

  4. hi im a amuter photographer and i have done a few wedding for friends and really loved it my friends pics turned out ok i use sony A200x 3.5-5.6F /18-70mm, digital and shoot in RAW minolta 1.5m / 4.9 75-300mm and x 2 CF cards 4gb each.
    my friends were please with the photos but i felt that i couild of done more but i got a bit flustered with the shutters speeds and would like some general advice as rule of thumb of what i should be using.
    my email is phil-20@hotmail.co.uk, i have found this site very useful but its nice to talk to some pro to help get esstabilshed thanks

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