Top 10 things to do when a friend asks you to photograph their wedding, but you’ve never photographed a wedding before.
Disclaimer: this advice is based on my personal experience and is predicated on the understanding that you want to be a wedding photographer similar to me. Other professional photographers may have different ideas or advice.
First thing you should do is tell your friend that you really appreciate their vote of confidence, but you think they should hire an actual wedding photographer to cover one of the most important days in their lives.
And then, if you’re actually interested in becoming a professional wedding photographer, you should go out and second shoot for primary wedding photographers at least ten or twenty times before taking on being a primary wedding photographer yourself.
But, if you’re dead-set on shooting for them, here’s what you should do, even if you’re an established photographer in another genre:
– Wedding photography is unlike almost all other event photography, so you’re going to want to get caught up on how it’s different. To do this, watch all kinds of behind the scenes, how-to and tips and tricks wedding photography videos on Youtube. Pye Jirsa has a ton of great wedding photography content on SLR Lounge to get started with. Find, follow and watch a ton of videos from a bunch of different prominent wedding photographers about all the myriad aspects of a wedding day. Memorize timelines, memorize hundreds of poses for the bride, groom, bridal party and families. Study not just the photography aspects of the wedding industry, but the business and mechanical sides, as well.
– If you don’t already have them, rent two professional quality camera bodies (Canon 5D Mk IV or Nikon D850 for example, or the equivalent/better), and a 16-35 lens, a 50mm lens and 70-200 lens for the week before the wedding and practice shooting with them (you can choose any lenses you like based on your research, these are just the ones I recommend starting with). The 70-200 is particularly heavy, so get used to carrying that around. You’re likely going to want a belt or shoulder harness to carry your bodies on.
– If you don’t already have it (depending on the size of the wedding), rent two to four light stands, two to four off-camera flashes with umbrellas or soft-boxes, learn to use them to light a dance floor and the bridal table. Use off-camera flash for everything except shots you want with natural light. And unless you are one of the best natural light photographers in the world, then not everything should be shot in natural light, lol.
– Ask to be connected to their vendors, introduce yourself and let them know your timeline so you can all check for overlaps or conflicts.
– Visit the venues in advance to check for trouble areas when it comes to lighting, for awkward angles and to see best lines of sight.
– On the wedding day, dress professionally, even stylishly, but not ostentatiously. Don’t stand out more than the bridal party.
– Bring a large backpack, case or bag with scissors, tape, needle and thread, a screwdriver, small hammer, knife or box cutter, band-aids/bandages, extra water, energy bars, pens, batteries, safety pins, bobby pins, hairspray, a comb/brush, basic makeup items, and headache medicine.
– Speaking of batteries, bring extra batteries for all your equipment, and way more memory cards than you think you’ll need. Redundancy is everything.
– Charge everything the night before. Don’t charge much earlier than that because some batteries lose power over several days.
– Have an actual contract with your friend even though they’re your friend (you should have a contract with every client, period). Make it a real contract, not something you found online. Have a contract attorney write it or at least verify one that you wrote. Make sure that your contract includes verbiage that specifies your lack of experience and that the Bride & Groom understand that lack of experience and accept it, and that you can’t be held liable for mistakes made due to your inexperience.
– Take part of your payment in advance, the rest the week of the wedding. Yes, you absolutely want to be paid for this. If you do your job correctly, it will be a lot of work with significant stress, and you deserve to earn something for your efforts, even though you’re doing it for friends. You should absolutely not shoot for free – that’s not fair to you or to the rest of the wedding photographers in your area, because it artificially brings down the value of wedding photography in your region. Research wedding prices in your area, and if you want, you can give the Bride & Groom a great discount because of your lack of experience. For example, if a similar package is going for $2500, you could charge $1000.
Side note: if your friends want to pay you a lot less than that or don’t want you to charge them at all, are they really asking you to photograph their wedding because they love and respect your photography? Or are they using you so they don’t have to pay for a professional photographer?
– Set deadlines and stick to them. Plan in advance for editing time, and make sure you deliver when you say you will, or sooner. If you find yourself falling behind, don’t wait to contact the B&G, let them know right away and keep them informed as you progress. If you aren’t great with editing yet, there are lots of 3rd party companies that will edit for you, and even some great AI editing options that are inexpensive and do a great job including ImagenAI, AfterShoot Edits and my personal favorite, Impossible Things.
– Check in with the B&G often and regularly, both before and after their wedding.
– Have the B&G provide a single person to help connect you with the right people during the wedding day – someone who knows the families. It can be the coordinator or a family member/friend. This way you don’t have to constantly interrupt the couple to ask questions.
Whew, does all that seem daunting? It should, because it’s a lot to know! Most primary wedding photographers have years of experience under their belt before taking on the role of primary. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s a MOUNTAIN more that you should know prior to photographing someone’s “big day”, and a very good reason for why you shouldn’t photograph someone’s wedding as the primary if you’ve never done it before. But, after reading all this, if you’re still going to shoot, this should help you avoid a few serious errors.
I strongly encourage you to consider not taking on this role with zero or little experience, even if you’re an established photographer in other fields. You don’t get to do a wedding over again. Even if you’re an experienced photographer, that experience does not automatically translate to wedding photography.
Speaking of, here’s a comment from a reader: “Sure, I’ve never done a wedding before, but I’m a professional photographer and my friend (the bride) knows and is happy with the quality of my work.”
If only it was just the quality of your photography that mattered! What’s probably more important is the experience you have (or don’t have)…knowing when a certain shot opportunity is about to happen, being able to know the best angles to shoot the couple during the ceremony, or knowing specific lighting circumstances that happen (churches are a good example, especially when the officiant doesn’t allow flash, or shooting in a dark barn with high ceilings you can’t bounce flash off of, or in areas where the lighting changes dramatically from one minute to the next). Knowing when it’s time to switch lenses or bodies so you’re ready for the next shot. Knowing how to engage with guests and children in a fun and easy way to get those awesome “wedding party” shots everyone loves.
And most important? Knowing all of these things so well that you don’t have to think about them, and you don’t miss shots because you weren’t sure where to be or where to look or what to be ready for. Why is it so important? Because you can’t do it over. Period.
There are a lot of great reasons to not be the primary photographer for someone’s wedding if you haven’t done it before or if you’re very inexperienced, but if you’re going to take on the job anyway, all I ask is that you work really hard to study and learn as much as possible beforehand. Photographing a wedding event is very different from shooting regular events, and wedding portraiture (especially on a serious time constraint) is very different from regular portraiture when you have plenty of time to adjust and experiment.