How to take great wedding photographs inside a church

Who is this guide for?

This guide is for those who want to take pictures of a wedding in an inside venue, such as a church. It is mainly aimed at those which have a digital SLR camera, but is appropriate for any camera with control over aperture and high ISO sensitivity settings.

The guide is also applicable to taking photos in other indoor venues like hotels and for other ceremonies or celebrations.

Why is taking good wedding photos in a church difficult?

The light levels inside a church, or inside other large venues are normally much lower than outdoors. From the EXIF information in my own images I would estimate variations from 2 to 5 EV, depending on the lighting levels inside and outside. This makes getting sharp, colourful images much more difficult.

A camera set to operate in automatic mode will usually charge up the flash to increase the light level, but in my opinion it is best to avoid flash because of the following downsides

  • The colour that comes from natural light is more appealing than flash, and correcting the flash colour in post-processing can be difficult
  • The flash recharge time hinders continuous shooting.  Without flash you can shoot more rapidly and end up with a large amount of  images from which to choose the best expressions, and to be able to reject shots with shut eyes etc
  • Direct flash can cause shadows across the face, and the red eye effect

The normal span of focal lengths used for portrait photography (in 35 mm camera terms) is about 85 mm to 135 mm. For DSLRs with APS-C sensors this is about 60 – 90 mm.  I use an 85 mm lens for my portrait photos on an APS-C camera. This gives a nice head and shoulders shot at about 3 metres.

If we consider that the light level is 5 EV, and that for a bride and groom walking down the aisle a minimum shutter speed of about 1/90 second is needed to avoid motion blur, then this gives the following combinations for aperture and ISO sensitivity.

Aperture ISO sensitivity
f/1.4 500
f/2.0 1000
f/2.4 1600
f/2.8 2000
f/3.5 3200
f/4.0 4000
f/4.5 6400
f/5.6 8000

Normally one would want to have both the bride’s and groom’s eyes in focus.  To be safe, this requires a depth of field of about 15 cm.  This gives us a couple of problems

  • Choosing a very wide aperture and lower ISO sensitivity results in depth of field that is too shallow
  • Choosing a smaller aperture and higher ISO sensitivity results in degraded image sharpness and colour richness, due to the increased sensor noise.

All this makes getting the perfect church wedding shot “challenging”.

What can you do?

In my opinion it is better to increase the ISO sensitivity and suffer the extra noise which this brings, rather than have too shallow a depth of field and have the bride or groom out of focus. Post processing with noise reduction software is always an option for very objectionable noise.

The following lens focal length and focus distance combinations should give the same magnification effect, such that the bride and groom nicely fit the frame for a camera with a APS-C sensor. For a camera with a full frame sensor the focal length should be about 1.5x larger, or the subject 1.5x closer.

Focal length (mm) Subject distance (m)
50 1.75
70 2.50
85 3.00
100 3.50
135 4.75

The aperture I would recommend for each combination above is f/2.8 or smaller (i.e. bigger f number). This is based on calculations using a circle of confusion of 0.018 mm for an APS-C sensor and should allow enough front and back focus for both the bride and grooms faces to be in focus, as long as they are walking straight towards you.  I would recommend a starting ISO of 2000 to get a shutter speed of 1/90 second, but this would depends on the exact light level. You can compromise on this a little to risk of bride or groom being slightly out of focus, to allow a lower ISO – say f/2.4 at ISO 1600.

For me, getting perfect expressions without shut eyes and with nice smiles as they walk up or down the aisle is as much down to luck as judgment. Setting the camera at its high speed drive mode and firing away is the best way to play the percentages.  When reviewing the photos later on I always find that there are ones which are obviously poor, and ones which are obviously good.  My view is that with cheap memory cards it’s better to have too many images than too few.

I’d recommend setting the camera to continuous focus mode, since the newlyweds will be probably be walking at a reasonable speed.  I think that to refocus for each individual shot will risk missing something.  If your camera gives you a choice I would use the centre auto-focus point, because it is normally the most accurate one.  Try and focus on the eyes or forehead of closest of bride and groom (and never the gap in between the two).

For exposure I set the camera to aperture priority, set the ISO manually and choose the centre weighted exposure option.  I suspect that the evaluative exposure option is just as accurate.  I think I normally set the camera’s colour style setting to “natural” , but if you shoot in raw you choose the final colour palette in post processing anyway.

A final tip is to take a custom white balance inside the church, before everything starts. I have a small piece of a Kodak grey card, about 5 cm square, which can easily be hidden in an inside pocket. Hold this in front of the camera, out of shadows, take the reading and use this for each photo.  If you shoot raw, you can tune the colour temperature further in post processing.

Example settings and images

I looked at the EXIF information on my photos of the last church wedding I was invited to.   The wedding was at 2 pm in late May in northern England, and the weather outside was cloudy and raining. Here is what I used

  • ISO 1600
  • 85 mm lens on APS-C
  • Apertures f/2.4 to f/2.8
  • Shutter speeds varied from 1/90 to 1/200 second

Here are couple of examples of pictures from a different wedding, this time taken in September on a sunny day, which the bride and groom have kindly allowed me to reproduce.

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