My guide to guest wedding photography

(17mm, f2.8, 1/25th, ISO 1600, Flash fired)

After getting married last year, we’ve been to no less than nine weddings as guests in 2008. Increasingly I’ve found these weddings to be the only time I get to really exercise my camera and (lack of) photography skills. Along the way I’ve picked up some tips, tricks and things to avoid when trying to take photos at weddings, and maybe others will find them useful.

Note: This blog post is not aimed at professional wedding photographers, or indeed enthusiastic amateurs who have been roped into being the cheap and cheerful ‘official’ photographer. This is for two good reasons. Firstly I am neither (and wouldn’t want to be) and secondly, there are literally thousands of such blog posts and forum discussions. They generally recommend: have redundancy in all your equipment, tonnes of memory cards and batteries, scout out locations and be assertive. But most of all – think very, very hard before agreeing to do it. Despite what your friends or family may say, they will have high expectations which you had better live up to.

So, instead, this post is about how to take good shots as a guest, not annoy or get in the way of the official ‘tog and most of all how to have fun whilst doing it.


  • You have what you have. Don’t think about hiring stuff or buying something just for the occasion, unless you want it anyway that is 🙂
  • Just take a body, two lenses max and a flash (if you have one) Keep it in a small, unobtrusive bag (e.g. a Lowe-Pro Slingshot, or Crumpler shoulder bag) leave your rucksack etc at home. You really don’t want to be carrying around a tonne of kit all day (and your other half/partner will get fed up with being handed off kit as well!) You shouldn’t look obtrusive. All the better if the bag is black as there is less chance of it standing out in other people’s photos.
  • Don’t at all get tempted to take any kit that requires somebody else to help you, or requires you to work in close proximity to the wedding couple. Leave your nice reflector and tripod at home!
  • As far as lenses go look to use a mid-range zoom or a fairly wide prime, and then a reasonable long zoom (e.g. 55-200/250 or 70-300) In general, the faster the lens the better as you will no doubt be in low light at some point. I use a Canon EF-S 17-55 f2.8 IS USM and an EF-S 55-250 F3.5-5.6 IS. I also take my EF 50mm f1.8 prime along just because it is so small and handy if things really get dark. I would kill for a 70-200 f2.8 L IS USM, and if I were a wedding pro I’d have one in a shot, but I’m not.
  • Whilst you want two lenses, don’t get tempted to use two bodies. You will stand out too much (more on that later)


  • Sounds obvious, but charge your batteries (and buy fresh ones for your flash).
  • Erm, that’s it. Always remember that you are first and foremost a guest of your hosts. Not taking photos in any official capacity. Your primary job is to celebrate with them and enjoy yourself. Go to the bar!

Before the ceremony

  • Unless you are family you likely won’t be around for the preparations of the bride or groom so forget that. It’s the job of the pro. If you are a bridesmaid or groomsman – put the damn camera away, you have much more important things to do.
  • Outside the church, before the ceremony feel free to get some informal shots of people. One thing you can excel at in a guest photographer role is candid shots. Stick on your telephoto and shoot from a distance. Get those nice expressions.

(55mm, f2.8, 1/100th, ISO 200, Flash fired)

  • Make your way into the church in plenty of time and sit down like any other guest. Don’t get “official” and loiter at the back or front. Don’t take photos in the church or wedding room until such time as you are told it is ok. You can ask of course. If you are told no, then the answer is no – plain and simple. The pro will get these shots (and in artificial/low light, probably much better than you could hope for) In this case, pack the camera away/put it down and just enjoy the proceedings.
  • If you can take photos, then do so only from where you sit. Don’t get up and walk around.


  • In a lot of cases you will be told that photography is not allowed during the ceremony, and that maybe it will be at the end when the couple will pose. Respect this. On rare cases, you are free to take during the ceremony. In which case…
  • DO NOT USE FLASH DURING THE CEREMONY. Do I need to repeat that? Even if allowed, it is obtrusive and spoils the moment. Dial up ISO1600 and your lowest f-stop and hope for the best.
  • When the bride enters the church/room, be the only person who turns to the groom and captures their expression! Tip – he’s the one standing still!

(250mm, f5.6, 1/13th, ISO 1600, No flash)

  • Don’t click away furiously during the ceremony. Sing when you have to sing, pray when you need to pray. You are a guest first and foremost, and it is respectful.
  • Stick with your zoom and get close up emotion shots. Also look for opportunities that others may not see. Kids are especially good targets.

(179mm, f5.6, 1/30th, ISO 1600, No flash)

Recessional / after the ceremony

  • Normally, usually after the signing of the register, there will be an opportunity for Auntie Marge and Co. to take their photos. Go wild here, but respect that others are doing so as well. Don’t direct, don’t impose. Get your wide lens or fast prime on and get up a bit closer. If you can use flash then do so to get nice catch-lights in their eyes.

(55mm, f2.8, 1/60th, ISO 200, Flash fired)

  • Outside the church/room go crazy – this is your main opportunity. Get candids as people mingle, look for nice expressions. From my experience of our wedding, guests likely get better shots of the other guests than the official photographer. So this is your opportunity to impress. Get good coverage of the people there, don’t focus everything on the bride and groom.

(45mm, f2.8, 1/200th, ISO 100, Flash fired)

  • This where you can direct a little. Get members of the family/groups of friends to pose for you, and get them looking into your lens. This is likely one of the only times you can (more on that later…)

Formal shots

  • You all know the formal shots. This is your cue to be responsible and put down the camera. This should be solely the role of the pro. These are their “money” shots and the ones that they will be most focused on capturing. Your job is to be 100% guest here and not a photographer.
  • DO NOT shoot over the pro’s shoulder, or follow them around at this time. At best you will end up with a set of copycat photos. At worst you will piss the pro off and they might start muttering words like “breach of contract” to the bride and groom. The pro is going to be aware of you and your DSLR on the day, and they no doubt have it all the time now. Respect the fact that they are being paid to do a job, and are the ones under pressure to deliver. Don’t get in the way of that. This can be particularly annoying when you distract the subjects and they end up looking into the wrong cameras. See the shot below for an unfortunate example and a lesson learnt (2nd from right)

(85mm, f4.0, 1/160th, ISO 200, No flash)

  • If you want to, stick on a long lens and shoot from afar. By doing this you can get a different perspective whilst still capturing some nice shots of the couple. It also means you remain out of the way and won’t misdirect people’s attention.

(181mm, f5.0, 1/800th, ISO 100, No flash)

  • Never, ever give direction to people at this stage. That is overstepping the mark by a big margin.

Wedding breakfast / speeches

  • Sometimes the official photographer may not cover these, either because they are not contracted to, or just take a break. If so, you can take the opportunity to get some “exclusives” but again, remain as unobtrusive as possible. Keep your movement minimal and try to avoid flash. Again, your primary role is as a guest.
  • You are normally indoors at this point, so high ISO, wide open is the order of the day. Use it to full effect to get good depth of field on shots (see the example below). If your camera produces lots of noise at high ISO (as my Canon 400D does) then black and white is your friend!

(47mm, f2.8, 1/40th, ISO 1600, Flash fired)

  • The speeches offer great opportunity for candids. Single out family members and look for any opportunities to get shots that others may miss.

(55mm, f2.8, 1/10th, ISO 1600, Flash fired)

  • At the risk of sounding boring, remember you are a guest – laugh and toast at the right time!

Evening / dancing

  • The first dance normally signals the end of the official photographer’s duties. It should also be the end of your camera holding. Whilst it would be tempting to carry on and get some “exclusives”, there are a number of reasons why this is a bad idea: Disco lights can be a real pain (but also a creative opportunity), your friends and family are starting to get nicely drunk and so should you and finally, this is where people let their hair down and have fun – they don’t want a camera stuck in their face.
  • By all means capture the first dance. However the combination of low light and movement is a tricky one. Take a machine gun approach and hope for the best. It’s the last time you should be shooting so make the most of it.

(55mm, f2.8, 1/25th, ISO 1600, Flash fired)

  • At this stage of the evening, you may be tempted to download your photos and put together a quick slideshow. I did this once recently on the spur of the moment (I had my laptop in the hotel) It is an idea filled with good intentions, but you should only do it if agreed in advance with both the bride and groom, and most importantly the official photographer. They will not want to have people think the photos are theirs (which is an obvious conclusion to make as hopefully your photos look pretty good) So by all means do it, but agree it in advance. If you do, then you may want to shoot RAW+JPG (if you don’t shoot just JPG anyway) so that your quickly downloaded photos will at least have some white balance and sharpening applied.

After the day

  • This is where you typically have a big advantage over the pro. They likely have other weddings to attend and process, whereas you probably only have the one. They need to take a lot of care in post processing whilst you can get some quick and dirty shots out quickly (with minimal white balance, crop, b&w conversion and sharpening) Their photos will likely take weeks to be ready whilst yours can be much quicker.
  • People like to see shots quickly after the wedding, especially in this age of social networking. Normally the first ones to make it out are Cousin Sarah’s 2MP camera phone shots on Facebook. Consider yourself as in the role of press photographer needing to file early. Get your shots downloaded, processed and up as quickly as possible after the event (next day for instance) and then put them where they can be seen. Facebook is great as you can tag people and people can comment
  • I take a two pronged approach. I stick them up on Facebook and also output a Flash based slideshow from Lightroom. Those on FB will find them quickly, and I send an email to the bride/groom and family/friends with the web address of the slideshow. Via either mechanism I only put up low res versions (e.g. 800px, 72dpi)
  • Sometimes I put them up on a photo printing site as well (such as Photobox) where high res versions are uploaded. However I do not make this public, and only add people on request. I am not interested in stealing business from the official photographer. I only do this for family weddings.
  • Never, ever consider selling your photographs. That way you really would be doing the official photographer a real dis-service. If somebody (e.g. family or the newlyweds) wants some of your photos then give them on a CD and let them print themselves.

Here are some example slideshows:

General technical tips and comments

  • Plan what lens you will likely need for situations and be prepared. With one body you are going to need to do the occasional lens change.
  • Stick with what you know of your camera. It’s not the time to experiment. If you normally shoot in Program mode, then don’t start playing with other modes (unless the camera really can’t cope with the conditions)
  • I tend to shoot in aperture priority as I value control of depth of field over all else. Therefore my flash gets used for fill and the camera always exposes the scene using available light. I rely on my relatively fast f2.8 lens and IS to get away with quite slow shutter speeds (often 1/15th for example). This give me the most natural photos, but does mean I am at the mercy of camera shake and subject movement. I often need to dial up the ISO very high for these reasons. On my 400D that means lots of noise and therefore lots of B&W conversions and Noise Ninja!
  • I often forget to adjust ISO and find that some shots are unnecessarily noisy. I need to get better at keeping a constant check on my settings for each scene and not being afraid to make adjustments
  • I always use a Stofen Omni-bounce and/or bounce flash rather than use direct flash to avoid nasty shadows and keep a natural look
  • Not every shot should be taken at a height of 5ft. Get down low, and get up high. I’ve found that willingness to do this leads to some great shots (see the one at the top of this post and the one of the girls drinking orange as examples)

Final thoughts

As stated at the start, I find that weddings are often the best opportunity to practice and improve my photography nowadays. However, as should be clear, I try very hard to make sure that I enjoy and appreciate the real reason I am there. I have been honoured to attend the most special day in two people’s lives and I am not there to officially record it. That being said, there is no reason why you cannot learn from and improve from these opportunities. It is also important to remember that your photos do not need to be perfect. In fact, the type of environments and lighting you find at weddings can often be very challenging. Every time I’ve looked over my shots I have an initial wave of enthusiasm at the fantastic shots I’ve got, but then apply a more critical eye over them and spot the focusing errors, camera shake, bad exposure choices etc. All of this I learn from and get better over time. Remember that you are not on the hook to produce the stunning record of the day that every couple expects – that’s what the pro is paid for (and you get a new-found respect for the amount they charge, believe me!) Your shots just need to be good enough, and in every case I’ve received lovely compliments from people who didn’t expect to see “such professional” photos so soon after the wedding.

Of course, there is a huge gap between amateur guest photography and the real thing, and it is definitely something that I’d think very, very long and hard about if I were ever asked. I’d certainly be off to hire a 5D and that 70-200 f2.8 L IS!

(55mm, f5.0, 1/40th, ISO 1600, Flash fired)