Nerves - or stage-fright - is integral to most public performance and professionals learn to live with it. Better than that, they learn to harness it. Pavarotti used to vomit before every gig but that didn’t stop him from belting out a tune once on stage.
As everyone knows, stage-fright is the result of pumping adrenalin. Adrenalin increases your heart rate, so you can run quickly from a famished bear or another caveman come to bash your brains in with a dinosaur’s tibia. Before going on stage, the prehistoric part of your brain - the little node at the top of the stem buried in there since time immemorial - tells you that the audience are as much a threat as the marauding caveman and you slip into fight-or-flight mode. But seeing as you’re standing on stage about to sing at your school assembly or make a speech for your daughter at a her wedding, neither fighting or flighting are an option. Unless you can find a way to deal with that adrenalin, your body is going to look like it’s getting ready for this primordial purpose: flushed, sweating, shortness of breath and you’re going to experience unnecessary and damaging stress.
A couple of nights after Tim and Abbey’s wedding, I was chatting to a friend about public speaking. At work (my 9-5 job) that day I’d delivered a presentation to a training course of fifty people and I was telling him about how nervous I felt before I went ‘on stage’.
It turned out, my friend used to do stand-up comedy and was well aware of stage-fright. He told me that in the world of stand-up, there was a well-known phenomenon (and I forget its name) which is when a comic has a great gig and his next gig flops. He got too flushed with confidence following his success and the next night he wasn’t scared enough to get the adrenalin pumping, and his performance suffered.
The key, they say, is to find the balance. Inevitably, there’s a theory you can look up on Wikipedia and it’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Wedding photography is a performance
What’s all this got to do with wedding photography?
Well, wedding photography is a performance too. You’re a professional, you have to prepare for the big day and you have a routine to want to execute in a high-pressure environment. People have high expectations of you and you don’t want to let them down. Like a stand-up comic, you don’t ever want to experience the mortification and career ramifications of ‘flopping’ on the big stage.
The difference is that the wedding photographer is not the main attraction. You don’t go to a wedding to observe the wedding photographer. Ideally, no one should care who he/she is or what they are doing. This is vital remember, and it’s the key to getting through the day without incident.
Don’t fall into the font
I want to do the best job I can and naturally I was nervous before Tim and Abbey’s wedding. But as I get more experienced I am learning to channel those nerves into positive energy, helping me to focus on the hundreds of little things that need to be executed to shoot a wedding to a high standard.
If you don’t deal with the enormity of it, there’s more of a chance you’re going to do someting bad. You may have seen the video on YouTube of the photographer backing down the aisle, shooting the departing bride and groom, toppling into the font at the back of the church. Whatever happens, you don’t want to be that guy.
Make your mistakes early and make them minor
Everyone makes mistakes, so keep them to a minimum and don’t let them be disastrous. At this wedding, I made a couple of fairly minor but potentially damaging clangers early on and in retrospect it was nice to get them out of the way early.
Both happened at the hairdressers where Abbey, her mother and her bridesmaid were getting their hair done. One of the first things I did was ask Abbey a question that at the time I considered vital to my itinerary.
“What time are you getting your make-up done?”
“It’s already done!” she said, graciously. I should have noticed that, shouldn’t I?
Abbey then told me that her bridesmaid, Kirsten, was upstairs having her makeup done. Another effect of adrenalin is you don’t listen properly. Your ears are prioritising listening for the enemy. A few minutes later, I stride into a back room where a young woman was having her hair washed. I thrust out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m the photographer. Kirsten I take it. Don’t mind me,” and I started taking pictures.
The woman said, “You can take pictures if you like but I’m nothing to do with the wedding.”
Two very minor little clangers but surely enough to potentially worry the bride, listening in. The most important day of her life. A big financial investment. Is the photographer she decided upon a complete doughnut? Is he capable of getting through the day?
Mistakes, clangers, minor insults and proper career-ending disasters, like falling into the font, can be mitigated with good planning.
As the saying goes - “P.P.P.P.P” - Proper Planning Prevents Poor Peformance? I had already decided to be super anal for Tim and Abbey’s wedding and in the end, it paid off. Despite these early minor rattles, I did my photography at the hairdressers, looked at my plan, which told me I had to go back to Old Wardour Castle within the hour, and so I went through the motions. I’d done the thinking-ahead. My job was to execute and my overly-detailed itinerary was my guide and my fallback.
Wiltshire is over a hundred miles from my home, so I knew early on in planning for this wedding that I would be staying overnight somewhere. (That “somewhere”, it turned out, was a Travelodge near Stonehenge.) Plus, as I had to be in multiple locations several miles apart along windy country roads, I wanted to plan as much as possible to ensure I was where I was supposed to be.
In the week before the wedding, I sat down and I wrote it all out, by the minute, so that I knew where I’d be at any time of the day. I also knew the type of shots I wanted to get at each stage of the day. I had a good idea of the kind of backgrounds I could shoot against. I knew the restrictions placed upon wedding photographers by Wiltshire Council by heart (no shooting during the legalese, the signing of the register or the declarations - and stay at the back of the pews, out the way) I had even thought about the direction of the sun at different times of the day.
It was the first time I’d done it to this level of detail and I’m glad I did.
A job well done
In the end, having turned the nerves to my advantage and focused on my plan, I feel I did a really good job for Tim and Abbey, and their feedback (thankfully) confirms this. Of course, it is always their day. They are the centre of everyone’s attention and will be as long as the wedding photographer does his job and stays in the background.