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May 21, 2012

The Ultimate Guide on Wedding Photography

Thad & Sarah

I met Thad and Sarah when first starting out in photography, and just about everything I learned we did together. I am so lucky to have amazing friends who are not only amazing photographers, but also a great source to push me and my photography.

Thad and Sarah wrote this amazing article to help anyone who is interested in shooting weddings. This is the ultimate guide on shooting weddings!

Wedding Photography

In the past decade the world has seen an explosion of some of the most beautiful and meaningful wedding photography since it became a tradition. The sheer number of seriously talented artists in the business is greater than ever. It seems like almost everyone with a decent camera tries it at some point or another. Most wedding photographers we know kind of fell into the business, including us. Everyone has a different path but if you’re in the business or looking at getting into it, then hopefully this article will give you some insight into how we built a successful business. It all starts with the importance and reasoning that drives people to want beautiful wedding photography.

Importance

When we got into wedding photography we didn’t have any idea we would make a profession of it. Once we did it, we kept doing it because we enjoyed being with people during such an important time in their lives and the opportunity to give them something that means so much. People love pictures, but why? The more I shoot the more I have come to realize that pictures help us build our identity. They give us a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. They help us remember things we may have otherwise forgotten and bring happiness by reminding us of good times. I take pictures of my family for the same reasons people hire us to take pictures of their wedding day.

Pictures help build our sense of self and bring us joy through memories of everyone who has been a part of our lives.

Living is an experience and we love to experience life with other people, isn’t that why we get married in the first place? We want someone to share life with. Pictures connect us to an experience. This is one of the main reasons to make sure you provide your client not only with great pictures, but also a great experience. This experience expands from the first contact to the final image delivery and hopefully beyond if done well enough. A bad experience with your wedding photographer will ruin your wedding pictures for the rest of your life. You’ll always get that bad feeling when you look at them. If they remember you, it should be about how you made their day even better than they expected.

 

The Job

There aren’t many other types of photography that require such a high degree of versatility than wedding photography. When you have 100s of people working together to make an event come to life, the unexpected is bound to happen. Most things that happen during a wedding are out of your control. Being a proficient wedding photographer means you are skilled with your tools and you know how to make the best of any situation, be it technical or social. Your job is not just taking pictures but working with people to make sure you provide the best images AND a great experience. The experience is equally as important as the images.

Attracting Clients

Every client we meet with comes to us based on what we put online. Potential clients come to you because they want what they see. Only show work that is similar to what you want to make when you are hired. As a photographer you are working for someone else and when you are starting out in this business you don’t always get the clients that want the same thing as you. Once you show only what you love, you will be hired to do exactly what you love.

 

Client Meetings

If potential clients are local we will invite them into our home for the first meeting. If they aren’t local we will videoconference with Skype. Either way, you want them to know you care about whom they are and not just about booking another wedding. We always start the meeting by asking questions about them and their wedding. Make them feel comfortable and don’t rush into talking about yourself. Once we’ve gotten to know each other a bit, we discuss our process and begin to set expectations.

We provide them with details on what to expect from the time they book to the time they receive their final set of images in the mail. If you’ve gotten to know them and their wedding from the first part of the meeting, you can use that to provide specific advice for their wedding. Find all the ways you can make your “pitch” personal for them.

For most couples, this is their first time planning a wedding and if you can provide them with sound advice (specific to their wedding) during a consultation, you will prove to them that you are an asset. The last thing we show them is the contract. We go through it enough to cover the main details and give them a chance to browse through it if they want to read further. We never pressure couples into booking at the meeting. The majority of our couples send the contract and retainer back to us within a couple of weeks.

 

Pre Wedding

The day before every wedding we go through all of our equipment. Memory cards are formatted, cameras and lenses are cleaned, batteries are charged, and everything is put in its place where we know where to find it. Getting what you need quickly is imperative. We also make sure we have directions to where we need to be and review the schedule to make sure we know what to expect and what time we need to be on location.

 

Shooting a Wedding

  1. The Social Part: I’ve always been the shy kid that never talks. I’m not naturally an out going person but shooting weddings has taught me how to socialize and befriend people so they don’t close up when I come around. The best pictures come when people are relaxed and willing to open up to you. If you can set a mood by creating appropriate conversation at the right time, you’ll find that they will let you into their social circle where you will find the best pictures. As a photographer you are usually the stranger and most people don’t have very good ideas about what photographers are like. The social aspect is as much of an art form as the photography; it takes lots practice especially if you’re the shy type like me. Sarah is a natural, a social butterfly; that definitely comes in handy!
  2. The Technical Part: I shoot in manual and aperture priority the majority of the time. If lighting conditions are not going to change I will work in manual mode. This will save you hours of editing because the camera is producing consistent results that can be easily synchronized in Lightroom. I’ll use aperture priority when I know that I will be following the bride and groom from inside a dark church to the bright outdoors. Sarah shoots almost exclusively in aperture priority. We use Pelican 0945 pelican cases that allow us to quickly and quietly access memory cards. All cleared cards are front facing and when they fill up we put them face down so we don’t confuse them. Always keep an eye on the number of pictures remaining on your cards. It’s never good to have a card fill up at a crucial moment. We keep the Pelican case in the front pocket of our ThinkTank Lens Changer bags and an extra memory card in the zipper pocket of our Black Rapid straps in case of emergency. There are also extra batteries for our cameras and flashes in our lens bags. Here is an example of a technique we use for reception dancing. We shoot with wide-angle lenses and flashes on camera and call it “On The 5s.” I came up with this to explain where to start when shooting this specific type of shot. Manual mode, ISO 500, 1/5 sec, f5, flash in TTL mode zoomed to 135mm. We start there and adjust the ISO, shutter speed, and/or the aperture to fine-tune the look depending on the amount of ambient light available.


Post Wedding

We convert all of our images to DNG on import into Lightroom. DNGs are a smaller file size than proprietary raw files and save us lots on hard drive space. All of our images are put on a working hard drive and backed up to a Drobo before any work starts. Sarah and I will sit down together and go through the entire wedding (usually around 3000-4000 images from 2 shooters) and flag all of the keepers (800-1200). This usually takes us an hour or less. It took us much longer in the beginning of our career, but overtime we’ve learned how to do it efficiently.

At this point, I will go through and 4 star all of the ones I want to use on the blog; I usually pick images from every area of the wedding. Even if I don’t use them on the blog, they are still edited and I will use them later to sync with the rest of the wedding. With the blog images edited, I will then work on putting them together in Photoshop to create the layout. Getting images ready for the blog is the most time consuming part of editing. On average, it takes about 2-3 hours to edit and prep images for the blog. The first person to create a solution to this will make a fortune!

If I do any heavy Photoshop work on specific images, which often happens, this could be much longer. At this point I can go back and synchronize all of the edited images with the raw files making the edits fairly quick. This takes less than 2 hours for final edits. Once everything is edited I do one more run through to fix any overlooked mistakes and get rid of any extra images, virtual copies, etc. (I use virtual copies in Lightroom for blending the same image with different raw develop settings in Photoshop.)

It takes roughly 5-7 hours from beginning to finish for editing and blogging, without any distraction. Our clients get all of their images online and in the mail within 6 weeks of their wedding date. This number is conservative since we usually have them ready sooner.

They arrive in a 2&3 box with a custom printed disc, flash drive, thank you card, printing release, 5 4×6 prints, 10% discount card (for our services in the future), a 2&3 magnet, and 2 business cards. This is more than they expected, and once again, helps exceed their expectations.

Setup your business so that you can exceed your client’s expectations as much as possible. Under promise, over deliver.

 

Fear

At some point during the week before every wedding we shoot, I get nervous. And I mean panic attack nervous! Although, it usually doesn’t last very long because I am confident in my craft and my track record tells me I can do it again. But I still wonder if I can deliver to the level my clients expect. I wonder if I can do something original. I wonder if I can make my clients happy. It seems like every time I shoot, the bar gets higher and higher for me to reach. When the wedding day gets here, I let all of that fear go and focus completely on my job and how to make some seriously awesome images. I won’t stop working to find that perfect shot because I LOVE IT! I’ve never been skydiving but I can imagine there is a great fear of jumping until you do it, and then you are in love with the experience and can’t get enough. If you aren’t freaked out a little bit, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

 

Learning

  1. Second Shooting:   If you want to get started in Wedding Photography, find a reputable photographer in your area and get to know them. Second shooting helps you create connections with other professionals and gives you the chance to improve your technique for both your craft and interacting with people. There is no better way to gain real world experience where you aren’t under pressure to deliver everything. This is invaluable, but remember that this is only a small part of being a wedding photographer.

I’ve second shot with many photographers, including Phlearn’s one and only, Aaron Nace. It’s nice to do this every once-in-a-while even if you are well established. You get the chance to see things from another photographer’s perspective. We’ve also let other photographers second and sometimes third shoot with us. Sarah and I have always worked as a team and know how much that benefits us. We anticipate each other’s actions and work together to make every part of the photographic experience as flawless as possible.

Having someone to shoot with not only gives you a backup, but a second perspective, different ideas, help with moving people and gear, and a lot of relief. Working alone can be more stressful if you are used to working with someone.

  1. Online: This is the best time ever to learn photography. There are more resources than ever to take your skills to the next level. If you’re reading this you already know about the best free photography and Photoshop site. Don’t get too caught up in forums; stick with people and businesses you know have a solid reputation to learn from.
  1. Workshops: If you are thinking about taking a workshop, make sure you will get hands on one-on-one learning. There are tons of workshops out there, so make sure you spend your hard earned money on something that will make a real world difference for you. In my experience, hands on advice and assistance are the best way to learn. Sarah and I do mentoring sessions with individuals and small groups. We keep it small to make sure you leave with knowledge that will work for your specific situation.


Pricing

This is by far the #1 problem most photographers have deciding on, although, it’s probably one of the simplest things to figure out. We admit that we did it all wrong until we read this amazing PDF from Stacy Reeves.

If you want to be a fulltime wedding photographer you need to know how much you need to make to pay all of your bills, buy groceries, run a business, shoot a wedding, and pay taxes, etc. If you want to make a profit, add those figures up and add on how much you want. Anything less is asking for financial failure for your business. If you’re doing weddings part-time (like we did when we started), you can afford to charge less but the math still needs to be done to make sure your time isn’t wasted.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF PRICING! Stacy explains it better than I ever could, read the PDF if you need help!

Taxes are the elephant in the room. Everyone knows its there but doesn’t want to talk about it. From the time you start offering services make sure you are staying on top of your taxes. Hire a CPA to help you with your taxes and give you advice on how you should plan for taxes. We pay out quarterly to stay on top of ours.

 

Contracts

Build a contract with a lawyer. Both you AND your clients must be protected incase of unforeseen events. We met with our lawyer to discuss our photography and how we run our business in order to build and refine a legally binding contract that protects all parties involved. Us + a Lawyer = the perfect contract for OUR business. Don’t just pull something from the Internet. If you do, only use it as a reference point and always have a lawyer finalize contract details for you. Our contract is only 2 pages long.

DO NOT shoot a wedding without a contract.

 

Gear

I want to start this section with a bit of background on how we arrived at our choices for gear. Everyone has a different approach to photography and your gear should reflect that.
Aaron and I first met during a flickr meet up. At the time, we were both shooting with Olympus. We spent endless hours staying up all night taking pictures of ANY idea that popped into our heads. Collaborating with Aaron taught Sarah and I that we could create very powerful imagery with very little equipment. We both started 365 projects that took us in very different directions, but taught us to do a lot with very little.

In Sarah and I’s case, people started noticing what we were doing and began to ask us to take pictures for them. It started with my father who remarried in February of 2007. He asked us to take his wedding pictures. This was our first wedding ever. We only had 1 camera at the time so Sarah borrowed her dad’s Canon Rebel while I used our Olympus E-500. It gave us the first glimpse at the wide range of skill needed to take great pictures in such a wide array of situations. We got married the same year and ended up befriending our DJ who hired us to shoot his wedding. Over the next year or so we started finding limitations with what our cameras could do.

If you are starting wedding photography with an entry-level camera you will eventually find out that you will outpace the camera. Do not upgrade until you see signs of this. Don’t think that a better camera will make your pictures better.

A better camera will make it easier for you, but you still have to apply your knowledge, creativity, and expertise to make great images. It is still ALL up to YOU!

Not long after our first run of weddings we noticed the shortcomings of consumer level equipment. Around the same time the Canon 5D markII and Nikon D700 were announced. We were shooting 4/3rds Olympus cameras and at the time their low light image quality and focusing was abysmal. Aaron had just migrated to the 5D markII and we had a choice to make too. Nikon or Canon? We ended up going with Nikon mainly because of the autofocus. Fast and accurate AF is invaluable with our style of wedding photography. Moving to a full frame professional grade camera helped us capture images that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to capture.

Always expect the unexpected with wedding photography. Things happen quickly and often without notice. You must always be on your feet ready and capable to capture moments that will never happen again.

It is imperative that you are comfortable and quick with your equipment.

We shoot all Nikon digital for our professional work. We often times mix in a little film for fun. Here is a list of what we currently use:

Cameras

Nikon D700 Bodies
Nikon F100 Body (film camera used for my own creative purposes)
Nikon D7000 Body (mainly a Photo Booth camera)
Hasselblad 500CM (medium format film camera. I don’t use it often at weddings)

Nikkor Lenses
16mm 2.8D Fisheye
50mm 1.4G
85mm 1.4G (Favorite Lens!)
105mm 2.8G Micro
14-24mm 2.8G
24-70mm 2.8G
70-200mm 2.8 VRII
18-105mm 3.5-5.6G (Photo Booth Lens)

Lights

Nikon SB-900 Speedlights

Nikon SB-28 Speedlights (used off camera only)

White Lightning X1600s
AlienBee 800
Alien Bee 800 Ringflash (Mainly used for our Photo Booth)

Other Gear
Pelican 0945 memory card case
Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod w/488RC2 Ball head
Manfrotto 535 MPRO Tripod w/498RC2 Ball head (Photo Booth Tripod – Large and extremely sturdy)
2 Manfrotto 681B Monopods (one for lights, the other for a camera)
Black Rapid R-Straps
Hoodman Loupe (Necessity for sunny day’s with off camera flash)
ThinkTank Lens Changer 2 (Sarah’s Bag)
ThinkTank Lens Changer 3 (Thad’s Bag)
ThinkTank Logistics Manager (Main equipment bag – Holds EVERYTHING!)
Drop It Modern Backdrops (used in the photo booth)

Sarah and I shoot VERY differently. Sarah is very detail oriented and great at working with people. I do all of the off camera lighting and environmental portraits. Here is a rundown of what each of us usually has on us for a typical wedding day:

Sarah: Thad:
ThinkTank Lens Changer 2 ThinkTank Lens Changer 3
Black Rapid strap Black Rapid strap
Nikon D700 Nikon D700
70-200 2.8G VRII 85 1.4G
50 1.4G 14-24 2.8G
24-70 2.8G SB-900 Speedlight

That is usually the most gear we’ll carry all day. If we need other lenses we will swap them if necessary. Sarah mostly uses the 70-200 only during the ceremony; otherwise it goes back in the bag.

 

Services We Use For Our Business

Online Proofing: Right now we use Pictage. Their system makes it easy to upload, organize, share, and sell your images. Although, we are seriously looking into switching over to the Musea Store.

Albums: We use Leather Craftsmen for our leather bound albums and Blurb for coffee table style albums.

Final Delivery Products: Every wedding client gets their images on a custom printed disc and flash drive. They arrive in a box with a thank you card, printing release, 5 4×6 prints, discount card (for our services in the future), a magnet, and 2 business cards. We use Thousand Pound Press to print all of the boxes, letterheads and CD cases with our custom designs. We print on CDs/DVDs using an Epson R3000. We order the 4×6 prints and magnets from MpixPro. They have the best and quickest service on the planet!

Online backup: Crash Plan. Their service is excellent. Backups work constantly in the background and once you set it up you never have to worry about it. Highly recommended and well worth the price to have that peace of mind!

Camera/Lens Rental: LensProToGo is top notch and will go out of their way to make sure you are completely satisfied. We have used several rental companies and LPTG has proven to be a perfect fit for us.

Getting started in wedding photography looks easier than it really is. We jumped many different hurdles to get to the point where we are today.

So in turn, we’ve compiled this list of tips to keep in mind when starting and running your own business.

10 Tips

  1. Care for every person you encounter. Whether they’re your clients, a vendor, a guest, or person on the street, always care for those around you. When you care for others they will do the same for you. Make sure your clients feel special. If you are able to show your clients how much they mean to you, they will return the favor by preaching your gospel to others. Be willing to go out of your way to make things easier or better for them. Always remember, that without them you wouldn’t have this job. A good 80% of the weddings we shoot are referrals from past clients.
  2. Hire a lawyer and CPA to workout all legal and financial issues. These 2 issues are major killers of businesses. Hiring a professional gets you started on the right foot and keeps you there.
  3. Set expectations and exceed them. Insure that your clients know exactly what to expect from you. Work with them to make sure they schedule the proper amount of time for formals and portraits. And, make sure you know what time of day you’ll have to shoot those portraits. Let them know when they can expect to get their pictures and always over-estimate. Wedding pictures are a highly anticipated product, if you have them ready sooner, that will be a perk for them.
  4. Care for other vendors. Often times they hire us individually but we almost always are working together to provide the bride and groom with the wedding they dreamed of. Be willing to help other vendors when possible. We always offer our pictures for other vendors to use in their portfolio with approval from the bride and groom. There have been countless times that vendors have refereed clients to us we wouldn’t have otherwise booked.
  5. Respond promptly to all forms of contact. You don’t want to ever leave a couple hanging without an answer or response. How would you feel if you contacted a company with a customer support question and they took forever to get back to you? If they are prompt and helpful, you will praise them. If they are not, you will scorn them. Same rules apply to photographers.
  6. Before you buy gear, rent it to make sure it is what you want. Photography is expensive and there are lots of great tools to choose from. Renting will give you the opportunity to try it out and make sure it fits your style of shooting. Not everything you think you need/want will fit.
  7. Don’t always try to save money on cheap gear because you’ll actually end up spending more in the long run. Save up if you need to, but get gear that will be able to withstand heavy use over time. Buying cheap gear will cost you in the long run because you end up buying the better equipment after the cheaper option broke.
  8. ALWAYS have backup gear. Never shoot a wedding without backups of cameras, lenses, memory cards, and anything else that is a part of your regular shooting. Weddings are unpredictable and something can happen to your gear in the blink of an eye. Be prepared.
  9. Practice, practice, practice. Being skilled as a photographer does not guarantee success but it does help you perfect your style, which is one of the first ways you appeal to potential clients. Personal projects are another great way to practice. Freeing yourself from the norm can expand your creativity and knowledge of your craft plus reenergize your love of life.
  10. Be yourself. Try not to copy other photographers too much. Take inspiration from wherever you get it, but always try to be original and do something that makes your work unique. There are millions of photographers; the only way to stand out is to make something true to your self and different from everyone else.


If you made it through all of that, we hope you found something in there that will help you. We’ve been shooting for a while now, but are still constantly learning how to do things. Our methods have never stopped evolving and will probably continue to do so. The more we learn the more things change and grow. The way we do it might not be the right way for you, but we hope reading this will make it easier to find out what does work for you. Don’t be afraid to keep learning because knowledge is your best tool for success.

19 Comments


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    Daniel

    I really need to say thanks for this article! Thanks to Thad and Sarah for sharing part of their knowledge and experience, and Big Thanks to the PHLEARN team for showing so good information about photography and editing.. Always accurate and usefull.
    Recent yesterday I shoot my first wedding, about my friend’s sister and i can assure that the tips readed here were plenty helpfull to me.
    Thanks again Phlean, Thad and Sarah!

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    Ben

    This was an amazing article to read. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge, Thad! Just starting out, and this is just what I needed to have a more realistic and business-minded approach to establishing myself. And you all at Phlearn are awesome!!! :)

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    Marion

    i been reading what you said about fear…panic attackts a week before- my poor boyfriend tells me everytime i am so good at what i am doing i am crazy to worry- but i want to be better than ever with every shooting. loved reading this as i thought i am the only one…the other people i know doing weddings do not panic at all…they always looked at me like i was not made for the job (in my time when i worked at the studio) so thanks for writing this!

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    arrowlili

    this is a great article, thanks so much thad and sarah! i’ve got my first wedding in two weeks… eek! seriously starting to get the jitters, nice to know that even the experienced shooters feel the same way :-)

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    Lauren

    Thank you so much for this! I’m shooting my very first wedding in about a month, so this is exactly what I needed.

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    Yo Mama

    Wow, Thad and Sarah, you really put a lot of effort into this post.  Very generous of you to share your vast knowledge and experience.  You guys are doing great and congrats on the new bump.