Search the web: hundreds of videos teach you how to get more bookings and nail your marketing efforts. But how do we get our very first booking? I asked a few professional photographers to tell me their stories.
Before we head into the feature, I want to share my reason for this question. In July, I met a young photographer at an event in England, a Yorkshireman called Steve. We chatted, and he shared his desire to become a professional wedding photographer. Now, my first thought was to allow him to come along to a few weddings with me, so he could build up his portfolio and get a feeling of what weddings are like. He has now acted as my shadow for a few weddings, and just a couple of days ago, he came at me with the million-dollar question: how do I get my first wedding job?
My First Weddings
Judging by my face, anybody would think he just asked what the meaning of life is. It's been a long time since I bagged my first booking, and I don't know if the same series of events could repeat for him. I was living my life in commercial photography, photographing anything I could. Hotel interiors? Yep. Headshots? All day. Restaurant menus? Count me in. Weddings, though, weren't for me. Weddings were for people who couldn't make it. This is a sentiment I would later totally regret.
I was friends with a wedding photographer who often asked if I wanted to shoot a wedding with him. The answer was always a firm "no."
Then, I caved.
I went with him to a wedding to see what it was all about. Our styles were very different. I'm a candid wedding photographer, and his stuff was much more structured and traditional. Regardless, I had a wonderful day. I decided that weddings were for me, and I went to a few more with him.
For personal reasons, he decided to hang up his cameras and quit. This left some clients without a photographer, so he passed a few of the cheaper ones on to me. That's the short version of the story. I suddenly had a diary with some paying clients and a blank canvas on which to build the business I run today.
How Other Photographers Landed Their First Paid Wedding
This question got me thinking. Every working wedding photographer today has a different story of how they landed their first gig. I set out to listen to some, hoping to give Steve the best possible advice.
What I discovered wasn't just good advice. It was humbling for me, too. There are photographers I look up to as role models or mentors, and I loved hearing of their beginnings in this line of work.
Kevin is a photographer who epitomizes documentary wedding photography in the UK. Now a good friend, his teachings have significantly influenced my career through the years. His first paid wedding shows how a mother-in-law can be helpful sometimes, even if we don't like to admit it. He showed a friend of his mother-in-law some photographs of some pigeons (which he had taken). She asked if he would take photographs at her daughter's wedding. He just about made a three-figure sum.
Paul worked as a well-respected fashion photographer but noticed a decline in work due to magazines shutting down and changes within his client base and staff. He tells me that a change of path was needed, and it was either weddings or kids. Weddings won!
He added a badge on his wife's website, which made wedding invitations, advertising his photography. He tells me he eventually got an enquiry for a London hotel in which he'd shot for fashion jobs. He knew it well! Great result. Paul's wife, Carol, had worked at a wedding magazine as an art director. They collectively knew that a reportage style was paramount in the way they would shoot. They photographed the wedding together and have worked this way for every wedding since 2008.
This shows me that even already established photographers need a starting point in weddings. Paul was a very experienced fashion photographer, and his wife worked within the industry. Yet, this first job was won with no wedding portfolio photos and earned Paul a fraction of what he charges today.
Kieran and I started on this wedding photography journey around the same time and have shared many experiences, but I had no idea how he landed his first paid wedding. As it turns out, Facebook was his friend. He was in a local wedding group, and a bride had been let down by her photographer. He had previously shot one wedding (for free) and put his name forward.
He got the job, and the rest is history!
Taylor Jackson is a wedding photographer and educator (I would even say influencer) based in Canada. His first wedding came around when he was a busy music photographer, shooting around 100-200 concerts per year in the prime MySpace days (2004-ish).
He says: "A couple I met in the photo pit at a Dashboard Confessional concert was getting married. They wanted a wedding photographer that would take images more like a band promo image or live concert rather than a traditional wedding photographer. I had been trying to get into wedding photography for around a year at that point with no success. They didn't know this. The ask was completely random and aligned perfectly with where I wanted to take my career at that point."
Taylor adds that his story is about being out in the world with a camera, in places where your ideal couples hang out. You will form connections through shared interests if you document what they care about.
Good luck and people we know often play a big part in finding our first weddings. Not so with Marie, a wedding photographer from Wales. She was smart and fortunate enough to ride the SEO train to success in her early days. She tells me: "Back in 2009, I paid a pro designer to set up my website. In those days, if you had a decent H1 tag, you would soar to the top of Google. I shot 16 in my first year. They all found me via Google".
Another simple case of being in the right place at the right time. Frances tells me she put some photographs taken at a family wedding on her personal Facebook page. A friend saw them and asked Frances to shoot her wedding. She adds: "I didn't even know I was going to become a wedding photographer at the point. The universe knew what I wanted before I did".
Gavin told me this story a long time ago, showing how sometimes, the things that definitely shouldn't work can! He shot some photos on a consumer camera and kit lens. Wedding photos, you ask? No, photographs of his dogs at the beach. He then took these photographs to a local wedding fair and managed to claw some wedding bookings. I feel that Gavin's personality will have something to do with this. He's a bubbly character, and if clients want a fun guy at their wedding, Gavin has the job, even with photographs of dogs!
Some More Short Stories
I received many stories from some fantastic photographers about how they got started with their first paid wedding. However, I can't tell them all! Maybe I'll write a second part of this article one day.
UK wedding photographer Andy Gaines replied to a Gumtree advert seeking a cheap photographer and got the gig.
Guy Collier attended a neighbor's wedding as a guest with his camera. The bride preferred his photos to the hired professionals and showed them around her workplace. Her colleague then hired Guy to shoot her wedding.
Rahul Khona had a friend of the family who needed a photographer. After six months of second-shooting, he met them with a sample album and landed the job.
Chris Giles created a single-page website based entirely on being a cheap wedding photographer in his area. The website explained quite literally that he had nice gear but not experience. This was 13 years ago, and he says "not much has changed." I'm going to disagree kindly!
Dave Scholes told me: "I worked at a family portrait studio, and some old school friends came for a photo shoot and liked the pictures. They later asked if I would shoot their wedding. I spent the money on a speedlight and a lens cap to replace the sock I used until then!"
Chelsea Cannar was working as a stationary designer for weddings and had done some second-shooting. She invited an existing client to check out some of her photography work, and they became her first paying photography client.
What Can We Learn From These Photographers?
And so we come to the takeaways. Humble beginnings are the most significant pattern that I've picked up on. Almost all of these photographers accepted minimal money to begin building a career. Many were, at the time, in alternative employment or had never made any money from taking photographs. All of them, however, have pushed themselves from that first wedding and continued to flourish to become full-time professional wedding photographers.
Almost everybody reading this will have their own opinion on how we should make money taking photos, opinions on what routes we should take and opinions on how much we should charge.
But I would like to highlight, as these stories show, that there is no correct way to get your first booking. Many of the stories seem like the photographer was merely lucky, but looking deeper, I can see they made that luck. They placed themselves where needed to meet the right people. They told people what they wanted to achieve, and potential clients eventually believed in them.
And so, after listening to these examples, I can go back to Steve with a more confident answer. If you are trying to book your first paid wedding, people need to know your goals. You need to make yourself visible to the people who may book you. That may be online in a Facebook group for budget wedding planning or telling everybody at the gym what your aspirations are. People will talk, they will know other people. Eventually, a client will believe in you and give you a line to hold on to. Good luck!