Chapter 6: Photographing The Ceremony
When I arrive at the ceremony site, mostly at the same time as the groom about 30 minutes before the ceremony, I get to work right away. Some guests always arrive early and I want to make sure I capture the site first in its untouched state. From the large scale scene-setting image:
To the smallest details:
As the guests start to arrive, I put on my 70-200 and go into candid mode capturing the groom interacting with them, everyone finding their seat etc. I really like capturing this part. Especially since I started working mostly with international couples who had family and friends coming in from all over the world, there are so many different personalities to discover and capture just at the right moment. I can capture reunion joy and anticipation from a distance without anyone really paying attention to me.
If the ceremony takes place in a church or is otherwise a religious affair, I have always made sure that the couple themselves have coordinated photography permission with the priest/officiant. The degree of which I am allowed to cover the ceremony itself varies SO much from place to place, so I never want to assume that I can just do whatever I want. The ceremony is the one time during the day where I want to be most out of the way. It should not be about me at all. So the thought of the priest having to stop the ceremony to tell me to stop or back away is horrifying (This has acutally happened to a few of my colleagues). All priests have horrible past experiences with very imposing and unreasonable photographers (so they tell me), and he or she is more likely to allow as much photography as possible if the request comes from the couple than if a nosy photographer asks out of the blue.
I have tried everything from being allowed to actually stand right behind the priest at the alter to only being allowed to shoot during the entrance and exit and only from the very back of the aisle. You never know, so do ask!
These days alot of the couples I work with choose to enter the ceremony together, but in case a bride wants a traditional entrance, I will try to be outside when she arrives I will catch the last bit of fluff and fuss behind the doors. If the atmosphere is too tense or stressed or nervous I will not start shooting, but instead leave her in peace.
Just before her entrance, I will kneel or squat in the side of the aisle about 2/3 down as much out of sight as possible but in an angle where I can catch both her and the groom waiting. I will stand up when she enters to avoid an unflattering low angle. And at this point I have already done at least one test shot of the entrance area as well as of the area where the groom is so I don't have to fumble with my exposure settings while things are in motion. (Be aware that the middle area of the church will most likely be the best lit part, so you may need to adjust as she walks up to avoid those photos being completely overexposed) As soon as I feel like I have the shot of the bride that I need, I will turn around and capture a shot of the groom and then turn back around to get the bride when she's closer. I will most likely capture the first series of shots as verticals and then turn the camera to horisontals as she gets closer. Just when she's past me I will always try to get a shot of the groom framed by her blurry back in the foreground. I can't explain why, I just love that composition.
If the ceremony takes place in a church I will most likely keep the 70-200mm on for the whole ceremony except for 10 seconds where I pop my wide angle lens on to get that iconic shot that really provides a sense of scale and includes as much of the surroundings as possible.
If the ceremony takes place outdoors so I have full freedom of movement I will put my 50mm on and walk around as I feel best, constantly finding the balance between getting the best possible shots while being as unobtrusive as possible. This often means not standing in one spot close up the whole time, but moving in when I need it and then moving away again as soon as I have my shot. Aside from doing my very best to anticipate and catch those "must-get" shots like the exchange of rings, the kiss, signing of documents etc, I am always looking for responses elsewhere too, those small glances, unspoken words, all the small stuff that no one will ever notice unless you catch them:
Guests wanting to take photos with phones (or even worse ipads) is a growing problem. On the one hand, a part of me really like having some sort of back-up, nomatter how bad the quality of it. Not because I think I might fail t do my job, but because we do depend on technology every step of the way from capture to delivery, and in theory stuff can go wrong.
I also get the inclination from the guests' perspective because we are all so used to being online all the time and capture every bit of our daily lives, but at the same time I simply do not understand why the desire to play photographer is bigger than actually participating in the event. You would be doing your clients a huge disservice if you do not educate them in advance of the unfortunate ways their guests photo enthusiasm might hurt the photos you are going to take. This is especially true during the entrance and exit of the ceremony. Many couples luckily choose an unplugged or phone free ceremony, but in the end it is their choice. As long as you have done your part to educate them on the pros and cons, that's all you can do.
Even to this day, as I stand inside a church getting ready to photograph the couple exiting the church, the thought of the often harsh mid day sunlight waiting outside and all those faces and bodies in constant motion can make my palms sweaty. You have so little control and only split seconds to capture smiles, embraces and spontaneous reactions at the exact right moment. On the flip side, a rainy day will mean that everyone huddles up in the small dark hall of the church and that is an equally horrifying situation for a wedding photographer because it makes it almost impossible to get nice clean shots of any one person.
You must train yourself, become an expert in reading body language and personality types. This way you can learn to identify what certain movements look like right before the moment you want to capture, thus anticipating it. We humans have more in common than we think, including almost universally classic wedding day behaviours and reactions. That goes for both guests and couple. + you have spent hours with at least one side of the couple and his or her family so you should be able to anticipate whether the bride, for example, is someone who might start crying or someone who expresses her emotions through pure excitement.
Before I finish this chapter, I want to take you through a selection of the ceremony coverage of a very special wedding day. It took place in a restored historic Norwegian stone church just outside of Stavanger. I had been waiting for this wedding all year! The plans were a photographer's dream from beginning to end, but when we got to the time of the ceremony at this stunning site it was windy and dark clouds were forming on the horizon. During the ceremony it slowly got darker and darker. There was barely any room to move about, no side aisles, and the only real source of light was a huge window in front of me. As the ceremony progressed, suddenly the rain started pouring down outside, and I could clearly hear it on the roof. When it was time for the guests to congratulate this wonderful couple noone wanted to go outside because of the rain, so everyone just slowly piled up in the very very darkest part of this small church. No windows, just dark stone walls. My heart sank and I started to feel panicky. The room was SO small that I had no option but to keep my wide angle lens on, but it was SO dark that my 50mm would have created far less grainy and far more beautiful shots. My camera struggled to find a focus point in the dark. Everyone got really quiet, just standing there hoping the rain would subside, and clearly feeling anxious and sad on the couple's behalf. But after a very awkward minute or two this amazing bride suddenly squealed with joy and raised her arms in the air. SHE did not want her mood on her wedding day to be dictated by weather or other people's expectations of what a "perfect" wedding day looked like. And immediately the whole atmopshere shifted dramatically. Everyone laughed and clapped! They started hugging the couple, and I did my best to capture it all. It was what it was. Are they the technically best ceremony photos I have ever taken? No. Did my photos capture the events and overall atmosphere of this particular wedding day at this particular spot on the planet? Yes!!!