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What Goes Into A Wedding?

A while back, via Twitter, I came across an extremely contentious blog posting from a bride to be. It was contentious because the bride had asked the very relevant question "why does wedding photography cost so much?". She was asking a perfectly valid question but some, both those within the wedding industry along with some brides and grooms took exception to the tone in which she questioned, what she perceived to be, extravagant pricing. Her blog posting drew hundreds of responses and sadly in the end got quite ugly. I chose not to get involved, and in hindsight I'm glad I didn't.

Nonetheless the posting raised some legitimate questions and in the wake of that article I've been wanting to write a piece detailing what goes into shooting a wedding day to a professional standard. It's not my intention to further stir what became extremely volatile waters, and with that in mind I thought it was worth letting things calm down a touch before posting an article from the photographers point of view. I'd also like to make clear that this article should not be viewed as a 'response' to that article, but rather 'inspired' by. The original article made some extremely valid points and it clarified to me the understandable view of someone outside the industry looking in. To that end, I hope this article will go some way to explaining what goes into the job. My aim is to make it interesting and enlightening - a behind the scenes if you will.

Initial Consultation

The absolute first stage of booking a wedding is obviously the initial enquiry. Nine times out of ten this comes by way of email via the wedding enquiry form on my website. The form asks the prospective client for some basic contact details and includes a message box that gives them the opportunity to send through any other relevant information such as proposed date and venue. I generally respond to enquiries within the hour. I include a copy of my wedding brochure in PDF format which includes a breakdown of my pricing and options, and of course let the couple know my availability for the date in question.

Tony Hart Wedding Photography - Contact Form Screenshot

At this point, if the client likes my work, options and of course pricing (!) we arrange an initial consultation. It's an entirely obligation and pressure free event. An opportunity for me to get to know prospective clients and their forthcoming wedding and more importantly an opportunity for them to get to know me. It tends to last between 30 minutes and an hour and generally I conduct them in my clients homes. We're all busy people and all the more so with a wedding on the horizon, and I've found that it definately eases the pressure on the bride and groom if I can make the effort by going to them. From time to time an initial consultation doesn't translate into a booked wedding, but this is rare and the risk of a wasted journey is worth it in my eyes. I consider customer service to be a vital tenet of my business approach and I consider making the effort to visit clients for free, no-pressure consultations a big part of that.

The consultation consists of a number of things. First off we go through the shape of the wedding, the details that help flesh it out in my mind. What, where, who, when - that sort of thing. Next up I get the bride and groom to talk to me about which elements of my photographic style drew them to me and their vision for the wedding pictures. Likes/dislikes, particular images that grabbed their eye, all of these questions are important.

By the time we reach the initial consultation the couple have invariably seen my portfolio and generally have a good understanding of my style. Nonetheless this discussion helps me understand what they love and why. It's an important part of how I'll approach the day from a thinking perspective. From time to time I've come across clients who had something quite different in mind from the photojournalism I offer. It's rare, but occassionally there are times when I have to suggest other photographers to a prospective client because their vision and the way I shoot simply don't match. I consider it absolutely crucial that client and photographer see eye-to-eye, both on a personal level, and stylistically and it's important to me that I'm the right fit for my clients.

Tony-Hart.com Wedding Portfolio Screenshot

I always bring a range of albums to my consultations and generally get the couple to flick through them while we chat things over. Its a great way of letting the client see real weddings from beginning to end as well as the actual albums themselves. We wrap up the session with a discussion of the different levels of coverage, presentation options and cover any questions the couple may not have had answered. At the end of consultations, I always ask if the couple would like to go ahead and book but there is never any pressure to decide there and then. It's hugely important that people get a chance to digest what they've heard, consider and have a private chat together.

Booking

If the client then decides to go ahead and book, the contract is signed and a booking fee taken. The date is now deemed to be secure. At the time of booking I only require a commitment to the level of coverage the clients want, and not a decision on albums, photobooks and prints. All my packages include image discs and so it's my firm belief that forcing people into taking albums that at this stage they may not be sure they want or need is simply unfair and pushy. Both PhotoBooks and Jorgensen albums have been popular when booked after a wedding, so I see no need to make these an obligation. At the end of the day, many people choose not to have a traditional wedding album these days so it seems strange to me to make it de riguer by including it as part of a package.

Scouting & Research

Prior to the wedding day I make it my business to see a number of things and talk to a variety of people. First and foremost it's essential that I have a good understanding of the venue and know it well. I always scout out both the wedding venue and the church well ahead of the date and make sure to do so at a time of day similar to the time I expect to be shooting there. As available light is a central part of my photographic style, the direction and quality of light is a big part of my research. Understanding it on location is everything. I always make at least one pre-wedding visit, often returning more than once to view the setting in a variety of ambient light conditions.

Hampton Court House School Wedding Day

I also speak to venue staff and like to get acquainted with whoever will be in charge of events on the day. Wedding co-ordinators and venue managers have a lot to think about and I find it makes life easier for all involved if I can touch base with them and run through any relevant specifics with them. One of the most important conversations I have is with whoever is running the ceremony be they a priest, vicar or registrar. It's my experience that these people are usually hugely helpful, but I like to make sure they're happy with my role and intention as a photographer so there is no chance of misunderstanding.

Finally I always plan transport in considerable detail. This is particularly important for weddings where the ceremony and reception are taking place in seperate locations. If I am covering a brides preparations on one side of town, have to get to church on the other side of town and then onto a venue at a third location, timing can be critical. It's essential that I know the way and know where I can get quickly parked. It may sound obvious, but in the modern era of GPS and turn by turn directions, it's all to easy to forget to do these basic bits of preparation. I always make sure I know the way from A to B from memory, so if the sat nav decides not to play ball then it's not the end of the world. If the route involves places that can be severely affected by traffic congestion, I work out a route B. Come the wedding day, I carry plenty of cash so in a worst case scenario of a breakdown or a flat tyre I can always take a cab. This level of preparation helps to make sure that on the day I can focus on picture taking and not be distracted by trying to figure out how to be in the right place at the right time.

Pre-Wedding Meeting

About two to three weeks prior to the wedding date I arrange a pre-wedding meeting with the bride and groom. Like the initial consultation, this is usually conducted at the clients home. It is an opportunity to remember each other - it can be a long time between booking and the actual wedding - and to go over the forthcoming day. By this stage, schedules tend to be set, the wedding party is generally confirmed and the details much firmer in everyones mind. We go through all the specifics and nuances of the wedding day and confirm when the formals will take place and who will feature in each group. I take away a confirmed schedule and a confirmed list of formals, the bride and groom take away peace of mind.

The Day Before

In the week leading up to the wedding I keep a close eye on the weather outlook. Generally this only translates into minor adjustments in my mental approach to the day, but it does allow for forethought and contingency planning if torrential rain or other extreme weather conditions are on the cards. I also check to see what time sunset will be on the day of the wedding and where West is in relation to the venue. The day before, I check a variety of weather forecasts and make final decisions regarding where I intend to shoot the formal groups in the event of Plan A (where the weather does what I expect) and Plan B (when it doesn't).

Wedding Photography Relevant iPhone Apps

The day before the wedding I double check my clothes (suit trousers, belt, shirt) make sure they're ironed and crease-free and polish my shoes. I print backup Google map directions to and from all of the relevant locations, label them, and pop them in the car glove box. I check my iPhone has all the key contact details and then charge the battery overnight. I transfer all the formal shot details, including names and roles within the wedding party, along with any other useful details onto pocket sized index cards, hole-punch the corner and then fasten them together with a piece of twine. I've found this low-tech solution to be the most effective method of quickly prompting my memory during the process of shooting the formals. The hole punch/twine solution works better than a staple as it allows me to permanently 'turn the page' without the stack of cards wanting to snap back to where it was. If neccessary I pop out and make sure I have a full tank of fuel.

Next up, I take my three camera bodies (two primary, one backup) and clean all of the sensors using Visible Dust sensor brushes. I then shoot some test shots to confirm that there are no dust spots present on the sensor. I then clean my lenses so they are dust and smudge free using a blower, lens brush and microfibre cloth. Once this is done, I run all my memory cards through the cameras, formatting them and putting them into a flash card wallet. On all cameras I double check a number of options including RAW format, autofocus custom functions and the user definable presets. I load two clean cards into my primary cameras, confirm they're empty and then move the menu screen so it's not, due to last use, resting on the 'format card' option. I then check my speedlite batteries to confirm they've plenty of juice. Finally I remove all batteries from the cameras, put them on to charge and make sure I have the right straps on the right bodies.

Tony Hart's Wedding Photography Equipment

At this point I tend to go and eat dinner and switch off for a few hours. I find there's a lot of tension prior to a wedding day and it's worth taking the time to try and relax. I tend to watch some rugby or play a little XBox, but above all, I try not to think about the wedding for a bit. At about 9 I come back to the office, take the batteries off the charger, load them into the cameras, stick the spares into my Think Tank roller bag and the load the case up with all my bodies and lenses. I open up my lighting case and make sure everything is present and correct. I rarely use studio lights, but they do get used for some formal shots and they always get taken along. Everything is then zipped and locked and placed in the lobby ready for the morning along with other essentials like tripods and shoes. I like to get an early night prior to a wedding so at this point it's off to bed for a good sleep.

The Wedding Day!

On the day itself I wake up early, long before I have to be anywhere. I have as big a breakfast as I can manage. I'm not a big morning eater, but weddings are long events so experience has taught me that it's best to fuel up. After dressing, I head to the lobby, unzip my Think Tank bag and check two things in particular - that I have charged batteries and empty memory cards in my cameras and plenty of spares of each sitting ready in the bag. As mentioned, this was all checked the night before, but I like to check again - it gives me peace of mind.

The camera bag, the lighting roller case, tripods, power reels, a waterproof jacket and plenty of water is loaded into the boot of the car. Personal stuff like wallet and phone are collected and the formal index cards parked in my right pocket. At this point I do a final mental check, the sat nav is loaded and it's off to the first port of call.

If I'm running my automated PhotoBooth then I tend to head to the venue first and set this up if at all possible. It takes a while to prepare and if there is the opportunity to get this done in the morning before I am due elsewhere it's a half hour saved that pays dividends. On the way to the first location, generally either the church or wherever the bride is getting prepared I tend to listen to something energising on the iPod. I'm a big fan of film scores so that's often a favourite. At this point it's about getting your game face on and being in the right frame of mind. The preparation is done and it's a matter of being switched on and mentally sharp.

The wedding itself doesn't require half as much explanation as you might imagine. It's a matter of keeping the observational side of the brain working, 'seeing as the camera sees' and keeping an eye on the schedule so you're in the right place at the right time. I arrive to the ceremony location early and, prior to the arrival of anyone else, I'll walk around the church for a bit. I've already done my research for good shooting spots, but based on the prevailing light and expected position of bride and groom I now make some final loose plans about where I hope to be during which element of the marriage ceremony. I describe these plans as loose because you have to be prepared to go with the flow. Things change and not everything can be preplanned. When the unexpected occurs you have to react quickly and being too set on a certain course of events can cause the mind to freeze.

During the service itself I pay as much attention to the person conducting the wedding as anything else. The unintentional cues this person gives are integral to how I move around a wedding. Being unobtrusive is a major part of the way I shoot and so economising movement in a quiet church or ceremony room is very important.

Corinne walked down the aisle by Father

The formals typically take place at some point between the end of the ceremony and the wedding breakfast and, from my point of view, are the most structured part of the day. I limit formals to eight distinct groups. This is so that the formals don't become unwieldy and overtake the day. It's my view that if a bride and groom desire more formals, they should be considering a more traditional photographic approach entirely. By limiting the formals to eight groups, it gives time to do each one properly rather than having to rush through at a pace that doesn't do the images justice. Pageboys and flowergirls, not to mention adults, can be flighty things at weddings so I allocate five minutes to each shot to ensure that sufficient time is available. Typically each group takes no more than 3 minutes, but by doing things this way we acheive a great result without compromising a genuinely photojournalistic approach. During this period of the wedding I ask the best man and ushers to assist me in rounding up the relevant people and aim to work firmly and speedily. Guests rarely want to stand around being directed and so efficiency is crucial. Done well, the formal groups should be completed accurately and quickly.

If a PhotoBooth is in use at the reception I return to this every half hour or so to make sure it's still running smoothly and doesn't need a new memory card. I obviously stop for lunch, but try and eat reasonably quickly. As a photojournalist it's my job to shoot things as they happen and moments don't wait. During receptions I sometimes spend 5 or 10 minutes in one great, well appointed position, waiting for the right moment to occur to make the shot. Observation is everything.

Tony Hart Photobooth at Corinne & Felipe's Wedding

None of my wedding packages include a time limit so I tend to work through until the close of the wedding celebrations, typically at midnight or sometimes even later. By this stage I'm invariably knackered, but it's also one of the most enjoyable periods of the wedding from a photographic point of view. The light is always challenging by this point, but the timetable is loose and the opportunity to 'find' or 'make' shots is considerable. It's a very creative period and less pressurised than earlier parts of the day. It's a real chance to relax and enjoy the job.

Once everything winds down, I pack my gear, making a point of putting everything back in it's proper place and taking special care to file my memory cards. I load the car, say my goodbyes to the bride and groom and drive home.

No matter how tired I am, when I arrive, I download the memory cards to my computer and duplicate the files to an external disc. At this point I copy the files into Lightroom and set it to render previews. Once this operation - which takes some time, is underway - I'm happy to hit the hay safe in the knowledge that the precious files are safely in three places - the external disc, my Mac's internal disc and my Drobo which houses my Lightroom library. They are of course also still on the original memory cards. These are not wiped until the wedding has been fully edited and backed up. By this stage it's commonly 3 am.

Editing

The next morning, if I haven't already, I'm pretty keen to review the images from the wedding day. The first stage of editing is to simply bin the chaff. Most photographers refer to this as culling. Some images are immediately binned due to inaccurate focus, close eyed 'blinks', or the odd inadvertent shot of the ground. This first run through is about selecting the rejects. I shoot upwards of 2000 images at a standard wedding and culling the junk is the first stage. This usually brings the image count down by 15-20% or so.

An example of image selection in Lightroom

Next, I use Lightroom's 'Pick' functionality to flag a loose initial selection. This tends to be larger than the final selection, generally as with two very similar good frames I will select both initially and make a final call on which is the better at a later stage. At this stage I've normally reduced the selection down to somewhere between 300-500 images. I then take an enforced break. 2000+ photos is a lot to look through and after a while you end up going a little photo numb. After a certain point I lose track of what's a great image and what's merely a good image and by taking a break it gives the eyes time to recover and resets my judgement.

Post-Processing

Once this initial selection is done, I start working on the job of post-processing the images within Lightroom. At the most basic level every image is individually adjusted for colour and white balance, black and white conversions are done, excessive noise is managed, sharpening is applied, the image is selectively dodged and burned, minor imperfections removed and the image is cropped if neccessary. 90% of this work is done within Lightroom, but every now and again an image needs further work and this is then exported to Photoshop for additional processing.

Formal shots are left to the end as these require a slightly different approach and often require more work due to the presence of 'blinks' in larger groups. With a formal of more than ten people, no matter how many frames you take, it's often the case that someone somewhere is looking the wrong way or blinking. The solution is generally not difficult and involves cloning the offending set of eyes out and replacing them with the same set from another frame where the owner has their eyes open. With milliseconds between frames it is very easy to make it entirely imperceptible and always appeals to my slightly childish side because I can make the person open and close their eyes by simply toggling the visibilty of the eye layer in Photoshop!

Editing a wedding photo in Adobe Lightroom

Once all the images are processed a final set of editing is done. I run through all the edited images and where neccessary reject images that don't make the grade or are near-duplicates of others. I then look through all the unselected pictures to check there are no gems that have been missed, if there are, they are added and processed.

At this point I have the final selection ready, edited and processed. The photographs are generally pretty much fine in chronological order, but in seeking to tell the story of the wedding day it's normally worth rearranging a few images - often detail shots - to heighten the narrative sense. Once this is done, a final run through is done to confirm that the images flow well and they are then named and numbered. The editing and post-processing of a wedding typically takes me about three days. At this point, the final edit (in both RAW and JPEG format) is backed up to archive DVD, the rejected frames deleted and the entire wedding, including unflagged photos is archived on the Drobo. The unflagged frames are kept for two years and then deleted.

Web Previews, Albums & Prints

The final wedding edit is then exported from Lightroom and uploaded into Slideshow Pro Director, the software which runs the slideshow galleries on my website. The flash slideshow is prepared and embeded into a new webpage constructed in Adobe Dreamweaver and this too is then uploaded to my site.

Slideshow Pro Director dynamically drives albums on my website.

Via a Lightroom plugin, I build a second gallery, with identical content, setup to allow clients to purchase prints directly from me. The folder containing the two galleries is then password protected and a link added to my client area page. Everything is double checked and I then send the bride and groom an email telling them their photos are ready and available online.

Adobe Dreamweaver is used to edit gallery pages.

The next stage is to prepare the Slideshow DVD and Digital Negative Discs that I include with all of my packages. These two discs contain all the edited pictures and if the couple have selected the PhotoBooth option, all the PhotoBooth images as well. The Slideshow DVD is set to the music of the clients choice and is playable on a regular home DVD player. It's a great way for people to look through their pictures with family and friends. The Digital Negative Disc is akin to being handed the negatives in the days of film photography and consists of all the finished pictures, in full resolution, ready for printing or reproduction. These are prepared, the DVD discs printed with the wedding details and then packaged in a bespoke case.

My wedding albums are sourced from Jorgensen of Australia

Finally, if the bride and groom have chosen album or print options these are designed/prepared and sent to the printers. I do all album design and firmly believe that it's part of my job as the creator of the images to present them in the best way possible. Once the albums have been designed, they are sent to the relevant printing/finishing companies for final assembly. I always have albums delivered to me rather than direct to the client so that I can quality check the final product before passing it on to the couple.



At this point I would consider a wedding pretty much complete. It's been a long journey from initial consultation to album delivery but the time spent in preparation and planning, not to mention the attention to detail throughout, all has a part to play in ensuring a first class end result.

This article has spilled to a much greater length than I intended. I originally envisaged a simple look at the mechanics of being a professional wedding photographer, however, in discussing the process of shooting a wedding from beginning to end it's become rather detailed. Hopefully it still achieves it's original aim of looking at what goes into a wedding and challenging the oft held, rarely voiced, assumption that a wedding photographer only works on the wedding day. Above all, I hope it's been an interesting read. Well done for making it this far!

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