Digital Wedding Photography
Tips From The Pros

Digital Wedding Photography

Another cliché shot is the first dance, a shot that Matt likes to make--lots of them. He will make 20-30 shots to get the one he likes. "I got pretty close to an ambient light reading using the built-in Matrix metering at 1/4 sec at f/5.6, then put the flash on an extension cord and zoomed it so it only hits the couple."
Photos © 2002, Mathew Staver, All Rights Reserved

In the fast moving world of wedding photography, speed of delivery counts as much as style. In 1984, I contributed a chapter to Jack Curtis' book Wedding-Portrait Photography World on the impact one-hour processing would have on fast delivery of wedding proofs. The concept was delivering the once ubiquitous proofs to the bride, groom, and families while excitement levels are high to encourage more sales and higher profits. (That chapter was cut from the book, although some of my photographs remain, but that's another story.) With today's professional digital SLRs, photographers can make a CD on the job, hand it to the happy couple, and have them review their wedding images on a laptop while flying to their honeymoon. So, while speedy delivery is still important, there's a lot more to today's digital wedding photography. I asked two professionals how they photograph weddings digitally and how it's affected the way they work and shoot.

The Word From The Pros
Barry Staver ( has 30 years experience as a photojournalist for corporate and editorial clients. He approaches wedding photography as a photo essayist, combining photojournalism with family portraiture. "I have the ability to see and photograph a wedding as though it were a photo essay for Life magazine," Barry told me. His patient approach lets him stand back and capture moments as they unfold; photographing everything from close-up details of dresses and flowers, to faces filled with emotion. "The ultimate wedding for me is when the bride wants a photo story delivered as a one-of-a-kind coffee-table book. I like doing the design, because I plan how the images will fit the layout as I make the photographs."

One classic wedding cliché is "Hands and Rings." If this shot looks like a lot of hands, that's because it is. "I count five," Barry told me. The ring ceremony where they all--bride and groom and two sons of the bride--received a similar ring. Outdoors the weather was changing; it was cold and they were anxious to get to the reception. "The shot was my idea," Barry said. "This is like the family group pictures that will be important down the road... I did some pictures with fill flash and some with natural light with a 14mm lens."

Matt Staver ( used a slightly different photojournalistic approach: "I try to capture all the special moments, but like to be unobtrusive. I don't want them to remember me, as much as having pictures that remind them of what was really there," he said. During the wedding Matt does "the standard kind of photographs you might expect but for the rest of it, I just shoot what's happening." Nevertheless, he prefers the real to the staged: "Every now and then you get a DJ that tries to pose a cake cutting picture and it's awkward. I let them cut the cake and feed it to themselves as they would normally do." All of his weddings have been shot digitally except one: "It was a pretty small wedding and they were freaked out because they thought it would be hard to get prints, but they still haven't ordered from the film I did shoot."

This is to me a quintessential Matt image--he's at his best when there's little available light--with a strong subject matter, but there's also, what I call "grace notes," secondary subjects that add to the overall composition that are the hallmark of his work. Try placing your hand over the right-hand side of the image, and it is just ordinary; take it away and it's artistic.

On The Job
Barry prefers digital weddings because they are "easier, more convenient, provide accurate color balance, and more usable images are captured." To him the "best part of digital capture is the ability to quickly change white balance as the lighting changes; moving from inside to outdoors, fluorescent light to tungsten no longer requires cumbersome and expensive film changes or lens filters," he says.

Viewing the photograph in the camera's LCD lets you assess the result immediately. It tells Barry that he's either got the image or needs to "work it a bit more." Matt doesn't show them pictures on the camera--although that might instill some confidence--because it takes too long and "you just don't have the time." If there is time, he will download some test frames to the laptop he always takes to each wedding, if only to download images after the ceremony and before the reception. One of the things Matt really likes about digital capture is that "it's really easy to shoot a lot of pictures and not worry about how much it costs to get a great picture."

This image was made in Winter Park, Colorado, at an outdoor wedding on a holiday weekend. It was made after the wedding ceremony was over. Like most of Barry's outdoor images the white balance was set on Cloudy; it had been an overcast day and it almost rained before the ceremony. The guests had hiked back to their cars and he just hung out for a while and stayed way back and used a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom and took several images. "It is totally candid and unposed; if it were posed," he suggested, "you probably would want to move them around a tiny bit just to maybe capture both of them and not so much of the bride's back." The couple loves the picture and the bride used it as wallpaper on her work computer.
© 2002, Barry Staver, All Rights Reserved

Unlike Matt, who shoots lots of frames on the job, Barry finds that "I don't necessarily capture more images than from a film wedding, but end up with more usable and saleable ones." When Matt photographs The First Dance, he makes 20-30 shots to get the one he likes. First, he does the traditional first dance shot that wedding photographers have been making since Fox Talbot's time. "Then I like to show how they are swept away in the moment, and wait for them to kiss," he said. Matt uses a 14mm Nikon lens for his action-filled, stylishly blurry first dance shots, with the camera's ISO set at 640. There are always a bunch of pictures that don't work because the light is difficult to place precisely, so he tests this shot by using waiters walking through the scene. After three or four test shots Matt gets the balance and exposure exactly the way he wants.

Some wedding photojournalists dislike photographing family groups, but often several generations gather for the event, and Barry's experience has taught him how important these images are. "Those family portraits are important. I use only as much direction as needed for a particular group, then work quickly. People tense up and get antsy if they have to stand around in a group for more than a few seconds. I try to capture as much of a `candid' group as you can, but it's still a group shot." His lighting is set before they arrive, allowing the groups to be moved in and out quickly. Barry coaxes and schmoozes with the people, getting them to relax, all the while looking for the little things that ruin photographs: Someone in the back row trying to hide behind another person's head, flies open, flowers held too high. Something as simple as shifting weight from both feet to one, putting a hand in a pocket can make a big difference in the final image. "I've gotten everything from outbursts of laughter to tears to hugs to as they gaze into one another's eyes."

Where Matt excels is in elevating wedding cliché images to, dare I say it, art. For the classic photograph of the bride and her father walking down the aisle, Matt is lying on his stomach in the organ balcony behind the altar; "I never use a tripod," he confessed. This is not a lucky shot of another photographer's flash illuminating the bride and her father, but, like much of Matt's work, was carefully planned. He guessed what exposure the other photographer had his camera set at (F8, Matt had already asked and the guy was using ISO 800 film), set the camera on manual and the
24-85mm zoom lens at f/10 and got the corresponding shutter speed--around 1 sec handheld--at ISO 125.

What's In Their Camera Bags
Barry's main wedding camera is a Nikon D1X, and he keeps Nikon F5 and N90s film cameras as back-up. By the time you read this he'll have another D1X in his bag. His most used lenses include the Nikon 14mm f/2.8, 24-85mm f/2.8-4 zoom, 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom, and 300mm f/4. For lighting, Barry uses a Nikon SB-28DX on-camera flash for fill and candid interiors, often attached to the Nikon SC-17 cord, enabling the flash to be raised up in ceiling bounce mode or using a white reflective card for direct fill. He uses Dyna-Lites for family portraits at the wedding.

Matt uses Nikon D1X with a Nikon F5 as a back-up, mostly because of the expense of purchasing another D1X. His favorite is the 14mm because he likes to get in close on candid pictures and doesn't want anyone in front of him. He also uses the 24-85mm zoom for general images and the 80-200mm f/2.8 for ceremony shots. Almost all of his pictures use some kind of flash, except for the ceremony shots. For on-camera flash he uses the Nikon SB-28DX and for the posed pictures a Dyna-Lite lighting kit with two or three lights, depending on the size of the group and the location.

For available light and fill flash candids, Matt's most commonly used ISO setting is 640 and 125-200 when there's plenty of light. Most of the time, Barry keeps his ISO set at 500 or 640 because he "doesn't see any noise difference between lower ISO settings." Matt agrees, "I like to shoot things available light when possible and most weddings are low-light situations. Under these conditions, I think digital photos look better and cleaner than ultrahigh speed film." Matt's standard complement of memory cards are three 256MB, two 160MB, and one 128MB card. "I run around a lot," he told me, "and generally have three sets of batteries--the one I'm shooting on and one on charge and another in reserve."
Matt's white balance settings when shooting flash, are the camera's standard electronic flash setting. With available light shots, he uses a white wall or whatever to custom balance the light setting. "You'll go into a place and figure out what kind of lighting it is and try some of the settings and fine-tune it from there." Barry keeps his D1X set on "Cloudy" because he likes the warm look of it. "That's what I like about digital capture," he told me, "you can switch white balance and ISO settings back and forth almost instantly and I don't have to be carrying a bag of different kinds of film [or filters]."

This looks like a "People" magazine shot, which Barry has shot for more than 20 years. "There was a little kid just sleeping in the corner while everyone was eating and drinking," he told me. "I made a few close-ups of just him and turned around and looked back at the room and it was even better. I like to look for those kind of quiet moments. I used a little fill flash because you need that little bit of `pop' inside." This was made with the 14mm lens and was cropped to get rid of some dead space on the right; the 14mm lens gives the effective focal length of 21mm on the D1X.
© 2002, Barry Staver, All Rights Reserved

The Client Gets What?
As far as what gets delivered to the client: Barry offers several options for clients with different price points, including images on a CD, no digital work-up and no guarantee as to final print quality; contact sheets (either digital as PDF files or hard copy 8.5x11s made in Adobe Photoshop) so they can order prints a la carte; or designing and providing a complete photo essay in a coffee-table book.

"Most clients just want CDs, because some of them want to print the pictures themselves," Matt told me. "Some of them don't feel comfortable making the prints themselves and I give them contact sheets and they pick the ones they want, although some clients can select the images they want from the CD." Depending on the client and how computer savvy they might be, Matt delivers two or three CDs of images. No albums at all.


Dyna-Lite, Inc.
(908) 687-8800
fax: (908) 686-6682

Nikon Inc.
(800) 526-4566
fax: (631) 547-0299