Wedding photography tips: 10 steps to pro-quality pictures
Follow our stress-reducing wedding photography tips for shooting the big day – and get the wedding photos the bride, groom and family will love. In addition to our tips, we also address some of the common photography problems you might encounter while shooting a wedding and offer solutions for how to overcome them.
There are many challenges to successful wedding photography and it can be a stressful day even for the most experienced photographers.
Here, professional wedding photographer Brett Harkness (see his bio at the bottom of this page) reveals his best wedding photography tips and how he breaks the big day down into 10 easy steps so that he can capture a stunning collection of wedding portraits, group photos, close-ups and more for his clients.
Wedding Photography Tips: 01 Getting ready
Successful wedding photography is all about telling the story through a series of photographs and this starts with the preparations for the big day. It’s a good idea to arrive at the bride’s house early enough to assess how she’s getting on with her preparations. When she’s in the final stages, a simple shot showing her having her make-up applied – perhaps reflected in a mirror – is a great one to get. I use a mixture of a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens and 16-35mm f/2.8 L lens to capture the process of getting dressed and, as much as possible, I try to use natural light .
Look for little details like the delicately embroidered details of the fabric of her dress or try capturing special moments, such as when she has the back of her dress laced up or while she’s chatting to her bridesmaids.
Wedding photo problem:
“The bride’s getting ready in a small room and she’s facing the window!”
Try overexposing by about +1 or +2 stops to blow out the window, so that you get a bright background without any detail.
While not wedding photography tips per se, you might find some of the advice from the following portrait photography tutorials also useful for these situations.
When using a macro lens, try keeping to mid-range apertures such as f/6.3-f/8, to balance depth of field with reasonable shutter speeds. Focus manually too.
Wedding Photography Tips: 02 Arriving at the church
In an ideal world you should arrive at the church as early as possible before the bride. Don’t waste this precious time. If you’re lucky enough to have an assistant, get them to park the car, making sure you can get away easily. Look for the groom and his ushers – they’re usually either walking from the pub or chatting outside the church. I always try to set the scene with my wide lens and then go in closer for the details, such as cuff links, flowers and shoes. This is also a good time to take some wedding portraits.
Other incidental images will help tell the story, such as guests arriving, orders of service, bridesmaids, the church gargoyles, flowers and children playing. There’s lots of potential subjects to capture at this point, however, you’ll need to have an eye open in anticipation of the bride’s arrival. The whole process of the bride arriving can happen in a flash so you’ve got to be prepared and have a plan in your mind.
Try to have 2 or 3 options for every stage of the day. You’ll need to be aware of where you should be as this critical moment won’t happen again. I’ll usually be on my wideangle lens and down low for a good dynamic angle or half way up the path using a long lens. I avoid the ‘normal’ shots and never get into the car to take pictures. Be there to capture it in your own unique way.
Finally, head for the church to get ready for the bride’s entrance. I stay on my 70-200mm lens while she walks up the path – a beautiful moment to capture with bride and father.
Wedding photo problem:
“The bride’s got out of the car and she’s bathed in sunlight!”
Try underexposing by -2 stops and use fill flash to light the bride. This will take some time to get right and is not for the faint hearted, but once mastered you’ll find it invaluable.
Wedding Photography Tips: 03 The ceremony
This important part of the wedding day can be technically challenging. There’s no second chances and you’ve got to have your wits about you. In situations like this it’s best to switch from program or semi-automatic modes to manual so that you have full control over your camera settings. There’s often limited light, so you’ll need to crank up the sensitivity to ISO 800 or ISO 1600. Keep your white balance set to auto, unless there are difficult light sources – in which case, do a custom white balance reading. I like to use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens during the ceremony and I try to get to the front of the church and sit with the choir on the groom’s side so that I’m facing the bride. If you’re not allowed to sit at the front, you’ll have to get creative from the back of the church.
Think of the overall story – keep it in your mind all the time and look for shots of the parents, bridesmaids and guests to add to the narrative. Set the scene with some wide shots of the church interior using a wideangle lens. If the church is very dark I may get a friend or assistant to stand at the back or sit in a pew with a flashgun, which I can control using a Pocket Wizard remote trigger.
Wedding photo problem:
“I’m not allowed to use flash in the church and there’s a strong colour cast on my pictures!”
If you can’t use flash during the ceremony then you’ll have to rely on the available light. The preset white balance modes may not be enough to get rid of colour casts. Make a custom white balance with a grey card and shoot in raw format so you can tweak the white balance later in software.
Wedding Photography Tips: 04 Leaving the church
Just before the bride and groom come down the aisle, take a moment to get your camera settings sorted out and fit a wide zoom lens. If you can get them to stop and kiss just as they leave the church you’ll get a great series of shots. Get down so your low vantage point avoids getting other people in the background. Encourage the other guests to congratulate the bride and groom and use this time to shoot documentary-style pictures. Get a good wideangle shot of the scene and go in for some details to add to the story.
Next, guide the couple down to the gate for the confetti shots before leaving for the reception. If the weather is closing in or you’re shooting a winter wedding, stay behind with the bride and groom for ten minutes and get pics of them using what light there is left in the day.
Wedding photo problem:
Be ready – either use flash and follow-focus the couple as they walk out of the church, with a suggested setting of ISO 400, 1/80sec to 1/100sec depending on how dark it is. Or ditch the flash, increase the ISO, pre-focus on a church pew and wait for the couple to hit that point.
Wedding Photography Tips: 05 The Bride and Groom
During the reception you’ll need to grab the bride and groom for about 15 minutes. Make sure you’ve got all the gear you’ll need, which should include a ladder, reflector and a bottle of Champagne with glasses.
It’s critical to have a plan. Try to work with three previously scouted locations in mind. Even use the walking to and from locations to get
shots – lie down in the grass and shoot the couple walking towards you. Look for backgrounds, such as doorways, fences, steps, walls, wallpaper, staircases or any other architectural details of interest. Even the seemingly most mundane venue will have some great areas if you look carefully. I once shot a bride and groom in front of a bottle bank at the bottom of the car park because we were stuck for texture. It looked great.
Start off with the couple in a general scene shot using a wideangle lens then use the zoom to get a tighter shot. It’s important to also get the bride by herself so take the groom out of the picture for some single pictures of the her. Shoot a full length, half length and a head shot, taking multiple photos and changing the pose or direction of her gaze slightly between each frame.
Get on your ladder and make the bride raise her chin a little as it can be more flattering. If you’ve got an assistant ask them to hold a reflector and bounce light back into the bride’s face. I’ll often get a bride to look down while I shoot from a ladder. Get her to raise her head slowly while opening her eyes towards the lens, you’ll be able to feel the right moment and if you’ve got your timing right you’ll get a powerful portrait.
Wedding photo problem:
“I can’t decide which lens to use for the reception!”
To avoid all your images looking the same use a variety of focal lengths, go from wide to telephoto and you’ll end up with a great set of different looking shots which will work alongside one another in an album.
Wedding Photography Tips: 06 Groups
I think shooting group photos are an integral part of any wedding. No matter how ‘documentary’ or your approach is you should be prepared to shoot groups. They can be challenging and you’ll have to work fast. A small ladder is invaluable for the group shots so you can get a bird’s eye view of the scene and see everyone’s face. The background is important and I like to try and show some of the venue. A 16-35mm wideangle zoom set to a smallish aperture such as f/11 is good so that you achieve a decent depth of field. I’ll always pop a little flash into the scene to brighten up the shadows in the faces. Backlit shade is best. If the group is in the middle of a field then you will have to create your own shade by turning their backs to the sun.
Once you’ve done the big group, get the smaller requested shots done. These should be discussed with the bride and groom prior to the wedding. I’ll use a longer focal length and stand back for groups of fewer than 12 people. If you do the large group, photograph everyone together and then simply call out names for smaller group shots.
“There are shadows across the faces in my group shots!”
The best way to shoot a big group shot (150 to 350 people) is to stand on a ladder and use a wide lens. Underexpose by one stop to give detail in the highlights, and use fill-flash to get rid of the shadows.
Wedding Photography Tips: 07 Details
Don’t underestimate the importance of details throughout the day They’re the glue that binds an album together. Look for different ways of telling the story – rather than showing a clock to illustrate the time, look for birds flying away to roost or shadows on the ground. Other details such as canopies, children playing, hats, flowers, architectural details and musicians are all essential parts of the story.
Take candid head shots of the other guests. Shoot ‘contre jour’ with the sun behind their heads and you’ll get a lovely rim light. Expose for the shadows of the face and focus on the eyes, don’t worry if the highlights in the background blow out.
Wedding photo problem:
“When I’m shooting reception details, the spotlights that shine down can create a nasty shadow – what can I do?”
Try to use off-camera flash using a remote trigger such as a Pocket Wizard. This gets rid of the shadows and allows you to be creative with your lighting.
Wedding Photography Tips: 08 Speech
You’ll need to show the ‘important people’ on the top table and also the crowd’s reaction to the speeches. If you have an assistant or a friend helping out, ask them to concentrate on the other tables while you stick with the top table. Unless you’re lucky enough to have the speeches outside on a lovely sunny evening you’ll almost certainly need to use flash. Switch to manual mode depending on the amount of ambience there is. I can guess my settings, ISO 400-800, 1/30sec to 1/60sec at a low aperture such as f/5.6, with flash bounce off the ceiling. I usually end up on my knees in front of the top table, picking reactions off at both ends.
“I have a problem getting enough light onto the subject without causing harsh shadows.”
Wedding Photography Tips: 09 Cake cutting and first dance
Shooting the first dance can be a hit and miss affair for some photographers but, if you use the right equipment with the right knowledge you can achieve wonderfully lit pictures full of fun and energy. I’ll often use two or three off-camera flashes, one as my main fill light with a soft box attached and two ‘naked’ flashes for special effects mounted on Manfrotto light stands which I’ll fire using a remote trigger. If you give yourself the time to set this up during the meal then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be ready in time. Use your assistant or a waiter to test your exposures. I’ll keep the flashes on manual output and control the exposure using the aperture. I’ll tweak the shutter speeds to vary the amount of ambient light and then take a few test shots to get the right balance.
The cake shot is more traditional than anything else. If you have to do this shot – which you probably will – then spice it up a little. Grab one of the ‘naked’ flashes from the dance floor and use it as a rear flash for a dramatic effect. Ask an assistant to hold the other flash with a softbox to light the bride and groom. A lens with a 24-70mm focal length is perfect for this and I’ll often get down on my knees to capture the moment from a more dramatic angle.
Wedding Photography Tips: 10 Fireworks
Finish the night with a bang! If you’re just starting out in wedding photography then stay all night just for the experience. As you progress, make sure you charge extra to stay later. Sometimes fireworks can take place at 11pm. The brightness of the fireworks and how long they last will affect your exposures. Quite often your exposures will be a little faster than you might think. Try positioning the couple in the foreground and popping them with a little flash while keeping the shutter open for 1/10sec to 1/15sec. You may well need to use a tripod. Sometimes the fireworks are so bright that you’ll be close to daylight exposures. Switch to manual mode and experiment.
Wedding photo problem:
“I find getting the couple and fireworks looking good in one exposure can be challenging.”
To balance the couple and fireworks, keep your shutter open a little longer and let your flash freeze the subject. Use rear curtain sync so that the flash fires at the end of the exposure
Bonus wedding photography tips
Equipment check: have you…
• Fully charged all your camera batteries?
• Cleaned your camera sensor?
• Arriving at the church
• Details throughout the day