Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken a side step from Academic Photography to reinvigorate myself and to try something new. Although not directly related to my studies, I learnt a lot by undertaking an assignment that had Context and Narrative at its core, so felt it important that I record it here in my Learning (B)log.
I was approached by a friend of a friend and asked if I would photograph their wedding. This seemed like a great opportunity, not only to gain some experience and portfolio images, but to develop my technical and creative skills in relation to narrative photography. Given the significance of such an event, I was quite flattered to have been asked, but was also quite apprehensive. After all, other than my OCA studies, what did I know about Wedding Photography? Well, thankfully, my studies had taught me to conduct research, to look at contemporary practice, and they had given me some contextual and practical experience in terms of signifiers, narrative elements, lighting and composition. I also had a comfort blanket, in that my friend, and fellow hobbyist photographer Colin, had agreed to be a second photographer.
My initial research into Wedding Photography soon led me down a number of rabbit holes; Indemnity Insurance, Model Release Forms, Formal Arrangements, Reportage, Sequencing, Details etc etc…… Thankfully, I had sufficient time to look at each of these areas.
The first order of business was to meet with the couple at the venue. This took place in August, at the back-end of Summer. The venue was splendid and the couple were great. We discussed their photographic tastes, the timings and sequencing of the day in detail and we toured the venue to identify the ideal locations, both indoor and outdoor for the various shots. Thankfully at this stage, Colin and I did some contingency planning and looked at areas for group shots in the event of inclement weather, knowing that the wedding was not until the end of November. At this point, I also got model release forms signed and explained what I required in terms of time to achieve certain shots. In the Army, we have a saying: “Time spent on Recce is seldom wasted”, and it certainly rang true on this occasion. Then the Bride to be dropped a bombshell: Her father is an Ex professional Wedding Photographer with over 1000 weddings to his name. “Gulp”, no pressure then!
Over the course of the following weeks, I spent many hours perusing google images to seek inspiration and ideas for contemporary wedding photography. I looked at the websites of local photographers who had shot at the same venue to see which locations they’d used for their natural light portraits and group shots. One thing became apparent very quickly: All of the images displayed in their portfolio’s were shot in Spring/Summer, when they could achieve beautifully lit portraits from window light or splendid outdoor group shots. My shoot would be taking place in Winter and it would be dark not long after the ceremony. This led me to revisit my previous research on Lighting, and I read numerous online articles about balancing natural light with Flash to retain atmosphere. I also bought a book from Amazon that was recommended by a fellow OCA student and which I found Invaluable: Cleghorn, M (2001). Wedding Photography. Photographers Institute Press, UK. In his book, Cleghorn covers the various styles of wedding photography, gives an exhaustive shot list, numerous tips for preparation and lots of practical advice for the big day. It will be a constant source of reference for me should I shoot any more weddings in the future. In relation to this course, the context of the photography was set in stone. Wedding Photography belongs in the Album, and it is all about the Narrative. My overarching aim in shooting the wedding was to tell the story of the Bride and Grooms Wedding Day in a manner in which they would want to remember it, and in a way that will invoke fond memories in the future.
The big day arrived before I knew it (Sun 29 Nov 15). I’d charged all my batteries, formatted all my memory cards, packed all my kit including some additional light stands, strobes and light modifiers, and set off to meet Colin at 0800hrs. Another Army saying is “Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”. The last thing I wanted was to miss that decisive moment due to bad prep.
Our arrival at the venue coincided with the arrival of the Bridal Party. Right from the off, it was a dark, dull and dreary/drizzly day. There was very little natural light, and inside the venue, there was only poor tungsten or halogen lighting, mixed with some christmas lighting. Unlike a traditional venue, Quendon Hall is a country estate/hotel where both parties can get ready, married and celebrate all in the same place. The plan was for Colin to cover the preparations of the Groomsmen, and for I to cover the ‘getting ready’ of the bridal party. Needless to say, the bridal party spent a lot longer getting ready than the Groomsmen (who weren’t even due until 1100hrs), with hair and makeup to do. Thankfully this gave me sufficient time to experiment with lighting options and camera settings to counteract the poor quality and quantity of ambient light. I settled for a mixture of On Camera Flash, fitted with a diffuser and bounced off the ceiling/walls, and moderate ISO of 200-1000. This allowed me a balance of freedom-of-movement to capture key moments whilst retaining a decent image quality.
Due to the length of time spent getting ready, I was able to disappear and shoot the venue exterior/interior and many of the details such as table settings, the dress, the shoes and the rings. I was also able to re-examine certain pre-recced areas for their suitability for group shots etc. I was armed with many preconceived ideas about how I wanted to shoot the details, particularly the wedding dress. These ideas were a little kiboshed by the need to shoot at a very wide aperture, resulting in a very narrow DoF. Some quick thinking and experimentation had to take place, and thankfully, I wasn’t pressed for time at this stage. What I learnt was to plan for a number of eventualities that will allow shooting in various conditions.
I shot many reportage shots of the bridal party getting ready before taking formal shots of the bride in her dress before the ceremony. For this I used a large window, but succumbed to a little pressure with the brides father watching my every move. I completely forgot to use the reflector I’d brought along (I could have used her father to hold it). I could also have posed the bride better, which I hadn’t noticed until l started processing the images. Valid learning points. I also shot single images, but could have used a continuous burst to ensure I captured just the right shot.
During the Ceremony, I had to resort to shooting wide open at ISO 1600 due to a flash being too intrusive. I’d also planned on wedding guests ruining shots with their mobile phones and so decided to make use of a common practice of including them, purposefully, in some of my shots. It was a nerve-wracking time for me as I anticipated getting the key shots of the Bride walking down the aisle (in-focus whilst using such a wide aperture), the placing of the rings and ultimately, the kiss! Without using flash, I didn’t need to worry about recycle times and was able to shoot on continuous, using my cameras ability to shoot at 6fps to capture those key moments. I also utilised BBF to save refocusing for each shot.
The formal group shots followed which were done in a quite a tight ornate room. The use of OCF, light stands and some shoot-through brollies saved the day, and thanks to good preparation, they were quickly and efficiently set up. Unfortunately, the father of the bride decided to get overly involved at this stage, directing the groups and getting in close with his own Point and Shoot camera. Many of my shots were ruined by his encroaching into the frame, or by the groups not quite knowing where to look and all looking at different cameras. What I learnt here, is that there are times when I may need to be more assertive and/or vocal, with either the groups or those guests who are getting in the way. The difficulty is doing so in a tactful manner that does not upset the client or guests.
As suggested by Cleghorn, Colin and I took some time to ourselves during the meal, to eat and refresh ourselves and consolidate our equipment. I returned to a reportage style of photography for the speeches, and I thoroughly enjoyed trying to capture the emotion that the speeches invoked. This for me is what Narrative is all about when it comes to photography. The cutting of the cake was the next key moment and I had to clamber through the guests who had gathered to photograph it. After reviewing the images immediately after the event, I wasn’t happy with the pose or composition and so politely asked the Bride and Groom if they wouldn’t mind ‘mocking up’ the cake cutting for a re-shoot. They were more than happy to oblige and I got the shot I wanted after giving them some direction. I was quite pleased with myself for swallowing my pride and asking, rather than making do with second-rate captures.
With the bulk of the key moments out of the way, I was able to relax a little and take some time to be a bit more creative with my next shots. I moved through to the marquee where the main reception was to be held and set up some lights on the dance floor, before briefing the groom on where to dance in order to get a creative shot. On initial inspection on the cameras LCD, the image looked fine, but on the computer I noticed a lack of light wrapping around the subjects which then required substantial post processing. What I should have done is increased the power of the flashes and asked the couple to move closer to them. another lesson learnt.
I then set up an outdoor shoot in which I intended to back-light the couple and illuminate a white brolly. I also wanted to capture some light writing with a sparkler, but the whole thing to turned out to be a disaster. The wind blew the brolly inside out and snapped one of the spokes. The sparklers wouldn’t light, and the brides dress got filthy. In order to make it worth their while, I also spent a considerable length of time post processing this image and it became the only image that had any level of photo montage/manipulation. The lesson: be realistic in your expectations!
The last few images of the day were done in the Bridal Suite, and were intended to be a bit of fun, allowing the bride and groom a bit of time away from the hustle of bustle of the party downstairs. These turned out quite well despite being taken quite hastily.
I stayed for a little while into the evening reception and left at approx 2200hrs. It had been a long and exhausting day, compounded by nerves and anticipation. I left feeling tired, but happy that I’d stayed resilient and professional throughout. I also left feeling quite confident that I’d done a good job.
The post processing and workflow was another beast entirely. I’d committed to providing 100+ images, and so began whittling down the 1240 photographs that I’d taken. This was done in several tranches and eventually I was left with 130 photographs. I arranged these in such a manner that they created a linear narrative and covered all of the key aspects of the day. They were also arranged in such a manner as to create interest through variation during a slideshow or if presented in an album.
I’d decided from the outset that I’d use a mixture of processing styles, rather than a the same one throughout. This is because I wanted each image to be treated as its own artwork, and to create visual interest amongst the album. I utilised a mixture of HDR, Straight, B&W and split toning throughout. I also touched up each image to reduce noise, smooth skin, remove blemishes and remove distractions (within my ability). I found that creating Actions in Photoshop helped me to speed up the process of the retouching, but tried to do most of the post processing in Lightroom. Regardless, it still took me a week (evenings only) to finish the post processing. I also decided to try my hand at using Lightroom’s Slideshow module to create a video, using music of the Brides and Grooms choosing. Once finished, I published the images to a private web gallery for the Bride and Groom to see. Their reaction was really encouraging, and I felt really chuffed with myself. There were 2 minor criticisms: 1) The red on the Bridesmaids and Flower Girls dresses was too bright. In my own Artistic interpretation, I’d brightened them in processing, forgetting that actually, these dresses were chosen because of their colour, and therefore it was my job to replicate them faithfully. It didn’t take me long to reduce their luminosity in Lightroom. 2) There was no photo of the Groom with his parents and sister together. Well actually, their was, I just hadn’t included it because I felt it wasn’t up to scratch due to the interference of the Brides Father. I then retouched it and added it to the collection. You can view all of the final images in the slideshow here: https://youtu.be/t9vOgjk4gW8
Moving forward, I’ve felt a great sense of satisfaction completing this project. It has been very time consuming and stressful at times, but both the Bride and Groom have expressed their pleasure at the quality of the outcome which not only fills me with confidence, but inspires me to keep learning and improving. I also received some very positive comments from the Father of the Bride, both on the day about my professional conduct, and on seeing the final images. I take this is as very high praise! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about and doing something different which hopefully can be of use in my future studies. But now, back to some OCA course work.