Tips + Techniques

Being a One-Person Superstar Film Team at a Wedding

June 3, 2019

By Greg Scoblete

Photo © Tyler and Ellie Bielawski

Despite all the work and stress of recording the intricacies and intimacies of a wedding day, these solo filmmakers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like the thrill,” admits Jordan Nelson of Illinois. “There’s a ton of creative freedom and it simplifies things. It’s just your vision and your conversation with the couple and you don’t have to try to satisfy anyone else.” Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into successfully filming a wedding as a solo operator than rugged individualism. Here are some different takes on what makes it work.

Photo ©  Jennifer O’Brien

Ahead of Time

The lynchpin of any successful solo wedding filmmaking is ample preparation. Utah’s Ryan Hinman arrives at the ceremony location roughly three hours before it starts to scout and set up his cameras. After that, “I just do a lot of bouncing,” he says. He’ll film bride prep first, for about 20 to 30 minutes, then groom prep for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then gather b-roll of the location and details ahead of the ceremony.

Iowa-based filmmaker Drew Meinecke gives himself an hour or two to shoot aerials with a drone and exterior establishing shots before joining bridal prep. Doing this not only frees him up for later in the day, it also helps familiarize him with the location.

“If you don’t communicate with the couple before the wedding, you can’t assume you’ll know what’s important to them,” says Santa Barbara, California, filmmaker Jeremy Foster. Absent that knowledge, it will be much harder to craft a film with the right emotional impact. You need to learn about the couple and the “cast of characters” that is their family and wedding party if you are to have any hope of effectively telling their story, he adds. 

Foster will often interview his couples prior to the wedding or “at least jump on a call with them, preferably both the bride and groom, to find out what’s important to them.” It may take some prodding, too. “Couples don’t always disclose what’s really important to them,” Foster notes. “They might just say, ‘the ceremony.’ So I’ll ask, ‘What about the ceremony is most important to you?’”

Filmmaker Brandon Rice of Nashville, Tennessee, agrees. “Running and gunning won’t create a film. It’s not about shots—it’s about the story.” To tell a story, he sends his couple a detailed questionnaire that includes, among other things, identifying significant items or people at the wedding to give him something to shoot. He’s also taking extensive notes whenever he meets with or talks to a couple. 

New Jersey’s Stephanie Vermillion preps with extensive research on venues, including seeking out videos that feature a location. Sometimes she’ll create a shot list based on the plan for the day, though she’s careful not to reuse shots too often lest they become stale. She’s also mindful to do the bulk of her planning with about two weeks to go before the wedding. “I don’t start earlier because something always changes,” she says.

Communication with the wedding photographer is also “huge” Foster says. “The photographer in essence is in control of the day,” he says, so it behooves filmmakers to work cooperatively with them. “I was often frustrated when I started if the photographer blocked my shots or wasn’t being a team player,” he admits, “and I eventually rejected the idea that it was their problem and accepted it was my problem. I wasn’t communicating what I needed.”

Multiplying Gear to Make Light Work

“I will work with up to four cameras at once,” says Ryan Hinman. Depending on the location of the ceremony, Hinman locks down four cameras at fixed angles with all of them recording in 4K to give him the added flexibility to punch in on a subject should the need arise in the edit. One camera is facing down the aisle toward the couple, one is on the groom, one is on the bride and one is on the crowd. Shifting to the reception, Hinman does most of his filmmaking handheld with a single camera. 

Foster says for the ceremony, he’ll also use four cameras although he will only keep three locked down on tripods; the fourth, he’ll use on a handheld gimbal. One camera he focuses on the bride, the other on the groom “punched in relatively tight.” He also positions a camera in the back of the reception location with a wide-angle lens. With his handheld camera, Foster will roam the ceremony getting reaction shots. 

During reception speeches, Foster will switch to three cameras: one on a tripod focused on the speaker, the other on a tripod focused on the couple and the third Foster shoots handheld so he can get reactions from the couple and the crowd. For dances, he’ll move down to one camera on a tripod set to a wide angle while Foster gets handheld shots of the action. 

Meinecke similarly keeps a wide-angle lens (typically 12mm on a Micro Four Thirds body) on a tripod during speeches while he films reactions and close-ups with a 40mm or a 24-70mm.

Rice uses four cameras during the reception and then down to two for the rest of the wedding. He typically uses a wide-angle prime for his handheld camera (anything between 12 to 50mm). 

“If I have access to the rafters, I’ll set up a camera to get a full shot of the altar,” Vermillion notes. She’ll also keep a camera on a monopod with a 50mm lens for reactions and close-ups. 

For Nelson, shooting with extra cameras adds extra cost to his package. “My most popular package is one camera,” he says, adding, “there is a more expensive package where I’ll use a second camera during the ceremony.”

Direct When You Need To

Sometimes this can entail stepping in and staging scenes so you can present subjects in the best light. For receptions, Hinman says he’ll set up an LED near where he thinks toasts will be and tells the DJ and speakers where they’ll need to stand for the film.

Foster takes a similar approach, though he also brings his own mic stand for speakers to anchor them in place. “I won’t hyper-direct your day, but there are some points where I’m hands-on, and the toasts are critical,” he says. 

Even more prosaic activities, like the couples’ photo session, can be gently orchestrated, Rice says. “Instead of just one shot of the couple standing in the field looking at each other, I ask the photographer if I can move in. I’ll keep the camera rolling and shoot close-ups of hands on the waist, of their faces, and I’ll ask them to kiss.” In this way, he creates a 2- to 3-minute clip with several different looks to choose from. 

Photo © Jeremy Foster


Eyes on the Brides

One of the signature challenges of wedding filmmaking as a solo shooter is the inability to be in two places at once. If bride and groom prep is underway in two separate locations and it’s impossible to film both in the act, the filmmakers we spoke with all recommended prioritizing the bride and, if necessary, staging some groom prep for the sake of the cameras. Sometimes that’s as simple as filming the groom putting on his jacket and buttoning up, Meinecke notes.

Go Big on Memory

Almost all of the filmmakers we spoke with use 128GB memory cards in their cameras. “128GB is the sweet spot when shooting solo,” Foster says, because even with plenty of 4K footage, he “rarely shoots more than 100GB per camera.” When the camera allows it, they use 128GB in both card slots, recording a backup of the same footage to the second card slot for redundancy’s sake. Particularly if you’re just shooting with one camera, Nelson says, having a backup is crucial: “It’s not worth the risk.”

Photo © Pepper Nix Photography

Advice to First Timers

Here’s what the filmmakers would share with their younger selves before shooting their first wedding film.

Drew Meinecke

“Assert yourself. Make sure you can step in during portrait sessions to get the shots that work for video. If you just let the day happen without your creative intervention, it’s just a montage of the day.”

Jeremy Foster

“Find a filmmaker who does good work and offer to assist them. You’ll learn a ton, you’ll see the challenges they might encounter and how they handle them. You’ll also see [artistic] approaches that you like or don’t like. Otherwise, it’s sink or swim.”

Stephanie Vermillion

“You’re more capable than you think when you throw yourself in. Allow yourself a suck period. Get through it. Just jump in and trust yourself.”

Brandon Rice

“Know what you need to film. Once you get it, the pressure is off and you can then be more creative during the wedding day.”

Ryan Hinman

“Don’t chase gear, but consider all aspects of the system you’re buying into, including customer service and repairs.”

Jordan Nelson 

“Don’t wing it. Make a plan for each portion of the day. Watch other wedding films and note the shots you like and the shots you don’t.”

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