I shot my first wedding this month. Admittedly I was a bit apprehensive beforehand: these would be memories the couple will share together with their friends and families for the rest of their lives. More than cell phone snaps and Instagrams, I wanted to capture something timeless, something that would do justice to one of the most important days of their lives. My goal was ambitious yet simple: I wanted to recreate the elegant complexity that I’ve always appreciated in my favorite photos.
What makes a good picture
My favorite pictures through the years never had much to do with fancy editing.
They are elegant, complete with an easy beauty that doesn’t beg for attention. My favorite pictures are always aesthetic enough, at least superficially, to satisfy anyone content with just a glance. But it’s more than just the visual equivalent of popcorn, which is initially pleasing but ultimately unfulfilling. The pictures I most enjoy always hold a complexity that’s deeply rewarding upon looking further.
It’s the layers of light and color (or tones in B&W), the feeling of the image, and the subtle complexity which beg viewers to explore a photograph further. To me, that is what makes a great photograph.
Rather than using solely natural light which many travelers are forced to do, I was able to place my flashes wherever I pleased and shoot accordingly. This allowed me to directly control the light quality and direction. Armed with some preconceived ideas of what I wanted to capture, shots like the one above – which made use of off camera flash fired remotely from behind the couple – became relatively easy to photograph.
Color and tones
With mountains and palm trees as the backdrop, the sky turned a deep blue color at dusk which nicely complimented the tungsten lights used at the wedding. As is often the case with travel photography, I found that dusk was the best time to take full color pictures.
When color adds nothing to an image I prefer to edit in black and white. I know that black and white doesn’t immediately conjure “light, color, and feeling” but I beg to differ. Black and white alone are two colors, not to mention the infinite shades of grey between the extremes. Throw in some contrast, and editing in black and white is often far more beautiful than the distractions introduced when using color.
Capturing a feeling is all about timing. Fleeting moments vanish in an instant; the only way to reliably capture fast paced moments is to anticipate them. This can be done by coming prepared with previsualized images, knowing the layout of the venue, and knowing the schedule well in advance. You can then ensure you’re in the right place with the right equipment at the right time, maximizing your chances for a good shot.
Complexity is what rewards viewers who want to look further. I was looking for opportunities to shoot complex scenes during the wedding. The best way to do that, I found, was to explore the venue on the day before at around the same time of day that the wedding would take place. This let me see what situations would work best under comparable light.
This is very similar to travel photography, where a traveler might seek out a good vantage point during the day and then return at sunset or sunrise to shoot the scene in excellent light. Wedding photography was actually easier in this respect because I had a lot of control over the light with my flashes, and I could pose the couple in whatever manner I felt was best.
One big difference between travel and wedding photography
I love taking pictures of landscapes while traveling but I’ve never been quite so passionate about shooting people. I’ve always been perhaps overly concerned with politeness, erring well on the side of caution when it comes to interrupting other people. Generally this is a good thing that has served me well, but with travel photography, not so much. That I might intrude myself and my camera into someone else’s life, forcing them to pause their day however briefly while I take my picture, has always struck me as a bit rude or selfish, because on the road I inevitably feel that I might gain far more pleasure out of a captured image than will my subject.
Event photography is different. People want you to take their picture. They’ll actively find “the photographer” in hopes of a portrait, enjoying the bright lights of the flashes and delighting in the resultant images. I found this was the case at the few events I’ve photographed in recent years, sporting events and such things, where people would pose mid-run to smile and throw their hands up for a picture. It’s even more evident in wedding photography. People love being photographed at events like this. They know how important the memories will be.
A focused editing technique
I believe landscapes are far easier to edit than portraits. With landscapes you can make some pretty extreme edits because, hey, no one knows what that scene really looked like right? Personally I like to keep my landscape shots true to my own memory, but when you are editing something captured days, weeks, or months ago, it’s hard to remember exactly what it actually looked like. Often, “hey, that looks good!” suffices where memory fails.
Editing people is more of a challenge because we all know exactly what people are supposed to look like. You can’t saturate colors nearly as much, and even as you might to try to edit to achieve some of the more ethereal qualities present in a wedding, there is still a sense of realism that needs to be maintained.
Everyone has their own distinct style, but I’ve found a few easy techniques which really work to bring out the best in people (so to speak) while still maintaining the realistic look that’s essential in portraits.
- Dodge and burn a lot
- Keep saturation low
- Add emphasis with additional vignetting
These are all mostly contrary to landscape photography where we want sharpness, saturation, and consistency throughout the image.
Sometimes basic techniques of dodging and burning, saturation control, and added vignettes prove not to be nearly enough for a successful edit. Here’s one of the shots from the wedding that I’m most proud of, even though at first glance it seems to be a typical family portrait. The light on scene was direct and harsh, so I used two flashes to counter the bright sunlight. It took a lot of time and effort to remove the shadows, rebalance the light, blur the background, and maintain a realistic color palette. After much time spent editing I’m quite pleased with the result.
I’ve already written much about how to create edits like these for yourself. Check it out for free here: Shooting and Editing Photos.
There were more similarities between shooting a wedding and travel photography than I would ever have imagined. It’s vital to check out the scene beforehand so you can anticipate what’s coming. You need to know where to be in advance and what to look for with all kinds of photography, travel, wedding, and everything in between.
Some people want their picture taken. While I already have had a few successful portraits on the road, overall I’ve been too shy about it and I’m determined to capture more faces next time around. I am still entirely committed to respecting the integrity and privacy of whoever I’m photographing, but I know there are plenty of ways to do that and still take a picture.
Light is key in all aspects of photography. Without good light there is no picture. The more you are aware of, and the the more you can control the light, the better.
Flexibility matters both on the road and at events. Nobody is there for you, they are there for the event. This means you might not get the exact picture or scene you wanted. The good news is often times the unexpected can work in your favor. You can’t anticipate everything, but you can be there to take the picture regardless.
Have fun with it! I ended up enjoying photographing my first wedding far more than I’d have ever guessed.