A career as a wedding photographer is without a doubt difficult, but it can also be very rewarding. If you can beat the saturated market it is a dream job of making your own schedule and doing what you love. This is going to be a fairly comprehensive look at the nuts and bolts of starting and continuing your career as a wedding photographer, complete with links to even more resources. Buckle up because it’s going to be a long one!
- Learn the Basics
- Buy Equipment
- Make it Official – Register with the State
- Gain Experience, Build a Portfolio
- Market Your Work, Build a Brand
- Detail Shots
- Bride, Groom, and Parties
- First Look
- Group Photos and Posing
- Tips for Wedding Photojournalism
- Tips for Flash Photography for Small and Large Rooms
- Tips for Lighting Couples’ Portraits
- Nighttime Couples Photography
1. Learn the Basics
The very first step in your journey to becoming a wedding photographer is of course learning the basics of photography. The basics cover a wide range of topics including gear, editing, web design, marketing, and advertising. Fortunately for you, there are hundreds of free online resources you can use to get started. Below is a list of some of the best resources out there including online and print.
- FStoppers is one of the best free resources on the internet. It has dozens of writers and literally tens of thousands of articles. It’s the Swiss Army knife of photography websites. They also have more comprehensive (but not free) video tutorials available.
- SLR Lounge, while similar to FStoppers, has content that is more specific to the business side of photography. They also offer a wide range of paid tutorials.
- Behind the Shutter is a monthly online magazine that covers a handful or photography niches, ranging from marketing, to weddings and high school senior portraits. Like the previous resources, they also offer paid video tutorials.
- Phlearn is dedicated to using the editing software you’ll need to process your photos. They cover Photoshop, Lightroom, and just about every other Adobe program.
- Best Business Practices for Photographers
- The Business of Studio Photography
- Understanding Exposure
- Mastering Composition
While there are thousands of free resources to choose from, I do recommend buying as many tutorials and books as you can afford. Education is an investment into your future and paid tutorials allow you to filter through the irrelevant noise that plagues the internet. You can learn faster and more thoroughly from lecture style tutorials. The mention of lectures brings me to my next topic.
A question I am often asked about starting a photography career is whether or not you should go to college for photography. Having done exactly this myself, my answer is a firm no. You can learn everything you need to know and more without dishing out tuition levels of money. If you are around the age where you are starting to consider college majors and you are contemplating photography as an option, I would instead recommend that you go to school for business. Learning how to run a business is much harder than learning how to be a good photographer. In fact, you can be the best wedding photographer to ever live (whatever that means) but if you don’t know how to get eyes on your work your career is as good as dead. Not only is knowing how to run a business vital but having a degree in business will give you a plan B if you eventually decide that photography isn’t for you. If you are too young to be thinking about college, some school districts have vocational schools that offer photography as an area of study. I went to votech in high school and it really jump started my journey to becoming a photographer. Going to votech will also give you access to equipment you typically wouldn’t have access to.
2. Buy Equipment
Unfortunately, photography gear is expensive, so you’ll probably want to accumulate it over time instead of buying it all at once. The very first thing you’ll need is a camera and lens. I would suggest starting with something used or on the lower end. You will quickly outgrow it, but you might start taking pictures and realize that you don’t actually like photography. Most professionals use full frame DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras are also becoming very popular due to their size, versatility, and cutting-edge tech. Canon, Nikon, and Sony are the three biggest camera manufacturers with Sony leading the mirrorless market. After you learn the basics and have outgrown your starter camera, the next step will be upgrading your camera body and diversifying your lens selection. In order to have a good wedding kit you’ll need lenses that span from the widest to the telephoto range. For instance, Canon has a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens and a 70-200mm f/2.8; along with those two lenses you’ll want to cover the range between them. Lens choice is a personal preference, some people like prime lenses (lenses with a fixed focal length) for their speed, size, and sensitivity to light while other people prefer zoom lenses. You’ll also want to get duplicates of things like your camera body, memory card, and batteries in case you break or lose something mid wedding. Part of the responsibility of being a professional is being able to cope with any situation, including ones that involve broken equipment.
Next on the equipment list is lighting. Wedding venues and receptions are some of the most technically difficult settings to shoot in and natural light will not cut it. Once the dancing starts during receptions the lights will go out and sun will go down. You’ll need to be able to cope with shooting in pitch darkness. The most basic thing you’ll need is a speedlight such as the Canon 600EX or the Nikon SB5000. You’ll be able to use one flash on camera for some lighting situations, primarily bounce flash. Optimally you’ll end up with three or four speedlights along with light stands and wireless triggers to go with each. On top of that, you’ll need equipment to modify the light. The most popular modifiers for wedding pros are made by a company called MagMod. They have a system of magnetic attachments to diffuse, color, or focus light, along with softboxes.
3. Make it Official – Register with the State
Before you start marketing and making money off of your work, you first need to register your business with the state. Depending on your future plans, you’ll either want to register as a sole proprietorship or an LLC. You also need a sales tax ID. It’s best to start everything above board so you don’t find yourself in legal trouble down the road.
4. Gain Experience, Build a Portfolio
The next step in your journey will be to start building a portfolio and getting real world experience. Before you photograph any weddings, you should start by practicing with friends and family. It’s best to have a decent amount of experience with portraiture before even thinking about wedding photography. A lot of people start their wedding careers by assisting photographers. Carrying gear around is not glamorous but it will help you get an idea of the flow of weddings and how different pros handle them. Paying attention to other photographer’s shooting style and how they interact with clients is a crucial step in the process of building your own style and brand. After getting a few assistant jobs under your belt it’s time to start second shooting. Second shooters cover different angles and often different focal lengths. The lead photographer might shoot the ceremony from the back and down the aisle while the second is up front getting audience reactions or different angles of the couple.
An important disclaimer should be noted when it comes to second shooting. Lead photographers are under no obligation to allow you to use the photos you took for your portfolio. The reason for this is because of the nature of most second shooting agreements/contract. Second photographer agreements are often considered work-for-hire which has implications on the copyright (and therefore ownership) of the photos, but I will leave that complicated and nuanced topic for another day. When reaching out to photographers you should be very clear about what it is, you’re looking for and whether they have a problem with you using photos taken at their events. The most common arrangement is to allow second shooters to use the photos but only for certain things and after a specified amount of time has passed between the event and using the photos.
Another method of building your portfolio is to organize what are called styled photo shoots. A styled shoot is a shoot that is arranged with other vendors in order to mutually benefit your portfolios. You’ll need to reach out to local venues, florists, dress shops, wedding planners, and models in order to pull off a styled shoot. They are a lot of work but the photos you’ll get from it will be outstanding. Instead of the stressful and fast paced environment of a wedding, you’ll have all the time in the world to perfect your lighting and composition on each and every photo.
5. Market Your Work, Build a Brand
Marketing your work can seem like a daunting task but dedicating even an hour a day to getting your work in front of people is a great start. Thankfully we are in the golden age of marketing and advertising. There are more options than ever before and a lot of them are free. A few marketing methods I’ll touch on are social media, web sites, search engine optimization, networking, branding, and paid advertising.
Social media is a great place to start marketing your business. It’s free, easy to understand, and is accessible by essentially everyone. As a photographer the first three places you should start are Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Facebook is arguably the most powerful social media site for getting new clients. It allows for very precise and inexpensive ads and is structured to promote local businesses more than Instagram, for example. Instagram is good for photographers because it is built exclusively around sharing photos, but it has drawbacks. For instance, it’s difficult and slow to gain a following in your locality. Hashtags are powerful but hashtags like #PhiladelphiaWeddingPhotographer don’t get much traffic. More popular hashtags are typically more general and saturated, making it hard or impossible to be seen. Pinterest is a great place to share wedding content especially since a large portion of the site is dedicated to it. It may help you get back links to your website but it’s not the best for finding local clients.
While social media is powerful, the most important online hub for your business is your website. It’s the best place to showcase your brand without the formatting restrictions of social media websites. Your website it where you want to funnel the traffic you’re getting from social media. Good websites are set up to be conversion machines and is often the final step before getting a potential client to reach out and become an actual client. A website will allow you to use whatever structure, verbiage, and colors you want and really showcase who you are as a person and company. Starting a website won’t or shouldn’t be free, but organic search traffic is one of the best sources for new and free leads. With websites you can go two routes; you can learn how to build your own or hire someone to build it, or you can use a service like Square Space that takes care of the heavy lifting for you. Both are good options but its dependent on what your preferences are and how hands on you want to be.
SEO is how you make your website be seen by both search engines and users. It involves things like optimizing your keywords, getting backlinks, using alt text on your images, and a thousand other snowballing things. Since this topic is so vast, I’ll let the experts flush out this topic.
If done properly, networking can end up being the bread and butter of your marketing efforts. Once you start working at venues and with other vendors you can set up arrangements to refer each other work. Wedding vendors want photos for their portfolio just as much as you do, exchanging your photos in return for mutual referrals is a great deal. Networking is all about giving. It’s a positive sum game and the more you help other people the more they’ll be willing to help you.
Your brand is your business’ fingerprint. Your branding can be reflected in your writing style (whether its formal or informal), the colors you use and what mood it conveys, the styling of your website, the look and feel of your photos, and even your price point (whether you’re high end or affordable). Here is a more detailed look at branding.
Content marketing is a profound and inexpensive method of getting your work and your voice in front of potential clients. Writing things like tutorials (such as this one), articles helping your clients understand your craft or prepare for a photoshoot are all examples of content marketing. The purpose of it is to give resources to your clients or website visitors instead of trying to sell to them. Educational content outperforms most other types of content on both social media and search engines. Blog posts with 3000 or more words consistently out rank posts with fewer words. Your written voice can also become a large part of your businesses brand and identity. Clients expect to work with an authentic and human person in this type of business, not a sterile feeling corporation and your writing can help to reflect the difference. Now that we’ve covered some of the abstract aspects of a photography business, we can move on to the practical methods of photographing a wedding. Here is a link to a talk on content marketing and a lengthy post on the same topic.
6. Detail Shots
I start most weddings by doing detail shots of the venue, flowers, table settings, jewelry, invites, and clothing; basically, everything the couple spent money on. You may want to consider getting a macro lens or extension tubes that will allow you to photograph small things like rings, watches, cuff links, and any other jewelry that might be important to the couple. Extension tubes are the inexpensive option, but they do come with some draw backs. Adding an extension tube to a lens will actually cause it to have a maximum focusing distance which will be compounded by every additional tube. On top of that, your depth of field will be so shallow that the lens may not focus at all at the widest aperture setting. I’ve found that the best lens to use with extension tubes is something fairly wide, like a 35mm or 50mm.
7. Bride, Groom, and Parties
After getting detail shots the next stage is typically photographing the bride’s and groom’s parties getting ready. The early stages of most weddings are shot from a photojournalistic standpoint. Its best to be a fly on the wall and photograph people’s expressions and interactions. Depending on the venue you may need to set up lights. Even if the room has decent lighting it’s never a bad idea to add a kicker to make your subjects pop. After getting a handful of good candid images you can start giving direction and setting up more intricate lighting and poses.
8. First Look
First looks are always fun to shoot and tend to make the prewedding timeline smoother. You get some great photos of the couple before the wedding and photograph the parties together without worrying about the couple seeing each other. If you do a first look and you’re fortunate enough to have extra time before the ceremony you might even be able to knock out some of the family photos. The more time you have during cocktail hour to photograph the couple alone the better. First looks are typically photographed candidly but there may be some staging before the couple sees each other to ensure you get the proper angles and composition. Since there are superstitions surrounding a couple seeing each other before the ceremony, I’ve found that it’s best to mention first looks but not to pressure or suggest that you’d prefer to do one. It should be entirely the couple’s decision without the influence of your preferences. If the couple doesn’t want to do a first look then you can probably orchestrate one with the father of the bride. You can get some great and unexpected reactions from seemingly stoic fathers.
9. Group Photos and Posing
Groups photos come in many styles and varieties. How much time you’re allotted will play a big part in how stylized you can get with your group photos. The most basic group photos are documentary like; as long as everyone’s eyes are open and their faces visible you probably did your job. If you have time to work with you can get more elaborate with your posing and even your lighting. You may be able to pose and light people in a group photo individually and make a composite that will really stand out. Below are some guidelines to follow when posing groups.
- Place subjects on different levels
- Form the group’s outline into a triangular shape
- Form groups or clusters of people within a larger group
- Take a handful of posed photos and then have the group relax and talk amongst themselves to get candid shots
Studying old master’s paintings is a great way to learn how to create dynamic and interesting group photos. The more time you have the more you can iron out a group and make it look organic.
10. Tips for Wedding Photojournalism
Some of the best moments from weddings can only be captured candidly. Shooting a wedding like a journalist means putting yourself in the thick of things and not being afraid to navigate and slalom through the dance floor. If you’re naturally extroverted then congrats, half the battle is already won! Wide prime lenses are your best friends for this type of shooting; think 24mm, 35mm, or 50mm. If you’re shooting the reception with a 70-200mm from 30 feet away, you might be doing it wrong. Shooting with a wide-angle lens will also allow you to add some pretty cool special effects into your work (more on that below). You never know what will happen during a wedding so it’s important to get into the habit of constantly scanning the room. You’ll also want to avoid “chimping” as much as possible. Chimping is when you look at your camera’s LCD screen after every press of the shutter button. It’s best to get your settings locked in and take way more photos than you think you’ll need. It might make your editing and culling slower, but you’ll be thankful that you captured a split-second moment that would have otherwise been missed. If you have the equipment for it, getting a dual camera harness and shooting with two cameras (one wide lens and one long) will give you a huge advantage and allow you to cover more of the room.
11. Tips for Flash Photography for Small and Large Rooms
From poorly lit churches to receptions with nothing but the DJ’s lights, wedding venues can be some of the most challenging settings imaginable. Figuring out the best lighting needs to be done on a case by case basis but there are some guidelines to follow that will work in most situations.
Most budding photographers start their journey of learning how to use flash with on camera speedlights. They can be used several ways when placed on camera, the two main methods are direct and bounce flash. Direct flash can be done well in some applications but it’s usually not the best answer. Direct flash can end up looking cheap and harsh, and the light will fall off quickly meaning that you’ll be isolating whatever is in front of you while everything else in the scene fades to shadow. Again, this can be a desired effect but it’s highly circumstantial.
Bouncing your speedlight off of ceilings or walls is much more versatile and flattering. Unfortunately, bounce flash is limited by the size of a room and the color of the bounce surface. If you’re in a venue with high ceilings you mostly likely won’t have enough flash power to adequately light a scene. The color of your bounce surface will also have a marked effect on your flash. Your flash will bounce back whatever color the surface is, so if the wall or ceiling you’re using is red, your light will turn red. Because of this, bounce flash is only viable in venues that have white or neutral colors. Another limitation of bounce flash is its range. If you want to get photos of someone across the room, chances are you’ll need to set up speedlights on light stands.
By far the most versatile and professional look will come from using the flashes wirelessly. No matter the size of a room, it’s colors, or dimensions, you can use off camera speedlights to cover an entire space. One of the most common set ups is putting flashes on opposite corners of a dance floor or on both sides of the aisle for ceremonies. They are invaluable for things like best man and maid of honor speeches. A flash can be placed at a 45° angle on the opposite side of your shooting position for dramatic and flattering results. SLR Lounge published a great article about lighting receptions, check it out here. MagMod offers a wide variety of colored gels that will allow you to match the ambient white balance or use cool or warms gels for artistic effects. Below are lighting diagrams and example images from each set up. Click on the lighting diagrams below to see the full size images.
12. Tips for Lighting Couples’ Portraits
While natural light can certainly produce great results, lighting your portraits is a great way to stand out from the competition and add drama to your photos. Something as simple as adding a kicker/hair light can make your photos pop. Flashes can be used to either overpower the ambient light or fill in shadows, both indoors and outdoors. My go to outdoor set up is placing the couples backs towards the sun and lighting the side of them that’s in shadow. A simple foldable reflector works great for this application as well. For most simple set ups you can place your light at 45° to the side and a few feet above head height.
13. Nighttime Photography
We’ll conclude with the same thing I typically conclude weddings with, nighttime photography. If you really want to stand out in a crowd of your local competition, night photography is a great skill set to master. It is very challenging and equally rewarding when done well. The first step is determining what you want your ambient exposure to look like. More often than not, using a shutter speed that you could typically handhold and get a sharp picture won’t work. You’ll need to open up your aperture, boost your ISO (it’s wise to stay below 3,200), and slow your shutter speed. Using a tripod is your safest bet. Adding flash into the mix will also help you tremendously as it can be used to isolate your subjects and freeze any motion you’re imparting if you have to hand hold.