So You’ve Been Asked to Shoot a Wedding?

I’ve received quite a few people asking for tips for photographing their first wedding, and as a professional wedding photographer I wanted to address this topic. Weddings are such a major once-in-a-lifetime event for the couple, so please, before you commit to photographing a wedding, read this and be sure that you’re up for the job.

Weddings Cannot Be Re-Shot

The biggest thing to remember before you agree to photograph someone’s wedding is that you don’t get a do-over. If the pictures don’t come out, or you miss an important moment, you can’t go back and try again. Weddings are serious business, and if you’re going to photograph one, you need to be up for the responsibility. This will be the biggest day in the couple’s life, and it’s all on YOU to document it. Sound like a ton of pressure? IT IS. I’m not going to sugar coat it. I have heard too many stories from brides about their wedding pictures being ruined because of a “friend with a nice camera.” Please don’t be that person. Please don’t take this lightly.

Have a Contract

If you’ve decided to photograph a wedding, you will want to have a contract between the bride and groom and yourself. Regardless if you are in business or just doing them a favor, contracts lay all expectations and responsibilities on the table so that everyone is on the same page. You may think that it will be awkward asking the couple to sign a contract (especially if they are family), but trust me, it’ll be more awkward if something happens and you don’t have one. Contracts are beneficial for both parties – honestly! The couple will know what to expect from you, and you’ll rest assured knowing that your bases are covered. The last thing you want is for miscommunication.

Contracts don’t necessarily have to be fancy… just a simple document outlining the terms of the agreement and signatures from all parties. Things to include in the contract:

– how long you will be shooting (What time will you start? How long will you stay at the reception? Discuss this will the couple ahead of time so that everyone is on the same page.)

– how the images will be delivered (On a disc? Will you edit the pictures or not? How long after the wedding will they be delivered? Etc?)

– your experience level (the couple needs to understand up front what your level of experience is. If you have never photographed a wedding before, just state that as a fact that the couple needs to acknowledge.)

– payment agreement, if any (including specific payment dates. Also be sure to discuss whether you will be fed at the reception or not.)

Backup Gear

I, personally, think it is a necessity to have some form of backup gear if you’re going to shoot a wedding. The couple, whether or not they’re paying you, is trusting you to capture their day, and you need to be prepared. What happens if your camera stops working? What if you drop a lens? If you don’t have backup gear, you can always rent gear or borrow someone’s just for the day.

If you are NOT going to carry backup gear with you, you NEED to have that stated in the contract. The couple needs to be aware that if your camera breaks, you won’t have a way of documenting their day.

Have Enough Memory Cards

Memory is pretty cheap these days. Make sure you have enough memory cards to document the whole day. Plan on taking at least 1000-2000 images, or more if you’re especially nervous. The last thing you want is to get to the ceremony and not have any more room for pictures – YIKES!

Family Formals

Before the wedding, sit down with the bride and groom and put together a list of ALL the family formal photos to take on the wedding day. This will help everything go smoother the day of the wedding, and will help eliminate the risk of forgetting to take an important group photo. Plan on at least an hour for family pictures, and be sure to have someone with you that can help get everyone organized. I am usually getting everyone posed and taking the photo while my assistant gathers everyone that will be in the next shot. This helps things to go smoother and faster.

Sample Timeline

I also try to put together a basic timeline for the day so everyone knows where to be and when to be there. This then gets distributed to the family and I carry one in my bag on the wedding day to keep everything on schedule. Here’s a sample timeline for a bride and groom doing portraits before the wedding:

11:15 – Detail Photos (flowers, jewelry, dress, etc)
11:45 – Groom Getting Ready Photos
12:15 – Bride Getting Ready Photos
12:45 – First Look & Couple Portraits
1:30 – Wedding Party Portraits
2:15 – Family Formal Portraits
3:00 – Break (guests arrive for ceremony)
4:00 – Ceremony
6:15 – Grand Entrance, Dinner, Toasts
7:30 – First Dances
9:15 – Photography Ends

Lens Choices

Even if you’re low on budget, you’ll still need at least two lenses to do a good job capturing the wedding. The biggest issue is the ceremony – you’ll need a telephoto lens because most churches only allow photographers to be in the back of the church to document the ceremony (and you DON’T want to be walking up on stage or down the middle aisle during the ceremony, either – try to be as discreet as possible). Here are some tips for lens choices throughout the day:

Getting Ready – A wide angle (28mm or 35mm) lens is used for tight spaces and small rooms, and the 50mm lens is used for detail shots of the dress, flowers, and jewelry. (I also tend to use a macro lens for jewelry as well.)

Portraits – A 50mm is perfect for portraits. I pretty much always use this one on the wedding day.

Ceremony – You’ll want a long telephoto lens for the ceremony. The 70-200 f/2.8 lens is great for this. No matter what lens you already have with your camera, I’d recommend renting this one and it will allow you to get the best images of the ceremony from far away. Sure, overall shots of the entire church are nice, but you’ll want to capture facial expressions (and possibly tears!) as well.

Reception – I tend to use my 50mm and 100mm the most during the reception. (Read about reception lighting here…)

If the couple is paying you (and even if they’re not), I’d highly suggest renting the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. These will give you every possible focal length you would need on a wedding day, and the ability to shoot better in low light situations (as opposed to a kit lens with limited apertures. I understand that renting gear cuts into profit, but if this is one of your first weddings, your top priority should be doing the best job you can do, not making money. This is especially true if you think you might want to make a business shooting weddings. One bad wedding experience for a couple can ruin your career. Be smart :)


I would definitely recommend being equipped with a speedlight flash for a wedding. Even if your camera has a pop-up flash, it is not going to a very good job. You can rent a 430 EX II flash and it will be exponentially better than the built in flash. I’ll be writing an article on how best to blend flash with natural light so you don’t get bright white faces and black backgrounds! It’s possible… promise!

Practice. A lot. Seriously!!

The last bit of advice is probably the most important. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Seriously. Practice as much as humanly possible before the wedding so you are best prepared. Practice in EVERY lighting situation possible. Shoot outdoors in full sun. Shoot outdoors on a cloudy day. Shoot inside with lots of natural light. Shoot in a dark room without flash. Shoot in a dark room WITH flash. Practice shooting in every scenario so that on the wedding day, nothing will stump you.

I hope this helps, and if you have any other tips I’ve missed, feel free to add them to the comments section! Also, feel free to post questions if you have them!

Follow up: Reception Lighting. Receptions are always hard to photograph because it’s so dark, and you DO need special gear if you want to do it right! Learn more about reception lighting here!

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