Wedding photography is a highly competitive field and the daily bread for thousands of professional photographers from all over the world. If you want to succeed in this genre, you better come prepared.
Knowing the right camera settings for wedding photography can make the difference between a successful assignment and a missed opportunity, especially as a beginner.
In today’s guide, let’s explore the unique technical needs and requirements of wedding photography. We’ll go over everything you need to know to churn out successful shots, and we’ll throw in some general wedding photography tips too, for good measure!
Manual Settings – The Big Appeal
Reading about recommended camera settings for wedding photography online, you have no doubt noticed the broad preference among professionals for manual mode and manual camera settings in general. That’s no surprise – there’s good reason to turn your mode dial to ‘M’ as a wedding photographer! In the following, let’s learn and discuss why that is.
Balancing Control with Speed
You should think of wedding photography as not unlike sports, action, or other kinds of event photography. In these fields, speed is of the essence. Shooting wedding photos, just like documentary photography, requires you to have a peak awareness of your subjects and capture them at the perfect moment.
This, in turn, requires you to maximize control over your camera settings. ‘Maximizing control’ is the key term here. Control implies conscious action – and that inherently takes away from speed. Many budding wedding photographers think that because speed is essential in this field, it makes sense to sacrifice control by choosing fully automatic shooting modes and hoping for the best results.
Of course, this approach leaves way too much to chance. It also does not allow you to fully utilize the strengths and capabilities of your camera. Instead, try to strike a balance between outright briskness and controllability. For most people, this means finding a spot somewhere between full manual mode and 100% automation.
Ideally, this should be possible without too much time spent thinking about camera settings in detail. That way, you free up more valuable moments for discussing and perfecting issues such as composition, posing, and lighting conditions with your subjects.
Manual Mode for Shooting Weddings
With that in mind, let’s now take a good look at why manual mode is such a popular choice for professional wedding photographers. Compared to shooting photographs automatically, manual exposure offers you more leeway in determining the right aperture-shutter speed balance for your particular shot.
Especially in wedding photography, where portraits are often the most important aspect of the shoot and depth of field matters a lot, this is a huge advantage. The same combination of manual settings that take a bat of an eye to dial in might need up to a minute or more of fiddling with automatic mode overrides and exposure locks to achieve. In this context, manual mode can actually make you work faster!
Manual Settings for Aperture and Shutter Speed
Let’s talk about those manual exposure settings in a bit more detail.
When shooting a wedding ceremony, your bride and groom are your main draw. You might choose to feature some awe-inspiring backdrops, of course. And while those can make for stunning photos, it’s more often than not the separation between foreground (subject) and background (surroundings) where the real appeal lies.
To really flatter your subject’s features, you want a moderately quick shutter speed setting for good sharpness. Combining that with a wide aperture and the thin depth of field will result in an easy winning formula that comes out well the vast majority of the time.
Of course, the exact settings to use here will depend on your equipment. A fast prime lens will allow you to play with aperture settings more freely, for instance.
Always think about how your environment affects these variables, too! Shooting wedding photography indoors, for example, might benefit from much of the opposite of the above approach. By choosing a slower shutter speed and a smaller aperture to match, you can not just compensate for indoor lighting conditions but also introduce interesting motion blur effects.
Maintaining the Right ISO Setting for Your Wedding Photography
There will be plenty of situations in wedding photography where you have to be quick on your feet and make do with what you get in terms of ambient light. That includes candid shots, which have been becoming increasingly widespread and in-demand in the field during recent years.
For such circumstances, it’s imperative for you to have total command over ISO settings. Where shutter speeds and aperture settings will depend either on your camera’s preset settings or on the narrow requirements of the shot as dictated by your shooting environment, ISO may just be the only major exposure setting that you maintain full manual control over.
With smart ISO usage, you can easily compensate for tricky light without negatively affecting your final image. However, you do need to be careful so as to minimize the appearance of digital noise in higher settings.
Managing Manual Metering Modes
Just like in other subsets of portraiture, metering is very important for good results in wedding photography. Without proper metering, you cannot rely on your exposure settings to be accurate. And that, in turn, could lead to missed opportunities and wasted shots that may not be fixable in post-production!
To prevent that, take a moment before you put your finger on the shutter button to think about your choice of metering. You should never leave metering completely up to the camera’s default setting as a wedding photographer. Instead, select an appropriate mode depending on the number of subjects in the frame and the current lighting situation. You should rest easy knowing there are only three basic options at hand; one of these is good for the vast majority of shooting scenarios.
These three basic metering modes are spot metering, matrix metering, and center-weighted metering. Read up on each of them and familiarize yourself a little with their strengths and weaknesses. As long as you remember to double-check your metering mode afterward, you should not need to worry about getting accurate exposures!
Shooting Weddings in Semi-Automatic Exposure
To strike that magical balance between creative exposure control and speed, you don’t have to commit to full manual mode. Instead, consider either of your digital camera’s main semi-automatic exposure modes for wedding photography. Below, let’s become more familiar with aperture and shutter priority modes and discover what makes them so useful in this field.
Aperture Priority Mode for Wedding Photographers
A significant portion of full-time professional wedding photographers uses aperture priority mode for their assignments. There’s a very good and quite simple reason for this.
Because acquiring the perfect depth of field using your aperture setting takes skill, mental focus, and time, and because exposure can also be regulated using manual ISO, automating the shutter speed frees your mind and your fingers from superfluous micromanagement.
Staying in mode A and armed with manual ISO adjustments and manual focus, you basically have the same degree of exposure control and creative freedom as with traditional, fully manual controls. However, with no shutter adjustments to worry about, you are guaranteed to be quicker on your feet and more flexible. What’s not to like?
Shutter Priority Mode
Shutter priority functions in the exact opposite fashion of its sibling mode. Instead of allowing control over the lens diaphragm while taking over control of shutter speeds, it’s the exact opposite.
Shutter priority mode is commonly used by action, sports, and wildlife photographers because it allows them to set the perfect speed for minimizing blur and maximizing sharpness. Set up properly, the camera handles everything else, making for quick and easy exposures of very fast-moving subjects.
Now, why would you need this to shoot weddings?
There are plenty of situations where shutter priority mode can come in handy for wedding photographers, and some of them I already mentioned above in this guide! For example, when photographing weddings indoors, the visual effects of shallow depth may become negligible due to the necessity for a smaller aperture to grab more light.
In this context, your choice of shutter speed – which enables a conscious creative choice between motion blur and sharp exposure – becomes much more important than the lens diaphragm.
What Equipment Do You Need to Photograph a Wedding?
Just like in any other genre, of course gear plays a heavy role in wedding photographs. Thankfully, the requirements are neither steep nor too complicated, and you likely won’t need too much to get started.
What type of camera you use for wedding photos does not matter nearly as much as two crucial parameters – its resolution and the availability of full controls.
Generally speaking, wedding photographers prefer full-frame cameras with large sensors and a high megapixel count. This is not just because of the benefits in low light that these designs confer in general.
A large-sensor camera also makes sense for wedding photography in particular because your clients will likely demand prints of most, if not all of the beautiful wedding photos you take for them.
In the pursuit of peak print quality and maximum resolution, some wedding photographers even utilize medium format cameras these days. Because their digital counterparts remain prohibitively expensive even for experienced pros, analog is the way to go in that realm.
Other useful wedding photography gear to have includes a tripod for indoor shots as well as off camera flash for exposure compensation and lighting.
Choosing Between Zoom Lenses and Primes for Wedding Photos
The lenses are the other big piece of the puzzle that is choosing your wedding photography equipment. There are arguments in favor of both zoom lenses and fixed-focal length designs for wedding photographs, which is why you’ll see many of the pros arriving at their shoot with a large camera bag carrying a few different options to choose from.
Generally speaking, prime lenses sacrifice flexibility in perspective for much higher flexibility in terms of aperture control. Even affordable primes can come in very compact form factors while still offering a very fast maximum aperture at the same time.
By contrast, hauling around a professional-grade zoom lens may offer you unbelievable flexibility in terms of focal length but comparatively restrictive aperture settings and bulky dimensions. It is up to you to find the middle ground you prefer. Narrowing down the kind of shot you’re after will surely help in assessing what kind of wedding gear suits you best.
When is the Best Time to Take Wedding Pictures?
Especially when taking photos for outdoor weddings in available light, you have to consider local lighting conditions and how they might affect the mood of your work. Stunning photographs are possible any time of day, but you need to be aware of how to handle your camera settings for wedding photography and make them fit the concept of the picture.
In natural light, different phases of the sun provoke different emotional tones and atmospheres, something that is extremely important to the subjects at any wedding party. For example, late evenings within an hour of sundown give you lots of warm tones and dramatic backlighting to play with. That can be excellent for candid shots of romantic moments between bride and groom!
By comparison, early mornings offer cozy vibes, more muted colors, and in the right environment, a very dreamy atmosphere. Note that in any case, the fabled ‘golden hour’, where the sky takes on its most dramatic warm hues, actually happens twice a day – once at sundown and once just at the moment of the sunset!
In any case, try to avoid high noon for shooting a wedding venue. The overhead lighting and harsh shadows don’t tend to complement the faces of your subjects very well. Also, make sure to compensate for fast changes in lighting (such as during late evenings) with an appropriate shutter speed.
An Intro to Flash Photography for Wedding Photographers
Of course, natural light is not your only option. By making smart use of shutter speed, ISO, and your camera’s flash, you can indeed take great wedding photos and let both the bride and groom shine in nearly any environment.
To photograph weddings with flash, I recommend utilizing some semi-automatic camera settings to make your life a bit easier. Consider engaging high-speed continuous mode to make focus acquisition a breeze, and enable an appropriate auto-exposure mode on the flash gun too, if present.
This way, you won’t have to burn through a series of test shots to figure out the best flash setting for your wedding photo. Note that you can affect background and foreground separation not just with aperture priority mode but also via manual shutter speed adjustments. A fast shutter speed lets the flash highlight your subjects in the foreground more. A slow shutter speed brightens and emphasizes the background by comparison.
Feel free to experiment with some more advanced flash techniques once you feel more comfortable with the process. Play around with flash exposure compensation, or try your hand at rear curtain sync for creative motion effects. These kinds of camera settings can really enhance your wedding pictures if you use them well!
Building Up Your Portfolio as a Professional Wedding Photographer
Ultimately, nothing builds better wedding photography skills than real-life experience. After all, every wedding venue (and every couple) is different! This is to say that you need not expect yourself to master any of the skills mentioned in this guide right away.
Instead, try to approach this challenge with patience and confidence as well as a healthy dose of confidence. You never know what you actually might end up learning ‘in the field’!
In other words, the best camera settings for wedding photography can only tell you so much about what it means to be a professional wedding photographer. Take note of what we discussed today, but keep an open mind at the same time! Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it!