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If a friend begs you to shoot her wedding and won’t take no for an answer, here are dozen technical tips that might help you survive photography’s equivalent of the triathlon.

Long before the Big Day

Wedding photography is hard, so think twice before taking on this assignment. There are many factors to a successful wedding shoot, including your rapport with the bride and groom, knowing what to expect at every moment for five or six hours, and the venue. Here are a few technical tips that should help you do your best at one of the most challenging and emotionally charged shoots you can tackle.

The stakes are high. Get off to a good start by shooting the bridal portrait and/or engagement photo. At a portrait session you aren’t under the kind of pressure you’ll be under at the wedding, and a good job done here will make things easier for you later. All brides are beautiful and all grooms are handsome but very few of them are models. Start thinking about how to make the couple look their best—such as the best angles and best distance.

And here’s a tip that applies to everything that follows: Compose your shots so there’s room for cropping later. Your DSLR probably shoots 3:2 aspect ratio but brides like 5-by-7 and 8-by-10-inch prints.

[William Porter is a photographer and database designer based in Dallas, Texas.]

Equipment lineup

The success of your wedding photos depends more on your eye than your equipment. Nevertheless, weddings provide a variety of technical challenges.

Here is a photo showing the absolute minimum I take to a wedding: two camera bodies (each containing two freshly charged batteries), three lenses, three flash units, tripod and remote shutter releases (cable and infrared), plus extra batteries for the flashes, flash modifiers, and of course lots of SD card storage. (Missing from the shot: stands to hold one or two of the flashes.) I use Sony gear but you can easily match this with gear made by Pentax, Canon, or Nikon.

I actually shoot with two cameras, at least during the ceremony. The rest of the wedding, I may use just one but I have the other one handy if I need it. Stuff breaks. For pros, it’s tantamount to malpractice not to bring backup equipment. But you’re not a pro, so can you get away with less? Yes, maybe, if you like living dangerously.

Shoot raw and use AWB

Put your camera in Raw capture mode for the wedding, and set the white balance to Auto.

Why Raw and AWB? The Raw file contains more information than any JPEG generated from it, and this gives you more options in post processing. Often it doesn’t make a big difference, but when it does, you often won’t know beforehand. If you don’t shoot Raw, you will worry constantly about white balance—the camera doesn’t always get it right. If you do shoot Raw, you can forget about white balance while you’re shooting.

This shot was arranged quickly when I happened to see the groomsmen and bridesmaids milling around before the ceremony. The lighting was challenging: bright sunlight in the background, fluorescent lights above, plus the flash on the camera. The camera’s guess about the white balance (as evidenced by the “as shot” white balance setting on my computer) was unattractive: yellowish. Working with the Raw file, I was able to correct the white balance better than I could have done with a JPEG. And Raw files have greater dynamic range or latitude than JPEGs, and that helped me bring out texture and detail in the dark suits and dresses.

Shooting mode and exposure

I tend to switch shooting modes during a wedding. I’ll use M (full manual) during the ceremony and probably during the formal shots as well. Other times, I’ll use one of the camera’s automatic modes, either A (aperture priority) or, increasingly, P (program mode) during the reception.

The shooting mode determines who’s in control of two of the three exposure settings—aperture and shutter speed. What about ISO? Put the camera into Auto ISO with a range of, say, 400 to 1600.

If this is your first wedding, I urge you to you put the camera into P (program) mode and leave it there. P is safer. Modern cameras have amazing intelligence built into them: use it. If you’re shooting with flash, using P mode will avoid some of the mistakes beginners make with manual aperture settings. In any case you don’t want to be fiddling with exposure settings when you see the bride and groom are about to kiss.

Classic exposure dilemma

The camera’s meter tries to balance the lights and the darks in a scene so that the final photo, on average, is a middle gray. This works a lot of the time, but not always. If you are shooting a bridal portrait, for example, you want the bride’s dress to be white, not middle gray. So bias your meter by using positive exposure compensation (EC). If you’re shooting in one of the auto modes (i.e. anything other than full manual), this is done on most cameras by clicking a +/- button somewhere on the body. Conversely, if you were shooting a groom in a black tux, you’d apply negative EC.

And what if you’re photographing bride and groom together, or the bride and her father, as in this shot? It’s a classic wedding photography dilemma. My suggestion is to apply +1 stop EC, that is, to favor the bride’s dress. Especially shooting raw, it’s better to keep the whites white—provided you don’t blow them out. This will retain the most detail in the darks as well, and it’s easier to darken dark areas in post production than to lighten underexposed whites. In this photo of a bride and her father, I used +2/3 EC.

Flash in small spaces

For heaven’s sake, do not use your camera’s pop-up flash. It’s weak, will cause red eye in your photos, and it can’t be redirected.

Use a hot-shoe mounted flash unit. Now the flash unit adds another level of complexity on top of using the camera, and a lot can go wrong. So for your first wedding, it’s best to put the flash on auto-pilot, that is, into TTL (through the lens metering) mode. Combined with P mode on your camera, TTL flash will give you fairly reliable results.

But you still have to think about what you’re doing. The goal is to light the subjects well without the deer-in-the-headlights effect. Try to get subjects several feet away from walls so hard shadows caused by flash aren’t so obvious. Even better—if you’re shooting in a confined space with a reasonably low ceiling or a handy nearby wall—instead of pointing the flash directly, point the flash at the ceiling or wall and bounce it. In this photo of the couple cutting the cake, the flash was bounced off the ceiling and the upper wall on the left. This gives a well-illuminated but soft and flattering effect.

Flash in large, open spaces

In small spaces you can bounce the flash with fairly reliable results. But wedding receptions are often in large, open halls. I’ve shot several weddings in barns, with high ceilings, and very dark ceilings that are terrible for bouncing.

If you have a powerful flash, you can still try bouncing. I did, in this photo. Here the ceiling was relatively low near the windows. If I’d pointed the flash straight forward, it would have lit the couple in the foreground but the faces in the background would be much darker. You’d also see shadows on the floor.

But using the flash like this eats up batteries fast and, more important, takes longer to recharge before you can shoot again. This is where flash modifiers like the Demb Flip-It, Lumiquest Pocket Bouncer, and similar products can help. These modifiers throw some of the light forward and diffuse the rest. Another idea is to reduce the flash’s output using negative flash exposure compensation, increase your ISO (and possibly decrease shutter speed) and let the ambient light play a larger part. But now you’re getting fancy.

Dealing with harsh light outdoors

It’s tough to shoot in a dark environment. It can be equally challenging to shoot outdoors. If it’s a nighttime wedding, there’s no place to bounce your flash. If the wedding is in the late afternoon, when the sun is getting low on the horizon, you won’t want to bounce but you’ll have to deal with harsh shadows.

If the ceremony takes place in an open field, there’s nothing you can do about the long shadows on the ground. But you can do something to minimize the shadows on your subjects’ bodies and faces: use fill flash. That’s right, the sun is shining and you’re going to use your flash. Don’t use a modifier, and point the flash right at the subjects. Try to position your subjects so the sun isn’t directly into their eyes.

Dealing with bad indoor lighting

Lighting in most houses of worship is bad for photography. So you’ll want a lens with a wide aperture: f/2.8, or better still, f/2, or f/1.4. Wider apertures let more light into the camera’s sensor. They also mean shallower depth of field, but you aren’t going to be close enough to the bride and groom for this to be a problem. This photo of the bride and groom was taken with a 50-135 f/2.8 zoom.

Shutter speed matters, too. You don’t have to worry much about subject movement. But if the shutter speed gets too slow, unless you’re using a tripod, you will have to worry about camera shake. An image-stabilized camera or lens is a big help. Your camera’s autofocus may struggle to focus in low light. Focus in advance when you can, lock focus, and wait for the shot.

And use ISO 1600 or even higher if you have to. A little noise is not as bad as you think, especially in prints. Of course, know your camera’s practical limits. But ISO is a softer limit than either shutter speed or aperture. A blurry shot can’t be fixed in post processing.

Group formals

Formal group photos are a big challenge for amateur photographers, and you’ll have to meet that challenge while you’re being rushed. Be prepared!

Work out the shot list in advance. Take photos of the biggest groups first, let some of those people head off to the reception, then take a smaller group. Use a tripod and remote shutter release so you can look at the group as you shoot. Take three quick shots of every pose, so you can maximize the chance that everybody’s eyes are open.

If you’re shooting in P mode as I’ve suggested, the camera will probably get the settings about right. But make sure the aperture doesn’t go wider than f/5.6. If it does, there might not be sufficient depth of field to keep everybody in focus.

Be assertive. Make a deal with the guests hanging around in the pews: you’ll take your shot first, and then you’ll let them have a few seconds for their own snaps.

And get as much light as you can! Turn up the house lights. This shot was taken with two flashes: one on the camera and a second (triggered wirelessly) off the side and to the left.

Group shots at the reception

The fewer formal photos you take at the ceremony, the more time you have to do a good job. And it’s a great idea to save the big family photos for later, at the reception. If you can take them outdoors (and it’s still daylight), you might have better light to work with. The photo will be more casual, but that’s not a bad thing these days.

You’ll still need a helper or two to round everybody up for the photo, but with luck, this can be done pretty quickly. This photo was taken outdoors in chilly spring weather, and I couldn’t ask the crowd to stay outside long, so I didn’t set up a tripod. Instead, I framed the shot, then peeked over the top of the camera to make sure everybody was looking. This was the last of three quick shots taken within 30 seconds.

The treatment (based on the Antique Light preset that comes with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom) gives this photo a classic look.

Reception tips, especially dancing

I usually work the reception with one camera and one flash. The photographer has to move constantly to catch the cutting of the cake, the bouquet toss, toasts, and the first dances. Whatever you do, don’t “spray and pray”. Science has proven that it actually is possible to take 500 bad shots in a row. Slow down, pick your shots. You’ll miss a few—that’s a given—but the shots you do get will be better.

One special challenge comes when the guests start dancing. We’re not talking about ballerinas and Baryshnikovs here, and remember, strong beverages may have been imbibed. You want these folks to like the photos, not sue you. I have had the most success with the line dances like YMCA and the Macarena. If you dare, put the camera (at least for a few shots) into manual or shutter-priority mode and slow the shutter down a fair bit. This photo was taken at 1/30th of a second. A slower shutter lets ambient light contribute more to the exposure. It also gives you a little blur in the shot to indicate motion, which can be a nice effect.

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