I'm a Wedding Photographer and I Have No Idea What I'm Doing

Over the course of a wedding day, you can shoot in countless locations with varying difficulties. Most of the time, the locations will be places you have never been before. If you ask around online for advice, you will probably be told to scout out your locations days or even weeks in advance. You may be advised to know which location you are going to shoot each image in and that you should build a list so you don't forget. When I first started shooting weddings, I would scout locations and build the shot lists; however, the more I would shoot, the more I would realize that this process was actually making things more difficult for me. That’s why I prefer to go into a wedding day with no idea what I’m doing.

 

Why I Like to Be Left in The Dark

  • The light changes. You can visit a location the day before or a week before, but unless you are there at the exact same time of day that you are going to shoot, the light will not be the same. So, that nice patch of shade you found for portraits might be gone, the interesting strip of hard light you found might not be there or maybe it’s a cloudy day now instead of the sun being out.

  • Locations change. That amazing field with the tall grass just got mowed the night before. The giant windows now have streamers across them. The DJ set up right in front of that mirror you wanted to use. 

  • You get stuck on an idea. I hate to be stuck on an idea that may not work. I would constantly see a shot while scouting and get excited for it. Then, I would arrive for the shoot and the light might not work anymore, the location might not be the same, or we may have not be able to get to the location I had planned. I would then waste my time trying to get something to work in a situation where it simply wouldn't. This also caused me to miss opportunities because I was focusing all my attention on this lost cause.

  • Plans change. People are late because getting ready took too long. Maybe the bride forgot to mention that her family is 100 people strong, so formals took twice as long as normal. Possibly, the bride's dress is too tight to sit down, so you are limited on your poses. It’s now 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity and no one in the bridal party wants to be outside. There are so many little things that can pop up and completely change the course of the day and you are a little sailboat just along for the ride.

  • It causes added stress. Not only is it stressful having to fit another thing into your schedule, if you are used to scouting locations, it can be super stressful when you can't make it work.

The point here is that after spending a ton of time mapping out locations, there are tons of things that can throw a wrench into your plan. You need to be able to adapt. You should be able to walk into a room for the first time and know where to shoot.

This May Not Come Naturally, How to Train

  • Know your gear and its limitations. This is pretty self-explanatory. You have to know how your gear acts in certain situations. Whether you are shooting in low light situations or you are shooting a high contrast scene and you need to retain your highlights, you need to know how your camera acts so you can make sure you get the image you want.

  • Train yourself to see things. In your off-time, challenge yourself and take an entire week to only shoot lines, lines everywhere: in your home, in the sky - literally everywhere. The next week, challenge yourself to only shoot red, then shoot only reflections. Change it up: shoot only in hard light and then only in soft light. As you grow your eye to look for these useful elements, you will be able to walk into a location and see everything you have to work with, instead of searching high and low for something interesting. It will stand out like a sore thumb, just begging you to shoot it.  

  • Train yourself to work a subject. Similarly to the previous step, in your off-time, find a subject and shoot it every single way you can think of: shoot close, shoot wide, shoot up, and shoot down. Put a flash on it, then change up your angles again. Discover what ways work and what ways don’t and think about why.

  • Create ideas of things to try, but don't force them. Wait for the opportunity to present itself. If you have an idea of something that will work well in a tight, low light location, remember it. Next time you are presented with that challenge, you will have something to work with. Maybe you have an idea of a new lighting setup you want to try; keep it and next time you need to break out your lights, you will have something to get started with.    

  • Explore new techniques. Learn to light paint, take some product photography in your kitchen, invite your friends over and take their headshots.  Play around with your off camera flash. Overall, the more tricks you have in your bag, the better equipped you are to handle unforeseen situations.

  • Take away a crutch. If you have that one lens that you always shoot with, go out and shoot with nothing but a different lens. Natural light shooter? Go out and shoot everything with your flash. Get out of your comfort zone! Learn to use different gear so when your go-to fails, you won't be like a fish out of water.

  • Consider prime lenses. Using my prime lenses has helped me grow significantly. I love the limitations they impose. I can no longer sit in a corner and zoom in to get my shot. I have to move my feet and get into the action. I had to learn what different focal lengths were doing to my perspective. If you want to learn this while still being able to keep your zoom lenses, then go out for a shoot and tape the zoom ring down to a single focal length. Or next time you zoom in, ask yourself "why?" Are you zooming so that you don’t have to walk closer? Or are you trying to compress your scene?

  • Don't be afraid to fail. Grab those safe shots, but then try something new, even if you think it won't work. There are plenty of times I'll tell a client that I want to try something even though I might fail miserably. I’ll at least learn something from the attempt, but most of the time I come out with something that's at least deliverable.   

You Still Need to Know What’s Going On.

I don’t like to scout locations or have a shot list.  However, I still need to know where the locations are and what’s going on. When and where are people getting ready? What event is happening next? Is there a first dance? Is that first dance right when they walk into the reception or is there lingering time in-between while everyone eats? Use the timeline to your advantage. When you have 10 minutes of downtime, that is your time to location-scout. Find something interesting and pull people over there right away.   

This May Not Be for You Yet and That's Ok

If the thought of not having a shot list and not scouting out a location gives you a panic attack, don't worry about it. It’s something that comes with time and practice. So, keep scouting and keep making those shot lists if you need to, but start training your eye to see differently.  

Do you scout out your locations prior to a wedding day? What techniques do you use to find interesting locations to shoot at a wedding? How do you train to be a better photographer?

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27 Comments

Paulo Macedo's picture

Those pictures...and no idea...hahaha ohh man.

Graham Marley's picture

What are other wedding shooters' thoughts on clients sending them Pinterest boards? I recently walked into a bridal suite and was handed a manilla folder with, literally, 45 printed shots from Pinterest and was told "These are the pictures you're supposed to take today."

I just said, as cheerily as I could, "Yup, that's not how this works." and put the folder under some couch cushions.

jeremyslayterphotography's picture

LOL. I would be in a wild mix of emotions of shock and laughter.

aaronbratkovics's picture

You could take the manilla folder into consideration but obviously every photog has a different style. If anything it could be use to spark inspiration or a guide to what to try next.

michael andrew's picture

Ya I agree, I would break down the elements of "why" they like the photographs and then put my style into my deliverables. Some may be backlit, or "fun themed" or whatever. Dismissing a clients vision is pretty close-minded.

Graham Marley's picture

I guess my problem is, I don't have time to digest 45 images into elements when I walk into the room that I'm supposed to be shooting in, on a time table. I'm ALWAYS open to ideas and suggestions and requests, but they have to allow for a certain spontaneous nature when they are delivered, well, spontaneously.

Jason Vinson's picture

That would be my approach to that situation as well. I would definitely be a little confused at the attempt though. Lol

Hawaii Portrait Photographer's picture

Aloha Graham, depends on how you look at it. shot list, Pinterest boards, it's good to get ideas, but i tell the brides, don't get to caught up on the shot, but the idea. i don't like to copy other photographers work and they would feel the same way too, and that leaves no room for creativity and thats why brides are hiring you. even if its at the same venue, you can't reproduce the settings and lightning situation to get the exact shot. only if you have a studio setting, which is almost impossible at a wedding. at the end of the day, i'll do whatever the brides want, they are paying clients, so whatever makes them happy, but most of my brides trust me and leave the photography up to me. if i get a shot list, i use it as a starting point and put my own twist and style on it. so i usually talk my brides out of using a shot list or Pinterest board, unless the shot has a sentimental value or purpose. at the end of the day knowing your camera and how light works and know how and when to use it will produce the best images. Not getting stuck to limitations or shot lists. learning to work with what you got is a key, so be prepared to shoot what ever is out there and have your ideas on hand and learn when to connect both of them at the right time during the wedding day. hope this helps and happy shooting. Aloha! Hawaii Wedding Photographer

Michael Clark's picture

Not to mention that at least 90% of those Pinterest wedding shots aren't from actual weddings - they are from fashion shoots where they likely had hours, not just a few fleeting minutes, to devote to getting the lighting, makeup, hair, wardrobe, etc. perfect for just a few shots.

Graham Marley's picture

A-men.

Kyle Ford's picture

Dude, yes. I always tell people I have no idea what I'm doing. I just figure it out as it goes, I like it that way.

Matthew Shuck's picture

Same here, and people always seem surprised. I just figured out the day is way too chaotic to assume you can stick to any plans. Your best tool going in is being able to make the best of whatever is thrown your way. And I feel super comfortable with that.

Justin Haugen's picture

couples always want to know if i want to scout the location if i haven't worked there before, and I usually get a lay of the land at the rehearsal. but really, I just like going in blind and shooting from the hip.

Great work Jason!

C E's picture

Maybe it's just me, but scouting the location is a necessity. I wouldn't go into any other photo/video shoot without scouting a location, same thing for weddings. It solves the number one issue at a wedding... running behind. If I've done a quick walk through where I spend 10 minutes and say "this spot looks cool, this area doesn't have anything, if we have extra time something over here might work, etc" when we're running 30 minutes behind I know what can accomplish the best photos with the most variety in a short time frame, and then I can adapt as needed.

That said, I never do shot lists because it couples see it as a deliverables list when there are way too many things that are beyond your control when you're shooting a day. My favorite question to ask before hand is "if at the end of the day you had 2-3 things to capture, what would that be?" That gives some insight into what's important to them and it lets you know if there really is that one shot that will make or break a set for them. Eg, maybe grandpa died and left the groom one last box of cigars he's going to smoke with his brothers or something.

aaronbratkovics's picture

"Maybe it's just me, but scouting the location is a necessity."

It's not just you it's important lol.

mark millar's picture

I'm with you guys.

I don't necessarily prepare a shot list, but I do like to know what my general plan is going to be. If I'm going to try something new and creative, I want to know how it's going to be set up. If I have to give up a location because of timing I want to know which one to give up etc. etc.

Imagine on a wedding day hiking your couple for 400 meters across a field only to realize that it's not what you thought. I pride myself in being aware of what the lay of the land is.

I certainly don't like the implication that giving up scouting is something I'm not 'ready' for. I don't think that more time and more practice will mean I give up scouting. Truth be told, I find that particular idea little bit insulting. I don't believe that my strategy comes from being inexperienced.

Jason Vinson's picture

The intention was "this may not be ready for you yet" as in you want to do it but you don't feel ready. Not that only pros are ready or that you are any less a pro because you do scout. It's a matter of preference and I'm simply sharing why and how I do things. Sorry for any insulting implications.

aaronbratkovics's picture

Not insulting all at! You're good man!

mark millar's picture

Understood. Appreciate all of your insight. The experience you're sharing is very valuable! Apologies for jumping to an incorrect conclusion.

Jason Vinson's picture

The way I see it if everyone is running late then any location ideas are out and you need to grab what you can where everyone is at. It doesn't really matter if I feel one location will work better or not. But I can see your reasoning.

Shaun Rose's picture

I always have a bit of a game plan, I like to check the location out with my clients as most of the time they have a special connection with the place and I even have a look the day before just to give me an idea on light etc and being on the coast I like to know what time that sun is setting!
But you need to be able to adapt to lighting changes anyway.
And true, 60% of the time we are running late and you just deal with it and bail on a location if need be.
All part of the challenge of being a wedding photographer, its never what you expect on the day, its sometime better!

Rob Mynard's picture

I think there's a happy medium to be found here. I'm a firm believer in not going into a wedding with mapped out shot ideas (or maybe just one or two if there's something the B&G are looking for specifically) but I do like to get a location scout in before so if inspiration hits you've got location ideas. At a recent wedding by a lake in rolling farmlands we were shooting the bridal party in a nice field when i remembered from my scout that on the other side of a hill from us there was a pile of rocks that should be facing the - now setting - sun. If i hadn't taken the time to wander the area beforehand I wouldn't have known it was there and usually you dont have time to drag the whole wedding party all across the hillside "just in case"

Brian Dowling's picture

I feel like this is my style, but not on purpose. If only I could figure out how to sweat less. :D

Wayne Carey's picture

Great article! Its all too true! Been there, done that! Sometimes, I think its more stressful for the photog than the wedding party. Remember, you've only got one day for this special event and there's no do-overs. But at the same time, there's something exciting about getting those different shots that everyone expects. Maybe its time to let the bystanders take those boring wedding party photos and let us take those gorgeous unusual shots that look like they being in an art gallery.

Jeff Weeks's picture

I don't always pre-scout each new location in person, but I DO always consult The Photographer's Ephemeris App on my phone for the exact date of the wedding. That way I can move the time slider to the key events on the schedule and see exactly where the sun will be and how high it will be above the horizon, including when and where it will set.

Javier Moraleda Romeral's picture

Nice post, Jason! What you do it's exactly what i would like to do in my wedding photography...i love lightpainting! Thanks for being an inspiration ;-)

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Same here, I never scout a location and actually hate to shoot weddings in the same locations during the same seasons. I find it way more challenging and thus more interesting creatively to have to think on your feet on the day. If I scout I'll tend to rely on what I think would work, and only that, not try anything new…
Love the training ideas! I've got to try some of these in the next few days/weeks! :)