What Wedding Photographers Can Do When Everything Goes Wrong on the Big Day

What Wedding Photographers Can Do When Everything Goes Wrong on the Big Day

October in New Orleans means wedding season. This weekend was a double wedding weekend just like most of the next few weeks will be and I just finished what would be considered a timeline disaster, but the marquee images were not missed in large due to experience and meticulous planning. In this article I will go over methods to prepare for the unexpected and how to make sure you get everything you need despite the inevitable busted timeline.

Let's look at a series of scenarios and how we can make sure to still get everything on our shot list with the same quality that your clients expect.

Bridal Prep Detail Shots

Detail shots can be a huge part of what tells the story for any given wedding and to some degree can be the most difficult to plan ahead for. Generally as photographers we arrive at the hotel room or home of the bride with only a few minutes to find an epic staging area for the bride's most precious details. Often homes can provide the most challenging and un-predictable light and staging areas. It's also important to select a backdrop that feels like the wedding day. So what can you do when feeling uninspired by your staging options?

Option 1

Look for semi-reflective surfaces. It's often the most unassuming surfaces that can make great locations for detail shots of rings, jewelry, and shoes. Vanity mirrors, granite counters, glossy wooden stairs, or desks are good options. When in doubt, take a peak into the bathroom. The bride may think it a bit strange seeing you take all of her most precious keepsakes into the bathroom, but there are often great surfaces in there.

Option 2

The bridesmaid's dress. This is my go-to, back pocket option. When all else fails, look for the bridesmaid's dress, lay it over a chair (ask first!) and use it a seamless backdrop. Often the dresses are inline with the color theme for the day and will fit into the story perfectly. Place the chair near a window for better light and shoot away.

(Almost) No Time For Family Formals

On Saturday, our bride's limo arrived 45 minutes late, which after all said and done left us ending the ceremony 1 hour late. So here's the scenario: It's 8 p.m., we're still in the church with a list of family pictures to take, the parents have called the venue and we're told that the reception will close at 10:30 p.m. no matter what and as you would expect, the stress level is high for the parents and the wedding party.

Normally I light church formals with either an off-camera flash or an Einstein strobe with a battery pack. This church was of course one of the darkest I shoot at, so a normal setup would go something like this: place the light on the stand, plug the light into the pack, plug in the radio receiver, add the radio transmitter, make sure the light fires, add the modifier, now test for the lighting for that venue.

Imagine everyone freaking out while I run around the church setting up all my gear. Not a great scenario. So what's the solution?

Option 1

Plan ahead. I recommend having gear in place at locations before you get there. For a church, that means calling the week of the wedding and asking what time on the wedding day the doors will be open and seeing if you can leave your lighting setup there. This way you don't have to bring the gear in with you in case you get caught in traffic and need to run in to start shooting. If you haven't shot at the church before, ask if you can come during the week to test, if need be.

Of course, I was not able to bring gear and have it set up ahead of time for this particular church, but I did have the benefit of a long ceremony. As communion was starting, I ran to the back of the church, with my second shooter covering, and set everything up. At the end of the ceremony I made sure to get the bride and groom exit and then hustled straight to my setup. This way I was able to have gear in place before the wedding party was back to the front of the church.

Option 2

Know your shot list and stay calm. Parents are freaking out and constantly reminding me that we have to hurry (I should add that I don't blame them, they have paid thousands of dollars for a venue that is telling them they are basically out of luck). So when they ask what shot is first, second, third, and so on, they don't want to see you reaching for a shot list or scrolling through your phone. So know your list. Of course I understand that in a hectic situation this can be difficult, but part of our job is being cool under pressure. If you have a longer list then have a printed copy in the hands of your second shooter or assistant and make sure they are comfortable with calling out each shot.

Here's another tip: When you finish taking what you think is the last shot, clearly ask the bride, "Are there any other shots you wanted?"

One Hour to Shoot an Entire Reception

So now we combine a ceremony that ends one hour late with traffic that makes for a reception, that was already on the shorter side, starting an hour and half late. We walk in and the couple is eating and we have minutes for them to come out for the marquee shot for that venue (this particular venue is an old bank with the cool bank vault shot).

The couple walks out, the coordinator opens the gate to the bank vault, and as I was setting up she says we have two minutes in here and then we are going directly upstairs for the first dance. I ask the coordinator if we can have a couple of minutes to go upstairs and get in place before the couple, and the answer is no. Now this is probably a bit more extreme of an example than the norm, but how can we be prepared?

The marquee shot: A number of venues will have this marquee-type shot that couples have seen that they want, and they trust you to be able to shoot it as well, if not better, than the ones they have already seen. We don't have 30 minutes to set up up all of our lights and test the lighting to get exactly what we want, so what can you do?

Option 1

Go to the venue earlier in the week. Just like the ceremony locations, often you can call and visit the location ahead of time and test your lighting without the stress and time restraints of the wedding day.

Option 2

If you can't visit the venue ahead of time, study the images that your couple are wanting you to get and breakdown the lighting setups. Know exactly how you are going to set up your flash or strobe and be ready to go with as little "thinking" time as possible.

The First Dance

Your options for having the first dance set up and ready to roll are similar to the marquee shot. Visit ahead of time or know your setup so well that you can be ready in under five minutes. My general day-of procedures involve going to the reception venue before I go anywhere else, setting up the dance floor flashes, testing (with the understanding that it will be darker when I get there for the actual reception), and then heading out to the bridal prep.

So often by the time you get to the first dance, the wedding is behind schedule, so by having your lights set up and firing, you can walk in confidently knowing you're ready to get those key shots.


​If you take nothing away from this article, remember this: Be prepared. Figuring it out on the day of and banking on your timeline will work in the perfect scenario, but how often does that happen, and more importantly what is the risk involved if things don't go as planned and you're not ready? (Hint: the risk is pretty big.)

Have a backup route, have gear in place, have a backup plan for when your gear fails, visit venues ahead of time, and bring an assistant or second shooter. Also prepare your couple in the most lighthearted and least scary way possible, that wedding days rarely run exactly on time and it's important to be flexible and prepared. Informing your bride and groom also ads the secondary benefit of keeping them calm when the day inevitably falls behind the timeline.

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