Wedding Photography 101 by Coffs Harbour Wedding Photographer Antony Hands

How to photograph a wedding


So you are an amateur photographer who has been shooting for a while, and everyone in the family has seen you running around with your digital SLR for some time now, and have generally acknowledged that you are the family photographer. You took the pictures of Uncle Charlie’s 50th birthday, and he was pleased with the results, and your sister has asked you to take photos of her kids which turned out good.

Word gets around and your cousin decides that it would save her a lot of money if you would take the photos of her wedding. Maybe her husband-to-be spent a little too much on her engagement ring and is now looking to save some cash. She says that she has seen your shots and thinks that you would be a great photographer for her big day. You would like to do it, because after all, you just love taking photos, and you feel that while you haven’t shot a wedding before, it can’t be that different or hard. You are very tempted to take her up on her offer and shoot the wedding.

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t yet it probably will one day. Most keen amateur photographers come across this circumstance at some stage in their lives, and many will choose to be the wedding photographer. A lot of the time, this turns out OK and the bride and groom are happy with the results. Sometimes, however, the day doesn’t go so well, and the photographer is left with the knowledge that they have messed up one of the most important days of a couple’s life.

I am not saying that all amateur photographers shouldn’t accept the opportunity to photograph a wedding for friends. In fact, many amateurs are truly inspired and competent event photographers and will do an excellent job. What I am saying is that you, as the photographer, need to understand the implications of accepting the job, the skills required to do it competently and successfully, the equipment you will need, and the planning needed to make sure everything runs smoothly on the day.

This article is designed to assist amateur photographers successfully photograph their first wedding. I hope that you find it useful.

Lesson 1 - Before you accept - what to do and say.

So as detailed above you have been asked to photograph your first wedding. Before you accept there are a few things you should consider.

1. Consider if you are competent enough to confidently photograph the wedding

Lesson 2 will specifically talk about the techniques and basic photographic knowledge required to successfully shoot a wedding, but you also need to consider your experience in wedding photography, as well as general photography. For example you may be an excellent photographer in general, but with no wedding experience. If this is the case you are not likely to do a good job.

There are several ways to improve your skills in this respect. The best way, and the only real way to fully prepare yourself, is to assist a professional wedding photographer to shoot several weddings. Some professional photographers will be happy to accept the assistance of a keen amateur with an interest in wedding photography, and allow you to be an unpaid assistant. This is more common in larger cities where competition between photographers is not as fierce, but in smaller regional towns you may have trouble persuading a local photographer to assist you. The best way to do this is to simply explain the circumstances - that you are not trying to become a photographer, you just want to assist a friend with their wedding.

If you are lucky enough to persuade a photographer to hire you as an assistant you may not even take a photo for your first several weddings, but you will undoubtedly learn a great deal. This is how I started my photographic career. I learned how to manage the day, what photos to take, what techniques are required, how to deal with brides and guests and many other skills all by assisting a seasoned wedding pro.

If this is impossible the second way to improve your skill is to read text books on wedding photography. There are many different titles that all provide great advice, I purchased a couple and read them cover to cover before I ever picked up a camera at a wedding. I still regularly purchase books where I see new techniques that interest me, or new poses and styles that I want to experiment with. Simply do a search on Amazon under "wedding photography" to find dozens of titles, all of which are likely to help you in some way. Scour these books not just for hints, but for suitable poses etc. You want to have practiced these poses well before the wedding to make sure you have them down pat.

2. Suggest that the couple still select a professional photographer

You should explain to the couple that while you are a good photographer, wedding photography is a very specialised skill and that they would be well served to seriously consider hiring a professional before appointing you. Non-photographers often do not understand the difficulties involved, and they may simply think that by hiring you they get the same results but for no cost. You need to disabuse them of this notion. If they want you to have an involvement for a reason, suggest using a professional who will let you assist him. This will enable you to be involved, but the photographer still has the responsibility of delivering the end result.

Another consideration is that by asking you to photograph the wedding they are effectively asking you to work all day for them - this is not like asking someone to make a reading at the wedding or to play the guitar as the bride enters the church. You will be working hard for 6 - 8 hours, and you will not be able to just relax and enjoy the day as other guests will. While this might be fine if it is a cousin or acquaintance getting married, the closer your relationship to the couple the more important that you are free to interact with family and friends during the events. Remember that if you are photographing the wedding you can't afford to get too involved with the day as a spectator - you need to be looking every moment for that next photograph. In these circumstances the couple will likely get the best photos by you being free to enjoy the event, while another person does the photography. After all, you can always give your best photos to the couple later - without the pressure of being the sole recorder of their day.

While you may be able to do a great job, if you do not the consequences could be dire, and at best they would have the potential to damage your relationship with the couple and spoil their record of their big day. If the couple is not severely financially constrained, or alternatively just doesn't care about the photography you should press strongly for them to involve a professional.

3. Make the couple aware of your experience level

As detailed above, the couple may think that you, as an experienced photographer, will be able to deliver a professional level of coverage for their wedding. While this may be the case, more than likely if you are inexperienced as a wedding photographer you will not achieve a result as good as an experienced wedding pro. This is just the nature of any task, as you perform it more often you get better at it. When I look back at my first 10 or 15 weddings I see issues with my coverage of the day. This was after assisting at many weddings, and loads of practice. It takes a lot of time to become a good wedding photographer.

If they do choose you to shoot the wedding even after you have recommended that they get a professional, you must make them aware that the quality of the final shots may not be what they might expect from a seasoned wedding photographer.

4. Consider preparing a wedding agreement

Even though you are not charging for your services you should at least consider having a wedding agreement to cover you in the event that something goes wrong. Professional photographers generally use a legal agreement to protect their interests, but that isn't appropriate for a friend. Something like this may be suitable, particularly if the person whose wedding you are photographing is not close family. Please note, I take no liability that this may not help in your jurisdiction.


Dear [ names ]

Wedding date [ insert date ]

I am looking forward to taking photos of your wedding day, it's going to be a great day!

I confirm that the wedding takes place on [ insert ] at [ insert ] and I will be at the [brides] house at [ ] to take pictures prior to
the wedding. I’ll also take pictures at [ insert other details ]

As you know I am taking these photos at no cost and as a personal favour to you. We have discussed how you want your photos to look like and while I will take all care and responsibility in providing these photos to you in accordance with both of your expectations, I accept no liability that may prevent the supply of these photos to you or the outcome of the images in accordance with your expectations.

As is standard practice with all photographers, all rights and copyright to the images taken will remain with me (for example I might
use a fantastic shot for advertising, marketing or display purposes). However, you have an unlimited non-commercial licence for the use, reproduction and distribution of the images (in other words you can really do anything you want to with your photos).

While hoping to avoid any unnecessary legalities it is really important to me that you understand the limit of my liability and other terms contained in this letter. Therefore, could you please confirm your acceptance of the terms of this letter by acknowledging the duplicate copy and returning back to me.

See you on the [insert].

Yours sincerely etc."

It is important at least to give them something that provides you with a restriction on your liability, particularly if you accept any payment for the task.

5. Plan for the worst case scenario

You also need to plan against the contingencies most likely to be risks. For example, if you are severely ill on the wedding day and can't shoot the wedding do you have a backup? Do you have a second camera to make sure that problems with one camera don't stop you in your tracks? What about if you drop and break your lens, do you have an alternative to enable you to keep shooting? Do you have enough memory to shoot the whole thing in RAW? (more on this in a later lesson). This is all part of planning for success, and will be covered in both lessons 3 and 4.

6. Before you accept, contemplate this

I know you want to be the photographer on the day - after all, you are probably passionate about your photography and feel that you could do a great job. Well, let me assure you that when all is said and done, you are not going to be as good at this as an experienced wedding photographer. You need to think twice about how your relationship with the couple may be affected if (God forbid) you screw up and do a poor job.

It is a lot easier to say no now, and help them choose a professional photographer (possibly one that lets you assist), than it is to try to recover from a situation where you cost them the record of their most important day. Think twice before accepting, and if you do, acknowledge to yourself that you have an obligation to get them the best results you can, and prepare accordingly.

About the author

Antony Hands is an experienced professional wedding photographer based in Coffs Harbour, NSW. He is the principal of Chasing Summer Photography, a Coffs Harbour wedding photography, studio which services the NSW mid-North coast and regional areas including Tamworth, Armidale, Port Macquarie, Nambucca Heads, Grafton and the Hunter Valley. Chasing Summer specialises in wedding photography and quirky and fun stop-motion wedding films.

>> Lesson 2 - Basic photographic knowledge required