Photographing Lil and Tom’s wedding

My good friends Lil and Tom married at the end of September, and my chum Ben and I were lucky enough to be official photographers at their wedding. It was a great day. Six weeks later and I’ve finally finished processing ~1300 photos down to ~400 on Flickr.

I was honoured when they first asked if I’d take on the photographic duties, but I declined – wedding photography is a particular skill and too important for an amateur to try without experience. Things changed, though, and I agreed as long as they were aware I might mess it up. They were entirely happy with this, so I brought Ben on board as co-photographer and we set about researching wedding photography techniques. Obviously we wanted to produce the best results possible, so we read as widely as possible, trying to absorb second-hand information. The big day came around very quickly, and it was a hell of a thing. I did mess it up at one point, but the experience was amazing.

Ben and I met up for breakfast first thing that morning, and went over the plan of action. Everything seemed to be in place, and we quickly headed off in different directions: him to the groom, me to the bride. Each was half an hour’s drive away. Our strategy when researching was to steal ideas, and we both had a rough idea of the kind of image we wanted to capture. I’d been planning to scout out the destination the previous night, but two enormous traffic jams on the motorway meant I hadn’t arrived until 3 that morning, so I was entirely reliant on the satnav. Thankfully she did a stellar job, and I made it to the house in good time.

Lil was in the dress and looking lovely, and I took a lot of images of the final adjustments to hair and makeup, then some family group shots. At one point Lil took time out from her incredibly busy morning to hand me some books from a series I’d been reading. I was having enough trouble keeping everything in my head and I wasn’t getting married that day – I am in awe of her presence of mind šŸ™‚ Time quickly ran out, and I headed out the door a minute or so before they were due to leave.

I ran back to the car, set the photos copying from the memory card to a laptop on the passenger seat and headed for the ceremony venue. I don’t ever speed and didn’t at the time, but I was one of those irritating people who swing from the slip lane straight into the outside lane – I was determined to make it to the venue in time to photograph the bride’s arrival. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be; I hit traffic in Exeter and was actually the last person to arrive. Lesson 1: scout out routes beforehand. If I ever do something like this again this will be a major priority. Ben handled the job with aplomb, however, and I got there just as people were starting to head inside.

I knew cameras were banned during the ceremony and only one official photographer was allowed, but wasn’t sure where I would be allowed to stand etc.. A quick word with the very friendly lady performing the ceremony and I was told I could stand at the front, step forward when the rings were exchanged and move around as long as I wasn’t too distracting. Ok.

I took a few pictures of the room, then realised I hadn’t deleted the images from that morning, and I was going to need the space. I’d taken a few since arriving, so set them as ‘protected’ on the memory card and formatted it. Turns out, this doesn’t work: formatting trumps everything, and I lost maybe ten pictures of people entering the venue. One of them still niggles. In hindsight I should have realised the problem, but I was still somewhat flustered from the drive – at least, I like to think I’d have thought twice under other circumstances. Nevertheless: Lesson 2: know your camera inside out. Ben was doing a good job of covering the guests, so I retook shots of the room, figured out the ISO I was going to need based on the lighting (1600), then had a couple of minutes to say hi to all my friends, who I hadn’t actually managed to meet yet.

The ceremony began and I took my place at the front. Ben and I had been hoping he’d be able to stand at the back and take wider-angle images, but that wasn’t allowed. Lil entered and was walked down the aisle. I quickly became aware of the focus beep, and waited for a calm moment to try and surreptitiously navigate the menus to disable it. I hung back as the vows were read, kneeling and moving from side to side as necessary, hoping the shutter wasn’t too noisy. At one point I was kneeling for a good angle and felt myself physically shaking – whether from adrenalin or strain I don’t know – and hoped this wasn’t really obvious to the whole room.

To speak technically for a minute, I was getting roughly 1/50 at f5.6 at ISO 1600, which, while fine, was close enough that anything much darker would have caused problems. Flash wasn’t allowed, and would have ruined the pleasing window-light anyway. I had my f1.8 in my pocket in case of emergencies, but didn’t fancy risking the tiny depth of field that would produce – I could easily focus on Lil but not Tom with that thing.

I moved forward during the exchange of rings, hoping I wasn’t being too annoying, then stepped back. At this point I made my massive mistake.

The lady said ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’ and, as you’d imagine, there were big smiles from the bride and groom. I rattled off a few quick images, not wanting to catch anybody blinking at that particular moment, while she said ‘you may now kiss’. And the buffer was full: I pressed the button and nothing happened and I missed it. Lesson 3 is pretty much covered by lesson 2, but is worth reiterating: know your technical limitations.

Lil and Tom signed the register, at which point I relaxed a little as everybody else’s cameras came out: anything I missed should be covered by someone. Ben had an excellent image-stabilised zoom lens and got some great, blurred-background shots from the back. He did this throughout the day, actually, and his shots of guests are far superior to mine. Lesson 4: to isolate guests, get back and zoom rather than try and compose around it with a shorter lens. I should have known this from Damian’s shots, but somehow forgot on the day1.

The happy couple headed into the gardens and I had a quick opportunity for a few shots sans guests. Ben and I then took a few formal portrait shots in the gardens, but a light drizzle meant we decided to put off the rest until the reception. We took casual shots instead while formulating a plan of action, then it was into the cars to head for the Pride of Exmouth. I again set photos copying from the memory card to the laptop, and we drove half an hour to the coast. I was feeling bad about the missed kiss, but the ceremony was done without any other mishaps, and I was looking forward to the afternoon. Having to continually copy photos from my one 2gb memory card wasn’t ideal, however – Lesson 5: take ridiculous amounts of media, it’s cheap enough that it easily overrides the hassle and worry of transferring ‘in the field’!

The boat set off at the last possible minute before the tide rendered our route impassable, and the sun came out. The weather was beautiful for the rest of the day, which made for a lovely afternoon on as we moved south along the Devon coastline – including, incidentally, a view of the Napoli.

Ben and I took the opportunity to chat and socialise, while taking casual shots of happy people. Most of the advice in this regard had said ‘quality not quantity, unless you want to spend weeks editing photos’. Given our amateur status we ignored this completely, and took as many as possible of any given situation to make sure we had something usable. We did end up with 1333 pictures, but I still think this was the right approach.

Being nearby meant I got to chat to Tom and Lil a fair bit, which was great. There was food and music and sunshine: a fantastic afternoon.

After the meal had settled came speeches – I gave one – and formal family photos. I’d been nervous about these, but thankfully they went ok. The bright sunlight meant we put everybody in the shade of the front of the boat to avoid ridiculous contrasts. I tried to balance flash with the ambient light and was only partially successful2 but while concentrating on the technical aspects found I was struggling to remember the best ways of arranging people. Thankfully Ben had no such difficulty, and did a sterling job of balancing heights etc..

Soon afterwards we docked back at the harbour, and the happy couple disembarked. I asked Tom and Lil to recreate the kiss, which they were very willing to do, and we took the photo Lil had requested months beforehand:

What a cool couple they are šŸ™‚ Probably the only chance I’ll have to take a wedding jumping photo! We also took the opportunity for a group shot of all the Arden schoolfriends, together for the first time in years, and of course there was the throwing of the bouquet:

Looking forward to the big day, Helen.

All too soon Lil and Tom headed off on honeymoon. I immediately wanted to re-do the entire day – Ben and I had learnt so much that we knew we could do better the second time. But, other than the kiss, we’d got everything we wanted. There were a few technical problems later – the laptop refused to power up, for one thing – but Ben’s 4gb usb2.0 stick saved the day. We ended up with photos in four different places, and it was a relief to get home and consolidate everything. Having used the demo for months I finally bought Adobe Lightroom to edit the RAW photos and can say without doubt that the program is a godsend. It’s just remarkable, and deserves its own write-up at some point.

In hindsight I didn’t give Ben enough credit on the day – he worked very hard, and I didn’t always correct people when they called me ‘the photographer’. Much kudos to Ben for his great shots.

This has been a technical write-up, but obviously it was a lovely experience personally. I’ve known Lil since secondary school, and it was wonderful to see her so obviously in love and happy. The whole day was a joy, in many respects, and I’m very grateful to Tom and Lil for giving us such a wonderful opportunity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

  1. I think I did this because of an old piece of advice saying portraits look most natural at 50mm from a couple of metres away. While this may be true in a studio, I’m going to say its redundant in uncontrolled situations []
  2. should have bumped up the ISO []