October 20, 2011

Pancake Session: Working with the Wedding Party

I was once in a wedding, where the entire day the photographer insisted on calling me “Tall Girl.” Hey tall girl, can you take a step over. Tall girl, I’ll have you go up there. Tall girl, why don’t you slouch down a little so you’re not so y’know…..tall. Yea, I was not a fan.

But now, after five years of shooting weddings I suppose I do at least have some more sympathy for him. It can be a really hard thing coming into a wedding and being expected to wrangle a bunch of people you’ve never met before. All while being witty, looking like you have it under control, and let’s face it….being on a live audition for a bunch of potential brides & grooms. And while that photographer might best be a lesson in what not to do, I can say that I think of him often. And he’s taught me a lot over the years. Because he’s pushed me to figure out a way to do it better. To approach the day making a connection with people you’ve just met.

And to understand & care more about them than just how tall or short they happen to be. :)

So today’s Pancake Session is our top ten tips for how we approach the wedding party pictures. We hope it helps!

1. Call them by name.
As soon as I arrive on the wedding day, I have my brides introduce me to their bridesmaids. This is so I can start to get to know them (after all, they may very well be my brides some day) and so that I can start to memorize their names. I pay attention the rest of the getting ready repeating those names to myself until I know them pretty well, so that when it comes time to take the bridal party pictures instead of saying “you go here and you stand there” I can actually call them by name. This is huge. The fact that I care enough to get to know them by name does not go unnoticed, and in general they have more fun with the pictures and just like me better because of it. Not to mention, it’s way more ideal than “hey tall girl, take a step over.” If for some reason I didn’t get the girls names earlier (or in the case of the groomsmen who I am often meeting for the first time at the wedding party pictures), I’ll just simply ask them to tell me their name before I give them any direction. Tell me your name….Ok great, Sarah I’m going to have take one step in for me and open up your shoulder slightly. Perfect Sarah, I love it. I know it sounds like something so small, but trust me try at your next wedding and tell me it doesn’t make a huge difference.

2. Take charge early & give them a timeline
Nothing will make a wedding party lose faith in you faster than if they have to ask “ok, what are we doing.” It’s just human nature that if people go long enough without seeing someone step up & take charge that they’ll take charge for you. Keep in mind that the bride & groom are people that they care about a lot and they just want to make sure they have an amazing day. So often it’s not even the case that they want to take over, they just want to make sure someone has it under control. And the first few minutes of the wedding party pictures are crucial for establishing that that person is you. If you can come out swinging with a loud, confident voice (while still keeping it fun) and a game plan, then people will be more than happy to go with what you say. And the whole rest of that shoot will just go a lot more smoothly. Also, don’t be afraid to be honest with your wedding party. If you’re working on a tight timeline and you really need to get to the bride & groom before the light is gone, don’t be afraid to tell them that. Most of the time because they do care about the couple, that will be enough to get them working on your side.

3. Don’t be afraid to call it.
In the case where you do have that groomsmen who thinks he’s way funnier than he actually is, and calling him by name or making it about the couple just isn’t working I do think it’s ok to call it like you see it. Because remember your number one priority is about getting those images for the couple. So in that case, I do think it’s ok to say something like So John, I am actually picking you up talking in all the pictures. If you just give me thirty seconds to get this shot for Emily & Joseph then I promise to get you to the cocktail hour.

4. Let the images reflect who they are
Sometimes we shoot the wedding party laughing a lot and being really light-hearted with a J.Crew feel. Sometimes we go for a much more serious, Vanity Fair type feel. That isn’t random. We’re making those choices based on what we’ve gotten to know about the couple and their friends. While we’re usually shooting a range of smiling and serious on the actual wedding day, the final images that I end up showing as part of their favorites are going to be the ones that I think feel most like that group of people. Also, if a group is more silly than serious, then you’ll have a lot easier time posing them that way and getting authentic images of what they’re really like.

5. Ask yourself why
I’m just going to say it…..jumping in the air. Ask yourself, “Why is the bridal party jumping in the air? What string of events brought that about” Now as always, if you reflect on it and have a really good Why to back that up, by all means rock it. But for us and our Why, it wouldn’t happen. And I can’t tell you the number of inquiries that we get that have specifically said, “I love that you don’t have any bridal party jumping in the air shots on your site.” The same goes for super contrived set ups. The longer we do this, for us and our Why, the more we are drawn to the beauty and enduring nature of simplicity. If your Why is about more involved, high fashion posing, I think that’s fine. As long as you know what you want your work to stand for in the first place.

6. Show, don’t tell.
Even for the pretty simple posing that we do, I will still show a bridesmaid what I want from her rather than telling. If I want a groomsmen to rock the hands in the pocket pose, I will do that with him rather than just expecting him to know what I mean. As I’m showing the poses, I’m breaking them down into the simplest of steps. Sarah, I’m going to have you stand sideways to me like this, drop your front shoulder like I’m doing, and this is my bouquet (which is always my camera) I’m going to be holding it in my right hand down here. Something powerful happens when you own the poses yourself….it gives people who have never considered themselves models the permission to own them as well. If I want my wedding party to give me more of a serious, Vanity Fair look….I will do that serious face and that pose with them. Because how can I expect them to rock it, if I don’t know how to deliver it myself?

7. Study Group Portraiture & Natural Gesture
When I’m setting up the whole wedding party, I will actually go down the whole line and show each person what I want from them specifically. But because we’re also usually working with time restrictions, I know that I need to be able to do that quickly. So I spend time studying gesture and the interaction of large groups of people. Some of my favorite sources of inspiration are the group portraits in Vanity Fair (like the Young Hollywood issue), Renaissance paintings, turn of the century baseball & football team portraits and 1950’s portraits of coal miners. All of these have in common that the subjects are visually connected (i.e. even if they aren’t actually touching, from the point of view of the photographer they appear to be touching so there are no complete gaps) and there is a very natural gesture that looks both posed for the portrait, but still very relaxed. I study these different poses and interactions and commit them to memory so that on the wedding day, I can go down the line and set up an entire wedding party in just a couple of minutes.

8. Keep them on the same plane.
As I’m going down the line and posing, I’m paying a lot of attention to keep everyone standing in a pretty straight line and that no one is bowing out on the ends. Because we pose them like that, we can now shoot the wedding party at a much lower aperture than we would normally be able to. They all fall pretty much in the same plane of focus, so now we can both keep everyone in focus but have great low depth of field for the background. We usually shoot in a range of f 2.8 to f4 to cover our bases, but of course we’re usually going to pick the 2.8 to show.

9. Put them in good situations that bring out natural reactions
Because what we’re really hoping for are those great spontaneous, authentic reactions that actually feel like the wedding day, a lot of what we’re doing is putting people in good situations that lead to those natural reactions. A good example of that is when posing the bride and her girls, I’ll have her look at the girls on her left or right and have everyone else look at her. And what I’m really hoping for is that they’ll feel so silly looking at each other that they’ll bust up laughing (or just as great on the other end of the spectrum, that they’ll get very emotional from looking at their friend on her wedding day) and that’s the real moment I’m going for. And of course, in pushing for even more authenticity, before I’ll even say something to set them up at all I’m always looking for a great moment that’s unfolding without me saying a word. Like when they’re walking over to the pictures or waiting in between shots. Some of the best gestures & poses come when people aren’t even thinking about the camera.

10. Grab two of each side to shoot more lifestyle images & capture slices of life.
And the final thing that we do as we’re wrapping up the wedding party images, is to just grab two of the most cooperative bridesmaids & groomsmen to shoot more of the lifestyle images that we really like to shoot. We also use that time to pick off slices of life that show off the style & details the couple has picked for the day. So even if we have the super large wedding parties with 16 people in them, we can still make time to shoot for ourselves and get the images that we’re really going for.

As always, we hope this helped! And if you have any follow up questions or something wasn’t clear, just leave em in the comment box below!

  1. Lisa Cour

    Yes! This was wonderful…as usual! Its all practical and rings true and it helpful to have all in one spot. Thank you!

  2. Susannah

    such good advice…it never ceases to amaze me how well people respond when I’ve learned their names (which is SO hard for me)! thank you! :)

  3. Abby Grace

    This is really, REALLY helpful. Posing bridal party shots is one of my least favorite parts of the day because I always feel awkward about it. I’m definitely going to take a look at old coal miner photos- awesome idea! Your pancake posts are my absolute favorites- I always get excited when I see a new one pop up on your Twitter feed!

  4. Susan

    This is great advice Mary – thank you! What do you do when people aren’t there or ready on schedule? The last wedding I shot, I arrived on schedule but nobody was there except the bride’s parents! I took about a million photos of the cake and was very frustrated. I felt like I lost control right then for the remainder of the day.

  5. Holly

    outstanding advice, mary!! thanks!!! :D

  6. Sandra Fazzino Photography

    UBER helpful! Really appreciates this mornings pancakes! Thank you!!! XxxOoo

  7. ashley barnett

    Love this! Something I have also found really helpful is to find the most cooperative BM (sometimes a sister, sometimes the MOH) and make sure they are on your side. They probably know all the other girls more intimately than you do and can be more direct with them if the situation calls for it. I always try to stay in control, but if girls are being, well girls sometimes, its nice that she can tell them in no uncertain terms to behave and be quiet hahaha. :) Great post!

  8. Jessica

    Great advice!!! Thank you :)

  9. Jessica Frey Photography

    You guys have the most helpful blog posts! What a great breakdown of an important part of the wedding that I know I and others struggle with! Thank you!!! :)

  10. Emily Crall

    I LOVE this pancake session! Great advice. And I’m in total agreement about the jumping shots! :) Hah! Also, great advice on the groomsmen; because, let’s be honest, that happens a lot.

  11. Karen Stott

    Amazing Mary! Thank you SO much for this. After WTAW I put a lot of your tips into practice and I’ve been SO happy. The biggest changes were the ones involving wedding parties, and I now have images I’m thrilled with! So here’s a giant THANK YOU for everything… and I’m certain I have several clients who would thank you too if they knew to! love ya!

  12. Sarah Allred

    I am BRAND NEW to you guys! Thanks you Michelle (a girl named Fred) for referring me. I am already in love. In Love with your giving spirit (love tips), and your giving lives (love life stories on your blog). I am a portrait photographer, and found so many solid ideas here about posing (duh…study those old photos…genius!) – about natural posing (no gaps..funny…isn’t it trendy to have everyone spread all apart…ha!), and about how to channel my creativity through a shoot. You guys rock. BIG FAN already!

  13. Alicia Candelora

    #1 – I’d give anything to be called "Tall girl". Don’t take it for granted. ;) #2 – This is probably one of your best pancake sessions to date! :)

  14. Katie Dickson

    This is going to be so helpful for my next wedding! Thank you so much for sharing!

  15. Adrienne Suarez

    Wow, this is seriously the most helpful article on bridal parties I think I’ve ever read. Thank you so much!

  16. Lydia

    Awesome tips! Thanks for posting! :D

  17. Brooke Summer Photography

    Awesome tips, I particularly like the last one. What a good idea! :)

  18. Jenn

    wow, super super helpful! thanks, mary!

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