Wedding photography is high stakes. Marriages take the centerpiece in the family's tapestry. The resulting photos are an important part in maintaining that memory. And the true impact of those photos aren't realized until many years later. So it is important for the photographer to get it right.
One way photographers get experience is by assistant professionals. I have never had that chance. So among other photography topics, I have been sure to read up on wedding photography. That and making friends with people who are going to get married soon.
In April, my colleague Victoria had her wedding. I am known as a photographer at work. I always bring my camera to company events and training courses. The resulting photos are appreciated by all. So when I told her that I was going to bring my camera to her wedding she was overjoyed.
I wish I was told the itinerary. This would have allowed me to know where best to stand and to ready myself for what was about to happen. But without that knowledge, it just meant that I had to pay close attention to what was happening around me.
This wedding was my second Vietnamese wedding. What I quickly noticed was how similar Vietnamese weddings are to Chinese weddings. The one major exception is the lack of cigarettes. The Chinese make sure that each table is set with two packs of double happiness cigarettes. And just like a Chinese wedding, it is customary to deposit an envelope full of money in a box by the door as you enter the wedding. Chinese weddings are different in that a close family member acts as the event accountant in view of everyone. Oh, and there is a tray of cigarettes on the table in front of the box.
The event is not a religious ceremony. The weddings is actually more reception than wedding. There is a stage where the families meets. There are exchanges. There is a speech. People eat for a couple of hours. The newlywed couple visits each table of guests so that the guests can toast with them. At a Chinese wedding, sorghum liquor is drunk instead of beer. A groom's man follows the couple around the tables to refill the groom's thimble-sized glass of the oily liquor. Sometimes it is replaced with water if the number of tables to toast prove too daunting for the groom's liver.
As an amateur photographer, handling myself at this event is helped by the fact that the bride is my friend. I have to manage a careful balance between getting close and giving the family space. But because I know the bride, I cam more easily assume that my presence is welcomed. Even though I know the bride, it is equally important for me to get close to her mother. She is the boss at the wedding and I was quick to break the ice with her. Second in the hierarchy is the mother of the groom. I kept my eye on both of them and paid attention to who they mingled with and was always ready to move where either of them told me to.
The bride is naturally thinking about herself, her connection with her new husband, and her friends there to support her. The groom is thinking similarly. Both have never done anything like this before and are nervous. The mothers want everything to go perfectly. I bet they find themselves remembering their own weddings and so are doing everything in their power to add perfected touches to this wedding just as their mothers did for them. Now older and wiser, they see this wedding less as a whirlwind and more of a chance to enjoy the celebration.
Here are a few of my favorite photos of the bride and the groom having a moment with their friends:
I was not told how the wedding event would proceed. I only suggested to the bride, in the weeks before the wedding, that I would bring my camera. She was excited about that as she remembered the images I took from another colleague's wedding. But she didn't want to think much about what my role would be. She had no expectations.
As it turned out, I showed up on time. This meant that I was about 30 minutes early. Xenia and I waited alone in the banquet hall as the bride and groom, along with their parents, waited at the doorway to greet the incoming guests. I had time to look over the large banquet room that had a catwalk running down the middle. I could observe the lighting and take a few shots of the table settings.
I saw how the light from the glass doorway bathed the foyer with soft light. I took a few test shots.
I realized that I needed to get shots of Victoria greeting her guests. The ceiling to floor glass door created a challenge though. If I didn't meter right, I would have a bunch of blown out images or a bunch of silhouettes. Soon after the guests entered and shook hands with the wedding party, they walked to the table where they deposited the "lucky money." Then they walking into the banquet hall. I had to position myself so I could swivel with the movement without being in the way at all.
There were a lot of beautiful moments between Victoria and her friends. I couldn't get every shot I wanted. But I knew I was in the best position to get the shots. Another challenge was getting clean shots. I struggled to get angles that excluded people from the background. This would continue to be problem when I shot from the action happening on the stage.
Not knowing how the staged events were to unfold made it hard for me to get ready for the shots. I had no idea that the bride would enter the stage from a couch lowered from the ceiling or that the groom would walk down the catwalk with a flowered bouquet in his hands. Luckily I was seated near the middle of the room next to the catwalk so that I could capture the action.
I absolutely love shooting on my Canon 17mm-55mm f/2.8. It is a very reliable lens in low light and varied light situations. On a cropped sensor like the Canon 7d it acts almost like the very popular 24mm-70mm. I was seeing some great things and I felt that I was in position to get great shots. But without a zoom lens, I could not really show much drama in these shots. And wielding a large camera at a dinner table annoyed some of the guests. Xenia thought it would be better if I just put the camera down.
Not knowing what else was involved in the wedding, I agreed and fixed the lens cap on my camera. Shortly after that, the couple moved to the right side of the stage and began cutting a large wedding cake. If could barely hold myself back on Xenia's request, I now let myself completely go. I took my camera and walked along the wall so I could get closer to the stage.
Shortly after cutting the cake, they walked over to the other side of the stage to pour champagne in glasses that poured over into other glasses in a beautiful fountain display. From the shadows on the opposite side of the stage I got a couple beautiful shots.
The self-conscious part of me told me that this was enough. I got the shot. They looked amazing and the light was beautiful. I knew the images would be sharp. Now I should go back and sit down. But there was another voice wondering, just wondering, how it would look if I positioned myself at the base of the glass display.
So I hopped over the catwalk dividing the room and crept under the beam of light like a commando. I simply had to not care what others might think. Some might find it a bit presumptuous of me, taking the role of a professional photographer, when in fact I was just a guest. I might have felt the same way if there was a professional photographer present. I had to realize that most people didn't care. But even more importantly, I knew I could nail the shot and that Victoria would love it.
My boldness paid off. The shots were perfect. Next the families and the couple had a ceremonial toast. I was in position to capture this up close.
Photographing is an amazing experience where I am constantly positioning myself to catch the shot. Sometimes a moment is unfolding and I just have to sit still to capture it as it develops. Other times I have to act fast as the moment is passing. I would be lying if i said that I rarely missed a shot. I think an interesting question to ask a photographer is to ask them to talk about the situations they have experienced where they missed the shot. Photography has got to be about the experience as well as the resulting image. As awful as missing a shot might feel, photography is a tool we use to help see better.
In some cases, I would never be invited into some spaces if not for my camera. My involvement just wouldn't make sense. As a classroom teacher, I like having a high level of control in most situations. I am never satisfied being a passive observer or following someone plodding through something. Sitting at a table watching a Vietnamese MC talk through a wedding reception ceremony doesn't sound very interesting to me. I like to have a role which gives me wider reign, mobility, and breaking the rules of conventional interpersonal interaction.
Probably the most fun part of the event to shoot was immediately following the stage activities. The wedding party toured around the banquet hall, toasting each table. Tiger beer was the drink of choice. With a cylinder of ice placed in the mug, the glasses were not exactly full of beer. I positioned myself opposite of the bride to make sure that she was in each of the shots. At about the halfway point, Victoria told me that I could rest and go back to my table. I took that to mean that she was annoyed by me and didn't want to be photographed anymore. I obliged and headed back to my seat. Yet, I looked over my shoulder and found the groom's mother. Although we could not communicate with words, I could see that she was puzzled as to where I was going. She motioned me to come over to her to take more pictures.
When Vietnamese have a toast they count to three and shout, "Yo," in unison. As Victoria and her husband made their rounds, the guests enthusiastically lifted their glasses. Sometimes they exchanged a few words with the bride. This gave me a few more chances to take candid shots.
Occasionally, someone eagerly put a glass in my hand. I would cheers, quickly drink it and get right back to shooting. The pace was intense but I had found a rhythm. Before stopping, I made sure that I arranged a group shot with all of the key family members. Others at my table made sure that there was some good pickings left for me. We all chatted as the party was now in full swing. Sophia peeled the prawns for everyone as we all drank more beer.
When it became time to leave, Victoria saw off her guests at the door. This time relieved, tired, and with joyful laughter in her voice. As i approached the door, I was caught off guard as Victoria's father gave me a big hug. With no words between us, due to the language barrier, I knew what he wanted to let me know.
Photographing this wedding was a real joy. The big three lessons were:
- I cannot control the people in the background ruining shots but I have to try to position myself or time the shots to avoid them.
- Don't be afraid to get close.
- The shots on the stage were so good because of the lighting. Off camera lighting has got to take a greater role in my photography in the future.