Photographing someone’s Big Day is a beautiful—and stressful—job, especially if you’re not a seasoned pro. This week, PopPhoto is serving up our best advice for capturing that special kind of joy.
This post has been updated. It originally published on March 13, 2016.
In martial arts, there’s a saying that goes something like, “The white belt is the most difficult belt to attain.” It implies that the first step is the toughest—and that can be true of wedding photography, too. That first wedding shoot can be very important, but it can also be extremely tough. So, before you agree to capture someone’s big day, there are some questions you need to make sure you can answer honestly and completely.
Are my skills ready for this?
This should be the most obvious one, but it can also be the most challenging to face. You may know your camera like the back of your hand, but there are a variety of other skills required to pull off a wedding. A large part of the day centers on figuring out logistics, scheduling, and a million other things that have nothing to do with f-stops or shutter speeds.
You also have to account for the pressure you’ll be under on the wedding day. If you have never tested your photography skills in a tense situation, it’s worth starting a little smaller and working your way up. You don’t want to freeze in front of a bridal party that’s eager to get to cocktail hour.
Are you going to use an assistant or a second shooter?
An extra set of hands and eyes can make a huge difference when shooting a wedding, but picking the wrong person can make things even more difficult.
Your first challenge is finding an assistant who doesn’t mind working with someone on their first wedding. Your assistant’s reputation is on the line as well as yours, and if you’re unproven, it can be risky to accept the assignment. Tapping someone you know and are comfortable with is a big plus.
You also have to decide how much you can pay your assistant. Some second shooters are aspiring firsts who will work for cheaper in exchange for experience. But you can’t offer much in the way of guidance, so make sure to carve out a fair part of your budget to pay your helper.
You also need to be extremely clear about how things are going to work in terms of intellectual property and editing. Will your assistant be shooting to your memory cards and handing you the images, or do you expect this partner to do some image editing, too? And is this a work-for-hire gig in which you own these photos after they’re shot? All things to consider when picking a second shooter.
How much should I be charging for this?
It can be hard to land on a concrete number when you’re trying to determine your own worth, especially if you’re just starting. It may feel like undercharging takes some of the pressure off by lowering expectations, but that’s typically not the case. All it usually accomplishes is setting a precedent of low pricing for any referrals you may get if you do a great job.
When deciding on a price, you will want to have an accurate picture of how much the wedding is going to cost you in terms of actual dollars and the time you’re going to spend working on it. This includes not just the cost of your assistant or second shooter but things like fuel for traveling, meals bought en route, insurance, and even wear and tear on your gear.
Is my gear ready for this?
You know the well-worn trope that it’s the painter and not the brush that makes a masterpiece. But if the painter shows up with a plastic-barrel 50mm f/1.8 paintbrush that breaks midway through the process, then we have a problem. Cameras break. Lenses break. Memory cards fail. Flashes die.
If you have something that you really rely on for a shoot, you’re going to want to make sure you have a backup for it in case something goes wrong. Buying backup gear isn’t exciting, but it is essential if you want to take this seriously.
Renting gear is also an option, but it’s worth getting it early to become familiar with the stuff you rent. You don’t want to be learning how a specific camera or lens behaves when you’re in the middle of a crucial ceremony moment or you have an entire wedding party staring at you, eager to be done with portraits so they can go eat finger foods.
What exactly am I getting myself into?
The scope of a wedding photography shoot goes way beyond the ceremony and reception. You must spend time communicating and likely meeting with the couple to go over such important details as the timeline and their expectations for the pictures. You will need to spend time visiting the venues to scout locations in advance and to visualize the images you can create there. And plan to spend extra time the day before the ceremony checking and double-checking your gear to make sure everything is ready to go and nothing is forgotten.
The big time-suck to consider, however, is the editing process. You will likely shoot hundreds, if not thousands, of photos over the course of a wedding, and it’s easy to underestimate just how much time it takes to cull and edit that mass of images. You will spend far more time looking at and editing the photos than you spent taking them.
Am I on the same page with the couple creatively?
Wedding photography clients vary pretty widely when it comes to taste and aesthetic preference, so it’s important to understand their expectations well before the big day rolls around. For an experienced wedding photographer, the client can look at older work and get a feel for the style, but beginners don’t have that luxury. Communication is key, even before you sign the contract. If they’re expecting traditional, but you’re dead set on a photojournalistic style, it may be better to pass on taking the job, even if it means turning down a nice chunk of change.
Do I have a contract in order to protect my client and myself?
Typically, first wedding jobs come from friends or even family, so the idea of a contract can seem like overkill. However, shooting a wedding without a contract is a terrible idea regardless of the client. Not only does a contract protect you as a photographer, but it also protects the client. A good contract will outline the usage rights, including your right to use the photos to market your wedding photography to other couples, and the timeline of the editing process. It will also ensure that you’re all on the same page right from the start. If you’re shy, get over it. It’s worth it.
Have I followed the necessary steps to be conducting business?
Once you start accepting money for your services, you’re conducting business and there’s a whole world of responsibilities that come with that. Laws about conducting business vary immensely from location to location, even within the United States, so you’ll have to do some investigation on your own to find out exactly what you need to do before you cash that first check. Do you need a business license? Do you have to charge sales tax? Should you form an LLC or operate as a sole proprietor? How does this change your taxes? Can you accept credit cards? If you’re friendly with other pro photographers in the area, they may be able to help you get started.
Is my insurance in order?
A lot can go wrong during a wedding shoot, but insurance is there in case something goes seriously wrong—for instance, things getting damaged or someone getting injured. Many wedding venues, especially the high-end ones, won’t even allow you to operate on the premises if you can’t provide proof of insurance.
The idea of million-dollar policies can sound very scary, but the price of insurance typically involves a pretty reasonable monthly payment or a yearly lump sum. The best options vary by location and the size and type of your business, so seeking some real professional advice can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. Plus, if something does happen—someone trips over your gear, for instance—you won’t be sued into oblivion.
Professional liability insurance is also something that’s worth considering as it can help protect you in case something goes bad with your clients. If for some reason they don’t like the photos or don’t think they got what they paid for, it can absorb some of the fallout.
What will be the final delivered product?
Wedding photography has changed a lot in terms of the final product delivery, but the process may not be over once all the editing is finished and the images are exported. Some clients want prints, while others want a tangible, finished album. Some clients would prefer a nicely presented thumb drive in a box with some small prints, while others simply want an online gallery. Make sure to discuss with your client before accepting the job to make sure you’re comfortable providing what they want. There’s a lot of money to be made from selling clients on prints and other tangible goods, but if the client isn’t interested, it can turn into a fiasco.
Will there be a videographer as well?
Some wedding studios provide videography services as a way to increase revenue, but that’s a very tough gig if you’re not experienced. So, there’s a good chance you’ll be working with another creative person on-site and it’s always best to do a little coordinating in advance.
Reaching out to the videography crew can help things run smoothly on the day to make sure you’re not impeding on each other, but it can also be a good way to build a relationship with another creative person in the wedding industry.
What happens if I screw this up?
It’s always good to keep a positive mental attitude about a job, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the consequences if something goes wrong. The contract should outline most of your contingencies, but that doesn’t account for things like personal relationships or professional reputation.
Everyone has to start somewhere, but if you really don’t feel like you’re ready for that start, it’s important to know that turning down a job is OK.