Starting Off in the Wedding Business- Equipment and Ethical Issues.
This article is for the newbies, rookies, aspiring professionals and folks who are planning to set up a wedding photography business. This segment deals with general equipment issues; planning and purchasing your gear. It is important to have the right tools for the job in terms of proper usage, reliability and versatility. The equipment you have may be suitable for wedding work or you might need to upgrade some of it. At the same time you don’t want to become preoccupied with ultra-expensive equipment and become what is affectionately known in the biz as a “gear-head”! That is, someone who believes, to a fault, that fine results are strictly the product of outrageously expensive gear. We all want the best equipment that we can afford but your skill sets, knowledge, performance and people skills are your most important assets and “equipment”! It is also of the utmost importance to have SPARE equipment because even the best state-of-the-art equipment can fail at the most inopportune times and substitute gear must always be close at hand. This goes for cameras, lenses, lighting gear, connecting cords, batteries and anything that can malfunction, become damaged, burn out or somehow come to its unceremonious and untimely demise during a gig! Most of the higher end consumer and/or professional grade cameras will do the job. If you now have a pretty decent crop DSLR and want to upgrade to a full frame sensor model, it is wise to keep your original cameras as a spare.
Brand names and money: Most of the popular brand names and equipment types that are currently on the market are certainly applicable to different aspects of wedding photography. It is wise to invest in good “workhorse” equipment that has become industry standards by way of their performance durability, reliability and reputation among experienced professionals. Camera models with a giant menus of automated features will cost more money.Frankly speaking, many of theses features are unnecessary in professional use and can even be detrimental to smooth operation if the wrong button is accidently pushed during the throws of an active wedding coverage and something locks up or the camera “take over the controls and begins to “fly” in another direction. By the time the error can be undone; many important must-have photo-ops can be lost. Too many features can also create more possibilities for equipment breakdown and failures.
Lighting equipment types and usages: When starting a new photography business it is important to plan your equipment acquisitions very carefully as to usage and economy.
Mono-Lights: There are lighting equipment setups that are designed and configured for studio-like formal portraiture that can be use in-studio or set up at wedding venue locations to enable high quality portraiture and candid shots that are lighted “like in the movies”. Mono-lights equipped with appropriate light modifiers are the best choices for this portable studio concept. Most of theses lights are AC operated and therefore require access to electrical outlets- there are some that can operate on battery pack adaptations but theses are usually significantly more expensive. The big advantage of mono-lights is their built in modeling lights that enables the photographer to observe his or her lighting patterns and effects. Brands such as Photogenic, Alien-Bees, Speedotron and many others will do the job well. As I alluded to before; it is best to purchase known “work horse” gear that has earned reputations for high performance among established photographers. There are some imported units that just can not withstand the rigors of professional usage such as extended duty cycles, constant transporting to and from locations and hurried set up and takedowns. Some very low cost units have been know to literately “go out with a bang” in that the can explode due to poor quality capacitors and circuitry and even set fire to light modifiers due to poor heat convention and ventilation.
Speedlights: Nowadays, theses are probably the most popular types of electronic flash systems in use by wedding photographers. They are light weight, very portable and in some cases very sophisticated in their automation, transmission of exposure data and remote triggering. . Theses are good for candid and photojournalistic styles of wedding coverage and can be used for some formal portraiture if you are able to “guestimate” their lighting patterns and effects in that most of theses models have no modeling lights. The can be used in conjunction with light modifiers but the same experience and guess work is involved. A typical automated system may consist of a hot shoew mounted unit (or a so called command unit that is dedicated to certain brands of flash/camera combinations) and any number of remote units that can be controlled from the camera position. My strictly personal feelings about theses systems is that the are not all that powerful, are very expensive and can possibly cause problems of “subject failure” a failing of the automatic systems when used in very large or dark venues. I prefer the units that I am going to discuss in the next category. Again- you savvy in using theses units will; determine the results- I have seen some great imagery where this kind of gear has been utilized.
Professional grade portable flash units: Some photographers may consider theses “old school” but there are a number of great manufacturers who are still regularly producing them. Theses manufacturers are Quantum (Q-Flash), Lumadyne, and Norman. Theses are basically manual units- some have a simple auto-flash (thyristor controlled) features. They all basically consist of a lamp head with interchangeable reflectors that also enables bare bulb use and shoulder or belt carried power supply. Theses have a wide range of power selections up to and including as much as 400 or more watt/seconds. Some of the lamp heads are available with modeling lamps. Depending on the make and model you choose; there are options such as ad-on power modules for more light, a variety if normal, wide angle and telephoto reflectors and variation of battery capacity for shorter and longer duty cycles. Theses units can be more easily adapted for studio-like results because of their high power and modeling light options. The light quality from the “softer” round parabolic reflectors is better than some of the more concentrated configurations found in most speedlights.
WHAT AND HOW TO BUY: The key to wise and economical purchasing of lighting gear for upstart businesses is OVERLAP! That is, putting together a multi-purpose system that can address your various requirements with the least amount of expenditure for the most versatility. As an example: If you were to purchase 3 mono-lights to address you formal and group portraiture needs. Those same three lights can be employed in a “surround” lighting setup at an indoor or outdoor reception. In the case of an outdoor reception held at a home, club or catering establishment; you would have to use some long extension cords to power your lights. Usually there is some party lighting and power requirements for the band or a DJ to operate their equipment as well- there should be some nearby outlets in place. If you are at a beach or some more remote location, you will have to depend on battery powered lights. Three of the professional grade portables can enable a nice surround light system for theses kinds of venues. They work well as fill flash units for daylight applications as well.
If you decide on one of the more automated speedlight configurations a 3 or 4 unit systems can supply a good multiple light surround system as well as a decent enough group and portrait set up as long as you have a good working knowledge of lighting placement without modeling lights. One good mono-light in a soft-box in conjunction with a flat silver reflector can yield some very impressive bridal portraiture- again; this all depends on your knowledge and efficiency in portrait lighting. This mono-light can also be employed as a main light, especially effective for groups, while using the on the camera flash in direct or bare bulb mode as your fill light source. My minimum system is one on camera flash unit and one remote unit manned by an assistant and triggered by radio synchronization systems.
Safety Considerations: You always need to make sure that in the even of equipment failure of any component in your lighting is backed up with spare gear, at least enough to finish the job with at least 2 working lights. Many experienced photographers can cover an entire wedding with two speedlights or shoulder pack units- one on the camera and the other on a monopod manned by an assistant. This can yield great lighting in a very simple way. No matter what- you should never be left with anything less that this simple 2 lighting system. Even if one unit fails, you can still come away with a decent job.
Another safety consideration is that of an electrical nature. Even the smallest of speedlights can harbor very physically damaging or even lethal voltages under high degrees of capacitance. Except for specialized underwater strobes, none of the aforementioned equipment is meant of use in rainy or very wet weather conditions. If you get caught in some drizzle after a church ceremony; some plastic bags will offer some protection but it is best to shut down and shelter (ASAP) any flash gear that it set up out-of-doors if unexpected wet conditions should emerge. At indoor venues you need to be sure that all light stands are place out of high trafficked areas and are well anchored.
Used Equipment: There as a lot of great deals out there on used gear but there is always somewhat of a gamble in purchasing it. It can be like buying a used car- you may be unsuspectedly inheriting the originals owner’s woes. Here are the pitfalls to watch out for: Electronic flash units do not take well to really rough handling so you must watch out for dents, gouges, broken down insulation on cords and cables, blackened or burned out sockets or connectors, loose switches and obvious signs of equipment abuse. On the other hand, some well used equipment may be slightly “ugly” but perfectly functional. Even if the equipment is cosmetically perfect and looks like new there can be the issue of deformed capacitors. Flash equipment that has remained dormant and totally unused for long periods of time can suffer from this problem. In many better units, the capacitors can be easily reformed by simply turning the unit on and allowing it to charge up WITHOUT FLASHING for about an hour and them beginning to trigger it repeatedly but at the same rates you would use it at in actual use. If there are normal recycling times, no crackling or gunshot-like noises, burning smells or smoke- you are most likely good to go. If the capacitors are deformed, unfortunately enough, replacement and repair costs will be high and hardly worth the investment in used gear. The next thing to examine is the flash tubes. Look at the area where the electrodes enter the coiled tube; if those parts are very gray or blackened, although the tubes may still flash, the will need replacement. Old tubes in this condition are carbonized and will lead to poor and uncorrectable color balance and erratic or intermittent firing. Again, replacement may be costly.
Some words to the wise: Of course, there are many more techniques involved in cotemporary wedding photography. Flash lighting is only one of the important techniques and methodologies that warrant study, practice, ongoing creative experimentation and discussion. In this post we have not discussed in detail the mixture of available light and flash, other forms of artificial light and flash combinations or the use of existing or carefully controlled available light, additive or subtractive lighting methods and other more advanced flash techniques such as bounce lighting, on camera modifiers, bare bulb usage, specific ways of using umbrellas, colored gels and a whole lot more. We have not even touched on the physics of light such as reflectivity and angle of incidence and how our lighting integrates with other principles such as depth of field, depth of lighting, lighting ratio, the inverse square law and even the principles of posing and composition. I hope to create such tutorials on an ongoing basis. Your suggestions, ideas and augmentations are welcome, invited as well as questions that y’all want to discuss.
The FUN factor: I appreciate the fact that some of you are young, up beat and enthusiastic about starting a career in wedding photography- those attributes are all important and your good attitude will show up in the expressions of your subjects in your work. Please do not take this as an insult, a disparaging or discouraging remark or anything of the kind. Take it from a long experienced wedding photographer: At your stage of experience please do not think that wedding photography is any kind of FUN! It is very serious business and for the inexperienced or uninitiated upstart it can be pure HELL! Yes! You must have good gear but that is only a small percentage of the issues at hand. In many cases the use of very elaborate lighting setups can actually be detrimental because the more lights and the more gadgetry, the more can go wrong. Mistaken positioning of a surround lighting setup effort at a party can lead to lens flare and accidently including your light gear in your field of view. Radio and data transferring gear in triggering systems can harbor all kinds of gremlins and should be fully tested and familiarized with before you take them out on the job.
I have to admit that I still enjoy my wedding work even after more than 5 decades in the business but I always go to the job knowing that I am not there to have fun, dance, drink or mingle- I am the hired professional and no matter what happens, I have to deliver the goods. My fun starts on the way home from the assignments knowing that I have a good job under my belt. My fun continues when I present an awesome set off images and secure an awesome additional order and plenty of customer referrals. I mention this because I hear so many new photographers say that “wedding photography is gonna be so fun”! Well- it ain’t necessarily so! It takes infinite patience, dedication, nimble and faultless technique and a keen sense of responsibility. It is a discipline! It is wise to get the education, training, mentorship and experience and not start running before you can walk in terms of know-how! Without theses prerequisites you are dealing with Murphy’s Law, The Sword of Damocles and the Grim Reaper (the business-death one) all at the same time. Are we having fun yet? Good things are worth working hard for and with experience the good times will come.
I want the best for you and all the new kids on the block who may be reading on!