How to Photograph A Wedding: Scout the Location

This is part 2 in our “How to Photograph a Wedding” Series. Part 1 is figuring out which shots to take. There is a lot of preparation that goes into a good wedding shoot. One of the most important things you can do as a new wedding photographer is to check out the venues prior to the wedding. A lot of new wedding photographers wonder if they should scope out the venue prior to the wedding? The answer is yes, absolutely.

When you've been photographing weddings for a few years, you may find that you don’t need to scope out the location of the wedding. In the beginning however, this is critical. There's so much at stake, and quite frankly it can just be too nerve racking for a beginner to try to figure things out on the fly. You'll be so much better prepared, relaxed and ready if you take the time to scout out locations prior to the day. There's so much happening so fast on a wedding day, there just isn't time to think. Do yourself a favor and be prepared.
Learn the Venues Involved

First, you want to make sure you have a solid understanding of where things are happening. Is there a getting ready room the bride will be using? Where will the ceremony take place? Are there any restrictions to where you can shoot from? Is the cocktail hour going to be indoors or outdoors? Where will the reception be? What doors will the bride and groom enter from?

These questions are best answered prior to the wedding, so that you are ready when things happen. I know of a photographer that actually photographed details from the wrong wedding reception, because he mistakenly went into the wrong banquet room after the ceremony. Whoops!

Now that you have the basics covered, you’ll need to go back to each of the areas and determine where you’ll shoot from. If you are second shooting in a church, a balcony offers a fantastic perspective on the bride walking down the aisle. If you are the lead photographer however, you’ll want to be up front to capture the processional.

Knowing how long the ceremony will last also gives you an idea of how you’ll approach the ceremony. For a very brief ceremony (10 minutes or less no readings), I position myself about halfway up the aisle so I can capture the ring exchange and kiss when it comes. In quick ceremonies, there may not be time to get from a side aisle to the center aisle, so its best to choose one spot that guarantees you the best angles and stay there. For longer ceremonies, you can select a couple of vantage points, as long as there are no movement restrictions.

Portraits

Once the ceremony is over, now its time for portraits. I’d say about 75% of the time, family portraits take place right after the ceremony (at the alter in a church or synagogue). Other times we go outside and use natural lighting, but this is really up to the family and whether they are more traditional or casual. Either way, you should have a spot picked out and a backup spot, just in case the family wants something different, or the lighting at the location is drastically different than you planned.

Are there steps you can use to position people? What about chairs? Most photographers get quite nervous about this part of the day, so the more prepared you are, the better you’ll do. Are you going to use off camera lighting? Would a step ladder help you get above a large family group?

When outdoors, we look for a simple location with shade. If there is a backdrop like an ivy covered wall, even better. If there are elderly people in the photo, be sure to choose someplace super easy for them to get to. It's simply not worth it to exhaust the bride's grandmother by having her trek  a quarter mile to get to a pretty spot. Save it for the bridal party.

Romantic Portraits-Select Your Locations Ahead of Time

Now it’s time for romantic portraits of the couple. This might be the area that you are most comfortable with, or least comfortable with, depending on your experience. What’s key about the romantic portraits of the couple is that this is the one thing that can really make or break your wedding photos and the portfolio you are building. Unlike most other parts of the day, the romantic portraits  have nothing to do with the wedding budget.

You could be at the ugliest venue you’ve ever seen, and yet your portraits could be award winning. The reason is because its not the background that’s key in portraits of the bride and groom, but your ability to work with nice lighting and compose quality images.

I've photographed some amazing portraits in some seriously ugly places-parking lots, near garbage bins, public restrooms. Alleyways that smell like urine and vomit. But gorgeous lighting. And a playful couple. These two ingredients are much more important that a beautiful vista in the backdrop. Plus its kind of a thrill to create super gorgeous images in strange and unexpected locations, isn't it?

Take your time to pick out a couple of key locations you want to use for portraits. Look for locations you can place the couple and give them some space to be with each other. For example, a bench in a quiet spot can be perfect-place the couple on one side of the bench, and allow them a few quiet moments together. A brick wall makes a great backdrop as well, and you can use that for your basic “prom pose” type of portraits as well as more relaxed portraits of them looking at each other and quietly enjoying each other.

If you happen to be lucky enough to have a gorgeous location, consider saving that spot for just before sunset and sneaking out with the couple for 10 minutes during dinner to take advantage of the best lighting.

Overall, your wedding photos will be vastly improved if you are familiar with the location itself and know where you want to shoot various types of images from. On the day itself, things may unfold differently, but you will have a plan to fall back on.


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Joe Payne August 17, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Good advice in the article. Always a good idea to scout the location close to the date you’ll be there and around the same time so the lighting will be similar.

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