Save That Invitation

It’s only a piece of paper, but when things go awry it may be more valuable than a $100 bill!

I remember it like it was yesterday; it was a frigid day in February and I was sweating. Not the kind of good sweat hard work creates; it was a bad, nervous sweat. There I was, perspiration glistening on my forehead, sitting at a red light while snow mixed with sleet, occasionally pushed aside by my wipers, pounded on my windshield.


I had just watched the limousines jump the light and disappear into the mist as the wipers flipped back and forth. I was on edge because I had no idea where the church was! Not a name, not an address…. nothing!

In a state of mini panic, I glanced right, then left, hit the gas, ran the light, and took off after the limos. It has been said that to be a great wedding shooter one has to be human Valium. Well it’s hard to be human Valium when you’re in a state of panic.

Lesson learned, a photo sale gained?

That was 20 years ago and although (or because) I’ll never forget that helpless feeling, since then I’ve found better ways to insure that I know which church I’m going to today. At every bride’s home, before we start out on our trek to the church, I ask for a copy of the invitation so I can photograph it.

I create a mini-scene, featuring it along with props of the wedding day. The bouquet, the bride’s shoe, a ring boy’s pillow, or even the bride’s garter, can all be likely supporting actors to the star--the invitation. Often I’ll arrange my little still life on the bride’s train so the background is all white and lace.

As I shoot this picture, I make a point of mentioning to the bride that this photo will be a great leadoff for the album. I might as well do a little seed planting before the actual proof return.

Please stay tuned. This saga will continue after a few words from our invitation photography technique sponsor…

Warning: avoid white-out conditions

Photographing a close-up of a white invitation on a white background so that the type is legible and the invitation appears white is no easy feat!

In fact, a white invitation with bone-colored print is a difficult or impossible nightmare for almost all auto exposure systems. It’s a worse nightmare with a single flash on the camera…even with the latest and greatest whiz-bang TTL flash.

Often, with automation, proper exposure is almost a hit or miss proposition. The results: Either the print is legible and the white invitation is rendered as a medium gray, or the print is hopelessly overexposed and the invitation itself is rendered as a glaring blast of white.

To make matters worse, many of today’s classier invitations are embossed with borders or a design, and a blast from an on-the-camera flash will wipe out these important details.

But there are ways to make the invitation shot beautiful, while keeping the print legible, rendering the card stock as the correct tone, and getting the embossing to show.

One solution is to turn off your on-camera-flash, put your camera on a tripod so you can shoot at a small aperture, and take the picture by the soft directional sidelight that comes from a window. While the soft sidelight will help accentuate embossing on the invitation, to insure getting the correct exposure, you’re better off taking a reading with a separate, hand-held, incident exposure meter instead of a TTL or other type of reflective meter. Incident meters won’t be fooled by the overall light tones of the subject.

If there is no window with light streaming from it, you can accomplish a similar result by working with an off-camera flash and placing it almost 90?? from the lens axis, so that its beam skims the invitation’s surface. Using the off-camera light as the main light, you can even turn on your camera-mounted flash as a fill light if you set its exposure levels carefully.

For really great results, set your on-camera fill flash so that it puts out 2 or 3 f-stops less light than your main off-camera light. The real trick is to set your exposure for the main sidelight and not the on-camera fill light. As above, an incident meter exposure reading, in this case a flash meter reading, will work best.

If you are a novice or beginner, your best chance for success is to use continuous window light because it’s easier to pre-visualize the results. You should also try a second exposure using flash. Keep track of your camera settings on the flash shot because, by experimenting, you will eventually move past the novice or beginner stage. Rest assured, there will come a time when soft beautiful window light will not be an option. (Example: At a wedding held after dark.)

Photo at left was shot by window light while photo at right was shot using flash on camera. Note that in the window light photo, the embossing and design on the envelope flap looks more elegant. In the flash-on-camera photo, much of the detail is blown away. Of course, if you shoot digitally or scan an image shot on film, you can use a program like Photoshop to correct the brightness and contrast of the print in the flash-on-camera photograph, but this does nothing to restore the detail on the envelope flap. With your on-camera flash blasting away, this detail is lost forever!


And now…. back to our story

After I’ve gotten my invitation photo, I ask the bride if I can take the invitation along with me because there’s often another photo op later on in the day. Invariably, or at least in the few thousand weddings I’ve shot so far, the bride says yes and the invitation goes into my case.

While it might be true that I will shoot the invitation again (with two champagne glasses or propped on the wedding cake headpiece as likely possibilities) I have another, ulterior motive.

On that invitation is the name and address of the church! In a pinch, as when the aforementioned limo drivers decide to jump a red light, it can be my salvation. While you might be in the same church every weekend, that’s not always the case, and some photographers (like myself) cover a three state area working for many different wedding studios. Experience has taught me that I can’t remember the names and addresses of all the churches in my stomping ground even if I do know where all the catering halls are.

Today, in our electronic age, with cell phones on every hip, there are other cheap insurance policies worth noting. Spend a moment at the bride’s house to jot down the cell phone numbers of the bride, the groom, an attendant-- even the bride’s parents. Any one of these might be a lifesaver later on.

Keep contact info handy!

Studios can also ease the mind of their shooters who are out on the road with a little bit of planning. A complete assignment information sheet should be given to every photographer before they leave for the wedding. Even for your own assignment, an information sheet is a good thing to have. However, it should list much more than the bride’s name, address, and start times.

For starters, as my story revealed, the church name and address is certainly helpful…. cell phone numbers too. Driving instructions to the bride's house are also nice to have. And, if the bride isn’t dressing at her home, the phone number at where she’s dressing might be helpful too.

Think about including the name and phone number of the florist. Too many times I’ve arrived at the bride’s house only to find out that the groom’s family contracted the florist, the florist can’t find the bride’s house, and the bride doesn’t know how to get in touch with them. In this situation, a phone number for the lost florist would be a good thing to have.

Including information that is useful, even if there isn’t an emergency, can also make a photographer more effective. Family breakdowns using a simple, consistent shorthand code can help create photo ops. I use M&D for Mom and Dad, SS for single sister, MS and MB for married sister or brother (followed by a number denoting how many children they have). GP’s, GM, and GF stand for grand parents, but I always add an M or D after them to denote whose parents they are.

If I see an M and a GM-M on the bride’s family info, I immediately remember to take the three-generation photograph that so many people display in their homes and wedding albums. And, if I see an MS-1 along with the M and the GM-M, I do my best to arrange shooting a multi-generational extravaganza! We now live in the information age. Information can give you peace of mind, help you keep your cool, and improve your photography sales.