I shot my first wedding and didn’t mess it up – Here are some thoughts

Sep 22, 2017

Alex Hengen

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

I shot my first wedding and didn’t mess it up – Here are some thoughts

Sep 22, 2017

Alex Hengen

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Non-pro, non-wedding photographer here. Last year I took a few pictures at my sister’s wedding. My cousin, having his own wedding coming up, saw some of my shots on Facebook and asked if I would photograph their wedding. I agreed.

I had 8 full months to prep. My experience and comfort zone consists mainly of landscapes, astrophotography, and some OK candid stuff, though I like to push into new styles and subjects to force myself to learn more.

This is going to be a long post, but I want to say a few things for anyone in my situation that this post might help out. I’m a wedding beginner, so if anyone wants to nitpick or correct, I take no offense, and by no means is this the best post ever. I’m simply putting out my thoughts and impressions from my perspective, along with some things I spent a decent amount of time researching. This isn’t definitive and I don’t know everything, so apologies if it comes off a bit know-it-all-ish, I just really felt compelled to put everything I picked up along the way together in a cohesive, easy to digest form, mostly to help anyone in my shoes.

First off, my cousin and his then-fiancee reached out to me, asked me to photograph the wedding, and explained that it would help them out a great deal. They preferred dealing with someone they knew, and it would end up saving them money as well. They asked for my rate, but I explained I’d do it for free as they’re family. They insisted on giving me some money for travel and accommodations, since this was out of town for me, and that’s fair.

I set the expectation early in terms of experience. Number of shots to expect (~500), time to deliver (under-promised 4-6 weeks, I expect to over-deliver within two), basically everything I could think of. I’m confident in my abilities and planning, but I let them know I’m not a seasoned wedding pro.

Let’s get the gear talk out of the way early. IMO your gear is important, but not as important as being familiar with it and what it can do (how to change settings quickly on the fly [namely aperture and exposure compensation], how high you can push your ISO, how a given aperture affects DOF, what your minimum shutter speed should be for handheld for a given lens, how much you know you can push (exposure or cropping) something when editing, etc).

Photo gear:

  • Canon 6D
  • Canon 5D Mark IV
  • Sigma Art 35 1.4
  • Canon 85 1.8
  • Canon 70-200 2.8L IS II USM via LensRentals
  • Lots of memory cards (2x 128GB SD and 2x 128GB CF for 5D4, 2x 64GB SD for 6D)
  • Lots of batteries (went through 2 batteries per camera, just about)
  • Monopod (for the 70-200 at the ceremony, that sucker is heavy)
  • Good backpack of your choosing (Peak Design Everyday for me)
  • Comfortable camera straps of your choosing (PD Sling for me), I was wearing both cameras most of the day, one on each shoulder for fast easy access
  • I’m probably forgetting stuff, but this was what stuck out

Non-photo gear:

  • Water
  • Snacks (3-4 Cliff bars for me)
  • Tide stick
  • Band-aids
  • Tums
  • Visine
  • Ibuprofen
  • Sharpie
  • Tissues
  • Makeup/facial wipes
  • Ear plugs (for the dance floor near the speakers)
  • Good amount of gaffer tape wrapped around a tripod/monopod leg
  • Compression socks (seriously guys, they help)
  • Comfortable shoes (I got a pair of black Allbirds, they looked sharp enough and were so damn comfortable)
  • Backup pair of clothes kept in trunk of car – underwear, dress shirt, dress pants and shoes. I got a nosebleed right as I was leaving for the bridal prep, and that spare dress shirt came in handy.

I used the 35 & 85 for the bride + bridesmaids prep, and the 35 & 70-200 for the ceremony, portraits, and reception. I brought along lenses I wasn’t planing on using, lenses that could duplicate a focal length in a pinch. If I dropped my 35, I had a wide angle zoom that could replace it. If I broke the 70-200, I had a slower 70-300 and an 85 I could substitute. And in a real pinch, I guess I could have shot the entire wedding with my 50 1.8.

For research and prep, I’d go on /r/photography/r/weddingphotography, YouTube, Google, etc and search, read, bookmark, read, reread, etc. I contacted the main photographer, Harmony Lynn, for my sister’s wedding (who is also her/my good friend) and picked her brain. She linked me to a posing guide she used when starting out, and she gave me good information that you’d only really pick up through experience, such as getting friendly with the wedding coordinator, DJ (can ask to store your gear at his table during reception, and he can help light up the dance floor during important dances for you.

If the DJ is cool [mine was very awesome], they can also give you a heads-up before each dance/cake cutting/anything major so you can get ready, and also get the catering crew to bring you food early so you can shovel it away and get back to work. Seriously, he was the best), being ASSERTIVE, picking up a few flashes & gel kits if possible (in order to help light the reception hall), dinner requirements if you want to eat at the reception, having all of the detail shoot stuff ready in one place in advance (shoes, dress, veil, all 3 rings, etc), preferably wherever the bride is getting ready, and nailing the timeline.

Staying organized was absolutely critical for me, to keep myself from being overwhelmed and feeling lost with all of this new information. To help myself out, I created a Google Docs form that I had them fill out, with as much detail as possible. I basically combined forms I found online with what I thought of and what my wedding photographer friend suggested, until I had something I was comfortable with. Here’s what I ended up with, and absolutely feel free to copy it if you want. I saved the resulting timeline and details to my Google Keep as a note and referred to it as the day went on, and it simplified things tremendously being able to have it at hand and not needing to memorize every little part of the schedule.

I kept a good amount of info on Google Keep as a note for reference: shot list (cake cutting, first dance, bride and bridesmaids, groom and groomsmen, family, etc etc), addresses for everything (church, park the couple chose for portraits, reception area), phone numbers for everyone, ideas for the portraits, etc.

Other odds and ends I picked up as I went, from reddit and elsewhere:

  • If shooting with two bodies, make sure they each are set to the same time and time zone, to save time editing. When you import, you can sort by capture time, and photos taken with each camera will show up together rather than being all over the place
  • If you’re using a posing guide, take photos of the poses with the camera(s) you’re going to use. If you need to refer to them, you can look like you’re reviewing photos and not fiddling with a phone and looking like you don’t know what you’re doing
  • Get rest and drink/eat when you can. Sit when you can, my lower back and feet hurt off and on (I’m not the most active individual). Force yourself to eat a snack in your car on your way to the next location, who knows when you’ll have time next.
  • Look for microexpressions on the faces of everyone in between taking your crucial shots. Especially the bride, groom, and their parents. I got a lot of great, unplanned shots with the zoom lens while watching for reactions to events and speeches from parents and friends.
  • For the love of God, don’t miss the father walking his daughter down the aisle, or their kiss after being announced husband and wife. You don’t get a redo and those are super important.
  • Meet up with the couple a day or two before the wedding, if possible. Go over everything you got in the form you sent them, go over your shot list, go over your schedule, your notes, etc, ask if there’s anything else they need. They may have made a change or forgotten to mention something, in my case it was a cool bus that was made to look like a trolley to ferry the bride and groom and their friends to the park, which resulted in some cool unplanned shots.
  • Give yourself more time than you think you need. We got to the park only to find another couple, just wed, was using the same bridge and shady area with their photographer! We took shots elsewhere while waiting for them to finish up, and luckily had plenty of time set aside
  • If possible, ask the bride and groom to hold their kiss for an extra beat or two for you, and ask if the bride and her father can walk slowly down the aisle when they see you step out, so you can nail that shot.
  • Burst shooting is your friend. Taking a group photo of 10 people, or of a kid or two? Either pray they all have their eyes open and smiles on at the same exact time, or just hold down that shutter button and get 10-15 shots and multiply your chances.
  • Shoot more than you think you need. I walked away with 4200 photos, and will likely deliver around 500-600.
  • Learn how to use a flash. Bounce flash indoors if you need to, or use it as fill light outdoors. I got really lucky in that the day of the wedding was overcast, so the light was honestly ideal and I didn’t need any fill flash. However, I was prepared with a flash and flashbender to fill if needed.
  • Back up your photos immediately. I made a copy, moved it to an external drive, another copy to my Google Drive, removed the SD cards from the cameras and set them aside until I’m done editing everything.
  • If you’re not sure whether or not you need to capture something, just do it. Worst case you don’t need it and it costs you a few minutes when culling.
  • Get to the reception area before the guests so you can take pictures of the details before people start putting bags, coats, etc everywhere
  • Have people skills.. I am not the best with people, but I pushed myself and made it work out, and ended up getting along well with basically everyone. It helps a lot when you need help
  • Figure out how the couple is leaving the church and reception. If people are throwing rice or confetti or what have you then you want to be in place and ready.

That’s essentially all of the technical information I can think of. Hopefully, it will help at least one person in some way. I’m not a pro with posing or weddings, and I’m sure others can add a lot to the discussion in the comments, but in my research I found myself looking for posts like the one I just wrote, so hopefully it helps. Once I had that down and felt prepared to handle those points, I was free to focus on composition, lighting, posing, taking creative shots, and having a bit of fun with the couple, bridesmaids, and groomsmen.

One last note… I wasn’t anxious or nervous for months, and it wasn’t until two days before the wedding that the nerves hit me and I started getting anxiety. I didn’t expect that and it took me by surprise, considering how calmly I’d planned everything and how ready I thought I was. Staying in touch with the couple and meeting up with them the day before the wedding helped a lot, and once I actually got into it, I was fine. Having emergency clothes and everything I might need in my kit helped with that too, it was a small comfort over-preparing all the gear and supplies.

Good luck, and feel free to comment or message me if you want to know something I forgot!

About the Author

Alex Hengen is a fine art, landscape, astrophotographer and now wedding photographer based in the DC/MD/VA metro area. You can find out more about Alex on his website, and follow his work on Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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6 responses to “I shot my first wedding and didn’t mess it up – Here are some thoughts”

  1. Paul Willy Brown Avatar
    Paul Willy Brown

    Great article, lots of careful preparation.
    My biggest worry on the few weddings I’ve shot has been getting all the right people together for the expected staged poses. Some of them are hard to round up.

  2. cbenci Avatar

    Nice article Mate.

    Really good advice in here for people starting out in weddings.

  3. Albert Dandl Avatar
    Albert Dandl

    Your cousin can be happy to have someone like you to know the importance of this one-time shoot and not treat this lightly.
    Well prepared!

  4. Michael Goolsby Avatar
    Michael Goolsby

    Over the past five years or so, I’ve been asked at near the last minute to photograph close to a dozen weddings because the “non-pro” or “newbie” stopped answering calls, disappeared, or cancelled. I get contacted about once a month by what are usually new camera owners asking if they can shadow me at weddings, often adding their gear list, as if that is what makes a photographer. It isn’t.

    It’s sad that today I can use “reliability” as a selling point. Once burned, some couples are reticent about trusting anyone, much less about throwing out yet more money on retainers. And about once a year or so, I get asked by someone recently married who (often through a bride I worked with) tell me that they were dissatsifed with their own wedding pictures if they can send me the photos to “fix” in Photoshop. The culprit often turns out to be a friend, family member, or newbie who simply could not deliver. On two ocassions, I’ve agreed to look at them, but in both cases I could not help; you can’t polish a turd.

    It sounds as if your experience went well. Very good. Your commitment to be prepared sounds to have paid off. But be cautious about encouraging others to do the same.

    You have some good tips (even if they are born out of a single wedding’s experience), but the number of such “tips” a veteran could offer would number in the many hundreds, and it’s impossible to study and remember all of them. Most weddings require problem solving. And most newbies seem to have little idea or understanding of the responsibility they are taking on and the difficulties involved. And while I appreciate informing the couple about inexperience, couples usually lack the working knowledge themselves to appreciate how that inexperience may come back to bite them. A newbie going it alone at their first wedding (or first dozen weddings, for that matter) should be HIGHLY discouraged.

    I’ve got some pretty good gear, but I’d trade it in a heartbeat for a basic body and kit lens to have the more than two-decades of experience I carry to each and every wedding.

    Ps: If you do this for a living, those 4000+ shots are going to bog your workflow down to a crawl. Spray-and-pray is a tactic, not a strategy. When you’re not doing this for a cousin for free, you’ll be much more aware of the hours ticking by just culling such a massive horde of data. (That’s just one tip among a thousand.)

    Good luck

  5. Mark Niebauer Avatar
    Mark Niebauer

    Never ever shoot a wedding without first apprenticeship with a seasoned pro. People like you have destroyed the industry. I would have turned down the job.

    1. C Brown Avatar
      C Brown

      and your ego also!