Saturday, 21 February 2015

Wedding Photography Blues

My family and I recently went to a wedding reception for my wife's cousin wife. I have found recently that I have reached the stage in life where I am more likely to go to a funeral than a wedding,  so it was a nice change, and of course it goes without saying that weddings are a lot more fun to take photos of.

As someone who enjoys most types of photography, weddings raise a bit of a dilemma. Obviously you want to take your camera, but you also don't want to get in the way of the official photographer and be a pain to the bride and groom.

Most importantly I don't want to make the official photographers job any harder than it already is. I always have a lot of respect and sympathy for professionals doing difficult jobs like this and I am sure they find amateurs like me, even ones that are invited guests a right pain. The last thing I want is for me to make their job any harder than it already is. Anyway it is always instructive to watch the photographers at work.

So I try and compromise and take photo's of areas the official photographer tend to miss. I remember from my own wedding (even though it was many years ago), how much you miss of what is going on. I try and take photos in situations the professional is not going to see such as activities of the guests and give them to the happy couple as a thank you. At the same time of course it gives you a chance to practice your hobby.

In terms of good photo opportunities this wedding was a cracker. The bride was Tunisian/French, the groom English and to cap it off one of the relatives was a top notch bagpipe player. So we had a unique mix of Arabic/French/English disco, the hokey cokey, and the gay Gordons on the bag pipes. To cap it off, we also had belly dancing. If you can't get at least one good photo out of that, give up now!

However taking photos at night in a disco was always going to be challenging photographically speaking. In fact it is difficult to think of more difficult lighting conditions. plus we had a situation  with lots of movement (i.e dancing), a hand held camera with limited angles. You soon start to see why wedding photographers get paid so much, or why they carry the kit they do.

So how do we get some decent photos in conditions like this? Well we have a number of options

1. Use a Flash
2. Use the fastest lens possible and keep the aperture wide open
3. Crank the ISO up
4. Embrace the moment

1. Flash

Let me say first off that I don't like to use flashes. One of the reason I bought a DSLR's was because of its ability to take better images in the poor light and to reduce the number of times I had to resort to flash. I dislike the way flashes flatten the scene(darkening the background). I also find they can be very obtrusive when used at public events.

I do have a quite a powerful all singing/dancing flash which allows me to do things like bounce the light off the ceiling, but due Sony's unique hot-shoe design, I can only use it in manual mode which makes life even more challenging. After a while you realize that using such a flash is as much an art form as using the camera .While this may be possible in a studio, where you control, lighting,etc; at a live event with people moving around all the time it is a hit and miss affair

 Of course there is always the camera's own flash, but this is less powerful cannot be tilted to do things like bounce it off the ceiling.

I must admit using flash is probably something I should learn more about.

One of the things I recently find out was that when you use a flash in a dark room, the shutter speed makes little difference, since the period of the flash defines the exposure time. Then there is the flash sync time, which is basically the shortest shutter speed that you can use your flash with. Any faster and the sensor is not fully exposed and part of your image will be obscured by the shutter. Then there is front and rear curtain sync, which are too complex to go into here, but can make a difference if you want to capture objects moving across the plane of the lens with the flash.

2. Use the fastest lens possible and keep the aperture wide open

I took the my fastest lens I have with me which is my  F2.0 50mm prime. But even with this cranked to its maximum aperture, I my shutter speed was still between 1/10 and 1/30 a second, which was really too slow for hand held (Even with the camera at maximum ISO). Not only that, but it meant the I got a very narrow depth of field meaning you had a only a few people in focus,.

3. Crank the ISO up

As I said in point 2, even with the ISO pushed to my camera's maximum(ISO 3200), I found that I was only getting a shutter speed of 1/10 sec.

Increasing the ISO seems like a get out of free card, but it has its issues. The main one being that the higher the ISO goes, the more noise you will get. Generally at 3200 ISO with my camera, the photos are very noisy and I try not to use it above ISO 400 if I can help it. However sometimes it cannot be helped (top tip, never let your camera choose the ISO for you). While other cameras have a bigger usable ISO range, at some point all will hit this problem.

Saying that, this is one of those situations when I wished I had a Sony A7S and I am surprised more wedding photographers don't have one for these sort of events. It also emphasizes the point that camera manufacturers should really concentrate more on overall noise reduction and light sensitivity rather than stuffing in more pixels onto a sensor

One way around the noise issue is to process them via photo manipulation packages such as Lightroom. These have noise reduction features in their RAW conversions. I tend to use ZonePhoto and generally have ignored these settings, since I try to use the low ISO settings when possible where noise is not a great issue. (Noise processing can also greatly extend your RAW processing times)

However in this case I used the feature quite  aggressively and I was quite impressed with the improvements.  OK, it did not produce exhibition quality photos since they did introduce some softening in the image, but they made a very noisy mess into something far more acceptable

4. Embrace the moment.

OK. So the rooms dark, with flashing lights, your lens is too slow and cranking the ISO produces an image that looks like it has been sprinkled with 100's and 1000's and you don't want to use the flash

 So what do you do about it?

Well once answer is become more creative about the shots you take.

With the movement of a disco, by using the slow shutter speed we can blur the subjects and capture some of the energy and motion at the event. I also tried my wide angle zoom at its widest setting  (10 mm) to take the entire room in, which worked quite well.

It is in these sort of situations where your skills and experience can come to the fore in making the best of a difficult situation. OK, they will not always work, but sometimes you get some interesting shots

In these situations you take the light where you can get it

In moderation the in built flash works well. No way could I got this shot otherwise

I try and look for angles that the professionals won't try. Like adding context by including other guests

The belly dancer (I think it wsa the brides sister) was excellent, but without using flash there was no way to get a good picture of her. But the slower shutter speed shows the dynamism of the dance 

Again slow shutter speed adds a surreal quality

I wasn't sure how a wide angle would work, but actually I quite liked the effect

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