How to Become a Wedding Photographer
It’s finally happened: after years of praise from friends and family for your photography, you’ve decided to take the plunge and become a wedding photographer.
Wedding photography can be a fulfilling and even lucrative career choice. But it’s not an easy one. While you can pick up an entry-level DSLR for a fairly reasonable price and put together a website, there’s a lot to consider if you want to be in it for the long haul.
There’s plenty to this topic and if we covered each item in detail, we’d be here for days. These are the essential things to consider when you’re just getting started. But, as with any small business, you’ll need to do some long-term planning as well.
1. Choose Your Gear
Gear is the backbone of your business. It obviously goes without saying that you’ll need to buy a good camera , and there’s a whole world of options out there. Maybe you’re already invested in a brand and have several lenses. Or maybe you have a dream setup in mind. Before you plunk down that plastic, there are some things to consider.
First and foremost: don’t try to get everything at once. Start out with the bare essentials as you test the waters. As your business grows, so can your gear. Now, on to choosing that gear.
Picking Your Camera
It’s been said that most brand-name cameras perform at about the same level, rendering brand loyalty simply a matter of personal preference. To some extent that’s true for the weekend shutterbug, but it’s not as true for a working professional like yourself.
Unless you’re already into a system, you need to weigh the camera’s options and performance against your needs. Go to your local photo store — if there’s one nearby — or borrow gear from a friend.
The important bit is to get your hands on the cameras. Are you more comfortable with one manufacturer’s operating system than another? The wedding is not going to pause the first look while you fiddle with buttons and menus. You could have the greatest gear money can buy, but if you don’t like it, or know how to use it, you’re headed for disaster.
After you’ve determined which camera is right for you, there’s the choice between new and used. There are plenty of advantages to going the used route — at least until you can reinvest some of your earnings into newer gear. If you simply can’t afford a new camera, keep your eyes peeled for any red flags when buying used.
How Many Lenses Do You Need?
When it comes to lenses, consider building your kit around a few proven workhorses. Which do you think you’re going to get more use out of, a fast 35mm or that insane 500mm monster you’ve had your eye on? Develop an absolute mastery of your core lineup and consider renting those specialty lenses you’re only going to use once a year.
You’ll also want to consider whether you can afford a second camera body. As a professional wedding photographer, you’re going to need to be thinking about backup — for you, your gear, and photos.
No bride wants to hear “My camera died” and it’s your job to make sure she never does.
That second body doesn’t need to be a duplicate of your primary rig, but it does have to be able to perform up to expectations. Cut your potential luggage and learning curve in half by getting a second body that accepts the same family of lenses as the first and has a similar operating system .
And don’t forget to invest in (and charge) enough batteries to last you the entire day — from shooting the bride getting ready to the end of the evening send-off.
Lighting Gear Matters
In real estate the mantra is “location, location, location.” For a wedding photographer it might as well be “light, light, light.” You’re going to want a reliable lighting setup for the few times you can control the lighting during someone’s special day.
Your lighting gear could be as simple as a single flash and umbrella, or it could be a strobe in every corner of the cathedral. What’s important is that you know how to get the most out of it.
Practice using your lighting equipment beforehand. If you can, get access to the wedding venue beforehand. This will give you an invaluable chance to prepare. (But know that this request cannot always be fulfilled.)
When choosing your gear, also remember that you’re going to be carrying it around all day. Hefting a pair of DSLRs with light-gobbling lenses might not seem like a big deal in the morning, but you’ll be feeling it by the time the vows come around.
2. Choose Your Editing Software and Style
In addition to investing in a camera, you’re also going to want to choose editing software that works for you. Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop are solid choices, but come with a steep learning curve.
With the Creative Cloud Photography plan, you can get the pair of programs for just $10 a month. Working with a professional program that gives you robust editing control and organizational power is a must.
When it comes to choosing your style, do some market research. See what’s out there. What do you like? What do you want to avoid? Which unique elements can you bring to the table?
Whether it’s in your shooting or editing style, think about how you shoot — angles, lighting, movement, and so on. What makes your photography yours?
You set yourself apart with not only your style, but with the services you offer as well. Like a Polaroid guestbook, for example:
You need to have all this figured out before you move onto the next step: your portfolio.
3. Create a Portfolio
Before the blushing bride is going to hire you, she needs to see that you can deliver the goods. While this may be controversial in some photography circles, consider shooting a wedding or two for free to build up your portfolio.
If you’re going to be a wedding photographer, your portfolio needs to exhibit your facility with photographing people. You may take the world’s best photos of vintage cars, but potential clients want to see if you can fulfill their needs.
If you would rather not offer up your services for free, look for a gig as an assistant to an already established professional. You’ll earn money and learn invaluable lessons from a veteran.
Once you’ve got proof of your abilities, you need to set up a website . If you’re intrepid enough, services like Squarespace and WordPress are easy enough to use and can help get the word out. If not, you may need to hire a designer to help you get your site up and running.
Whatever you do, make sure that you only display your own photos. You won’t be doing anyone, especially yourself, any favors if you misrepresent yourself and your abilities. Make the effort to build your own body of work — even if it takes a little while, the payoff is worth it.
4. Prepare for Your First Gig
So you’ve finally got your first paying gig. There’s a ton to consider and plan in the lead up to the wedding, from payment, to contracts, to proper planning for the day.
How Much Should You Charge to Photograph a Wedding?
One of the first questions you’ll find yourself asking is how much to charge. According to PetaPixel, wedding photography averages from $1,700 to $3,500. They also note that beginner photographers might only charge around $500.
FStoppers also has a handy recent video that helps you determine how much to charge. They even advise against undervaluing your work — pricing yourself too cheaply could lose you as many clients as pricing your working too high:
Draw Up a Contract
You’ll need to draw up a clear and concise contract between you and the couple stating exactly what they’ll be getting and at what cost.
There are some horror stories out there of photographers being sued for everything from missing the couple’s first kiss to being accused of taking poor-quality images. Manage expectations and make sure that everyone knows what they’re getting and what you’ll need from them on the big day.
SLR Lounge has a sample contract available for download, but having a lawyer review your contract is advisable.
The contract also gives you a good idea of some of the information that you’re going to want to have confirmed in writing (and signed) before the big day. At the least, this should include:
- The date, time, and location(s) of the wedding
- The location(s) of the bride and groom’s preparations (if you will be photographing either of them)
- Complete information on payments, including retainer, late payment fee, retouching fees, due dates, and consequences of failing to pay
- How the photographs will be delivered: online gallery, disc, etc.
- How long you will be available to shoot
- Your turnaround time for samples and the final shots
You’ll also want to determine if you’re going to charge a non-refundable retainer. This ensures the couple doesn’t cancel on you at the last minute. Think about if you’re going to charge a late fee for failure to pay on time, as well.
Charging a non-refundable retainer may be an uncomfortable experience. But it’s a sign to your clients that your time is valuable, and demonstrates your commitment that if another work offer comes along, you will not take it.
You’ll also want to discuss the list of people the bride and groom want in the formal shots. They know which family members they want to get in their group photos, so it’s best to have them appoint someone on the bride’s side and on the groom’s side to help.
This person will be responsible for wrangling all the rowdy family members into the group shots. You can also have them provide a list of the various family groups they want photos of.
In the madness of the celebration, the bridge and groom may not realize they didn’t get a shot with all the cousins. They’ll appreciate your ability to keep track of all of these configurations with a pre-written list.
Offering to do an engagement shoot or pre-wedding shoot can put the bride and groom at ease and make for better photos on the day of the wedding. It helps build rapport and calms the bride and groom’s nerves. And when you have a better idea of their personalities, you can plan for taking specific photos you know they’ll like.
You’ll also want to read up on poses and suggestions for couples who are uncomfortable in front of the camera. SLR Lounge has some ideas that you can use:
5. You’re at the Wedding, Now What?
There are some other seemingly small but important things to consider for your own comfort on the day itself. You’ll want to dress comfortably but appropriately.
You don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb but also need to be able to move around easily. Also, always wear comfortable and quiet shoes since you’re the only one who’ll be moving around during the ceremony. (Unless the bridal party or the venue does not allow it. Remember to ask!)
Sometimes gear fails, but you can take steps to mitigate that horrifying scenario. You’ll want to find something that won’t add to the bulk of what you’re already carrying.
If you have access to reliable Wi-Fi, you could consider shooting with Wi-Fi-enabled SD cards. This lets you instantly back up the photos to a second Wi-Fi-enabled SD card. Better yet, a portable backup system, while not cheap, will be worth it for the peace of mind it brings.
6. Delivering the Goods
Once you’ve returned to your studio, you can create a more organized backup — the only question is how you’re going to do it. The backup selections are legion. Everything from a RAID system in your closet to Dropbox or your own personal tuft of the cloud.
DC-based wedding photographer Sam Hurd posted an article and video a few years back showing just how complex that backup system can be:
Pick the solution that’s right for you, and make sure you do it. The only feeling worse than realizing you’ve permanently lost the record of your client’s special day is realizing that you could have prevented it. Back everything up. Then back it up again.
Now comes the part where you’ll probably spend the most time working: editing your photos. Before you get your first paying gig, make sure you have a good sense of how long it will take you to edit.
Never commit to delivering photos earlier than you think you can do it. Underpromise and overdeliver.
As you edit your photos, if you’ve committed to sending some sample shots, keep an eye out for the real gems, but don’t send all of them. You want clients to be excited about receiving the photos, and you don’t want to disappoint with the final delivery.
Ryan Brenizer has some recommendations for your post-production workflow:
You should have determined how you will deliver the photos in the contract phase. Options include sending them online using a shared cloud drive or a password-protected page on your site.
You should also ask the couple if they want to receive all the photos on a CD/DVD or just online. If you are creating a shared online drive, you will also need to determine whether access to that online drive will expire after a reasonable time. Be sure to inform them of that date in your signed agreement.
If you can provide printing services, this could be an additional source of revenue, but as with all things related to this job, test your options thoroughly before offering any service.
Many brides and grooms will often be interested in a photo album of their wedding photos. You will need to set up a system that allows them to select which photos will be included in the album. And, of course, you should test the options you plan to offer. Compare local and online prices, get print and cover samples, and determine where you’re going to have the wedding books printed.
It’s probably best to keep things simple and offer two options: one at an affordable price point and a more deluxe version at a higher price point.
7. Hire an Assistant
Assistants are the guardian angels of the wedding photographer. You don’t need to hire one, but if you can afford it, you should seriously consider doing so. Whether it’s running back to the car to find that forgotten lens, wrangling groomsmen, charging batteries, or just holding an umbrella, a good assistant is worth their weight in 85mm f/1.4 lenses.
To achieve your full potential, you’re going to need to be behind the lens, and that’s hard to do when you’re trying to find an empty memory card. If you can afford to hire an assistant, your sanity will thank you for it.
8. Never Stop Learning
There are tons of great wedding photography resources out there. And with the photography industry constantly developing (yes, I went there), there’s no end to how you can learn and grow.
Keep an eye on trends, not only when it comes to gear but also to photography styles. See what photographers are doing in other fields and think about how you can apply it to the wedding industry.
In 2017, popular trends in wedding photography include:
- Instant photos: While it might be great to get several instant cameras, like the Fuji Instax cameras, a more affordable way to bring the polaroid sensibility to your clients is to purchase a small portable photo printer like the Fuji Instax SP2. You can then either create an instant photo display, or encourage guests to share their photos with a hashtag.
- Aerial drone photos: This is another trend that is costly, but if you already have a drone, consider using it for outdoor weddings.
- After-wedding shots: The engagement shoot is common, but to set yourself apart, you might want to offer clients a mini shoot in the first weeks or months of their marriage to capture that newlywed bliss in a far more relaxed environment than their big day.
To keep up on the latest in wedding photography trends, be sure to keep up with the following:
- Photography blogs like Fstoppers and PetaPixel
- Wedding blogs like The Knot and Wedding Wire
- Your competitors
- Find your favorite photographers in your field and follow them on social media or their sites
- Search for wedding photos on sites like Instagram and 500px
- Keep up with bridal magazines
- Facebook groups for photographers
And if you want a career in photography but feel the wedding industry isn’t the right fit for you, don’t forget there are other lucrative careers for the budding photographer .
Have you dipped your toes in the field of wedding photography? Or a seasoned pro? What tips do you have for those looking to start in the field? What’s the one piece of advice you’d give? Let us know all about your experiences in the comments.