What Every Bride Should Know About Photographing a Wedding Ceremony

What Every Bride Should Know About Photographing a Wedding Ceremony

Anyone who has been booked as a wedding photographer knows that this genre of photography can be extremely challenging.  Perhaps no other field of photography throws as many variables at you more than those found on a typical wedding day.  Whether it is crazy weather, horrible lighting situations, demanding wedding planners, strict church rules, or overall disorganization, there are a many many things that can cause the day to go less than expected.  Here is what every bride should know about the challenges of photographing a wedding ceremony.

I always tell my clients that in most situations I will easily be able to capture beautiful images of their wedding day. For most brides, the most important part of the day is the actual ceremony itself.  For generations, the most impactful and cherished photographs are those showing the couple exchanging their vows at the alter.  Regardless if the wedding takes place in a traditional church or outside at a beautiful location, photos taken during the exchanging of the rings and during the first kiss are definitely moments you will want to capture well.  

Unfortunately, the wedding ceremony itself is usually the only time during the entire wedding where a photographer does not have 100% control over the situation.  Unlike other times during the wedding day when we can add supplemental lighting, move people into the shade, scout the location for the best background, or find the perfect position to remove distracting elements out of the shot, the ceremony really locks us into capturing the best photograph possible instead of the best photograph imaginable.  

In most cases though, your clients have no knowledge about professional photography. From the bride's perspective, they simply want everything to go as perfectly as possible.  They have so much to worry about including whether or not the flowers and cake are going to show up on time, hoping all the groomsmen are punctual and well behaved, confirming playlists for the DJ, and making sure their wedding planner has everything needed to do their job.  The pressure to have a picture perfect wedding is an unfortunate side effect of all the marketing thrown towards newly engaged girls but that's the world we live in.  As a professional photographer, it is your job to make sure your clients know that you are going to do your very best for them on the wedding day as well as give them a realistic expectation on what their wedding photography will look like when the event is over and done.  Nothing is more important to talk about during the pre-wedding consultations than setting realistic expectations of the wedding ceremony.  

There is not much you can do if a church bans photography inside the chapel

Let me tell you a little story. One of the worst situations I have ever had to photograph was an outdoor ceremony overlooking the ocean where the sun was casting a hard shadow from a 5 story building directly on the golf course lawn.  From a non photographic eye the scene looked exotic and absolutely beautiful.  However from a photographer's perspective it was a near impossible situation to capture well.  Half of the wedding, the bride's side, was seated in direct harsh sunlight.  The other half of the wedding, the groom's side, was standing in dark shade.  The shadow ran straight down the isle and it was creeping slowly towards the bride.  No matter where you placed yourself to take a photograph, the bride was completely blown out and the groom and groomsmen were almost pitch black.  The only solution was to scout every location from the back and sides, and then take images from the best angles while exposing for the highlights.  If you expose for the bride's dress then you can at least push the shadows up in post production. The images will still not be award winning photographs by any means, but at least they will still be salvageable and deliverable.  Thank goodness for modern DSLRs right?

All 4 of these wedding ceremonies were planned to take place at the exact same spot. In the first one it is slightly raining, the second one is bright and sunny, and last two were moved indoors last minute because of heavy storms.

Every wedding photographer has found themselves in many situations like the one above.   If it isn't harsh shadows outside, it is harsh spot lights inside the church.  If it isn't pouring rain during the ceremony, it is the strict "no photography" church policy during the ceremony.  Many, many things can prevent your photographs from looking like the images a bride has in her head or has seen online. It is your job to educate them before potential problems occur, give them confidence that you can make the best out of any situation, and accommodate any decision they choose after you have given them all the potential photographic options. 

Luckily before I shot the "harsh shadow wedding" above, I was asked to photograph the rehearsal the day before.  It was during the rehearsal that I noticed the harsh lighting problem I would face the following day.  After the rehearsal was done, I expressed my concerns to both the bride and the wedding planner, and I showed them the photos I had just taken.  My goal wasn't to get them to change the entire wedding ceremony but rather to suggest off setting the wedding isle a little to the right or left so everyone could be either in full sunlight or complete shade.  Both the bride and the planner appreciated my insight, but at the end of the day, they both agreed that it was more important to have the ceremony chairs symmetrically lined up in the middle of the golf course than to have them off set for better looking photographs.  Even though I personally thought their decision wasn't what I would have picked, it was a great sigh of relief knowing that the bride was aware of the tough shooting situation I was going to face the following day. The photos weren't spectacular but at least the bride was prepared and happy knowing she had a say in the outcome.

Daylight Savings Time can make days extremely short. Top photo is ceremony location at 4pm. Bottom: By 5pm the entire ceremony site was pitch black. The only way to capture anything was to light the entire site with strobes on light stands.


Obviously it is impossible to attend every wedding rehearsal so you can see the lighting or weather beforehand, but I believe it is important to at least explain how unique each wedding ceremony is and how to maintain a reasonable level of expectation for the photographs taken during the ceremony. I often get asked by potential clients, "Patrick, what is the hardest part of being a wedding photographer?"  For me, one of the hardest parts of being a wedding photographer is making sure my clients have a reasonable expectation during perhaps the most important part of the wedding, the ceremony itself.  Once I explain the unique challenges that the ceremony presents over every other single part of the day, most of my clients not only gain a new appreciation towards professional wedding photographers but they also feel confident that I will do everything in my power to make sure their ceremony images are as good as they possibly can be in any given situation.  

Here is a list of topics to consider bringing up when talking with your clients leading up to the wedding day:

  • Is the ceremony site indoors or outdoors?
  • Do you have a backup plan if weather prevents you from having your wedding outside?
  • If we are inside at a church, have you asked if the church has any regulations on photography?
  • If the church has harsh recessed or spot lighting, ask someone working for the church if they can dim the problematic lights down for better photos.
  • Has the brided checked the sunset time and planned her ceremony at least an hour before formal sunset? If not, you will need to light the ceremony site with off camera flashes and lots of them.  
  • If you notice mixed lighting or harsh lighting outside, discuss the possibly of slightly repositioning where the wedding party will stand (scope it out the day of the wedding).
  • If the ceremony is in a public place like a park or beach, remind the couple that sometimes other people will inevitably be in the background of your photos

Obviously there is only so much you can do to insure you get great photos without completely altering the ceremony itself.  However, if you at least bring some of these potential problems to the bride's attention, it will allow her to tweak anything last minute while also giving the couple your professional advice in making the most out of the situation.  You would be surprised how many brides think their ceremony images will look exactly like the ones they have scouted online, and the last thing you want is for her to feel like your photos did not live up to her standard because of something completely outside of your control.  

So in conclusion, make sure you take some time to talk about realistic expectations when you meet with a potential bride or talk to a client over the phone.  Without sounding unsure of yourself or overly defensive, try to explain to your clients just how much lighting and weather can change the mood and tone of an image...even if they've seen images from the exact same location online.  Reassure them that you will do the best you possibly can to capture stunning images no matter what challenges are you are faced with on the actual wedding day.  Even the greatest photographers have difficultly in harsh noon light or have to sit down in the back of a church because the minister does not allow photography during the ceremony. That is just the nature of working with little flexibility. This post isn't meant to scare photographers or brides, but I do believe you can greatly improve all of your clients' photography expectations by being honest, open, and accommodating both before and during the wedding day.  



Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of Fstoppers.com and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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Happy clients always have realistic expectations. I am always trying to explain to my wedding clients the potential downside to any of their photography related decisions. If they understand something may not turn out perfect, they won't hold it against you afterwards when it doesn't.

I think that is a great point with clients of any kind, in any industry. I like to have clients show me work that they like, and potentially want reproduced, so I can gage what expectations and limitations are ahead.

Exactly the case with the latest wedding I shot. I made a suggestion about shooting time for portraits, and they chose not to move the time. All you can do is give them the best information for them to make the best decisions for their priorities and then do your best to work within that. But at least you've presented them with all the info.

Been there done that with hard sun hitting one face and i was told no flash soooo.. haha. Not winning award photographs that nigth tho

I have a few wedding venues I shoot at regularly that pose the same lighting problems time after time. I become numb to how difficult it is to shoot in harsh lighting and drastic shadows right down the middle of someone's face or body. We can pre-consult all we want, but at the end of the day we just have to deliver results. It's extra incentive to shoot the shit out of the creative portraits.

You should count your lucky stars you are not based in the south west of the UK like I am. Where you can have all four seasons in one afternoon! I shoot a wedding like a photojournalist so...I at least have full control over how I operate. I don't interfere with the wedding in any way. But torrential English summer rain. Dark medieval churches and demonic Catholic priests have all made my life a fight for survival on more than one occasion.

Amen to this!!!

I live in Juneau Alaska, temperate rainforest, and I think the last 5 weddings I've shot have been in the rain at some point.

My most challenging experience was 1PM wedding on a beach, in summer in Australia. It was 41 degrees Celsius , so we had most of the beach to ourselves, but between the elderly relatives almost passing out, the celebrant rushing the ceremony so she could get back to shade, and the brides makeup running because of the sweat, it was a challenge.

I had a beach wedding also at 1:00 in a very similar situation, I feel you on this!!

Great write up Patrick! I have only shot a handful of weddings in the few years I have been shooting and every single wedding has had its pros and cons. So many variables as I blindly come to location to find they closed all the windows last minute to light the inside by candle light vs letting the natural light bleed through as the night before in rehearsal... Ha! All about communication and making sure clients have all the info going in to the wedding day.

On point.. great write-up

Great article, Patrick! I am fairly new to the wedding photography business - currently second-shooting for an established photographer in the area (and loving it, by-the-way!). I have been amazed at how many venues are not set up to be "camera-friendly" I haven't shot a lot of wedding ceremonies in churches. Many outdoors in the middle of the day, with not a tree, nor bit of shade in sight. Or some indoors, with the bride and groom placed directly I front of a wall of massive windows (the silhouettes are stunning however!), or dark, cramped halls. I think your point of there being so many variables is really important, and something that the bride needs to be aware of. So many brides look at pictures in magazines, or online, and I don't think they fully appreciate just how specific the conditions need to be to make such images. It's not making excuses but all about managing expectations.

The worst situation is when a bride wants a sunset ceremony as there are nearly always delays and that means a twilight ceremony and the need for flash. I advise them to move the time up an hour and we can do the B&G shots at sunset while their guests are making their way to the reception.

This also brings up old people whose night vision is impaired and they may have a very difficult time getting around in the dark after the ceremony, or conversely, dealing with the heat of the sun (which also applies to infants who may be there with their mothers).

A favorite tool of mine is a pop out scrim that cuts 2 stops of light and is large enough to provide instant shade for the B&G for post ceremony shots when there is a beach wedding or similar location that is going to be in full sun.

I always expose for the face of the bride and ignore the rest. I have dresses of her in her wedding dress that I have taken before the ceremony along with detail shots of the dress during the getting ready period.