When the red carpets flow in Hollywood, lead characters and supporting-cast members are honored as equals. As shadow relies on light, the main characters in any movie are only as good as the supporting players. And so it is with professional wedding photography.
Capturing the complete event involves a great deal more than shadowing the bride and groom. Bridesmaids, parents of the groom, flower girls, ringbearers, and ministers—all play significant roles in the "supporting cast."
Behind the Scenes
Before the drama unfolds, I mingle with guests to find out which "characters" have been on the couple's journey from Day One. On a paper I tuck inside my camera bag, I make notes such as "Bonnie Blue, flew in from Texas, met the bride at camp, laughs constantly; Trista, on crutches, special to groom's mom, made wedding party's necklaces."
To determine who is dear to the couple and whom to document most throughout the event, I find out the parents' first names; who traveled from out of state; if the bride is carrying something borrowed, who lent it; if the flower girls will be attending the reception; which groomsman has known the groom the longest; and who set up the couple.
Capturing the Ceremony
For the ceremony, I sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the first pew, focusing on the faces that matter most. Using a wide-angle lens lets me capture the expression of the parents seated immediately behind me. For the first third of the ceremony, I stay with a 30-70mm Nikkor lens, all the while looking through the eyepiece. Is the ringbearer yawning? Great shot. Then back to the groom's parents, who are sobbing.
In these fleeting moments, you don't want to waste time studying your LCD screen. Even in dimly lit sanctuaries, if you set your ISO to 800 and shoot at 1/30 of a second, you'll be able to capture facial expressions. If you're shooting an outdoor or tent-covered event, set your camera to Aperture Priority. If you're taking ceremony candids outside, the groom's parents will likely be seated in much different light than the yawning ringbearer.
Capturing the Reception
As I make my way down the side aisle to the back of the church, I use a portrait lens to catch the couple's kiss and to unobtrusively capture the dialogue between the minister and the couple. With this longer lens—my favorite is a Nikkor 300mm—I use my camera like a movie camera, capturing moments between friends that the bride missed in real time.
Generally, you can turn on your flash once the couple prepares for the kiss and leave it on, even if the minister has additional remarks.
I'm off the tripod at this point, because reception photography means blending in, and you can't blend in while you're carrying a tripod. Establish rapport with the DJ and he'll tell you when he plans to announce reception activities, such as cutting the cake and the money dance.
I scan the room for those key supporting-cast members. By this point in the reception, I'm shooting with a Stroboframe and a flash that carries 10 to 15 feet. The little niece on crutches is laughing wildly as another child dances the Macarena. Click. I've got one chance.
You can get away with using a flash, but not more than once on the same unsuspecting subject. Set a faster shutter speed, like 1/80 or 1/125 of a second, while you're busy stopping motion. For images of the room setup or to show depth behind your couple, decrease shutter speed to about 1/50 of a second.
The wedding cake is like a playground, almost calling out: "Come touch me!" For the cake-cutting, I'm back to a more versatile lens.
There are two must-have cake shots: a closeup of the couple's hands and the actual cake feeding. As the couple prepares their hands on the cake knife, scan through your eyepiece for the children who have gathered around the table. During the cake-cutting, low-angle captures are the most effective. Table-level shots feel much more interactive.
The real drama in the two remaining activities—the garter and bouquet tosses—takes place as participants jockey for position. The best angle is an eye-level vantage point on the side of the dance floor. Set your flash power to carry from the camera position to the huddle.