By Tanya Malott
As a wedding photographer preparing for the role of bride, you can bet my first priority wasn’t the music, though I’d have given anything for a budget that would have allowed the Gypsy Kings to play. Nine years ago, without the help of a cell phone or the Internet, I planned a wedding for 150 guests at a Medieval castle overlooking Florence, all by fax and phone. At that time, I lived in New York, and spoke little Italian but good Spanish. But I had photographed 40 weddings that year.
Italy made perfect sense. My then fiancé, who is British, lived and worked in Milan. His friends, who outnumbered mine, lived mainly in Europe.. My career as a traveling wedding photographer based in NY had grown almost exponentially from 1991 and planning a wedding in New York would have felt more like a job than a celebration. A wedding planned by my mother back home in San Francisco seemed absurd, since I now considered myself the expert. Because we are a family of travelers I knew I would have no problem getting everyone to Italy.
I have seen more weddings in a dozen years than most people will see in a lifetime. What makes my perspective special is that I see the story from the point of view of the bride and the guests.
Pictures tell stories and inspire memories. The truth is, some wedding stories are easier to tell than others. As a bride and a photographer, I naturally began with the end in mind. I spend my life creating the images that people hope to cherish for a lifetime-and for a couple of generations to come. My own wedding would be no exception, even if I could not be the photographer this time.
LOCATION AND LIGHT
The keys to a photogenic wedding in any place, at any budget, are these: location and light. I began my planning process with the end result - great photographs – in mind. While there are many things to consider while planning a wedding – location, time of year, formality, size, budget, potential hurt feelings, school schedules and a dozen other things both personal and universal – in the end the only tangible things the bridal couple have left are the photographs.
Of course, I wanted the best photographs ever, but I didn’t want to leave decisions up to someone whose work I didn’t know. So I hired my assistants. But the greatest photographer in the world still needs more than just a camera and film to make memorable images. As the bride, I considered it my job to create the most optimum shooting conditions possible.
Choosing the right setting is key to the look of the photographs. After we see the subject of a photo, we see the background, which can make of break the photos. No one plans a wedding at the dump, after all. I chose Italy. The Hamptons make an equally beautiful backdrop. A medieval castle high above Florence put me way over the top in terms of great settings, but I still could have blown it.
More than any other factor, great light makes great photographs. Photography literally means to write with light. With no light, we have no photos. Natural sunlight is always best. You will see more background information and depth in the photos. Manmade light is second best but often more predictable. I have photographed incredible weddings around the globe, and I am still surprised the way some brides plan (or don’t plan) them. It just doesn’t make sense to me to go all the way to Italy for a wedding and not be able to “see Italy” in the photographs.
Americans, more than Europeans, plan formal weddings in the evening and often by the time the bride walks down the aisle the sun is already setting. She may have planned cocktails at sunset, but few brides are on time. Factoring in an extra half hour for a late bride or hair disaster makes sense.
For the most beautiful photographs of an outdoor or partially outdoor celebration, cocktails should wind down as the sun disappears. Sunset means different things in different parts of the world. Sunset in the Caribbean and Florida happens around 6pm all year long, and it happens fast. Once it is gone, everything is black. A late bride can ruin her own group photos.
A June sunset on the East End of Long Island can happen after 9pm, and the light just lingers low for hours, allowing endless possibilities for romantic photographs. Know when the sun will set on the day of your wedding, and, if possible, ask the photographer to use as much natural light as possible. Those guests who bring their own cameras will also get better photographs, thereby reducing the number of lost shots for you due to flash malfunction or other technical errors.
We chose a September wedding for many reasons, mainly because of Stuart’s upcoming job transfer to Moscow, but September is one of the most popular wedding months for good reason: It has great light and great temperatures in most parts of the world. The late (8pm) September sunset in Florence would work perfectly for my photograph-obsessed mind.
Group photos, depending on the size, need pretty decent light, not the fading afterglow of sunset (which is great for shots of the bride and groom alone), and not the harsh and squint-inducing light of midday either. As a photographer, I often find the best time to take group photos is just as the guests head to dinner. The wedding party knows where they will sit, and the guests will spend 15-20 minutes figuring that out.
Imagine my disappointment when I awoke that Saturday to a very cloudy sky. We had a 5pm ceremony in an open courtyard under a gray sky, which was all right since the photos for this part of the celebration were to be primarily black and white. We all get our gifts on our wedding day. My most appreciated gift was the most beautiful Tuscan sunlight you can imagine breaking through the cloud cover as the sun set that evening. I had timed things well, and the sun came through after all.
For the posed photos, I knew we had only a few minutes of incredible light so we worked quickly. I set up the photos using chairs and props to get people’s heads and bodies at different heights and avoid a stiff looking lineup. When the key players stay close, group portraits can end in a few short minutes. One missing person can make the day interminable, though.
By the time cocktail hour ends, over half of the great wedding photos are usually finished. We ate by candlelight and danced under the open sky and colored spotlights on the lower courtyard patio. Low light and bright spotlights are difficult lighting conditions. Make sure you hire a photographer who can show you examples of work in lighting conditions similar to what you expect.
The more light you can create, whether using Chinese paper lanterns, tiny white tree lights, endless votives, or spotlights, the better images your photographer can make. Be sure to ask your caterer to have everything lit early enough for your photographer to cover the room before guests arrive. Think of lighting a wedding the way a decorator lights a room. Instead of using one big overhead light, think about ways to create special areas of light and spotlight important things like the tables, trees or potted plants, the cake, parts of the tent, and the dance floor. There are so many ways to add light while keeping the feeling romantic.
Above all, wedding photographs should be among the priorities in planning a wedding. I like to think I have helped more than one bride end up with the photographs they wanted because they considered them carefully rather than as an afterthought.