Capture the scene: tips from a pro for shooting outdoor weddings

Iceland-based wedding photographer Steph Zakas explains how to tackle the challenges of capturing a couple's special day if you're shooting for the first time.
A newlywed couple embracing on a beach as the sun sets, casting them in silhouette.

Organising a wedding is not easy at the best of times, and the past year has thrown an additional set of complications at couples looking to tie the knot. Is it any wonder so many brides and grooms are swapping large, traditional weddings for much smaller celebrations? The trend for intimate ceremonies is on the rise, particularly in outdoor locations with Instagram-friendly backdrops. And when numbers are tight, couples are more likely to rely on friends or family to take photos, rather than including a professional wedding photographer on the guest list.

With this in mind, we turned to wedding photographer and planner Steph Zakas for advice on how aspiring photographers can capture the beauty and intimacy of a couple's special day. Steph, who specialises in helping couples planning to elope, started out photographing small weddings in New York, USA, before moving her business 4,500km across the world to Iceland.

And while the tiny European island's stark landscapes certainly don't hurt her photographs, shooting outdoor weddings in one of the world's most extreme environments can definitely be challenging. "There's been a bunch of times when we've had to hide in a cave until a crazy hailstorm blows through," she laughs. "It's a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing!"

Here, Steph shares her top advice on how to capture one of the most important events in your friends' lives. Even if you don't have the benefit of a career's worth of experience, Steph's tips should elevate your photos, whether the sun is shining or you're in the middle of a blizzard.

Pick the right kit

A groom carries a bunch of flowers up a rugged hillside, his bride stands at the top, her dress flowing in the breeze.

A great shot not only requires a stunning backdrop, but also kit that you can rely on. Steph uses a professional Canon EOS 5D series camera but it's possible to achieve a similar look with more affordable models, such as the Canon EOS 250D or the Canon EOS M6 Mark II. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 85mm, 1/4000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Zakas Photography

First of all, Steph stresses that you shouldn't rely on a smartphone to photograph a friend's wedding. "A professional camera enables you to control every aspect of your image. Even the artsier stuff – I don't edit in post-production, I do it all in the camera," she explains.

Steph describes her main cameras – the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and its predecessor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III – as "wonderful" because their sturdy construction means they can withstand even the most adventurous wedding shoot. If you're looking for a more affordable model, the Canon EOS 250D features a 24.1MP sensor for sharper, colour-packed images. It's also incredibly lightweight – perfect for outdoor wedding shoots – and features a moveable screen so you can get creative with angles.

Alternatively, the highly portable and versatile Canon EOS M6 Mark II can capture superb 32.5MP images packed with detail and atmosphere, whatever the weather might throw at you. You can also try fine-tuning your images with the camera's Creative Assist mode, which enables you to make small image adjustments and create multiple versions of the same picture, each with a different look and feel.

Experiment with settings before the day

A newlywed couple standing in a wild, unspoilt landscape, as the low sun casts long shadows on the ground.

Steph recommends playing about with the settings and taking some practise shots in order to get a good feel for your camera and the different effects that are possible. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 17mm, 1/800 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © Zakas Photography

Steph recommends that true beginners should spend some time getting to grips with their equipment before the big day. Your camera is a tool, she says, so you'll need to learn how to use it. The Canon Photo Companion app features exercises, tutorials and tips that are customised to suit your camera model, skill level and interests. "There are lots of different variables and ways to achieve the effects that you want, so play with the camera's functions ahead of time. Learn the rules then break the rules and see what you like," Steph advises.

A good place to start would be experimenting with adjusting the f-stop, or aperture, and noting how the amount of light you allow in alters shadows and the whole look and feel of an image. "A lot of photographers like to shoot at the lowest f-stop possible," Steph explains. "But shooting at a higher f-stop means you get more detail. More detail means getting to see how the shadows change across the image, and doing more justice to the landscape and scenery."

Swap instructions for 'soft direction'

Two female newlyweds kiss on a rocky coastline. The train of one woman's dress billows in the breeze.

Rather than set poses, which can appear awkward, Steph recommends using 'soft direction' to encourage more natural-looking shots. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm, 1/320 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © Zakas Photography

Many couples now prefer natural, candid shots of their wedding day rather than more traditional photos. This is good news for aspiring photographers who might not be confident enough to direct a photoshoot, but even beginners can improve their shots with a little guidance. As Steph explains, "I don't ask the couple to pose – I use something called 'soft direction'. I guide them gently through movement and then take the photos."

People can become self-conscious when photographers are taking a close-up of an intimate moment, so Steph tries to be as hands-off as possible by using language that isn't too directional. She'll tell the couple to "snuggle in a little closer" or ask them to "keep each other a little warmer because it's kind of cold" rather than instructing them to pose in a particular position.

The Canon EOS M6 Mark II is an ideal tool for capturing candid moments. Compact and lightweight, it won't hold you back or become a distraction to your subjects. In fact, people might not even notice that you're holding a camera at all, which can help keep movements and expressions authentic. Plus, the Canon EOS M6 Mark II can shoot 32.5MP pictures at a speed of up to 14fps (frames per second) – with continuous autofocusing – which means you can capture a full range of motion while keeping your subject pin sharp.

Keep your distance

Three couples stand several metres apart in a rugged landscape.

Social distancing rules have forced many couples to keep wedding guest numbers to a minimum – and provided challenges for photographers. Even in normal circumstances, Steph prefers to give her couples some space. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 40mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © Zakas Photography

Creating a relaxed and casual atmosphere, in which couples don't feel awkward or tense while they're being photographed, helps Steph capture what she calls the bride and groom's "true chemistry". "A lot of photographers come in very close with a 35mm lens and shoot from up high and have the bride and groom press their faces together," Steph says. "But from experience, I've learned that most couples don't like that."

Steph tries to give her subjects as much space as she can throughout the day. Her go-to portrait lens is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM because of its excellent range for taking close-ups and the fact that it doesn't distort people's faces. "It allows me to stand far enough back so that I won't hear if the couple are saying something sweet to each other," she says. "It means I'm not being intrusive and they don't feel as if I'm in their space. I don't want to be all up in their business because this is their moment." The more affordable Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens combines a short telephoto focal length with a large maximum aperture and fast autofocus speed to deliver flattering portraits that are sharp and clear.

While Steph keeps her equipment to a minimum when shooting weddings, she always carries a longer telephoto lens to accentuate the spectacular scenery. She uses a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens to create a distinct contrast between the couple and any large landmarks. This has the effect of compressing the perspective, so Iceland's huge mountains and glaciers in the background appear closer to the subject in the foreground, as Steph explains, making the image more impressive.

The Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM is a lightweight and compact telephoto lens that is perfect paired with crop-sensor cameras, such as the Canon EOS 250D. Its powerful telephoto performance enables you to get close to distant subjects, while the image stabilisation technology helps to reduce any blur caused by camera shake.

Make the most of the light

A newlywed couple embrace while standing on a small boulder. Shot from a distance, they are framed by a gap in a rocky outcrop.

For striking shots, experiment with different lighting and try shooting in bright daylight or at dusk. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 17mm, 1/160 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © Zakas Photography

Steph loves to play with Iceland's unusual natural light in her photographs. The sun sets on the island for just three hours a day between mid-May and mid-August, and there's just five hours of daylight in winter. "If the sun is low – in the post-summer months especially – you can get some really cool flares with a wide lens, so I like to play around with that," Steph says.

The tiny Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM lens for Canon's EF-M mount cameras, including the Canon EOS M6 Mark II, is perfect for wedding portraits. The wide angle means you can fit more of a beautiful landscape in the frame, while the wide maximum aperture means you can shoot at faster shutter speeds, making it easier to capture sharp images when shooting handheld.

If you're shooting in bright midday sun, you might need to compensate for the shadows cast in the contours of your subjects' faces. Your camera's built-in flash can help with this, or you could consider bringing a reflector. By holding a reflector at waist-level and pointing it towards your subjects, you will bounce some natural light back up to their faces to fill in the shadows.

Aside from faces, when shooting in bright or direct sunlight you will have very bright areas of your scene, which can make it hard to expose correctly. In these conditions it's best to use your camera's Spot Metering mode, which takes a measurement from a single point within a scene. Once you have metered from your 'spot', your camera will then set exposure settings designed to make that area a midtone (everything between the highlights and shadows). You can also use your spot metering in conjunction with AE (Auto Exposure) Lock. This allows you to position your 'spot' over the area you want to meter from, then 'lock' the exposure. This enables you to then recompose the shot.

Work with the weather

A newlywed couple standing at the white doors of a small black church. A rainbow curves into the grey sky behind them.

The weather can be unpredictable, so Steph suggests embracing whatever conditions you're faced with and finding a way to make it work. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 40mm, 1/320 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Zakas Photography

While your couple might not be getting married in a location with such extreme weather as Iceland, it could still be cold and wet on the big day. "The wind actually blows out car windows here," says Steph.

The trick when shooting in inclement conditions, is to work with the weather rather than against it. A breezy day, for example, can be useful for showcasing the details in a veil or a flowing dress. "If there's snow forecast or a rainstorm coming in, I love using a wide lens to catch some of it," says Steph. "If you get droplets around the edges which the light then hits, it creates a really cool effect." Don't be put off taking photographs just because the weather isn't perfect – the day should be remembered as it is.

In heavy rain or snowstorms, Steph usually shoots rapidly for about a minute or so, then ushers the bride and groom inside to warm up. "It's really all about making the most of your time," she says. As a beginner shooting in cold conditions, it's even more important that you practise and experiment with settings before the big day so you can keep things quick. It might also be worth shooting a few test shots before asking the couple to step into frame.

Steph also advises bringing quick-dry towels to wipe off your lenses, and heated hand warmers to ensure your fingers aren't too cold to navigate the function controls. Another tip when shooting in low temperatures is to bring extra batteries, because the cold can drain batteries faster.

Whether you're shooting a micro wedding in spectacular surroundings or a low-key affair with just a few close family and friends, following these hints and tips should help you capture some of the joy and emotion of the magical day.

Written by Loren Cotter

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