Weddings

This is not a guide to shooting weddings commercially. We have never done this, and we never want to. Rather, it's about shooting weddings for friends. This may either be because they're too young and broke to afford anything else (which accounted for the first two that Roger shot), or because they're very old friends and really, really want you to shoot their weddings: you would offend them more by refusing than you would by doing it on your terms.

neil, big group

Neil and Leslie, with guests

Neil and Roger met in their 'teens in the 1960s; Neil finally married in 2000 (by which time Roger had been married twice, in 1977 and 1982, the second time to Frances). This is the big wedding group, complete with Morris side and folk singers. The sepia toning and panoramic format emphasize the timelessness of weddings. Frances shot this with a Nikkormat and 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor; film, Ilford XP2 Super; print, Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

As part of the strategy for reducing the stress of shooting weddings, you may care to suggest to the couple that they buy a basic package from a commercial photographer for the set-piece shots, especially the family groups, and that you fill in the background pictures. This is especially useful if either partner (or their families) have especially fixed expectations about conventional wedding pictures.

If at all possible, clarify this arrangement with the hired professional, and do not 'steal' his set-up shots. One friend's wedding we didn't shoot (thank heavens!) worked very well on this basis. We shot a couple of rolls each, and he was delighted with five or ten shots, but they were a supplement to the wedding photographer's package, with no overlap. Only carry one camera each if you're doing it this way; two can arouse animosity in the professional.

 

What are wedding pictures for?

 

There are basically two uses for wedding pictures, or perhaps, two time-scales. The first time-scale, the short one, is around the time of the wedding: a matter of weeks. Everyone wants a souvenir of the occasion, and wedding photographs are a part of the ritual of getting married.

On a much longer time-scale -- years, or more likely decades -- a few wedding pictures become very important: weren't we all so young, Good Lord, haven't I put on weight, Oh, look, there's Aunt Agatha, she must have died twenty years ago now.

 

Neil and Leslie

 

Ultimately, weddings are about the couple, and in later years they will want to be reminded of how young and in love they were -- and even if 50 doesn't seem young at the time, it will when you're 60. Or 70. Or 80.

Frances took this picture on Ilford XP2 Super using either a Nikon F or a Nikkormat (probably the latter) and a 75/2.5 Voigtländer Color Skopar. As described below, XP2 is ideal for process-and-proof packages, but also prints very well indeed in the conventional darkroom, as here on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

neil & leslie

 

Within reason, any old snapshots will do for the short term while everything is fresh in everyone's memory. In the long term, you need a bit more skill and archival permanence. The latter is why we always insist on shooting the most important images in black and white, for printing on proper silver halide paper. It is all very well to say that silver halide colour prints or ink-jets have a life of 60 years or more, but these are only projected lives based on accelerated aging tests. Few if any labs will guarantee their colour prints for even 20 years. We know, on the other hand, that a well-made black and white print will last far longer than a lifetime.

We always shoot with the longer time-scale in mind, and explain all this to the couple; and this brings us back to shooting on your terms, not theirs.

On your terms

This is vitally important. You must explain to them that you are not a wedding specialist; that shooting a wedding is an enormous responsibility; and that the only way you can guarantee some half-decent pictures is to be allowed to do it your way. Then do the very best you can, which will probably be better than many wedding photographers would do anyway.

louise & tony, aisle

Tony and Louise

We have known Mrs. Paul (as she now is) since she was about ten; her stepfather, Nick Hayes, has been a friend of Roger's since they were 15 and 16 respectively. Most professional wedding photographers would have used fill flash and colour for this shot, and attracted the couple's attention before shooting -- but we're not professional wedding photographers, and Roger (who shot this with a Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux on Ilford XP2 Super) is quite pleased with the way that they aren't looking at the camera. The picture seems to him to capture the 'Well, now we've done it' aspect of a wedding: the mixture of exultation, disbelief and even trepidation.

For us, 'doing it our way' means shooting a very large number of pictures -- typically 10 to 30 rolls of 35mm film, maybe even more -- and selecting the best ones to enlarge. At the same time as we are doing the selecting, we winnow out the absolute disasters, such as the out-of-focus, crazy-angled shots from the first couple of frames when loading 35mm.

The colour is processed and proofed commercially; the black and whites are a mixture of Ilford XP2 chromogenic film, commercially processed and proofed, and conventional black and white, Ilford HP5 Plus and Delta 3200, which we process ourselves. You will see from this module that we normally sepia-tone the pictures, partly for archival reasons and partly to emphasize their enduring nature: these are Photographs Of Record. Perhaps needless to say, the sepia toning for any one wedding is normally better matched than the pictures presented in this module.

We then present the enlargements as part of the gift, along with the colour negatives and all the proofs bar the disasters. We normally supply a few hand-coloured pictures as well, as these are all but unobtainable commercially and make for a unique package. The whole exercise costs us anything from £100 ($200, 150 euros) upwards, so it is not a cheap wedding gift, quite apart from the time and effort involved.

linda wedding, canon

Any further enlargements are the couple's responsibility. We will make additional black and whites for nothing for themselves, or at a reasonable price for other family members. We always get permission from the couple to use the pictures for our own books and articles, and of course here on the site, but not for other commercial use. They have unlimited permission to use the pictures for their family and friends, but not for commercial purposes. Copyright remains with us but the only time we'd worry about copyright is if someone stole the picture for commercial use.

 

 

Lauren Jade Trezise

 

 

Lauren -- or Linda, as she was when Roger was in love with her in the 1960s -- was widowed in her 30s and when she remarried it was to an incredibly nice guy called Greg. It is always wonderful to see the happiness someone you love (and Roger still loves her, like a sister). Otherwise he wouldn't have shot the wedding. How can you reject a request from a beloved sister?

Here he used his old Canon 50/1.2 at full aperture for a romantic glow (which is the way that both he and Greg see her), shooting, as far as he recalls, on Ilford XP2 Super. The camera was an M-series Leica -- M2 or M4-P -- and the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, very lightly selenium toned. This is at the hotel where the wedding reception was held; Lauren looks positively queenly here, as if at a coronation, quite apart from looking radiantly bridal as well.

Equipment

You need at least two cameras, so you can double up all important 'set piece' shots: signing the register, family groups, that sort of thing. It is also useful if you run out of film in one body or if it stops working. This is just basic insurance. We find it easiest to have two 35mm bodies each, one loaded with colour and another with black and white. A medium format body may also be useful for the big group shots, but at the last wedding we did, we used 35mm for these too. Remember, this is part of doing it your way: if they want 16x20 inch/40x50cm family group shots, best of luck to them, but are you willing to shoot them?

linda c kiss 0
linda c kiss 1
linda c kiss 2

Greg and Lauren

One of the tricks of shooting a reportage wedding is shooting sequences, because they can capture completely different moods in substantially similar pictures. The first is the formal 'Here we are as man and wife'; the second, the kiss, today one of the standard shots; and as for the for the third, it is hard not to smile -- even laugh for joy -- when you see the expressions on their faces. Roger shot this sequence with an M-series Leica and 35/1.4 Summilux; today, he'd use either his Leicavit (MP) or his Rapidwinder (M2) for faster sequencing with the camera at his eye, but he had neither in those days. More constant framing of the doorway would have been nice, though. Technical details as usual: Ilford XP2, MG WT.

Whatever camera you use, it should be something with which you are familiar, and that you can operate very quickly, almost instinctively. This is not the time to try new techniques or equipment, and we would be very hesitant to suggest to even the most dedicated large-format user that LF is suitable for weddings. LF will allow you to get really superb group shots, and some other set pieces, as witness the wedding pictures of 100 and more years ago; but the truth was that in those days, people expected far fewer wedding pictures, perhaps even just the one wedding group, and they were also more inclined to bear the photographer's directions with patience and fortitude. Today, unless you are praeternaturally quick, roll-film, 35mm or digital is likely to be safer -- especially if, as we recommend, you double up the most important shots on two separate cameras.

We have not shot a wedding since we got the Leica M8, so we are not sure what the impact of digital might be. We suspect -- we are not sure -- that we would substitute the M8 for the colour body, though we might use it alongside colour film. As already indicated, we have reservations about the longevity of colour, and we have even greater reservations about the durability of digital files. We would want to use top-quality 'archival' CD-ROM or DVD storage, and we would also impress on the couple the importance of making back-ups and duplicates. In fact we would suggest to them that they send copies of the CDs or DVDs to their family and friends, again in the interests of long life for the pictures.

 

Fran

The bride's mother is not invariably an elderly dragon. Fran is Louise's mother, Nick Hayes's wife, and when we printed this picture, we had to look twice: she looked too young to be the bride's mother, even though we were sure it was Fran. As we were working on this module we realized just how important are the expressions on people's faces. You can barely see it here, because of the size of the image on the screen, but you can see her whole mood in the set of her shoulders, the tilt of her head: the bittersweet pleasure of seeing her baby girl married to an extraordinarily nice man, Tony Paul.

louise fran
neil, guests, beer, song

 

 

Beer and song

Both beer and folk singing have long been important in Neil's life, so it was only natural that both should feature at his wedding. In one sense, it's only a snapshot. In another, it's an essential part of the day.

The trouble with pictures like this is that the people in the picture may want copies. Well, this is where we get hard-hearted and tell the happy couple that arranging copies is their problem. If you do it any other way, you can find yourself huntring out negatives and making pictures for years afterwards. As we have repeatedly said in this module, we are not professional wedding photographers...

Roger shot this with a Rollei 35AF compact, as recommended below in 'The scale of the shoot'.

Lenses

Because we don't like flash, we normally use only fast prime lenses. This involves certain compromises where fill-flash might be easier -- the aisle shot above, for example -- but equally, it's part of the look that people know they are going to get if they want us to photograph their wedding. Mostly we use 35mm (f/1.4 and f/1.7) and 50mm (f/1.5 or faster) lenses on 35mm, but we sometimes use 75mm and 90mm as well (both f/2 for preference).

Anything wider than 28mm on full-frame 35mm is likely to prove too wide, with 'drunk' verticals and wide-angle distortion at the edge of the frame. The latter is not just about the sort of oval heads you get in the corners with extreme wide angles. More subtly, people near the edge of the frame will look fatter, and as wedding photography is all about people, this is not a good idea. If we ever did shoot a wedding digitally, we'd probably use our 21/2.8 (28mm equivalent on digital) as the wide-angle and 35mm (47mm equivalent) as 'standard'. This is only because we don't own a 24/25mm lens (36/37mm equivalent).

Just as with the cameras we choose, our lenses are a personal choice. You may be happier with SLRs and zooms and flash. But if we didn't explain how we do it, what could we explain?

linda r 1 aerial

Wedding breakfast

Here, Roger used his 35/1.4 Summilux on a Leica M-series. Even with such a modest wide-angle, the verticals are a bit 'drunk' as a result of shooting down from the gallery, but at least the heads of the people in the corners are not grossly distorted, as they would have been with a 21mm or wider.

Planning

Planning a wedding shoot comes in several stages. The first is trying to get out of it, but the present module is predicated on the failure of this stage. The second is explaining that you will do it on your terms, as discussed above. The third is planning the scale of the shoot. The fourth is making a shot list. The fifth is reconnaissance and liason. The sixth is arranging processing.

louise dressing 2
The scale of the shoot

If you're an old friend, then by definition you'll be invited to the whole thing: the wedding itself and all the subsequent jollifications. But are you going to shoot more than this?

For example, at the last wedding we did, Frances shot a number of pre-wedding shots, including a bride dressing sequence. Although this is not normally shot as a reverse strip-tease, this is exactly what Frances did, starting with (admittedly modest) underwear, then stockings, then the dress... You get the message. She then made a special tiny wedding album of 2x3 inch (50x75mm) hand-prints of these shots, just for the groom.

 

Louise dressing

Approaching the wedding 'in depth' as a team gave us all kinds of options we had not previously considered.

Frances used a 50/1.5 Nokton on her Voigtländer Bessa-R2 for this, shooting on Ilford XP2 Super. The light streaming through the window has a wonderful symbolism, a 'new day' in Louise's life, and further accentuates the glow of the white underwear.

Amusingly, one publisher refused to allow this picture in a book because 'we don't do glamour photography'. A girl's mother helping her dress for her wedding seems to us a somewhat generous view of 'glamour'.

 

Because you're an old friend, you are not normally expected to lay off the reception champagne, so there is always the risk that by the end of the evening you will be somewhat tired and emotional (to borrow the old Private Eye euphemism for 'drunk'). You should have most of the pictures you need by then, but if you have a small fortune around your neck in the form of your cameras, you had better stay sober enough not to lose them. Alternatively, lock them away in the car and switch to a compact camera before the evening waxes too riotous. Hence the 'beer and song' picture above.

 

Dave and Mandy at Neil's wedding

 

Another great advantage of shooting old friends' weddings is that you are likely to see a lot of your own old friends there. Roger met Dave Barber through Neil Palmer in the 1960s and they were close friends until Dave died in 2005.

The reception was well under way by the time this picture was taken, hence the distinctly tilted framing -- but setting the picture askew like this introduces visual variety as well as being a modestly amusing little story in its own right.

neil dave & mandy
Shot lists

Wedding photography is quite culturally specific. For example, in the UK, one of the standard shots is signing the register, while at a Jewish wedding, breaking the glass is fairly standard; and so forth. Sit down and make a list of all the 'set piece' shots you would expect, and then go through them with the couple.

neil small group

Be especially careful about the group shots: (1) bride and groom, (2) bride and groom + parents, (3) bride and groom + best man/bridesmaids/matron of honour, (4) group shot of just about everyone present. Try to keep them to a minimum because getting groups together at a wedding is like herding cats. Also, some groups are a bit weird: one group shot of the bride + bride's family and another of the groom + groom's family do not token well for the future.

Neil and Leslie

The easiest way to shoot groups is to start out with the bare minimum -- the bride and groom -- and then just keep adding. Trying to shoot (for example) bride and groom plus children but no parents, then bride and groom and parents but no children, can take forever and rarely adds very much anyway. This is an early iteration of the mass group at the beginning of the module; the technical information is the same.

Check if there are any shots they particularly want, especially involving unusual modes of transport, friends, etc. Then ask if there are any special warnings, such as divorced parents on one side or the other (or both). You don't have to remember the details: all you need to know is if there are any potential problems, so you can recognize the warning signs if necessary.

Make a checklist of the group shots (and the other 'must-have' shots if you like). Print out two or three copies so you don't lose the list. Give one to the best man or someone else, if at all possible.

 

Arch of Swords

 

'Guard of Honour' shots are generally fun, though swords tend to be less embarrassing than (for example) broom-handles.

Once again, note the importance of the expressions; in this case, Neil looking straight at the photographer (Roger). An ultra-wide may seem like a good idea for a large guard of honour but it over-emphasizes the guard and under-emphasizes the couple: a 35mm lens on 35mm (as used here) is as wide as you want to go, and a 50mm or even 75mm lens may be a better idea.

neil, arch of swords
Reconnaissance and liason
louise, bike

Obviously the couple are the first line of investigation here, and some reconnaisance and liason is covered under 'the scale of the shoot', above, but there is more to it than this. In particular, it is well worth taking a good look at the venue for the wedding in advance. Plan your angles, check light levels, and if there is a risk of rain, try to find a sheltered site for the group shots. Checking the interior of the venue for the reception (if it is not the same as the wedding) is a good idea too, but not always as feasible. At both venues, check parking: you want to be able to get between the two as quickly as you can.

 

Tony's Bike

This bike, which had belonged to Tony's father, had only recently been restored. The picture was taken just before the couple went away to change out of their wedding clothes, which explains why Frances was not at her best as a photographer...

 

If at all possible, discuss the wedding photography with whoever will be officiating. Civil ceremonies are generally pretty easygoing, but church weddings are another matter. In our admittedly limited experience, the best thing is to go to the officiating minister and make it clear that you understand their priorities: that this is first a religious service, then a day for the couple, with opportunities for the photographer running a poor third.

"But," you then say winningly, "Obviously I want to get the best pictures I possibly can for the couple, without making a nuisance of myself." This may be a good time to explain how and why you are taking the pictures: the fact that you're not a wedding professional, and that it's a wedding present. Ask them for their advice: you may be surprised at how much they can tell you, but bear in mind that they see a lot of weddings. This is when you discuss whether or not you can shoot during the service; where you can shoot from; how you can move around unobtrusively; and so forth. Have a few of your best pictures with you; if you judge it appropriate (and it may not be), show them to the officiating clergyman. Or clergywoman, as she was at the last wedding we shot.

 

Louise and Tony at the altar

 

We were shooting with very quiet rangefinder cameras and no flash; we had checked the church beforehand; and (most importantly of all) we had discussed things with the vicar, and demonstrated to her that our cameras were unobtrusive.

We were therefore able to shoot all the way through the service, though if we wanted to change sides relative to the altar we had to go all the way to the back of the church; cross over; and come back down. We solved this to some extent by having one of us on each side but this raised the risk of one being in the other's shot. This is one of Roger's pictures (Frances was on the other side).

louise, tony, altar

 

linda, car 1

 

In a perfect world, have a word with the owner of the vehicle in which the bride will arrive and the couple will be taken to the reception; you may get extra cooperation if you promise him use of any good pictures you get of his car, carriage or whatever.

 

Greg and Linda and the wedding car

 

Yes, it's a rotten shot. Roger used too wide a lens and shot from too close, so the already long front wing of the white Rolls Royce is 'stretched' and the relationship of the headlights is a bit funny. The exposure is not too good either. On the other hand, the happy couple are unlikely to notice technical details that jump out at a photographer, so if you've made a mess of a shot, don't bang on too much about how it could have been better.

Arranging processing -- and timescales

This is important even if you are shooting digital: you need to have enough paper and ink. If you are shooting film (as we always have so far) then you need adequate supplies of film and a lab to process it. There is a separate free module on choosing labs, and what they can and can't do. The most important thing to say here is that 10 to 30 rolls of wedding film is no time to be trying a new lab. If you don't already have a lab you can trust, find one.

In a trustworthy mini-lab, you should be able to drop off all the films one day and pick them up the next, or at most, a couple of days later. With a professional lab that batch-processes film (ever rarer nowadays) you may wish to split the films into batches so that they are not all at risk at the same time. Meanwhile, you have to process anything you are processing at home.

This is another point about working on your own terms. If you want to, by all means go home (or to the lab) and get the films processed and proofed in time for the end of the reception, but we wouldn't. We're there for a friend's wedding, not as hired hands. We aim to have the pictures ready for the couple by the end of their honeymoon, which normally means at least a week nowadays and more often a fortnight.

If we have to mail the pictures then we send the prints and negatives separately, registered and insured. Generous consequential loss insurance (think of a minimum of £5000, 7500 euros or $10,000) as this could pay for a reshoot, i.e. another very good party!

 

Opening the wedding presents

 

Fairly obviously, Frances shot this one, as Roger is in shot, taking a meter reading, with two Leicas around his neck. This illustrates another point about shooting weddings. If they're friends, you can dress rather differently from a hired hand. Lauren knows that Roger doesn't do suits; he gave away his last suit when he left the UK in 1987 and has not owned one since. Here he's wearing a hand-made silk Tibetan shirt.

linda, presents, roger
The shoot itself

Bear in mind what we said above about the long-term value of wedding photographs. Obviously the couple and their relatives and friends will want a reminder of a happy day, but the pictures that mean most to them may also be the most universal, the sort that make good portraits or a good photo-essay even if you don't know the people involved. Yes, some of them will be tacky: the flower-girl kissing the page-boy, that sort of thing. So? Don't knock tacky. Tacky is like snapshots: it's for fun, it's not for great art. On the other hand, it's not a bad idea to imagine that you are trying to create a photo-essay for a readership in a different country. What are the specific characteristics of a wedding at this time, in this place, with people of this socioeconomic background? How strange might it look to someone in a village or a city on another continent?

julie, car window

The set pieces (the ones on your checklist) should at least be doubled up, on two cameras, and it is often a good idea to shoot two or three of each, on each camera, so you can choose the shot that looks best. By tradition, the bride's mother is always fussiest and most vain, but if you know the family, you can form your own opinions on this.

Whatever you do, shoot FAST; and make sure that you have fresh film loaded, or adequate space on your memory card, before embarking on a sequence of group shots, as nothing is worse than having to change films or cards in the middle of such a sequence. Because we are both shooting, with two cameras each, and can swap cameras if we have to, this is seldom a problem. If you are shooting on your own, you might care to carry a spare, loaded body (with no lens, just a body cap) in a pocket for precisely this situation.

 

Julie Skinner

 

(You can hardly see her new husband John behind her). This was one of those weddings where they had a professional to shoot the main shots, and we just filled in with happy snaps. Then again, Roger was the best man...

An assistant

Because we normally work together, we assist one another. We agree beforehand which shots we will divide between us, and which ones we will work together to shoot. Otherwise, if your spouse is not a photographer in his/her own right, an assistant probably isn't feasible for a wedding on these terms.

The Bottom Line

Shooting weddings is expensive, nerve-wracking hard work, which is why we recommend avoiding it if you possibly can. On the other hand, if you do get it right, it's enormously rewarding to your ego and it's a spectacular wedding present. We do not believe that anyone could shoot a wedding the way we do for under £1000/$2000/1500 euros, and the cheapest package from the only professional we know who shoots reportage-style weddings in a similar style is £2500/4000 euros/$5000. It's also worth remarking that many people are far less critical than you (or we) are as photographers: pictures that we are almost ashamed to show are welcomed, and seized upon with glad cries.

 

Louise in her wedding dress

 

 

This is the final shot in the sequence which began a couple of shots before the picture eight or ten images back, of Louise in her underwear (the series began with no stockings on). Obviously a male photographer might have some reservations about shooting such a sequence (as might the groom) but not all wedding photographers are male.

Perhaps the best thing about taking pictures of a friend's wedding is that they get something completely different from the sort of wedding package that most commercial photographers offer, and -- let's be honest -- it's a wedding present that is worth hundreds of pounds; much more than we could normally afford, certainly. That is a major part of what makes it so nerve-wracking.

louise in dress

Of course it's true that the way to be perceived as a great photographer is only to show people a few of your best shots, and the course described above is pretty much the exact opposite: you show them just about everything, warts and all, and let them decide what they like. But as long as you get most of the set pieces more or less right -- only about a dozen pictures, after all -- there is pretty much bound to be something in the remaining 200-300 (or more) that they really like; and those will be the ones they remember.

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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks