Shooting a Wedding for free

Professionally, I’ve shot one wedding before and it was a complete nightmare.  I was somewhat roped into it by a coworker at the last minute and I ended up shooting the whole thing with a Nikon D200, a Nikon SB600 flash, a Nikon SB800 flash and the wretched Nikkor 18-200 VR zoom lens.  I had very little experience on the equipment, zero experience shooting a wedding and zero room for failure.  Although the pictures were mostly acceptable from an artistic perspective, I would never put myself in that sort of situation again.

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The flowergirl was a ham.

The truth is that event photography is hard.  Wedding photography as a subset of event photography is an incredibly hard thing to learn on your own and is really best left to people who have solid experience doing it.

You really need a second-nature understanding of flash photography (which I still don’t fully grasp) and a complete command of your equipment in order to perform well under the strenuous conditions of a wedding.  Realistically, I probably spent about as much time trying to figure out how to change the settings on the camera and flash equipment as I did actually shooting pictures.  In addition, you need to be able to pose groups of people on the fly, anticipate moments before they happen and keep a mental checklist of the photos you think the couple will want as you go.

I missed few great moments, many of my shots were less then stellar, and I spent about a solid month working in photoshop before I was able to hand over a CD of the best images.  The couple ended up mostly satisfied with the results, though they were slightly annoyed with the time it took me to complete the post-processing work.

I never intended to accept responsability for being the sole photographer at someone’s wedding, and I regretted almost every moment of the experience, but I did learn a number of things as a result of completing the task.

1. Equipment does matter.  Anyone that tells you “The photographer makes the shot not the camera” is lying to you.  Unlike day-to-day shooting, event photography is not an arena where you can mitigate the faults of your equipment by shooting to your strengths.

If your lens is slow at long distances, you’re not going to be able to work without raising your ISO significantly.  If your camera system isn’t intuitive and easy to operate, then you’re going to miss great moments while you fiddle with controls.  If your flash has a slow recycle time, then you’re going to have a lot of unusable shots where your flash didn’t fire and even more shots that you’re going to miss while you’re waiting for the flash to charge.

cakesmushMost of all, people aren’t going to put a genuine moment on hold and wait patiently while you fiddle with your equipment.  If you’re not able to grab a shot as it’s happening, you won’t ever get the opportunity to get it again.  Case in point, to the left is the shot I captured right after the bride smashed the grooms face with cake.  If you miss it because your flash wasn’t ready, then you missed it.

2. Shooting RAW is the only way to go.  Sure you need a ton of cards because you can rack up over a thousand frames pretty easily, but even the best JPG compression is unforgiving in low light and high-ISO situations.  RAW won’t save a hopeless shot, but it will give you the latitude to rescue a bunch of marginal ones.  I admit that I bought the arguments professed online by interweb blowhards that JPG was “good enough” and that the storage space required for RAW images didn’t justify the minimal increase in quality, but after switching over to RAW shooting with Aperture 2, I’ve been shocked at the differences in processing latitude afforded by RAW over JPG.

Even images that were saved in the highest JPG compression quickly block-up in the toe of the curve, showing the ugly compromises of DCT compression.  By contrast, images saved in RAW format have huge amounts of latitude to pull up the toe and bring the shoulder of an images curve back into range.  If I’d shot this wedding project in RAW instead of JPG, I would have cut my processing time in half.

bnardswedding23. Regardless of your ability, your time comes at a cost.  This is a tricky concept for amateurs like me to understand, but it’s important to realize that even if you don’t think your photography worth charging someone for, your time is finite and thus has an inherent value to you.  There’s nothing wrong with offering your services  for little or no fee, but you should be realistic about what it is costing you and limit the level of your obligation according to the amount of time you’re willing to part with.

Although shooting this wedding did only take a single day of my life, I did not consider in advance the 20+ hours I spent after the event color correcting, applying curves adjustment layers, retouching, cropping, and sharpening all the images I captured.  Even when performed during your spare time, 30 hours of your labor is a tangible expense that takes away from other aspects of your personal life.  It’s important to be realistic about what you’re agreeing to provide someone and how much of your time it will take to finish the job.

4. Sometimes you have to see what you do wrong to see what you do right. The shots that didn’t work will be obvious and easy to criticize, but it’s important to look for patterns within the shots that did work.  Are all of your best shots taken at a similar distance?  Do they share similar lighting or framing?  Do they capture specific candid moments or are they staged and posed?  Recognizing these patterns can often lead you to find strengths in shooting you didn’t know you had.

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Not frame worthy, but quirky enough to like

What was plainly obvious in the massive number of shots that I captured at this particular wedding is that my strengths are in mid to close range candids.  My posed formal shots of the bridal party were acceptable, if challenging to visualize and achieve, but the candid shots of the bridal party taken before the staged session was far more successful.

The long range shots of the bride and groom’s first dance did the job, but the close up shots of guests kicking it on the floor were far superior.  This contrast showed me something that I was coming to understand about my own photography and encouraged me to explore more photojournalistic close-range candids.  Eventually, this exploration developed into a specific technique that I’ve developed that has gradually become a “signature” part of my photographic style…something I’ll delve into for my next post.

So, although I regretted taking the job for the unwanted responsibilities it placed on me along with the amount of time it removed from my life, I was able to turn it into a learning process that would better prepare me for similar event photography situations in the future.

These shots here are acceptable, but to truly understand what great wedding photography looks like, you’ve got to see the work of a great wedding photographer.  One of the best out there today is Ryan Brenizer from New York.  Take a look at his flickr.com page and drool.

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