Lots of people bring a camera to a wedding and they use it throughout the day (perhaps far more than they use the camera otherwise). Only a few get the best photos they can from the cameras they are using. This four-part guide aims to pass on some useful tips for getting memorable photographs as a wedding guest, photographs that the bride and groom will cherish, and to do so in ways that are appropriate to the occasion. The guide starts with the first (and photographically most difficult) part of the day – the ceremony. All the photos I use here were taken at a wedding that I attended as a guest recently.
Part 1 – The Ceremony
The wedding ceremony is most often a church ceremony, although an ever-increasing number of weddings now start with civil ceremonies. Either way, this guide is applicable to both religious and civil ceremonies, so where I talk about church you can think registry office, hotel, hall or whatever is appropriate to the wedding you are attending.
As a wedding guest, your day starts at the church, and it starts (unless you are late) without the presence of the bride, but in the company of an often nervous groom. The official photographer’s day may start at this point also, but more often than not he or she will have been with the bride for an hour or more that morning photographing the preparations. Therefore there’s a good chance that as a wedding guest you will spend more time in the church than the official photographer will. So even though you won’t have particularly good access to the bride and groom during the ceremony, or the capability to move around like the official photographer can, by focusing on certain types of photos you’ll be guaranteed to get images of the ceremony that will stand out from most everyone elses.
Be respectful of the occasion
This is probably the single most important piece of advice I can give you, and I’ll probably make the point again when we get to the later parts of the day, but it’s particularly important for the ceremony. Please don’t forget that the bride and groom have invited you to their wedding as a guest, not as a photographer. So while I’m all for taking photographs during the day, including at the church, make sure you do it in a way respects the fact that you are a guest and remember that this is a wedding ceremony - probably the most important day in the bride and groom’s lives.
You should not wander around the church during the ceremony to get a better angle or a closer look. You should not have your camera’s beep turned on. You should not use flash if it’s not appropriate (more on that later). And you should not be so focused on getting photographs that you don’t actually watch or listen to what is happening at the altar… don’t forget to see with your eyes as well as with your lens.
All those things that you should not do – so what should you do?
Photograph the details
By details here I mean things like the flowers, the cover of the mass booklet, the candles, the gifts for the offetory procession. If there’s a clock, photograph it a minute or two before the wedding is due to start – if the groom can be in the frame too, even better, but don’t try to get his attention. The last thing he’ll want to do is pose for a photo for you at that stage.
Look for signs around the church of the wedding, or the family’s involvment in the local community – maybe they’ve sponsored a stained glass window or a relative has a plaque on some seats. Do this before the ceremony starts in that period while everyone is chatting and awaiting the bride’s arrival.
If you arrive a little late, you might be able to photograph the flowers at the end of the aisles or the candles on your way out, and you can photograph the mass booklet at any time, or even bring it home and photograph it later. This in particular makes a great opening shot for a slideshow of images from the day, and I almost always use it for my slideshows, both as a guest and as the official photographer.
Sit in an aisle seat
This is probably the best advice for maximising your chances of a good photograph at the start and the end of the ceremony, and one that may require you to not get to the church too late. Sometimes you’ll be sitting in an aisle seat and someone approaches looking for you to move in along the row. If this happens, politely inform them that you’re hoping to get some photographs of the bride coming up the aisle, and offer to let them sit further in. Chances are they won’t have a camera and will understand, or if they do have a camera they may look for an alternative aisle seat. If it’s a worst case scenario and they aren’t as understanding or the church is full and you have to give up your aisle seat, don’t stress – there are other photo opportunities that don’t require one. And if you’ve arrived late and are looking for an aisle seat yourself, be understanding if others (even if they aren’t taking photos) don’t want to move – they’re the best seats for a good view afterall. Next time just try to get there a little earlier.
Shoot with a wide angle
If you succeed in getting and holding an aisle seat, this is particularly relevant for the shots of the bridesmaids, flower girl and bride coming up the aisle, but applies to many photos during the ceremony. Churches and other such venues are dark, and whether you’re shooting with your camera on manual or on automatic, chances are you’ll be forced to use a slower shutter speed than is likely to give you nice crisp images. Zooming in or using a long lens is only going to make this worse, and will result in images of poorer quality. So stay zoomed out, show the enviroment, get some full length photos. And for that shot of the bride coming up the aisle, remember that she is constantly moving, so focusing will be a challenge. If you have a decent camera and can set it to do continuous focus, do so. On a point-and-shoot a “sport” mode will probably increase your chances of a good shot. Or pre-focus on the end of an aisle somewhere between you and the door (half-press the shutter and hold it) and only take the photo (press the shutter the rest of the way) as she reaches that point of the aisle. All going well, you’ll get a nice photo that the official photographer, most likely at the top of the aisle, won’t have.
Speaking of the official photographer…
Don’t get in the official photographer’s way
You might think I’m a bit biased on this one, but I’ve never actually had a problem with guests getting in the way of a photograph during the wedding (thankfully). Besides, a capable wedding photographer will be able to handle such situations quite well. But while there’s a requirement on the photographer to be able to work around the guests on the day without getting in their way, it’s important as a guest not to make a nuisance of yourself from the photographer’s point of view. This isn’t just a case of them wanting to get all the good shots. It’s to do with the fact that they’ve been hired to do the specific job of photographing the day, and that you are primarily a guest.
Sometimes it will happen (especially with readers of a site like this) that the bride and groom, knowing you are a capable photographer, will ask you to get some nice photos for them too. If this is the case, suggest they give their photographer a heads-up in advance, and also introduce yourself to the photographer before the ceremony and explain what you’ve been asked to do. Tell him/her you want to stay out of their way, and take any guidance from them that they may offer. On the offchance they are not too accommodating, you probably just have to accept this and settle for getting photographs from your seat in the church. Again, the drinks reception, speeches and first dance will offer you chances to get shots the photographer just isn’t going to get, so don’t sweat it. Oh, and if the bride and groom haven’t asked you to second shoot the wedding, don’t pretend or assume that’s what they want you to do. It probably isn’t.
Photograph the other guests
The bride and groom will be inundated with photographs of themselves after the wedding – they won’t have as many photographs of their guests, and they’ll be keen to see photos of their guests on the day, as much of what their guests get up to will pass them by. So good quality photographs that you get of the people around you will be appreciated. For instance, one I like to get as a guest is a shot of the other guests photographing the bride as she comes up the aisle. As she approaches (usually with her father) I’ll photograph her as described above, but once she passes I’ll often turn my attention on the guests sitting further up the church. Another good photo opportunity is when she arrives at the door of the church for the first time – you’ll usually be able to photograph a few guests leaning out into the aisle.
Don’t use flash (when you shouldn’t)
This one is perhaps a little less straight forward, because there are times when all those around you will be taking photographs with their flash – even the official photographer – namely the bride walking up the aisle, the bride and groom walking down the aisle and perhaps the formal photo after the signing of the register. At these times it is usually acceptable to use your flash if required. The “when you shouldn’t” part of this tip therefore refers mainly to those other times when it’s inappropriate to use a flash – during the religious part of the ceremony for instance (99% of official photographers won’t use flash during a ceremony, and shouldn’t).
However, it also is to highlight that even at those times when you could use your flash, you might be better off not. If you’re any distance at all from the altar for instance, and the bride and groom are posing for a photo after they signed the register, your flash will do very little to give you a well lit photo (ignoring the whole issue of on-camera flash being a bag thing generally speaking anyway). Being so far away means the light from your flash won’t actually do much to light the couple, but will do a great job of lighting the big bald head of Uncle John in the seat immediately front of you. You’ll get a much more pleasing shot by turning off your flash and doing your best to hold the camera steady for the slower, but nicer, exposure that will result. Remember that flash, if you want to use it, will always work better if you’re closer to the subject. Anything more than maybe 15 feet with a point and shoot camera and it’s probably better to turn it off. If you do use it for closer shots, see if there’s a slow-sync or party mode on your camera that will allow some of the ambient light into the exposure too and you’ll avoid the really dark backgrounds that result from a lot of flash photography.
Still to come…
Next up is Part 2 of this four part series, where I give you some tips on photographing the part of the day that runs between the ceremony and the reception, when some of the best photographs are to be found, even if the bride and groom aren’t. And if you have tips of your own, or thoughts on mine, feel free to share them in the comments, and as always if you think this post might be helpful to others I’d be delighted for you to share the link around.