Vital Photography Lessons I've Learned from Shooting Weddings

Vital Photography Lessons I've Learned from Shooting Weddings

For some very good reasons, I have decided to stop photographing weddings. There are many lessons I learned from the challenges of weddings that may be useful to all photographers.

Wedding Photography Is Not a Great Place to Start Professionally

Many photographers see weddings as a stepping stone into the world of professional photography. However, it’s possibly one of the hardest genres to do well. You need a wide range of skills in different genres, perfect camera control in each, an understanding of your system's strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to create compelling images that, nonetheless, have your own style. If you get it wrong, you have ruined the most important day of two people's lives.

I’ve seen a lot of wedding photographers come and go because their photography work was just not good enough or they didn’t have the personal wherewithal to meet the needs of the clients or run a business. Before asking for money from clients, you need to have your work assessed by another professional to find out if it is good enough - not by your Mom or partner, though; they will only say nice things.

Coping With Stressful Photoshoots

Many photographers find weddings stressful. All established and successful photographers worry that their images are not good enough. On top of that, there is the expectation that the photographer will deliver every shot that the happy couple expects. There’s also the nagging concern that you have the right amount of equipment and haven’t left anything behind.

Although those doubts cross my mind, I’ve learned not to let them bother me. I’ve been doing this long enough to realize what is expected. I know what equipment I need. I regularly practice with my cameras, so I know what their capabilities are too. Then, I have settings applied to custom modes, so the cameras are ready for any circumstance with a quick turn of the dial.

Talking of equipment, you won't be the only person who is stressed. I always carry a couple of pocket packets of tissues with me. These are for mopping the face of a tearful child with a runny nose, the sweaty forehead of a middle-aged man, and happy mothers', fathers', grooms', and brides' tears. They are also useful for cleaning spilled wine. Handy hint: good quality tissues don’t break up when they get wet.

How Well Do You Know Your Camera?

Photography and operating equipment must become second nature, so you are not dithering on the day and stressed about whether you will get the shot. Can you put your finger on the menu button without looking? Do you remember how each of your custom modes is set? Do you know what shutter speeds freeze and blur dancers' movements? What is the maximum ISO you are happy to shoot at? At ISO 25,600 how far from your camera can a face be before definition is lost when you apply Lightroom's noise reduction?

Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance

That's a polite version of an old military adage, and it applies to most things in life. Just turning up on the day is not the way to do a wedding. I meet with the couple and sometimes their families, and I usually do a pre-wedding shoot too. I have a contract that I go through and get the clients to sign, as well as a form for them to fill in that tells me what they expect. You get some unusual requests - more than once I've been asked for relatives' partners to be stood at the edge of group shots so they are more easily removed from the picture after an anticipated break-up.

Four days in advance of a wedding, I check and prepare all my equipment. Four days is long enough for me to replace faulty equipment if necessary.

What if My Equipment Fails?

Many worry that the camera, lens, or memory cards will fail. That doesn’t bother me. I’ve never had camera equipment fail during an event, and I carry spares. However, other photographers have suffered disasters.

I don’t have empirical data to back up this anecdotal evidence, but I know of one brand popular with wedding photographers whose cameras fail regularly and worryingly often. I’ve also met a photographer who had both memory cards in the camera fail; he lost the entire wedding shoot. Using reliable equipment and backing up your photos as soon as possible is essential.

Protect Your Lenses

At a recent wedding, I was shooting on a gravel driveway in front of a stately home. A group of children decided it would be fun to kick the stones, so consequently, I quickly covered the front element of my lenses with my palms just in time as the grit bounced off the back of my hands. At a previous event, I had a child grab the front of my lens with sticky fingers. Another photographer I know had the front element of his new lens sprayed with hair lacquer. I know it is a contentious issue, but I recommend protecting the front of the lens with a good-quality UV filter. I use Urth Plus+ filters because I can't see any difference in my photos between them being on or off the camera.

The Best-Laid Schemes of Mice and Men Gang Aft Agley

Things go wrong. Last year, I was shooting a wedding at an 80-acre country estate. The wedding chapel was a converted boathouse down by the river. I had agreed to meet the bride in the car park next to the stately home. An employee of the estate sat with me in a four-wheel drive utility vehicle, where he said we would see them arrive; he was going to drive the bridal party and me to the chapel.

After a long wait, I got a panicked phone call asking where I was. The limousine had bypassed the car park and, unadvisedly, driven down the steep dirt track to the wedding venue. I was taken there at speed. The wedding otherwise ran smoothly. So, always have a phone with you but remember to put it on Do Not Disturb before the ceremony starts.

Be Everybody's Friend

When I shoot a wedding, I treat my clients and the wedding guests like friends that I want to help.

At a lot of weddings, there seems to be nobody coordinating the day. Often, the bride has organized everything. But on the big day, she has other things on her plate. So, sometimes I end up directing the event.

There are always little things that need to be sorted, and I find myself helping in different ways that are unrelated to photography. I have no objection to that, as it is in my interest to see the day pass by as painlessly as possible. I want the subjects of my photos to look happy and not stressed. Furthermore, a wedding day shoot can mean 11 or 12 hours of work, and there are big lulls between photography sessions that can become boring. Helping the wedding party breaks the monotony.

What Do I Do About Others With Cameras?

Other people like taking photos at weddings, especially group shots. I’ve seen some professional photographers deliberately get in the way of those doing that, but I do the opposite and invite others to take their snaps after I have taken mine. It doesn’t lessen my work, and I prefer to be seen as friendly and be remembered for future events.

To Be Continued

So you have done all the preparation and taken thousands of photos. So what comes next? The hard work! That follows in my next article.

Do you photograph weddings or events? Are you successful at it? Is it something you want to try? Is it something you attempted and gave up? Let's hear your thoughts about the preparation and shooting the wedding in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Great article! As a wedding photographer myself, I can relate on many of those points! I honestly enjoy weddings but I view them more a photographing a sporting event than a photo shoot. You are there to capture the moments that happen and to stay out of the way. If you try to control the event too much, it will be very stressful and you will hate it. Appreciate the great article!

Thank you Devin. Parts 2 and 3 will be along soon!

There are points, though, where, if you don't take control and give direction, you're simply not going to get the required shots. One example is the family photos. If the bride is distracted/overwhelmed and nobody else is gathering and directing family members, the groups simply aren't going to come together unless the photographer makes it happen. You have to be ready to (politely) yell.

Well, that comes years too late ;o))) Shot the wedding of my sister in law and will never do that again. They were happy with my images, but I merely tried my best, and, well, I could have done way better with a bit of planing.

It took place on a cloudy day, and I didn't have spare batteries with me for my flash, so it died and I had to use available light, and changed style to get things right: Shot more images at brighter aperture (f2.8-f4) and focused more on isolated subjects, where blurry backgrounds enhance the impact. Well, the 24-70/f2.8 wasn't the best choice. The second person shooting had a camera that died in the middle so it was just me and occasional smartphone shooters.

Brought some special lenses for details (wedding rings and stuff), the lensbaby doubleglass for tilting the focus spot, but it didn't work out as imagined.

As all stayed within the family everything was fine, but I won't do that again as main photographer. Next thing I was asked was a christening feast. I denied the offer (within the family, so it's work for free), but agreed to take some additional images; not being the responsible person in front I could take better shots, more intimate and pleasing. As an amateur this is the place I'd like to be. The main photography had to struggle with light and weeping children, and I got the chance to take some candid shots. It was a pleasant experience, and gave me back the joy of photography. Never wanted to fake a pro.

If you want to pursue it but aren't ready to lead, you could hire yourself out to wedding pros as an assistant, then later as a "second shooter" to learn and build your kit. Another great way to develop event skills is to do free/cheap work in low-pressure situations that require similar skills. For example, photographing a Superbowl watch party at a local bar, or a dance rehearsal at your local high school. That'll hone your low-light action skills right quick.

Two Golden Rules for wedding shooters: 1) Always have backup gear and more than one way to tackle any mission-critical situation, and 2) Eat whenever you can, because it might not happen again for another 10 hours.

EXCELLENT article, one of the best I've seen on this topic. You've hit a bunch of important topics.

"it’s possibly one of the hardest genres to do well"
SO many forum discussions are started by amateurs who seem to view this work as the on-ramp to becoming a pro, when, in fact, it really should be left to folks who are ALREADY accomplished pros. The range of skills required is vast, and there is no leeway for learning on the job. I've been doing corporate events for 20+ years, I've shot a couple dozen weddings over that time and am doing more of late, and I'm STILL constantly learning new techniques and approaches, modifying my kit, and working hard to get better at my craft. Plus, the organizing/negotiating aspect requires constant attention and adaptability.
I'd add that wedding work is not for snowflakes, the faint-of-heart, the overconfident, or control-freaks.

"I’ve also met a photographer who had both memory cards in the camera fail; he lost the entire wedding shoot"
It's not enough to have backup gear: You have to USE it. That means using more than one body and lens. I can shoot the vast bulk of an event with one body and a 35-150/2.0-2.8 zoom on a pair of 128GB cards, but it would be very unwise to do so, for the reason described, so I make sure to ALSO cover most situations with a second, and sometimes a third, body and a few primes. I do, though, need to be constantly vigilant about occasionally swapping out cards. It's too easy to let that slide in the heat of the action.

I'll be interested to hear about why you've elected to forgo wedding work. I've gravitated toward corporate events because they're much less stressful (and the clients come back at least once a year), and I've seen colleagues whose business is built around weddings and other social events burn out from the stress of negotiating, hand-holding, shooting and marketing. I like shooting weddings, but that's thanks to the fact that it's just a small part of my business. I wonder if scaling back and diversifying might be an alternative to bailing out entirely for you. You're obviously good at it, you have the right temperament, and it appears you like it, so quitting seems like a terrible waste and a loss for your potential clients.

That's very kind of you to say, Jacques. I am stopping for numerous reasons. That's partly because I am just too busy doing other things, and wedding photography is very time-consuming. I enjoy other forms of photography more, so I want to spend my time doing those. Also, there are some fabulous young wedding photographers locally, and I want to help them to grow, so I happily send work that comes to me in their direction.

And yes, I too shoot with both cameras.

I would never, EVER, shoot a wedding and have turned down requests to do so. Good wedding photographers are worth their weight in gold and bad ones are a dime a dozen. Respect!

Thank you John