10 Aug 2011

Formal Wedding Photography: 1. Planning

Submitted by Roger

Very few photographers have what it takes to do formal wedding photography. The technical aspects of your craft have to be second nature, and you have to be able to manage people without offending them.

You must be both artist and project manager without seeming to intrude on your clients' special day. When you first meet with your potential clients, you begin taking notes! Document everything you discuss and do. Even if you are not hired to do the photography, your notes become part of your learning experience, and may give you clues as to what you might do differently to capture the potential clients' interest. These notes will also be invaluable when you receive a call 3 months later and they say, "It's .... , do you remember me?".

When you sit down with your clients, the very first thing you must make clear to them is that good photographs do not happen by accident. If they want snapshots, then everyone at the wedding will be taking pictures, and they can collect snapshots from their guests.

Although you may do some candids if they wish, your job is to properly document the day and to give them memorable shots they will be proud to show others for years to come. For this to happen, your photography must become an integral part of the day, and the day must be planned accordingly. Also stress that the better informed the people are about the photography, the smoother and less intrusive it will be. Perhaps you can include a final planning session which will include the bridal party and immediate family on both sides. If they are using a wedding planner, make sure that you contact the planner and coordinate with them.

The Day

Your day will begin at the bride's home about 2 hours before the ceremony. You will do a number of shots of the bride, her family and the wedding party. This gives you the opportunity to review the planned photography (informally) with the bridal party, and to establish a rapport with them. With their help and understanding, the rest of the day will be organized by them with only minimal guidance from you. (Fail to establish that rapport, and you will be fighting an uphill battle trying to coordinate everyone for the shots.)

You will leave the bride's home at least 1/2 hour before the bride to be at the venue and set up when she arrives for the ceremony.

Some venues might have restrictions on photography. If so, let the bride deal with the priest on this matter first. She is more likely to change his mind than you are.

Some might object to the use of flash, and some might have restrictions on where you can place yourself or move about during the ceremony. If you are not familiar with the venue, try to arrange attendance at the rehearsal to plan your photography. If you have questions for the priest, save them for after the rehearsal.

After the ceremony, formal shots are usually arranged before the reception. You should be familiar with the various locations in your area, as well as any seasonal variations those locations may have. If an outdoor location is chosen, always make arrangements for an indoor location in case of inclement weather. Allow at least 2 hours for this work, and, again, make sure that everyone who is needed will be there to start. You will start with family groups and special friends, followed by the bridal party, finishing with the bride and groom alone. As you finish with people, you will send them on ahead to the reception so the number of people decreases and the work relaxes.

During the reception, arrange for an hour to get something to eat. Most clients are willing to provide a place for the photographer at the reception, but this should never be assumed. If you take a break, your return should be scheduled prior to the cutting of the cake. Photography should continue until the bride and groom finally leave.


Weddings are always shot using the highest resolution possible. I originally used 120 (6X6) colour. Anything smaller would not enlarge without showing grain and losing sharpness. Digital SLR is fine, but do not use a half-frame sensor.

The camera should be of professional grade like a Canon 5D or 1D. Zoom lenses are fine if they are sharp, like the Canon EF 28-70mm mark II (the "secret gem"). Otherwise use prime focus lenses for your critical work.

It goes without saying to carry two cameras, two flashes, at least two sets of fully charged batteries for each, and multiple memory cards. Equipment failure happens when it is least convenient. Handle-mount flashes are recommended, like the Metz Mecablitz. If you do carry a shoe-mount unit, make it your backup.

You will carry a bag of tricks. Every wedding photographer should carry safety pins! Wardrobe malfunctions will ruin the photo sessions as people run around trying to fix the problem. If you have readily available safety pins to fix rips and failed fasteners, you not only save the photo session, but you will be their hero as you have just saved the day.

If you intend to do candle light photos, bring your own candles, matches and candle holder. Also bring a large (black) cloth to go under the candles and catch any wax drip. Carry a white waterproof sheet to protect the bride's dress if you wish to pose her seated and the ground might be damp or dirty.

A tripod is advisable for low light, however it is not mandatory. As you develop your craft, you will add other items which might prove useful.

Attire and Deportment

A wedding is no place for jeans and a photographers vest. Show some respect and make sure your attire is as good as the best dressed guests. I made a point always to wear a suit and tie (my collection of safety pins was inside the left breast of the jacket).

NEVER accept an alcoholic beverage. If something goes wrong, you do not want anyone to say they saw you drinking.

Weddings create a mass hysteria in the guests, prompting them to feel all lovey toward their mates. Single guests are no different. NEVER try to get their name and number (even if offered). If you meet them later under different circumstances it is open season, but don't risk the dangers of their sober second thought when your income depends on their good opinion of you. I always wore a ring to thwart any such situation.

Carry business cards, but only bring one out if asked. The guests will see your work, and will be referred by the bride and groom if they wish to contact you. You are there to do a job, not to network.

If you need something, be friendly but firm. Enlist the help of the best man and maid of honour to collect people for a task.

Never touch anyone unless you tell them you are going to do so ("Here ... let me change your position a bit...."), and use the photographers two-fingered persuasion (only the middle fingers of the left and right hands contact the subject to gently show them how you wish them to move). NEVER grasp any part of any subject, and never touch any part of them that might be misconstrued as an intimate contact.

You are a photographer. You are a professional. Be both!