If you know anything about my work history, you’ll know that I’m not a wedding photographer. Up to 2016, I told myself and many others that I would HATE to shoot weddings - they’re stressful, the people are rude, the hours are long, and the post-event work is grueling.
After a year of working in wedding shoots in my unique position, I’d have to say only one of those is really true. (The editing time killed my schedule for the second half of the year!) I had a great opportunity to shoot with one of my favorite people, my friend Rachel. She’s been getting her start in portrait work for the past couple of years and booked us a large number of weddings for 2017. I wasn’t really a second shooter, more like a shooting partner, where we split everything up equally and delivered our own edited images. This is not a normal situation, so I won’t go too deep into the pros and cons of it specifically. But I do want to talk about what I got from it, because it was an intense learning experience.
It’s not about the idea, it’s about actually doing it.
There were so many shoots where we had tons of ideas and options, but when it came down to time and people and reality, quick decisions actually had to be made. I’ve always been the person to think about the possibilities, but rarely the person to actually have to make a decision. Once you have to decide, it’s extremely hard (for me) to see all those other possibilities float away into the ether.
But shooting weddings made me make constant, fast, irreversible decisions. If they were the wrong decisions, I couldn’t go back and change them (although Photoshop can help, ha) so it made it a lot easier for me to let go. In the end, I realized that by actually making decisions, I could better see the outcomes, learn from them, make better decisions later, and come up with new solutions I wouldn’t have thought of before.
Preparation is key.
I sort of knew this beforehand, but I truly came to embody this after the first few events of the year. I have photographed a few weddings before this year, and looking back at them, I can see now that I wasn’t prepared enough for them.
There are the obvious ones, like dress well, have extra batteries, SD cards, and a second shooter. But there are others that aren’t so obvious - like scouting locations, learning my camera inside and out, learning how to shoot in low light, learning how to see light throughout the day, learning how to pose individuals or groups, or how to get emotion out of people. That knowledge definitely developed in me a ton this year.
I found that watching informational videos while I edited photos helped immensely - get yourself to Youtube or Skillshare and absorb as much info as you can.
If you’re noncommittal, do something you can’t get out of.
In my normal work, I don’t have hard deadlines or lots of meetings - I really pushed myself in 2017 to try to change that. I purposely make that part of my job because I’m scared of disappointing people or confronting people about needing more time. But nothing says “you cannot get out of this” like photographing a wedding. So many people are relying on you, and even if you cancel a few months in advance, that’s already too late.
So I got over my fear of deadlines and said yes to many things I couldn’t cancel. (beyond just weddings, but that’s another blog post.) And I’m so glad that I did. Maybe because I did almost all of them with a friend, but I looked forward to each event - I kind of saw each one as a chance for me to get better, as cheesy as that sounds.
For your best work, get in the zone.
This was one of my favorite parts of shooting weddings, mostly because it went from being my least favorite part to the most fun part of each night. I always DREADED the ceremony and reception parts of a wedding: the ceremony is so high pressure because it only happens once - there are zero do-overs, and the reception is fast-paced in super low light, which makes my camera work to its highest capacity.
I almost always had a mini panic attack before the reception started, especially at my brother’s wedding this summer (which I also shot.) I was so scared I would mess up or not live up to their expectations. But I collected myself and slowly got into a groove. The more I shot, the more I could anticipate moments about to happen, the more in-tune I got with my camera, the more I realized that there’s SO much time in which I could get “the” shots I needed. (The photo of Rachel right above this was taken right after said panic attack at my brother's wedding, along with my other favorite shots of the night. This moment was a revelation for me, about how dumb my self doubt can be.)
The more I let go of my brain and just let my eye do the thinking, the less stressed I became and the better my work became. I’ve found this happens in all sorts of work (writing, drawing, etc.) but I really found that rhythm/groove in shooting weddings.
Let go of perfection, and get good at rising to the challenge.
I came into this year with little experience in shooting weddings or high-stress events, compared to seasoned wedding photographers. I mostly only did portrait work, or my normal food photo work - both of which gave me a lot of control over shoots. But when it came to those high-pressure shooting situations, where fast decisions had to be made, I feel like I became great at letting go of possibilities, my own reservations, and everything else that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
Instead, I thought of it like an America’s Next Top Model challenge, or a Chopped challenge, as silly as that is. What’s the best location, best time of day, best pose, best camera settings, etc? All of those decisions challenged me, and because I didn’t have the luxury of time or location or clothing, I just had to give what I could to make it the best it could be. By letting go of what COULD be, I just worked with what WAS. And the results often turned out better than if I had agonized over every bit of what showed on camera.
Give yourself time to breathe, but don’t stay there.
I mentioned before about a short panic attack before every reception. There was at least one moment like that at every event I shot at, I think because I care so much about being “perfect” but I didn’t have a lot of experience yet. (I still don’t!) Normally, that moment would turn into a week or more of depression and self doubt - but because I HAD to continue on, I picked myself up and continued on, even though I felt bad.
There were so many moments of “God, I’m so bad at what I do” and “this isn’t going to work” that slowly, after getting into the groove, turned into “I love this song!” or “wow, that moment was incredible” or after looking back at a perfectly captured shot, “I’m SO good at what I do.” That moment to breathe, between portraits and the reception, was crucial to me not crying on the dance floor (high school flashbacks, ha) but I’m so grateful for the experience of shooting these events because it taught me, very physically, that I have to stand up and keep going, especially when I’m feeling down on myself, because that bad moment does eventually end.
Time management runs on a small and large scale.
I’ve always been a very organized person, but this year tested me on so many levels on that. I’m used to working on a weekly time management schedule - where I do social media for Chickpea, get our issue work done, and do cleaning and relaxing on the weekends. But I threw a rather large wrench in that plan by doing so many events back-to-back.
I learned that for me, a wedding shoot takes about 5-6 days of editing to complete, and the event itself took a day and a half of my time beyond that. So for every wedding I shot, it took more than a solid week out of my schedule, simultaneously overworking myself and having no time to complete my regular work. If I ever did this full time (spoilers: I don’t think I would) I’d need to charge a lot more, hire someone on, quit my other work, and spread out my bookings more. It’s an exhausting process, but for sure worthwhile.
There’s still so much I don’t know.
There is so much more that goes into a wedding photographer’s job than the shooting and editing that I haven’t even explored this year. Getting clients, following up with clients, designing and delivering prints and/or albums, getting return business, meeting with booked clients, getting business & event insurance, hiring people on, and much more - these are all essential parts of a photography business that I don’t necessarily want to dip my toes into, no matter how much I like the actual shooting part. I know a few full time wedding photographers who also have kids and are doing house renovations and everything else - I applaud them, and I truly don't know how they do it.
Diving into something so daunting so quickly taught me most of all that there’s so much I still need to learn about myself and the world I live in. The amount of things I uncovered from just one year is incredible, in my opinion, and something I’d pass along to you is to try something new like this - put your whole effort in and see what you learn from it.
If you don't want to jump into something so big, start with a photo challenge with a friend - pick a location, both shoot for five minutes each, and see what you can do with the time restraints. Or have someone else pick out the props, location, outfit, etc. and you work with what you've got. Either way, challenge yourself in the coming year, and see what you can learn.