It used to be that the hired wedding photographer did a few group shots at the church and handed over perhaps a dozen proofs to choose from. There was a standard shot list that ran the combinations of families and funtionaries and when it was done, so was the job. A longer assignment would include the speeches and cutting the cake. Then the professionals found themselves surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, all taking copies of the same group shot. Some of the savvy ones used a longer lens and politely asked the throng to remain behind them. This meant that they got the tight group shot and uncle Joe got the church, the trees and a small group in the distance.
Then cameras got democratised, and even uncle Joe had a DSLR with a zoom lens. The professional still had the edge in being able to use fill-in flash and compose a picture better, so quality could rule the day if that is what people wanted. And then I think it went off in one of two directions.
In one, the ubiquity of mobile phones changed weddings into paparazzi events to be reassembled from a thousand selfies. In the other the ‘free’ nature of digital meant that the remaining professionals were talking of shooting more than a thousand frames. How on earth does anyone choose from that shotgun blast? With that many shots you could join them up and make a stop-motion video of the wedding. And does it set the expectation that every person attending will have a personal selection of candid and formal portraits to choose from?
Actually, that raises a question: what is the purpose of wedding photography? Is it to record the event and participants, or is it getting to the other extreme of a glamorous fiction? The answer is probably ‘all of the above’. I imagine that the vast majority of weddings are basically recorded: there are some nice pictures of the key people and some nice groups and it forms a pleasant memory of the event. And then there is the top end stuff. These are like car adverts, where the perfectly clean and shiny example of automotive orgasmatron is shown speeding down empty roads in a stunning landscape with a smug driver pressing the buttons for groovy tunes and warp drive. These will be the weddings shoots that have backlit brides on sunset beaches and visions of the couple reflected in their rings. High end and aspirational, but more the exception than the rule. That red glow in the evening in Middlesbrough usually had less to do with the sun going down than something going bad at the Wilton chemical works. (Incidentally, I worked with someone from Middlesbrough. It wasn’t until he left home that he discovered that sparrows weren’t black.)
I have shot very few weddings, and only as the ‘mate with a good camera who can do it for free/ food/ a favour’. The easiest physically was shot on two rolls of 120 film with a fixed-lens TLR. That’s 24 shots, or about 20 with editing. Stressful though, as you have no idea if aunty had her mouth open or her eyes shut until the film is processed, and then it’s too late. It constrains things to just the formal group shots, so it’s over and done in no time. Less tense but logistically harder was using a digital SLR and a bagful of lenses. The post-processing took longer than the wedding. Let nobody tell you that digital is quicker. The happy couple got a DVD full of pictures to print or share as they wanted. It was far less stressful in some ways though, as chimping meant that I knew I had the shot or could shout everyone to pay attention and face front while I repeated it. With someone acting as sheepdog we got the standard combinations of relatives and family wheeled into and out of the group shots in quick time, so nobody got bored or took their hat or jacket off. We did get an uncle walking through the background smoking what he thought was a crafty fag, but he was easily retrieved by a young nephew.
The biggest thing I’ve learned though is to get explicit and detailed agreement over what type of photos are required, what access you can have and what sort of results they want. Easily said, and easily done if you are a professional. But it can turn to worms if it’s a family wedding. You thought you were shooting just the ceremony and your mother puts a contract out on you for not getting the speeches or not getting a snap of granny. And now she’s dead and nobody remembers what she looked like. Or you find yourself in a scrum of relatives holding their phones out at arms length, right in shot. It’s considered bad form to punch your relatives unless it’s a Scottish wedding. Or at least wait until after the speeches.
I had an unusual arrangement when I agreed to shoot a family wedding and turned up to find that a friend of the couple had been named as the official photographer, but could they borrow my camera? That’s a dilemma: do you leave the camera set for spot-metering, spot-focus, diffused flash with a bit of compensation, or do you set it to idiot mode like a big point-and-shoot so that they will at least get a workable result? Seriously: in any normal world you would invite the designated photographer to use the camera they brought with them or to stuff it up their arse. Whichever worked best for them or was the best fit. But really, I got over myself, put the camera on safe mode and put up with it. It was their wedding, not mine. And besides, they only did the ceremony shots inside, leaving me free to do all the groups, portraits, candids, arrival and departure, cake, speeches….
It really was a case of getting over myself: I am not the big must-have wedding professional. I can take competent shots but you would only engage me because I do mate’s rates. I don’t want to make my living as a wedding photographer, so I never put the effort in to be better than that. I can see how the big boys shoot a thousand frames though: it’s easy to keep poking the shutter button as the incremental cost is zero but that next shot might be the one. The wedding where someone borrowed my camera resulted in 150 shots, edited down to 90. That would be 13 rolls of 120 film or five rolls of 35mm, plus developing and proof-prints. That’s a chunk of cash to lay out with no guarantee of covering it.
The other difference is that I would previously have dropped-off my films and collected the results. What I took is what the couple got. With a digital wedding I did all the post-processing. That’s a few more hours graft to get everything consistently colour-balanced, sharpened and captioned. Then I could pop them on Dropbox and fire out the sharing invitations. That at least is a huge advantage of digital: the ability to share the finished article with the whole wedding party immediately, with no further work on collating print orders. I’ve done the traditional print thing before and it was a pain in the arse. By the time everyone had decided what they wanted and I had managed the print order and distribution it was time to photograph their first child’s birthday.
This digital print-it-yourself thing works perfectly for me. I also have a good quality print shop that I use, so I let them know that I can get big enlargements, mounted, framed and all that business at good prices if they want it. Mostly they want the pictures on their phone or to bang a few copies out on the home printer, but I’ve had a couple of orders for something bigger or nicer. Even the traditional canvas print – these can look better than you might think.
And from the extremes of a fixed and manual-everything TLR to carrying every lens I own, I have found the perfect wedding kit: a large-aperture, wide to slightly long zoom (24-70mm equivalent) plus a really good dedicated flash plus diffuser. I’ve also got a really wide-aperture 75mm equivalent manual lens from my old film SLR for those too far away and dark moments or that flattering portrait of mother/granny/bride. On the last wedding I did it even managed to throw out of focus the car-parking signs behind the wedding party (no options to move or reframe).
Do I want to do more of this kind of thing? Not really. Can I do it and would I do it if asked? Sure, but let’s agree the details.
And if you want to borrow my camera, I brought one along you can use.
The Pogues and Bobby Darin, if you were wondering.