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What I Learned From Photographing a Wedding for the First Time....

Tee

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We all know how it starts. Maybe your sister is getting married, or your cousin, or your hairstylist. Hey, you've got yourself one of them fancy schmancy camera thingys and honestly, how hard can it be, right? This is a story told time and time again. This is my story (with a few images)....

The Background
I've been best friends with J for 25 years. We were college roommates. We were straight up bros. Last year he and his girlfriend decided to make it official and he asked me if I would photograph his wedding. Now...in many TPF threads regarding being asked to shoot a wedding for the first time there's usually some sort of guilt trip put on the person with a camera. I always respond telling them to man up and just say no. I followed my advice and told J "absolutely not" but if he wanted an opinion on hiring a photographer I would be happy to help. Shockingly, there was no animosity, no guilt trip, no pleading on bended knees. I knew my skill level. I was not going to ruin their day. This conversation took place over a year ago and it was a one time request and life went on. We were still BFF's. Fast forward. I had been traveling on a work assignment all summer long and did not communicate much with friends and family. When I came back in September I caught up with J to see how the wedding plans were coming along. They just had a baby so their focus was on that (she also has a son) and with money being tight they were truly doing this on the cheap. I razzed him about finding a photographer on Craigslist and because the wedding ceremony was going to be so small (immediate family only) that her brother was going to take the photos. They were going to have a larger reception the following day for friends and extended family. It was then I realized that the brother shouldn't have to spend time taking photos when he should be enjoying the ceremony. I was the one who brought it up. I would swing by, be unobtrusive but capture the ceremony. Sounds so easy, right? I mean, I've shot models outdoors. What could possibly be so different?

The Gear
Being on TPF has been good for a few things. The monthly "I have to shoot a wedding in 2 weeks, what settings should I use?" are classics but nestled in between the snark is valuable advice. Two of everything. Backups for the backups. Don't shoot it if you're not confident of your skills, etc. I took stock of my gear. I had 1 Nikon D700, the trinity lenses, 28mm, 50mm, 85mm and an SB-910. I was better equipped than most. I also had monolights, modifiers, and a portable battery pack with an extra battery. In the gear department I truly felt I was suited up. I was using the same gear that pro's use. The one problem...I only had one of each. I went and looked at lens rentals. I wanted to get at least one more D700. I could use body for the zooms and the other for the primes. Then I get called away on a work trip. When I get back, I only had 1 week until the wedding. Life was crazy. I did not have time to get another body. Was I about to be introduced to Murphy and his famous Laws? The one thing I made sure I had a lot of was batteries and CF cards. Don't skimp on those. I went with three 8 packs of AA's and six 16gb memory cards which would give me a little over 3,600 exposures in RAW format. I knew there was no way I was gonna max that. I'm not enrolled in the school of spray-n-pray but I wanted backup in case I hard a card failure. After all...they don't want fancy images....maybe I'm over thinking this?


Preparation
It does not matter how many times the bride and groom doing a wedding on the cheap say, "We're not looking for anything special. We just want images of our day." Deep down inside places we don't talk about we all know this not to be true. They're hoping for rock star photos. So even though J and K fed me that same line (and to some degree, I knew they were being sincere) my goal was to go above and beyond their expectations. I went and searched every TPF wedding thread, combed the FM forums for posing and thoughts of the busniess, and wrote posing checklists. I got the address of the river side ceremony for a recon. I tried to leave no surprises. Would I have time to set up monolights for wedding formals? Would I be able to switch lenses on the fly? OMG...how am I gonna carry the lenses? I only have a backpack. I can't be slinging that around every time. I ended up getting a shoulder bag. I practiced reaching in blindly and swapping lenses. I memorized which place each lens size was going to be. Was I ready?

The Wedding Day...and a big, bright sun
If you didn't know this, every great plan fails upon first contact. I showed up to the river 30 minutes before everyone else. Neither J or K wanted getting ready shots. This truly was a small family wedding. I went and looked through my camera at the wedding location sizing up angles, determining lens choice and where the sun was falling. Oh crap! The sun is blazing! This can't be possible. I drove by the previous day at the same time and the light looked amazing. And then it dawned on me. The wedding was pushed up 30 minutes. *facepalm*

The cars pulled up. Everyone got out and suddenly I realize this thing is happening. Like now, happening. No hanging out and socializing. No pre-ceremony champagne toast. They all start walking to the river side and I'm snapping along the way, not letting on that I'm about to crap a log cabin. The sun was very harsh. Like, "I'm about to fubar this up, harsh". J and K position themselves so the sun isn't in their eyes when they look at each other or the minister. This means, the sun was at their backs. "Great", I moan thinking about back lighting and if I could get my monolights out and shove it right in their faces, I'd be golden. But such does not happen. It was so quiet. There were leaves on the ground. Every time I took a step it sounded like I was stepping on mousetraps. I was trying to be quiet. Yet, I couldn't find the right angle to get a good shot without elbowing Grandma Agnes in the kidneys. Here's what I came up with;

$JK3.ws.jpg

Not the best but I thought the back lighting worked in this position. I knew I had to get the following shots: bride and groom, any family members doing readings, candid's (getting mom wiping a tear away), the ring exchange and the kiss. The kiss! How am I gonna get that in this sun? The whole time I'm listening to the minister talk so I could hear when the ring exchange, vows, and kiss were gonna happen. During that time I was snapping away at family members but secretly trying to wrangle my way into position for the kiss and ring exchange. I figured I could miss the candid's but if I miss "the kiss", I'm off this years Christmas card list and for years after. Like I said, the sun was harsh. I went to the other side and this is what the sun looked like on J and K:

$JK15.ws.jpg

Too harsh but the ring exchange was about to happen. I had no time to move.

$JK16.ws.jpg

I captured this one and stepped on a million moustraps (leaves) to get back to where I was at for the first shot being back lighted and caught the kiss:

$JK17.ws.jpg

Had I stayed where I was, I would've blown out the face. A pro could've done it. I'm still figuring it out. I needed to play it safe. Still, I think the sun accentuating the bodies works (at least I keep telling myself that).

Back to the posing thing
This was one area I thought was gonna be decent at. I have posed models before. Yeah....about that. It's one thing to have a models sole attention and take your time to shoot. It's another when you're faced with competing demands from a crying newborn, parents, and a dinner to get to that's 35 minutes away. I had 10 minutes and I wanted to get varying shots. Remember how I wrote down posing shots? I might as well spent my time learning Mandarin. Here's my first shot:
$JK30.ws.jpg

I failed to turn the bodies away from the camera and thus capturing a full on pose. Not the most flattering. When I got home and loaded the images and saw the posing, my neighbors could hear the thud of me banging my head on my desk. How about a cliche shot of the out of focus couple/ in focus bouquet? Check!

$JK32.ws.jpg

Oh...and by the way. All the shots were at ISO 1600. Not by choice but because my mental checklist of always double checking ISO decided to take a vacation.

The Post Wedding Dinner
Time to really crank up the ISO. This room was so dark, we were issued miner's lanterns. Kidding....slightly. I broke out the trusty SB-910 and figured, what the heck. They only wanted photos of the wedding so everything else was bonus. I cranked the ISO up to 6400 a few times but mostly stayed between 1600 and 3200. Still, I was worried about how much noise I would capture. A few from the dinner;

Reviewing the wedding taken on a cellphone. ISO 6400
$JK41.ws.jpg

A toast for the happy couple at ISO 3200
$JK44.ws.jpg

Father and sons having some fun at ISO 1600
$JK50.ws.jpg

A little tiramisu? Yes, please.
$JK51.ws.jpg

The reception in the next post below....
 
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The Reception
J and K told me from the start that they didn't expect me to cover the reception since it was designed for friends and family and they wanted me to have a good time. Honestly, having a camera in my hands is a good time so I figured what's the worst that could happen? Plus, I wanted the experience. The lighting was the same as the dinner. Low and not pleasing. ISO 3200 and I were becoming fast friends. The ceiling was low. I was bouncing my flash. I knew there was going to be shadows.

The DJ was rockin...
$JK66.ws.jpg

And the couple was happy...
$JK67.ws.jpg

The girls had fun, too...
$JK4.ws.jpg

And we slowed it down...
$JK69.ws.jpg

There was cupcakes...
$JK57.ws.jpg

And fun dancing.
$JK98.ws.jpg


So what did I learn? I learned that even the smallest wedding is hard. I learned that when couples plan a wedding they don't plan around the light the way a photographer see's it. I learned that converting to B&W can salvage an image. I learned that I want to second shoot weddings under a pro and do more. I learned that anyone willing to shoot a wedding has some serious guts and I respect that. J and K were happy with the images. They got more than they expected and were grateful I volunteered to do this. For a first time, dealing with many variables I feel I did ok. Not stellar by any means but safe. I'm ok with safe.


Thanks for following my experience.
 
Tee said:
So what did I learn? I learned that even the smallest wedding is hard. I learned that when couples plan a wedding they don't plan around the light the way a photographer see's it. I learned that converting to B&W can salvage an image. I learned that I want to second shoot weddings under a pro and do more. I learned that anyone willing to shoot a wedding has some serious guts and I respect that. J and K were happy with the images. They got more than they expected and were grateful I volunteered to do this. For a first time, dealing with many variables I feel I did ok. Not stellar by any means but safe. I'm ok with safe.

Thanks for following my experience.

I just had this exact same experience two weeks ago. Small wedding, close friend with very little budget, bad timing from bride and groom. I took the play it safe route as well and the couple was happy. To me that's the most important thing. I learned pretty much the same things you did. I personally liked the pressure, I like challenges. That being said I think both you and I have a lot to learn, and we know it, before trying that again. Glad things worked out well for you.
 
Definitely lots to learn. I've contacted pretty much every wedding photographer to get experience and let me say, finding one is easier said then done. Still, I'm reaching out.
 
You wanna know what I learned? Back up your sh!t. I didn't and lost all 2k of my shots. Luckily I was only shadowing the main photographer and not even a second shooter but never-the-less it should never happen.
 
Haven't tried contacting any photographers yet but I plan to probably after the holidays. Maybe I'll get lucky.

ewick said:
You wanna know what I learned? Back up your sh!t. I didn't and lost all 2k of my shots. Luckily I was only shadowing the main photographer and not even a second shooter but never-the-less it should never happen.

That sucks, had read a post or two about losing shots so I had bought a backup drive beforehand to make sure it didn't happen to me.
 
That is a great summary of the laid back wedding! You did an awesome job with the writing and the honesty about what goes into it. I think you did really great working under that back lit situation and the panic factor that went with it. The images do work and they work well. These may be safe shots, but the way you worked with it gives this wedding a look that isn't same old same old.
Beautiful job!
 
This really made me smile..... I did my first wedding (they new it was my first) and the same thoughts ran through my head. You don't realise how quick thing you have to be.. Photos are great :wink:
 
Quick thinking that was meant to say....
 
I'd say, you did well. What makes the photos work is that the people shine through the frames. Perhaps not the most polished, but they are "real". I'd be pretty proud of these if I had shot them. And excellent writeup. We need to save this so we can show people with the same challenges, what goes into doing this. Tee, congratulations.
 
Excellent post - this should be required required reading for everyone about to undertake their first wedding.
 
Good post, Tee. I liked the comment, "a little over 3,600 exposures in RAW format." Yeah....expecting a fire-fight with a Taliban photographer on the other side of that ridge???
 
As I reluctancly accepted a request to photograph my uncles ultra low budget wedding next year thank you for the advice.
 
Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. I am sure, actually I know, it will help someone in the future. I know the first wedding I shadowed at (for free and NOT as a second shooter) my images were pretty crappy because I was flat out unprepared for what I was getting into which was to be expected I guess. Now, as I look back I am so thankful for all of the opportunities I was given to shadow and then to second shoot.
 
Thank you all for your replies and comments. I appreciate the many perspectives. I wanted to put myself out there and show images that may not be the best for other members who may be considering doing this. I prepared as thoroughly as I could and still ran into many challenges. I am lucky my trusty camera didn't take a crapper on me. When I do another one, I'm definitely going to have another body with me.
 

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