Having been in the film and video industry since 1995, I have experienced just about every possible situation—no matter the event—and nothing seems to surprise me anymore. I’ve been part of events that I wished would never end and some that I wish I was never hired to cover. Throughout it all, I have learned so much when filming various events, primarily weddings, with regard to what works and what does not. If a problem arises, I always have a backup plan—and a backup plan for my plan.
Nowhere is this more important than with wedding camera placement, where going in with a solid plan to maximize your coverage and creativity is essential, and having contingency plans for dealing with unforeseen obstacles is even more crucial. The purpose of this article is to bring to light a number of real-life situations that I have come up against, how each situation can be bettered, and the way in which I film and the equipment I use, as well as how the never-ending battle between some videographers and photographers can be easily overcome.
When I first started my business, I mimicked a lot of others in the business: one camera in the balcony, one at the front. Day in, day out, it worked, but I always thought it was boring, particularly leaving a camera at the back of a venue on a wide shot and never adjusting it. This approach yields a cold, seemingly lifeless image that makes the primary focus—the bride and groom—a small fraction of the entire screen.
I’m not dismissing this method out of hand, since I know many people use it. But it only compounds the need for additional coverage, which is a massive benefit to the final product, despite being a tad more work in setup, as well as in postproduction. But these additional demands are all costs that can and should be passed on to the client.
Soon after I moved beyond the relatively static one-in-the-balcony, one-in-the-front approach to wedding coverage, I transitioned to three cameras, and for the past 3–4 years, I have frequently used four or five cameras. I’ll use more if the client pays, which they often do. It’s true that some folks film with only one camera, and I have had to do this a few times, but I prefer to take a more comprehensive approach.
That’s the approach I’ll address in this article. Think of it this way: If you film with a three-camera setup, one on each side can be focused on both the bride and groom, while another, after the processional, can be used for cutaways and/or at the back of the aisle. You’ll get solid shots for the vows, rings, perhaps some pans of the guests, and much more. If you add a fourth camera, leave it to your imagination; I’ve affixed it in the aisle to get the bride’s dress, or sometimes I’ve hid it in flowers or on a piano to get the reactions of parents or other relatives.
More than that, when I have filmed with seven cameras, I’ve placed one on each side, one in the back aisle, one on each side of the parents/grandparents, one or two on the guests, and the other one for cutaways. While the main focus is where the bride and groom are, there really is so much more that can be accomplished when taking the time to do so. I repeatedly do this all by myself, going to as many cameras as possible to adjust their vantage points. As far as setup time, I can do all of this, with about 3–5 lavaliere mics, all tested, in about 20 minutes.
What I Use to Film and Why
I will not go into great detail about my equipment since it’s not the focus of this article (and there are a number of different cameras and support devices that will allow you to get this level of coverage), but I do want to discuss the basics of my equipment setup as it will help clarify the latter sections. Also, keep in mind that I do not offer set packages; instead, I provide all-inclusive services, so there are many specifics involved that are not listed here.
Lastly, I never do the "leave a camera in the balcony" routine; I always go back and forth, quietly and as unobtrusively as possible, between all of the cameras to adjust their views in order to maximize shot variation and comprehensiveness.
Here are the basics of my setup:
- Typical scenario for the ceremony: 1 videographer (me), 4–5 cameras, 3–5 wireless mics, 2 recorders
- Typical scenario for the reception: 1 videographer (me), 1–2 cameras, 1–2 wireless mics
- Main camera: Sony HVR-Z7U (carried with me at all times; see Figure 1, left)
- Beltpack: Backups of most accessories attached to the camera (see Figure 1, right)
Figure 1 (left) shows the minimum setup for my camera. It will typically have additional brackets, lights, audio, etc. This is how I have it configured in my case, at minimum, so it can be taken out and turned on, providing all necessary requirements without adding anything else when in a tight, time-restrictive situation. Take it out, turn it on, and film—if you’re properly prepared, that’s all there is to it. Adding everything else takes about 5 minutes on average.
While it may be overkill by some standards, I carry all of what can be seen on the right side of Figure 1 on every shoot. Regardless of the shooting conditions, day or night, indoors or outdoors, rain or shine, I am prepared for just about any situation. This level of preparation has saved me a number of times. The only drawbacks are the weight and cumbersome appearance, which do toll over a long day of shooting.
The reason I always carry the beltpack and all the accessories shown in Figure 1 (right) is so that I can be ready for any situation. Particularly with a wedding, if I am on the dance floor filming a speech and need a new battery, extra light, or other device, everything is on my beltpack. I actually had my equipment stolen several years ago, and ever since then, I carry all of the materials necessary to continue filming in the unlikely event that should happen again.
Tackling the Ceremony
Image01 - Processional:
- Cam 1 Front Aisle, film processional
- Cam 2 Front Side, focused to front row for grandparents, raised above the bridesmaids to ensure to blockage
- Cam 3 Back Side, focused to midrange on Chuppah
- Cam 4 Back Aisle on 3" bracket, focused to Bride’s dress at midrange and Chuppah
Image02a - Ceremony:
- Notes: Cam 1 - Outside of Chuppah, parallel to Parents of the Groom (POG), filming inside towards Bride and Groom. This allows solid footage of events without being seen by the other cameras or photographs being taken from the back (or elsewhere). I always tell the Rabbi, Cantor, Parents where I will be filming from, and it’s seldom a problem. If I cannot film there, proceed to Image 02b.
Image02b - Ceremony:
- In the unlikely event that I cannot film from the Chuppah, I change the placement of cameras as noted above, keeping in mind that Cam 2 and 4 are initially static. Cam 3 is attached to the Chuppah based on it being a solid structure and is focused to where the B/G will be standing WA lenses are a huge benefit in this instance. I also affix a mic to the stand and the backside of the front Chuppah, as well as the groom. Once I move to the back, Cam 4 gets becomes a handheld getting cutaways based on being able to move a little. Otherwise it gets put on a tripod and placed as noted (4a).
Image03 - Ceremony:
- After the vows, and before the seven blessings, I move to the back of the aisle and get prepared for the glass, kiss, and recessional. This is the only time I move in this type of situation. I also readjust Cam 3 to a wider view and perhaps some pans of the Bridal Party. I will leave Cam 4 in its place. Cam 1 is always on a monopod but after the kiss, I transfer it to a tripod, follow the B/G’s exit, and then lock it for everyone else. I then follow the Groom & get the mics, backtrack to the front and remove those mics as well. This allows me to have half of the equipment broken down before the recessional is complete.
Image 04 - Recessional
- After the vows, and before the seven blessings, I move to the back of the aisle and get prepared for the glass, kiss, and recessional. This is the only time I move in this type of situation. I also readjust Cam 3 to a wider view and perhaps some pans of the Bridal Party. I will leave Cam 4 in its place. Cam 1 is always on a monopod but after the kiss, I transfer it to a tripod, follow the B/G’s exit, and then lock it for everyone else. I then follow the Groom.
I always film a ceremony with at least three cameras—usually four or five and even more if I have an assistant with me. Of course the client pays for the additional coverage, and while some folks may consider it overkill, the coverage you get from the additional cameras clearly has its benefits. Figure 2 and 3 are categorized in sequential order detailing placement for the traditional Jewish wedding (Figure 2, above) and traditional Catholic church-based wedding (Figure 3, below).
Image05 - Processional
- Cam 1 Front Aisle, film processional
- Cam 2 Side Left, focused to where officiant, B/G will be
- Cam 3 Side Right, focused to where officiant, B/G will be
- Cam 4 Back Aisle on 3" bracket, focused to Bride’s dress at midrange and B/FOB handoff
Image06a - Ceremony
- Cam 1 - Once the B/FOB is at the front, I move to Side Left (*) to get the handoff and introduction. Upon completion, the guests generally sit down, I get a few quick shots of parents, etc., and then move to the back, but first readjust Cam 2. Cam 1 is then setup in the back as shown in Image 07. Restrictions aside, Image 06b will show an alternative.
Image06b - Ceremony
- I don’t fare well with the "you cannot film anywhere" mentality, but if there are challenges with cam placement, I will adjust the cameras prior to start as shown above. This generally helps coverage safety. Cam 3 is moved to the right alcove, if there is one, and once I setup Cam 1 at the back, I move Cam 4 to a tripod and place it on Side Right to get coverage of the Bride. I go back and forth, and move cameras, as necessary, all the while not being disruptive. I sometimes handheld one for cutaways when possible.
Image07 - Recessional
- Typically using Cam 4 for cutaways, etc., I’ll do a handheld shot of the kiss, mount Cam 4 to a tripod on half-wide for the recessional. Cam 1 follows the B/G’s exit, and then lock it for everyone else. I then follow the Groom & get the mics, backtrack to the front and remove those mics as well. This allows me to have half of the equipment broken down before the recessional is complete.
Note that I never "hide" behind the bridal party or shoot from the sanctuary area, far corners of the room, or other locations that cause problems with other folks or that are too impractical and/or restrictive to film. While I don’t run all over the place, in the interest of being discreet and unobtrusive, I do ensure that I get the best footage possible, regardless of the situation. The camera locations noted in the figures allow for great solid angles of all key events. It’s also worth noting that all my cameras have wide-angle or telephoto lenses and/or different zoom levels to ensure proper filming at distances.
During Catholic and other Christian weddings, I move from one camera to the next only when there is a change in the ceremony, such as a sermon starting/ending, guests sitting/standing, or other similar transition.
I am not going to cover Greek, Indian, or other weddings as the camera-placement concepts are parallel, even though the ceremonial traditions differ. All examples are based on a four-camera setup where I am the only videographer and structured from the processional to recessional with variations throughout each.
What a Nine-Camera Setup Looks Like
The most cameras I have used for a wedding was nine, as illustrated in Figure 4 (below). For a Jewish wedding, I have used as many as six, but I would not encourage more as it gets too repetitive given the general flow of that particular ceremony.
I do not use tripods for all cameras and instead rely very heavily on magic arms, suction pads, L-brackets, and other small, yet secure devices. They are just as strong and effective, but they also offer a much more conservative appearance than tripods.
For remote monitoring I have used both the Wevi remote system as well as my own surveillance-based setup, and I can actually monitor and control multiple cameras from one camera, Cam 1.
I have also done the bouquet camera, hairpin camera, boutonniere camera, and others, but they can be too time-consuming in both setting up and teaching the wearer how to use them (and how not to touch them). That said, these approaches do offer nice, unique shots when properly executed.
Working With (Not Around) the Photographer
One of the biggest impediments to sticking to our best-laid camera-placement plans are the challenges of working with photographers. It upsets me when I read so many forum posts and talk to so many people about videographers who follow the orders of a photographer who portrays himself or herself as owning the world. From the photographer who "copyrights" the photos to the photographer who attempts to dictate where the videographer can or cannot stand, the litany of idiocies and fallacies never seems to end.
Unfortunately, this can go both ways, and we as videographers should no more be telling photographers how to do their jobs than they should be telling us how to do ours. They are there to get the shots they need and we’re there for the same reason, so we all need to be respectful of that and learn how to work together.
Here are some pointers and suggestions to alleviate the issues that often arise:
- Communicate! When a client books my company’s services, he or she receives a form that goes over all of the hired professionals. From the florist to the bakery, the coordinator to the photographer, I make sure I know all the vendors and their appropriate contact info. Aside from the marketing benefit of possible future referrals, I contact everyone a few weeks prior to simply say hi and find out their plans for the wedding day.
- With regard to the photographer, and since I’m always outnumbered these days, I try to find out the names of everyone who will be there and whether they are taking photos or assisting, in addition to how they typically cover a wedding. The weddings I’ve filmed have run the gamut, from no photographers and just guests with throwaway cameras to one recently that had "only" seven photographers. That was an interesting challenge but not an entirely unfamiliar one; most weddings tend to have 2–3 photographers.
- For the infrequent instances when I do encounter a difficult vendor, I never subject myself to working around the photographer. I either work with the photographer or she works with me. I will never succumb to direction from anyone else, and I think this is a significant problem in this industry, particularly with videographers who tend to accept second-class status.
One of the most egregious fallacies I’ve encountered comes from photographers who claim that the imagery of the entire event falls under their copyright and that the videographer, and sometimes the guests, is not allowed by contractual law to videotape or take pictures. One of my degrees is in contract law, and without getting into the legal particulars, I will mention a few key points:
- Government facilities and privately held locations can restrict recording with or without prior consent.
- It is fair game in any public location for anyone based on common decency and acceptance.
- Photographers (or anyone else) cannot restrict other third-party sources (such as videographers), regardless of what someone verbally states, contractually writes to the client, or otherwise. Quite simply, it’s not permissible.
- There are two—and only two—ways that a videographer can be restricted by the photographer: A function taking place in private studio or location owned, operated, rented, and/or leased, or otherwise, by the photographer; or a contractual agreement between all involved parties, such as the client, photographer, and videographer.
- Beyond that, no one can be restricted, so film as you need to film—it’s really that simple.
As far as coverage, I do what I have to do based on the confines of the event. During the processional, I am on the front left of the aisle, and the photographer is typically on the other side. I prefer this location because at the moment the bride and her father reach the front of the aisle, the left side allows a solid shot of the groom’s face, whereas the right side would be his back.
I do not do balcony shots as I can achieve the same effect with a high tripod, which is also much easier to change and on the same ground level as the other cameras. I always want to be where the action is taking place rather than running up and down steps. When I film with more than four cameras, I will sometimes utilize the balcony but with remote-based filming, but I usually use high tripods instead.
As for the infamous "back of the aisle" controversy, we have all experienced the photographer popping up and down, standing in the aisle, or just blatantly standing directly in front of the back-aisle camera. This drives me insane, but sometimes it just can’t be avoided.
This is another reason I use multiple cameras. I don’t like being at the far back, and I generally set up one or two pews behind the last guests, which actually puts me about half to three-quarters of the way back in most cases. I offset the center position to allow walking back and forth, and I leave ample room for the photographers to take shots as well. If they feel the need to go to the very front, just a few feet from the bride and groom, my mind wishes they would use a longer lens, but I will raise the camera and shift it to the side as necessary.
I don’t typically have this problem as I communicate clearly with everyone. In the end, when the video is finished, if the client sees the back of a photographer popping in and out, it will reflect worse on the other vendor than on my ability to edit, which is what I stress to my clients as well as the photographer.
The Venue, the Officiant, and the Rules of Banishment
We have all been there at some point in our careers: "You cannot film here. You cannot film there. You cannot film anywhere!" I do not get this too often, but some venues—and I have found churches tend to be more restrictive than most other venues, in addition to certain priests and rabbis—do not "permit" videographers to film in certain locations, if at all. In most cases when this has happened, it seems that the photographer retained the ability to do whatever he or she liked. Here are a few recommendations on alleviating this issue before the event date:
- Go to the rehearsal and ask all necessary questions.
- Acquire any applicable information about the venue’s rules.
- Call the venue and ask to speak with the officiant handling the event.
- Have the client look into the appropriate information.
I never go to rehearsals and leave the particulars for the responsibility of the client. In addition, I do not make a habit of scouting out and talking to the officiant in most cases, as I tend to get the never-ending "no" list much more than if I just go about my business. If I do run into someone who is very persistent or someone who will not start the ceremony until I move all of my equipment, I make my expectations very clear to him or her, as well as to the client. These are the steps I follow:
- Set up equipment as normal, always making sure that the guests have access to the pews and nothing is blocked.
- Mic whatever, and whomever, I deem necessary. I seldom mic officiants because they or I don’t want to be bothered. I will instead mic the perimeter of all necessary places/locations.
- Find the officiant and learn about the ceremony specifics, duration, where everyone will be standing or sitting, etc. I will then briefly discuss how I operate, always noting that I am very low-key and do not run all over the place. This usually suffices in terms of what is or is not "allowed."
- If there is a problem, while I do respect their wishes, I point out that unless the officiant has rights of ownership of the venue, he or she has no inherent say as far as what I can or cannot do. I always bring a copy of the client contract as well as an addendum that outlines waivers on my behalf that gets signed by the officiant, client, and me, alleviating all standard filming procedures and that assumes all problems to that of the officiant. Remember, we are hired by the client, and we work for the client; we are not hired by anyone else (contract pending, of course). I also film all involved parties as to the waivers and acceptance of rules and restrictions.
Some folks tell me that I am too particular or go overboard with this, and that might be because of my business background. But at the end of the day, if I was limited in any such form as to the ability to create the best product possible, I am not going to be held responsible for conditions set by other parties.
Receptions tend to be more straightforward than weddings, but here are a few tips that might be helpful.
For audio recording, I don’t use any on-camera audio as I do not like the reverb and sound variances. One alternative is to connect to the sound system used by the band or DJ. This usually gives me a solid, clear line, but keep in mind that you’ll need to rely on the DJ or the band’s sound guy to monitor and/or adjust the levels for you as it is their equipment.
Given that some folks don’t know how to use their own equipment, I no longer do this unless I know the DJ or the band. I have had a few instances in the past where the audio comes in too low or too hot, or I’m connected to a master-out where there are constant fluctuations. Also, some DJs and bands may not permit you to tap into their equipment, so don’t count on this being an option. Monitoring audio with noise-canceling headphones is recommended.
If you are connected, and perhaps the audio is not clean, even after testing, what is the other option or backup method? An indirect feed, of course! I use two indirect-feed recording methods to ensure the best, most consistent audio. First, I use Sennheiser G2 ME4 lav kits, placing the lav at 30dB at a 45-degree angle, upwards, about 18" from the midrange speaker of the DJ or band (Figure 5, below), with dB set at -30. I also place it high enough to avoid guests but not close enough to pull the high- and mid-range audio. I’m not too concerned with the bass response as it will be picked up just fine and I don’t want peaking.
This tends to be a very safe, solid method as it minimizes reverb but seldom ever peaks, and it is set high enough from where any guests might be located. The overall sound quality is extremely acceptable.
In addition to the above, I also use a Sennheiser ME62 in the opposite direction as the G2 for the same purpose. All audio is fed wirelessly to the camera and monitored accordingly.
As for reception camera placement, considering the fact that there is no right or wrong way to film receptions, here is a quick rundown of what I like and dislike and some methods that I find work better than others. Since I am often a guest at a wedding and reception, I get to see what works from a guest’s point of view, which is a valuable perspective for me as a videographer.
As a guest at a reception, I really don’t mind a soft, diffused light, but I cannot stand blinding lights in my face. Some of the halogens throw quite a bit of heat when passing by them and the brightness level of some are seemingly obnoxious. My wife and I will typically hover somewhere around the back of the dance floor where it is a little quieter rather than staying in front of the speakers. In some cases, the back corners of the dance floor are not too far from the guest tables.
I mention this because some venues are very tough to maneuver around, but when someone is only about 1' from us and filming for a long duration with that bright light, it becomes very intrusive—at least to us. As a guest I also prefer not to see cameras on tripods—they’re huge and in the way.
As a reception videographer, I film everything handheld, sometimes with a monopod, as it allows me to be very mobile for any situation that may arise. I do not like being tied down by tripods or anything that can be deemed in the way by guests.
I use a combination of on-camera lighting, including the Zylight Z90, the Sony 10/20W light—diffused—and a cheap LED light I purchased at Costco. They are all attached with articulating arms or gooseneck adapters to minimize a flat appearance and to avoid having them aimed directly at any guests. The overall image looks more appealing and has more depth too.
When it comes to projection equipment, I strongly believe in relying only on myself and no one else. If I run into a problem, I will do my best to resolve it on my own, and if I can’t, only I am to blame. I state this because with regard to projecting a photo montage, love story, same day edit, or whatever else a client may want, I will never take the chance at relying on tapping into the audio of a DJ or band, simply because there is too much at jeopardy.
I will never rely on using a screen from a venue just in case it’s the wrong color, size, setup, and so forth. Instead, I always bring my own screens, DVD players, audio systems, cables, power conditioners, etc. (Figure 6, below). While it can be quite interesting doing all of this myself, even with an assistant, I know everything will work the way it is intended.
Note that everything is tested beforehand and then placed off to the side. I also mark the floor with removable tape where I’m going to place the projection equipment for the presentation. All cables are coiled and do not "run free." I use my own speaker setup, which is tapped through the bottom of the screen directly to the projector/DVD player setup. I control this wirelessly and sit at the corner of a speaker to film guest reactions. Setup and breakdown take less that 1 minute in most cases, and I rely on no one but myself with regard to setting up, operating, and breaking down the necessary equipment.
Testing everything beforehand is particularly important with the playback of a DVD, speakers, etc. I check to make sure I have all necessary cables, as well as cable connectors and adapters and that I have a screen that is the proper dimensions for my audience, venue, and lighting. Extra, branded DVD copies are great for party favors, so I’ll provide those. And, finally, filming the guests’ reactions is beneficial, even for occasional highlight cutaways.
What all of us in this industry do is provide a service that is very subjective with both delivery and execution. For these reasons, there really is no concrete right or wrong way. We should all perform to the best of our abilities based on our clients’ needs and a general understanding between all involved parties.
As of this writing, I have produced nearly 600 events and have seen, been a part of, and have had to deal with just about every possible situation. From when I started with two cameras and just enough knowledge to get by to now, when I work with a much better understanding of the demands of event video work, I find myself always learning and adapting new ways to improve my company’s services as well as the services provided for my clients.
In the end, though, whether it’s filming a ceremony with an officiate who will only let me breathe, a photographer who claims the right to the world, a client who wants me to film her only from the left side, or even a venue where the dance floor is no bigger than a kitchen table, I always ensure that I am ready for any situation.
I hope that this article will help you be better prepared for the situations you will encounter in your own work.
Marshall Levy (info at the realmav.com) has been in the event/film business for 12 years. His company, Maverick Productions, based in Baltimore, Md. and York, Pa., specializes in event and corporate HD productions.