Hey, new photographers! Are you struggling with getting your business established? Do you feel super overwhelmed? Do you wish you had a comprehensive list of what works and what doesn’t? No worries–I got you! I wish that someone would have just laid it all out for my when I put a camera in my hand all those years ago. Mostly, I wish I would have had someone to hold my hand when I leaped into a full time photography business five years ago, but I had nothing. NO ONE. I only had Facebook groups, and let’s face it–many of the seasoned pros in those groups are not the friendliest. Youtube was great, but it was really time consuming, and if you have an ADHD brain like me, it can be tough to sit through the whole video sometimes.
Somehow, over the years I have become a mentor to many budding new photographers. I often have those just starting out send me messages, asking for advice on how to make things work for their own businesses. Many will ask me questions about setting up their business and making it legal, while others just want to know what they can do better to create more dynamic images. It absolutely warms my heart to know that so many look to me for inspiration! I definitely do not claim to know it all, but I do know what has worked for me, and most certainly what HASN’T worked, and I am always happy to share what I know with other photographers with a passion to succeed in their own business.
With all of that being said, I decided that I would start a new series on our blog for new photographers! If for no other reason, this will help me keep my advice all in one place, so I can share my knowledge with you in the most convenient way possible!
Let me start by saying that I put in a camera in my hand in 2005, and did absolutely everything completely incorrectly from the start. Like I said, I don’t claim to know it all not, but I do know all the wrong things I did, and all the things that I learned by doing them wrong. So, here goes nothing. Here’s what not to do.
DO NOT think that you can photograph wedding as soon as you buy a camera.
I did this completely wrong. I got a camera in February of 2005, and took my first wedding in April of 2005, because I WAS READY. I loved love, and I wanted to photograph weddings so badly. It was what I originally sought out to do–it was my plan all along.
THIS WAS BEYOND WRONG. I shot in auto. I had no idea how to light a dark church. I had a Canon Rebel XTI that would cry if I pushed the ISO above 500 (not literally, but it made me want to cry when I saw the ginormous amounts of grain). Most of all, I had NO. FREAKING. CLUE. WHAT. I. WAS. DOING.
It seems really simple in theory to photograph a wedding. You just show up and follow the bride and groom around all day, and take some photos. You just throw in some posed formals in the middle somewhere, and you’re good to go. WRONG. So wrong.
My very first wedding was a nightmare. I had no contract, so there were no expectations that were set for anyone. I had no idea about timeline planning, so the whole day was a hot mess. My ceremony photos were blurry, because the church was dark, and because I was shooting auto mode, it made my shutter super slow to compensate for the low light. My posed, outdoor photos were fine–this was easy. However, I was photographing in the wrong light, at the wrong time of day, because I didn’t know any better. The reception photos were lit only by the DJ’s lights–I didn’t know how to work a speedlight, nor did I even own one. I just had the popup flash on my Rebel, which made every photo taken with it look like the people were deer in headlights.
Did I mention that I was paid $150 for an all day wedding, with digital images on a CD AND printed 4×6 proofs of every image, in a photo album? After my expenses, I made $25 for my time (and I printed everything at Walgreen’s at $0.16 per print, because I didn’t know any better). That was somewhere around $1.90 per hour, by the time it was all said and done. I could have worked a shift at McDonald’s and made that. No one tries to go into business for their self, so they can make less than minimum wage. That’s insane.
The couple never seemed to notice that I did not know what I was doing. They even LOVED their photos. They raved. The bride even said, “I have never looked this good in photos before!” It was plenty to build my ego, and definitely incentive to book more weddings! I could do this! I was born to do this! Or so, I thought…..
This was 2005, and we were all still hanging out on Myspace back then. I created a page for my photography right away. I was so excited to post a few of these wedding photos on my page, so that I could hopefully book more weddings! And then, a living nightmare happened.
I often share this story with my current clients in our booking consultation. I call it “the time someone was doing something they weren’t supposed to do in the background of a photo.” We will just say that a certain wedding guest was hanging out in the background of a photo (although barely even noticeable, due to the fall off of light, since I did not know what I was doing with lighting), and he may or may not have been all over a woman who was NOT his wife. That photo (my favorite photo of the couple, during their first dance), ended up posted to my Myspace page, and was seen by said wedding guest’s wife (who was unable to attend the wedding that day). Said guest’s wife held me accountable for the whole thing. She was embarrassed, as any woman with a philandering husband would be. There was nothing I could do but tell her I was sorry. There was nothing to protect me, if she wanted to sue me (people will do this for so many reasons these days), because I was not educated enough to have a contract. I had no idea what I was doing, and I could have ruined someone’s life. I was very lucky that the lady was happy with a simple apology from me, but the situation could have very well escalated into something much worse.
You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson, but I didn’t. I took another wedding just a couple of months later. Once again, I did not have a contract. It was the wedding of a former co-worker. It was probably wise to NOT screw this up. but you know I did, anyways!
To this day, I re-play this wedding over and over in my head all the time. I try to talk myself down and say, well the church was small, and it was dark, and there was no suitable place for outdoor photos, etc, etc, etc. The truth is, I can make excuses for why it was a disaster all day long, but one fact remains–if I had that wedding to do all over again today, none of those things would have been obstacles for me. Today, with 12 years of weddings under my belt, I could walk into that church and rock that wedding, top to bottom. Instead, I ruined the wedding photos of a former co-worker and friend, who waited 8 years and two children to even marry the love of her life. That’s a day that she can never get back, and the photos that I gave her were unacceptable.
So, what did I do wrong THAT time? Let’s start with that crappy Rebel camera I had, that cried when the ISO went over 500. Top that off with the fact that a friend convinced me that I needed to borrow his 70-300 lens for this wedding, because it was better than my 18-55mm kit lens (the only lens I owned at the time). For those who do not know, the 70-300 is a tight zoom. It’s like standing over top of someone and only being able to photograph half their hair at once. Add that to a tiny room, and you don’t get everything you need to be shooting in the frame. There were things cut out. There were people in the photos of the whole wedding party that were standing on the ends, that did not even make it in the photo. Once again, I had no speedlight, and no knowledge of how to operate one anyways, so the reception photos were also dark.
I will reiterate the fact that I did not have a contract for this wedding. So, when I delivered images on a disc to my friend, she was disappointed. I wasn’t even set up to sell prints for anyone at that point, but she did not know that. She was expecting printed photos, and not digital files.
The day I handed her that CD, our friendship was already over. Once she saw the photos, the damage was irreversible. It took her 4 years to calm down enough to tell me how much I ruined her wedding, because I was not competent enough to photograph it. 8 years and two kids she waited to marry the love of her life, and I ruined that in one swoop. Ruined. My friend’s wedding. Ruined. RUINED.
The last words that my friend has ever spoken to me were, “I show people my wedding photos, and they have no words. They all just shake their head in disgust.” That’s probably something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget that for as long as I hold a camera, because they were the toughest words I ever had to hear.
To this day, we haven’t spoken since that one time 4 years after her wedding, that she told me I ruined her wedding. The sad thing was, I made excuses for myself when we talked about it. I made every excuse in the book. It wasn’t my fault, because it was this or that. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized, yes–it was my fault. I never should have been photographing weddings yet. It was 100% my fault. I had no idea what I was doing. I should have passed and referred her to a professional. I was just a girl with a somewhat nice camera, that had no idea how to use it.
It’s not easy to admit your mistakes. I think this is the first time that I have ever truly spoken out about how painful it was for me, to believe that I just simply was not good enough back then, no matter how much I wanted to think I was at that time. After these two experiences, I took a step back for a while. Maybe this is why I didn’t commit to anything else for a few years, and didn’t make the move to full time photographer until nearly a decade later. I took my time and learned all I could before I took a chance on ruining someone else’s wedding.
I felt it was important to share those stories with you. It may be the two most important stories you will ever have to hear, for as long as you are in the photography business. I know you think you are ready, but the truth is, you are probably not. Let my stories help you to take a step back, and be REAL honest with yourself. If you think you are ready to photograph a wedding, I want you to ask yourself these questions:
- Do you have a contract that has been looked over by an attorney? This is an absolute must. That contract not only protects you, but it also sets expectations with your client, and establishes what will happen if things go wrong. Your client needs this peace of mind, and it is crucial that you provide that for them. They need to know that you have already thought of all the mishaps, and you know exactly how you will deal with them, if they happen.
- Do you know how to light any scenario that is thrown your way (dark, full sun, DJ laser lights, etc)? If not, you need to take a step back and learn all of this, both backwards and forwards, before you think about taking a wedding. Take a class. Watch some Youtube videos. I highly recommend the classes on creativelive.com! Check out the book, The Luminous Portrait by Elizabeth Messina. It was my natural light bible some years ago.
- Do you know how to photograph with manual camera settings? This is essential. Your camera is pretty smart, but it’s only as smart as its user. You need to learn to tell it exactly what to do, because it doesn’t always know what’s best for every situation. When you are in auto mode, your camera’s best instinct is to slow down your shutter to let in more light. This will make your photos blurry. I won’t even get into how important it is to learn to nail our focus every time, too. This is something that takes some tricks, and a hell of a lot of practice to do.
- Can you dial in your manual camera settings, without really giving it much thought, and have it right, or pretty close to right every time? Weddings are not a controlled environment. Things change quickly. What happens when you are following the bride and groom out of the church for their grand exit, and you are going from dark church lighting to full, mid-day sun? You are going to have to be quick to reset your settings, or you are going to miss getting the photos of the exit. It has to be second nature. You need to be able to change your settings in the blink of an eye, without having to give it much thought, because you don’t always have time to think.
- Do you know your camera backwards and forwards? This is a must. If you don’t know where your dials are to change those settings, it doesn’t help you much to know the settings. Do you know what focusing mode you should be in when the bride walks down the aisle, to make sure you nail the focus? Do you know what metering mode you should be in to get low profile lighting for beautiful bridal portraits? These things are essential if you want to produce beautiful photos, rather than snapshots that Uncle Bob could have gotten for the couple for free.
- Can you operate a speedlight? Unless your reception has outstanding lighting (which, they never, ever do), you cannot photograph it without a speedlight. If you just aim the speedlight at your subject, it will look just as bad as what you are getting from your popup flash. Do you know tricks to get more flattering light from your speedlight? Do you use any modifiers?
- Do you know how to bounce flash? Bouncing flash is an easy way to make your flash look like natural light. It softens the light for you, and can be your most essential trick for reception lighting.
- Do you know how to use off-camera flash? What happens when you walk into a venue where you can’t bounce the flash? There are many churches, as well as reception venues that have wooden or colored ceilings that cannot be bounced from. It is essential that you know how to put your flash off camera in these instances, and also that you have the proper equipment to do so.
- Do you know how to organize a timeline for a wedding? Most couples don’t have a planner to do this for them, so 9 times out of 10, this is your responsibility if you want the day to go smoothly.An unorganized timeline will ruin the entire day. You will miss photos without it. No one will know where they need to be or when without one. Organizing the timelines is the #1 thing that you gain from experience alone. This is why second shooting with someone who knows what they are doing is so important.
- Are you making a fair profit for your time you have invested, after you account for your expenses and take 30% off the top for taxes? By fair, I mean enough to make it worth your while to lose a whole day with your family, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc? Life is short and precious. Why would you want to take away a day of your life so you can make peanuts? So often, I see new photographers think they just made an easy $300 for a day’s work, but they don’t account for their expenses, taxes, all the time it took them to meet with the clients, get their gear ready, go to the store to buy batteries, charge batteries, and also to process and post-process their images. A wedding is easily 60-80 hours of work, if you add it all up.
- Do you have liability insurance to cover yourself if your lens dismounts, hits someone in the head, and gives them a concussion? Why risk it? Why would you take that chance? If someone sues you, you will lose your business, and everything you have personally, unless you are also set up as an LLC.
- Do you have insurance to cover your equipment if you fall in a lake? Would you have to go out of business if your gear was ruined tomorrow? Not if you have it insured! Most insurances have a cheap deductible, and cost around $50 per month. It’s money you never even miss!
- Do you have backup equipment? What happens if you fall in the lake in the middle of the wedding day? Would you just shrug your shoulders and leave? Struggle to find a photographer friend to bring you their gear to borrow for the day? Neither of these things are professional, and could easily ruin your word of mouth and your career. It’s not a risk worth taking.
- Have you established a real rapport with your clients? If your clients don’t love you, they aren’t going to give you real emotion. You need to be able to connect with each and every client to be able to create magical photos with them.
- What about coverage for indemnity, if your clients hate their photos and want to sue you for it? As I said before, people sue for everything these days. Check out this video, and see what happened to one photographer! Yes, this stuff really happens!
- Have you ever been a second shooter for a reputable photographer, who has lots of wedding experience? Your friend who started out much in the same way that I did, does not count. That is the blind leading the blind, and will hinder you more than it will help you.
- Do you have the gear to get the job done? If not, have you charged your client enough to compensate for the gear you will need to rent to get the job done? Your bag of arsenal should contain at a minimum: 70-200mm; 85mm, 50mm, 35mm, and a 24-70mm. Don’t forget your favorite macro lens for your details, too! Your clients are going to expect a professional to be able to get a lot of shots. What happens when they hand over a Pinterest board and you don’t have the right gear to give them the photos they want?
- Do you know what questions to ask your client, so that you can prepare yourself to give them exactly what they are expecting from their wedding photos? This is something else that comes from experience. If you haven’t been out there doing this, you won’t even know what to ask. This is why second shooting with a reputable photographer is so important.
- The most important thing of all that you should ask yourself: Am I confident enough in my skill level and ability as a photographer to be able to charge a fair amount of money, so that I can cover all of my expenses and pay myself a livable wage (at least minimum wage) after I take 30% off the top to pay Uncle Sam, as I am legally required to do? If you aren’t confident enough to ask for the payment that it takes, you aren’t ready to photograph a wedding just yet.
- Do I know how to manipulate a raw camera file, in order to process photos from tough lighting conditions? We try to get things right in camera, but sometimes we can’t. What if the church’s lighting is blue or yellow? Do you know how to fix that? What if your ceremony photos are grainy because it was so dark? Do you know how to fix that?
- Am I set up with a reputable print lab, in case my client wishes to order prints, albums, or wall art from me? Telling your clients you don’t offer prints is not only sending their business to Shutterfly (who, by the way made $1.160 billion dollar last year alone–which tells us clients ARE printing their photos) and not to you. Why not offer a full service to your clients, and save them the hassle, and allowing their images to be printed in archival quality?
- Do I have a consistent style of post-processing, so that my clients will know exactly what my style of photography is like? If your style changes every day, this could be confusing or misleading to your client.
If you answered no to any of these questions, you just aren’t ready yet. It is so important to spend time as a second shooter, with a photographer who is experienced, before you ever accept a wedding of your own. I often tell new photographers this, but they just don’t understand what things can go wrong when they do not know what they are doing. This is why I shared my stories of my early days as a wedding photographer with you all. I want you to know that I give my advice as I do, BECAUSE I already made the same mistakes that I see you about to make. I’m not trying to judge you. I legitimately want to see you succeed. When one of us wins, we all win. It is up to us to create an industry standard that all of our clients can get used to. Our clients need to know that whichever photographer they would like to hire, will be someone who can deliver stunning images that they can cherish for the rest of their lives.
Have any questions? Feel free to hit me up in the comments!!
P.S. This all comes from a place of love for you, and a love for our craft.