Five Tips for First-Time Wedding Photographers

Imagine for a moment:  you’ve saved your pennies and bought that fancy DSLR you’ve always wanted.  For a couple of years now, you’ve been happily snapping away at family gatherings and street fairs.  Maybe you’ve even done some head-shots for your off-Broadway cousin.  You give away prints as birthday gifts, and all your friends agree:  you’re pretty good at this stuff.

And then one day – maybe early in the morning before coffee, or late at night when you’re feeling suggestible – you get a call from your beloved best friend.  “I’m getting married,” he (or she) tells you – “will you come be the photographer at our wedding?”

Now stop.  Think about it.  A lot of us have considered at one point or another what it would be like to photograph a wedding.  We all know that professional wedding photographers are a considerable expense.  And wouldn’t it be a thoughtful wedding gift to save our good friends some cash for a service that they can already ill afford?

What most of us don’t consider, though, when we’re following that line of reasoning, is that wedding photographers are expensive for a reason.  Photographing a wedding isn’t like photographing a birthday party or a family reunion.  It’s long, hard hours, often in multiple locations.  It’s dealing with demanding brides and grooms who want things just so, and demanding parents and grandparents who may want something else entirely.  For the participants, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (or at least, that’s what they want to think).  Which means that there’s crushing pressure for the photographer to get everything absolutely right.

Most actual professional wedding photographers would stop this particular fantasy in its tracks, and tell you: “Egad, no!  Shell out for a pro.”  It is a sentiment that may sound self-serving, but that doesn’t make it wrong.  There’s a lot to consider before you agree to photograph a wedding, and foremost is a kind of frank self-assessment:  are you ready to take on a project so big?

If your answer is no, pass on the assignment.  It’s no big deal, right?  And besides, it is much more fun to be a guest at a wedding than the help.

If your answer is yes, though, that’s a different story.  You still need to figure out where to go from here, and that’s when you’ll need the following tips:

1.  More Gear Than You Think You Need:  One DSLR, a kit lens, and a couple of memory cards aren’t going to cut it for a wedding.  Most wedding photographers will bring along two bodies, flashes, at least one f/2.8 zoom, and a bagful of fast primes – and you should, too.  You’ll need the two bodies so that you don’t have to keep switching lenses all the time as the event goes on.  The more you switch, the more shots you miss.  And you’ll also need the two bodies in case the unimaginable happens, and one breaks.  A wedding photographer without a camera, missing all the action and blubbering in the corner, is a sad site indeed.  It’s surely not going to be the kind of thoughtful gift you intended to give your dear, nuptial friends.

2.  Case the Joint:  If you can, before the wedding, go and check out the venues.  Find out whether the ceremony will be inside or out.  Find out what the lighting will be like at the reception, and whether it’s worth it trying to get captures without flash.  Talk to the wedding’s officiants and find out if they have any photographer-related pet peeves; and talk to the DJ, and find out if you’ll want to bring that panoramic setup to capture a conga line.  It is a sad fact that not every photographer can do all of these things.  So the least you’ll want – the very least – is to see pictures of the wedding venues, preferably in use.

3.  Make a List (and check it twice):  Beyond having a good sense of what the venues are like, the next best thing you can do to prepare to photograph a wedding is make a list.  Find out what kinds of shots are expected from a wedding photographer, and in what order.  Consult friends’ photo albums, talk to the bride and groom, and – preferably – talk to their parents as well.  Decide whether you need to take shots of the bride (and groom) dressing, and which moments of the ceremony are most important.  Find out if there are friends or family members who absolutely need to appear in photos, and find out who, besides the bride, her father, and the groom, need to show up on the dance floor.  Research, research, research makes wedding photography go smoothly, and this is the most important wedding research you’ll do.

4.  Candid vs. Posed:  When you talk to the bride, the groom, and their folks, this is the other question you need to ask.  Most wedding photographers take a mix of candid (or “photo-journalistic”) pictures, and posed shots.  But what exactly that mix is is something you’ll need to decide ahead of time.  Will you be photographing lots of large groups? Will they want shots of notable couples, smiling and waving?  The kinds of equipment you bring with you, and the kind of mentality you go in with, will largely depend on whether you’re an event photographer or a portraitist.  And so it’s something you need to decide.

5.  Tell a Story:  Whatever the mix of photographs you plan to take, this is probably the most important piece of wedding-photography advice you can get.  A successful photo album from a wedding is never merely a collection of pictures.  It is a storybook that tells two tales.  It recounts, in good romantic fashion, the very special day that only comes once in a lifetime, when the groom is a prince and the bride a princess – when they are both at their handsomest, and their happiest, and their most in love.  And it recounts, like a world in miniature, the love story of those two people – how they got to this point, and how they are, most definitely, going to live happily ever after.  As you plan your pictures, keep this in mind, because no matter how good a photographer you are, the project will fail if it doesn’t tell a story.

Now, perhaps, you see why professional wedding photographers discourage amateurs – even very good ones – from jumping in.  Lots of planning and research, and a considerable cash investment, go into even the most low-key wedding shoot.  But if your dear, good friends have asked you, and if you have agreed to give it a go, don’t be discouraged.  With some careful forethought, and a clear head about what you’ve gotten yourself into, you can do the bride and groom proud.

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