Depth of field and light at a Wedding or Bar Mitzvah

Many wedding and Bar Mitzvah photographers find themselves in a bit of a pickle when they are first starting out.  You’ve looked at hundreds of websites and seen all these incredible, artistic wedding pictures and decided “I want to do that.”   So, you buy all the equipment, flashes and fast lenses that you can afford and set out to create beautiful, moving images.   You spend all this time and energy in pursuit of the artistic and then suddenly discover that you can’t shoot the mundane … and let me tell you, there is a lot of mundane to shoot at a 7-hour wedding.  

It’s not our fault that we don’t always learn how to take these shots.   They aren’t the sort of shots that get featured on the web or in the pages of a magazine.  It’s great to see those beautiful shots of an outdoor wedding and the incredible formals but  what about  the other 500 pictures  the photographer  took? You know, the ones in the dark hall with the dancing people? You don’t see many of those on the ol’ website because they aren’t quite as dynamic.  Still, being able to take a good table shot or dancing shot is every bit as important as the perfectly lit formal.  For some clients it may be more important, depending on who is sitting at the table or dancing on the floor.  

My first rule of photography is this: Get the shot. First, learn how to get the shot, any shot, in any situation.  Then, learn how to get it in an artistic and creative way (if needed). Don’t spend so much time learning the “hard” shots that you neglect to learn the “easy” ones.  You may find that the “easy” ones aren’t so easy after all.

Let’s take a look at  some pictures from a recent Bat Mitzvah that I photographed in Tampa.  I’ll start with a “hard” one:

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This picture was taken in about three minutes.  We had just finished all the family shots and the party was about to start.  I asked for a few minutes to shoot the client alone and this was the result.  Now, it’s true that a shot like this can require a lot of learning. I’m using a strobe mounted on a tripod with a shoot-thru umbrella.  I’ve balanced my shutter speed and f-stop so that I get the background I want (mostly dark but not pitch black) and can still hand-hold my camera without fear of shake.  I can quickly figure out the correct flash exposure because I have practiced it a hundred times.  As a photographer, I’m proud of my ability to be able to take a picture like this on location fast.  It takes work to be able to do it right (and quickly) and it’s obvious that it’s done by a pro.  Uncle Bob did not take this shot.  (Still, there are a few things I would fix if I had more time…)

Now, here’s a picture that’s not so obvious:

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In many ways it’s just a snapshot and it doesn’t necessarily stand out as a “pro” shot.  But it’s still important and sooo easy to screw up.  The “hard” pictures are great but you can’t fill a 32-page album with them.  You need a lot more. These shots are the bread-and-butter of the album (which makes the fancy shots the icing-on-the-cake?)  Here’s how I shot the picture above:

My first consideration is light. How much do I have, how much do I need.  I’ve written before about my tendency to use a second strobe on a tripod to get more dance floor light and that’s what I did here.  I have a Canon 580EX mounted on a tripod to my right, pointed at the ceiling at 1/4 power with a full CTO gel.  I have a 580EXII on-camera on ETTL with a gel as well.   The on-camera strobe is usually pointed behind me so it acts mostly as fill.  Now I have enough light and I quickly test it at the start of the event.  f4.5 @1/200 ISO 1600.  I’m using a lens that goes to f2.8 but I am paranoid about depth-of-field so if I can shoot a little higher, I will (more on that later).  

A word about shutter speed:   It’s possible to stop action at very slow speeds by “freezing” the action with the flash.  The problem with this technique is that you are usually shooting at a slow speed so that you can get background light into the shot and if you are getting that light, it’s usually just enough to create blur or “ghosting.”  “Dragging the shutter”   with dancing people can be a disaster and many times you won’t notice the ghosting until you get home.

My second consideration is blur and it comes in two flavors: movement and depth-of-field (DOF).  The movement part is taken care of because I have enough light to shoot at 1/200.  Here’s how I tackle DOF:

Shoot far and wide.

DOF is affected by 3 things: aperture, focal length and distance to subject. If you can shoot far and wide you will be in DOF heaven.  So, for this shot I am shooting a moving subject, in a field of people so I want to get as much DOf as I can.  Here’s the original picture:

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Now you can see the shadow created by my off-camera flash on the back wall.   The beauty of the giant megapixel camera is that we can shoot so much wider and crop later.  The best part is that the wider we shoot, the greater the DOF … which means we can crop closer and still have good focus.  Cropping doesn’t scare me because no one will be buying a 20×24 print of this picture.  It will probably be smaller than a 4×6 by the time it gets put into the album.  Cropping also eliminates the shadow on the wall. If I had used direct, on-camera flash the shadow would be behind her and impossible to remove.

Let me be clear that I’m not claiming that the “easy” picture on this page  is an  award winner.  My point is that you can’t make every picture an award-winning shot and you shouldn’t try to. Wedding and Bat Mitzvah clients want those incredible images but they also want a lot of pictures of the party … and they want those pictures to be well-lit and in-focus.  People will spend more time looking at the album page that  contains twelve good shots of friends and family at the party than they will the page that has one incredibly lit, stand-alone picture.  The perfect-pose, perfectly-lit picture is art but the great party picture is life.

The trick is to learn what you can do given the circumstances of your surroundings.  All of your party pictures don’t have to have huge DOF.  Get creative with tight-focus and shallow DOF all you want but at the same time, be able to get enough light on the subject and everything in focus if needed.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. My pleasure!

  2. I’m now starting out in photography and your comment about learning to take the “easy” shots and not only focusing on the hard, artistic ones stood out for me. Very useful information! Thanks…

  3. Thank you for your tips!!!
    I have friends son’s Bar Mitzvah coming up and they asked me to take pictures. I am not a pro and doing it to help them and because just love to take pictures. I am a bit nervous, want to make them proud and happy with pictures for their once in a life time event. Reading your post was big help, Thank you Booray Perry!

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