Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Do-It-Yourself crash course in wedding photography 

I was 7 when I had my first camera. Even then, landscapes were my first love, and they've remained so ever since. I’ll often go to great lengths to avoid getting people in shots. So what am I doing committing to photograph an event where the people are the whole raison d’etre? Although the couple are keen on the idea, and it saves a considerable sum of money, I was very reluctant to take it on. What if I foul it up? What if they’re disappointed with the result? There are no second chances.

I browsed a few websites of wedding photographers, looking at what you get for your money. Some seem to take nothing but gimmicky shots – the horizon at a different rakish angle every time; some take ‘reportage’ photography to the limits; many showed what I though were poor choices of lighting angle and obvious technical flaws. Judging by their websites, some seem only to deal with those clients whose budgets are as big as their egos, although at the other end of the scale was one whose offering looked more like a set of awkwardly posed snaps taken with a the digital equivalent of a box Brownie.

I found just one site that I liked, a photographer whose work I could honestly say I admired. He had far fewer samples than any other site I saw, but every one demonstrated an understanding of light. Moreover, his charges were surprisingly reasonable. He wasn’t available though, although he very generously answered my technical queries about the way in which he used fill-in flash.

However, even if I said yes, there was a flaw - my camera is not really up to the task. We can’t use flash in the windmill, and an ageing ‘compact’ camera just doesn’t have the necessary high-ISO performance – even ISO 200 is too noisy for anything but snapshots. So the deal is that we buy a new DSLR which my son will take with him to Zambia to replace his film SLR, and I’ll use it for the wedding.

In amongst all the thoughts – apprehension, worries, fears on the one hand, but also excitement at the opportunity - as if from nowhere, a formula dropped into my head. Five things to think about for every shot – address each one, get the balance right, and it might just work. Five isn’t too big a number, and thankfully we’ll have plenty of time so I wont have to rush. If I keep my head, I might just be able to keep all of this in mind.

1. First there’s the location, the context of the shot. Angles, background, light, shade, colour. The risk in my case, especially with such a stunning background, is that I’ll pay more attention to the background than to the subject. Or indeed that in countering that tendency I’ll swing too far the other way.

2. Then there’s the subject itself. Composition: the subject in context. The subject is the reason for the photo; in general it could be a thing, or a colour, a shape, shadow, light itself, or even a feeling – a personal response to a scene. But here of course the subject is the very ‘thing’ I usually avoid photographing – people. Somewhere in the 3 weeks I desperately need to get some practice…

3. The obvious worry is the technicalities – getting a perfectly focused, perfectly exposed image. That, at least, I can work on. Every spare moment I’m playing with the new camera – trying to find its weaknesses, exploring the new facilities it offers (subjectively lower noise at ISO 800 than my own camera at ISO 80!!), experimenting with flash (something I almost never use, but judicious use of diffused fill-in flash is a great way to bring faces to life), trying out different image parameter settings, trying out RAW processing. I want to be as familiar with it in just 3 weeks time as I am with my own camera after – what is it – 3 or 4 years.

I’ll preface the next remark by saying that the Canon EOS-450D is a very nice, very well thought out camera – but it’s not perfect. Perhaps I was expecting too much of it; it is after all ‘only’ an entry-level DSLR. However, I was quite surprised to find that the lens can’t deliver the same resolution that the sensor can, by quite a margin – in fact, it’s no match the lens on my Olympus C-8080. In fairness, its not that the Canon lens is particularly bad, it just reflects how amazingly good Olympus lenses are. And the out-of-camera jpegs are rather too saturated, too punchy for my liking. If I want to make a worthwhile upgrade from my 8080 I’ll have to aim higher than an ‘entry-level’ DSLR. An EOS40D with a lens to do it justice? A Nikon D90 when it materialises…? Such a shame that the Olympus SLRs are let down by their sensors.

4. But enough dreaming. Thing number four is the light itself. I read somewhere how landscape photography is all about waiting for the light to do something interesting. I wont have the opportunity to wait for it, but I can at least make sure I take note of what the light is doing and aim to work with it.

5. It’s the last of these five things which worries me most. The least tangible, the least manageable and perhaps the one thing that, if you get it right, can make up for failings in all of the other areas. Capturing feeling, emotion, sparkle, in pixels. Good photographers have the social skills to bring out the best responses in people, and the total familiarity with their equipment so that the technicalities remain where they should be – unobtrusively ticking away in the background. I’ll most likely be fumbling with both of those skills…

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