Over the last year, I've spent a great amount of time attempting to learn the craft of wedding photography. Although, I still have a lot to learn, I can hopefully speak from experience (positive and negative alike) of how to get on the right path as a wedding photographer.
1) Gain an Interest
If you're reading this article, there's a pretty good chance that you have already reached this stage. Perhaps you're interested in wedding photography because of the earning potential, or maybe you just love weddings and want to document them.
Either way, wedding photography is an animal like no other and really requires some different approaches. One wedding photographer I worked with told me his favorite thing about wedding photography is that it combined so many different types of photography: macro (think rings), architecture (beautiful churches), and even a bit of sports - imagine capturing a fast moving couple.
Find wedding photographers whose work inspires you. There are hundreds of talented wedding photographers, and inspiration is never far away. Spending time learning what you like and how to present a scene is critical in developing a style. Wedding photography is a unique field, and it's not hard to quickly become enthralled in the world of it.
2) Start Assisting
Have people shot weddings before assisting a professional? Sure. Would I recommend it? Not at all. If you can jump into shooting weddings on your own, you are far more skilled than I am. For me, I wasn't even comfortable attempting it.
The first thing I did was to start networking and finding photographers in my area. My first idea was to send emails to local wedding photographers asking to assist or second shoot. Most of these went unreturned.
Second shooting allows you to learn the ins and outs of weddings without all of the pressure.
However, with enough persistence I began to get regular work form local pro's. Catching on as a second shooter was one of my favorite experiences - I got to travel with a number of different photographers and to shoot some amazing weddings. The photographers I got to shoot with had decades of experience and really understood their craft. Studying their work and their methods was the best thing I ever did to learn what it took to shoot weddings.
Being a good assistant or second shooter will keep work coming your way. Remember that when you're working as a second, your job is to complement the work of the primary photographer. Stay out of their shots, and shoot from complementary (not identical) angles. One good approach is to use lenses of a different focal length; if the primary is shooting a telephoto, take a wide angled approach to the situation. Getting two takes on a situation is fantastic for the primary because it will allow them to deliver more images to the client.
Most importantly, you do the things that they ask you to do, without asking a lot of questions. Try to stay one step ahead of them and consider their needs. I've worked as both a second and a primary photographer on weddings, and when I'm the primary, I have so much going on that an assistant who takes care of small tasks is such a blessing.
When getting started, you aren't guaranteed to be paid or compensated. You might not even be able to use the images in your portfolio; it depends on the circumstances of the contract you're working under. Make sure that you get these things in writing and understand what the primary photographer's expectations for you are. However, despite the fact that you won't make a living second shooting for the first few months, the knowledge that you gain is a huge investment in your talent.
3) Develop a Business
More so than perhaps any other type of photography, learning the business of wedding photography is essential to your success. The industry has a tremendous amount of turnover, and a lot of this is due to unfamiliarity with what it takes to run a business.
If you don't like contracts, this isn't the right business for you. Contracts set expectations for a job and protect both parties. Research the contracts that photographers use. There are examples that are readily available with some searching. Consider retaining a lawyer to ensure that your contract is airtight. Many photographers also carry liability insurance, as well as insurance that protects gear from being stolen or damaged on the job.
Determine the right business model for you. Will you sell prints? Discs with digital files? Albums? All of these require research and thought that extend far beyond the scope of this article.
Finally, determining how to market your business may be the greatest challenge that you face. There are no secrets, just a lot of work that must be put into building a brand that people recognize and know. Find effective ways to advertise. Consider the fact that there are both free (word of mouth) and paid advertising options. I am a big believer that the best advertising is satisfied clients.
4) Research and Choose the Right Gear
Many photographers make the mistake of reducing the quality of work to high dollar camera bodies and expensive lenses. You have probably heard by now that gear isn't everything when it comes to being a good photographer.
However, the other side of the coin is that better gear is a huge advantage in any type of photography. Wedding photography is no exception. Some of the situations you will find yourself in may put a lot of strain on entry level gear. Churches can range between well-lit and artificial caves. It's times like those that you will need the right gear to capture the wedding properly.
For me, there are two essential parts of my wedding kit: a camera body with good high ISO performance, and fast primes. My go-to lenses are primes between f/1.4 and f/2. These allow me to shoot weddings in my style and ensure that I can capture enough light.
A body with great high ISO performance can save you when you're in the darkest of venues. A flash is also important, although many churches don't allow for use of flash during a ceremony. Even if it is allowed, you may find that your clients and their guests would prefer to not seeing a flash pop up every few seconds.
Camera gear with good high ISO performance and fast primes make low light shots possible.
Don't neglect the importance of getting some longer, fast lenses. During the ceremony, you may find that you are further away than you had anticipated. Depending upon the client's requests and church provisions, you may be stationed in a balcony or in a corner of the church. I have recently picked up the Canon 135L, which is a 135mm f/2 lens that will be great for these times. My personal belief is that photographers shouldn't be a distraction during the ceremony, so I'm often in stealth mode during this time.
Make sure you pick up enough memory cards to cover the day. Everyone's needs will differ, but with a 21 megapixel camera, I keep several dozen gigabytes worth of memory. The last thing that you want to happen is to fill your cards during the ceremony and have nothing left for the reception.
Also, don't dare shoot a wedding without backup gear. This means backup memory cards, batteries, and most poignantly, a backup camera body. This can get expensive, but remember Murphy's Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong. What will you tell your clients if your camera stops working? Choose a backup camera that you can transition to fairly seamlessly from your primary body if need be. The best approach is to use two of the same camera, but this isn't financially feasible for many people.
5) Make a Check List: Preparation is Everything
I think people have a tendency to think of weddings as one unified type of event. The truth is that across various religious and cultural borders, weddings are radically different experiences. Furthermore, the couple has so many options that no two weddings are ever the same. Thus, your experiences will vary wildly from weekend to weekend.
I think that the most overlooked skill is knowing how to interact with your clients and put them at ease. Skills like these are learned only with practice and time.
If there was one thing that helped me improve my results radically during the first year, it was to really sit down with my couples and get a feel for their wedding. This way, you can set the expectations for the day, map out the flow of events, and make sure that their needs are met. Remember, you are in the business of providing customer service. Happy clients mean more business.
6) Improve your Editing Skills
In the year 2011, the digital workflow is an important part of nearly every photographer's business. Wedding photography has some demands that are specific to it.
I think that the greatest challenge that wedding photographers face in the editing process is the sheer volume of images to process. Over the course of a wedding, it's not unusual to capture a couple thousand images. Depending on the length and scale of the event, it can be even more. Thus, the importance of mastering a workflow that is efficient is the key to not getting buried in your work and falling behind on dealing with clients. During the summertime when you may be shooting every weekend, you will need to set aside time to handle all of the editing to stay on top of things.
Using Adobe Lightroom to manage large catalogues makes handling a wedding easier.
Photoshop is an outstanding tool for processing and editing images. However, it is perhaps not built to manage the thousands of images that a wedding brings with it. For me, the tool of choice is Adobe Lightroom, a branch of Photoshop that is targeted towards handling large amounts of images.
Using Lightroom doesn't require you to completely abandon Photoshop. The two programs can work in tandem; for my uses, Lightroom is essential for handling the quantity of images that I have, as well as cataloging them. Lightroom has a lot of powerful features for tagging, organizing, and archiving images.
The first step I take is to get all images onto my computer, and then backup the entire wedding in at least two (and hopefully three) different storage locations. Next, I cull the wedding. To cull a set of images is to trim the fat and reduce the set of images to just what will be delivered to the client. I do a first "rough" cull and cut out all of the images I'm sure I won't deliver, and I usually reduce the number of images even further as I go.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss editing weddings in depth. This is simply due to the fact that every photographer seems to have a method that works best for them, and no two methods are identical. The point to take away is that editing large events like weddings requires.
I spoke with a friend who just edits wedding photos for photographers. He said that biggest tricks he uses are first mastering Aperture or Lightroom for mass editing, second learning to master Photoshop actions that will allow you to do more in-depth editing in bulk quickly, and finally and he said "most importantly" learn to use you clone stamp with a 70% opacity. You do a lot of cloning for dusk and especially dark circles under the eyes. A 70% opacity on your clone stamp brush is probably the most important and best kept secret in the wedding industry.
Keep in mind that you're going to spend most of your time editing a wedding, not shooting it. If a wedding is 6 hours, you'll spend at least another six editing. But, there are people out there who will edit for you for a price. Some photographers I know pay 1/3 of what they getting paid to shoot a wedding directly to their editor.
7) Keep Working!
When I think of my own progress, I have learned a lot having shot weddings in this last year. However, I can also get overwhelmed with the amount of progress that I need to make. This includes both the photographic side and the business side. Finding great photographic friends that are supportive has been a treasure to me and helped me improve more than anything.
The wedding photography industry is tough and many people can't hang with it. Many photographers try, and either don't like it or can't cut it. This is not a glamorous "show up and get paid thousands" lifestyle. There are many challenges faced by wedding photographers, but a commitment to improvement and constant work can bring success.