WEDDING DAY CEREMONY
There’s a certain strategy to photographing a Dallas wedding ceremony. Regardless of location, affiliation or grandeur, this moment, where vows are exchanged and where the emotions run their highest, is sacred.
From my point of view, I’ve developed a process: one designed to minimize the possibility of interference (and playing by the rules of the venue you’ve chosen), while still making sure I capture all the images you’ve hired me to capture. At its simplest, this involves never inserting myself between you and your guests — I can’t think of anything worse than ruining a lump-in-the-throat moment for Grandpa Jack then by making him stare at my back for 10 seconds! Instead, I pull out the telephoto lens, I stick to the sides and back of the space, I set the camera to quiet, and I walk on the balls of my feet.
There are a couple of exceptions to this, which we will absolutely discuss prior to the wedding day. For instance, I like to be located at the front of the aisle during the processional, as this allows me to get that ever-important image of the bride making her grand entrance. Or, for ceremonies where the celebrants gather to pray or light candles, the angles can get a little crowded, so I might come in a little closer for that one. During the most important moments of the ceremony, like the kiss or the ring exchange, I hope you won’t mind if I offer to step down the aisle a little (but still at a respectable, non-distracting distance, of course). Again, this is all stuff we can discuss way in advance, so you’ll know precisely what to expect, every step of the way.
It’s funny… some of my clients have asked me, after the ceremony, if I was actually there taking pictures, or if I missed it! I take this as a complement, because it means that I was suitably stealthy, but yes: I was there, I got the pictures, and you’re going to love them.
Now, I’ve photographed a lot of weddings. And in that time, I’ve gathered quite a few observations that turn out to be pretty helpful for my clients; these help ensure that we get the best pictures possible. If you don’t mind, I’ll share them here — think of them as conversation points that might make you say, “Huh! I hadn’t thought of that!”
From time to time I photograph a wedding, and at some point, something shifts in the crowd. One glowing screen rises from the pews. Then another. Then an iPad. Then Aunt Shelley, who dabbles in amateur photography, steps out into the aisle with her camera (more power to you Aunt Shelley, but you’re in my shot!). You can see where this is going.
You’re paying me good money to preserve these memories, and I appreciate it. So I hope you’ll take my word for it when I say that a wedding ceremony and the digital trappings of the modern age just don’t mesh. At the best, your guests will be spending more time staring at their phone screens than looking at you; at worst, a carefully planned shot could be ruined.
I recommend a simple announcement at the start of the ceremony. Something in the program, or maybe a brief word from the officiant: “The bride and groom have respectfully requested that you turn off any phones, tablets and cameras, so you might be fully present for the ceremony. Professional Dallas photographers have been hired to capture this special day, and photos will be available online shortly.” Something like that goes a long way.
The nuances of seating may be something you’ve already discussed with your wedding planner, but it merits repeating just in case.
First, if it’s at all possible, try to avoid empty seats. If your ceremony is taking place at a location where seats are being brought in (an outdoor wedding, for instance), try to ensure that there are only as many seats as guests who have RSVP’d. If the ceremony is taking place in a venue with fixed seating (pews in a church), make sure that only the front-most rows are available; just enough of them to accommodate your guest list. If there’s too much seating available, people tend to spread out more, which can create gaps in the crowd. The result is a “sparsely attended” look that doesn’t lend itself well to photographs.
Next, let’s talk about the front rows. It’s possible that some of your guests might want to avoid sitting up close during the ceremony. It’s nothing personal — I think it’s a deep-seated psychological thing where they might feel “on display,” and nobody wants to upstage the bride and groom! Thing is, you want people filling the seats, and an empty front row is awfully conspicuous. An easy fix is to use placards to identify specific seating for the closest family members, or to have your ushers direct people to the front rows specifically. If there’s any resistance, instruct your ushers to say that it’s the express wish of the bride and groom that they have the best view of the ceremony, and they’ll be unable to refuse.
Speaking of ushers, there’s another point that’s worth going over with them. Like it or not, some people are going to arrive to your wedding dressed inappropriately. They don’t mean anything by it; it just happens. But if these individuals are seated along the aisles, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to make it into the images. Instruct your ushers to seat the most attractively dressed people on the aisles whenever possible, and it’ll enhance the value of the shots we get.
This next tip isn’t so much about seating arrangements per se, but about the literal seating itself. Sometimes, the seating that ends up being used in the ceremony is supplied by the venue itself, and sometimes, chairs end up being those drab, utilitarian banquet deals with worn fabric and chipped edges. It kinda kills the vibe, so do yourself a favor and check the chairs in advance. If you’re stuck with ugly chairs, that’s ok — a lot of venues offer special decorative covers.
Finally, for venues where the seating is more fluid, make sure that the aisle is at least 10 feet wide. Not only will this provide enough room for three people to walk side-by-side, but it’ll give me enough wiggle room to work around that straggling photographer, should she decide to sneak out of her seat for an impromptu snapshot (I’m looking at you, Aunt Shelley).
A NOTE ON AISLE RUNNERS
To tell the truth? Your aisle runner is way more important than you think. From a photography standpoint, it’s one of the key features of the setting, but there are so many ways for it to get bunched up, stained, damaged, you name it. It makes for imperfect photos. Here are a few quick tips for choosing a runner that will withstand the ceremony with style and grace:
Ask to see the runner prior to the ceremony, and make sure it’s thick enough so it won’t bunch up over the course of the day (especially if the ceremony is taking place at an outdoor venue with uneven ground)
If you’re going for an indoor venue, invest in a roll of double-sided carpet tape to keep everything in place
Rope off the front and back of the aisle before the ceremony to minimize foot traffic.
Never use a runner on grass. Just don’t do it. It’ll look like a complete mess by the time the first person makes it to the end of the aisle.
By now, you probably have the idea that aisle runners are finicky things. It’s worth mentioning, then, that another option exists — just go without! A runner can add to the aesthetic nicely (that’s why people use them), but it’s also an accessory that is seldom missed if it’s intentionally absent.
CHAT WITH THE OFFICIANT
If you’re hiring someone to officiate your wedding, the odds are they’ve done it before. Still, it’s always worth sharing a few notes with them from the photographer’s point of view — mainly that they avoid wearing loud colors, or complicated patterns. This person is going to be in a lot of the ceremony photos, and encouraging them to keep a minimalistic aire will make the bride and groom stand out.
It’s also important to discuss how this person plans on keeping his or her notes. Sometimes, a well-meaning officiant will come equipped with loose papers, clunky binders or plain folders (which can look disorganized), or an iPad (which can fail mid-ceremony and create odd foot-lighting on their face). Best to stick with a simple black book.
MUSICIANS, MICROPHONES, SPEAKERS, AND DJ'S
I love music (I’m actually a musician myself!), but these tips come from a place of visual aesthetics. Oftentimes, we won’t see the technical elements of the sound system until the day of the wedding, so confirming a few things with your musicians or DJ in advance can help make the pictures shine. For example…
Ask to see your musicians’ music stands. Do they match? Are they unattractive and strictly utilitarian, or is this a group that’s made the investment in a cohesive, picture-ready presentation?
Your musicians should know this already, but ask them to hide any instrument cases or bags from sight.
If you’re in a large space, you might opt to use microphones on the main players (the bride, groom, and officiant). If you do, always choose wireless mics that can be inconspicuously worn on a lapel or hidden on the dress. Traditional microphones are cumbersome, clunky, and never photograph well.
Also, chat with your audio technician about backup microphones. I can’t count the number of times a microphone has failed mid-ceremony: it’s an easy problem to fix, but not without some backups at the ready.
With microphones, come speakers. Make sure your audio person knows to keep the speakers well out of the line of sight, usually in the front corners of the venue. Otherwise, they’ll appear in your photos; this is especially distracting if they’re on stands.
The word “photography” comes from the Greek; it literally translates to “drawing with light.” So it goes without saying that lighting is one of the most important things for a photographer.
Keeping the lights low during the ceremony might create a soothing, intimate aesthetic, but this semi-darkness can make it really difficult to get good images. The alternative would be to resort to flash photography, which is the most distracting thing in the world during a ceremony — a big no-no.
For indoor ceremonies, keep the lights as bright as possible. For outdoor ceremonies at night, or for indoor venues that have naturally low light levels, investing in some external lighting (spotlights and the like) will not only make for some great photos, but will allow your guests to actually see you! It’s a good move.
The processional is the part of the ceremony when the wedding party enters, (there’s also the recessional, when they leave). It can be emotional, it can be touching, it can be festive, or it can be crazy (or all of the above!), but there’s a rhyme and reason to it — something you’ll be going over during your rehearsal, no doubt. Make it meaningful and personal, and it’ll be great.
There are two points I’d like bring up, however. The first involves the speed of the processional. Sometimes, the shyer members of your wedding party might feel that they’re being “put on the spot,” and they’ll want to make it to the end of the aisle as fast as possible. Not only does this deviation in speed distract from the smoothness of the rest of the reception, but it can make it a little tricky to get the shots that I’d like to get. Remind everyone to pace themselves, and you’ll make sure this special moment gets captured (I’ll typically be at the front of the aisle for these shots).
For a bride, the processional is what she thinks about when she closes her eyes. It’s a grand entrance that evokes gasps and awes, and compels people to pull out their tissues. This is her day, to be sure — but that doesn’t mean the groom has to be ignored. I’ve been to so many weddings where the groom and the officiant quietly enter from the side. They just sort of appear, which is fine and all, but in my experience, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. Far be it from me to shift around your plans and mess with tradition, but let me put it this way: it’s hard to get a compelling shot when the groom stealthily enters, stage left. But when he enters down the aisle? I’ve captured some really amazing pictures that way, and will be more than happy to offer some recommendations on how to squeeze it in. Just something to keep in mind.
A LITTLE STAGING FOR THE RING EXCHANGE
Nothing wrong with taking some tips from the theater! During the ring exchange, you’re going to lost in the moment to be sure. But try to “cheat out” a little; in other words, angle your bodies so everyone can see that ring exchange (especially me!), and try not to cover the other person’s hand with yours. Believe me — you’re going to want this picture to be perfect.
MEETING AND GREETING
In short? Save it for later. When the ceremony ends, you’re going to feel on top of the world; your instinct is going to be to start graciously accepting the outpouring of congratulations from the people you’ve invited, but that can wait until the cocktail hour or the reception. Non-family members should be ushered out of the venue as quickly as possible, and family members should stay behind for the family portraits. We’ll get those knocked out as quickly as possible — leaving plenty of leeway time for emotional exchanges, of course. You’re going to be getting a LOT of hugs from weepy-eyed family members!
Then, you’re on your way to the fun stuff!