Thursday, May 19, 2016

Preparing To Photagraph A Wedding

I've recently photographed a wedding and thought I'd pass on what I learned during my preparation and day of shooting.  One of the things that I read in the photo-blogs is that a photographer is not only a creator and artist, they have to be problem solvers.  I'm not the best artist but I am a problem solver (my day job).  Shit will go wrong, camera setting will get hosed up and when you see images start to come out of the envelope, you need to be ready to adjust.  For a wedding, you have to know the equipment inside and out and roll with the punches.  I've been driving a Nikon for 40+ years so the menus, ergonomics and operation is second nature. My backup camera for this job is a Fujifilm XT-1 and I'm not ready to make it a primary for a fast moving shoot like a wedding (More about why is published HERE).  (I have used the XT-1 for portraits and you can't tell the difference in quality even though it weighs 4 pounds less.)

Even though I've owned the Nikon D800 for a while, the number of menus and options is crazy.  I ran into a problem about an hour into the pre-wedding portrait shoot and was flustered trying to find the right menu to override the issue.  I called a camera store 600 miles away to talk to an expert that wasn't flustered.  Problem solved within two minutes and I was back to smiling, laughing and shooting. If I hadn't been able to fix it within a time limit for my situation, I had a backup camera that could do the job within 6 feet of me. I'm a pilot, but as Gene Kranz (mission control for Apollo 13) says, "You gotta just work the problem".  I say you also need to have a backup plan, a Plan-B, and Plan-C and some alternate airports for when things go wrong.

This article has a lot to do with planning and prepping for an event that can't be rescheduled.  I did some research before my shoot which covered some of the items here.  My view is a little more in-depth on the failure planning for sure.  I've seen almost all of these failures first hand over the years.  As the wedding approached I really had to focus on planning.  To make matters more exciting, the client was FAMILY.  A major screw-up would result in my being razzed for the rest of my life, not just loss in business.   Some of the lessons below were learned from experience and others are a reflection on what went right because someone else thought of it (like the bride printing the schedule out for all the guests as well as a shoot list).

  • Obsess over pre-shoot planning with the bride.
    • What she likes, doesn't like.  Example poses (mine brought examples to the event) on her phone.  (Why didn't I think of that?)
    • Find out what she likes about the dress.
    • Have her sum the wedding up with three words.  Ask what she wants to remember.
    • Have her bring a shoot list to the wedding.  This is for all of the group shots and who should be in each one.  The more excitement, the more memory failure.  If the bride or groom are nervous, the memory goes completely.
    • Have her think about who will help the bride and groom get ready?  Usually it's mom or dad.  You want them in the "getting ready photos".
  • Schedule - Have a schedule on paper that you can hand it out.  This is mainly because you are working with multiple people that need to be in different shoots at different places and times.
  • Site - Visit the site, look at the lighting.  Go ahead and shoot some pics during the visit to look at later.  How else should a photographer document?
  • Power - If you are going to use some lighting, find out if the venue has power.  Do you have permission to use the power?  I have a portable power inverter so I can go for a while with one or two studio strobes.
  • Permission - Speaking of permission, a quick call to the hotel is needed to ensure you won't get hassled if you want to use a certain location for pictures.  In my case, the client also wanted to use a location that may have required us to go on private property in the neighborhood,  so I called the owner (whom I know) for a quick and easy OK.
  • Lighting - For each site, find out where the natural light is coming from.
    • If outside, do the site visit at the time of the main event and drive to all the other locations with the couple.
    • If inside, look at where natural like can help or hinder you.  Is the ceiling low enough to use for bounce?  What color is the ceiling (the reception colors were really challenging).
  • Natural light - Speaking of natural light.  I wish I had shot a little more with it during the bride prep.  Going full natural light during the wedding prep would have shrunk my footprint and made for a more journalistic set of photos.  The clients are really happy with the outcome but I always wonder what I could do better.  Also, in this case the client was totally fine with having a mono-light and portable light as part of the shoot.  Sometimes it's not appropriate, you have to feel out the client for what is right.  I could have easily strapped on the X-T1 and configured it for natural light for some quick options.

Equipment Planning:

The first thing that most photographers think of is having a backup camera is MANDITORY.  It is for sure.  But, the camera is just one piece in your photo system that can fail.  Also, for each camera system item below, you have to plan for all the same things on the backup camera system.  If the backup body is different than the primary you have some work to do.  Having the same camera body will reduce the amount of shit you have to bring and smooth the transition to the backup should you have to go there.  I can't afford two D800s, but I could have rented a second one at a week-long rate.  My Fujifilm XT-1 is perfectly up to the task though and I used that.  There is a reason the XT-1 not the primary platform yet, but that is for another article.

A little more about "PLANING FOR FAILURE" - I'm not kidding!
Anything and everything can fail.  From weather to the most solid lens to stupid stuff like a tri-pod.  When you travel, and it's an "event", don't leave anything to chance.  If a camera goes tango-uniform during a portrait shoot, a client can normally reschedule.  If it's a wedding, the show goes on and there will be some major disappointment if all you have is the camera on your phone.  What follows is my list given my very limited experience at weddings but over 40+ years of shooting.
  • Camera body -  This is generally the first thing photographers think of.  They can and will fail.  With today's cameras, a small out of bounds condition on a sensor will send the entire body into error mode and render it useless.  Bend a pin when inserting a memory card and its game-over.
  • Sync the camera clocks - Try to sync the clocks on the cameras.  This will allow you to combine all of the photos in a continuous stream.  Flickr will use the time shot to order your photos but I couldn't do that on this last shoot because the time was too different.
  • Accessories - Camera vertical grips that supply extra power and vertical release will fail.  If it fails, you now depend on the on-camera battery.  I use to depend on the grip's ability to hold AA batteries (I use rechargeable) to give me an endless supply of power without the cost of Nikon EL-15 batteries.  I've had this seeming simple device fail and then ran out of juice.

  • Batteries - Rechargeable batteries will fail, so bring extra.  I use a rechargeable power pack for my on-camera strobes, camera bodies, inside my strobes, and a portable inverter to power the studio lighting. These batteries fail all the time.  When the charger detects a problem, it will refuse to charge the battery to avoid a fire, explosion or some other kind of melt-down.  When you charge your batteries, verify that it is really completed and that the charger isn't telling you that the battery has failed.  If you are in the woods doing a wedding, and a freak like me, you'll bring a small brick of Alkaline as insurance.
  • More power - Bring more batteries than normal,  You will most likely be shooting a lot more than you are used to.  My D800, with auto-focus and image stabilization burns up a lot of juice.  In addition, the processor that is churning through the processing of images to both JPG and RAW also eats up quite a bit power.
  • Lens - Lenses will fail.  Photographers normally have a few lenses but at times they may just grab a favorite.  Don't plan everything around a single lens.  I had a 50mm all of a sudden tell my D800 body it was a DX and not a FX lens.  This was quickly overridden (after a frantic phone call) and the shooting went on, but I had a backup lens within three feet of me.  Lenses are mechanical so auto-focus can stop working (the first to go),  and auto-apertures can malfunction (most lenses have an "auto-aperture" that stays wide open until the shutter is released and it then snaps closed and reopens).  I hate to even mention the possibility of damage to a lens due to "blunt force trauma".  I've experienced all of these failures and refuse to talk about the last one.

  • Strobes - On-camera strobes can fail.  My most recent was an over-heat condition.  I had a near panic-attack when the SB-900 overheated after shooting the entrance of each of the flower girls at the wedding.  The bride was about to enter when the strobe started to play a tune (SHIT!).  I knew what it was right away and with a quick change to the backup SB-800, I was back to shooting like a boss.  This is the first time its ever happened to me but I've read about it and was prepared.  It will be back to the reliable SB-800 for events like this.
  • Other lighting - Mono-lights can fail. I've had a tube stop working as well as the wireless trigger receiver fail.  Plan for it.  I took one light into the forest but knew that if it or the portable inverter quit working, I could switch to my hand-held strobes with umbrellas.  Back-up mono-lights were about 100 yards away in the car.
  • Memory - Memory cards can fail.  Try to plan out so that you can shoot sections on different cards.  If a card becomes corrupt, you can normally recover the images with free software.  I've had cards become corrupt but have only lost two images with high-end Lexar memory card.
  • Other Accessories - My light meter/mono-light controller can also act as my backup wireless trigger.   For some reason I still have flash sync cords as well (hay, you never know).
  • Even more power - If you use portable strobes like me, invest in an external battery pack to power them.  I found some decent ones that were reasonable.  I use strobes all the time as on-camera during the wedding and reception action but also as a second or third light for portraits.  I mount them with a power pack on a light stand, or my favorite use, mount them on a handle that my assistant holds for me (like voice-activated mobile light stand).
  • Weather - If it's outside, weather is king.  Talk with the bride about how her hair will be set and advise her that it could be windy.  We planned for rain and had a plan-B for wedding location if that happened.  As it turned out, it did rain for about a minute just before we were to leave to walk to the site.  It cleared but I had plastic bags over the mono-light and was ready to store other sensitive gear just in case.  I was lucky that the wedding was in the afternoon as well as the post-shoot so I didn't get burned.  

Second Photographer
I've read quite a bit about the value of having a second photographer.  You can get someone on the cheap since many photographers will help just to get experience.  You can also trade and do backup for the photographer that helps you.  Being able to pay for a second shooter is bonus.  Tell the client that they get extra bonus shots from a different angle.  Also, the backup photographer will be more likely to get candid shots since everyone is always looking at the event or primary photographer.

I had my wife use my Fujifilm XT-1 which is really good for candid shots because its small and super quiet, allowing her to not be noticed.  She's not technically adept with the gear but still got a lot of good shots and optional angles.  Also, if I blew a shot, she might still get the shot (which I did miss one while changing strobes).  As a bonus, I didn't have to carry the backup camera around, she was right there (along with the backup strobe and a back pack with other stuff) and she acted as a grip when needed (which was most of the time).

CAUTION!!!  Having multiple photographers can be very annoying.  I went to an indoor wedding where there were two people using very loud Cannons.  They definitely over-shot the wedding and the constant noise was very distracting.  I also over-shot a little and I hope it wasn't annoying.  I love the mirror-less bodies from Fujifilm for the near silent operation.  I also have a "quiet mode" on my Nikon for the church.  In "quiet-mode" you can't shoot fast but it's not as distracting.  Buy a body that's not so loud.  I'm guessing a plastic body may be louder.

Working with Clients
Some of the quick points working with clients
  1. Get to know them.  Talk with them as much as you can about what they want and don't want but also hobbies and what's important to them in general.  Building rapport will help you when trying to explain things from their point of view.
  2. Send positive energy:  If you are having fun, being positive and complimentary, they can't help but feel better about the whole encounter.
  3. Have Fun, this not only sends positive energy, you become a person they might want to do business again.
  4. Relax.  Although related to sending positive energy, you being up-tight will make the subject up-tight and it will come through in the photos.  Actually there is science here.  See Daniel Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence".
  5. Take some goofy pictures too.  Most people love to photobomb, make funny faces, or odd poses the other person doesn't see.  Keep it fun (unless the client is all business 😔 )

Even if the client doesn't want to do a pre-wedding shoot, do one in another way.  Have them take you to the place where they will get married with the intention of just checking it out.  You can get to know them, their style, and sense of humor.  ALSO, take pictures, lots of them if they are into it.  This will really help them get use to the camera, your style and just being in-front of the camera.  Get some goofy ones too.  Doing this helps eliminate the camera shyness during the first bit of shooting on the big day.  Doing it the day before the wedding is good since they will be use to you and the camera.  I did a bunch with the X-T1 which is small and innocent looking (but packs a punch).

The wedding was outdoors and my specialty.  I shot the location the day before at the same time and was able to get an understanding of where the sun would be, how I could co-opt the sun, and most importantly, the shade areas I wanted to use.  Clouds factored greatly so everything could change at a moment's notice, and it did.  

A word on Compute
Backup!  I've written about this a lot in my geek BLOG!  Plan for storage failure.  Once you have the photos on your computer, back them up immediately.  Get the backup off-site.  There are multiple cloud options available that I discuss in the link above.  I've had several friends come close to loosing all of their family photos because they had no backup.  

Network attached storage (NAS) servers that have redundancy are a great first step.  They fail too.  It's rare but this year a friend almost lost everything when her redundant storage system had one of the mirrored drives fail and then some strange event cause it to go completely off-line.  She ended up spending over $1000 to have a company recover the data.  At almost the same time, my home NAS unit was in the middle of recovering a from a single drive failure when a second one failed, causing complete loss.  I had it backed up so I lost nothing.  In addition, NAS servers don't protect you from theft or fire because they are normally at your place of business (home or office).  

I hesitate to use such large flash cards but shooting fine JPG + RAW requires a lot of space.  Although I only used two, use multiple cards that will last through various sections of the event to give yourself room for failure. You can recover from some amount of card failure with free software but don't count on it.  As mentioned, I've only lost two images due to corrupt files.  By the way, a corrupt file can be caused by the camera or memory card.

Recommended Reading

-  Chris Claborne

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