Advice for young photographers wanting to shoot weddings

Mark Zanzig/zettpress

On one of the big photo communities, I came across this message:

I’m about to shoot my first wedding. I’m a bit nervous since it’s my first one, but at the same time I’m excited.

My Equipment:
Sony a300 DSLR
18-70 mm lens
75-300 mm lens
I’ve got two battery packs (they last for a while)
I have a 4GB card

Should I get another card? And any other advice is welcome. Thanks!

It turns out that the poster is 19 years old and is “currently studying photography at a local community college”. She describes herself as being a “passionate photographer”. And she wants to start her own photography business.

So much for the background.

In reply to the original message there was good consensus advice coming from professional wedding photographers who do dozens and sometimes hundreds of weddings a year – and yes, I absolutely agree with all of this:

  • Act responsible, to get the best for your clients
  • Get a backup camera
  • Get more memory
  • Get backup batteries
  • Get a professional flash, and know how to use it
  • Be absolutely confident about what you’re doing
  • Accept advice from professionals

Here are my thoughts on these tips. Of course, you can still say that this is all rubbish and that you know what you’re doing. Then please stop reading and move on. However, if you are eager to learn, you might find some useful advice.

1. Act responsible, to get the best for your clients

This is the first and foremost rule, and there is absolutely no way you could or should ignore it. When you are about to photograph a wedding, it’s not some freakin’ concert of a high school rock band, but it’s the moment of a lifetime for quite a number of people. Obviously, it’s the day of all days for the bride and groom, but also for their families. They definitely expect you to capture the most important and most beautiful moments of the wedding.

Please do show respect for this fact. All of the follwing tips are linked to this first rule – you don’t want to mess this job up, because many people will be disappointed for a very long time if you do. Photographing a wedding is NOT about the photographer or his intentions, goals and dreams, but it’s all about the clients. Nothing else counts.

If the couple asked you to shoot their wedding (for little or no money), because they think you can do the job, please be fair to them, and tell them what to expect. Tell them that you never have shot a wedding and that you will try your best, but they should not have unrealistic expectations. They should not think that they’ll get the same amount of images or the same quality as they would get from a professional photographer. Tell them your experience in working with models (if any), and show them your portfolio. It may be a good idea to have an engagement session prior to the wedding to see whether you live up to their expectations. But whatever you do, please be honest to them!

2. Get a backup camera

Any camera can fail, at any time, for any reason. It does happen less with professional cameras (which is why I am using Canon’s top cameras, a Canon 1Ds mark III and a Canon 1D mark III), but it still can happen. I would not be confident to shoot a wedding with just a single consumer DSLR. If things go wrong (and they tend to go wrong always at the wrong time), you will be happy to have a backup camera.

Just think of it – it does not even have to be the camera’s fault. It could be YOU stumbling over a rock (or your flip-flops), falling onto your camera, or just a bit of bad luck. And then it stops working. Or a waitress is spilling some coffee over your camera. Sure, you might get a new camera from the restaurant owner, but what about the bride and groom? Will they accept that and say, “sure, that guy can’t do any more photos – heck, we understand that”, or would they rather be upset that now they will have to rely on their friends cameras?

See, that’s why I bring also a Canon EOS 5D as backup. While it is not the latest model, it can do the job if things go badly wrong. That’s why I strictly recommend to bring at least one backup camera. If you can not afford to buy a body, then go and rent one. It’s not that expensive.

3. Get more memory

If you are a young photographer entering the wedding business, you should shoot in RAW. This format is much more forgiving than JPEG. It allows you to correct problems with the exposure and colors in a controlled environment (your home/office) rather than on location. If you shoot JPEG, everything is set, almost without realistic chances to correct major issues at a later point in time. That’s why you shoot RAW in the first place.

But RAW takes up much more space than JPEG. So, that 4 GB memory card does not get you very far. Here are the average file sizes for my Canon bodies, and how many images you can put on a 4 GB memory card:

Image Size
File Size
4 GB
70 GB
Canon 30D 8.2 8.7 471 8239
Canon 5D 12.7 12.9 318 5557
Canon 1D III 10.1 13.0 315 5514
Canon 1Ds III 21.0 25.0 164 2867

See, that does not get you very far, right? Even on a short venue, I easily shoot 300 images. On a full wedding, it’s not uncommon to bring home between 1,500 and 2,000 images. That’s why we bring 70 GB of memory cards, and even more storage on image tanks and laptop computers. You do not want to get into a situation where your ability to shoot is limited by the available memory. This is even more true when you begin your career as a wedding photographer: You tend to shoot more, not less (which is a good idea).

Oh, and if you are wondering how to cope with all those images, please read my article How to select photos for the couple?

4. Get backup batteries

Batteries are essential to modern photography. Long gone are the times where you could shoot all summer long with a single battery for the camera’s built-in exposure meter. Today, you need power for the shutter, for the processors, for the AF lens, for the screen. To say, “I’ve got two battery packs, they last for a while” is dangerous. It’s OK if you bring just 4 GB of memory, though, because then the batteries may not be your main problem. :-) But if you intend to shoot more photos, you need power, power, and more power. So bring a replacement battery pack for each camera, and bring your chargers, so that the pack can load while you shoot with the other one.

5. Get a professional flash, and know how to use it

Just do not rely on the internal flash of your camera. You will be bugged by red eyes and generally uncontrollable light. You have no way to bounce the light off the ceiling, you have no control over the intensity of the light. So bring at least one external flash – and the required backup batteries. As you can imagine by now, the same problem that applies to cameras also applies to flashes. They need power galore!

6. Be absolutely confident about what you’re doing

So far, if you stick to these basic rules, little can happen from the technical side of wedding photography. But shooting a wedding is not just about the technical aspects – these are the basics to get right.

You should be aware of the hardest part: to work with your clients. Be confident about what you are doing while keeping a friendly and professional tone. But such confidence comes from experience, and experience alone.

If you are unexperienced -claiming that you are “a passionate photographer” who can do everything- then you are probably not ready for a wedding, mentally. The pressure of a wedding photo session might be simply too much for you. During the venue you might act as if you knew what you are doing, but you may cry for help at post-processing time. Imagine looking at overexposed JPEGs that can not be repaired. Imagine looking at portraits that are slightly off focus once you zoom into the photo. Then you may realize that you are not the next star photographer, but in fact someone who just started to learn how to shoot a wedding.

In any case, you should always remember that your clients are having the day of their lives, and they rely on you to capture the most beautiful moments of that day. This is mandatory. Always keep telling yourself – they did NOT hire you because they want to give you the chance to build up a cool portfolio. They did NOT hire you to have you command them around or yell at them. They did NOT hire you because they want to see what technical problems might occur during their wedding. They are not interested in any of this.

Please repeat after me: The bride and groom hire me because they want to be 100% sure that I will capture their wedding in a beautiful fashion so they can remember this day forever. I will do whatever it takes to make this promise come true.

It is surprisingly difficult to stick to this, because stellar wedding photography is a combination of technology and artistic ability. Just technology or just artistic ability won’t do the trick.

7. Accept advice from professionals

I know this may sound harsh, but as a young photographer you simply have to accept advice from seniors. Just accept the advice. How difficult this may be becomes clear when you look at some of the reactions of such young wannabe pro photographers:

I know I’m not going to be able to get a second camera, but the one that I have is new (well, I’ve had it since Christmas). I’ve done other shoots with it with no problem.

I honestly think I’ll be fine with just one camera.

I plan to try my hardest to keep the strap around my neck or on my shoulder so that I hopefully won’t fall to the ground.

Just because I am 19 does not mean that I don’t know what I’m doing.

So you’re saying I should give up doing a wedding and getting the money and getting the experience, and some great photos for this couple JUST because of my lack of the ability to buy a new camera. I’m sorry but that doesn’t work for me. I’m not going to give up something I love because at the current time I can’t afford a new camera.

Yes, it hurts to be criticized, but isn’t it great that pro’s share their experience with you? Don’t you think that you can learn from all of us, who actually have the experience? Shouldn’t you accept the fact that we have been delivering excellent results for ages? I know it’s hard to listen, especially for young photographers. We were the same, back then. But please -for the sake of the bride and groom- do yourself a favor and listen to the professionals. Just once.

Anyway, if -after reading all this- you are not so confident any longer, good! If you reject the job, just don’t be sad. Why not work as a “second shooter” for a while before shooting a full wedding on your own? This allows you to learn from a real professional; you will learn what situations may occur and how to deal with them; you will learn how to manage the clients without upsetting them.

Then there is very little that can actually stop you from becoming the next wedding photographer wunderkind. :-)

3 Responses to “Advice for young photographers wanting to shoot weddings”

  1. Dietmar says:

    Excellent as always. Is the number of weddings actually increasing these days…?

  2. Benji J K says:

    Great advice!! Thanks!! I realize there’s still so much to learn, actually, with photography just like any other art form, you never stop learning. you think you know it all and then some one pops up with some new technique or new gadget that takes things a step further.

  3. Jimmy Hill says:

    I started out my career as a wedding photographer. My kids are just starting to get old enough to take their own shots too, so this article was really great for me.

    Always learning new things about the art. Thanks!