Wedding Photography 101 (Part 1)

Wedding Photography 101 (Part 1)



Image by Sean Molin

One of the most important steps a wedding photographer can do before a wedding is prepare themselves for all eventualities. Firstly this means meeting with the bride and groom and setting in concrete what it is the couple want and don’t want so there can be no confusion down the line; this will also be the time to establish a fee and contract with the clients.

Next you should visit the ceremonial venue and reception venue a week or two ahead of time to mentally place where the romantic portraits and group shots can be taken. Take into consideration where the light will be coming from at the time of day you’ll be shooting  (hence why you don’t want to do a reconnaissance mission too far ahead of time) and also have a contingency plan if the area doesn’t work for whatever reason, as well as having an indoor backup if it rains.

The day before the wedding, mentally run through everything the couple wants as well as any ideas you envisaged during your pre-shoot scout. Fully charge the camera and flash gun batteries and format memory cards. Insert these into your equipment the night before and take a few test shots to ensure everything is working as it should be. Prime your camera with the settings you expect to use at your first shoot – which will most likely be the bridal preparation.

Kit considerations

Although you’ll want to take a range of accessories for every eventuality it is a good idea to travel light. The minimum a photographer should pack in a medium size camera backpack is: a favourite DSLR and back up DSLR, a flash gun with diffuser, a reflector, several memory cards each holding a capacity of around 2-8GB, lens cloth, raincover or carry bag to protect your camera in the rain and a lightweight tripod. If you have the room, strength and skills you may also want to take a selection of lighting equipment, filters, a laptop, pocket wizards, remote controls and props.

Lens choices

In terms of lenses there are three types that we would suggest are essential for a wedding, but if you are doing this as a  favour for a friend or for your own portfolio then you’ll be able to get by using one or two zooms that cover a wide focal range – for example 18-200mm would be ideal. However if you are looking to exert a more professional edge you should probably invest in a wide-angle lens for the group and location shots – ideally something like a 16-80mm zoom lens will be perfect and covers a range of bases.

It’s a good idea to invest in a prime lens for portraits and images of all the smaller yet hugely significant items such as: the rings, party favours, flowers, bridal accessories etc – so a 35mm, 50mm or 80mm would be ideal. Finally a healthy telephoto zoom lens will allow you to capture those spontaneous ‘moments’ that people treasure because they show the subject as being ‘real’ . Using a telephoto such as 55-200mm will allow the photographer to ‘snipe’ shots from a distance without being detected, thus the subjects are totally relaxed and the result will be completely natural.

Camera Settings

There are no hard and fast rules to adopt in terms of learning what aperture/shutter speed combination to use for which occasion, as it will largely depend on what quality and quantity of light is available at that time, as well as focusing more on the ‘moment’ rather than getting the right technique.

However as a guide, many photographers generally prefer to use some of the following apertures as a rule of thumb, but you shouldn’t be afraid to try something different if it suits the style and purpose of what you want to achieve.

Church and indoor ceremonial establishments can tend to lack enough natural light and as most venues won’t permit flash push the ISO as much as possible before it starts to degrade image quality and if appropriate consider using a tripod (just remember to turn the VR off if you do). Opt for a fast lens and don’t be afraid to use a wide aperture even as low as 1.4 or 2.8 to make the most of what light is there. Use the same aperture for the small yet significant items such as the rings and bridal accessories, thus softening the background but generating enough depth of field to render the subjects nice and sharp.

F5.6 for candid shooting and the romantic portraits will again keep the subject in focus yet blur distracting background detail. However there are occasions when you might prefer to slip into shutter priority, for example to capture the bride throwing the bouquet or children chasing each other around the venue  – for these occasions (depending on the light) a speed of 1/250 will lend itself for creating some charming results.

Depending on the number of guests that the couple want to appear in the formal group shots, you’ll be best using an aperture of between f8 and f11 to keep everybody pin sharp – depending on the quality of your lens this may mean pushing the ISO or incorporating a tripod. For pulled back compositions of the couple within the venue grounds and location shots in general you’ll need an aperture of between f9 and f11 to keep everything in sight in focus.

Finally for those end of the night dance images either use a long shutter (with some form of stability) to generate movement within the photo and for capturing waves of light from the DJ’s lighting rig, or employ a flash to freeze the action using an aperture of your choosing to compliment the effect you wish to achieve.

Read the Next Part in the series in Wedding Photography 101: Part 2 and Wedding Photography 101: Part 3

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

Some Older Comments

  • vencanice April 14, 2011 02:16 am

    Excellent begginer guide.

  • Kaci April 14, 2011 01:10 am

    Sorry...I was talking to f64 stopper in my previous comment, not Gatsby. Sorry Gatsby.

  • Kaci April 13, 2011 11:37 am

    Gatsby... YOUR knowledge came from somewhere. And if where ever you got it from told you not to even leave it to the pros.... you wouldnt be where you are today. Yes, it is a learning process. That is what people are trying to do by reading these. Shame on you for talking down to people who are trying to better their photography skills. You started somewhere. What is it that YOU are trying to do by visiting this site and adding your 2 cents? Have the confidence in your own skills to give beneficial "2 cents."

  • Simplystacy April 11, 2011 11:53 pm

    Wow... I really appreciate the info in the article. I'm still learning and know I'm probably a few years from serious wedding photography, if I ever have the nerve to tackle it. But I still found this article helpful. I am surprised that there is so much negativity and criticism among so called professionals though. Most of us who find this info helpful realize we aren't ready... But appreciate suggestions and tips and guidance to find our own way. Adding your knowledge is one thing, but instead of insulting the author or the reader, how about writing your own article. Thank you Paul and Jeff and the others whoactually added to this info and used this forum for a positive purpose.

  • loyg gonzales April 4, 2011 12:07 pm

    I learned a lot! as a beginner, I always adopt all the tips I read in DPS. Thanks a lot!

  • Paul April 2, 2011 07:54 pm

    A good basic article (with some limitations), but I don't think the criticism is all fair. Thios sets out a base strategy, a starting point. Shooting shutter priority in low light is fine. Switch to aperature priority outdoors and in better light. If using flash for the evening dance, learn how to set up slow rear sync or it won't look right! Checking the venue in advance is time well spent, you can't arrive an hour early if you are shooting bridal preparations?

  • jeff whitfield April 2, 2011 08:02 am

    Some of the points made above are really helpful to a new comer to this serious side of photography. I love shooting weddings. I do get nervous on the morning of the day but after shooting the bridal preperations and detail shots of the dress, jewelry etc I am then in full stride. I believe one should visit the locations about a week or so prior to the event preferably at roughly the same time of the day as the actual shoot. Scout for locations at the venue so that when the day arrives you know where your best locastions are in respect of light, background etc.
    Group shots don't have to be the boring line up and smile variety. Break up the group into smaller groups and have some of them standing and some sitting. Have one or two leaning against a pillar or wall. Everyone in the group doesn't have to looking at the camera. Some can be looking side on. When shooting group shots take 2 or 3 quick shots when the group aren't expecting it. Sometimes these turn out to be the most natural. Also I don't think you need to have your camera at eye height. Shoot daown low or stand on a wall and shoot down at the group to give a different perspective.
    Know your camera settings inside out and practice changing settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder. This will allow you to concentrate on composition. And you don't have to stick with the two thirds rule. Be creative. Take shots that you haven't seen before. Stay fresh and alert and most of all enjoy the day.

  • me April 1, 2011 10:35 pm

    What a joke, you are obviously not a wedding tog what makes you think you should write an article on it. Full of crap!

  • Singapore guy April 1, 2011 02:11 pm

    I use 2 cameras for my shoots, one for tele shots and holds my 55-200mm lens. the other holds a prime lens just for potraits. Even then, I find myself sometimes inadequet in terms of lacking a 3rd wide ankle lens. and changing lens is a chore. anyone has this experience?

  • Acoustics4me April 1, 2011 09:13 am

    @F-64 Stopper. Wow, what negative, unhelpful comments. It is not the responsibility of the producer of the article to make sure every amateur photographer who may read it does not rush out and take on wedding jobs. It is up to the couple to vet and inspect the portfolios of prospective photographers. Just a little common sense will protect them from enthusiastic amateurs who may have bitten off more than they can chew. I am a keen photographer, but I would never do a wedding unless I had gained the appropriate experience.

    The article is part one of three and is simply there to offer help to people who are interested in wedding photography. These tips will be of help to the other photographers in the audience. So, you'd deny people gaining this knowledge because you obviously think most people are idiots and don't have a grain of common sense? Take a chill pill, dude.

  • Paul April 1, 2011 06:23 am


    "[...] you need to know if there are restrictions about where you are permitted to stand, and if your are allowed to use flash in the venue. Finding out an hour before is irresponsible [...]"

    Having a meeting with your clients before the wedding, these information (if taking photos in general is allowed etc) can be clarified.
    I'm not planning on using flash during a ceremony... And even if I would figure out like ten minutes before I should use it - it's always with me (as is the rest of my equipment).
    I don't think an information like "you cannot stand here, but from there you can take photos" is something one would need to sleep over a couple of nights to process.

  • Lisa April 1, 2011 02:43 am

    “Next you should visit the ceremonial venue and reception venue a week or two ahead of time [...]”

    This can also be done by getting there about an hour before. This way you get the closest parking spot and you can talk to other vendors and get a more current ‘picture’ of the location.

    Are you kidding? Usually the photographer is with the wedding party prior to the ceremony, but if on the chance that you are just shooting the ceremony, you need to know if there are restrictions about where you are permitted to stand, and if your are allowed to use flash in the venue. Finding out an hour before is irresponsible, especially when your clients are paying thousands of dollars.

    "actual technical details on what settings to aim for in what situations. "
    If you don't know this already your have no business shooting a wedding!

    I have to agree an article like this make anyone think just because they have an entry level DSLR they are ready to shoot a wedding. That is just wrong, A wedding can cost thousands and thousands of dollars...are you going to ask a bride to take her ring off and try it again because you missed the shot.

  • MrJones April 1, 2011 02:41 am

    @ Jason

    That's what I thought and what my experience tells me.
    taking a photo at f/8 to f/11 indoors without adding serious lightning will result with sharp guests but a very dark photo.

  • Paul March 29, 2011 04:49 am


    Maybe I had an outside-ceremony in mind (which are not seldom in CA), but on a second thought I think that was confusing for any reader and I should have pointed that out.
    The following sentence [quoting my own comment] said though, that I'm not recommending Aperture mode for indoors:

    "Outside Aperture works on my experience also better than indoors where you have more constant light but some light sources that could confuse the camera."

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer March 29, 2011 04:20 am


    For group shots I do not think you need to use f/8 or f/11 as the post recommends if you are shooting with a wide angle lens. There is a shot in this wedding post (not my best work, but relevant example) with 18 people in two rows that I shot at f/5.6 and 17mm:

    The person above (@Paul) who seems to recommend using aperture-priority for indoor shots especially the ceremony if I understand him right is recommending the exact opposite of what you should do. When indoors when the light source is constant that is the exact time to use manual-mode to lock in the aperture and shutter speed that produces the best exposure.

  • bycostello March 28, 2011 08:28 pm

    I'd add batteries batteries and batteries to the kit list.... and similar for memory cards...

  • Jens March 28, 2011 04:19 pm

    Wow - went to a brother's wedding this weekend and thought... "Lets give this wedding bit a try!"

    I normally shoot sports and outdoor portraits - shooting inside of a cave like church after dark is horrible, and the images produced are scary. I finally just gave up messing with different lenses and twisted on my 'walk around' lens and upped the ISO and started thinking black and white and grainy.

    I never shoot with a flash, but I brought one and tried to use it to get something workable, but even with a diffuser and/or bouncing the flash, the images were lifeless and horribly flat.

    Anyway - the good news? This article made me give it a go. The bad news? Unless you are fully geared up and ready for the possibility of this kind of situation, better to just leave the gear in the case when you walk in and realize you are not prepared.

  • Moreno Photographer March 28, 2011 12:07 pm

    Wedding Photography is fun but remember these images are for their owners to treasure a lifetime. Don't jeopardize them. Be ready before you jump onto Wedding photography. Best of luck!

  • BMPhotographers March 28, 2011 12:04 pm

    Natalie, this article is great! I am glad you are sharing it with everyone online.

  • F-64 stopper March 28, 2011 03:54 am

    These 3 articles introduce small ideas about shooting that should have already been engrained into the photographer well before approaching a wedding. There is very little important topics covered here. Weather for example could be summed up into this. Weather changes, especially in New England, be prepared and be prepared to deal with it. End of story. Fretting about the weather will cause you to lose out on important passing moments.

    It is articles like this that tell anyone with a camera that they can do it. What this then does is cause issues for the pros, the ones who do it for a living, a business, a passion. It again introduces people to the idea that they can and should shoot a wedding, but doesnt express all the resistance they can and WILL encounter at a wedding. No two weddings are or ever will be the same. Unless you are shooting in the same venue, church, reception hall and can forecast what the lighting will be like, you other wise have a lot to deal with. No two couples are the same, nor are the parents of the couple. No matter what your personality is like there will always be a bridzilla and a motherzilla.

    I think articles like these shouldnt be spread out. It would sooner be easier to produce an article of resources for educating photographers. A list of where you should look, study, and read. A list of equipment and how it is very crucial to have certain types of cameras, as you will come across that church that doesnt allow flash and you will need camera with a great ISO limit for the low light. If more people knew that, they wouldnt be producing bad photographs.

    Wedding photography is demanding, commanding, and the most stressful type of photography one can encounter and not nearly enough people are aware of that. Your 3 articles also do not express what happens after you have made the photographs, nor does it express marketing and how to get wedding clients. As you can see, there are a lot of points missing from the articles. Your site makes it increasingly harder for pros, who do this every waking minute of every day.

  • Aw Gatsby March 27, 2011 10:26 pm

    As a wedding photographer myself, I have some valuable tips to add. Study the technique used by well-known wedding photographers when capturing images. How the emotion pops out of the image, how the light was position, and the posing used. You need to know your camera setting very well and the kind of lighting that you want before attempting to shoot a serious and fast-paced event like wedding. It should come natural to you when capturing those moments and stay mentally sharp the whole wedding day.

  • Paul March 27, 2011 09:26 am

    Thank you for this post! I'd like to comment on some of that with my 2 Cents:

    "Next you should visit the ceremonial venue and reception venue a week or two ahead of time [...]"

    This can also be done by getting there about an hour before. This way you get the closest parking spot and you can talk to other vendors and get a more current 'picture' of the location. Things can change in 14 days. Also, if you're not charging like crazy for a wedding and the venue is a 2x 50miles drive this needs to be considered on an economical level, too. When meeting with your clients before, meeting at the wedding venue if possible would be a great idea though.

    Kit considerations

    Traveling light depends if you go there by car (put everything in the trunk) or not.
    Backup DSLR: Best is to use at least 2 cameras at the same time.
    Reflector: Makes only sense if you have an assistant to hold it.
    Filters: What filter should be of use for a wedding when shooting digital/RAW?
    Laptop: Can not imagine of what use that would be for me.
    Rain: I have a huge umbrella in my car to shoot from under it (zooming with one hand sucks, the rest works fine)
    Several memory cards: I'm so thankful for the new generation of cameras with 2 memory card slots (set to every photo being written simultaneously to both cards).
    Tripod: Great for the posed group shots but way to bulky for the rest. Consider a monopod which can also be used with the self-timer + wide-angle lens to create dramatic aerial/ceiling shots (lift the cam up with it).

    Lens choices

    Depends on the budget, but I feel like a 18-200mm is a great travel lens but just not fast enough and the quality is lower than with a 24-70mm mid-range lens which would do the job if you only have one lens. Being on a budget you should consider the $100 investment in a 50mm f1.8.
    If it's not about the budget you should pack 4 lenses: A wide angle zoom (e.g. 11-16mm or 14-24), a medium range zoom (e.g. 24-70 or 28-75), a tele zoom (70-200) each not slower than f2.8 plus the 50mm prime. This lens package is about $2,000 when you go with 3rd party lenses like Tamron/Sigma/Tokina.

    Camera settings

    Mostly agreeing here. I hardly use the Shutter priority setting but either Aperture or Manual. For fast-paced 5-15 minute parts like the ceremony use maybe Aperture so you can work faster and concentrate more on the photos rather then the camera settings. Outside Aperture works on my experience also better than indoors where you have more constant light but some light sources that could confuse the camera. You should also set the camera to center-weighted metering. I use manual ISO settings but it could be set to Auto when the camera allows you to set the maximum ISO rate (how high depends on the camera model - test it before how awful the noise is in dark parts of the picture).

  • Steve March 26, 2011 09:36 am

    Backup equipment is paramount. Not just a backup body. You need to have lens ranges covered (and not with an 18-200). You need back up flashes. You need back up triggers if you are planning on using them. You need back up cards, batteries and anything else that may fail. Don't play around with other people memories. If you can't afford to buy the right equipment, charge more or rent what you can't afford.

  • CTyler March 26, 2011 09:13 am

    Seems like this person is using a APS sensor. It would be nice if these things could be clarified in these articles as lens choices will differ.

  • Sajib March 26, 2011 08:58 am

    Any tips for wedding photography with compact digital camera? :D

  • Michael M. March 26, 2011 07:49 am

    Don't follow this article. The tips given are not suitable for a serious event such as a wedding.
    Is article is targeted to Uncle Bob.

  • bryan March 26, 2011 02:36 am

    If everything in this article is helpful.... your not ready. Weddings are serious events. Intern or fin a real pro to shoot with and learn from.

  • Raymond March 26, 2011 02:15 am

    I personally think that pre-selecting the f-stop/shutter speed is a bad idea. The main thing a wedding photographer needs to get right is the basic understanding of how the combination of aperture/shutter speed and ISO works.

    I think the last bit about the formal group shots is spot on though.

    Thanks for the article, Natalie! :)

  • Adrienne BRand March 26, 2011 01:55 am

    Water. Take water! :0)

  • MrJones March 26, 2011 01:28 am

    thanks for the article, it is important stuff for anyone who's up for shooting a wedding.
    you're saying for group photos to use an aperture value of f8 to f11 but what do you do if the group photos are evening shots, where the lightning is not that great? f/11 or even f/8 will require really slow shutter speed (and using a tripod) or bumping up the ISO to infinity (which will cause noise).

  • Marty March 26, 2011 12:32 am

    a good beginners guide. Very few of these guides have actual technical details on what settings to aim for in what situations.

    excellent work, looking forward to part two.