Tips For a Wedding Photographer New to the Business

As a frequent forum browser, I have noticed that certain questions come up over and over with wedding photographers who are just starting out. I originally wrote this article for the benefit of a forum in which I am a participant, but was encouraged to disseminate it to a wider audience. I have done my absolute best to be even-handed and offer alternative views, and not all here necessarily represent my own opinion. Please feel free to let me know if you have any additions or modifications to suggest! So here goes:

Table of Contents:
1. So my friend/relative is getting married, and they’ve asked me to shoot the wedding. Should I do it? What should I charge?
2. What sort of gear do I need? Is my gear good enough?
3. I’m ready to start a really-real grown-up photography business in the US. What do I need to do?
4. Now that I’m a real business, how much should I charge?
5. Do I offer a CD of printable images with my packages?
6. Should I shoot RAW or JPG?
7. Should I shoot primes or zooms?
8. How do I become a second shooter?
9. In what mode should I shoot?
10. Do I have to get permission to use someone’s music for my website?

Question 1: So my friend/relative is getting married, and they’ve asked me to shoot the wedding. Should I do it? What should I charge?

Answer 1: Shooting a wedding is a big responsibility. This isn’t the same as going out to shoot a portrait session, where if you mess up you can get a redo or simply offer a refund. These are some of the most important pictures most people will ever have taken, and you owe it to yourself and your potential client to be honest about your abilities. Weddings typically feature difficult and changing conditions, and require a high level of sustained quality throughout a long day. If you make a mistake, you may profoundly damage your relationship with these people.

A lot of responses to this question on this forum amount to “you are better off telling them to hire a real pro.”

Many here will argue that if you do shoot the wedding, taking money for your photography in this situation increases both the potential for misunderstanding and also your legal liability if something goes wrong. There is a big difference between someone who is a guest with a camera and a paid contractor. These individuals would argue that you are best off not taking any money.

Some will suggest that if you are confident enough to shoot the wedding, then you should be confident enough to charge an honest fee. The average American couple spends just under $2k for their wedding photography, although this varies a good bit by region. Many high-end wedding shooters charge significantly more than this and prices into five figures are not uncommon.

Some here will offer that they refuse to shoot weddings for friends and relatives regardless of their experience level, due to the potential for misunderstanding.

Some will suggest that you try to find a local experienced professional to tag along with to get some experience before you go out on your own. Be prepared that some photographers will view this as creating their own competition and not be enthused about helping out. Additionally, be aware that many of the more experienced photographers get multiple “second shooter” offers every week.

If you decide that you are still going to shoot, just about everyone here would counsel you to actively seek out conditions similar to those you will experience on the wedding day (IE go scout the church) and PRACTICE under those conditions. If you’ve never been forced to shoot f/1.4 ISO 3200 1/50th before without a flash, then the wedding day is not a good first time to learn.

If you are absolutely set on shooting, good luck and good light to you!

Question 2: What sort of gear do I need? Is my gear good enough?

Answer 2: We had a saying in the military: “two is one, one is none.” This means that if a given piece of gear is important enough that you would have a hard time shooting the wedding without it, then it needs to have backup. This means for starters that you need:
-Two Camera Bodies
-Two Flashes
-Enough redundancy in lenses that if you drop your 24-70 you’re not stuck on fisheye the rest of the day

There are many other items that you may need, but the above items represent the most expensive and important. If your camera shutter fails, if you drop a lens or flash, there’s no “sorry honey, I’ve gotta run to Bestbuy and buy a new piece of gear… could you hold off on that whole ‘walking down the aisle bit?'” Argue all you want that you’re a budget-oriented shooter with financial limitations: it probably won’t help you one bit in litigation.

Further, the general consensus is that you will need f/2.8 or faster lenses to do a good job in difficult lighting conditions. These fast lenses will allow you to use less (or no) flash in low light and ALSO improve the autofocus of your camera bodies in low light. Many will argue that at least one fast prime (IE 50mm f/1.8) is an inexpensive but crucial addition to your kit, especially if you are shooting a flash-restricted ceremony. If you have no idea what I’m talking about with regards to these f-stops, then you may be best off reconsidering your plan to shoot this wedding.

While many admirable photographers maintain that it would be possible to shoot a wedding on only a 35mm or 50mm prime lens, the vast majority of professionals at least have available (even if they are not using them) a combination of lenses that covers wide angle, standard, short and medium telephoto. This equates to about 24-200mm in full-frame land: adjust depending on the size of your sensor. A kit that covers that range will stand you in good stead for almost any wedding situation, although you may not need any given lens at any given event.

As far as your bodies themselves, what you have is almost certainly good enough to do an adequate job in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. I doubt many of the high-end pros on this forum would CHOOSE to shoot a wedding this weekend on Digital Rebels or D40x’s, but its totally doable if you know what you’re doing. That said, there are many image quality, usability, and reliability advantages of top-shelf gear.

You also need to start considering your data security plan for the images you create! A computer virus won’t be much of an excuse when explaining to a tearful bride about why you lost all of her images. Off-site backup offers additional protections against fire and theft.

Question 3: I’m ready to start a really-real grown-up photography business in the US. What do I need to do?

Answer 3: Business laws, codes, and regulations vary from state-to-state. However, in general you will need to get a business license and tax ID number. You may chose to incorporate in some way, or remain a sole proprietorship. Be aware that if you are hoping for the limitations of liability that are the primary benefits of incorporating, you must be prepared to fully segregate your business life and assets from the personal. The moment you start using business money for personal items, a savvy lawyer will find it and pierce that corporate veil to get at your assets if you are in litigation. For many small businesses, the level of segregation necessary may be difficult or impossible: speak to an attorney fluent in your local laws and regulations to determine whether incorporating is right for you.

Congratulations! Now you can start paying taxes! Remember to budget for this, and consult your helpful local department of revenue office to learn about your state, local, and federal obligations with regards to your tax burden.

MANY folks here would also STRONGLY encourage you to obtain insurance for your business. The most important part of any policy you purchase will be the sections that cover your liability! What if someone trips over your lightstand and breaks a hip? What if one of your lights shorts out the outlet and lights the venue on fire? You can keep on imagining nightmare scenarios… Will you ever NEED this coverage? Probably (hopefully) not, but if you need it and don’t have it the situation has the potential to ruin your life. The industry standard is $1,000,000 general liability coverage. Other things to look at include errors and omissions (E&O) coverage and equipment coverage.

It is also STRONGLY recommended that you ONLY work with a contract that has been reviewed by an attorney that is well versed in your local contract laws. Verbal agreements just don’t cut it. Period. This contract needs to explicit designate what services you’ll provide in what time-line, and what are the terms of payment.

Also, this should be obvious, but KEEP A CALENDAR THAT IS UP TO DATE! Double-booking is not OK in this business: we’re not running an airline after all.

Question 4: Now that I’m a real business, how much should I charge?

Answer 4: As stated above, the average price in the US for wedding photography runs just a hare under $2k right now, with some regional variation. There would have been very nasty arguments if you posted this question to the forum, so aren’t you glad you’re smart and reading this post instead!

Some things to think about:
-If you’re actually paying your taxes and buying insurance, and you have all of that backup gear that you’re supposed to have, then wedding photography is a little more expensive than you might have thought.
-New photographers almost invariably underestimate the amount of work involved in wedding photography. Remember to calculate editing, client meetings, proofing sessions, etc…
-If you’re actually planning on being successful, Craigslist probably won’t cut it as a long-term advertising strategy unless you are targeting low-cost weddings primarily. You need to plan to purchase advertising and marketing materials, including sample albums and prints. Word-of-mouth is the best advertising, but it usually requires time and money to get to the point where you are booking most of your clients that way. And even at that point, there’s a reason why Coke and McDonalds still advertise despite being ubiquitous market leaders.

The best policy is to sit down and as honestly as possible assess (in plain English):
A) How much will my fixed expenses (advertising, insurance, etc) be?
B) How much more gear will I need to buy?
C) How quickly will I need to purchase new gear (or service the old) as my old gear becomes worn out or obsolete
D) How much does the stuff I’m giving the client cost me?
E) How many hours will this really take me?

Subtract your fixed and product costs from your price and divide by number of hours and you have your hourly rate. Figure out how much money you’ll need to make in the short term to make your plan viable, and how much you’ll need to make in the long term to make you happy. Then, compare your proposed price to your local competition. The trick will be to reconcile what you NEED with what you think you can ACTUALLY GET. You may need to offer a price below what you actually want to get the ball rolling, but you need to be aware of what you actually need to make for you to be in a viable business.

Question 5: Do I offer a CD of printable images with my packages?

Answer 5: There are many ways to skin this cat, and ultimately if you are making enough money to provide for yourself and your family at a level you’re comfortable with, you’re doing it right. Some folks don’t offer a CD at all, because their business model relies on sales of tangible products such as prints and albums. Retaining the images and rights also ensures that you can maintain quality control on your product. However, MANY brides these days expect and demand that they be offered the option of a printable CD. If you offer this, it may be included (and factored into the price) with a package or sold as an a-la-carte (read: upsell) item. As with your basic pricing decision, the best way to handle this decision is to do the math:
-Do brides in my target market desire or expect to be able to print their own images? How many bookings will I sacrifice if I don’t offer this?
-If I offer the disc, how many brides will actually order prints and albums from me? How much are those lost sales worth?
-Are there any compromises I can offer, such as medium resolution files, unedited vs. edited files, limited rights of reproduction, etc?

At this point, its not much of a stretch to say that most wedding photographers in the US are offering some sort of digital option in response to overwhelming demand from brides. However, any savvy business-person will be cognizant of the value of the rights and ability to print those images. NO ONE “gives away” such an asset and stays in business long.

Question 6: Should I shoot RAW or JPG?

Answer 6: At this point, most wedding photographers have embraced the RAW format, especially now that programs like Lightroom render RAW files to be little more work than JPG. However, many successful and talented shooters prefer JPG for a variety of reasons.

RAW pros:
-Easy to fix white balance if you don’t get it right in camera
-More latitude to fix exposure if you’re not dead on
-Slightly higher dynamic range retained than JPG

JPG pros:
-Smaller file size (less storage needed, and fewer memory cards)
-Potentially less processing and a faster workflow
-Less likely to fill camera buffer if shooting fast
-Some people really like the look of the JPG’s certain cameras produce.

The bottom line here is that you need to shoot what you’re comfortable with, and there is no completely wrong answer. However, for a beginner, shooting RAW is a safer option for when you make those inevitable starting-out mistakes.

Question 7: Should I shoot primes or zooms?

Answer 7: Primes and zooms each have their staunch advocates. Here is a highlight film of the pros for each:

Primes:
-Primes are generally somewhat sharper than zooms of comparable quality (especially at larger apertures), although this may not be significant enough to show up in standard-sized prints.
-Primes offer the possibility of more shallow depth-of-field than zooms
-Primes are better equipped for extreme low-light shooting.
-Certain prime lenses are particularly prized for certain subjective facets of image-quality, such as color and bokeh.
-Some will argue that the mental discipline of working with a fixed focal length will facilitate better anticipation, a better tendency to move one’s feet for a better perspective, and more creative compositions.
-When using primes, wider apertures can also extend the range of your flash.

Zooms:
-Modern zooms offer excellent image quality, and none can argue that zooms produce excellent images. Some special zooms (Nikon 14-24 for instance) are now even generally accepted to exceed the quality of most available primes.
-With a zoom, composition is seldom a compromise.
-The newest camera bodies offer amazing high-ISO performance, making it less necessary to rely on extreme (sub 2.8) apertures to facilitate low light shooting.
-Any sharpness arguments on behalf of primes are rendered moot if significant cropping is necessary to achieve a good composition.
-At the wide angle end, a few millimeters is a HUGE difference in field-of-view. For this reason, wide angle zooms in particular can be significant assets for composition.
-Buying one top quality zoom is often more cost effective than buying two or three top quality primes to cover a focal range.

My personal editorial addition here is that the best option is BOTH. As mentioned in the “what gear I need” question, having only one lens to cover a critical focal length is just as irresponsible as having only one camera body. Zooms and primes make natural complements that don’t duplicate one another, but offer enough redundancy that a decent set of primes (35/85/135 for instance) and a decent set of zooms (16-35/24-70/70-200) are each independently capable of covering a whole wedding if necessary.

As far as what you should use more regularly, this is entirely personal and based on your artistic inclinations. Only experience can give you the real answer to this.

Question 8: How do I become a second shooter?

Answer 8: If you recognize a few facts before starting your campaign to become a second shooter, you will probably be able to tailor your efforts to be more successful.

-Any of the more successful shooters in your local market are probably getting multiple offers to assist every week. Many of these offers are to shoot for free. These offers are coming from shooters of a variety of skill and experience levels. So be aware that many of these positions are sought after, and placement is competitive.

-Most photographers already have a second/partner.

-Any photographer with common sense knows that he/she, when training a second shooter, is ultimately creating his/her own potential competition. Typically, the more secure photographers are confident enough in their talent that they are not threatened by this. However, be aware that “let me shoot just a few weddings with you to get some experience” doesn’t sound all that appealing to even the most secure photographer. Personally, I would not be interested in working with anyone in my local area who wasn’t willing to commit to an entire season, other than in the rare case where a “regular” second shooter was unavailable. Many pros will only invest in training you (and take the risk of subsequent competition) if they feel they are “getting their money’s worth.”

-Most savvy photographers will consider assurances that “I just want to give it a try, I’m not looking at doing this for myself as a business” to be disingenuous, even in the unlikely event that they are true. Personally, I would probably disqualify an applicant on that basis alone. The only exception would be if you have a REALLY good day job, such as being a doctor or senator.

-Some photographers will disqualify a potential applicant if they have pursued a “lowball” approach to their business in the past.

-Some photographers prefer to take on individuals as assistants before they are promoted to second shooter status. Assistants typically only help manage gear, and do not shoot.

When you are actually offered a position, here are some things that may be issues:
-The studio that employs you will typically own the copyright to anything you shoot for them.
-You may be faced with limitations on your ability to use images for your own portfolio. A common condition limits your “public” use of the images, such as on websites, but permits “in studio” use to show prospective clients.
-You may be forbidden to take outside work on your own
-You may be asked to sign a non-compete clause forbidding you from starting your own business in the area for a finite time period.
-You will almost certainly be forbidden from mentioning any outside business interests to clients of your employer (IE marketing your own wedding studio while on the job for your boss)
-You are probably going to have to furnish your own kit.
-Some photographers only work with seconds shooting on the same system (Canon or Nikon, usually)

Some of the above restrictions may make a given second-shooter position unsuitable for you and your personal goals. Policies vary widely even within your local market, so it pays to consider your options carefully.

Pay varies widely, but be aware that minimum wage laws typically apply in most states, even if the theoretical value of the training you are being provided exceeds the value of the work you produce.

Photographers prefer to work with people they know. Many photographers have groups and local get-togethers from time to time. If you can “get in” with a group and simply get to know them, they will likely make you aware of second shooter opportunities when they become available. Cold calls are, as in any business, a low percentage proposition.

Get a competitive portfolio! You would not believe some of the garbage that some applicants have shown me. Personally, I don’t care so much about wedding experience if I see some great portraiture and photojournalism. Other photographers may want to see actual wedding work. Either way, you need to get objective peer review! Submitting your work on websites like this will give you a very good idea of how pros will react to your port. Further, savvy pros will probably not be all that interested in your “mad Photoshop skills” as either they or their in-house design will most likely be doing the post-work anyway for consistency’s sake. It is more important to show good fundamentals than lots of bells & whistles.

Demonstrate a familiarity with the style and work of the person to whom you are submitting! No one likes mass-emails! I’d be much more inclined to look hard at an applicant who identified specific shots of mine they liked, or identified a stylistic quality they appreciate. Flattery (within reason) works wonders on most artists. If I receive an obviously generic form-letter asking to assist/second, it gets thrown away immediately.

The more effort you put into your application, the more likely your success. Sure, email is fine these days, but writing a REAL letter, perhaps with one or two high quality prints thrown in demonstrates how serious you are about the position. I’m not saying that you want to spend a fortune making a flush-mount album for every photographer to whom you’re applying, but if you know a position is potentially open, and you’re serious about it, being more creative and applying some real effort could pay dividends.

Be persistent but don’t nag. As I said, most of us have regular assistants and seconds. However, many are probably like me in keeping a roledex of quality shooters who have applied in the past, in case the regular help isn’t available. Periodically renewing contact in a polite way will keep you at the top of the list.

Question 9: In what mode should I shoot?

Answer 9: You’ll probably see a lot of chest-thumping on the boards by folks who are adamant that only hacks and losers use anything but manual mode. These are probably the same people who spend a good part of the day with their eyes glued to the LCD screen chimping the histogram

The fact of the matter is that there’s no difference between a shot with the same settings achieved in AV, M, or P. Its also a fact that some of the top shooters in the game use some of the semi-auto modes regularly or primarily. We’re talking shots that have won top scores (IE 99) at WPPI, from shooters charging well into five figures per-wedding.

The real issue is whether you understand how the camera’s exposure works!

So long as you understand what aperture, shutter, and ISO do and how the meter REALLY works, then it should be entirely up to you as to the most efficient method of achieving your desired results. For some, all “M” all the time will simply be faster and more controlled. Some folks may find that the semi-auto modes allow them to pay more attention to the world around: after all, it was Avedon who said that he hated cameras for interfering with his ability to record a great picture. Many will likely find that some situations are better suited to M, others perhaps AV or P.

The moral here is that shooting in a camera-assisted mode should be a choice that you are making rather than a necessity. You should 100% be ABLE to shoot in manual without chimping incessantly before taking on a wedding. Whether or not you choose to do so should be entirely up to you.

Question 10: Do I have to get permission to use someone’s music for my website?

Answer 10: “U.S. Copyright Law provides that to “perform” a work “publicly” means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process…(1) at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or (2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public are capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.”

“Musical compositions, like other intellectual property, belong to their creators. U.S. Copyright Law grants certain exclusive rights to copyright owners, including the right to publicly perform and the right to authorize others to publicly perform the work. Web Sites that publicly perform music must obtain a license from the copyright owner or their representative.

Bottom line is that its against the law to use music on your website without a licensing agreement. Its that simple. If you don’t like it, go speak to your congress person. You can’t use music on your website without authorization for the same reasons that a musical artist can’t use your photography on their website without your permission.

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