Why More Wedding Photographers Should Second Shoot First

Why More Wedding Photographers Should Second Shoot First

Jumping straight into weddings as a lead photographer? Have you considered second shooting first? Find out the reasons why you should in this article!

I have seen numerous posts in Facebook photography community groups where photographers are asking the same old question of "will my current gear be good enough for my first ever wedding?" when all things considered, the real question should be "am I ready to handle a wedding on my own?". Far too many photographers are concerned whether their equipment is on par with other professional wedding photographers and yet they don't consider the most important thing which is the ability to handle every aspect of the day, even if the said wedding is relatively low-key. After all, it's someone's wedding nonetheless and nobody will come back to replicate it if the photographer messed up the job they have been hired for. 

It can be very tempting to jump straight into photographing weddings as a lead photographer the moment you buy what you consider to be a pro camera set up, which means it's just as tempting to forego evaluating if you as a person are actually ready to handle documenting such an important event. Whether it is a few hundred dollars or it's already creeping into thousands, it's obvious that the earning potential is there, which is yet another temptation. 

A bride and groom walking in front of a manor.

The beauty of second shooting is you get to experience a full wedding but not the full range of primary shooter's responsibilities.

It is highly unlikely that on the day of the wedding you will suddenly forget how to use your camera or randomly lose your ability to compose compelling shots, but it is likely that as a first time photographer you may run into social situations that you are not prepared for, such as, handling guests, organizing and posing formal shots, dealing with fatigue or long hours of standing. You don't want these situations to compromise and affect your capabilities as a photographer, so my advice would be to attend a handful of weddings as a second shooter first. 

While getting several weddings under your belt as a second shooter won't change the fact that weddings can and will be physically and mentally draining, it will prepare you to deal with a variety of situations that may occur and it will make you more aware of things to look out for in the future. This doesn't cover just technical issues, such as, dealing with low light situations, shooting in bright sunlight when every guest seems to be squinting, or understanding how your current equipment deals and responds to long hours of constant use. It also includes understanding how you, as a person and as a professional, will be able to respond to tricky social situations and what your body needs to maintain your physical and mental wellbeing before, during, and after a wedding. Furthermore, if you're not yet sure whether a more traditional and posed wedding coverage or a photo-journalistic one is your jam, second shooting for a variety of already established wedding photographers will give you an insight in different ways a wedding can be documented and handled. 

A groom hugging his bride from behind.

Unlike a portrait or family shoot, that can generally be redone if something goes terribly wrong, weddings cannot be repeated. This is not to say that as an experienced primary shooter you won't come across issues, because you could still become so ill you can't shoot the wedding or, god forbid, you may get in a car crash en route. But, by spending that extra time to work as a second shooter first, you are starting to minimize the risks for yourself and your client. As a professional, it's your duty to assess whether you're capable to take the job, and if you aren't, just because your clients tell you it will be fine, it doesn't mean it will. For many, who aren't involved in photography, it may appear that anybody with a decent camera is good enough to shoot a wedding. But, as photographers, we know it's not the case at all. There have been, and probably will continue to occur, cases of unhappy couples whose wedding day memories have been ruined by photographers who threw themselves into shooting a wedding before they are ready to handle it. But, there is hope that more photographers will second shoot first and gain that invaluable experience of covering such a multi-faceted event, before they take on any clients of their own.

You don't have to spend months working as a second shooter, but I would certainly recommend doing at least a few weddings. Who knows, maybe being a wedding photographer isn't the right path for you and you could find that out quite fast through second shooting. Before you start spending a lot of money on gear that you think will make you a "good" wedding photographer, make sure that wedding photography as an industry is the right direction for you in the first place. Nobody knows what future holds, but if you have the chance to second shoot on a few occasions, it is at least likely to help you make the right decision for this moment and time, if not for your own then for your client's sake.

Have you found second shooting to be helpful for your photography business?

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21 Comments

Clay Wegrzynowicz's picture

Totally agree. Second shooting is also a great way to gain primary other photographers' trust, and potentially secure jobs they don't have capacity for in the future. Most of the weddings I shoot are referrals from overbooked photographers I second shot for in the past.

I'd say jump right into it head first without shooting second. If you shoot under someone else's lead you'll become heavily biased by their decisions, thoughts and reasoning and probably continue to develop their style rather than your own. Easiest way to not risk ruining a couples expectations is shooting a couple that would not have gotten a wedding photographer anyway. The technical aspect of wedding photography is probably the simplest of all forms since youre shooting natural light in aperture priority and your only goal is more or less to capture emotion of which there are plenty at a wedding. I believe weddings scare photographers alot more than they should. Second shooting is great when you have 50 weddings under your belt and you feel stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over and really seek different perspectives though.

agree, weddings are brutal. my initial thought was that it was just casually strolling around taking pictures. 14 hours later it felt like ive gone through military bootcamp full-metal-jacket style. physically exhausted and mentally broken down. it does get easier but my first 20 or so was all about pushing through mental and physical pain. i dont think anyone who comes home after their first full on solo wedding experience thinks "man this amazing i want to do it again". but with persistance it can become incredibly awarding.

Robert Nurse's picture

I suppose, at some point, we all have to "jump right in". But, only after a lot of experience: a.k.a, being a second shooter. Starting off, you'll need word of mouth, no? You won't get another wedding gig if the word on the street is, you suck. And, with pictures to prove it.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"I'd say jump right into it head first without shooting second."
I'd say this is professional negligence, akin to calling yourself an auto mechanic with the idea that you'll just take it apart and figure it out as you go.

i did it. i bought a camera, read the manual and began shooting weddings alone. my first 3 for free and then gradually raising my prices with experience. worked out GREAT

Jacques Cornell's picture

Luck is not the same as responsibility. I doubt you'd go to a dentist who shares your approach.

what did luck have to do with it? it was hard work that paid off. i think dentists or auto mechanics have jobs that are technically more challenging than having a tool with two buttons, one for focusing and one for the shutter with which i capture emotion. working at 7/11 is more technically challenging albeit alot less mentally and physically draining.

Jacques Cornell's picture

No, it's luck. Maybe hard work produced the photos, but luck is what accounts for you not royally screwing something up. Without experience, you simply have no way to anticipate the myriad ways you can accidentally ruin your clients' day.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Prior to second-shooting, it's helpful to assist on at least a dozen weddings or so to develop the ability to anticipate what comes next and to be organized and ready for the whole day. You HAVE to know when, say, you're going to move from outdoors to indoors and to reconfigure your kit in advance, because when you accompany the couple into the church you won't have time to swap zooms for primes or attach and configure a flash. Too many wannabes don't realize that wedding photography is one of the hardest genres to do well, requiring a very broad skill set, complete familiarity with all the gear, and total mastery of a plan.

i swap lenses all the time during ceremonies, surely you can find spots where a 7-second lens switch is appropriate during a 30 minute ceremony. screw having a plan, be adaptable. plans usually go out the window anyway due to unexpected circumstances. if you shoot in aperture priority there is not a single setting you need to change if you go from dimly lit indoors f-1,6, 1/100s, iso 10000 to stepping outside to f-1.6, 1/4000s, iso 100. you can literally stand in the doorway and shoot inside and outside with a 0.5s delay.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I never suggested that you have to shoot to a plan. As you say, you have to be adaptable. But, you also have to know what's coming at you. There are occasions where there is NO time for a lens swap, and you have to be able to anticipate and be ready for them. For example, that f4 telezoom you're using for portraits outdoors isn't going to do much good when you go inside. You have to be able to think ahead, and this comes with experience.

Seems like a no-brainer. Watch someone else in action while making your own contributions, and when you're ready, become the primary.

Jacques Cornell's picture

And, without this experience, you can't even imagine what "ready" means.

Crystal Lee's picture

I agree experience as a second shooter is valuable, however, it's also very tough to get second shooting opportunities. Other photographers wanting to get into wedding photography have expressed the same frustration. At some point, do you just jump in and try shooting for free? Maybe after practicing other events? Maybe at least have another photographer there to make sure to minimize missed shots?

I don't do weddings but I would think that if there really aren't second opportunities, it's worth considering doing your best at very low-risk situations to get your feet wet for a client who wouldn't otherwise have any photos. I know someone who got married in a gazebo in a park with an officiant, a best man, and a maid of honor. The entire thing took 10 minutes and they were thrilled to get any photos at all. The photographer and the B&G connected well and he took him with them to their "reception" at a booth for five at Outback, where some additional opportunistic shots were taken (opening a couple of cards, a champagne clink, some loving laughs between B&G, etc.).

It would be interesting to hear from wedding pros on this in case I am off base on this.

Crystal Lee's picture

That's a good idea! Thanks! I actually did end up booking a backyard wedding and hired a more experienced primary shooter who was great at directing the crowd and I was able to edit all the photos to keep them consistent. I didn't want to risk messing up someone's wedding day so that seemed like the best compromise. The couple were very happy and gave me good reviews :)

Jacques Cornell's picture

I'm constantly amazed at the number of folks who regard professionalism, training and experience as some kind of "elitism" and their requirement an impingement on their "right" to do things for which they're utterly unprepared and which can have important consequences for others. There are so many jobs we really don't want amateurs doing. Such is the era of the Weatherman In Chief.

shooting ring exchanges, some portraits, a few speeches and guests having a good time is not like flying a boeing. you literally look through the viewfinder and when it looks good you press a button. can you handle that while being a polite, sociable person at the same time youve got 90% if wedding photography nailed down. for every wedding story where everything went terrible there are ten thousand where everything went great that we dont hear about.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Of course! Photography is just pushing a button! Anyone can push a button! And, surgery is just cutting meat! Hire a butcher! He'll be cheaper than some fancy-pants doctor charging big bucks to cover his medical school debt.
Reductio ad absurdum.

Jacques Cornell's picture

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