The Virgin Bride Photographer

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If you are at all keen on photography (and since you are reading this then I have to expect that you are) then at some point in your life you will almost certainly be asked to undertake the role of wedding photographer for a friend or family member.  This is particularly likely if you share your hobby with those around you.  Over time you become known as the guy with the “good” camera, or maybe if you are very lucky, “that chap that takes nice photos”.  Eventually someone will plan to get married and, because they want to keep the costs down, they'll ask you to do the wedding photography.  They will have looked at the professional optionand quickly decided that the bloke with the good camera at work who takes nice photos can do just as good a job; after all his photo of that baby lamb was just so adorable.

The job will be offered to you as a chance to practice your skills and to improveyour portfolio.  You may even be offered a meal at the wedding and perhaps even a small fee.  And the truth is, that for most of us keen amateurs, that is exactly what we want –a chance to play at being professional, to put our skills to some actual use as opposed to simply making images for the joy and love of it.  The kudos that comes with being asked renders the request almost impossible to decline.  The ego takes over and you willingly accept your first wedding.

It's only a little while later that the reality of what you have agreed to sets in.  You will be taking the official photographs on the couple's big day.  It won't be repeatable and not only are the couple themselves relying on you to produce the goods but so are their families.  Don't panic. You have to understand one thing from the start.  Wedding photography is not really about photography –it is all about organisation and planning.  Don't get me wrong, you must know how to work your camera, understand how the quality and quantity of lightaffects the image and of course you must have an eye for a good composition.  But you wouldn't be at this point if those things weren't true... would you?

So the first thing you need to do is establish what the expectations of the bride & groom are.  Actually you should have done this beforeyou accept the job –remember that for next time.  It's important you talk to both of them together, you'll probably find that the bride has more definite ideas about what she wants than the groom but it is still a good idea to hear what they both have to say.

For my first proper wedding I invited Melanie & Mark over to my house.  In this case it was my wife who knew Melanie from work and it was she who suggested that I do the photography for them.  The meeting was very comfortable and it was obvious, having seen my web site and my printed portfolio, that Melanie was confident in my ability to do the job.  The remit was to get some shots of the groom & best man getting ready and then to pop around the corner to the Melanie's parent's house where she would be getting ready with the bridesmaids.  After that it was off to the ancient Dundonald Castle for the ceremony and onto a local hotel for the reception.  I duly noted all of this information together with the planned times for each part of the day.   I also asked them to provide me with a list of “must have” photographs for the group formals which would be my check list on the day.

Initially I had offered to put all of the pictures from the day on a DVD with a selection of the best ones post processed and ready for printing.  They loved the idea but as neither of them had much idea about home printing they requested that I also make up an album for them.  This worried be a little because I knew already just how much time and effort doing an album would take and I didn't really want to start adding to the agreed price.  This is where I think you have to be a bit more hard-nosed and demand a fair compensation for your work.  Unfortunately,when you are dealing with friendsand family that isn't as easy as it sounds.  Anyway, in this case I filed it under “gaining experience” and left it at that.

I was familiar with the castle but I wanted a chance to visit it again with them to understand more about the arrangements for the day.  So I arranged to meet them there the following weekend.  It was a great opportunity to get to know them a bit better and importantly to take a few photos of them together and discuss further the style of the shots they would like.  It also let me gauge just how much direction they would be willing to take when it came to posing.

Image by Clive Watkins


So at this stage I had a schedule for day, and idea of the lighting inside the castle and where exactly in the castle the ceremony would be conducted.   I also discussed what the bad weather plans were if we weren't able to shoot much outside.  I think by now that you can appreciate what I mean about this being more about the organisation than it is about the photography.

Another important aspect of wedding photography that many first timers neglect is equipment.  I'll put it simply.  Please do not attempt to cover a wedding if you only have access to one camera.  A professional will have at least two of everything –camera bodies, lenses, speedlites as well as multiple batteries and memory cards.  Remember Murphy's Law?  If it can go wrong it will go wrong.

At the time of my first wedding I was in the lucky situation of having three DSLR bodies (Canon 5D, 30D and 300D), several lenses.  I only had one speedlite, but the 30D has a pop-up flash as a last resort.  Before the wedding I bought 4 1GB compact flashcards to supplement the 2GB and 8GB cards I already had.  It's worth noting here that it is a good idea to use several smaller cards than one large one.  You do not want to be in the situation where you lose all the images from the day because your 8GB card fails or is misplaced.  Cover yourself as much as possible by having as many backup options as you can lay your hands on.

The evening before the big day I checked and cleaned all of my kit and packed it into my LowePro Stealth Reporter camera bag.  I phoned my assistant to ensure he knew where and when we would be meeting.  When I had first agreed to do the wedding, I had checked with my friend, David, if he would be my assistant.  He was keen to help out in any way he could and I was very happy to have him.  A good assistant is worth his weight in gold.  Having someone to carry your bag, hand you lenses and pack things away allows you to concentrate purely on taking the photographs.  David would also prove invaluable in helping to organise the group shots even when it meant dragging them away from the bar!

With everything all set to go I retired to bed and tried to get a good nights sleep.  This turned out to be almost impossible as my mind constantly whirred through the plan and the shots I would try to get.

I woke up to the sound of the wind driving rain onto my window.  It didn't look at all good for getting any of the romantic poses in and around the castle that I had been planning all night in my sleep.  I felt sorry for Melanie and Mark but at thesame time I resolved to do everything I could to ensure that they had plenty of lovely memories of their wedding day.

At 12 noon I headed to Melanie & Mark's house where Mark and his father, who was also his Best Man, where getting ready.  They were both quite nervous and struggling to dress themselves in the traditional Scottish wedding attire of kilt and Prince Charlie jacket together with all the associated accessories.  I helped to put them at ease and while I helped them to get everything just right I casually took my photos.  Despite the weather there was good light coming into the front room from a large window.  Favouring natural light I used my 50mm f/1.8 on the 5D to take the portraits and my Sigma 24-70mm Macro on the 30D for some close-up shotsof the rings.  That is another really good reason to carry two cameras – it saves you time and effort changing lenses and allows your shooting to be much more fluid and natural.

As expected things were much more chaotic with the girls!  They were doing each other's make-up and finishing touches in the bright front room which had a glorious bay window.  I melted into the background and took a series of natural light candid photographs.  I wanted to get some wider perspectives too so I swapped out the 50mm f/1.8 for my 24-105 f/4 L.  At this point I reckoned that I could use a little bit of fill flash so I hooked up my Sigma speedlite.  I turned on the flash and NOTHING.  No sign of life.  I disconnected the Quantum power pack and tried AA batteries - still nothing.   At this point I was starting to feel sick.  I desperately repeated the battery changing routine maybe say 5 times.  No joy.  I made a frantic phone call to one of my work colleagues who is also a keen photographer praying that he was at home or at least near to the wedding venue. He was at lunch with his brother but he detected the panic in my  voice. He promised to get his Canon Speedlite to the castle for me in time for the ceremony.  Now, I could have survived the day without a speedlite but I hate to think about the stress I would have been under to find natural light for all the photos or having to rely on the direct light from the little flash on the 30D.

Luckily during all this inner turmoil no one else noticed what was going on.  I missed a few of the photographs that I hadwanted to take but I composed myself and carried on taking natural light shots of Melanie with the fast prime lens back on the camera.

Following the preparation shots, it was a 15 minute drive to the castle where I rendezvoused with my assistant.  My good friend Jason also met us there with his Canon speedlite.  Once again, I could breathe a little easier.  I positioned myself at the entrance to the castle which is at the top of a steep hill.  Most of the guests found themselves having to climb up the path to the top in strong wind and light rain.  It all made for some interesting shots of the guests arriving!  Inside the castle itself I took the chance to photograph Mark and his father as they waited nervously for Melanie to arrive.  Melanie's mother, and two of the bridesmaids then arrived (they were driven to the top of the hill in a Range Rover) and I went back outside to get some photographs of them.  The Range Rover then went back to the bottom of the hill to collect the bride Melanie, her father and her the Maid of Honour.  You don't realise just how little time there is to get the photos until you do it for the first time.  I had to  work quickly and confidently as the bridal party arrived and made their way into the castle.  There is very little time to check shots as you take them; I had to be confident that my camera settings were correct as there was no time to reshoot.

Back inside the castle and the service got underway and again it was a case of capturing the key moments and candids of the guests.  Having two cameras once again helped.  I used a combination of high ISO and fast glass on the 30D and my wide angle zoom and borrowed speedlite on the 5D.

After the ceremony there was plenty of opportunity to relax a little and take some candid photos of the guests congratulating the happy couple and having a glass of bubbly.  I noticed that the rain had stopped and quickly ushered Melanie and Mark outside for a few posed shots in a sheltered area of the castle.  I would have loved to have spent more time on these but, even though it was drier, it was still very windy and cold.

Then it was a dash to the foot of the hill to catch the couple departing in the wedding limousine.

The bad weather plan was to get all of the group shots taken inside at the reception. This
is where David was really useful. He talked to the hotel staff for me and arranged the best
room available for the photography. It wasn't ideal as I had to work with the groups
arranged in front of windows which meant that they were very back lit and the photographs
did suffer a little from flare and low contrast. In hindsight I would probably have been
better off posing them facing the windows and making do with the whatever background
the room would have provided. The lighting would have been easier and more natural and
I would have had to have spent less time in PhotoShop post processing them. The lesson
to learn here is to liaise with the reception venue first and evaluate your options before you
turn up on the day.

Despite the less than perfect lighting, the formal groups went well and all the shots on the
checklist were covered and duly ticked off. While the guests were getting drinks and
socialising I had time to go into the banquet room and take some photos of the place
settings and table decorations before everyone came in and started to disturb them.
These are typically things that the couple have spent a lot of time and money organising
and it is good to catch everything in perfect condition before the wedding breakfast gets
I was an invited guest to the wedding so at this point I joined the reception line with my
wife and we took our seats for the meal. My work wasn't done yet though! The traditional
cutting of the cake and the speeches were covered with as minimal fuss as possible. At
that point I put the camera away and enjoyed the meal. Do not be tempted to take
photographs of people eating, it never looks good and is actually quite rude.

I was fortunate to live quite close to the reception, so after the wedding breakfast I drove home to safely deposit most of my equipment and used memory cards. I returned for the evening reception (we do weddings properly here in Scotland!) with just my 5D, 24-105 f/4 105 f/4 L and Jason's speedlite. Melanie and Mark had not asked for any photographs after the speedlite.

Melanie and Mark had not asked for any photographs after the reception except for the ubiquitous first-dance.  However, once I had covered that, I found myself naturally taking candids and posed groups of the evening guests at their tables.  These all made for useful shots for the album, although it did mean that I was effectively working until midnight!

Each of my chosen images was then post processed using a combination of Canon's RAW conversion software, DPP, and PhotoShop.  Where possible I used batch processing to minimise the amount of effort required.  A few of the better shots were given significantly more attention to add various effects such as sepia toning, soft focus and selective sharpening.

I then spent around 4 evenings of the following week working with the Blurb BookSmart software to design an 80 page hard back book.  My style is to show the day as it happened, starting a new chapter for each stage of the wedding.  So once I had the photographs in chronological order it was relatively straight forward to populate the template.  What I was missing was a strong photograph for the back cover of the book.  I needed something to serve as an archetype showing the end of the day but at the same time the beginning of something special and new.  I couldn't think of anything particular to use, the book was already full of images of the bride and groom so I didn't want to use another one of those.  The following day I went out with my camera to get a photo of the castle and to search for some inspiration.  I often find that serendipity lends a helping hand in situations like this and this time it was no different.  After taking lots of photos of the castle but not finding anything that would make a good cover image I packed up my gear and started the drive home.  As I drove out of the village I cast a glance back towards the castle and the most amazing thing happened; the sky darkened and the castle was picked out in a shaft of light.  I stopped the car and got the camera back out and just then, a rainbow appeared over the castle.  The perfect image for the back cover of the book.

A couple of weeks later the book arrived at my house.  Melanie came straight over to collect it when we told her.  She was so happy with the results that she had a tear in her eye as she turned the pages.  Her happiness at seeing the outcome of all that planning and effort made it all worthwhile.  However, I also decided that from now on I was going to charge a more realistic rate.  The next bride to procure my services might well still be a virgin but I had broken my duck!

I enjoyed reading this Clive, really interesting insight in to what it's like to photograph a wedding. Gave me a cold sweat thinking about all the things that could go wrong, right enough!

Dundonald Castle

You can see the book here...

Clive's blog... Enjoy The Light

A wealth of detail and information you gave there Clive, I can relate to it as well.  Always gave me a buzz doing a wedding. It has however been a while since I was a principle photographer at a wedding as I always enjoyed being the secondary one as you could be a bit more adventurous and take photos of the guests.I can so relate to equipment failure on the day. I had 2 bodies, and 2 sets of lenses. The only thing I two flash units, a big wonderul Metz 45 and a more standard unit. On the day as the couple were taking their vows, my Metz would not talk to my cameras for around half an hour. I was at the back of the chapel checking everything, cleaning all contacts, taking its batteries out firing it manually etc. Then whilst still swearing under my breath and getting hot under the collar, everything started working again. The Metz was TTL and I used it bounce off ceilings or walls for a wonderful soft light, plus it could light up a big room for the group shots. and I used to it fire off the other flash when it was slaved. I once had 25 guys in kilts in a semi circle behind the couple, I stood on a chair to get them all in, the Metz did it perfectly. After this failure, the Metz never let me down again. But it was a lesson, take a least 2 of everything! 

One of my favourite weddings was at Loch Lomond, the church at Luss has a strange layout with the chancelrey half way down the ailse. So I set up a camera up on the seats up on the opposite wall which were one floor up. This pointed down at where the couple were getting married. Using a remote I could get 2 angles at once.  This church is also awkward as you cant get a big wedding at the church door as its too small. So I had to get everyone out to the side of the church and take the group shots there. Its fun when you can direct everyone to do as you need.  Afterwards it was down to the Duck Bay Marina, which has completely changed. I took the shots of the couple etc in the garden with Ben Lomond behind them, plus a few family and group shots. After it was all done, I had dinner and a wonderful pint of Fosters. There is a lot of pressure as you said Clive, but its a great achievement when its done well. 

great information i have a wedding to shoot next month 

Submitted by andy-burns on Wed 15 Jul 2020 7:43pm

Great info.but weddings are not for me.i would not enjoy the pressure of the once only chance to capture the I would leave it to the person who enjoys it. Very well put clive.cheers for the info.