Photographing a Friend's or Relative's Wedding
Part 2:  The Right Stuff

All images and text Copyright © 2000-2001
by John A. Lind, all rights reserved.
    The Right Stuff Contents:
    1. The Scope of Your Task
    2. Do You Have the Right Equipment?
    3. Can You Afford the Cost of Supplies and Processing?
    4. Decision Time
    5. The Work Begins NOW!

The Right Stuff:  Can You and Should You Do It?

The first question, and a very legitimate one, is whether you should undertake shooting a wedding for a friend or a relative.  There are certain circumstances under which I strongly recommended you decline:

The Scope of Your Task

Shooting a wedding is more than just a few hours of work.  If the wedding includes a reception afterward, shooting it will consume your entire day, and perhaps the entire evening beforehand if you shoot the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner (there are reasons you will want to do this).  After the wedding day you will have to develop film and provide proofs to the bride.  If you have agreed to it, you will also have to get reprints of selected photographs for a wedding album or other relatives.  You will be in the "wedding photography business" from now until the wedding, and for at least few weeks afterward; a couple of months if you are handling reprints.

The Role of the Wedding Photographer
The purpose of the still photographer is documenting significant events of the wedding day, and making portraits of the wedding party, relatives and significant friends.  This requires arriving a couple hours before the ceremony begins and staying at the reception until almost the bitter end.  During this entire time you will have to be alert to the flow of events, strategically position yourself in advance of them, and be vigilant for situations that will create good candid shots before they happen.  Not everything may go according to schedule, especially at a reception.  The end of the day may turn out being later than they plan or you think it will.

The Need to Be In Charge
You will be the still photographer.  There will be other people with cameras there, and they will want photographs too.  While you cannot, and should not, prevent them from making their own photographs, you will need to keep them from spoiling yours.  This means you will have to take charge during formal portraiture sessions to direct the sequence of groupings, and position/pose people.  During certain events at the reception you will have to briefly or subtly direct some of the activity.  You may have to tactfully elicit the cooperation of others.  The best strategy is finding a method by which everyone "wins."  If done well, you can help enhance others' photographs, particularly the formal ones.  If you act like you're in charge of the still photography, you will be in charge, as long as those around you have confidence you know what you are doing.  Establish up front with the bride and groom, as part of the deal when you commit to shooting their wedding, you will be their "official" photographer, and will expect their support in that regard during the wedding.

There may also be a videographer, likely an amateur pressed into service as you have been.  If so, the two of you will have to coordinate at times during events to keep from interfering with each other.

Types of Photography at Weddings and Receptions
Traditional wedding photography is a combination of formal portraiture and photojournalism.  It requires being able to switch between the two seamlessly as events of the wedding day unfold.  Usually one to three periods of time in the flow of the day will end up blocked out for formal portraiture.  The rest will be photojournalism.  Neither is more important than the other.  Very basic, standard wedding photographs are in both realms.

Formal Portraiture
This involves positioning and posing people singly and in groups to make flattering photographs of their likenesses.  Unlike normal portraiture, and make no mistake about it, it requries capturing details about their attire as well.  The bridal party has expended money for dresses and tuxedoes.  Capturing that is nearly as important as the people in them!  Formal portraiture requires some basic knowledge about how to pose people by themselves and in groups.  This isn't as difficult as it sounds for very basic shots.  If you have not done it before, it requires some study, practice and attention to details.

This aspect tells the story of the wedding day.  It is also editorial photography as it is about people doing things.  Unlike portraiture, people are not positioned and posed.  It requires making candids throughout the day, from getting ready before the ceremony to escaping in the getaway car at the end of the reception.  Afterward, one should be able to assemble all these photographs on a timeline and see the entire story of the day unfold with all its significant events, and all the people who played a key role in making it happen.  Photojournalism requires awareness of what is going on and anticipating events before they happen.  The photographer needs to be prepared and in proper position to make the photograph at the decisive moment before it happens.  If you have not done "street shooting" or other candids before, it requires a little study of composition with as much practice as you can do, to learn how to anticipate a good candid and work quickly to snatch it at the proper moment.

Bride, Groom and Family Expectations
The bride, groom and their families will expect you to know what you are doing.  They will also have some basic ideas about what they want for the photographs.  They will expect you to be able to carry it out, know what is required to do it properly, have it with you, and not suffer any major equipment failures or supply shortages that leave you dead in the water.  It will be very important for you to define with them beforehand exactly what is expected and what you will deliver.

For traditional wedding photographs, the product at the end is a "proof book" of all the photographs.  Depending on what you arrange and negotiate with them, this may include reprints and enlargements selected from the proofs.  Some of the proofs and some of the enlargements typically get mounted in a formal wedding album.  This is the ultimate goal:  a book that tells the story of the wedding.

You're Not an Invited Guest
The official wedding photographer cannot be an invited guest at the wedding.  You will be working and at times you will be working hard.  This doesn't mean you cannot have fun.  Most of your fun, though, will be centered around making photographs.  You will be interacting with nearly everyone there and will have time to briefly visit with them.  Unlike the non-working, you will not be able to sit and chat with Aunt Matilda for several hours to catch up on the last ten years of your families.  There will be short periods of "dead time" when you can eat, rest, check equipment and visit.  Whatever you are doing during any "dead time," the radar must always be up and you must be able to disengage quickly to get back to work.

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Do You Have the Right Equipment?

Do not be too discouraged with some of the questions in this section.  They are presented to get you thinking about technical issues associated with this type of photography.  When you are finished answering them, you should understand better the limitations of your equipment.  These limitations may restrict the types of images you can make or how you go about making them.  If this is acceptable, at least you will know what not to sign up in advance if the bride or groom requests something you cannot do.  If you are willing to invest in more equipment, then you will have a better idea of what you will need.  However, ensure you practice with anything new so you are familiar with it and understand exactly how to use it properly (and what not to do with it as well).

Cameras and Lenses
The two types of cameras used by a professionals are 35mm SLR's and medium format (645 or 6x6) SLR's or TLR's.  Many use medium format, but many also use 35mm exclusively.

What you don't need:

What you do need: Camera bodies such as the Pentax K-1000, Canon AE-1 or Olympus OM-1 can easily be used (some professionals still use them).  Age doesn't matter; the important aspect is reliability and your familiarity with how to operate it efficiently.

At least one lens is strongly recommended, the 50mm standard.  These are typically very fast lenses, at least f/1.8, and one of the better ones in resolution and contrast for nearly every system.  It's not that a lens this fast would be used "wide open" for a wedding.  There are technical reasons it should not be, but it is kept wide open until the photograph is made.  Under low lighting levels, manual focusing is much easier.  Even with AF capability, depending on its system, it can prevent the body from "hunting" for focus.  A zoom lens can be used, as long as it covers the standard 50mm focal length, and is fast enough not to get into focusing trouble in low light.  I've used a 35-105mm f/3.5 zoom under these conditions and quickly switched to the 50mm f/1.4 for the brighter viewfinder with faster, more accurate focusing.

How familiar are you with your camera body?  How long have you owned it?  How much have you used it?  What is its condition; is it reliable?  Can you operate all its controls without having to hunt for them, or look at them much?  Can you read the controls in low lighting without too much trouble?  How fast can you rewind, unload and reload film in low light?  If you have a zoom lens, how fast can you zoom to accurately frame the image and readjust its focus?  Unfamiliarity with controls can leave you fumbling to adjust settings.  There will be times when you must work quickly, or the opportunity for a "must have" photograph is forever lost.  Part of the preparation and practice will help you become more familiar with your camera and lens(es), and how to set them up under certain situations.

Lighting and Brackets
If the wedding and reception are indoors, nearly all your photographs will be done using flash with a few outdoor shots.  Many newer consumer models of SLR's have a small built-in flash.  These are too weak for wedding work.  The flash system must fill a cavernous sanctuary or reception hall with light at longer distances.  A more powerful external flash is required.  Most flash strobes have their guide number (GN) ratings given at full output in feet for ISO 100 film.  For a faster film, the working GN is higher.  Let's work out the guide numbers and see what flash power is required.  The following table gives the minimum flash GN rating (ISO 100 in feet) required for ISO 160 and ISO 400 film, at three different aperture settings, and distances of 5 - 30 feet:

Minimum Flash Guide Number Rating (ISO 100 in feet) for
Film Speed, Aperture and Distance
ISO 160
ISO 400
f/4 f/5.6 f/8 f/11
5 feet
10 feet
15 feet
20 feet
25 feet
30 feet

There are technical reasons for using an aperture no wider than f/5.6 related to having a deep enough depth of field.  You will also want to use ISO 160 film if at all possible.  Although ISO 400 is not unworkable, it won't make 8x10 (or larger) prints as well because of its larger grain.  Having to cover a 20 foot subject distance is not uncommon.  The integral flash found on most consumer grade SLR's has a GN (guide number) of about 40, and many consumer external flash units have a GN of about 67 (ISO 100 in feet).  Check the GN rating for yours.  It should be given in feet for ISO 100 film.  If it's given in meters, multiply it by 3.28 to get the GN in feet.  Does it have enough power for ISO 160 film?  for ISO 400 film?  You don't need studio strobes, light stands and umbrellas or soft boxes, but you do need enough flash power with some reserve.  Most shoe mounted flash units require upward of seven seconds to recharge if fully discharged.  Having some reserve to reduce flash recharge time will make life much easier for multiple shots in rapid succession, and reduce the number of times you will have to replace the batteries.

Even if a built-in flash had enough oomph, it is very close to the lens axis risking red-eye.  Red-eye is caused by the reflection of the flash from the retina at the back of the eye.  The closer the flash is to the lens axis, and the more dilated the subjects' pupils are, the greater its probability.  When the lights are dimmed at a reception for dancing, subjects' pupils will dilate.  Add alcohol consumption, which dilates pupils even more, and the problem becomes very real.  Red-eye reduction pre-flashes only provide marginal help and delay shutter release (you can miss a decisive moment).  An external flash will be farther from the lens axis.  In addition to red-eye prevention, there is shadow control to consider.  A number of stock wedding photographs are vertical, not horizontal.  The best placement for lighting is above the lens.

For both these reasons, a flash bracket of some type is often used to elevate the flash a few inches more and keep it above the lens, whether the camera is horizontal or vertical.  Do you have a bracket?  If so, have you used it much?  A bracket is not essential, but you will have some shadows in some images, and red-eye control will be more difficult.

Other Equipment
Most clergy will not allow flash photography during the ceremony between the time the father kisses the bride goodbye at the altar and when the bride and groom first kiss at the end.  Do you want to cover this part of the ceremony using available light from the back of the church?  A shutter speed of 1/15th at f/2.8 is in the ballpark of a proper exposure in most sanctuaries.  A shutter speed that slow cannot be reliably hand held.   Do you have a tripod that can elevate the camera at least five feet above the ground?  If so, does it have a "quick release" that will allow you to mount and dismount the camera quickly?  Do you have a cable or remote release to keep from shaking the camera when tripping the shutter?

Backup:  Plan A, Plan B and Plan C
Can you guarantee without any doubt whatsoever that your camera, lens(es) and flash(es) will function flawlessly throughout the entire wedding day?  What if something unforseen does happen?  Can you absolutely guarantee you won't accidentally drop something?  Do you have a second body, a second (or alternative) lens you can use, a second flash unit?  Take a critical element out  (body, lens or flash) and consider how you would continue.  What would you use and how would you implement it quickly to get back to shooting?  What if something else happened after that?  What would you do then?  Try to think through a Plan A, B and C that would enable continuing.  The pros carry backups of nearly everything because they know that sooner or later, if they're in the business long enough, something will go wrong.  You may not be able to provide backups for everything, but at least give some thought about what you would do if something quit working.  If at all possible, the most critical items to backup somehow are the body and flash unit.

I would not feel comfortable without at least spare camera body of some kind (with lens if it has a different lens mount), enough flash hardware to replace a failed strobe, and a couple different ways of wiring strobes to camera bodies using different cables.  It doesn't need not be as easy to use, or as capable as the primary equipment, but at least I can continue shooting.  You should be as familiar with any backup hardware as you are with the primary, and have a plan for how to switch over to it quickly.  Gaming this out in advance can prevent much grief later.

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Can You Afford the Cost of Supplies and Processing?

One of the more serious pitfalls for anyone who has never done a wedding is underestimating the cost.  The usual reason is underestimating the number of frames that will be shot.  This drives nearly all the other costs.  If you haven't already committed to doing the shoot, estimate the cost before doing so and share this with the bride and groom.  If you are not willing, or cannot pay the entire cost, establish clearly who will pay how much, and for what.  Cost overrun on a wedding shoot done for a friend or relative is a major source of hard feelings afterward.

Film "Burn Rate"
A professional estimates film usage with a "burn rate" measured in frames per hour.  Surprised?  Not if you've seen all the frames shot at a typical wedding and reception!  The "burn rate" averages about 30 - 40 frames per hour.  A complete wedding, including rehearsal and rehearsal dinner can consume 10 rolls of 36-exposure film.  Not all of them may be completely shot out (more on this later).  I recommend having at least 12 rolls and 15 is better.  This will give you a safety margin.  The last thing you want to have happen is more photographs to be made and no more film!  You will want to use professional portrait film.  It's not that much more expensive than consumer films at the local drugstore if you do your shopping for it carefully.  It gives much better results (there's more on film choices later).  Budget about $60 - $75 for film.  Unused full rolls can easily be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for use at a later date.

Battery Consumption
Cameras and flashes operate on batteries.  You will want to start the day with new batteries in everything.  You will also need enough new replacement batteries to shoot about 500 frames.  This will give you a safety margin.  Look at the specifications for your flash, camera and anything else you will use that requires batteries.  How many frames is one set rated for?  You may need to replace them before they completely die, especially in a flash unit.  Near end of life, the flash will take increasingly longer to recharge (more on how to mitigate this later).  As with film, running out of batteries with more photographs to make is not something you want to happen.  I wish I could provide an average battery consumption and cost, but this is very equipment dependent, and you need to estimate this using your equipment specifications.  What I consumed may differ from what you will, for the same number of frames shot over the same number of hours.  As with film, unused batteries can be used for other purposes later.  If they are very special ones unique to your equipment, they can also be stored in the refrigerator longer (some types of batteries should not be stored in a deep freeze).

Film Processing and Proof Printing
The cost of a professional lab processing 35mm film to 4x6 proof prints is about $17 - 18 per roll.  (You weren't planning on using a one-hour lab at a drugstore were you?)  With the average shoot consuming about 10 rolls, this comes out to about $175, maybe a little less if not all the rolls are shot out completely.

Proof Books
The first product delivered to the bride (and groom) is a proof book of the photographs.  If 35mm format is used, these are typically high quality 4x6 machine prints from a professional lab.  Professional labs normally bundle one set of proofs with film processing (cost of this is part of the estimate given for processing).  The photographer places these prints in a "proof book" for the bride, groom and other family members to select what they would like to have reprinted in various sizes.  You will probably want to present your prints in a "proof book" of some type.  These can be fancy, leather bound, books (which are expensive) or a simpler one with archival sleeves for 4x6's in a ring binder.  A simpler, ring binder style book, with archival sleeves to hold 300 4x6 prints can be had for well under $10 at a discount department store.  The real work is putting all your prints into the sleeves, but it can be done in less than an evening.

After going through the proof book, it is customary for the bride to order reprints.  If you do your job well and use a good professional lab, all the reprints can be done as machine prints up to about 8x10 or 8x12, and you won't need to crop, retouch or "dodge and burn" any.

Very approximate cost for professional lab machine reprints:

Actual cost varies by lab as do price breaks for multiple reprints.  Consider these only as "ballpark" estimates.  Custom printing is hard to estimate, but it can easily be four to five times the cost of machine prints.  Retouching usually goes by an hourly charge and can be very expensive.  35mm negatives are much more difficult to retouch than medium format because of the comparatively small negative size.  It is not unusual for the total quantity of reprints to be about a third of the number of frames shot (this includes multiples of a single frame) with a handful of 8x10 size prints.  You will have to decide who will be responsible for obtaining reprints and should pay for them.

Who Will Pay the Costs?
Now that you have some information about film, processing and printing costs, you should sit down and estimate the total cost of the wedding's still photography.  Work up an estimate of battery consumption based on your equipment specifications and add that to it.  Now add in any equipment you plan to buy (you must practice thoroughly with anything you have not used before).  Can you afford this and do you want to pay this much?  If not, will someone else (bride, groom, someone's family) pay some of it?  This must be negotiated before you commit to shooting the wedding.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate afterward without causing hard feelings.  All cost figures given in this guide are solely for a quick "ballpark" estimate and are not intended to be exacting.  If your budget is tight, or a cost estimate using them is too much, then I recommend developing a more accurate estimate based on actual film cost from your source for it and the lab you will use.  Your more precise estimate may vary from these numbers.

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Decision Time

Now that you have some idea about the type of photography you will have to perform, the amount of preparation you will have to make, the equipment required, the need to have backup plans if something fails, and the cost, are you still willing to take on a wedding?  If you are uncertain about something that would sway your decision one way or another, then get more information about it before saying "yes."

If you're answer is "yes" and you tell them you'll do it (or if you've already committed to it), then . . .

The Work Begins NOW!

Regardless of how soon the wedding will be, your work begins as soon as you commit to shooting it with the bride and groom.  Even six months may seem like a long time, but in wedding planning it's not.  You need to nail down any "unknowns" and leave as little to chance as possible.  It's not what you did forsee that will bite you; it's what you didn't.  The less time between now and the wedding day, the more compressed your preparation will be.  It's never too soon to begin your planning.

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