wedding couple hugging

How to take good wedding photos?

A wedding performs many functions. It grants a new legal status to two people; it brings together their friends and family members to witness this momentous occasion; and, of course, it’s a good excuse for a great party. It’s also a time for a pair to share and showcase what they most deeply cherish. And, for some nature lovers, that’s where Northern California-based wedding photographer Charleton Churchill (TEDxCSUS Talk: Exploring adventure wedding photography) comes in. In search of the most stunning natural backdrop, he is willing to hike the extra mile, plunge into the darkest and coldest caves, and scale the highest peaks (think: Everest) — and then take the couple with him so it can all be captured on film.

Churchill is a man of many passions — for photography, for travel, for the outdoors and rock climbing, and for people — and they’ve added up into his career as a very adventurous wedding photographer. While he continues to take his share of traditional shots, he specializes in placing his couples in landscapes that are much more Outside than Bride. As he puts it, “I’ve made adventure a part of my life and a part of my business.”

This is probably one of the most stressful areas to be a photographer.

If you accidentally delete the photographs or lose the memory card, you are in big trouble.

Saying that, if you can take great photographs, you are a superhero. Then you can charge a lot of money for this service, especially if you have a lot of experience.

Having a lot of knowledge photographing weddings is transferable. The skills you learn here can help with other photography fields.

This is particularly helpful if you own a freelance business. Your downtimes could be used for photographing portraits or events, for example.

In no way is this an easy or stress-free area of photography. A lot of time is spent trying to find and meet clients. Then, you need to listen to their wedding plans and wishes.

Before I share these tips, I do need to say one thing: the best way to get great wedding photos when you’re not a pro is to hire a professional. Pro photographers spend years learning their craft, and a few tips off the internet aren’t going to give you comparable results. And if any day is worth hiring a photographer for, it’s your wedding. That being said, I also understand that there are plenty of reasons a non-professional may end up taking some or all of the wedding photos: perhaps it’s only feasible to hire a photographer for part of the event. You’re asked to take photos during other portions, and perhaps you’re building up your photography skills and want to practice as a “second shooter”, perhaps circumstances prohibit hiring a professional, etc. There are things you can do to help ensure the best wedding photos possible, even when you aren’t a professional photographer, and that’s what these wedding photography tips are for.

Camera Equipment

Having the best camera equipment is very important in being a professional wedding photographer.

You need a DSLR or mirrorless system that can handle everything this type of event can throw at you.

There are many different styles and locations you will photograph. The camera you will use may need to change at a moment’s notice.

That means being able to work at a high ISO and fast shutter speed. Having great focusing points will also help.

Shooting in Raw is a necessity, as this will give you more play when it comes to editing. Your system needs to be able to deal with different lenses too.

Also, having a backup camera (or two) will make sure that you are covered if something happens.

Having three cameras isn’t unheard of, as two cameras can operate while one serves as a backup.

The two-camera method is beneficial as one can sport a prime for portraits. The others can host a zoom for unexpected moments.

Always go the extra mile (or two, or more).

In 2015, a couple asked Churchill if he’d do a shoot with them at Yosemite National Park. Like him, they loved the park — and the idea of taking pictures in an off-the-beaten-track spot. “”We discussed this cliff area, and we’d never seen photos taken there — so the day after their wedding in October, Arielle and Adam hiked several miles in their wedding dress and suit to that cliff,” says Churchill. There, he joined them, along with a hair-and-makeup artist.

After posing the couple on the cliff, Churchill hiked 200 yards — or around two football fields — away to photograph them. “We communicated through radios. I tried to get them positioned so I could get the best view without it being dangerous; I’m all about safety. I asked how they were doing,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We feel great; a little nervous and scared.’ I said, ‘Can you go any further?’ and Adam said, ‘No, this is good.'”

“There were people near me using their phones to take pictures of us,” Churchill recalls, “and everybody’s laughing because they can hear our conversation on the radios.” Shortly before sunset, he asked the makeup artist to throw back Arielle’s veil. Then he snapped this image, which went on to be featured in photography magazines. Since then, his peers have gone to the cliff to capture the same shot with other couples.

It’s worth putting in extra effort to find an unexpected location, he says; in fact, the extra effort can be the tip-off that a spot is worth considering. “If it’s somewhere where you have to hike more miles than the typical tourist, I’m like, ‘All right, let’s do it,’ because that’s going to be something no one’s ever done before.”

Check out the location in advance 

To get an idea of where you’ll take photos, take someone with you so you can shoot practice photos and get an idea of what backgrounds and lighting will look like. Walk around the entire area and look for stairs or benches for the couple to sit on, walls and doors for them to stand in front of or lean on, etc. If you are shooting outside, find some spots to take photos that are up close to the church or building, and find others that are further away so the entire building can appear in the background. Pay attention to the light! You need the couple to be positioned so that the sun isn’t casting harsh shadows on their faces, so be sure to scope out the location at the same time of day the wedding will be taking place. Look for open shade if photos will be taken during times when the sun is high and bright. Take lots of practice photos in different spots and with different camera settings so you can see before the actual event which things work and which things don’t. (PS – don’t try to use any settings on your camera you’re not already comfortable with for a wedding. It’s better to stick to auto and take lots of photos than to try to shoot manuals and run the risk of getting it wrong.)

Arrive prepared

First and foremost, make sure you bring plenty of memory cards (my favourite brand is SanDisk Extreme Pro; they’re reliable and have fast read and write speeds), camera batteries (I have four extras, so I never have to charge during a wedding) and flash batteries (Eneloop Pro batteries are great; they’re rechargeable and allow for fast recycle times).

Shoot early

The best time to get shots of the bride’s and groom’s accessories and details is before they get dressed. That’s when everything is in pristine condition, the flowers are fresh and haven’t started to wilt, and nothing has any stains or wrinkles. To save time, I ask the couple to gather these details in one location before I arrive so I can photograph them first and not delay their getting-ready process.

(if possible). The wedding I was photographing was at 11 in the morning on a very bright summer’s day, meaning the photo options outside would be limited since I didn’t want the couple squinting into the sun. So I asked them if we could take some photos of the two of them the night before the wedding, outside the temple they’d be getting married in. This turned out to be a fantastic idea for two reasons. First, since we were taking photos before the event, our timeline was relaxed, and we didn’t have a huge audience. This went a long way toward making both me and the couple more relaxed, which meant we got better photos. We had plenty of time, which meant more photos to choose from. And finally, the evening light meant we were able to get all sorts of photos that just wouldn’t have looked good in the full midday sun. When they look at these pictures years from now, they won’t care that they were taken the night before their wedding instead of a few minutes after.

Include loved ones in interesting ways

The bride and groom aren’t the only ones who will be looking back at these wedding photos and cherishing them for years to come; their friends and relatives will be, too! If parents or grandparents are present at the getting-ready location, incorporate them in the shots. You could ask a relative to help the bride put on some jewellery or zip up her dress, or ask a relative or groomsman to help the groom put on his boutonniere, fix his tie or put on his suit jacket.

Bring inspiration photos for reference 

Ask the bride and groom to gather example photos that they love. Tell them to grab photos they like off the internet and drop them onto a blank document, then print them out to show you. You can gather your inspiration as well: a variety of poses, details you want to remember to capture, etc. Print them all out and bring the pages with you on the photo shoot. It’s easy to forget your plan when you’re in the middle of taking pictures, and it’s hard to remember a bunch of different poses when you aren’t used to photographing weddings, so a couple of pages of inspiration photos will go a long way toward helping you get more variety and better photos. I’d never have thought of taking the photo below if it weren’t for an inspiration photo the bride brought for me to look at.

See, but don’t be seen

When the bride is coming down the aisle, it’s just as important to keep an eye on the groom for any sweet reactions to the first time he sees his bride-to-be. During the ceremony, stay out of the way, and be inconspicuous so that the guests also have a good view. If I’m in the centre aisle, I usually kneel, or I stay in the “wings” on either side of the ceremony space. 

Lighting is key

When shooting outdoor portraits of the couple and the bridal party, my absolute favourite lighting comes from an overcast sky. This lighting mimics the soft, diffused light that comes from a studio softbox, without leaving any harsh, distracting, unflattering shadows on the subjects. But because you don’t always get those ideal conditions, you have to be able to work with what you’re given. Scope out the area for some attractive locations in the shade (for example, under a tree, in the shadow of a building or under an overhang) as a backup option.

If there is full sun and no place to hide, I ask the subjects to face their shadow directly. This way, they are evenly backlit, and their own bodies sort of “eclipse” the sunlight behind them. However, you have to make sure that their faces are properly exposed, so you don’t want to rely on your camera’s auto settings. If you’re shooting in RAW, you can also bring in more detail when editing photos later.

Get a list of must-have group photos. 

Ask the bride and groom to make a list of each different group they want to be photographed. For example a bride & groom with both sets of parents, bride & groom with the bride’s parents, the bride only with the bride’s parents, the bride with her sisters, groom with his dad and grandpa, etc. If there are many families involved, chances are you’ll be taking quite a few group photos, and you don’t want to miss any that the couple later wishes they have. The couple might think they’ll remember all the photos they want on the day of the wedding, but chances are they’ll be a bit distracted during the event, so a list of all the must-have photos is a must-have.

Have a helper. 

Whether you’re photographing just the bride and groom or the entire wedding party, a helper can be a lifesaver. Give your helper the must-have photo list and ask her to keep track of which ones you’ve taken and which ones you still need to do. Ask her to call out who’s up next and help arrange each group so you can stay in one spot taking the photos. Also, have her make sure the bride’s dress/train/hair/etc. all look good for each shot. She can help carry any gear, including a folding step-stool, which will help you get photos from different angles.

Keep shooting for the stars.

Of course, it’s not necessary to hike five miles in the dark to an ice cave in order to take your wedding photos with natural wonder. This couple couldn’t spare the time for an adventure wedding shoot, so they planned their 2017 wedding to occur on the night of the Perseid meteor shower, in an open area near Auburn, California, where the shower would be visible.

Photographing a couple against a meteor shower is like trying to shoot any moving target — really difficult. As Churchill says, “A meteor would happen behind us or to the side but never in the view of the couple. I was taking 10- to 20-second exposures hoping that one would come into the frame. I also had to tell them, ‘Don’t move; it will make the shot blurry.'” Finally, he told them to point to the sky, and lo and behold, the planets — er, meteors — aligned and he got this shot. One tip for photographers who want to capture a starry evening sky: Churchill says it’s best to shoot on a night when there is no or little moon.

Commemorate the weather

If there was any memorable weather on the wedding day (rain, snow, etc.), don’t try to ignore it — embrace it! You can never control what the weather will be like, so it’s always good to have a plan of action for whatever the clouds may bring. (An awning, overhang or clear umbrellas are helpful ways to keep the bridal party dry while still capturing the rain or snowfall.)

Capture family portraits

While family portraits may not seem like the most exciting portion of the day, they are extremely important to capture. Nowadays, with extended families who are often spread across the country or the world, weddings are a unique occasion in which all family members are in the same place at the same time (and dressed to the nines!), so it’s the perfect occasion to get a portrait of all members of the family.

After getting all of the posed and formal family portraits, I give the family the option to take a fun or silly photo. Many times, these are the photos my clients cherish the most because they show the true energy and spirit of the family.

Get your camera set up properly. I like to shoot with prime lenses (a 24mm f/1.8 wide-angle lens, a 50mm f/1.4 normal lens, an 85mm f/1.8 moderately long lens, a 135mm f/2 telephoto lens and a 60mm macro lens), so it’s useful for me to have two camera bodies with different focal lengths. This is also great as a backup precaution in case you ever encounter a malfunction with one of the cameras.

However, if you have, or can afford only one lens, I would recommend the 50mm f/1.4. It’s versatile; great in low-light conditions; and takes beautiful, detail shots and flattering portraits.

If you’re looking to buy new lenses, check out our guides for all of Canon’s lenses, and all of Nikon’s lenses.

Set your camera to shoot in RAW. This will give you the most freedom to edit your photos in a (here are our favourite photo editing apps) and will enable you to bring back details in blown-out highlights in a bright sky or a white wedding dress, or salvage some details in super dark shadows or a black tuxedo.

Take lots of photos. 

When you’re not a professional photographer, your best chance of getting great photos is taking a lot of them. For each pose, take at least 15 shots, changing something each time you press the shutter button. Take some closeups; ask the couple to look at you, then at each other, to kiss, then to rest his cheek on her head, then to laugh, etc. Then zoom out for some half body shots, then step back for a full-body shot. Move around and take photos from different angles, from above or below or to the side, sometimes focusing on the bride, sometimes on the groom, etc. You can get a variety of completely different photos from the same pose (see photos below). You can even stop taking photos for a few minutes and let them talk to each other, then snap a few candids. Just keep changing small things about the photo and keep snapping that shutter button. Some of the photos will turn out better than others; you can delete the bad ones and keep the good ones.

Finally, relax. Even if you’re nervous, pretend you’re not once you start taking photos. If you seem stressed, the couple will feel stressed, and you’ll be able to see that in the pictures. Talk to them, ask them about their plans, tell them how gorgeous they look, how happy you are for them, etc. Help them feel relaxed so their excitement will show in the photos. That way, even if your pictures aren’t perfect, they’ll still be treasured.

If the wedding couple is doing a sparkler exit or any other grand send-off, this is a great photo op to end the night with (and it looks great as the last page of a wedding album)! Because these photos are taken in very low light, I shoot with a high ISO (800 or higher), a very wide aperture (around f/1.4 to f/2) and slower shutter speed (around 1/100 to1/125) to let in the ambient light in the background. To freeze the motion in the foreground and illuminate the subject, I use my flash (with a diffuser attachment) as a fill light.

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