September 28, 2011

Pancake Session: What I Wish I’d Known About Shooting

The very first wedding I ever shot was October 28th, 2006.

I’ll never forget that day. The sky was gray and ominous as a jumbo sized Nor’easter rolled in up the coast, and when torrential downpours met with high tide suddenly we found ourselves stranded with the bridal party by a hotel parking lot under two feet of water. The tent had to be emergency evacuated because of the 40 mile an hour gusts of winds and the ceremony was quickly moved inside. Friends and family huddled around our couple as they started a life together come what may, and hand to God I’m here to tell you, the very second they said “I do” the sun broke through the clouds and sent a rush of golden light flooding into the room the likes of which I’d never seen before. It surrounded us all, warmed us to the core. And I remember thinking to myself…

This is what shooting weddings is like?? Well, count me IN!!

Right after the ceremony, we were able to go outside and shoot for about twenty minutes before the light was gone. I was still learning everything at that point, so I remember flailing with all the dials and settings just trying to make something…anything…work in the rapidly changing light. Shoot, adjust. Shoot, adjust. Shoot, adjust. Shoot And when it was all said and done from my very first wedding, I had exactly one, count em one, image of mine make it into the faves folder. And let’s just go ahead and be honest, looking back even that was probably really generous.

Now before I go one step further, I should make it absolutely clear that the only way this worked was that Justin was the real shooter for the day and I was just there to tag along. And he had already done tons of his own weddings as well as second shot for two years before that. So he had it more than covered. And there was a faves folder full of pretty pictures for our couple there to prove it. So really this was just me putting in my time as a second shooter and learning the ropes in a hands-on, real life environment. Something I highly, highly HIGHLY recommend before you ever shoot a wedding on your own. Cue the shooting star burst and the “More You Know” music. This public service announcement is over. :)

So why am I telling you all of this? Well, we recently got an email and then it also came up again last night when we spoke to the incredibly fabulous DC SMUG, of what are some things we wish we would’ve known when we were first getting started. And in that moment, it brought me right back to that gusty, Nor’easter, life altering day.

Specifically, Jennifer asked “If you could give just ONE major piece of advice for a photographer just starting out, what would it be?” But being the type-A, highly caffeinated, over-achiever that I am, I decided to go ahead and give four major pieces of advice because I couldn’t narrow them down. See…highly caffeinated. Over-achiever. Here we go!

1. Think of light as a living thing.

When I was first getting started I thought of light in terms of one thing and one thing only: when I push the button, will the camera actually fire. Or if it does fire, will I have a pretty good exposure. If so, sweet… I’m all set. I’ve done my job. But the thing is, getting a good exposure is just the first ten percent. Because I can have a really good exposure, but still have a very flat, lifeless image. What I wish someone would’ve told me when I was first getting started is to think of light as a living, breathing thing. An unspoken additional subject in every image you create. That it’s not just about merely having enough light, it’s about the way that light is interacting with the people and the moments you’re documenting. When you start to think of light as something to be posed and shaped in the images you’re creating, suddenly those images take on a lot more life than they had before. I’m sure it sounds like a broken record by now, but for us that life is most vivid when you have directional, dimensional light intertwining with real, authentic, life being played out moments.

2. Work with what you’ve got until it is holding you back.

My first camera was Justin’s hand me down Nikon D100. And oh nelly, was that thing a piece of work. But what we agreed going in, was that I would shoot with that camera until it was holding me back rather than the other way around. That I would pay my dues and make what I had work until my skill set exceeded what it was capable of. And you know what, I feel like it pushed me to be better. To work harder. With all the new generations of cameras and lenses coming out every year, it can be so tempting to feel like you have to drop exorbitant amounts of money to have the latest and greatest. To keep up with the Joneses. But here’s the thing, you can spend your whole life and all your money trying to do that. And at the end of the day, anyone can buy an expensive camera…it’s what you can do with the gear that really counts.

3. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

This one is pretty simple. If you want to shoot her getting ready by the pretty window light instead of the awful tungsten bathroom light, don’t be afraid to ask her to stand by the pretty window light. If you think ten minutes is not enough time to do all of the pictures including the second cousins twice removed, don’t be afraid to ask for more time. If you think shooting the bridal party in direct sun at high noon is going to make for some squinty, unflattering pictures, don’t be afraid to recommend that they be done later. We spent way too much time wishing for better shooting conditions when we first getting started, instead of just asking for them. If you know what you’re asking for is what’s best for your couple, don’t be afraid to speak up!

4. Shoot, adjust. Shoot, adjust. Shoot, adjust.

When it all boils down to it, you can read every photography book out there, watch every tutorial you can find, spend hours on your favorite forum of choice. But nothing will replace just getting out there and shooting as much as you possibly can. Shoot, shoot, shoot….and then make adjustments based on what you learn along the way. And pay attention when those light bulb moments come along. They can change everything.

  1. Joe+Kathrina

    Thanks for being so type A and over caffeinated , always good to read posts like this–love 1, appreciate 2 and 3 and always need to remember 4. Amen!

  2. Meridith

    I remember that day all too well at it was my wedding day too! I remember the sunlight streaming through those clouds right into the church as we said our vows. It was perfect! I think the best thing on your list here is #3 and I am finally speaking up about this and getting images that I(and the couple) love. Great post:)

  3. Anne Schmidt

    You could not have said it better, Mary. I agree with every single word you said. I look back on the first ever wedding images I took and sometimes I gasp! Ahhh!! How on earth did anyone ever pay me for this product?!!

    But a few years later, and some guidance and advice from great expert shooters, who are now my friends, my work has improved exponentially. Shoot, shoot and shoot some more!

    Great piece, girl! (as usual) ;-)

  4. Sandra Fazzino Photography

    here here! nicely said! what an amazing first experience. love reading the pancake sessions while my files are processing! thank you!

  5. sarah

    4 super powerful points that pack a big punch! I constantly have to restrain myself & remember to work with what I’ve got when the latest, greatest, shiny toy comes out…same goes for shoes :)

  6. Jennifer Medeiros

    Wow! Thank you SO much for this!! I had no idea it would have this much of an effect, but I’m thrilled!! And can I just add that I’m touched, and flattered, and incredibly grateful that you added the link to my little ol’ website to this post?! Um, you guys are amazing!!!! A thousand times thank you!!

  7. Jennifer Jar

    Mary, I hope you didn’t see how much I was just gawking at you last night…it was so amazing to SEE YOU live…in the flesh!!! I read your blog religiously…I like DIED when Ashley told me she got picked for the WPPI Shootout. You are even more sweet in person…<3 you bunches! (oh and my heart fluttered when you said my name too…hahahaa!!!)

  8. Christina Dely

    I try very hard to work on #3 with each wedding. Sometimes I have that little voice screaming inside my head, "Move the whole group over there!" And choose to ignore it because the group is too big, people are being difficult, etc. But in the end, it is ALWAYS worth listening to that little voice ;) Great post!

  9. Jessica

    Mary, love your type A, highly caffeinated self!!! Thank you for sharing this! And yes, second shooting is so recommended…I wouldn’t be anywhere without that experience!

  10. Christa Hann

    Totally agree with out-growing the camera. Like you said anyone can buy an expensive SLR. But it’s like any tool, it’s how the artist uses it :)

  11. Jillian Tree

    This is really good. Love the part about speaking up – still learning that one myself! :)

  12. amanda

    Mary, you keep being that highly caffeinated, over achiever that we all know and love!! Awesome, awesome, awesome advice!!!

  13. The Detailed Life

    Thanks Mary. I struggle with your number 2, quite often… I am using a nikon d90- which is a great camera, but of course would love to move up. Sometimes, I feel like it is holding me back, but I am taking great pictures with it- I just need to remember my confidence!

  14. Asha Lea

    We were so honored to have you speak to our group! It was fabulous to meet you. Love the pancake sessions!

  15. Kristin H.

    O.m.g. Thank you for posting this M.. Super-duper-un-officially photographing our friends wedding today (they don’t have a photographer/anyone else to take pics… a sin, I know!! :) and I’m panicking! Last minute cram sesh with all of your pancake sessions so I can pretend to know what I’m doing :)

  16. caitlin

    these are so. incredibly. helpful. thank you :)

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