Filmmaking for Wedding Photographers

by Lindsay Comstock

© Picturesque Photos by Amanda

Filmmaker Sarah Pendergraft getting a key shot during a reception.

May 07, 2014

Sure, most photographers today are equipped with the filmmaking technology in their DSLR cameras, but there is much more to thinking like a filmmaker than meets the eye. Where does a still-image photographer begin? “The most important thing to remember about filmmaking is that it’s still photography,” says New Jersey-based wedding filmmaker Rob Adams. “A lot of the same principles still apply.” Here, we look at eight principles of image making and how they can be applied to motion.

Composition
In photography, composition is a key element. The eye cannot be drawn in and around a frame without paying attention to the Rule of Thirds or understanding how depth of field changes one’s perspective on a scene. 

While these same concepts apply in the moving image, Adams reminds that you have to stop thinking of scenes in terms of a single frame, but instead over time. For the beginner, he cautions, “Don’t try to get too complex too fast—don’t start moving the camera, don’t start thinking of motion in terms of point A to point B; start thinking in terms of motion in one place.” He explains that it’s easier to start with a subject that’s stationary. From this perspective, he explains, it’s easy to think of lighting, composition and the Rule of Thirds in the same way one would think about framing a photographic image.

Sarah Pendergraft of PenWeddings reminds would-be movie-making auteurs that you can no longer shoot vertically. “And you can’t arbitrarily crop an image to suit the surroundings (like a tall archway or panoramic view),” she says. “Keep in mind the aspect ratio you plan to deliver in, and shoot accordingly. Just like in photography, the eye will be pulled to the brightest part of an image (or the spot with the strongest contrast).“Practice your moving shots, but don’t discount the power of a well-framed static shot,” she says. “Not every clip has to move.” 


Laura + James | Watermark Community Church Wedding from Sarah Pendergraft on Vimeo.


180-Degree Rule
A new rule photographers need to consider in filmmaking is the 180-degree rule, a concept where characters or objects in a scene are connected along an imaginary axis; the camera remains on one side of the axis in order to help the viewer understand spacial relationships between the subjects within a scene. “Learn the 180-degree rule and learn it well,” Pendergraft says. “Where you place your cameras during moments like the ceremony, toast and garter and bouquet toss need to follow the 180-degree rule. It’s the reason football games are always shot from one side of the field (in addition to the end zones). If team A is running to the left on your TV screen, and suddenly we cut to a shot where team A is now running to the right, it’s confusing.”

But in most art, rules can be broken if they are first understood. “We do sometimes break this rule during ceremonies, but that’s because we know how to shoot on certain lines, and edit in such a way as to get from one shot to the next without it feeling jarring,” Pendergraft says. 

Adams says that composition changes when the scene is moving. Then you have to think about different kinds of shots “to move the viewer’s eye around the screen and tell the story;” in other words, the close-up (details about the subject), the medium shot (action of the moment), the wide shot (to take the viewer out of the scene and show an overall perspective of what’s happening). “Composition, when thought of that way, is how you tell stories over time in the fourth dimension,” he says.

Rule of Thirds
When it comes to the Rule of Thirds, Pendergraft says, it’s similar in both mediums. “We will occasionally break the rule intentionally if we’re being artistic or trying to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer, but not during what I call the ‘meat and potato’ moments like the vows and toasts.”

Adams echoes her sentiment. “Film is one of those things where sometimes you can forget about the Rule of Thirds and it works.” Because it’s about composing within a moving scene, not for each frame, he explains that it doesn’t matter if each frame is perfectly composed according to this rule.

“I like to use what I call ‘Extreme Thirds,’” Adams says. “Put the viewer’s eye on the left of the screen as far as it can go, and then cut to an object on the right side of the screen. That’s what keeps things visually interesting.”   

Justin and Julia AZ Wedding from Switzerfilm on Vimeo.


Focus
Switzerfilm founder Joseph Switzer says one of the major problems photographers have when first trying their hand at filmmaking is focusing the shot. “They aren’t used to manually focusing, and they’re used to carrying a camera,” he says. He suggests not hand-holding a camera when capturing motion, but rather using one of three tools to get that crisp shot: a monopod, sliders and a glide cam (a stabilizing device that allows the videographer to run without camera shake). 

Pendergraft agrees that while it’s easier to achieve a shallow depth of field with DSLRs, actually learning how to focus between scenes is something new. “Coming from a world of auto-focus, you now have to learn how to manually pull focus,” she explains. “There are a handful of DSLRs out there with auto-focus in video mode, but I’m still not sure I would trust it in crucial moments like the bride walking down the aisle.”

Adams cautions against relying on shallow DOF for narrative. “A lot of times photographers like to shoot in shallow focus because it looks good. But they’re ignoring the basic fundamentals of filmmaking—which is storytelling.”

Storytelling
How do you begin to tell a story cohesively over time, throughout scenes? Adams explains that for short or feature films with a narrative, “storyboarding will give you a blueprint,” but for weddings he uses shot lists. 
Pendergraft says while she doesn’t necessarily use shot lists for filming a wedding, she does have a good idea of the types of shots she needs going into the day. “The biggest thing for a photographer to remember is that you have to learn to look at continuity in a whole new light. A photo that may not feel random at all in the middle of a blog post or album, may—as a video clip—feel totally out of place in the same location in a film because of the flow of the video and the song you’re using.”

Because shooting video requires the artist to show more within a given scene, Switzer says that variety is essential. “You don’t want to take your clients to the same locations,” he says. “You want to go to different locations that are more grand and beautiful.” 

Lighting
“There are lots of ways to light people when it comes to photography, but for video you have less choices. You have to think faster,” Switzer says. This, Adams explains, is because you have to think in terms “of lighting over an entire scene; you have to think about lighting a room and how the subject will move in that space,” primarily because continuity is so essential. The technology is different, too, because lighting must be continuous. 

As in still photography, however, natural light can be best. “We always try to use natural light as much as we can,” says Switzer. “If we’re at a [dark] reception, we set up one or two battery-powered LED lights. [But often] we’re dragging brides to windows and grooms to hotel lobbies, fighting to get them to good natural light.” 

If natural light is not an option, Switzer recommends taking full advantage of reflected fill light from still photographers while they’re doing shots like close-up portraits of the bride. 

“The same rules apply evenly to both [still and video], you just have to learn how to achieve the look you want without flash, and without the ease of a quick burn here or dodge there in post,” Pendergraft says. Like Switzer and Adams, she only recommends setting up lights at receptions. “In those moments where the lighting may not be totally ideal, remember, there is no fill flash. Also keep in mind that if you’re in a space where you don’t like the color temperature, you can’t say, ‘I’ll just make it black and white.’ Black-and-white has a whole different feeling in video, as if it’s a ‘flashback’ or a memory of a time gone by. If there is suddenly a black-and-white clip in the middle of a color film, it can be jarring.”

Adams’ other words of wisdom? “Don’t ever put your light on top of a camera. It’s the worst thing you can do for your image.”

FLY :: Feature Wedding Film :: The Ashford Estate :: Weddings of Distinction from Rob Adams Films on Vimeo.


Audio
While audio is thankfully not an issue in still photography, it belies a skill all its own in filmmaking. Adams puts it best when he says, “The acquisition of audio is a separate art from the film itself; putting the two together is the art of filmmaking.” But he warns, “Do not go cheap on audio.”

Bad audio “can kill a beautiful film,” Pendergraft says. “Solid, clean audio matters more than the most epic of shots.” And this is because audio ties in the narrative. “It’s not enough just to get the shot, you need the story behind it,” she says. “This could come from the vows, the minister, toasts, interviews or special moments like the first look. Your films will be so much more compelling if you have strong audio to pull people in.”  

Switzer has a different philosophy altogether: “I have 99 problems and audio ain’t one,” he jokes. “Don’t do it.” Why? “It’s a different era,” he says, and most of his current clients are asking for music videos instead of traditional wedding videos. However, in the simplest terms: “If you do want to interview a subject in your video, you have to use wireless mics rigged to the camera, have headphones on to make sure it’s perfect, light the subject and do it in a quiet room.”

Editing
Photographers are used to editing their work, but the workflow is different when editing film. Pendergraft warns, “Be prepared for it to take twice as long as your photo editing did—if not longer.”

But Switzer, who successfully shot and edited a video in 90 minutes during a class at this year’s WPPI, says that it shouldn’t be daunting with software like the newest version of Final Cut Pro. He recommends watching video-editing tutorials online to understand the process.

Adams agrees: “If you’re going to be doing your own editing, invest time learning the tools and software.” But, he says, the video editing learning curve is “very steep.” This, however, shouldn’t be a deterrent to new shooters. “Some of the best films I’ve seen only involve straight cuts from shot to shot,” Adams says. He explains that in the beginning, all a filmmaker needs to understand are the basic features of an editing program, relying on visuals captured in-camera and audio to tell the story. He cautions against over-shooting video and taking on difficult projects too quickly. “If you want to learn, shoot in short clips,” he says. “Don’t go out and try to shoot a wedding if you’ve never shot video.”   

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