“We would be honored if you would take photos for our wedding!” A few of the most glorious words a photographer can hear (at least the ones that enjoy weddings). But what happens when you don’t have a lot of experience? And the speaker is also one of your friends? Sometimes these words can be the beginning of the nightmare, but I’m here to help.
I started in photography soon after high school and quickly became known as the friend who had a camera. When your friends are also just out of high school, they often don’t have a lot of money for a wedding and are looking to cut corners. And we all know wedding photographers can be expensive. So the call goes out (back then, it was an actual call) to help on the special day.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, and are weighing the pros and cons of taking such an offer, I hope to give you some advice to clarify your decision. It can be a minefield or a real fun gig.
The first thing to do in this situation, if it is a new experience for you, is to remain calm. Once you’ve been asked this question about three times, you will know your answer without having to think. But the first few times cause a plethora of questions to bounce around in your head, creating uncertainty.
The best way to cut through that uncertainty is to remain calm. Freaking out will not, ever, help. It might make you feel better for a while, but it won’t help give your friend an answer. Freaking out in front of your friend will help less, especially if you say yes and they are entrusting someone prone to freaking out with their wedding photos. Remain calm and work through the questions in your head.
For Pay or Not For Pay, That is t he Question
One important question to get out of the way is: Do you want to be paid?
This is entirely subjective. Some people feel fine with being paid by a friend to perform a wedding shoot while others couldn’t imagine taking a friend’s cash. There is no set rule and it’s up to all parties involved as to whether payment is made. Some will suggest shooting the event as a gift and this can tend to make everyone happy. Others will take the route of not being paid so the pressure is off, in a sense.
Personally, I hold myself to the same standard whether I get paid or not. I will do my best to take the quality shots I know the bride and groom will enjoy. For a long time, before making the switch to being a professional, I refused payment and shot the wedding because I liked the couple and enjoyed the work. My advice: if you aren’t going to enjoy it, you might want to consider asking for payment or passing altogether.
After deciding if you want payment or not, set expectations with the happy couple. This is the best way to make sure no hard feelings are created. Meet with one or both halves of the couple and discuss what they can expect from you. Maybe they have seen some of your landscape shots and think you have a great eye. But have you shot a wedding before? Let them know this.
Show them some of your people shots, even if in a studio. Let them know if you are a little nervous. Be realistic in setting expectations, always. It helps to send a quick email after meeting to recap what you talked about and what they can expect. This will include how long it will take you to edit the photos and how many you expect to deliver (hint: 100-150 is a decent number).
This email will also include how you will deliver them (online, in a data DVD, in a playable DVD, etc.) and the level of editing done on the images. Maybe the groom has a brother who is a Photoshop whiz and they will be happy just to receive the RAW images so this brother can edit them. This is something a professional will likely never do, but if editing is not your thing and you don’t look to make this one time gig a profession, then go for it.
Know What They Want
Now that expectations are set (and I’m assuming you have said yes) move on to knowing what they want. This is actually the flip side of setting expectations for them, they are setting expectation for you. Different couples will have different requirements. I have worked with a wide variety and can come close to figuring out what the couple finds important after meeting them and email exchanges. You have an advantage, you already know their personalities.
Add to that knowledge a check list and you’re golden. I have a shot list you are free to use and cannibalize as you like. I created it from my own experience and from browsing about 20 different lists online. It’s not meant for every possible solution and certain ethnicities and religions will need additions, but it will get you started.
Print this list two days before the wedding and make sure you know it. Keep it in your back pocket with a pen to mark off shots that are done. Use it to remind the couple of what is important to them (to say they may forget which shots they wanted during their own ceremony, would be telling the truth) on their wedding day. It’s a great way to “get it in writing.”
If the bride is into using Pinterest, use it! I have found it is a great way to let her gather images as she comes across them and not have to send them to you every time. Plus she can get suggestions from friends and have more fun with it. It is also important to keep setting those expectations with her, as she’ll find some dazzling images you have no idea how to recreate. Let her dream, but also bring her back to reality.
Rent Quality Gear
Copyright Greg Cee
Consider renting a quality lens or two, or even a camera. A 70-200mm f/2.8 professional lens is the default lens to look to first. It helps with shots from a distance so you aren’t the highlight of the show at the altar. A 24-105mm lens would also be useful for working the party after or for closer shots. The camera body need not be professional so consider a body one or two stops down from the top (in your favorite brand). Lighting is another thing to think about, even if you will be shooting an outdoor wedding. My favorite online camera rental shop is BorrowLenses.com, but also check around for a local shop (the West Coast has them in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA, for instance), who can give you further pointers.
Practice With The Quality Gear
If you are renting or borrowing gear, take time to practice with it first. I know this sounds obvious, but I have received a couple of calls from people asked to shoot a friend’s wedding. These calls often come the day before and they have no clue how get the most of the equipment. Practice!
Try to practice in the environment where the wedding and reception will be held if possible. Bring along some willing models to stand in locations so you can test lighting and get an idea of how everything performs. If possible, attend the rehearsal (if there is one) and shoot as if you mean it. This is the best time to practice; everyone is relaxed, you can figure out which angles work best and you can fire the flash 1000 times and not annoy people too much.
Hand in hand with practicing is the need to study. Grab some books from the library and read about the actual shooting side of wedding photography, foregoing the business books. Consider dropping some change on Scott Kelby’s Wedding tutorials and also take a look at the quality content here on Phototuts+. What I’m getting at here is: READ!
This includes viewing other photographers’ sites. While taking in the grandmasters is worthwhile, don’t get too stuck on hoping to imitate someone who has been in the game for 30 years and has a team of Photoshop experts who turn their images into pure gold. Take a look at a variety of photographer sites and pull apart images to figure out how they were made. Look for a simple lighting tutorial that will only require one light to keep things simple.
The best way to find answers is to ask questions. Here I’m thinking of asking friends and family what they liked about their wedding photographer and what they disliked. I’m not expecting you to go out and turn pro, so some advice might not be valuable, but hearing what others enjoyed about the experience will help. If you know any professional photographers, ask them as well. They may be able to put you in touch with the right people who will open up a world of answers.
Attend a Wedding If You Can and Observe
Copyright Lee Haywood
If there is time before the wedding to witness another wedding, take it. Maybe it’s inviting yourself as someone’s date or offering to help in some way. Or maybe it’s just summer and you are going to a bazillion weddings anyway. Don’t pass up the chance to go, just so you can watch the photographer(s).
Where are they standing when the groom comes in and when the bride comes in? What is going on when the couple is in front of everyone? What about during vows and ring exchanges? Are you ready for the Seven Blessings and glass breaking? If the couple’s faith is different than your own, try to attend a wedding so you can familiarize yourself with the pattern of events and timing.
Learn A Few Poses
If people aren’t your normal subject matter, you will need to learn a thing or two about posing brides and grooms so they do not seem like stoic statues with painted on smiles. I would suggest picking up the book 500 Poses For Photographing Brides. And, stop me if you heard this already, but practice!
Choose “A” Mode
My mode of choice for shooting a wedding is Aperture Priority (A or Av, depending on your equipment). I choose this mode because controlling depth-of-field is often the most important aspect to me. I want to highlight the bride and not show all the distraction around her. Or I want to make sure the depth pulls in the entire cast of characters for a group shot. I also use Aperture Priority to help ensure I don’t get blurry shots by opening up the aperture all the way when it is important.
Choosing A mode doesn’t mean I ignore the shutter speed. To the contrary, it is very important as photos need to be crisp and free of the blur I might cause. Don’t forget the rule of thumb 1/focal length for your shutter speed. If you have that 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and you are zoomed to 200mm and capturing the bride walking down the aisle, keep the shutter speed above 1/200th to help ensure there is no blur (and having a f/2.8 lens will help greatly compared to the f/5.6 or f/6.3 lens you might own for every day shooting).
When shooting poses and portraits, know where your aperture is set to grab the right amount of focus. With a 70mm zoom on a full frame body, f/5.6 will often be just enough depth for a portrait while you might want to up it to f/8 when two people are in frame. This is where practicing with the equipment before the wedding day will help. Make notes of the settings on the shot list previously described so you have a cheat sheet to help you.
Shoot The Decorations
This may seem obvious when looking through a gallery of images from the comfort of your computer, but if this is your first wedding, you might find yourself disappointed at the end of the day if you forgot to take pictures of the little things. The important thing to remember with a wedding shoot is it is a culmination of all the parts, big and little.
Sure, the bride will want a photo of herself in her dress. And she will likely appreciate one shot of centerpieces or party favors left on tables or seats. Find an artistic way to capture her flowers and shoes, the basket the programs are in or the guest book. All of these little things will not make great cover photos for a magazine but the important thing to remember is they are pieces of a puzzle, to be reassembled in a photo album or online when the event is done. You have a nearly unlimited amount of shots you can take thanks to digital technology, use it!
Spray And Pray
This is a controversial method for any type of photography and especially more so with wedding photography. I do not suggest this method for those looking to learn wedding photography and improve their wedding shooting techniques. I’m strictly speaking to someone who may be slightly uncomfortable with the prospect of shooting a wedding but agrees nonetheless.
Spray and pray is a method whereby you will hold down the shutter and take a series of images instead of timing your shots to capture special moments. The pray part of the equation is due to the fact that you are using the sailor’s motto, “If you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot,” to capture that moment. Times when this method works are: the first kiss, tossing of any item for single members of the audience to catch or when the couple feeds each other anything.
Times when it does not help? The first dance. The bride’s entrance. Toasts. Or any other time that the constant “CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK” pounding of your shutter and mirror will actually take away from the event rather than add to it with that 1 in 100 image later on. Be sensitive to the event, mood and noise level.
Back It Up
I have had a (non-paid) second shooter have problems with a memory card while taking photos of the bride getting ready. This was not a critical piece and not requested, so the situation was more relaxed, but had this been a paid request, I would have been extremely frustrated. Don’t put yourself in the same situation.
First, bring multiple cards. Don’t trust the shoot to one card even if this is how you normally shoot. Bring multiple smaller cards to help not only spread the images across multiple cards, but also to give yourself spare cards to swap to should a card cause an issue.
Second, backup your images as soon as humanly possible. Chances are, if you are a friend or family member, you might forget your duties to the bride and groom if you have a drink or two (or five) and join in the fun. Before you relax for the night and call it quits, backup the images. If you don’t have a laptop, consider grabbing something like the Digital Foci Photo Safe. This is a small device that will backup your images without the need for a computer and is a good investment going forward. When you are done with a card, swap it out and start the old one backing up to the device immediately and go about shooting.
Employ An Assistant
If you can, round up an assistant. Be they a family member or a friend, the task will be easier with two of you to get the job done. I’m not talking about a second photographer, but simply someone who will be in charge of gathering people for portraits and helping you with gear (if you get advanced enough to shoot with a reflector or off-shoe flash, for instance). They can run the backups while you shoot and they can hold extra lenses when needed. As this will be your first time, you won’t make all the right choices, but an assistant can help guide you back. Think teamwork!
Shooting a friend or family member’s wedding can be a fun and enjoyable experience. It might also let you know if this line of business is right for you. Be clear about expectations and what you can deliver so all parties involved know what to expect. And then practice, study and practice some more.
Good luck! And have fun!