Shooting A Destination Wedding in Hawaii with Matthew Saville
Today we’re going to run through a destination wedding on the island of Oahu, Hawaii which I recently photographed for my wedding photography studio, Lin & Jirsa! I wanted to share a few images and a few tips with you all, because destination weddings always seem to be a delicate balance of what to bring, how to pack it and travel safely, and of course how to not only get great images in any condition, but also how to guarantee their safety with proper backup and transportation procedures when returning home from your destination.
The Flight Home – 2008
How To Pack For A Destination Wedding
A little background: I have personally been traveling around the U.S. to photograph weddings for six or seven years now, and the studio I shoot with has also traveled internationally for a number of weddings. One thing has stuck out to me over the years: Be prepared! It’s not just the boy scout motto, it’s also definitely the out-of-town wedding photographer’s motto. Be ready for any contingency.
If you have a minute, we also have some specific, more extensive articles on now to travel with your camera gear. Michelle Ford talks about international travel here in this article, and in another article titled Airline Travel Tips For Photographers I expand on the tips you’ll read below.
Simply put, the name of the game is to pack light without leaving behind anything mission-critical. The next name of the game, for me, is to split up your gear into different bags so that if one bag gets lost, you can still finish the job.
This usually means that I bring three camera bodies, with at least one of them in a different bag than the rest of my gear. Or if I have a 2nd photographer who shoots the same camera system as I do, I might only bring two camera bodies. (Having a 2nd shooter who uses your same system is definitely a very good idea for travel weddings!)
I pack 2-4 “nano” size light stands plus a travel-size tripod, usually split up between my own checked luggage and my 2d shooter’s checked luggage. They used to allow tripods and light stands as carry-on items, however it’s been a few years since I tried this so hopefully someone can comment and update us on that. Personally, this would be the FotoPro C5C Tripod and the Manfrotto Nano 5001B light stand.
Now this is just a matter of personal preference and convenience, but I also like to use camera bodies that are “mid-sized pro bodies”, IE, not the full flagship sized bodies such as the Nikon D4 or the Canon 1DX. Sure, you could probably fit these size cameras into a travel kit, but I prefer to use camera bodies like the Nikon D800, Nikon D700, and the Canon 5D Mk3 or the Canon 6D because they’re much more compact.
One of the reasons why I like these size camera bodies is because I prefer to fit at least one camera body under my seat. Many other destination wedding photographers have told me their horror stories of overhead compartment size regulations and availability, so I just don’t trust that option anymore. Believe it or not, I can fit two pro camera bodies and 2-3 lenses plus a small laptop in my Tenba Messenger Bag (or an UNDFIND One Bag) and still be able to fit it all under my seat!
I like to bring two of the same exact type of camera body, so that if anything happens to one of the cameras I won’t have the disadvantage of adapting to a completely different camera interface on the fly, especially an inferior one. Of course if you own multiple pro cameras and know them all very, very well, this is not an issue.
Actually despite owning multiple full-frame pro camera bodies, I’ve recently been using my own personal travel camera (the lightweight Nikon D5300) for a lot of professional work! However keep in mind that the only reason I feel comfortable doing this is because I also have my pro body right there at my side (on my Spider Holster) in case I need its added performance and reliability.
You’ll still want to protect your overhead compartment gear, though, and the best thing for that is either a Pelican case or a Thinktank Airport style rolling bag. Just make sure it has wheels! Also, be sure to check and double-check the overhead bin size requirements of your particular flight, and note that not all planes are created equal. TIP: The older models of Boeing 767 aircraft sometimes have much smaller overhead bins than the newer jets, so beware! Also, any smaller aircraft that might be necessary for a connecting flight, such as you might require for travel to resort destinations in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or various Pacific Islands.
Regarding lenses, I usually just find that I can’t skimp here. I still need my full-sized Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, …and a handful of others including one or two primes and some sort of ultra-wide lens. For macro photos of rings and such, I might opt for an extension tube or close-up filter instead of a dedicated macro lens, but I haven’t done that since I discovered the tiny little manual focus Tamron 90mm f/2.5 Macro lens that is incredibly sharp.
Last but not least, as far as lighting is concerned I also don’t skimp. Then again, my lighting setup is already very small and compact, so it’s no trouble to bring all four of my wireless hotshoe flashes. I use old Nikon SB80DX flashes (look on Ebay) controlled with Radiopopper JRX triggers. (Click here to read my RadioPopper JRX review.) I also bring one or two compact shoot-through umbrellas, the type that double-fold so that I can fit them into my checked bag or overhead luggage.
Oh and don’t forget to bring oodles of batteries, and battery chargers if you’re going to be shooting for multiple days. I like to have enough batteries and memory cards to shoot 2-3 entire days before my reserves get low. And once again, split things up between your bags. If you put every single battery yo own in your overhead Pelican and that thing somehow goes missing, you’re in trouble!
Usually, all of this can fit into a single checked bag, overhead bin luggage, and an under-seat personal bag. Of course if I’m also working on projects for SLR Lounge or personal photography, then I may have to pay for a second checked bag, but most photographers should be able to pack relatively light.
Oh, and one more thing. LABEL EVERYTHING!!! When you’re not on your home turf, it is all the more critical that every piece if gear that you bring, ESPECIALLY your individual memory cards, is properly labeled with your contact information. It also doesn’t hurt to try and impress upon people just how important certain things are to you. (See the above image.)
Destination Wedding Photos
One of my pet peeves (jokingly!) as a photographer is that other pros seem to start calling themselves “destination wedding photographers” the minute they hop on one plane to shoot a wedding in another city. Is it really a destination wedding, if the couple and most of their family actually live in that city? Not really. In my book, it’s only a destination if everybody, including the couple and the guests, are traveling to the wedding. ;-) Personally I’ve always just marketed myself as “based in Southern California, available for travel”.
But I digress. Here is a collection of images that I and my 2nd shooter captured- they will be mostly the more technically challenging types of images, and not so much the regular, natural light / candid types of images. To see more image from this wedding, click here to check out the Lin & Jirsa blog entry!
Usually for hairspray images we’ll shoot entirely indoors in low light, but for the above image I wanted to capture the beautiful view from the balcony so I had to use two flashes at nearly full power in order to balance out the outdoor ambient light.
For the above image, I used a single RAW exposure and processed it using HDR techniques in order to gain the most out of the dynamic range available in the RAW file. Thankfully, this particular Nikon (Sony) sensor has ample DR!
This may look like an ordinary venue photo, but it would have required a ~10 ft ladder if I hadn’t used my “who needs aerial drones?” technique that involves holding my tripod way up in the air and either using self-timer or the camera’s built-in wifi to compose and capture images from a very high angle. You gotta watch your shutter speed though when you’re taking such shaky pictures! Usually for ultra-wide angles, I find that 1/500 sec. is a minimum.
This image is a two-shot HDR blend. I used a tripod to ensure my composition would remain perfect during bracketed exposures, and then I used my camera’s bracketing to click three separate exposures. (I usually use 2 EV increments when I can, however some Nikons only offer 1-EV increments and therefore require 5-7 shot brackets)
With dynamic range being what it is lately, and with the powerful processing engine of Adobe Lightroom 5, I often just wind up using two of the three bracketed exposures- one for the highlights, one for the shadows. With the right Lightroom processing and Photoshop blending, the image won’t look all weird like what most people think of when they hear the term “HDR”.
I thought about creating the above image as an HDR bracket, however a single exposure wound up being all I needed to preserve highlights if I used all four of my wireless flashes at full power.
The above image is a 3-shot panorama. I suppose you could say the Brenizer Method was used, but I wasn’t really thinking about that benefit at the time, …I was simply tight on space because there was a thorn bush right behind me! ;-)
Another image made by holding the camera ~10-15 ft. in the air on top of a tripod, and using self-timer or built-in wifi to click the shot.
I used a slight warming gel on the above image to finish off the portrait session because the sun slipped behind some clouds before it actually set.
The first dance image above was captured entirely with natural light. This is something I like to do for at least a handful of images throughout any wedding reception, because I feel that it is important to have images that accurately represent what the wedding guests remember seeing. Of course we’ll also prioritize the use of wireless flash and/or on-camera flash in order to capture closer images of people’s faces, etc.
I like to capture detail images like the above cake shot with just a touch of wireless flash, because while the ambient light is beautiful it can sometimes lack direction or shape. (Unless there is already a “pin light” specifically shining on it) As an alternate, if you have an assistant they can use a video light, or even a cell phone flashlight if you have a warming gel to hold over it!
For reception “action”, (which would also include toasts and other events, my go-to setup involves both an on-camera hotshoe flash and two, three, or even four wireless flashes set up around the room. The on-camera flash is bounced up towards the ceiling, usually angled slightly back instead of slightly forward, with a Gary Fong diffuser sans “lid” or a similar bounce card type modifier. I’ll usually set my on-camera flash to be in TTL mode at -3 or -1 EV, or manually if my shooting distance is going to be very similar for a while.
The off-camera wireless flashes are going to be set at a very low power, usually between 1/128 and 1/32 power, controlled manually. They are placed to the rear of wherever the action is taking place, usually to the left and right of the dance floor. This acts as an accent light to help give an edge to subjects if they are against a a darker background.
I find that at 16mm for action shots where my central sharpness is a priority, the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 serves as a fantastic lightweight full-frame “16mm prime” lens. It’s actually sharper than the 14mm primes in all but the extreme corners, and of course far lighter and smaller than the likes of a Nikon 14-24. (Click here to view an article that expands on this.)
As you can imagine, anywhere tropical is going to have unpredictable weather. The above image was created during the reception while a light rain was falling. In order to pull off a portrait such as this, I had to work quickly to set up the flashes, test the exposures and make adjustments using my RadioPopper JRX trigger, and then have the couple step into the frame. I had an assistant hold an umbrella over them while I framed the shot, and then had the assistant step out of the photo for just a few seconds.
This last image is a typical reception dance floor shot that captures the mood of the evening. I try and balance my own lighting with the ambient light so that the colors in the background aren’t washed out or cast into complete darkness. Usually this involves shooting wide open with whatever f/2.8 zoom or f/1.X prime I’m using, and at ISO 1600 or 3200 for most of the night. Both my on-camera flash and wireless flashes are going to be at relatively low brightness, although if the ceiling is very high and I’m bouncing my on-camera flash, it still might wind up at 1/4 power or 1/2 power even if it is barely illuminating my subjects.
Regarding my other camera settings for a wedding reception, I usually alternate between one-shot focusing so that my on-camera flash can help out with its red beam, and continuous focusing (AI-Servo) if the ambient light is bright enough for me to be able to track moving subjects around the room. I prefer to use back-button focus (AF-ON) for these situations, with my camera set to a moderate continuous frame rate of about 5 FPS.
How To Keep Destination Wedding Images Safe
If you think that backing up images for destination wedding photography is the same as any other, then you should probably read this article here about another photographer’s Hawaii wedding photography disaster.
Also, before we continue, read “Memory Card Backup Tips For Surviving Any Apocalypse” if you have a minute.
You can never be too careful. So, take your job seriously and don’t skimp on your backup procedures. Triple-check your backups, even open a few photos to make sure that the transfers didn’t cause any corruptions etc.
Here’s my personal procedure for keeping my clients’ wedding images safe:
- Just remember “3-2-1”:
Three copies, two different storage formats, and one of them goes off-site. Immediately! This usually means one copy is your un-formatted memory cards, another copy is a laptop or a backup device, and a third copy is an external hard drive or an additional memory card. It may be difficult to get a copy of your data off-site immediately if you’re traveling, but there are a few options. Some hotel rooms have a safe, that might be good enough. Or maybe your 2nd shooter is staying in a different hotel room, …or if you have a camera with dual card slots, you should have a single 64GB or 128GB memory card that contains your entire wedding and you can leave this with a wedding planner or the couple themselves.
- Keep one copy with you at all times!
No matter how many backups you make, if your gear gets lost or stolen then you’re out of luck. This means that if I go out for a little side tirp the day after the wedding, I keep my memory cards in my pocket and remain conscious of their presence at all times. Gepe makes watertight, crush-proof CF / SD cases if you need serious protection. Heck, even when I go to sleep that night after shooting the wedding, I would keep my memory cards with me on the bedside table, instead of leaving all my gear in another room on a desk or something.
- Send it home two different ways:
If you’re going to spend a whole day driving or flying home, consider creating an additional backup of your images and sending one copy home with your 2nd shooter, or mailing yourself a high-capacity SD card or USB drive, or as I mentioned earlier, leaving that small SD card or USB drive with your clients themselves.
- Consider Online Backup Options:
In some locations this may not be possible, but if you have any sort of half-decent internet connection then you can consider backing up at least medium-resolution JPG images to the internet, the very night of the wedding. I’ve tried shooting RAW+small JPG and then saving those JPG files to Dropbox.com or Copy.com, (or your own automatic cloud backup) plus I’ve also tried just shooting RAW and then using Lightroom to automatically sync ~5 megapixel JPG files to a host such as SmugMug.com.
So, there you have it folks! Thanks for reading, until next time, travel safe and happy clicking!
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