I was talking with a friend of my wife’s yesterday and she asked, “Can you help me pick out a new camera? I want to take better pictures of my kids.”
I get this sort of question all the time and it’s a tough one to answer. Most people don’t understand that good photography comes in levels (like Donkey Kong). Sure, it starts with a decent DSLR but then it moves up through many different levels of skill. The real question you have to ask yourself when you want to take better pictures is: How much time am I willing to dedicate towards learning to take good photographs? Then I can help you choose your equipment.
The same question applies to wedding photography. Search the web and you will find prices from $500 – $5000 for a wedding photographer. How can that be? Well, it’s all about the levels and like Donkey Kong there are several different ladders you can choose to climb if you want to reach the big gorilla. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about the “Flash” ladder. (I’m a wedding photographer in Tampa, FL)
Take a tour of wedding photography websites in your area and you might notice a trend: Many of the sights feature outdoor weddings. In fact, judging by the websites, you might think that everybody gets married outdoors! They don’t. In fact, most don’t. The reason there are so many outdoor weddings featured on these websites is because they require little or no flash to shoot. Shooting a portrait of the bride outside is much easier than shooting in a church.
So, you want to be a “flash” photographer. Here’s the levels you will work through. (Where you stop is up to you.)
Built in flash. This is the pure amateur level using the built in flash that comes on the camera. I always tell people, “If you are going to use the built-in flash, don’t even bother with a DSLR. Just buy a tiny point and shoot that will fit in your pocket.” The DSLR is a waste of money without a dedicated flash (except for outdoor work, etc).
The dedicated flash. The person at this level has moved up to a dedicated flash (Speedlight) and thinks the world is their oyster. Look! I have a big flash on my camera! Their pictures are better and seldom have red-eye. Because the flash is more powerful, their pictures look better than the point-and-shoot people so they think they might just be qualified to shoot a wedding. They are wrong.
The flash diffuser. After playing around with their Speedlight for a while, this person has decided that they want more coverage from their flash so they buy a flash diffuser. There many to choose from (Omni-Bounce, Lightsphere, etc). Now when they shoot a wedding they get a broad-based light that bounces everywhere. This is great because there are hardly any shadows at all. It’s also bad because there are hardly any shadows at all. (BTW, there are certainly times when a diffuser is the right tool for the job. Just not all the time)
The bounce flash. This photographer has begun to notice that all of his diffused pictures look a little flat because there is no contrast between light and dark areas. So, he takes off the diffuser and starts to learn how to bounce his flash. This level is a big step up from the one below it. It’s easy to slap on the diffuser and fire away but it takes a little more work to find a good surface to bounce off of and position yourself so that you can use it (plus adjust your flash power to get the desired effect). However, once you learn to bounce your flash it becomes addictive (like crystal meth or “Baywatch”) and you suddenly find that you are incapable of using a diffuser (and forget ever pointing the flash straight ahead). Bounce flash photographers are frequently seen with a big bounce card attached to their flash although they would prefer to bounce off some big surface.
Off-camera lighting. This is the final level and the one that requires the most time and money. Now you need a second flash, radio-remote triggers, tripods and the skill to use it all. This photographer will use off-camera flash for the formals and possibly at the reception (a second flash at a reception will give you lots of options for use as a main, fill or kicker).
So, if you are going to be a wedding photographer who uses flash, you need to decide what level you want to attain. I started at the bottom and worked my way up rung-by-rung… each time convinced that I would stop at the next level. The good news is: the higher the level, the more you can charge.