For my first photo walk of WPPI 2019, I invited attendees to follow me to a suite in the Delano hotel. Numbering 20+ people, we crammed into every possible space we could find in the living room of the suite and I got to work demonstrating how to “Master your Ugly Environment”. It wasn’t pretty, but that was the point. As soon as we entered the room, I asked everyone to put their gear and personal possessions everywhere.
Wedding prep is rarely picture perfect. Empty cups, makeup, food, and trash are common objects you’ll find during the early part of bridal preparation, and it’s our job as photographers to tell our client’s wedding day story. Our goals during this time are to mitigate distraction and ensure our subjects are the most recognizable part of the image no matter what is going on in the photo. A few things help us achieve these goals but are not limited to proper lens selection, obscuring the view of distractions with creative composition, and lighting our subjects with intention.
Photographers often fall into the trap of thinking they need a wider lens for smaller rooms, but you’ll only succeed in showing more of a cluttered space along along with more of the floor and ceiling. Who wants to see more of an ugly room? When choosing a lens for this part of the day, I lean heavily on the 35mm focal length. It’s wide enough to show some of the room for environmental context, and typically it doesn’t distort our subjects unless we are very close and placing their extremities in the edges of the frame. 35mm invokes a sense of intimacy with a subject and invites them to be a participant in their memory rather than an observer. I enjoy involving the camera with the scene and waiting for great moments to occur, such as laughter between the bride and a bridesmaid, or a stray tear when a bride and her mother share a sweet moment putting the dress on.
In a crowded and busy room like the one we were simulating for this class, you have to explore every possible angle. Is the table next to the bride full of clutter? Take a knee or even lay on the floor to use the underside of the table as a framing element. Use the shape of the table to make leading lines guiding your eye to the subject.
This lower vantage point can even help you crop out people in the background while you use the body of your subject to block the camera’s view of stray photo bombers. Is the room full of people and reaching your intended subject is proving difficult? Use mirrors, doorways, and even people as creative foreground framing elements. You can easily obscure from view the busy areas of a room while focusing on your subject.
Layering your compositions this way will give visual hierarchy to the elements in your image. An out of focus member of the wedding party will give way to an in focus bride, the star of your photo.
Often we are at the mercy of where subjects are sitting in relation to the dominant light source in the room, either a large window or a nearby light fixture. If we’re lucky, the bride is facing this light source and you’ve got soft beautiful light with nice gradual shadows, but this isn’t always feasible and we have to take control of poor lighting situations.
A single speedlight can often be the tool you need in a small space. Underexpose your ambient light half a stop to a stop so the effect of your flash becomes apparent on your subject. A good way to achieve this is to shoot near your max sync speed (usually about 1/200th of a second depending on your camera) and a lower ISO (around 100 to 400). You’ll adjust your aperture to get a slightly darker scene and then you can introduce your flash and adjust its power accordingly.
I love using the RapidMount PowrGrip to suction mount my speedlight to a non-porous surface such as a mirror or a marble backsplash. I fully trust the PowrGrip to support the weight of my flash and I can position the flash in situations where I otherwise couldn’t fit a light stand.
These are just a few tips to help manage a seemingly out of control room while harnessing proper lens selection, creative composition, and a touch of off-camera flash to make impactful memories for your clients. Thank you to Tether Tools for sponsoring my class and making products that help me succeed in my goals!
Justin is a wedding photographer from Tucson, Arizona.