Don’t Ruin Your Wedding Photography Career Before It Starts
Tips, better yet vows, for shooting your first wedding as the lead photographer.
So, you are about to embark on your first solo wedding shoot of your career. You’ve got butterflies in your stomach, you’re stressed, and the pressure is most certainly setting in. Don’t panic, read this carefully and you will be well prepared for photographing the most important day of someone’s life.
A little background on me, I’m the founder of Mott Weddings destination wedding photography studio in Vietnam. I’ve shot weddings all over the world for over a decade. I'm also on a reality TV show about photography show so I obviously know what I'm talking about because the TV doesn't lie :).
Now that you know me well, do you take me as your lawful wedding photography coach? Read this and then say, “I do” in the comments section.
HERE ARE YOUR VOWS
1.) Get Experience
First things first, get some experience as a second shooter with a veteran wedding photographer. Watch him/her closely, not just on how they cover the wedding but how they interact with the couple and the guests and how they handle all situations.
Leading up to the wedding you should have a nice talk face to face with the bride and groom. If you can’t meet in person have a video chat on Skype. Seeing someone’s face is a good ice breaker and it makes things personal in a ever eroding impersonal world. Use this time to cover the details of the wedding day and to get to know each other.
3.) Things to talk about
I have my list of things I need to cover and it goes as such. If these questions can be answered by the wedding planner and you have a direct line of communication with the planner then no need to cover it twice.
-First off, what did they like about my work and why did they hire me. This might seem strange but it’s important. If they love my portraits I need to know why. I typically ask them to pick their favorite 3 images on my website and their 3 least favorites. Doing this little exercise helps guide me to know if they are more partial to artistic compositions and it just helps clear up what they specifically like about my photography.
-Listen to any concerns or questions they have and be a good listener and take notes.
- I ask why they picked their particular venue. This helps me understand what they like about the location and how to incorporate that into my images.
-How did they find me, it's just always good to know what's working well in your marketing strategy or if they met you through a past client that is also helpful information.
-How many guests. It's good to know for many reasons.
-Do they have a video team? This is a long winded one so if the answer is yes read my next vow.
4.) Working with a video team
The conversation must happen before the wedding and this is extremely important. You need to ask the couple flat out, is photography or video a priority to them? Yes, in a perfect world we are both the priority but let’s be real. If photography is their priority then this information needs to be communicated to the video team by the bride and groom or from the wedding planner, but preferably by the couple. This isn’t a license for you to be an ass to the video team and you aren't their boss. They have a job to do too, so be polite and courteous and think for them as well.
Talk to the video team about where you want to be for the big moments such as walking down the aisle, first kiss, cake cutting etc. Be assertive and let them know where you will be shooting from during these key moments and they will appreciate the heads up because it will give them time to prepare.
Most video teams I work with are quite accommodating, however I’ve had some bad apples with teams of 6 shooters and they were in all my frames. It can be a mess, again if photography is a priority then you need to be able to gesture to them to move out of the frame without any awkwardness.
If video is their priority, then after you pick up your crushed ego get on with it and do the job the best you can. If they have a big team and you are shooting solo just inform the couple that this could hinder you from getting unobstructed shots of the key moments. Of course, you will work hard not to let this happen, but float the possibility out there just so you are covered. Also, your contract should cover this as well.
5.) Have A Contract
Don’t ever shoot a wedding without a signed contract. I don’t care if it’s your family or friends, have a contract that is fair but that covers your butt for everything. You can find templates online or if you have a budget hire a lawyer. If any changes are made to the contract make sure it’s not just verbal, get everything in writing.
Remember this is a wedding, you don’t get do overs. Have at least 2 of everything, overdo it with redundancies.
-Have enough batteries for your strobes and for your cameras. Bring a charger just in case. Batteries don’t always charge properly so just be extra careful and check everything. Pack as if it’s a two-day shoot without power.
-Don’t be cheap on memory cards, buy fast and reliable cards and but a lot of them. I use SanDisk and I like 32gb cards. I’m wary of the huge cards such as 128gb because having so much of the wedding or the whole wedding on one card is dangerous.
-If you have a professional camera that has two memory card slots shoot with 2 cards in your camera at once. Set one slot to RAW and the backup slot for overflow in high quality JPEG.
-Shoot with two cameras or at least bring two cameras. You should never be at a wedding with one camera, if something were to go wrong you’re f&*#$%.
7.) Work Your Butt Off
Weddings are physically and creatively exhausting, you can’t take a moment off physically or mentally. It’s like you’re doing a photography triathlon or ironman; candid’s, portraits, detail shots, repeat. You must be tuned in the entire day and they are long days. The only time I’m taking a breather during a wedding is when I eat and even then, I’m trying to stay within eyesight so I don’t miss anything. A little side note, try to schedule your eating time with theirs. Typically, the shots of people shoveling food in their faces aren’t great so that’s a great time for your break.
You owe it to the couple to be enthusiastic and to work as hard as you can the entire day so climb that tree, get on the ground for that unique angle, and run to capture that moment. You shouldn’t be hanging out during “slow times” on your phone off to the side yawning. You should be trying to get cool detail shots or thinking of your next creative shot you can capture. The whole day you are building a story so there is always something to shoot.
Photography is subjective and people will judge your pictures with some judgement based on how they perceived you and your work ethic. If they see you on your phone or hiding off to the side, trust me, they won’t want to like your images. I’m 40 years old and I love it when people pull me aside and say how impressed with how hard I work. Don’t forget either, their friends who are engaged could be watching too, weddings are filled with possible future clients.
8.) Two is better than one
If you can get an assistant or better yet a second shooter do so. This will free you up to be more creative and not just to get basic coverage shots because you are worrying about not messing up. Hopefully you can bill the couple for it but even if you can’t sell them on a second shooter, take a small loss and hire someone as a second shooter.
If the couple doesn’t want to hire a second shooter be honest with them about the limitations. For example, you can’t be in two places at once so if the groom is getting ready far from the bride you might not be able to get coverage of both. This stuff might seem obvious, but again, most people are reasonable but this covers you from let’s say, unreasonable people.
9.) Be Proactive
This is extremely important, don’t give up so easily. If things are running late and you aren’t going to have any light for the portrait session, speak up. If you can discuss with the planner or the couple about the best place for speeches or the cake cutting, voice your recommendation. This isn’t to say that you are running the show and that you should be bothering the couple at all but some weddings don’t have a planner or some have bad planners so give your advice for these things if they are crucial to getting a good shot.
Every couple and every wedding is different but use common sense and gauge the situation and when you see an opportunity for a good group shot or portrait opportunity ask the couple nicely if they mind stepping aside for a few minutes.
Don’t be shy going up to groups of people hanging out and ask them for a shot, again be proactive.
10.) Portrait Session
I fight for a solid hour for portraits with the bride and groom and I ask that if the video team joins me that they shoot naturally and that they don’t direct the couple. This is my time to shine as a photographer and the couple is going to be anxious to get back to the party so you want to make this is painless as possible while still delivering those images that will hang in their house and forever encapsulate their special day. Having multiple people directing is annoying for them and it will eat up half your time if you’re waiting for the video team to do everything.
I also suggest for the couple do the portrait session just after the ceremony and after the family portrait session and preferably during magic hour (the last hour of daylight). This is the most flattering light and it's where I get my most iconic images. Some couples don’t mind seeing each other before walking down the aisle so they want to do mid-day portraits. I’ll do it but I just explain and more effective, I’ll show them the difference in past pictures between good and bad light.
Have a game plan for your locations for that hour. Scout the day before if you can and even better scout at the exact time you’ll be doing the portrait session the next day. If that’s not possible, scout early the day of the wedding before you officially start. The last thing you want to do is to be figuring everything out on the fly, have a plan.
11.) Family Portraits
Have the couple make a list of shots and either you print it out or have the wedding planner do so. Before the wedding have them assign a vocal friend as the facilitator, someone who knows both sides of the family well to help get things organized.
I like to work big to small so that I can release as many people as possible to go enjoy themselves for cocktail hour. I do every combination on two cameras, one close and wide and one farther back with a slightly longer lens. I overshoot the group shots to cover myself from people blinking or making weird faces or not looking at the camera.
I ask all the men to button their top buttons on their jackets and women to put their bags off to the side and for everyone to place their drinks off to the side and lastly sunglasses off. I make sure no one is standing directly behind me shooting over my shoulder to avoid people looking in the wrong direction, avoid collisions if I back up quickly and to save time so we can maximize our portrait session time. I politely ask everyone to stand off to the side and remind them that the couple will deliver the photos to them.
If you are using natural light, make sure you have a location scouted carefully and that the largest group will fit within your frame. Have the venue keep a ladder handy just in case.
Besides the obvious of the rings, dresses, and shoes, ask the couple if they have any family heirlooms or any details that are special to them that they want you to focus on. I typically shoot all the details right when I arrive to check them off my mental shot list and this prevents me from forgetting anything.
13.) Back It Up
If you are shooting solo it’s hard to back up as you go but try your best. If not, back up the second you get home or to your hotel room and put the images on multiple drives and in multiple locations. Meaning when you travel, one drive should be in one bag, and another drive on you or in a different bag. Dump each card one at a time onto separate drives. All this is tedious but you must do it, no exceptions.
14.) How Close Can I Get?
I talk to the couple ahead of time. I tell them I get most of my best shots when I can get up close and personal. However, I also want to respect their space so I try to move in and out quickly and during the ceremony be conscious of blocking people’s views and of invading people’s space too much. Having a conversation ahead of time will help you avoid awkwardness later. Use your best judgement about gauging people and know when to give them some space and when it's okay to get close.
15.) Deadlines, deliverables, and retouching.
Your contract should be clear about this but it’s helpful to remind people about these things if it comes up. If someone says "oh he can just photoshop that guest in later" or it's raining and the bride says " you can make it look sunny in photoshop right" be upfront and honest about what's possible and more importantly what's included in the final deliverable and what's not.
Regarding deadlines, don’t miss your deadlines for any reason whatsoever.
Some churches restrict where you can shoot from. Ask ahead of time where you can and can’t go and plan accordingly so you have the right lenses.
Also, The lighting can be tricky too, so experiment ahead of time.
17.) Wedding Planners
If the wedding planner didn’t hire you directly or refer you directly, you don’t have to listen to them as if they are your boss. Even if they did, your priority is always getting the best image for the couple. Relax wedding planners reading this, don’t get angry at me just yet. The client is your boss for that day and that is where your loyalties lie and they are who you must answer to if you don’t deliver.
Most planners are wonderful to work with and the good ones will make your life a lot easier but I’ve worked with bad ones too. I’ve had a wedding planner or 2 try to boss me around with telling me to get them shots of their set ups while I should be shadowing the couple. I do my absolute best to get the wedding planner as many extra shots as I can but my priority is getting the best shots for the couple.
I once had a wedding ceremony run late and the wedding planner wanted to cut my portrait session short. The light was about to be perfect, it was hiding behind the cloud but I could clearly see it was going to emerge with glorious light beams. I was going to need an extra 15 minutes or so and I asked the couple directly if they would be ok with waiting it out. The wedding planner gave me a look of death, then off to the side she told me not to ask them anything schedule related directly, ask her first she insisted. I didn’t allow myself to get bullied and the couple was more than willing to make their guests wait 15 minutes for their salads and guess what, they loved that shot and thanked me for pushing for it. The wedding planner hated me but the couple loved me, I can live with that outcome.
18.) Bite your tongue
Not literally, that would hurt. People are going to get drunk and some guests will just flat out be rude or condescending. Suck it up and don’t cause any issues, it’s a wedding so smile and be happy and take it as a lesson in patience or taking the high road, or just punch a tree (sorry tree community) later or whatever you must do.
*Justin Mott doesn’t not endorse the abuse of trees or any plant life for that matter.
19.) How to Deal With Photography Enthusiast Uncle Ned
Without failure, you’re going to run into that friend or relative with all the camera gear that says, “don’t worry I won’t be in your way” but inevitably they will be in your way. I typically address this in my initial talk, but if it still happens, just politely talk to that person and let them know you have a job to do.
While I’m on this topic, if the venue has their own photographer they should never be shooting any situation with guests in the shot, basically the entire day. The occasional venue tries to sell the couple on “we well get you extra shots for free if you let our photographer take shots at the wedding". Address this in that initial talk, the couple might not realize that this person could mess up your shots and gives you one more person to worry about. If the venue wants pictures of the set up for their own purposes that’s fine but that photographer shouldn’t be present when the ceremony starts.
Again, this is rare stuff but it’s all necessary because it does happen and it covers you.
20.) Say Goodbye And Say Thank You
Don’t sneak off at the end of the night, say a proper goodbye to the couple. Of course, some circumstances can prevent this from happening, but do your best. Also, if the video team was working around you all day, thank them for putting up with you and show your appreciation.
21.) No excuses
Everything I've stated is all to be recommended and not demanded, except for the contract part. Don't use these as excuses for not getting everything you need to deliver a great selection of images for your client. At the end of the day these things are just there to help set expectations and prevent problems. Things will go wrong, things discussed will be forgotten, etc, don't make excuses and do everything you can do get what you need and so with a smile and with good manners.
I hope this was helpful to you all you new shooters of all ages out there. If you have any questions please ask away in the comments section. If you enjoyed this article please help me share it on your social outlets. Thanks for reading this and best of luck on your first wedding.