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Planning a Wedding Shoot: Organisation and Paperwork

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Weddings represent one of the most stressful and daunting tasks a photographer can undertake. The environments vary considerably, and the pace is often hurried. Many couples consider the photos you take of them on that day as some of the most important pictures they will ever have.

The complexity of the event itself can be quite stressful for a photographer to plan. Should you have a schedule? How long are you supposed to stay? Should you ask your clients to sign anything? Today's tutorial will focus on how to handle the event from a business perspective.

You'll learn all about what's involved and how you can prepare yourself so that both you and your clients are satisfied with the outcome.


Why Bother?

Many photographers might not see the need to introduce so much complexity to the situation. Some of you have successfully photographed weddings in an off-the-cuff manner without a hitch, and that's just fine. The information below represents a collection of suggestions and possibilities for you to tweak, customize and even ignore based on your own preferences.

The primary purpose is to help enable new wedding photographers to enter into a new field with a little bit of inside knowledge about what to expect and how to begin the planning stage. Clients will often look to you for information, and if you're unprepared for their questions you risk appearing inexperienced and unprofessional.


The Equipment: What Should You Bring?

We'll start off with the thing that you're most familiar with: your equipment. It's very easy to under pack or even overpack for a wedding shoot. While it's much better to be over-prepared, you don't want to burden yourself down with unnecessary bulk.

In order to plan this section, it's important to know about various aspects of the shoot. Be sure to ask your clients whether the ceremony and reception are indoors or outdoors and to check the schedule for the day against sunset times in the area.

This information can directly affect your choice of lenses. You might love that 300mm zoom, but if the wedding is in a dark church that won't allow flash photography during the ceremony, you better bring something with a wide aperture and a strong ISO rating.

I recommend covering as much range as you can with as few lenses as possible. For instance, one popular setup is to have two shooters: one with a 24-70mm zoom and the other with a 70-200mm zoom. This range is neither extremely wide, nor extremely zoomed, but covers a nice chunk in the middle that is easy to work with for nearly every situation. Further, if you have the f/2.8 versions of these lenses, you can handle fairly low lighting situations with ease.

While, we're on the subject, a second photographer is not necessary but can be quite desirable to avoid too much running around. In my experience, any more than two photographers for a small to average size wedding can be overwhelming to the guests and introduce unnecessary complexity for you as the photographer.

Additionally, you'll want to pack plenty of batteries, some portable flashes and a few sturdy stands. You can definitely break out the studio flashes and soft boxes if you want, but it saves a lot of time and trouble if you can live without them. Finally, throw in more camera cards than you think you'll need and you should be ready to go.

Obviously, there are a ton of possibilities and a lot more that you could pack. This is a really light list but remember that you'll be covering a lot of ground and on your feet for the good portion of a day. For some unconventional ideas of what else you can bring, check out our article: 7 Items You Never Thought to Bring to a Shoot


The Schedule

Creating a standard schedule that you can give to clients for a shoot is immensely helpful. It not only helps you remain efficient, it gives your clients an easy reference for what to expect.

This will take some time to develop. You'll have to get a few weddings under your belt to get a feel for how long you need to accomplish certain tasks and then, once you get a rhythm down, you can begin plotting out times.

Make a list of all the various events you typically go through on a wedding day. A hypothetical day might include shots of the wedding party getting ready, pre-wedding bridal party photos, pre-wedding groomsmen photos, the ceremony, family pictures, post-wedding shots of the entire wedding party, the happy couple and finally, the reception. Feel free to toss in any more that you can think of and axe any that you feel are unnecessary.

From here you need to assign approximate lengths of time to each event (where possible). For instance, you can't control the ceremony but you can control the post-ceremony bridal party shoot.

Once you have sketched out the various times, put each event and its corresponding length into a checklist for your client fill out. With a clear picture of how long each task takes, they can easily plan out how they want to utilize their time with you and drop any unnecessary events.

Without knowledge of such a schedule, clients are often overwhelmed by how much a photographer attempts to squeeze into their already thoroughly planned day. This easily leads to you being seen as the pushy photographer, which is definitely bad for business!

Setting a Specific Time

My initial instinct for shooting weddings was to tell clients that I would be there for as long as they needed me for a flat rate. I wanted to seem friendly and flexible and do my best to cover everything they needed.

It took no time to realize that this was a crazy way to work and literally led to nearly 13 hours of shooting for one wedding while getting paid for around 8 hours of work.

Good wedding photographers tend to be a large investment and clients want to get all they can out of you, even if that means nearly killing you in the process. It's imperative that you either charge an hourly rate or quote a flat rate for a specific amount of shooting time and then revert to an hourly rate after that time is up. In other words, charge $X for up to eight hours of shooting and then $X/hour for every hour after.

If you're the generous type, set a rigid time system but then tell your clients when the time comes that you can stay an extra hour if they need you. This helps them understand that you're going above and beyond the call of duty and will boost customer satisfaction.

The Family Photos

A word of caution about family photos; they get out of control quickly. It starts off innocently enough, with a few parents and grandparents, but before you know it the bride is calling in groups of third cousins and other random relatives and you've eaten up your whole day.

It's a good idea to make up another simple checklist that the bride and groom can fill out of some typical family photo setups along with the names of the participants so you can quickly call them out. Give them the option to add to the list but be sure to indicate how much time each addition will add and how it affects the schedule.

Trust me, once a bride realizes that getting pictures of great uncle Charlie and his ten kids means the photographer's time is up before the father/daughter dance, she'll be a lot more selective about the family photos.

This may seem like you're imposing too much structure on the bride and groom, but in reality you're simply giving them the freedom to use their photography budget in the best way that they see fit. The end result is flexibility, not rigidity.


Paperwork

For some photographers, the paperwork can be the most intimidating part of the process. Personally, I just hate dealing with it and usually put if off far longer than I should!

The Model Releases

There are a few basic pieces of paperwork that you should have when shooting a wedding. The first and simplest is a model release form. Some photographers won't see the need for this, and indeed might not really even need one, but it's far better to play it safe if any issues ever arise.

If you get your clients to sign a model release, you have much more freedom do with whatever you please with the photos that you take. This includes putting them in your portfolio, using them in blog posts and even selling stock images if that's something that you're into (remember that photos of guests and other wedding party members aren't necessarily included).

The basic idea here is to protect yourself against any possible attacks from crazy clients who find their photos displayed publicly by you without their permission. With a simple, single page model release, you can have a piece of mind that in the unlikely even that a problem does arise, you're covered.

If you're worried about looking mischievous, don't be. I've never had a single client balk at signing a model release because I'm very up front about what I intend to use the photos for.

For more information about model release forms and to download a sample, check out Photographic Model Release Forms: When You Need Them, When You Don't from betterphoto.com.


The Contract

This is potentially the most hazard-prone document that you will have your clients sign. I am not a lawyer, nor am I an expert on contract law, so I'm clearly not qualified to lay out what absolutely is and isn't necessary in a wedding photography contract.

However, a few basic considerations can be made. For instance, your contract should clearly state what both parties are responsible for in as specific terms as possible. Outline how the client is to pay, and how much, in addition to exactly what you'll be delivering upon payment.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the contract is what happens in the case of everything going wrong. What if your clients absolutely hate the photos, or worst yet, what if your card fails for some reason and the data is not recoverable? The wedding is one-time event and you can't exactly call "do over." In these cases, things can get pretty nasty and you want to be sure to protect yourself, even if your clients seem like nice people.

One popular way to protect against this is simply to state that if something goes wrong, you are only liable to the point where you give up the amount to be paid to you for the work. That way if something goes wrong, they don't get their photos and you don't get your money, but no further legal action can be taken. A good contract offers clear protection to both parties.

Check out this link to get a look at a sample contract, the author of which gives full permission to use and change how you see fit. In the end it's best to have a legal professional help prepare the document or at least look over it once it's finished.


The Invoice

The last piece of paper is the one that you're probably the most familiar with. Invoices are fairly basic documents that merely state who you are, what your business is, what products/services you provided and what amount the customer owes you. This serves as a receipt that can be helpful for both parties for legal and tax purposes.

This is usually provided after the work is performed and can serve as a gentle reminder that payment is due. Even if the client has already paid, send along the invoice anyway and simply mark the amount as "paid in full."

For more information how invoices, check out How to Make an Invoice for a Freelance Business.


The PPA

If all of the paperwork and legal obligations above give you headaches, or even if you fully understand how it all works, you should still consider joining an association such as the Professional Photographers of America.

Groups like these often provide easily customizable samples of all the documentation you'll need as part of the membership benefits. This is in addition to a ton of other benefits like insurance, support, certification and more.


Other Considerations

There are plenty of other things that you have to consider when booking a wedding shoot. For instance, are you going to throw in an engagement shoot as a part of the package? Clients love the added value from this and you benefit immensely from building a relationship with your clients in a low-stress shoot before the big day. Weddings almost always run smoother if your clients have worked with you before and are comfortable and confident in your process.

The prints vs. digital copies dilemma is also an important aspect. I constantly see older photographers astounded at the lack of print purchases made by young brides and grooms today. We are a digital generation and throwing photos up on Facebook is far more important to many of us than placing them on our nightstand.

You'll have to decide exactly what you'll be providing your clients. Some photographers would never dream of giving clients a disc of high-res images to use how they see fit, and instead force the clients to go directly through them for everything.

I personally like to give my clients a lot of freedom with their images and prefer to charge enough up front that I don't have to worry too much about making money from prints on the backend.

Even a web-ready, low-res disc of images can go a long way. Giving your clients the freedom to share your photos digitally with their friends simply gives you free advertising of the best possible kind: word of mouth from satisfied customers.

Throw a non-intrusive but noticeable watermark on the images and make yourself easy to find on the web so that when everyone sees your photos, they can easily track you down and hire you!


What Advice Do You Have?

Now that you've read my long spiel about the planning that goes into being a wedding photographer, leave a comment below with your own thoughts and experiences.

Let us know what tips you've picked up along the way and share stories of the things that you had to learn the hard way by doing it wrong first. We're all eager to learn from your mistakes so we don't have to go through them!

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