Many photographers get their first paid gig shooting a friend’s wedding — and many a friendship has been ruined as a result. Veteran wedding photographer Jessica Jones lays down seven simple tips to make sure your first time is memorable, for good reasons
Photographing a wedding is a big deal. Really, it is.
I remember when I was first asked to photograph a friend’s wedding. I was just a hobbyist with a good camera and no wedding experience, and, if I’m totally honest, I only fluked the good shots I showed people. So, knowing my inadequacies, I said, “No way, Jose!” (Her name wasn’t Jose, but you know what I mean.) Eventually, because they insisted they weren’t going to hire a professional and they admitted they only wanted one good photo, I caved.
“Sure, I’ll come and photograph your wedding.”
If I had known back then the vastness of things that could have gone wrong, I would have stuck to my guns and refused to shoot it, or at least been more prepared. However, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Thankfully, it went OK and I didn’t mess it up. It’s well over a decade since then, and, having shot hundreds of weddings both in New Zealand and internationally, I’m so very grateful for that first break and for the many lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Sometimes things go wrong — very, very wrong. Spend any time in discussion forums about weddings or photography, or both, and you’ll see a tsunami of fauxtographer rage: people who have either asked their friend to photograph their wedding and are gutted to realize the results are nothing like a professional’s photos, or those who have been let down by entry-level professional photographers. It’s inescapable, and, with the accessibility of digital photography, it seems to be getting worse.
I get it. I understand why people ask a friend with a good camera to photograph their wedding. Decent wedding photography seems expensive, and some people just can’t go there. There are legitimate reasons for professional photographers charging what they charge, but that’s for another article altogether.
So, what do you do? You’ve agreed to take your camera to the wedding, but you know you’re probably in over your head. Allow me to help with some logistics to get you started.
1. Manage expectations
If you don’t do this from the start, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment and possibly even jeopardizing your friendship. If you are a landscape or commercial photographer, or just someone who got some great shots of your kids and a sunset, but you don’t shoot weddings, you need to let the couple know that.
Weddings are an entirely different beast. It’s a fast-paced day, with no do-overs. You get what you’re given with weather and light, and it’s full of people who only sort of want their photo taken. Both you and the couple need to know full well that this isn’t something you’re particularly good at just yet. You both need to acknowledge the risk — have it in writing.
2. Do a pre-wedding shoot
Every couple have their own vibe, and it’s a good idea to find this out before the wedding day. Even if you know your friends well, you don’t necessarily know how they are in front of a camera. Take them out and take photos. This will be a good chance to make sure they’re happy with how you photograph them, and you’ll get to do a trial run to settle the nerves a tad.
3. Go to the rehearsal
Trust me on this one. Find out how they’re walking in, where they’re standing, and plan where you’ll be shooting from. Good places to stand are usually in the aisle for the safe shots, and, if you get the chance and have a zoom lens, over the shoulder of the last groomsman or bridesmaid for the bride’s/groom’s face during the vows.
Never block the guests’ view, especially those in the front row. Keep your movements to an absolute minimum.
4. Details matter
If possible, organize a meeting the week before the wedding. Write down the names of the important people, know what time you’re starting and finishing, and get addresses. Get a timeline so you’re not left in the dark about what’s going on next.
Get a list of family photos — don’t just wing it. The actual wedding is far too chaotic a time to just hope that people will know what family groups should go together. Have a copy of the list on you, because they’ll most likely forget it.
5. Have back up
Never go with one camera. Stuff breaks while you’re using it, not while it’s in the bag. Make sure your cards are cleared off, and you have more cards than you think you’ll need — way more! This goes for batteries, too.
When you get home, you need to download and back up your images. If I could dance about and wave a flag in front of you to emphasize this point, I would. I don’t own a flag and I can’t dance, so you’ll just have to imagine it.
6. You’re not going to be a guest
I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you won’t be a guest with a camera. You can’t be. If you’re the official wedding photographer, you won’t find time to sit and chat with other guests; there is always somewhere to be and there are always photos to be taken.
You’ll be both immersed in the event and removed from it. If you enjoy the day, it will be because you get to witness and document a beautiful event, not because you’re partying with your buddies. If you’re not OK with this particular point, it might be a deal breaker — but best you know it now.
7. Look for the story
Feel free to go into the day with a list of photos in your head that you want to try out, but don’t forget about documenting the story unfolding before you. Every wedding is different, so make sure you invest in it emotionally to really find the beauty.
The beauty is in the little things: the way the couple look at each other, the parents proudly looking on, the grandparents holding hands and wondering where the years went, the kids wreaking havoc on the side. Make beautiful pictures, but make sure they mean something to someone.
A final, bonus tip: keep well hydrated and wear sensible shoes!
Images illustrating this article were shot by Jessica while working with husband Paul as the wedding photography team behind Jessica Jones Photography. If you want to know more about successful wedding shooting, Jessica has written a book packed with real-life stories, advice, and interviews called The Unpretentious Guide To Wedding Photography. You can order it from unpretentiousguide.com, and view more of her work at jessicajones.co.nz.