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What They Don’t Tell You About Being A Wedding Photographer

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I’ve been shooting weddings for 18 years and while I do not claim to be a know-it-all, I will say I’ve seen a wide range of the glamorous, and not so glamorous, sides of the business. Many people see the money wedding photographers charge for a day of shooting and think, “I can do that no problem!” While this may be the case, I want to point out some things the glamour side of the business doesn’t tell you about.

The Not So Good Stuff

You have to know how to put on boutonnieres

Do you know how to position corsages and boutonnieres? Are you good with make-up and hair dressing? Do you carry safety pins in your pocket just in case you need to adjust a pleat or tuck some fabric back?

If your wedding party has a coordinator or highly motivated individual, these items won’t come up for you. But a number of first time weddings will be casting about for someone with experience to help out. Think about it. The bride and groom have probably attended a number of weddings, but who pays attention to all the details all the time? For most, it’s a glaringly new experience and look at you, over there with your camera and notches on your camera strap. You must know what to do in all these situations? Who walks in first? Where do the flower girls go when they get to the end of the aisle? Do I hold my bouquet down low or higher like this? Should I face him or look at the audience? You’ll be amazed at the number of questions coming your way as the de facto wedding expert.

Editing takes a lot of time

Wow! You nailed that shoot! The Kiss. The First Dance. Mom starting to cry a little. You got it all. All 800 photos of it. 800? Really? Eh, get to it in the morning.

Editing a wedding shoot takes a bit more work than your average holiday trip. It’s by no means impossible, but it is one of the reasons you are charging more for a wedding than photos of a car to be sold on eBay. You can tighten things up a bit by not shooting so much. Back in the film days this was the default choice because more time was involved in setting up the shot and really making sure it was worth capturing. But, as we all know, digital removes that barrier and adds in extra time to the edits. I estimate about 20-40 hours of editing time per wedding shoot.

You need to be a pillar of calm

Stress levels are up on a wedding day, to say the least. Even the debonair appearing groom is fidgety under that rental tux. If you’re nervous, or unsure of your job, it will only feed the fire. Jitters during your first few weddings are normal as you’re still learning. And getting a little amped up before any wedding is fine. But when it’s show time, you need to be on, calm and in control of your aspect in the day. If you’re calm and self assured, it has a big effect on those in front of the camera. Looking clueless only flusters most brides. Get to know the wedding procedures, what comes next, who goes where, so that you can be of assistance in a “it’s ok, I’ve done this before” type of way.

Is organizing drunk people your favorite hobby?

You’re going to have to deal with them; drunk people. Sooner or later. For the most part it’s not that big of a deal, really. But trying to gather folks for a requested shot during the reception, when several party members may have started the festivities around 9am, can be exasperating. This is when you need to be a pillar of calm. But firm. Call in for backup (a likely relative of the less than helpful photo subject) if need be. At times it can be no different than the scene in any bar on a Friday night, except for the fact that you’re trying to work in that bar.

Being Professional At A Party

If you are the partying type, this one might be tough on you. A lot of weddings turn into full blown parties during the reception (certainly not all of them, but many). If alcohol is involved, you can almost be assured it will go that route. But above all else, I believe it’s very important to remain professional in this situation. You’re there to do a job and capture the revelry, not get lost in it. I almost always abstain from drinking during a shoot (unless the hosts are so heavy handed as to make my not having a sip come across as highly offensive) and I feel it helps with my results. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, just don’t get carried away.


“Are they ready yet?” “Not yet, the deadline is not for another three weeks.” Then, a day later, “I know I just asked, but we’re anxious to see the photos. Sorry!”

I have yet to come across a bride who just says, “Eh, get them to me when you can, it’s not important.” The photos ARE important and even more so after the wedding. You’re it, there’s no one else to bug. Before the wedding, the happy couple is juggling caterers, flowers, tux rentals, family, etc… But after the fact, all eyes are on you.

And even before the event, you will need to help calm the bride and groom with increased contacts as needed. They may be totally relaxed and just send an email two weeks before, letting you know the check will be in the mail today and we’ll see you at the wedding. Or you may get a call a day asking if they can add shots to the family list, or if a long lost cousin, who really wants to get into photography, can ghost you. Either way, be ready for the extra contact that tends to come along with wedding shoots.

There’s a whole family history you don’t know about

Part of your job as a wedding photographer is being a good sleuth. You need to find out, in short order, how the families work together and within themselves. Are there certain people you don’t want to be placing close to each other in a photo? Are there photos from the dance floor that shouldn’t be posted because, “those two shouldn’t have been dancing that close”? And is anyone in the witness protection program (no, this hasn’t happened to me, yet)? It seems most families have some quirks that keep things interesting and you get thrust right into it. Personally, I try to ask the couple as many questions as possible beforehand and, if it works out well, invite myself to the rehearsal to get a feel for how people interact under stress. It can help a lot to smooth things on the big day.

The Good Stuff

Not to make the whole experience sound like it is a death march, far from it! There are some benefits that also aren’t widely advertised.

You get to learn new customs

I’m always happy to take on a wedding ceremony I’ve never done. Being it a different religion, custom or just the couple’s own quirky way of celebrating, it’s a chance to learn something new. For the most part, I will ask for a layout of the ceremony and any ancillary events surrounding it and then it’s off to the internet to learn what I can. Friends, too, are a great source of information on customs and ceremony. I love the variety and it helps me grow as a photographer.

You meet fascinating people

This is one of the best parts of the job, the people. For me, I enjoy the chance to chat here and there with those attending the wedding. If nothing else, it gives me a personal connection to the event and does improve my photography. Plus, the sheer variety of folks I meet from wedding to wedding is very enjoyable. One weekend I met an iron sculpturer who built the decorative trellis the couple got married in front of. Two weeks later I met a couple who had spent the last five years visiting over 40 countries around the world. And the great thing is you can skip over a certain amount of small talk because you’re obviously the photographer so people already know what you do for a living and how you know the bride and groom.

You get paid to do what you love

I avoided getting paid for my first few years of weddings, choosing instead to only take photos for friends and family as a gift to them, because I thought I didn’t want to somehow soil that which I loved; taking photos. That was a mistake. It turns out I love shooting weddings for pay. It’s a happy occasion, everyone (almost) is in a great mood, smiles are rampant and I’m honored for the opportunity to preserve that feeling on paper. I will still shoot an occasional wedding pro bono for those I know well, especially if I know they are struggling financially, because I really enjoy the activity, pageantry, colors and joy of it all.

And if someone wants to pay me well for doing what I love when I’m willing to do for free, how can that not be the best job in the world?

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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