The Guide to Successfully Shooting a Big, Fat Indian Wedding
Living in the United States and having no introduction to Indian culture and traditions, it is hard to imagine the kind of business potential that Indian weddings could have for you; i.e., if you are open to shoot Indian weddings.
As a wedding photographer it is really difficult to resist the temptation once you understand the true potential.
If you are remotely aware of Indian culture or if you’ve seen a wedding video in the past, then you probably noticed that Indian weddings can be huge events. There is often a large turnout of friends and family; there are several days of celebrations and parties, and of course the main wedding event, which is the highlight of it all.
One thing is for sure, if you are booked to shoot an Indian wedding, the experience can be a unique concoction of utter chaos, a whole lot of fun and a rainbow of brilliant colors. It’s an unforgettable experience the first time you are shooting.
Understanding The Ceremonies
I refer to Indian weddings as if there is just one type, but the fact is that India is a multi-cultural nation and each culture and religion has different customs and practices. Hindu weddings are different from Muslim weddings or Jain and Parsee weddings, and each state in India has its own culture, language and practices that tend to affect the actual process even further.
A typical Indian wedding happens over a number of days. This is something that you are not likely used to seeing. Each day of the wedding has its own set of rituals and ceremonies which can be both religious as well as non-religious. Deep rooted customs and beliefs are often manifested in the form of rituals, which are practiced during auspicious events such as weddings.
When you understand the significance of each ceremony you are likely going to produce better images, because you will not only be thinking in terms of a wedding photographer who is crossing a cultural barrier, but you will also understand the emotional aspects involved at every step, thus be able to relate to them as well as photograph them. You will also likely bring your own take in an event like this which will no doubt create fascinating images from a completely different viewpoint.
Understanding the ceremonies thus gives you an incredible edge over other wedding photographers.
To give you an introduction to Indian weddings and as well as to keep things simple I will be discussing just a typical north Indian Hindu wedding in this article.
Understanding Client Expectations
Before we delve into each of the ceremonies, it is very important for you to understand what the client’s expectations are. Typically, in an Indian wedding, the photographer is booked not by the couple but by someone in the family. It could be the parents, a cousin, or an uncle or even a friend who knows a thing or two about negotiating but not necessarily having a clue about photography. It is better to establish the expectations of not only the person who is booking you, but also the couple and the parents. It is a high pressure job, with a lot of expectations on you to capture the wedding in great detail.
The problem is that with a huge invitee list and your clients expecting you to photograph and document the presence of each guest, you would easily end-up shooting more than a thousand images over the course of the wedding.
When I say clients I mean the couple, the parents (at times both sets) and even someone from the extended family.
It is always better to meet the couple first and establish their expectations. Indian wedding photography invariably will demand a lot of your time and energy simply because of the amount of images that you are expected to make and then edit them. Either way, you will be expected to deliver no less than 500 images! At times it can be too overwhelming and you may have to step out of your style zone. What I feel is the best way is to keep the artistic types of shots to yourself and employ a second shooter who will go about doing the general coverage. That way you can not only get the images that you want to shoot, representing your style, but also cater to the expectations of the clients.
Planning Your Day
As have been highlighted elsewhere in this article, a typical Indian wedding is a multi-day event. That means you as the photographer have to be involved over the course of the wedding almost full-time. It is always best to plan out the days so that you have sufficient time in your hand to make all the required images as well as the ones that will carry your signature style. Though I am only referring to typical north Indian Hindu wedding here, there may be some differences depending on the place and culture that the bride and the groom belong to. Thus if you know the events in advance, you can create a time-table of sorts for you and then blend in with the flow, without having to micro-manage everything.
I would also like to highlight the importance of a special pre-wedding shoot with just the couple. Insist on this when you speak with the couple for the very first time. More and more Indian couples are understanding the importance of this and are willing to invest the time to do a pre-wedding shoot. This is probably the only time when you will be able to make some really nice and intimate images of the couple without the extended family looking on. Consider this as your gift to the newly wed and they will love you for that. A pre-wedding shoot is also one of the rare opportunities that you will get some time in hand to compose and really showcase your signature style. The actual wedding event will be more of a rush thing and on your first wedding you will find the pace to be a bit too hectic and too much happening all at the same time to be able to humanly cover.
Mehndi (Henna) Ceremony
The Mehndi or the Henna ceremony is usually held the day before the main wedding event. Henna is applied to the hands and feet of the bride. It is an auspicious occasion and one that is mainly graced by the bride, her mother, and the other ladies in the family. At some weddings it might be a completely private event visited only by close members of the family. At other weddings it might be a more public ceremony where a professional Henna artist will come and apply the Henna. Most often it’s not only the bride who has Henna applied to her hands. Other ladies in the family, even young girls take part in the event and have henna applied to their hands.
Sometimes members of the groom’s immediate family also attend the event. As a photographer you will have plenty of opportunities to shoot really beautiful images the whole day. Carry a standard zoom lens such as a 24-70mm and an ultra-wide angle lens both with fast aperture so that you can shoot great images throughout the day. Two bodies are a must at all Indian weddings. If you are shooting with a second shooter have them carry a tele lens for those candid long-range shots.
A typical north Indian Hindu wedding will have prayers conducted the day after. Sometimes, depending on cultural influences, the prayers are held on the day of the wedding itself. Indian weddings are events where the elders of the family, such as the parents of the bride and groom, uncles, aunts and so on have a lot of say. This practice is changing and the bride and the groom, even if it is an arranged marriage, are slowly making more of their own decisions about their wedding. Typically the elders are the people who conduct a wedding, even today.
The Prayer event is when you are likely to see all the elders of the family coming together in the same frame. It is an important even because the elders of the family, mainly the parents, pray for a happy married life of their child. As a wedding photographer, this is an event that you shouldn’t miss. If it’s the parents of the bride or groom who are booking you, they would no doubt insist that you be there for the prayers.
Sangeet is more consistent with north India weddings than with weddings from the south or any other part of the country. Sangeet is basically an event where members of the family will take part in dancing, singing and generally have a night of fun. This is not the same thing as a bachelorette party. It’s a wholesome family night of fun accompanied by latest chartbusters from Bollywood, great food and basically a lot of joy. If you do get to shoot a Sangeet, it would be an interesting experience for you. Remind yourself to carry your faster lenses, 18% grey cards for reference and speedlights. Post processing is the key for any Indian wedding, but for Sangeet, where disco lights and a plethora of colors is on exhibition, it can mean the difference between great captures and a catastrophe.
The Main Wedding Event
Getting Ready Shots
The shots you take of the couple as they prepare for their big day is another opportunity for you to take some great images. The problem is with the bride and the groom at their respective places, you have to complete shooting at the groom’s place and then run to the bride’s place to take the getting ready shots there. The window is a little too narrow but if you plan it you will still be able to get the shots you want at the end of the day. Things are a little easier when the bride and the groom’s family book a common venue. Resorts or special wedding venues in India are in vogue because of this.
You will need at least an hour to photograph the bride getting ready; and that’s the minimum. There’s an incredible amount of detail in Indian wedding jewelry and the first time you photograph an India wedding it will be an eye-opener. This is a culture that is obsessed with gold and diamonds. Then there is the wedding dress. Finally, the shoes, the hair and when the bride is ready some final shots before she heads to the venue. All this can easily stretch the getting ready shots to more than two hours. You will need to make both parents and the couple know in advance that you will need the time if you are to make those shots possible, the ones they wanted from the start.
Baraat in Hindi means the wedding party. It is a formal event when the groom, his family and friends leave his home and parade the entire distance to the home of the bride, or as is the case now to the hotel where the marriage is to take place. It is a very auspicious moment and the departure of the baraat is timed after carefully considering astrological charts. If the wedding is taking place in India, you would see this is to be a high-key event, with bands, fireworks, family and friends dancing all the way and the groom riding a white mare to the venue. Once the baraat reaches the wedding venue a further exhibition of dance is put on before they are received by the bride’s family and ushered inside the venue. At some weddings, professional dancers are employed both at the Sangeet and for accompanying the baraat.
Photographing the Mandap
The mandap is where the actual wedding takes place. It is a sanctified area at the venue where the bride, the groom and the priest sits and the wedding is solemnized. Once you enter the venue you will easily identify it by the way it is designed. Usually, it is on a high platform so that everybody can see it from a distance. There should be four pillar like structures surrounding a square enclosure. There may or may not be a canopy, depending on the venue. The structure is decorated with fresh flowers, colorful fabrics and other embellishments.
The mandap makes for a nice subject for photography before, during and after the wedding. It is the main attraction, and as such will be well lit from all sides. The problem is that the lighting is not always up to your expectations. Multiple mix of tungsten and florescent lights is going to make your life difficult when you sit down to edit your images. It is thus always advisable to carry a white balance reference card. Make sure to ask your assistant to hold it up in the light you are going to shoot, take a test shot and then move on to the main shoot.
The Main Wedding Event
The main wedding event constitutes a special hawan (holy fire) is lit and the marriage is solemnized. Fire in Hindi culture has immense importance. Fire represents an embodiment of Gods, in whose presence the wedding the conducted. The bride and the groom hold hands at one point, and then they walk around the fire seven times. The key moment of the wedding is when the groom ties a special necklace (also known as Mangalsutra) around the bride’s neck. As a wedding photographer this is a moment that you absolutely cannot miss. A couple will want this key moment of the wedding to be captured without fail. Checking for photography ideas, you will no doubt notice that a lot of photographers prefer to shoot this particular moment with the widest possible aperture. This is so that they can create a shallow depth of field to isolate the bride and the groom from the background and the foreground.
The post-wedding reception is mainly about presenting the newly-wed to the guests, about an elaborate seven course sumptuous meal, blessings and gifts. Guests shower their blessings on the couple, present them with gifts and the evening concludes with the banquet. This is a formal affair and while the artistic photography opportunities may appear limited you can still make the evening fruitful bringing in your own style. Overall, however, the receptions shots can get a bit mundane and cliché after a while as you photog