Three Reasons You’re Not Ready To Shoot A Wedding – And One Way To Fix It: by Angelo Stavrow

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Photo Credit: © Angelo Stavrow, Saad Khan and Caitlyn Bom

With the advent of low-cost digital SLRs, the field of photography is being democratized — even the most entry-level version sports image quality and responsiveness that stand head and shoulders above the point-and-shoot cameras that reign supreme in the consumer market, offering the first-time photographer an excellent tool with which to begin learning.

Inevitably, newbies flood photography forums on the Internet, wearing their heart on their sleeve and putting their best work up for critique.  A curious sequence of events then unfold for our newbie: She puts up a few colourful sunsets, maybe a few flowers, a couple of black-and-white portraits; since she love taking photos, her SLR is always with her. She gets to be know as The Gal With The Awesome Camera.  And then, almost out of nowhere, it happens: some friend or acquaintance, having seen her photography, asks her if she’d be interested in shooting their wedding.

This was exactly my situation a few years ago.  A friend of the family, looking for an inexpensive wedding photographer, asked if I’d be willing to take on the job.  They couldn’t offer me much money, but that didn’t matter — I refused the job, because I honestly didn’t feel that I was ready and able to do it.

Little did I know how right I was.

As a relatively-new photographer myself (at least when it comes to shooting professionally, and especially at weddings), I often see the old guard either a) warning new entrants of the pitfalls and perils of weddings, or b) actively discouraging these newcomers from giving it a go.  I don’t much care for the latter behaviour, but I’d like to offer some “newbie-to-newbie“ advice to those who would like to try their hand at the wedding game.

I shot my first wedding in the spring of this year, and even though it’s been years since I was last asked to shoot one, I still wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was.  So, based on that experience, here’s why you’re not ready to shoot a wedding.

1. You Don’t Have Enough Gear

For an amateur, I consider myself well equipped.  I showed up the day of the wedding with my Canon 5D Mark II, a couple of lenses, a couple of flashes, and extra batteries, and thought I’d be fine.  And, for a few hours, I was.  I was snapping away happily, until my go-to lens –a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L– started throwing sporadic “ERR00” communication errors.

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Photo Credit: © Angelo Stavrow, Saad Khan and Caitlyn Bom

Great.  So I could either just grin and bear it, fussing with the lens every time it went awry, or put it away for the rest of the night, and deal with switching between primes (I had a 28mm, a 50mm, and an 85mm with me as well).  Both situations meant wasting time, and, worse, potentially missing The Shot.  If I had a second body, I’d have just put away the 24-70 and slapped a prime on each — probably the 50 and the 85 — and been fine.

Then there were the issues with the flashes.  Well, technically, the flashes worked fine, but trying to trigger them reliably via an ST-E2 transmitter when you’ve only got minutes to set up, pose, and tear down was an exercise in frustration.  Proper radio triggers would have had made this far easier.

Despite these problems, I somehow made it through the night without tossing my gear in the trash bin (or hitting the open bar).  I definitely have a much better idea now of what I should have brought, what I didn’t need to bring, and how to work gracefully around the problems that invariably crop up with gear.

2. You Don’t Have Enough Time

I spent about ten hours shooting the wedding and came back with nearly 700 photos.  That’s actually not many, by professional standards — maybe half of what could be expected.  And, hey, I’ve come back from vacations with just as many –if not more– photos, so it’s not like I’ve never had to deal with that many images at once before.

Except for one thing.  Wedding photos have to be delivered to the client within a reasonable amount of time. My vacation photos?  Yeah.  I’m a couple of years behind.

Like many of us, I have a full-time job, and other obligations besides photography.  Frankly, finding the free time to go through and process these photos for the newlywed couple within a few weeks was simply not going to happen, unless I decided to forego things like, well, sleep.  The day of the wedding is only a portion of the entire time you spend on these jobs — you’d better have an efficient workflow to get it done in a reasonable period of time.

3. You Don’t Have Enough Experience

I’ve shot concerts and art show openings (as an amateur) and figured that a wedding wouldn’t be much different.  I mean, heck… it’s basically just event photography, right?

Wrong.  So very, very, wrong.

None of these events will adequately prepare you for the ten to twelve hours you spend on your feet, coupled with barely having time to inhale a granola bar, dealing with friends and family of the newlyweds ruining your shots to get their own photos, guests taking advantage of the open bar (luckily, that wasn’t an issue for my first experience), and trying to get wedding portraits in the middle of one of Ottawa’s most popular museums (where the reception was held) before closing hours.

The Fix: Mentorship

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Photo Credit: © Angelo Stavrow, Saad Khan and Caitlyn Bom

So, how did I manage to not make a complete arse of myself?

I was offered a great opportunity by a pair of wedding photographers, Caitlyn Bom and Saad Khan: Tag along on a large wedding that they were going to be shooting, as an apprentice.  I wouldn’t be paid, but I’d be there as a third shooter.  They’d seen my work, and felt confident enough about my professionalism, and thus invited me to join them.  It was a win-win situation: I would get to try out wedding photography without the performance anxiety, and they’d get additional coverage of a large event.

So what if I didn’t have enough gear?  If my stuff failed, there were still two other photographers there, with their own equipment, to cover the event.

So what if I didn’t have the time to process all the photos I shot?  They took full control of the deliverables, so all I had to do was provide the images — they’re the pros and thus have their workflow down.

So what if I had no experience?  I had theirs to draw upon.  I learned a lot from the event, sure, but the most valuable lessons came from watching professionals in action: dealing with the clients, dealing with the guests, dealing with the venue management, and dealing with each other.

So, you may not be ready to shoot weddings — but there is a fix.  Talk to pros.  Seek out mentors.  You can learn plenty from a photography website, but nothing beats learning-by-doing.

Many thanks to Saad Khan (Toronto) and Caitlyn Bom (Syracuse, http://caitlynbom.com) for the opportunity to learn.

 

Update: This article has been very popular and made it’s way into many Facebook posts and forums. There’s a Flickr discussion going on here that’s worth checking out.


 

Angelo Stavrow HeadshotAngelo Stavrow is a freelance photographer and writer in Montreal, Canada, who takes photos because he’s rubbish with paintbrush and a canvas.  He prefers to enjoy the big picture, rather than examine the individual pixels.

Website: http://angelostavrow.com
Twitter: @angelostavrow

Photo Credit: © 2010 Angelo Stavrow

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Comments

  1. If “You Don’t Have Enough Experience” would be a valid argument for not trying it, then there wouldn’t be wedding photographers at all.

    I totally agree learning-by-doing is the way to do it, but you won’t fully learn that way by assisting and observing others. Sooner or later you will have to dive in, whether you’re 100% ready for it or not.

  2. Excellent article I’m definitely going to share this one. As I too have constantly turned down weddings knowing that I lacked both the time and experience to do a job that both the client and myself would be satisfied with. And mentoring is so needed as the wedding pro has encountered pitfalls that you (the amatuer) hasn’t even thought up yet. Again Excellent article!

  3. I wish I’d written this! I have three mentors – folks I’ve studied under, watched work, carried gear for, and eventually got to shoot with/for. They are folks I know I can call any time with even the stupidest question. They have been amazing blessings to me.

    I am now able to work out from under their wing(s), on my own. But knowing that I can chat with them about new challenges or debrief after tough client sessions is invaluable.

    I am not at their level yet, but I have made it an effort to pass their generosity forward. I have a class of four amateur enthusiasts who come to my home once a week to learn, practice, and put into action the basics of exposure and composition. They accompany on some jobs, and we come up with ideas for field trips. I also have a weekly one-on-one with a new semi-pro who’s where I was a year ago.

    Helping others grow in the field is rewarding personally, and it helps our industry. We’re not making competitors, we’re building resources, raising the bar, and building fans who will promote us for suitable jobs we would never have heard about otherwise.

    • I totally agree with you Brad, helping others grow is very rewarding, that’s why I created CurrentPhotographer.com. I was very fortunate to train under an excellent photographer and will never forget the valuable insights I received from him.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Brad! I’ve noticed that some photographers can be very protective of their craft, and I really feel they do themselves a great disservice. I honestly feel that the most rewarding thing one person can do is share their knowledge, wisdom, and experience.

      Keep paying it forward, the return on investment is worth it!

  4. I was paragraph two. And though I feel much more confident in my shooting now, I will not do a wedding. Too much pressure and if you screw up, you’re screwed – it’s a one time deal. I did second shoot a cousin’s wedding and pitched in with friends another time (that was horrible btw) but it isn’t my cup of tea. Let me be amateur, let me have fun and let me take shots I want to take.

    • Photographing weddings is not for everyone. It takes a certain personality and a passion to do that type of work. You only have one opportunity to capture their memories so you need to be confident in your abilities. The saying “practice makes perfect” is very true. The more you do it the more confident you’ll feel about doing it. Working under other more experienced photographers is a great way to learn and can help you get the skills and confidence you need to go it alone.

  5. Oh I love this!

    I’m no professional photographer by any means and neither am I an amateur, but I do know my limitations. Unfortunatelly, not everyone does.

    When I got married 4 years ago, I insisted on viewing examples of the photographer’s wedding pictures. Since we’re only supposed to get married once, I didn’t want my pictures to be screwed up by some self proclaimed professionnal. Because after all, if you’re not ready to shoot a wedding, you should avoid doing it professionally. Ultimately, people getting married shouldn’t have to see their wedding pictures wrecked while you gain experience.

    Another way to gain experience, next time you go to a wedding, take pictures as if you were shooting it yourself. Just remember not to get in the way of the actual photographer hired by the couple.

  6. I think the real problem is that people AREN’T learning photography anymore and are just depending on lenses, tripods, and when to push. You HAVE to learn what ISO is, you HAVE to know what f-stops work best for each situation, and you HAVE to know that changing shutterspeeds will effect the outcome when combined with the other settings. And let me tell you, you better know how to make White come out not washed out!

    • So true Jessica. It seems that anyone with a dslr nowadays thinks they can shoot a wedding. NOT! My advice to anyone looking to break into wedding photography…pick up a 35mm slr, buy lots of film and shoot, shoot, shoot until you learn how to use ISO, aperature and shutter speed to get great results. And when you do decide to dive in, buy at least 2 of everything! I never go out with less than 3 lenses that I can shoot the entire wedding on with 2 bodies mounted and ready to go.

  7. “For an amateur, I consider myself well equipped. I showed up the day of the wedding with my Canon 5D Mark II, a couple of lenses, a couple of flashes, and extra batteries, and thought I’d be fine. And, for a few hours, I was. I was snapping away happily, until my go-to lens –a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L– started throwing sporadic “ERR00” communication errors.”

    It’s not about how much equipment you have. I’ve worked with people who get so preoccupied with their gear, that they forget there are important moments right in front of them. It doesn’t matter what lens you have if you aren’t there to grab the shot.

    Pre-planning and anticipating what is going to happen next is one of the most important parts about photojournalism in general, and hence capturing weddings that are filled with important histories for any given couple.

    • I think you’re confusing the issue here, Matt. You’re talking about being preoccupied with gear, whereas I’m stating that backup gear will save your bacon. There’s a lot of ‘gear snobbery’ amongst photographers of all levels, to be sure, but the point is that even high-dollar gear can, and will, fail.

      I don’t disagree that in terms of the quality of photos, gear is secondary to the photographer’s talent and experience — hence the whole “you don’t have enough experience” section. Even having pored over forums and asking questions of wedding photogs, I really had no idea just what to anticipate and what shots to look for. The more you shoot, the more you learn, and it’s a given that a talented photographer can do more with a Rebel than a complete beginner can do with a 1D.

      However, walking into a wedding (or any live gig, for that matter) with only a single body/lens combination is ill advised –if not downright irresponsible– when you’ve got contractual obligations to the client. Your fiduciary duty is to get the shots, “anticipating what is going to happen next” won’t do you a lick of good if your battery dies or a guest pours champagne into your camera. 🙂

  8. Thank you so much for having a website like this one- I’ve been looking all over for a site that explains it all and this one is awesome. Its helped so much in my business- and I’m just starting out again in a new state and a new city and this site is reminding me what I need to do to get myself known and work every weekend. Thank you.

  9. Interesting article with some useful advice. Yes, its true that you have to jump into the deep end and take on your own commissions. The best experience you can get is by doing it yourself – its should be the greater and speediest learning curve of all.

    What frustrates me is that when looking around at some wedding photographers sites, their work does not seem to develop or evolve. The standard of competency has not increased in however many years they have been doing weddings and you can see that their heart really isnt in it.

    I am relatively new to wedding photography, but I can say confidently that when I stop improving with every job – I will hang up the cameras !

  10. Just came around to seeing this article from a twitter link, I agree with all the points about why one may not be ready. Consequently, this serves to scare the newbies from jumping in and potentially undercutting the market. That you offer a fix, mentorship, at leasts points toward a solution, which helps to strike a different tone- a more helpful tone, toward those trying to get into wedding photography. I’ll be sharing

  11. Great tip on not having enough gear. How many weekend warriors that offer to shoot a wedding for a few dollars go out with 1 body, lens and flash. They never think of the “what if” scenarios. I do and have experienced it first hand.

    I was 5 hours into a wedding taking group photos in the lobby of a hotel when I was hit from behind by someone leaving the bar with an armfull of drinks. I went down and so did my Nikon D200. I was lucky the camera did not hit the floor but my Metz flash bounced off my knee and broke off at the hot shoe. No worries, I quickly grabbed my back up flash and kept going. Hard lesson to learn if you don’t plan ahead and invest in extra equipment.

  12. I’m doing it as you recommend – assisting, building my experience, learning the ropes. Frankly, it’s frustrating because I want to jump in – but as the saying goes, failure is not an option. I cringe when I seen the happy snappers shooting a wedding who clearly really don’t know what they’re doing. Shall I mention the time I watched a “professional” shoot the first dance with the pop-up flash on her Digital Rebel?

    Good article. Thanks.

  13. I turned down my first few weddings as well. It wasn’t until a few close friends of mine practically begged me to help that I ended up going for it.

    I took it seriously. I went out days before I scouted out the location. I practiced shots in different lighting scenarios that I thought I would hit during the day. And most importantly, I brought along a friend of mine with Digital Rebel to shoot backup in case something went wrong. My intent was to use as few of the backup shots as possible, but knowing he was there taking shots somewhere else took some of the pressure off, and helped me relax during the day.

    I had great gear and a lot of practice, and yet still I had a bunch of issues. The flash exposure was troublesome, and I had to constantly adjust it manually to get the correct shots. I brought another body with another lens, and found it tricky to switch between them. But, I muddled through the day and they were ultimately very happy with the end results.

    I have nothing but respect for wedding photographers. But as for me, I probably wouldn’t shoot another one unless I had a personal interest in the clients. It’s a stressful day, and it later translates into several other days of work as you process all the photos. I’m glad I’ve shot a few weddings in my time, but I much prefer the various other things I do in photography, many of which are far lower stress, which often translates into more fun for me!

  14. I think this is a good article, with some valid points, but I think it’s also a bit ‘scaremongery’. For instance, the bit about wireless flash, using your st-e2 – all very well and good, but attempting that kind of advanced stuff is also not really used by the normal wedding photographer ( I’ve been to a lot of weddings, and the pros have never used off-camera wireless flash at all), it’s not really indicitave of what a wedding photographer needs to do.

    Yes, you need backups of everythng, but I’d also say don’t worry about the really advanced stuff – get your basics right, and get them done well, before going on to more advanced stuff.

    Also, I just dont think its practical or needed to have second shooting experience first. How many of the established pros do you think really started out by second shooting? Of course some, but I reckon probably around 20 percent max – you’ve got to go out there and do it, thats the way to learn. Everyone has their first wedding, afterall. And, if all the pros started out by second shooting, then how did the very first pro begin…?

  15. I’ve shot tons of weddings for other studios before claiming I can shoot a wedding. It’s not for the amateurs and NO second chances..:) Love it now. My photojournalism experiences are a great asset in keeping me on feet, attentive and intuitive. DON”T shoot a wedding if you don’t have experience..:) Great article.

  16. Hi Trevor. I guess by now you have solved your unspecified lens error 00? (It usually occurs when the lens is failing to have contact with the body, so always try dismounting it and then re-attaching.)

    Your summary in paragraph 3 is probably the most telling. As you have correctly concluded, wedding photography is only marginally about the technicalities of taking the shot, as most first-timers already have a reasonable amount of experience using their cameras I would imagine, but more about being aware of the plan for the day, the families concerned, and being able to see the light. I was once being accompanied by a local wedding photographer in The Gambia who was amazed that I actually turned the subject slightly to get the best light on their face! How on earth he had managed up till then I have no idea, as most of his subjects would have had dark skin…

    Many families rely on you to tell them what to do, as it is their first time. Once you have covered hundreds – or even thousands – of weddings for a huge variety of traditions, customs and religions, let alone locations and weather conditions, you will feel confident to accept any kind of wedding you are commissioned to shoot.

    Going out with other photographers is a wonderful idea – one we can all benefit from, as learning never stops.

    As already mentioned too I agree on the importance of have back up equipment, so you can continue whatever fails – and it will – but would also like to mention its a good idea not to let on to your clients (during the day at least) that you are having technical problems, or they are likely to get stressed out too. Save that nugget till after you have safely delivered your best work – if indeed you feel they need to know at all.

    Personality and passion are definitely key elements. After all who wants to have a flat, boring, dull or overly bossy person around you all day if you are one of the guests or key participants. Thankfully most bride – and grooms – choose their photographer based on their own personalities and preferences, so in theory there is something for everyone. We are however, limited by the actual numbers of couples getting married each year, and only half of those will value their visual record highly enough to pay for a professional at all, so there now actually appear to be more wedding photographers around than there are weddings taking place!

    Think of that what you will….

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