Melissa Cervantes

Wedding | Last Updated: March 8, 2021

Hey folks! My name is Melissa, a California transplant living in the great state of Iowa and shooting weddings wherever they happen to take me. When I’m not traipsing around with my camera in hand, I spend my time drinking coffee, traveling with my husband or wrestling our two fur babies. But mostly I do traipse around with my camera in hand and that’s why we’re here today.

Growing up, I enjoyed messing around with my dad’s old film cameras but unlike many phenomenal people featured on this site, I had no early aspirations of becoming a photographer.

I got my first “real” camera, a Nikon D5000 when I was 17 as a graduation gift. I guess you could say that’s when things really got started. I took friends’ senior pictures, baby pictures for my nieces and nephews, the random list goes on. As the years passed, people began to ask me to shoot their weddings and while I was reluctant to put my hobby to such a use at first, I soon discovered that like it or not, I had a real knack for capturing the chemistry between two people. I fought the label of being a “photographer” for so long. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, I was just so nervous to label myself as a wedding photographer and just GO for it. I was what you might call a reluctant artist. Like most good things in life, my choice to become a wedding photographer was a slow evolution, a gradual surrender to what totally made sense for me to do: create art out of the some of the most beautiful moments of people’s lives. Is anything worth capturing as much as love is? I think not.

One of my mantras in wedding photography is just ‘let it happen’. People forget that while weddings are pretty and awesome and magical they are also events. Events involve people. Sometimes lots of people. And people aren’t perfect. Events also happen in the real world. A world where sun, snow, sleet, rain, flooding and God himself have other plans than you might for your wedding day. But, I always say, the day is gonna happen. It may be rainy, sunny, have a tornado, whatever. Guests may get lost, dresses may get ruined, flowers may get trampled. The ring bearer may throw a fit or the officiant may not show up. But at the end of the day, it’s still just all about my couples. All about those two people. I just want to roll with the punches with them, make them feel special and that no matter what, they have each other and that’s more than enough to be happy about.

With all that said, when you know what anything can happen, you gotta be prepared for everything.

Here’s what’s in my bag on a typical wedding day looks like:

Nikon D750 x2
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
Nikon 50mm f/1.4
Nikon 35mm f/1.4
Nikon 45mm f/2.8
Nikon SB-700 FLASH
Gary Fong Flash Diffuser
1/2” copper tubing from Lowe’s
Crystal chandelier rings for prism effects (not pictured)
Macro filters for Nikon 50mm lenses (x1, x2, x10)
Fairy lights from Amazon
LED light from Amazon with 8 ft stand
Sandisk 64 gig SD cards
6ft Tripod

I keep it all (minus my heavy duty tripod, although my mini-tripod would fit) in a Think Tank Photo Airport Roller bag which I cannot recommend enough. It has straps to wear as a large backpack though I typically just roll it around on a wedding day. For engagement sessions, I have what I call an adventure backpack in which I take just a skeleton crew of what’s above.

I’m a minimalist at heart and all of my gear was acquired after serious review and/or brief rental periods in which I made sure everything was the right fit for me. One of my life mottos is to keep it simple and I really just hate to lug gear around that I don’t constantly use, so through the years this is what it’s been whittled down to and I really couldn’t be happier about it.

At the end of 2016, as I decided to take my business to the next level, finding the right full-frame camera was the most important choice for me. My aesthetic is very organic and not very flash-orientated so a key component in selecting the right camera body was its ability to perform in low light. Believe it or not, most churches and wedding reception venues were not designed with photographers and lots of natural light in mind. Therefore, the D750 is exactly my cup of tea.

While I was shopping around, I was interested in both D750 and the D850 and both had excellent high ISO reviews. I was ultimately swayed to the D750 for a very practical reason—it was quite a bit lighter and a bit smaller than the D850 and for a petite woman (I’m a rocking 5’2”) carrying two cameras with lenses around all day, this was a major deciding factor. I don’t even use battery grips since the added weight and mass is too much for my small frame after an 8 to 10-hour wedding day, especially if it’s a double-header weekend for me.

Next, I’m a total prime lens whore. I love my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and Nikon 35mm f/1.4 and could pretty much shoot a whole wedding with just those two lenses. I’m a sucker for the great depth of field you can attain and I’m the kind of personality that loves to be up close and personal with my couples.

One of the best investments I ever made was also one of my cheapest: macro filters. I am able to stick one of those bad boys on my 50mm and get killer detail shots, particularly with rings. The set of 4 cost me less than $15 on Amazon and saved me the agony of dishing out almost $900 for the Nikon 105mm f/2.8.

A huge part of my brand is always trying to create something unexpected and truly unique for my couples. I’m all about documenting what’s happening at the event but as I’ve grown as photographer I’ve learned the importance and often forgotten aspect of my job: composing. This season, I’ve really taken some time out to think outside the box, and create something visually stimulating and exciting for that day. That’s a huge reason why I invested in my Nikon 45mm f/2.8 tilt shift. It’s a relatively new addition to my kit, although I’ve been lusting after it for a few years. It’s my first and only completely manual lens and I’m still learning how to use all of its capabilities as quickly as I do my others but I kind of love that this lens makes me stop. Back up. Take a moment. Forces me and my subjects to just breathe for a sec. Weddings can be stressful and busy and it’s nice to just really take the time to compose with this lens. I definitely rented it first to test it out which is what I would recommend to anyone thinking about investing in a tilt-shift. They’re wonderful but require a lot of patience and I’ve learned they work best when you have a lot of light to work with. I use my Nikon 45mm f/2.8 mostly for dress shots or wider shots of my couple and sometimes for a dreamy ceremony landscape.

Prisms and metal tubing — what?! I know, right. Who would have though these things would be such an integral part of my kit but man, I can’t function without them! A prism simply refers to a piece of reflective glass or crystal—you can use almost anything but I love to use round chandelier rings with my Nikon 35mm f/1.4 and Nikon 50mm f/1.4 during the ceremony, dances or sunset couples photos. I have used my iPhone in front of my lens before to create a more symmetrical effect which can be cool as well. The metal tubing (I use copper) in various sizes (1/4”-1/2”-1”) can be placed in front of the lens facing a light source as well to create a cool “ring of fire” effect but I have found this works better for me with my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and in an open space, such as a field. Working with photo manipulators like these and fairy lights definitely take lots of practice to gain the intended effect but I’ve found the more I play around, the more satisfied with the results I become.

I said earlier that my style of photography isn’t very flash-reliant and that’s totally true. I’m all about natural light and celebrating dark spaces and shadows. However, I think I used to be afraid of receptions and specifically afraid of flash. Like most photographers, it was one of the last things that I “mastered” and I wouldn’t say I’m expert yet. However, I do now look forward to receptions since I feel that I’ve found a way to make my party shots pop: dragging the flash. I love this technique and can’t believe it took me so long to just embrace it. There is no magic recipe for settings on this one as every reception venue is lit differently but if you’re a wedding photographer, I encourage you to give this a try ‘cause it’s FUN. There are many amazing articles on it on Google so I’m not going to turn this into a boring how-to, but my SB-700 and Gary Fong light diffuser is all I need to get the killer party shots I’m after. I’ve learned that my 14-24mm f/2.8 with the SB-700 and flash diffuser is the perfect combo as I do the Cupid Shuffle and capture those party vibes.

For the traditional dances or more serious moments of a reception I will sometimes set up my LED “video” light panels with a warm gel. I prefer to use them for backlight for the dances as it enhances the romance to see that little glow behind the couple.

Not shown, but definitely key to my survival as an adventurous photographer is often dragging my couples to weird places: snack bars, extra clothes and shoes, towels, umbrellas, a cute blanket, DayQuil (yes, DayQuil), allergy pills and a sewing kit!

My main advice to anyone out there who is a photographer or just dabbling around is just to keep shooting. Often, when we’re insecure in ourselves and feeling like a fraud, we can be obsessed with what everyone else is doing or fixated on saving up for our next piece of dream equipment. Let me tell you as someone who didn’t think they were qualified to be a “real” photographer for many years that it’s totally not about that. It’s just about growing. It’s about pushing yourself. It’s about learning to use what you have really well. It’s about creating images that you would want to see. Heck, that you would want to pay for. It’s not about replicating a certain gear bag or emulating a certain artist. It’s about growing into who you are, no matter where you’re at on that journey. I know I certainly am.

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