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.
One of my favorite things about Colorado is the sunsets. There’s just something about the dramatic cloud formations that form over the Rockies every afternoon as the sun is about to go down.
But it’s tricky to capture during weddings. Most wedding timelines are set up such that dinner or toasts or the first dance will be happening right during the ideal time to shoot the sunset. And I’ll admit, I used to sort of resign myself to this fate. I’d look out the window longingly and think, “Well, shucks. Too bad we can’t go outside and shoot that beautiful sunset.”
Well, not anymore, damn it!
Body: Nikon D610
Lens: Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6
Focal Length: 78mm
Exposure Program: Manual
Shutter Speed: 1/800
White Balance: Sunlight
These days, we plant the idea early on. During client meetings, we’ll show the couple a bunch of cool sunset photos we’ve done in the past and explain that, if they’d like a similar shot of their own wedding, we’ll have to pull them out of the reception at a moment’s notice. Nine times out of ten, they’re all about it. By the time the wedding rolls along, they already know the protocol. I keep one eye on the sky and, as soon as the light is perfect, I give Moira the nod and she grabs the newlyweds while I quickly lock in my exposure and lighting.
Now, this isn’t at all how it went down in the photo above. This shot was taken before these sunset/nighttime photos became a main staple of our workflow.
Here’s the story
Cheri and Pete had small ceremony at Standley Lake followed by a backyard reception at their home in Westminster, Colorado. During location scouting several weeks earlier, I noticed that just down the street from their house was an isolated piece of Open Space land looking out onto a majestic view of the Flatirons. Hard to believe that this shot was taken from the middle of the city, right? It was almost good to be true. I thought to myself, “I sure hope there’s a cool sunset on the day of the wedding,” and moreover, “I hope there’s a break in the reception so we can do a few quick shots.”
Fast forward to the day of the wedding. It’s about 8:00 p.m. and I’m standing in Cherie and Pete’s backyard taking candid shots of wedding guests. I look out over the fence and notice this perfect golden light illuminating the neighborhood. I look west to the mountains and see that the sun will be dropping below the horizon in about T-minus five minutes.
I do a quick scan for Cheri and Pete. They’re by the bar, doing a round of shots with a group of friends. I don’t want to interrupt the revelry, but I decide to go for it anyway. I give them my best 10-second pitch, explaining the urgency of the situation and, luckily, they’re on board. My assistant, Jeana, and I (Moira was at her brother’s wedding in Montana that weekend) jump into my car, followed closely by Cheri and Pete. I have a two-door Chevy Cobalt that’s loaded to the gills with camera equipment, so they ride with a friend who was kind enough to offer up his SUV. I don’t know who this guy was, but if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have gotten the shot. Props to you, unknown hero.
But there’s a hitch. A small group of guests are getting ready to leave and want to say their goodbyes to the newlyweds. I look at the sun. There’s only about three minutes left. So I jump out of the car, run to the SUV and say, “Pardon me, good sirs and madam, but we really must be going” (I’m paraphrasing here). Okay. Now we’re back on track.
We caravan the quarter-mile or so up the road to the field. There’s nowhere to park, so we leave the vehicles on the side of the road, obstructing traffic. I grab my 28-300, which isn’t the best lens optically-speaking, but provides a very broad focal range. Since I don’t yet know what type of shot I’m after, and will have no time to change lenses, versatility is key.
Less than a minute left now. We jump out of the car and run across the ditch to the edge of the field. I don’t have time to give Cheri and Pete any instruction, so I just blurt out some nonsensical gibberish that almost certainly does not resemble English and usher them forth. They step out in the field and turn to each other while I snap as many shots as I can manage before the sun crests the mountains.
Now for the technical stuff
Unlike most of the photos I discuss in this blog series, I didn’t have time here to meticulously dial in the perfect aperture/shutter combo or the optimal ISO setting and white balance. I basically just had to “spray and pray.” But I did know that I wanted a low key image, exposed properly for the sky. The first shot was too bright, so I quickly flicked the shutter speed dial down a couple stops to get a darker, moodier image. Finally, I positioned myself so that the sun was directly behind Cheri and Pete, which created a rim light to separate them from the background. Many times, I’ll do this with an SB unit, but the sun works in a pinch.
And just like that, the light was gone. Whew! The whole thing, from beginning to end, conception to execution, took less than five minutes. At the time, I had no idea if I got anything usable. But when I made it home later that evening and uploaded the photos to my computer, I found that this shot was not only my favorite shot of the day, but one of my favorite wedding photos I’ve ever taken. Maybe it had something to do with Cheri and Pete not having enough time to pose, but there’s something about their posture that just seems so natural and contemplative to me. It’s like the moment before the moment.
Long story short, it’s not always easy to get these kinds of shots during a wedding, but it can be extremely rewarding when you do.
Just don’t drop your camera when you’re running across the ditch.
Thanks for reading. Until next time…
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