Of all the professionals you’ll employ on your wedding day, it’s your wedding photographer who you’ll spend the most time with. We’re hanging around from first thing in the morning often until your first dance or later, so we see everything! We won’t claim to know anything about hair, makeup, flowers, dresses, wedding bands, how to give a meaningful address during your ceremony or how to decorate your venue, but what we do know is exactly how a wedding works from start to finish, and how tiny glitches can have a huge influence on your enjoyment of your day and on the quality of your photographs.
On the wedding blogs and magazines you’ll find endless tips about planning your wedding; when to order your invitations, how long your bridesmaids’ dresses will take to be delivered, what kind of dress is perfect for your body shape. But still on wedding days we hear time and time again “oh I never thought of that!” or “I forgot about that!”. Because once all of the big plans are in place, the little things are often forgotten.
I’ve been photographing weddings for over 6 years, so I’ve seen something approaching 200 of them. And every time I see a bride stressing over something that could have been avoided I remind myself that I must write that blog post of tips, and the list in my head gets longer and longer. Finally, in the break between winter weddings ending and the busy season starting up again, I’ve got the time to do it. I’m sure that I’ll add to it in the future, because there are bound to be things I’ve forgotten!
So what makes great wedding photos? If I had to choose one thing I’d say it’s time. I don’t mean an extra-long photoshoot in the middle of the day, the idea of taking a couple away from their guests for hours on end is thankfully falling out of fashion. It’s the little bits of time that you can save throughout the day. Time to enjoy a glass of champagne in the morning, and still arrive stress-free at your ceremony. Time for a relaxed portrait session with no more time than necessary taken up by formal groups. Time to eat a canapé, chat with your friends and enjoy the reception musicians you searched so long for. So while there are some specific tips on how to help your photographer make the best possible photographic record of your day, most of the information below is focussed on giving you the time to breathe and enjoy yourself, because a relaxed wedding means great photos.
BEFORE THE WEDDING
Usually by the time a couple contacts me they have already organised their wedding location, and an experienced photographer will be able to make great photos at any venue. Most brides will have already carefully considered the following points, but I thought it was worth putting them down in writing.
- does your venue have outdoor space? Most brides are keen to have their portraits and family photos taken outside, and even if your venue doesn’t have formal gardens there can still be great photo locations. A simple small area of greenery or a path through some trees is often all we need. Also think textures; walls, columns, old barns or woodsheds. If the venue really doesn’t have anywhere suitable, then consider an alternative location for portraits or taking family photos earlier in the day outside the church.
- do you have a wet weather plan? Any photographer who has been working in Northern Ireland for a few years will have experienced every kind of weather condition, and will be confident in getting great photos no matter what. But there are always way to improve your chances of making beautiful images. Think greenhouses, covered archways, barns or even just small overhangs (most photographers won’t mind getting wet as long as you’re sheltered!). Again, if there is nothing suitable at your venue you might want to think of stopping off at an alternative location.
- great photo locations often not obvious. Your wedding coordinator will usually give you an idea of the ‘usual’ photo spots around your venue, but often the locations they suggest will not suit the style of a modern wedding photographer (dark staircases and gazebos spring to mind). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fantastic locations to take photos at your venue. Ivy covered walls in the car park, fire escapes, or the corn field next to the hotel (please get the farmer’s permission!), it’s always good to look beyond the obvious spots. The same goes for alternative locations on the way, it could be a layby with a great view, a forest car park with a huge stack of logs or a family member’s home with a rustic farmyard – take a look along the route and you might be surprised at what you find.
Couples are often confused about how to plan their timelines, and it’s one of the questions that I get asked most by my brides and grooms. The most difficult part of the day to plan is the time between the ceremony and the meal, so these are the things you will need to take into account.
- ceremony start time. No matter how punctual you are, your ceremony is very unlikely to start on time. I always recommend that brides aim to be at the ceremony around 5 minutes late, if you arrive early on bang on time then you can be sure your guests will still be arriving – there are always stragglers! Save a nervous sit in the car or a few laps around the block by planning to be ever so slightly late. But do factor it in when planning your timeline.
- ceremony length. Celebrants, priests or ministers are usually bang on with their estimates for the length of your ceremony. No worries here!
- the getaway. The most commonly overlooked part of the day for couples planning their timeline is the bit after the ceremony. For most of your guests this is the first time they’ll have had a chance to talk to you, and everyone will want to pass on their congratulations. Even if you plan a speedy getaway you should factor in around 15mins here, if you are having a receiving line outside the church then it can take as much as 45mins.
- the drive. If your wedding is in more than one location then you will need to factor in the driving time. Google maps is useful for checking timings in advance, but take it as a low estimate of the time it will really take. Often you’ll get a glass of champagne from the car driver just before you depart, and from the venue coordinator when you arrive, so add 5 mins for that. If your car is vintage, ask the car company for an estimate of how much slower they will be. On a 2hr drive across the country with lots of motorway, you might find you’re adding an extra half hour onto the journey. Finally, think traffic! This is particularly important for weekday weddings, especially those passing through busy towns and cities on a Friday lunchtime. Having a trial run can save some nasty surprises on the day.
- arrival. Your venue coordinator will often request to have a quick word with you when you arrive at the reception venue, to go through the final details and check the room layout. Include a quick toilet break or makeup touchup and this can add another 15-20mins before you’re ready to start your photos
Once you’ve added up whichever of the above points are relevant to you, do you still have 30-60mins available for your portrait session and family photos? Before sunset?
If not, don’t panic! The list above is a worst case scenario, so once you’re aware that you’re going to be tight on time there are things you can do to speed proceedings up:
- leaving immediately after the ceremony can save huge amounts of time, so consider dropping the receiving line or moving it to later in the day.
- can you / do you want to have an earlier ceremony time? Even half an hour can make all the difference to stress levels later in the day.
- have you considered a first look? This is especially popular for winter weddings with a 2 or 3pm ceremony time. Get ready a bit earlier, see each other for the first time in privacy (if you ignore me!), get your portraits and maybe even family photos out of the way before the ceremony and then you’re 100% free to enjoy the rest of your day with no stress and no interruptions for photos. And no worries about the light.
- for summer weddings, can anything be moved until after the meal? Not recommended for family photos as people will inevitably be harder to track down, but saving some portraits until sunset can be a great idea. Make sure you look up the sunset times in advance to make sure the timings work, factoring in possible speech overruns!
THE NIGHT BEFORE
The usual pattern on a wedding morning is a few hours of calm and enjoyable preparations followed by one final hour of increasing chaos. But it doesn’t need to be that way! There are a few things you can sort before the wedding day so that you have more time to enjoy the morning, they may seem obvious but I see them week after week:
- cut labels off all dresses
- remove protective covers – dresses with fine detail/beading can have plastic or tissue paper loosely sewed onto the dress, this can be very time-consuming to remove!
- deal with wrinkles: if you are worried about creases in your dress the night before the wedding, it’s best to deal with it in advance. It’s possible but unlikely they will fall out before morning. Iron the dress through a sheet or try using a hairdryer for thin or delicate fabrics.
- shoes: remove labels to save time on the wedding day. Scuff up the soles if the shoes feel slippy. Insert gel insoles or heel shields if you need them. And pack a few blister plasters just in case!
- pack your overnight bag. I can’t stress this one enough, after seeing so many flustered brides in full hair and makeup trying to gather things together at the last minute. If you’ve booked a hairdresser and makeup artist then all of your toiletries can also be packed in advance. Remember a phone charger.
- think bows and ties. If your dress has a bow, make sure your designated bow-tying bridesmaid has had a chance to practise or has been given instructions by the dressmaker. Often I end up being asked to give it a shot and bows are not my strong point! For the men, if you’re going for a fancy knot, find an instruction video on youtube, have a practice run and keep it handy for reference on the wedding day.
Being with the bridal party as they get ready in the morning is one of my favourite parts of the wedding day! Your makeup artist and hairdresser should have the timings all organised in advance, and in my experience they are great at sticking to schedule. I love to get some photos of you getting into your dress, but you should note that I have to leave a little bit earlier than you (around 20mins) so if you would also like photos of you and the girls putting those final touches to your outfits then it’s important not to let the schedule run behind at the last minute
- magic underwear. Not the most glamorous topic! But putting on any control pants or bodies under your dressing gown before you get your makeup done means you’ll be ready to get into your dress without delays.
- food. You will undoubtedly be nervous on the morning of your wedding, but eating a good breakfast means you won’t be desperate for some food just as you were scheduled to be getting into your dress. Your appetite can do funny things on a wedding day!
- gather your accessories. Keep shoes, jewellery, perfume etc together and close at hand. This is also useful if you’d like your photographer to take photos of those things.
- hair supplies: your makeup artist will probably be with you for touchups until you’re in your dress but your hairdresser will often leave a bit earlier. Having a can of hairspray and some hair pins can be useful if any stray pieces of hair make a break for it at the last minute. Make sure you ask the hairdresser to show a bridesmaid how to remove your veil without disturbing your hairstyle if you’ll need to do that later in the day.
- makeup supplies: usually you will have made arrangements with your makeup artist for a lipstick to keep with you. But often if bridesmaids have a different colour then they won’t have anything to top up with. A minor thing, but something to think about!
- music. It’s amazing how a little bit of background music can relax everyone on a wedding morning. Silence is not good for the nerves! If you decide to go for a music channel, be careful that the TV in the background isn’t going to be difficult for your photographer to crop out of the frame.
- the dreaded buttonholes! In my experience these cause more difficulties than anything else on a wedding day. If you’re not lucky enough to have an expert on hand, then it can be useful to ask the florist if they wouldn’t mind pinning them on the jackets before he/she leaves, even if the men are not planning on getting dressed for a while
As wedding photographers, we’re used to unexpected surprises on wedding days, and we can work around most things. But advance notice and a few simple tweaks can make our job easier and therefore your photos better:
- restrictions. Check in advance for restrictions on photographers and videographers. Are these fairly normal (minimise movement, don’t walk on the altar etc) or are they extreme (no photography during ceremony or banished to a balcony)? If you’re not happy with the restrictions, let me know in advance and I can arrive in the mood to charm, negotiate or simply make the best of the situation – I can’t promise anything but sometimes a quick discussion can put your minister’s mind at ease.
- floral arrangements. Take a look at your church or ceremony venue and think about where your photographer will have to stand to be able to see your faces during the vows. Were you planning to put a huge floral arrangement there? Often the obvious place for the flowers is the only place where we can get a good view. Sometimes we enjoy using obstructions to frame our photos, but in general we will thank you if you move them a little bit out of our way!
- musicians. Similar to the floral arrangements! A large group of musicians can take up all of the available space at the front of a ceremony. Consider asking them to leave some space when setting up.
- confetti. I love confetti shots, so you can imagine my frustration when I’m crouched down trying to get a great photo of a flower girl outside the ceremony and turn around to see a couple of guests throwing tiny flurries of confetti over the bride while I’m not looking! Most couples who supply confetti want to get a great shot of it, so just let me know and I can arrange for the guests to throw it all together, this is fairly simple to organise and gives much better results.
The arrangements for your portrait session will vary depending on your personal preference, but family photos usually follow the same pattern. This can be the most boring part of the day for you, but for most people it’s also one of the most important! So it’s good to make it as painless as possible.
- make a list. I normally recommend keeping formal photos to bridal party and immediate family only, so parents, siblings (plus kids and partners) and grandparents. When I estimate 20mins these are the groups I’m factoring in. If you would like extra photos of friends or extended family then definitely let your photographer know in advance, for large extended family groups the photo time can increase dramatically. It just takes one aunt to go missing! It can also be helpful to consult with your parents about this before the wedding, some assume that there will be a long list of family combinations so if you don’t want this you will need to warn them in advance. The “just one more group” session can be hard to stop unless everyone is on the same page.
- warn the families. I don’t like to stereotype, but it’s usually a brother who goes missing. He thinks he’s not particularly important, since he’s not in the bridal party, so he heads off to check into his room or stops off somewhere on the way. It’s good to warn anyone in your family groups in advance of when they will be needed, this will depend on your individual wedding but the time can usually be roughly confirmed with your photographer in advance. Make sure your brothers know how important they are!
After the formal photos the rest of my day is mainly spent taking documentary style photos, the day flows on without my intervention and I capture all of the fun as it happens. So there are just a few more small tips to share
- floral arrangements. Yep, again! This time on the top table. Large table centres can look beautiful, but they can really block the photographer’s view of the bride and groom during speeches. Consider low arrangements or taking them off the table before the speeches start.
- speaker position. Often speakers will walk away from the top table to do their speech. Although this may be necessary for some speakers (eg at a round table where the father of the bride would have his back to the guests), it does make for better photos if the groom is beside the bride when he’s doing his speech, and likewise that the best man is close to the groom. As a photographer we love to get those interactions
- special events. If you’re planning to sing happy birthday to a guest, open the floor to speeches or having surprise entertainment like a singer waiter, let us know! This is especially important for videographers who need to think about recording sound.
- timings. Having the speeches before or after the meal won’t have any influence on the quality of the photos, but it is something that I get asked for advice on quite regularly. If I had to choose, I’d say that before the meal is best because then the speakers can relax while eating dinner, and it usually helps to avoid speeches running late and delaying the band from setting up.
- the lull. There is always a bit of a gap between the end of the meal and the first dance, but it’s good to avoid a very long lull. Ask your venue if there’s any way the band can set up in advance behind a screen or curtain, or if there’s a table setup which minimises the number of tables that need to be moved in the turnaround. If you think there will be a big gap, a photobooth (or DIY polaroid station) can be a good way to occupy your guests and keep the party atmosphere going.
So that was it, the sum total of my wedding wisdom so far! I’m sure I’ll be adding even more throughout the wedding season. To my couples, I’m always here for you if you need advice on planning, suppliers or any other aspect of your day, a quick email can ease many concerns. If you can take a few useful tips from this article then I know you’ll have an amazing relaxed wedding day, and you’ll get some awesome photos to show for it.
Enjoy the planning!