Preparing to shoot your first wedding

The wedding day itself is nothing short of crazy, events proceed at such a pace that you won't have enough time to solve all of your problems on the fly which makes preparation very important, here are a few tips that will help you get by. 

1. Listen to the Experts

There are some amazing wedding photographers out there and even more amazingly some not only share their experience but they share it for free.  The best free resource I've come across so far is the For Wedding Photographers podcast by New York based Louis Torres, not only is he a great photographer but his tips and enthusiasm work well in the typically 5-10 minute episodes.  Before doing my first wedding I downloaded the entire back catalogue of episodes and listened to the lot whilst driving or running.  Another great free resource for photography in general is the Fro Knows Photo podcast by Jared Polin, one specific episode of which it's dedicated to wedding photography and provides perspectives on many of the important issues.

If you're willing to part with a bit of money I can recommend the Scott Kelby training subscription, in a short while you'll be able to watch not only the wedding related videos but also some of the others related to portraiture and fashion which will help with lighting and posing. 

Additionally depending on where you live you may find that there are local seminars you can attend, you should be careful to make sure that the speakers are decent as some of these events can cost £100/$150 per day.  I've attended a few seminars at Calumet in London and they've all been good, the wedding workshop with Jayce Clark was especially good and involved both indoor and outdoor shoots with a professional model. 

One last tip is too look at photos taken by professional wedding photographers, this could be whole albums via family members or simply by browsing through photographers' websites and reviewing the sample shots.  I tend to save a copy of photos I like to an 'inspiration' folder on my PC and by using something like DropBox I can also see them on my smartphone. 

2. Talk to the Couple

You may already know the couple well but in order to successfully shoot their wedding you really need to understand their plan for the day, timings, personnel involved (bridesmaids, ushers, etc.) and details such as guest numbers, themes, special elements (e.g. releasing doves, arriving in horse & carriage).  There may also be special considerations regarding the venue and restrictions imposed by registrar or religious official that you should know about.  

You should also bear in mind that the couple's family may also have an important perspective on the day's events, especially the bride's mother,  so it is worth making sure that their needs are being met as well.  If you have the time I would recommend asking to attend the rehearsal since all of the important parties will be present and you will have a chance not only to speak with them but also the officials who will be conducting the ceremony. 

Whatever happens you should do your best to come away with a good understanding of the couple's expectations and enough information to cover off the next step...

3. Make a Shot List

Since both are vital for a successful day I like to combine the running order and a shot list to make a complete 'plan of attack', sectioned off into the major timed events.  These key moments will vary depending on the wedding and the couple but might look something like this:

  • 10:30 Bride's house for getting ready shots. 
  • 11:30 Groom arrives at church. 
  • 11:55 Bride arrives at church. 
  • 12:00 Ceremony begins. 
  • 12:45 Bride and groom walk out. 
  • 13:00 Opening of reception venue. 
  • 13:15 Bride and groom portraits
  • 13:30 Formal group shots. 
  • 13:45 Sit-down for wedding breakfast. 
  • 14:00 Speeches commence. 
  • 14:30 Food served. 
  • 16:30 Tables cleared, guests outside. 
  • 17:30 Cutting of the cake. 
  • 18:00 Evening reception begins. 
  • 19:00 Couple's first dance. 
  • 22:00 Reception ends. 

Most of these key moments will have a list of required/desired photos to go with them that you will have agreed in advance, you can see examples in my Sample Shot List.  Despite having a meticulously composed game plan you should be prepared for late running, early running, skipped steps and added steps so whilst the shot list should be adhered to you will need to be flexible but do check in advance with the couple to see if there are any "must have, or your head will end up on a platter" shots.  As an aside it's always worth checking in with the parents on both sides if there's any specific shots they'd like you to get - you may not be able to offer any promises but they'll appreciate you asking and even more so if you manage to fit them in.  

4. Check Out the Venue(s)

If at all practical you should aim to visit the the locations for the wedding and the reception ahead of time, preferably at the same time of day as the actual shoot so that the lighting conditions are similar.  I try to go at least once in advance and then again on the day before but if the couple have requested shots of the venue(s) decorated you may need to coordinate times and access with them. 

The greatest benefit you can get out of this is to assess the lighting conditions and get an idea of what settings you'll use on the day, if you can take someone else along with you that's even better since if you're considering using flash you'll need a subject to test with.  A valuable secondary benefit is the chance to scout locations for the formal bride & groom portraits and group shots, without the time pressures a wedding day brings you will have plenty of time to consider backgrounds, busy roads, parked cars, angle of the sun, etc.

5. Consider an Assistant / Second Shooter

I've shot weddings both with and without a second shooter and I'd say that they're invaluable, that's not to say that you can't manage on your own but any chance to lighten the load on you is good even if all you can get is a non-shooting assistant. 

The most obvious benefit is the ability to be in two places at once, whilst you are shooting the bride getting ready your second shooter can be at the venue getting the decoration and cake shots, whilst you are shooting the bride waking into the church your second can be getting the groom's first glimpse of the bride, etc.  Beyond omnipresence a second shooter will provide additional angles, candids whilst you're getting formals and also be able to assist with quick lens changes and corralling guests. 

It is important however to make sure that the assistant / second shooter is someone you can trust and have worked with before even if just on test shoots or events.  You need to know not only that they are as reliable as you are but also that they treat the task and the couple with as much respect as you do, if their behaviour and demeanour is not first class it will reflect not just on them but on you and it's your reputation on the line.  

6. Check Your Equipment

Whilst it may be fair to say that it's the photographer that makes the photo not the camera that's not a hypothesis you should be willing to test on the day of someone's wedding - you need to make sure that your equipment is 100% ready and working. Before getting into the pre-wedding checklist make sure you've read my "what you need to shoot a wedding" list in the introduction, if you're happy with that here's my run down of how being cautions can save you unnecessary stress and hassle on the day...

  • Format your memory cards - on the day everything moves a lot faster than you think and it would be easy to make small mistakes, include formatting the wrong card.  The best way to prevent what could be a disaster is to format all of your cards the night before meaning that you absolutely will never see the format menu on the day.  
  • Get the strap(s) ready - I rarely shoot with two bodies so usually when I need my two-body strap I find it in a tangled state so it's always worth strapping up the night before to make sure you've got everything adjusted and setup correctly.  
  • Charge your batteries - whilst it may be a good idea on the day to have somewhere to charge batteries you can't rely on it so you need to make sure that everything you've got is fully charged and that what you have will more than adequately last through the day.  

7. Final Preparations

On the day you won't just be relying on camera equipment, you will need to consider transport.  The last thing you'll want to happen at a critical time is to get lost or run out of fuel so make sure that you fuel up your car the night before, print off maps/directions and pre-program locations into your sat-nav.

Besides a working camera the most important piece of equipment on the day will be you and it's worth doing everything you can to make sure you're in top shape.  Some of these things might seem fairly straight forward but skipping any of them could have difficult consequences, the main things to watch out for are: 

  • Make sure you are relaxed - I actually take the entire previous day off of my full time work to handle preparation and do any last-minute location scouting (can be helpful as you're more likely to have closer lighting conditions. 
  • Get a good night's sleep - avoid staying out late or over-eating/drinking the night before as you'll need all of your wits about you on the day.  
  • Get a good breakfast - events on the day may mean that stopping for food is difficult and low blood sugar means a drop in concentration which is something you can't afford.
  • Take small snacks - you may have agreed with the couple that you will be fed either with or at the same time as the guests however if the schedule changes this may not prove possible.  Try not to take anything noisy to eat/open, flapjacks are ideal as they are small but high in energy. 
  • Take a bottle of water - whilst you should keep fluid intake to a minimum during the day to avoid the need for toilet breaks dehydration is equally if not more dangerous, especially on a hot day.  Fizzy drinks are a bad idea since they make noise on opening and could explode if jolted in your bag.  

I hope that helps, if you have any questions feel free to get in touch and also check out my post on wedding photography gear.