In each installment of our educational blog series, Anatomy of a Photograph, we’ll break down one of our trickiest wedding photos. From conception to composition, equipment to settings, subject to lighting, you’ll find out exactly what went into creating the image.
We’ve covered our couples in just about everything you can imagine in the name of a good portrait: smoke bombs, fog machines, Atmosphere Aerosol, rain, snow you name it. But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we’d have the opportunity to use two industrial-grade fire extinguishers at a posh wedding venue like Devil’s Thumb Ranch.
Body: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G
Focal Length: 14mm
Shutter Speed: 1/100
White Balance: 5560k
Here’s the story
Jessica is a police officer and Robb and all of his groomsmen are firemen. To put a unique spin on their ceremony send off, they brought along a handful of fire extinguishers for the groomsmen to shoot off as the bride and groom exited the ceremony. But, as luck would have it, a massive lightning storm rolled in midway through the ceremony forcing everyone inside and, in turn, putting a damper on the send off plans.
Fast forward about three hours. Everybody’s drinking and dancing and having a good time at the reception. We’re reaching the end of the evening and we have yet to do our nighttime portraits with the bride and groom. This is something that we try to do at every wedding because, as a photographer, you have exponentially more creative control over your lighting after the sun goes down (see our Best of Wedding Photography galleries for more examples).
Then I remember: “Hey, we still have those unused fire extinguishers in back.” So we rally the troops (the bride and groom and two groomsmen) and head outside to get creative.
Usually I would be loath to shoot off fire extinguishers at a nice wedding venue such as Devil’s Thumb without running it by someone first. But considering we we’re rolling with a cop and three firemen, I figure what the hell. Plus, it’s always easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
Once we make it outside, it’s time to figure out how we’re going to do this. I want it to mimic an actual ceremony send off since they weren’t able to do those photos earlier. So instead of a stagnant pose, I ask Jessica and Robb to walk toward the camera, hand-in-hand. But first, I need a little atmosphere. I count down from three, and Jeremy and Wyatt flood the scene with CO2. As the newlyweds come toward me, they continue spraying behind the couple to create a thick blanket of fog.
But the real key to this photo is backlight. Since it’s nearly pitch black outside, virtually nothing will show up in this frame without off-camera flash. Enter an SB700 equipped with a MagSphere. A light stand won’t suffice here because of the moving subjects, so my ever-intrepid second shooter/wife, Moira, acts as a human light stand. She follows around 5-10 feet behind the couple with the light pointed directly at their backs. Here you can see her emerging from the cloud of CO2 having realized she can’t hold her breath any longer.
So we run this through about three or four times, making small blocking adjustments as we go. We get interrupted every 45 seconds or so by a concerned member of the staff. At one point, a young man drives up in a truck, valiantly proclaiming that he’s the sous chef and making sure everything is alright. We tell him that these guys put out fires for a living, so we’re in good hands. Luckily, nobody shuts us down, which I’m very thankful for because we’re getting some really great captures.
Now for the technical stuff
I’m shooting at f/2.8, 1/100 sec, ISO 2000 because I’m trying to capture the remains of sunset on the horizon. In retrospect, I would have killed the ambient completely because my favorite frames ended up being the ones where only the couple and the CO2 were visible, with everything else fading to black. Hindsight is 20/20.
I’ve dialed my white balance in to 5560k, which is pretty close to the flash WB preset on Nikon cameras. I used to use these presets all the time, but over the last couple of weddings seasons, I’ve found that I prefer dialing in my white balance manually, which sounds complicated, but is really quite intuitive once you’ve mastered the color temperature spectrum.
The reason I’m using the sphere on my flash is to 1) diffuse the light slightly and 2) spread out the light evenly so that it illuminates all of the CO2. I’m triggering my flash with a Yongnuo radio transmitter, which not only allows me to shoot untethered, but also provides the best AF assist beam on the market. This is crucial for this photo, because without it, there’s no possible way I could focus on the couple through the cloud of CO2 with no ambient light to speak of.
My lens choice here is very much intentional. The low, wide angle creates a sense of other-worldliness that our human eye isn’t able to see in person due to the short focal length. Overall, it just makes everything feel a little bit more dramatic. I call it the Terry Gilliam approach (see 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Fisher King, etc. for reference). What can I say? I’m a huge film geek.
Finally, I’ve opted for my D800 (over my D610 and D750) because of the massive megapixel count. I suspect that this shoot might result in a piece of art worthy of blowing up large and hanging on the wall, and at 36 megapixels, this sensor will allow me to do just that.
That’s all for now. As always, thank you for reading and be sure to check back frequently for new educational posts.
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