I’ll carry your bags. I’ll get you water. I’ll work for free.
Those are the twelve magic words that landed Amy her first wedding and launched our career — all from inside an elementary school.
Now, you might start out as elementary school teachers, like we did, but if you wanna start shooting weddings for the first time, this blog post is for you!
Step 1: Start with Portraits
Last year, we wrote a blog post explaining the five reasons we think shooting portraits made us better wedding photographers — and still does. Read that before reading on.
Step 2: Be an Assistant, then a Second Shooter
When Amy decided that she wanted to be an elementary school teacher, the school didn’t just give her a classroom full of children. Partly because they knew without any first-hand experience, she’d mess them up. Mostly, though, for her own safety. Because managing25 ten-year-olds in small room for six straight hours every day is. no. joke. Have you READ Lord of the Flies?
The same goes for being a lawyer or doctor. You don’t get to try your own cases right off the bat. You’re a behind-the-scenes researcher and motion filer first, and maybe an in-court assistant to the lead counsel if you’re lucky enough to see the inside of a courtroom. But you probably don’t even say anything to the judge. You’re there to serve the client by supporting the lead lawyer.
In the same way, a doctor wanting to be a neurosurgeon doesn’t start by operating on the brain. In fact, they don’t start by operating at all. They start by interacting with patients with much more minor conditions (like colds) where the outcome of that one appointment, diagnosis, prescription or course of treatment can be done over or fixed if the new doctor gets it wrong. In other words, it’s not life-threatening if it’s not right. Like most portrait sessions.
It’s not the same with hearts or brains, though. The doctor gets one chance to get it right. So before the scalpel gets in his hand, you better believe he spent some time observing other surgeons from the gallery, assisting them up close, and making his own cuts under the watchful eye of his mentor before ever commanding the surgical room himself.
Now, are weddings as serious as brain surgery? That depends on the bride. Just kidding. The answer is (obviously) no.
But the point remains the same:
If you want to be a professional in almost any field, there’s a solid step-by-step process to make sure that the professionals are well-trained and qualified with an appropriate amount of experience so that the clients are well-served.
Step 3: Portraits and Weddings Are Different. REALLY Different.
It’s really important to recognize that portrait sessions and weddings are worlds apart. When we’re shooting a portrait session, we get to control almost everything: the time of day the session takes place, the location(s) we’re shooting, who’s going to be there etc. And there’s only one type of photography we’ll be doing the entire time: portraits of people.
Wedding days are a different beast. Like the Olympic Decathlon of photography. Portraits are like the 100m dash. To master the latter, you have to be an expert at one thing. To master the former, you have to be good at a lot of things.
In the morning, while styling the bride’s details, you’re a commercial product photographer. At the same time, as the bride and bridesmaids get ready, you’re an inconspicuous photojournalist shooting in mixed light indoors. Are there windows? Maybe! Are there tungsten lights? Probably! Then you’re doing portraits outside (while the sun is high above your head). As soon as you’re done working with the couple alone, you’re in charge of managing large groups of people and making sure everybody looks their best; when the kids arrive, you’re a child specialist; and when working with the families, you’re a something in-between a a friend, a mediator and a therapist. Now quick. It’s time for the ceremony! Is it in a church that doesn’t allow flash? Is it outside in direct sun? Doesn’t matter! Put on your inconspicuous photojournalist hat again and make it work! Soon after you dash around cocktail hour and shoot romantic golden hour portraits, you have about ten minutes to light reception details in a dark ballroom and shoot around the serving staff before the guests come in, and you spend the rest of the night in “event photography” mode.
In a lot of ways, being a wedding photographer is like getting out of an escape room. Have you ever done one of those? They’re sweet! You have one hour to solve one specific puzzle with a specific set of problems (location, lighting, people, products, etc.) because in one hour, time’s up.
In the game of weddings, when time is up, you have to move on to the next thing.
There’s not much wiggle room. And there are no do-overs.
Step 4: Learn One New Section Each Time
So, if you want to start shooting weddings this year, be like the surgeons. Ya know, minus some of the weird stuff that happens on Grey’s Anatomy.
We tell new portrait photographers all the time: start with low-risk clients, like friends and family. Shoot for free (or little) so there’s no pressure on you and minimal expectation from them. Practice one new skill each time you shoot. Like so many things in life, once you master it once, it becomes second nature.
The same principle applies for weddings. It’s so important to learn in a no-pressure situation. Find a local photographer who you like personally and respect their work professionally. Someone who’s a rung or two up the experience ladder from you. Then, reach out. Maybe even offer to buy them lunch to get to know them better. Tell them your story, your heart, your goals, and your vision for your future. Let them know (here come the magic words): I’ll carry your bags. I’ll get you water. I’ll work for free. (The same twelve words Amy blurted out to her mentor as soon as she met him). Think about what kind of value you can bring to that photographer and put their needs and their clients first. If they’re not in a position to take on an assistant right now, don’t take it personally. Keep looking. But when you find someone who could use the help, make sure you use the opportunity to bring value to them without expecting anything in return.
Communicate whether you just want to be there, at first, (in the gallery, watching the surgeon and assisting if needed.) Then, over time, maybe after three weddings, once you’ve got the groove and vibe of how the day flows, see if you can second or third shoot during parts of the day. Not on your own, but side-by-side with your lead shooter. Don’t worry about posing the clients or doing anything on your own. Just spend three weddings seeing the wedding through a lens, absorbing the day as it comes, while being that servant-hearted assistant whenever your mentor needs you.
Do this until you feel ready to tackle a day on your own. Then, do exactly what you did with your portrait business. Start with low-risk clients, like friends and family. Shoot for someone who can’t afford an experienced professional to help alleviate the pressure you’re taking on. Practice one new skill each time you shoot. Like so many things in life, once you master it once, it becomes second nature.
Step 5: What to Do Next
After all that, you might decide weddings aren’t for you. And that’s okay! We decided newborn portraits are not for us!
We hate it when we hear photographers say, “Oh, I’m JUST a portrait photographer.”
Regardless of specialty, a doctor is still a doctor. A lawyer is still a lawyer. A photographer is a photographer. We need specialists in every industry. We need the neurosurgeons and the pediatricians.
So please don’t ever buy into the lie that if you decide weddings aren’t your thing that you’re “just” a portrait photographer. No pediatrician would introduce themselves that way. Be proud that you found your vocation, your calling, that you love what you do. Then, be the best you can be. We know plenty of portrait photographers who are happier and more profitable than wedding ones anyways.
If you’re like Amy, though, and your first wedding day is a rush, exhilarating and terrifying all at once, if it feels like a thirst that can’t be quenched, the thing you would do for free if money was no object, then you know. Wholeheartedly. Dive in and get your feet wet. Here’s a free blog series to help get you started to turn weddings into a full time job, and another about shooting your first wedding.
Whatever you decide, remember that we’re cheering for you and we’re here to support you. Our only request is the same one Abraham Lincoln had: Whatever you are, be a good one.
The clients you serve, whoever they are, deserve just that.
We’re so proud of our online shooting & editing course students!