Once you get your first camera, learn a little, and then take a handful of decent images, the request to photograph a wedding on a budget is marauding down the pipeline at you. It is more or less a right of passage, with vast debates over whether or not you ought to accept or not, even if you want to.
Although I started photography with macro, it wasn't long until I was addicted to portraiture and that is, of course, one of the most dangerous genres for wedding requests. I declined a handful, but eventually, I was proficient enough at taking portraits that when a situation arose, I agreed. The situation — and it's not an uncommon one — was that the wedding would be a small affair and that it was either my taking the photographs for them or they wouldn't have a photographer. This has happened to me twice, and although it sounds like an unfair ultimatum, both instances were not in poor spirits. In fact, the first, although I was nervous, I was also interested in the challenge, and the second was helping family out of an impossible situation.
Focusing on my first wedding, I learned a lot. Although I played anything but a perfect game, my images were good — even now, I'm pleased with how they came out — and the wedding party was happy too. This was a mixed bag, however, as it gave me undue confidence. I didn't have any disasters following this wedding, but like many, I believed wedding photography to be a little easier than it is in actuality. My first wedding was a beautiful venue, perfect light, low stress, small in size, and problem-free. What I needed for a taste of wedding photography's many trials and tribulations was some adversity.
As I write this, I am a non-wedding photographer who has shot a lot of weddings. I rarely enjoy shooting weddings, so I turn them down now — a luxury I could scarcely afford in my early days — but given that I have shot a fair few, I have some insight on the subject I want to share with newer photographers perhaps flirting with the idea of trying it.
Wedding photography is a discipline of our craft that requires a broader spectrum of skills than almost any other. When many look at wedding photography, they see portraiture, which isn't incorrect, it's simply incomplete. The posed portraits are typically the flagship shots of a wedding and this comes with a host of challenges we will return to, but it's really only one part. If we stay on the portraiture side, there is also a heavy dose of photojournalism to the work. This requires mastery of camera settings in ever-changing conditions, fast reactions, eyes everywhere, and a strong knowledge of angles in the venue.
Then, we step away from direct portraiture. The bride and groom will often want images of the venue, touching on architectural photography, as well as the wedding's details and florals, touching on product and lifestyle. Then, if the couple wants ring shots, you'll need to dabble in macro. With dress shots, an understanding of fashion goes a long way so that you capture the details they love. As the day turns to night, you will have to use strobes in the crazy lighting of the dance floor, mimicking club photography, and then, you might even have to shoot some long exposure of fireworks or sparklers.
Yes, you don't need to be an expert in every department, but simply knowing portraiture may not cut the mustard anymore!
A War on Time
If you have ever so much as attended a wedding, you'll be aware that time can be the enemy. Invariably, the wedding party is running behind schedule on something or other, the ceremony starts later than it should have, and the sit-down dinner is set in stone. Why is this a problem? Because if any element of the day is going to have its time allocation mauled, it's the photographer. In my experience, it was around a 50/50 chance of my time allocated to take staged portraits of the bride and groom was trimmed because something ran over.
Wedding photography is high pressure, and a lot of that comes down to time. The rest comes down to having no second chances.
No Second Chances
Before my first wedding, I identified what was stressing me out the most: there are no do-overs. If I miss the first kiss, or my camera dies during the first dance, or a card corrupts, or I get Polio, or my car insists on sending me into a ravine, then that's that — the couple misses out on the photographic evidence of their special day.
This pressure isn't for everyone, and it adds a layer of difficulty to the craft, particularly when something goes wrong.
In the section on transcending genres, I mentioned different types of portraiture. This is deeper in itself than simply having to cater to subgenres. The portraiture is a mixture of staged and candid, and the photographer must have a handle on how to best shoot both, with the quality of the results often hinging on what it always does in photography: light. Great wedding photography has great light and between dingy old venues and unpredictable weather, you need to have your studio-style lighting and your run-and-gun setups down to a fine art. In many cases, one lighting setup for each will not cut it, and truly proficient wedding photographers will have something in their back pocket for every eventuality, whether it's rain, a ban on strobes, or a lack of time to put together their go-to setup.
If you're new to photography, you may be tempted by wedding photography, and good luck to you — it can be highly rewarding. Similarly, you might have had a few inquiries from distant friends and extended family and are curious of whether you should say yes. Well, I won't weigh in on that, but to anyone thinking it's an easy way to make money as a photographer, brace yourself; it's harder than many people give it credit for.