How Not To Photograph A Wedding

Posted on June 20, 2010


Many moons ago when I was a young assistant to top London fashion photographer John Cowan, Frank Buck, John’s senior assistant introduced me to a firm of photographers in the East End of London that specialised in weddings. Frank was making a few extra bucks (ha, ha, that was his name) and suggested I might do the same. This became my ‘Saturday job’ for a while.

We had to go equipped with 2 and 1/4 square format cameras, no Nikons allowed here. Frank took our back up/fail safe/last resort Rolleiflex, and I took my Yashica Mat which was a cheaper Japanese copy of the same thing, and a couple of light tripods. We would split up at, or near our destinations which were separate weddings in separate churches, but usually fairly close together. As the Saturdays mounted up, I got to know the churches, the same four of them.

Now this wedding photography firm was a factory. I never actually set foot in the place so I can’t tell you what the premises were like. Noisy, sparse, stinking of hypo crystals and full of busy cockney accents I would guess. That’s how I used to imagine it anyway. I usually started work right at the church and would get there about 20 minutes early. We were supplied with two rolls of black and white film each by a biker, and that gave us 24 exposures in total. If we were lucky, he dumped a couple of Metz electronic flashguns on us too. These had quite large battery packs and were about as unwieldy as the first ever mobile phones. On the first Saturday I ever worked, I was also handed a list. The List. This told me exactly what to do with the 24 exposures with no shots to spare and no room for error. If the bride blinked, too bad. See, I told you it was a factory.

Yep, that it was. 24 exposures and we were expected to create 24 masterpieces according to The List! 1st shot, Groom and Best Man Walking to Church. 2nd shot Groom with Best Man Standing Outside Church. 3 Shot Bride Arriving and Getting Out of Car. 4th shot Bride Walking up Church Path with Father. The Bridesmaids fitted in here somewhere, shot number 5? This was in the days when weddings were a bit more solemn, so no pictures were allowed to be taken in the church, but 6th shot Signing the Registry was a must.

After that, it was all breathe a sigh of relief, me especially if I had nailed it so far, throw some confetti, and get down to the serious business of taking the posed groups. First of all we shot exposure number 7 of the Bride and Groom Outside Church. Then it was The Bride and Bridesmaids – 8. Shot 9 was Bride On Her Own and then it was down to the Groups proper.

First of all, do all the in laws and outlaws, in other words bride with her Mum and Dad. Groom with his Mum and Dad. Then bride and groom together with both Mums and Dads. Then one would start dragging in other relations. Grand parents were pretty high on the list, so Bride and Groom with their Mums and Dads and their Mum’s and Dad’s Mums and Dads. This was now the second roll of film and I would be checking the list to make sure I had not missed any shots on the first roll. It was nerve racking stuff.

From here more and more relatives would join the affray, Shot 14, as 13 but with added bridesmaids. Shot 15 was as 13 but with added brothers, sisters, small children and the really small ones, ah yes babies. At each shot, I would be moving the camera further and further away, turning round occasionally to make sure I would not fall over a tombstone or worse still, into an open grave.

Shot 16 is about cousin’s time with aunts and uncles next. There were usually still quite a few people standing on the side lines, so with the help of the best man, these are moved into the next shot according to rank. One would have to start checking things pretty carefully at this stage because as I said, only two rolls of film and you had to make sure you had saved a couple of frames for the reception. But before that, the grand group finale, Everyone! At this point, somehow or another, everyone would squeeze in to the shot, some sitting, some standing on steps, and some sitting on walls. Wherever you could put them, they would be put. This was the final shot with plenty of cheese and these group shots had to be good, because they were the ones that guests would buy later.

Then hey ho everybody, it’s off to the reception and at this point I would usually bum a lift as I had no car of my own. As soon as we got there, there were two more shots to go. Shot 23 Bride and Groom Cutting Cake. This was mocked up of course, as the B & G were a long time from actually cutting the cake. Shot 24 wasn’t mocked though. Bride and Groom Raising Bubbly at last. That was it! Pack up quick and wait for biker who would whisk me back to the same church for the next wedding!

The biker would take the exposed rolls of film for the darkroom staff back at the mill to process and print. Just over an hour later 10 x 8 proofs would be pinned up at the reception, ready for the bride, parents and all the guests to order. I rarely ever saw the pictures except on a couple of occasions. To my relief the exposures were about right and I had covered the lists. It was not my job to follow up with the picture orders. Somebody else did that. It was my job to make sure I didn’t mess up. A couple of essential shots missed were enough to make sure you were not asked to come back for more hire! These future invitations were relayed by the biker when the boss, who I never met, had seen what you produced and passed judgement. We got paid the princely sum of £3 for each wedding and I usually managed two each Saturday. £3 was a days pay at assistant rates, so to polish off two weddings in a Saturday afternoon was 2 days pay for half a days work in my eyes, and well worth the trip to Leyton. Frank and I would usually meet up and travel back together in his MG sports car, swapping details of our weddings and their guests on the way!

Epilogue: This was never my idea of how to photograph a wedding. I was there for the overtime and had to do what the ‘firm’ required. It was pretty fast and rough but the formula was fairly standard in the mid sixties, and the whole idea was that prints were whizzed back to the reception to take advantage of guests being there for sales on the spot. All you needed was the shoot list and the ability to operate a 2 and 1/4 square roll film camera. However, the experience of handling people and believe it or not, the Wedding Photo List, were the foundations of far more creative wedding photography to come. Looking back, it really was a very good basic training ground that would earn me a lot more than £3 in the future.

The Wedding Photography Blueprint

The WPB website has everything you need to know to photograph professional, profitable weddings every time.