Monday, March 26, 2012

Advice To A Would-Be Wedding Photographer

Wedding of Robbie & Jen

I'm not much of an expert at event photography. I've shot a handful of family functions for close friends, a christening here, a wedding there. I'm simply not the sort of person who could do this for a living. Now that even the professionals are struggling to make ends meet, I wouldn't exactly recommend that it's a great time to leap into the wedding photog game.

But everyone has a camera and it's easy for that "anyone" to be asked to shoot a wedding. I see an awful lot of questions on photography fora that start the same way: "I'm shooting my friend's wedding for free and..." The problem is, that's the wrong place to start. The odds are stacked against you already and it's unlikely that a group of well-meaning internet strangers can help you.

Though it might sometimes make sense to volunteer your time for free, I think it's a big mistake at a wedding. Read on, and I'll explain.

First, learning photography takes time. Professional photographers are suffering right now because anyone with a camera thinks they can do a better-than-average job of taking photos. The marketing departments have convinced them that all they need is the next new feature and they will be a pro. Of course we know this isn't true! It's not the gear, stupid. It's learning the principles of composition and light, knowing your tools inside out, having enough experience to be able to react quickly, knowing how to improvise creatively. You can do this with a forty-year-old camera and a single lens. In fact, you might well be better off with that minimalist approach.

It is your skills as a photographer that are being purchased, not your gear bag. And these skills take a long time to build. I'll go out on a limb and say that unless you've been using your tools for at least five years you shouldn't even think about taking on a wedding. But once you do, you deserve to be compensated for the experience you have accrued.

Wedding of Robbie & Jen
Second, it is the gear, stupid! Photography is expensive, especially if you are being responsible. You likely need two bodies, fast lenses, a good flash unit, battery packs, a carbon fiber tripod (it had better be light), extra memory cards, a laptop for onsite backup, and so on. And then you need a second copy of everything, because if something breaks on the day you need to be able to keep going with no downtime. An assistant or second shooter helps a lot, especially for bigger events. (Does anyone have small weddings?) Your car costs money. So does your event insurance if you're professional enough to buy some.

But even if you're not going the whole hog, your investment is going to be significantly larger than a casual shooter. Besides, making money on one wedding means you can invest it in being more prepared for the second. Your business plan needs to extend to more than just your next shoot!

Third, your contribution will be more valued if it has a cost associated with it. Those of us who strive to constantly improve our art have a hard time getting respect in this time of "good enough". But you are going to need respect on that wedding day. Unless the clients want absolutely no posed pictures (unlikely), shooting a wedding requires that you take charge of the guests. Depending on your personality and disposition, this can be quite difficult to do. You need to be in control and this requires a position of some authority. If you're getting zilch for your time and effort, why should anyone respect you? You'll be fighting with Uncle Jack, Sister Susie, and all the other busy snapshot shooters.

Wedding of Robbie & Jen
Fourth, you will be working harder than anyone else at the wedding. Shooting this event is a heck of a lot of work and it never ends. You need to be go go go from the crack of dawn until the final dance. When others are chilling out, you will be getting location shots or candids or setting up for the next formal event.

And this work doesn't end with the wedding day. You need to catalogue, backup, and sort all the photos, process and retouch the best, and deliver these to your clients. Gone are the days when people want a couple dozen shots. Instead, you might well be expected to produce 500 images. (And then there's video.)

Fifth, this is a very special day for the bride, groom, their friends and families. They need results and there are no second chances. If they are not willing to pay for that, they might well get their money's worth!

Wedding of Robbie & Jen
Finally, if you shoot a wedding for free, you are taking food out of the mouth of a working photographer. I realise the word "solidarity" has been made dirty by an exploitative society that always puts "me" first, but consider: Isn't a wedding all about the solidarity between two people and two families? If you aspire to being part of the photographic community, now is the time to begin taking your ethical obligations seriously.

So, negotiate a reasonable wage. Manage client expectations so you are both on the same page. Know exactly what is expected of you. Be prepared with all your equipment and the practical knowledge to use it. And then have fun!

My hat is off to those who can creatively shoot weddings week after week and not go insane. Really. Once a year is enough for me.

The shots here are from the wedding of Robbie and Jen. They and their families were really lovely. So I thank them for making it worthwhile!

Photographs © 2011 Robin Parmar and Susannah Kelly.

On re-reading I think this article might leave people with the impression I only rate professional photographers. In fact, almost the opposite is true! The photography industry was practically created by amateurs and has been sustained through its development by amateurs. Remember that amateur means someone who loves the craft. It may be something of a paradox, but many professionals rely on assembly-line methods to make a business out of their craft. There's little room for inspiration and technical knowledge only needs to be adequate.

But, regardless of their skill level, and whether their shots are better or worse than the hobbyist, the one thing a professional has is a code of ethics. And this code means telling the client "no" if that's the right thing to do. Which brings us full-circle and back to the need to tell a (potential) client "no" if their demands are not reasonable. "The customer is always right" is only true if you are not a professional. This attitude does everyone involved a disservice.



Brazilian woman said...

You have a great advice to would be wedding photographer..

cw. said...


I wholeheartedly agree with you, but I think you only lightly touched on one of the most important points I always make about taking on wedding photography:

What if something happens to the want-to-be wedding photographer on the bride's big day? What if a loved one dies? What if he/she falls and breaks an arm? What if he/she is in a serious car accident on the way to the church? What if his/her child falls ill?

If want-to-be wedding photographers are not retaining and guaranteeing a competant wedding photographer can be there if something like that happens, they really don't know what they are doing, they are operating un-ethically, and they have absolutely no business committing to someone's wedding.

And, nope, I am not a wedding photographer.

robin said...

Accidents are of course a problem for the professionals as well. Generally they would refund any money they have been paid as a retainer but after that the couple are on their own! I don't believe their insurance would enter the picture (could be wrong depending on jurisdiction).

Acts of God are impossible for anyone to predict but perhaps a creative response would help ameliorate the situation. For example one could arrange to distribute a few dozen instant cameras and then, once one had recovered from whatever tragedy occurred, these could be edited/collated into something intriguing.

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