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Technical Stuff

Photographing Weddings With The Canon 5D MarkIII

Documentary Wedding Photography, Crondon Park, Essex

Ask professional photographers about equipment and most will tell you the same thing - its not the equipment that makes a photographer good.

This is true, however there are some situations where your equipment can help you get pictures that may not otherwise be possible.

The picture above was taken at Crondon Park Golf Club late in the day on a dark, wintry December afternoon with no natural light. The exposure was 1/125s at f1.2 at ISO3200. That's dark. Really dark.

There are two problems shooting in such low light. Firstly you have to get a good exposure, without camera shake. (The blur of the girl in this picture is due to her movement which I'm perfectly happy with). Secondly, the camera needs enough light to focus. Both of these problems can be overcome with the right equipment.

This was the first wedding I shot with the new Canon 5D Mark III. I'm not going to write a review of the camera. There are plenty of other places that have done that. What I will say is its a massive improvement over the original 5D and the 5D MkII in one significant way - the autofocus.

I don't think I could have shot this picture with anything other than the 5DIII. Even my previous, more expensive, 1D MkIV would have struggled. The 5D, in combination with the fast 85mm f1.2 lens has allowed me to get the exposure I needed for this picture, but also, crucially, has been able to accurately focus the lens even with the extremely shallow depth of field at f1.2.

After using the 5D MkIII at this wedding I bought another one. And sold both my 1D MkIV's. Its that good. And I haven't even mentioned that its small, light, very quiet and has amazing image quality.

So yes, having the right equipment does matter, but only in the hands of a photographer who knows what to do with it.

(You can see a full set of pictures from this wedding in the sample albums section here.)

Why Equipment Matters

I'm often asked what equipment I use - both by other photographers and wedding guests. I'm always happy to talk "gear" with people, but it needs to be stressed that owning the best equipment does not make you a good photographer. My advice to people is always to only buy new kit if you find yourself being limited by your current kit. Use what you have first, then once you know exactly what else you need, buy that.

For most people, the first and best thing to spend money on is high quality lenses. It doesn't matter how many megapixels your camera has if you put a cheap lens on it, the quality of your pictures will suffer.

As a wedding photographer who shoots almost entirely using available light, I need lenses that can shoot high quality pictures in very low light - so I mostly use fast aperture prime lenses.

From left to right they are the 24mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4, 85mm f1.2 and 135mm f2. These are the best lenses Canon make and allow me to shoot sharp, high quality images in very low light.

I also have three zooms.

From left to right, the 17-40mm f4, 24-105mm f4 and 70-200mm f2.8. Again, these are all top quality Canon lenses. They're sharp and fast but, with smaller maximum apertures, they're not as useful in very low light, so they're mostly used as backups to the prime lenses.

I've purchased these lenses using the advice laid out above. I started off as a newspaper photographer using mostly zooms, but as I moved more into shooting available light wedding photojournalism, I figured out what equipment I needed to allow me to shoot the pictures I wanted, and bought that.

Its easy to get sucked in to buying lots of cool stuff you don't really need. There's always a new camera/lens/flash/gadget being introduced that promises to be better than what you have. But if its not going help you to take the pictures you want then its better to save your money for something that will.

"P" for Professional

I once heard of a newspaper photographer colleague who, when asked what camera settings he was using replied "Its set to P - for Professional". I thought this was hilarious (still do). "P" simply stands for "Program Mode" which is the fully automatic exposure mode on most camera models.

The latest auto-everything, all-singing, all-dancing, digital cameras are amazing. They're basically powerful computers with a lens attached and can work out exposure and focus for you without you having to really understand the basic principles. And they can do this so quickly that they can record millions of pixels of information at the rate of (for my camera) 10 pictures every second.

So why not just set the camera to "P" and fire away?

Because the camera is not always right.

There is a case for arguing that there is no such thing as a "correct" exposure. Only the exposure that renders the scene the way you, the photographer, want it to look. If you stand someone with their back to the sun and shoot a silhouette, is that the correct exposure, or is the person dramatically underexposed? Well, its both. Its up to the photographer to decide whether the person will be a black silhouette against the background, or whether the details of the person should be correctly exposed and the background dramatically overexposed. Or... you could use flash to balance the two elements.

The camera cannot decide this for you.

Contrary to what most consumer oriented camera advertising will tell you, even the latest and greatest hi-tech camera cannot know what it is you are trying to photograph. It can guess, based on an internal database of average picture types, but then most photographers would rather their pictures were better than "average".

(And don't even get me started on things like "Portrait Mode", "Landscape Mode", "Sports Mode", "Night Mode" ....)

Its vital for any photographer to have an understanding of the principles of exposure, focus, composition, depth of field, focal lengths and perspective. The photographer should be able to look at a scene and know what the final picture is going to look like with the lens and camera settings chosen. Whether the camera chooses the settings automatically, or the photographer chooses them manually, the final decision on what is "correct" should be the photographer's.

I've always shot the vast majority of my work using manual exposure, using the camera's built in metering to help me make the decision. This way I know what the camera is doing at all times. Sometimes I might get it wrong, but I'll only have myself to blame - not the equipment.

Oh, and there are two other things the camera will never be able to help you with - what to point it at and when to click the shutter.

That Camera Must Take Great Pictures


This picture was taken at 1/160s at f4 with the camera set to ISO6400. A few years ago those camera settings would have resulted in horrible picture quality, making low-light photography very difficult.

Now, with cameras like the Canon 1D MkIV (or the Nikon D3s if you shoot for the "other" side), shooting at these super high ISO settings results in really good quality files, allowing available light shooting in even very dark conditions. This shot is almost all available light, with a tiny bit of flash added just to add a bit of fill and improve the quality of light on the faces. If I'd shot at a lower ISO very little of the background would be visible - I'd have ended up with three correctly exposed people dancing in the middle of a black hole.

The dancing is one of the few occasions when I use a flashgun - and only then if I have to. Sometimes the lighting for the dancing is so dark I can barely see what I'm shooting and its those times when I'm thankful for fast and accurate autofocus.

Don't think though, that its the camera that does all the work. Yes, the newest generation of digital cameras can help the photographer to get pictures which would otherwise be impossible, but ultimately its the photographer that chooses where to stand, what to include in the frame, when to press the shutter release, and which pictures make the final edit for the album.

I read a great quote the other day which sums this up nicely...

"Telling a photographer that his camera takes great pictures is like telling a chef that his oven cooks great meals".

For the photographers

I get asked about equipment a lot. Both by other photographers and guests who are interested in photography. So here's a quick rundown of what I use...

Cameras : Canon 1D MkIV x2 - Canon's brand new flagship photojournalist's camera is fantastic in low light.

Lenses : 24/1.4L, 35/1.4L, 85/1.2L, 17-40/4L, 24-105/4L, 70-200/2.8L

Flash : 550EX x2 (hardly ever used)

I usually carry one camera over each shoulder, with the remaining lenses in a Domke F1X shoulder bag. There's other bits and pieces and backup gear in the car, but this kit lets me stay mobile and not get bogged down with too much "stuff".

I'll go into more detail on all this stuff soon.