My husband and I are wedding photographers. We’ve been in the “pretty picture taking” business for 20 years, so, obviously, we really like doing it.
Our couples will often send us friend requests after their wedding. Their friendship is an awesome by-product of being by their side during an incredibly emotional day, and doing mom things like reminding them to pee before they put their wedding dresses on.
One of those clients-turned-Facebook-friends is Edith. She was the kind of bride that photographers dream about: sweet, laid back, and always cheerful even when things got chaotic.
Last week, she shared one of the photos we took of her and her husband as a memory on Facebook. But she didn’t share it as part of a “oh this was a fun party” memory. Instead, it was in remembrance.
Her husband had passed. Leukemia.
The power of a picture
At our weddings over the years, we’ve taken the last professional photos of moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, and even — as pictured at the top — dogs.
I will never forget the first time I got “the call” from a former bride of ours. We had only been in business for about five years at that point, and I was still in the Happily Oblivious phase of wedding photography. Her call was an important turning point for me.
She had called to say that her father had passed, that the photo we had taken of him at her wedding was going to be used at his funeral, and how grateful she was to have that memory to hold on to.
That was the moment I realized the power of a picture.
“Of all the zillions of pictures we had, the one that we chose for the world to remember in his obit was yours. It is absolutely gorgeous and I cannot thank you enough for imparting a small part of yourself to take it. Nobody does it as well as you two do.”
Fifteen years and many similar messages later, it has become an element of our job which is always quietly in the back of our minds.
We feel it when we’re preparing before every wedding. When shooting every father/daughter dance. When editing every family photo in post production. It continuously shapes how we do what we do.
And that’s why we get all eye-twitchy when we hear new photographers talking about shooting a wedding with limited to no wedding photography experience.
Understanding the weight
A wedding day involves a million moving pieces — schedules that go horribly awry, family members that wander off during formals, photography gear that can fail, and inclement weather that can turn bad without warning.
And you have one chance to “get it right.”
Friends and family often travel from far away to attend these weddings. Sometimes a wedding is the first time in a long time that the family members have all been together in one place. And it’s often the last.
There is no do-over.
When we decided to become photography educators, we were amazed to discover the sheer number of photographers starting out that were booking weddings when they had (1) very little photography education, and (2) no on-the-job training whatsoever.
Usually it was justified with something like, “You gotta start somewhere.” Followed very closely with “It’s a friends wedding and they’re not really paying much and they know I’m just practicing on them.”
You guys. A wedding isn’t where you go to practice.
The ethical responsibility for photographers
To be a makeup artist you need a cosmetology license. To be a realtor you need a real estate license. There is no license to become a wedding photographer.
It becomes the individual responsibility of each photographer to fully understand their craft before taking on the role of photographing a wedding.
By the time you’re ready to take on your first wedding as the lead photographer, you should have already done the following:
- Have professional camera equipment and backup gear
- Understand that gear inside and out
- Practiced your posing on as many friends as possible
- Know how make artificial lighting look good
- Second shot at weddings so that you have real on-the-job experience
- Have a business license and liability insurance
- Have a contract and know if your state requires you to charge sales tax
If you haven’t done every item on the list above, I don’t care if it’s “just” a friend’s wedding — you’re not prepared.
You gotta start somewhere
If you’re thinking that the list above is a lot, you’re not wrong. Allow me to disavow you of any notions you may have that starting up a wedding photography business is easy. It’s just like any other business and comes with all the startup costs a new business entails.
But here are two little happy pieces of information to end this on a positive note:
- Getting backup equipment on the cheap. Yeah, photography equipment is expensive. And if you’ve only saved up enough to afford one camera body, finding out that you need a backup body to cover your butt can be a blow. But there are businesses like The Lens Depot that allows you rent equipment for some honestly awesome prices. Example: you can rent a Canon 5D Mark II camera body for 3 days for $68 bucks. That’s… not bad. At all.
- Established photographers are often open to collaborate. On-the-job training is literally the greatest thing ever, and there’s no harm in reaching out to a photographer you admire and finding out what their requirements are for shadows, assistants, or second shooters. And if they turn you down? Don’t give up. The photography community is often a tight one — you just need to find your tribe. (Just don’t expect to use the photos you take of their clients in your portfolio, as most photographers have policies against that.)
There are a million resources out there. But the first step is to understand the breadth and depth of your ethical responsibility. And now that you know that someone’s entire world rests in the little black polycarbonate compound you hold in your hand? It’s time to get to work.
* Author’s Note: Sharing the images of clients who have passed feels “exploit-ey”, so all of the photos of this article involve lovely humans that are happy and very much alive.