Thoughts on Shooting Benn and Mindy’s Wedding

by ajamess on 16.Aug.10

in Photographic Musings,Photos,Weddings

If you came here for the photos, never fear, you can find some after the break, or:

Now for some thoughts on my experience.

First let me say that I'm not a wedding photographer.  Phew!  Ok, got that off my chest, so now you can take what is about to follow with a salt mine.

Recently my good friends Benn and Mindy Wolfe were married under beautiful blue skies in my fair hometown of Kalamazoo (there's a gal there, etc).  My completely accurate opinion was that it was about 200 degrees in the sun, but Unitarian ceremonies are short (and awesome), and everyone was given little fans.  Honestly, I just can't handle heat well, you could not have asked for a better day for a wedding…unless you are taking the pictures…


Black tuxes and white dresses in direct sunlight sure are hell for a photographer's sanity.  I mean, the only thing that could be worse is if the groom was dressed in a black hole, and the bride in tin foil.  If only Mr. Burns' were around with his sun blocking machine.  With my exposition out of the way, I shall now attempt to give you a reason for reading this post: things I learned photographing this most excellent of occasions.

Thing 1: Always take a gray card…and USE IT.

See, I told you I wasn't a wedding photographer.  Anybody worth their salt does this.  I am not worth my salt, and I paid for it with several extra hours in post.  Honestly, two things were going through my head:

  • Hey, when I'm outside, there can only be one color balance to worry about, right?!  AWB it is!

NOPE.  I mean, it's not like I don't understand there are different color temperatures for shade, sunlight, etc., I just didn't appreciate how much more time ignoring this fact adds to the whole process.

  • I'm inside now, tungsten all the way!

This was probably an accurate assessment of the situation.  Most of the lighting was of the Christmas tree variety, with some splashes of DJ disco-ball here and there.  Here's the issue.  Problem one: not all "tungsten" (e.g. "it looks orange to me!") is the same, and even if you think it is, you're wrong.  Problem two: If you shoot with gelled flashes (as I was), you'd better be damn sure your flash temp matches the shooting environment.  So, indeed, spending 5 measly minutes with a gray card is well worth the effort, as the pain incurred as you are posting is monumental.

Thing 2: Sleep with your camera.

Or get to know it well, if you catch my drift.  Too many times was I in ISO 200 instead of 100, or AI Servo vs. One Shot, or had the wrong AF mode activated for the situation.  I'll be honest, I'm pretty fast with my camera, but no where near as fast as I should be in situations like these.  I really need to work on being able to switch AF modes quickly, for one (I always tend to hit the FEL button on my 7D when attempting to change AF modes).  Secondly, I need to do a mind check on camera settings every once and a while.  Did it just turn sunny?  Bump the ISO down.  Did I just run outside?  Change white balance.  Are there thousands of UFOs descending on my location firing death beams?  AI Servo and 8 frames, baby!

Thing 3: Remember your DoF.

Missed.  Focus.  Sucks.  Period.  Imagine this situation: here I am zooming along at fit to screen resolution in Lightroom doing my initial culling pass on the wedding shots.  BAM!  I see a GREAT expression captured.  I go *glee*! and pop open the 100% preview.  My elated face turns into a sad face, which turns into this…

What I look like when I miss focus.

Don't pretend like you haven't done it, too!

The point is, if you are at all unsure of your capability to focus within 6cm of the mark at 20 feet (yes, that is the level of precision we are talking about), then take that pretty bokeh hit and at least get passable shots.  I missed many a shot as a result of wanting the best bokeh possible.  One sharp and slightly less bokeh-y picture of the moment the bride and groom kiss is inifintely better than 100 with great bokeh that are out of focus.  If I did it again, I would run around at 2.5 or 2.8 on my 100mm f/2.  Probably wouldn't notice much difference in background blur, and my keeper rate would have gone up by 30%. 

Again, it's all a balance.  I'm sure someone more skilled than I could pull off a higher keeper rate with a wide open lens, just make sure you are making the correct choice for your application.  Oh, and don't blame your out of focus shots on your camera; they are not a panacea for bad technique.

Thing 4: If you KNOW the shot sucks, then don't take it.

This is perhaps the hardest lesson to internalize.  A lot of people won't agree with me on this one, I think, since bits are free.  However, one thing I have learned not only from shooting this wedding, but also from landscape photography, is that there are infinite terrible photographs waiting to be taken, and a very few excellent ones.  I think I have taken maybe 2 excellent photographs in my lifetime as a photographer.  The fact is, that just because you can point a camera at it, doesn't mean the shutter needs to be pressed.  Being selective in camera will save you tons of time in post, and will generally make you feel better about yourself (at least that is my experience).  Let me walk you through an example of a really bad photo:

An example of a photo with no subject

Okay, ignoring the fact that it's about 2/3rd's a stop over exposed, here are all the things I can find wrong with this image:

  1. Most egregious: what is this photo about?  You can't even tell it was taken at a wedding (excepting the bridesmaid in the corner).
  2. Composition, where have you gone!  Yes, taken at body height, pretty much ignoring any sort of rules about not cutting people in half (sorry, cute bridesmaid!)
  3. Boooorrring.  Nothing says this photo was taken by anyone a monkey with a camera who was trained to aim at things facing random directions.
  4. Unbalanced (see #2).

So the important question then becomes, what would I change?  Zoom with your feet.  Get in close and get rid of extraneous noise.  Pick a subject and make the photo about it.  Find something interesting that is going on and capture it.  Go get down on the ground and aim up at the woman shaking hands in the right of the frame.  Ask the bridesmaid to pose with her bouquet.  Capture a random smile.  Pretty much any of these things would make this photo better.  Fortunately for me, all this is learning that is applicable to any photo I take, I just have to remember to apply it actively as part of the shooting process.

Thing 5: Be Brave.

I saved the best for last.

If you asked me "Adam, if you could improve one aspect of your photography, what would it be?",  I would tell you without hesitation: bravery.  I have missed countless opportunities for excellent photographs because I did not have the cajones to walk up and take the shot.  If I could steal a motto: "take pictures, ask questions later."  The very reason I got any passable portraits at Benn's wedding is because I got in close, watched my subject, and took the shot when the time was right.  Your 400mm + D3 is no match for someone who spends 15 minutes with the subject and captures their soul on film.  No, I am not a ghost buster, it was just poetic.

Thanks for listening to me think out loud, once again.  Happy shooting everyone.  Some of my favorites after the break.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#51 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/320 f/2.0 ISO 100
Never has "smile for me!" worked so well.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#27 of 269)



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#36 of 269)



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#66 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/1600 f/2.0 ISO 100
Groomsman and close friend.  Also extremely photogenic.  Also really good at StarCraft.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#82 of 269)



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#115 of 269)



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#125 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/4000 f/2.5 ISO 100
Eyes MeetMap
Bride and groom together at last.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#131 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/1000 f/2.5 ISO 100
Pouring of the sandMap
Did I mention this ceremony was awesome?



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#145 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/8000 f/2.2 ISO 200
(Almost) the kissMap
If you want to see the real thing, check the flickr stream.  I like this one best, though :).


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#179 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/800 f/2.0 ISO 100
Full of life.  He speaks fluent Chinese in is a general bad ass.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#213 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/125 f/2.0 ISO 3200
First DanceMap
Christmas lights = awesome bokeh.



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#245 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM 23 mm 1/30 f/2.8 ISO 3200
General DrunkennessMap
Left to right: Dan, Mallory, Brad.  All rock, as you can see.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#256 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM 16 mm 1/80 f/2.8 ISO 3200
Mallory, Luke, Melissa, Ryan, Dan, Mandy, Jackson.


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#263 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/125 f/2.0 ISO 3200
Mallory and Brad, being sexy, as usual.



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#264 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/250 f/2.0 ISO 3200
Jackson and MandyMap
I get to shoot their wedding, too!  So excited!


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#265 of 269)

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/60 f/2.0 ISO 3200
Ryan and MelissaMap
Their wedding is coming up, too…*grin*


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#267 of 269)


Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#268 of 269)



Benn & Mindy's Wedding (#269 of 269)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mindy August 18, 2010 at 20:08

I loved reading about your experience at the wedding. I’m glad you learned some things!
I had the opportunity to use Benn’s dad’s DSLR camera on our honeymoon. I LOVED it! I’m looking forward to getting my own. I agree with you about not taking the shot if you know it’s bad. I’d like to only take good pictures so a lot of times I find myself getting “yelled” at for not taking enough pictures…after all, they are free (says Benn.) I’m not that great though; I still have a lot to learn. I think taking a bunch of useless pictures will help me figure out what I’m doing wrong, so that will probably happen when I get my camera. I’m not really into editing, but Benn is. I’m sure he would appreciate more good shots and fewer terrible ones.
I’m excited about your blog. I’m sure I will be learning a lot from you! Thanks again for all of the wonderful pictures!


ajamess August 18, 2010 at 22:18

Hey Mindy. The world needs more photographers, so keep it up! If you ever end up in the market for a DSLR, do let me know, I can make some suggestions :). Flickr is also a great place to get involved in. I’m glad you enjoyed reading some of my thoughts, however random.

Mr. Benn Wolfe (Mr. doesn't really mean marreid but kind of) November 7, 2010 at 21:26

Hey Hey Hey. So I was just going back through this post again. You are absolutely amazing. I haven’t read a terribly large amount of photography blogging, but enough to know what I’m seeing, and this article was awesome. You are incredibly funny, but that is deceiving because a lot of people are funny and let their content lag. Your content was awesome.

Bottom line #1: Thank you so much for covering our wedding. Your pictures are by FAR (light years) the most valuable pictures we have from our wedding. They are the most emotional, the most provocative, and the most comprehensive pictures that we have to remember that day by. Thank you so much, and Mindy would say the same. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you so much.

Bottom line #2 and very secondary at that: Mindy is loving her camera, but she asked how you got such tremendously gorgeous pictures of the sky. We have a terrible time with a washed out sky. My only suggestion for her was that you might have been using a polarized filter, but I don’t even know if that’s what that’s for. Thanks.


ajamess November 7, 2010 at 22:14

Wow Benn, thanks so much for some incredibly kind words. I am really moved by your sentiment and the fact that you came back to this post to say what you have said. You’re right, of course, about the content thing. I just…have been lacking motivation after long days at work. Really though, it’s comments like these that pick up my spirits a bit, so thank you very much!

You know, going back to your wedding, I have to say that is the most fun I’ve had in a long while. The combination of seeing all my old buddies again in such a great setting with a host and hostess who let me run wild with my camera was simply great. It’s by far the best wedding I’ve been to, and probably one of the best times I’ve had at any event. Kudos to you guys for being so accommodating. I’m delighted that you like the photos (although I still owe you some files to put on your site) and am elated that they mean so much to you. You coming back to say what you did is a more uplifting than you can imagine.

As far as washed out skies go, I have a few tips.

First, if the scene is too bright, a general rule is to expose for the highlights. What this means is that you are watching the sun set, for example, you take a meter reading off of the clouds around the sun and then peg that to be the brightest part of the scene. This typically means that anything in the foreground will be silhouetted, though. The reason you do this is because the way digital sensor pixels work is kind of like a bucket. A fully white pixel is a bucket that is filled to the brim, and a fully black pixel is one that is completely empty. In the case of overexposure (washed out skies, for example), you are filling each bucket completely to the brim, and anything that “overflows” out of the bucket is detail that is completely lost. This is what causes the phenomena of washed out skies. By exposing for the brighter parts of the image, you prevent that “overflow” from occurring, and maximize the amount of detail the camera can retain. In theory, the best possible photos come from exposing just to the brink of overexposure, then fixing it later on the computer. The reason this is the case is because digital files are encoded in such a way that brighter tones hold more detail than darker tones.

Another option is to take several bracketed photos (one under exposed, one normal exposure, and one over exposed), and stack them later on the computer. In Photoshop this is the “Merge to HDR” function. This is definitely a more advanced technique, and can be hard to get natural results from, but when it does work it’s pretty satisfying. To do this properly, you will want to use a tripod for most scenes. It is possible to do hand-held, but only with very steady hands while using a generally wide lens.

A third option is to use a graduated neutral density filter, which is basically a piece of glass with one half of its surface grayed over to reduce light coming in to the lens at a particular point. Typically, you line up the halfway point (where it transitions from clear to gray) along the horizon. This effectively pulls in the brightness range of the scene and lets you use an exposure that accommodates for both the highlight and shadow tones.

Were there certain pictures Mindy was wondering about? Let her know that she can feel free to email me with any questions she might have…I love geeking it up about this stuff.

Cheers, Benn.

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