Photo Tips: 5 Steps to Getting Started in Wedding Photography

This post was originally published on IHeartFaces on May 25 2015 and was reposted to in January 2017

If you’re considering jumping into wedding photography the first steps can seem daunting. What gear do you need? How do you get experience? What should packages cost? What’s the best way to get started in this business anyway? Well, here we go.

First, I feel a certain duty to clarify the enormous responsibility that comes with being a wedding photographer. This is a HUGE day for your clients. Can you handle the pressure and stress that comes with being solely responsible for capturing someone’s once-in-a-lifetime event? This is a one shot deal, you cannot re-shoot or do-over. If clients are putting their trust (and money) in your service, you need to make it your goal to be as confident and prepared as humanly possible. Their trust and investment in you is an honor.

1. Get to know the industry before jumping in with both feet.

Find a mentor. Make friends with other photographers. Join a local photography group. Be an assistant. Second shoot. Read wedding photography forums. Read bride forums. Network with other wedding vendors. Take a class. Join your local Photography Association. Consider taking a wedding oriented photography workshop. Don’t be an island.

There are quite a few stories about wedding vendors in the industry who are less than welcoming so it can be pretty intimidating for newer photographers to reach out, and it’s true that you may get some cold shoulders – BUT there are also so many wonderful, talented, open, caring individuals who understand that we all do better when we help each other succeed, and we respect newcomers who want to work hard and improve themselves.

This sharing and learning is not only important at the beginning of your journey. The deeper you get in the industry the more you realize that peer relationships are so important. Wedding vendors have a high rate of burn out. Most last less than 5 years. It’s a stressful job, and no amount of passion will console you when you’re working to keep your business and life running while also trying to keep your head above a season’s worth of editing at 3am.  Sharing, venting, and creating together is what keeps the passion and joy for this work alive, particularly when you’re having a rough time and need support, but also when you’re just looking to be inspired or take your photography to the next level.

2. Get legit.

Once you’ve gotten your toes wet and decide to go all in, it’s important to have your legal ducks in a row right away. Doing business under the table is bad for the industry, but it’s also bad for you. Problems you would never expect can arise, everything from a bride who feels like she got less than you promised to a venue claiming that you caused damage to their property to a vengeful competition turning you in for not paying sales tax. Oh, and your peers will have more respect for you and be more likely to want to work with you if you are paying the same dues they are.

So what should you start looking into setting up?

  • Business License
  • Employer Identification Number
  • Sales Tax/Sellers Permit
  • Business Liability & Equipment Insurance
  • Airtight Contracts

I won’t go into the ins and outs of it all because the process is very individual depending on a number of factors unique to you and your business. Instead do some Googling, reach out to your local Small Business Association, and get info from folks who have much more experience. The LawTogThe Modern Tog, & The Photographer’s Toolkit all have resources for getting your business off the ground, just to name a few.

3. Plan your finances.

Coming up with packages & pricing feels like a difficult thing to do in the beginning. You don’t want to set your prices so low that you’re losing money, but unless you really hit the ground running you also probably can’t charge $3000 right out of the gate. While entry-level pricing may be acceptable at the beginning as you learn and gain experience, if you intend to run a successful business and not an expensive hobby you’ll need to have a long-term plan for your prices – and it’s better to get that figured out sooner rather than later even if you’re going start lower to begin with. Weddings are a LOT of work, and although $1000 seems like a lot for one day’s work, remember that most weddings actually take a additional time and expense on the back end, showing up on the day is the cheap part.

The best, and most boring, way to figure out how to price your packages is to do the math. How much money do you need to make annually? Whatever it is, divide that by the number of weddings you want to book. Then add up the cost of expenses(everything from gear to office supplies to taxes). That’s what your average sale should be.

For example, if I want to make $45,000/yr across 20 weddings, and my per wedding expense of doing business (the total annual business expenses divided by the number of weddings) is $500, then my average wedding package needs to be $2750.00.

Take the time to crunch the numbers and do the math, you’ll be far better off than if you try to pull a random number that “sounds good” out of thin air.

Also, make sure you’re planning for the slow season. Unless you’re somewhere that’s warm year round, November through April tends to be pretty slow for wedding photographers. A budget is key to making sure you don’t get stuck in a constant cycle of Feast or Famine.

4. Be a people person.

We’d all like to think that our photography skills are the most important part of being a photographer, and while being handy with a camera is definitely required for this job, you must also know how to work with emotional people in a high stress situation and keep it up all day long. Some weddings are more stressful for everyone than others, but even “relaxed” backyard weddings have their moments.

When I started doing weddings I did not expect to be consoling anxious brides, encouraging grooms, reassuring self conscious bridesmaids, wrangling semi-drunken groomsmen, or trying to become besties with wedding planners and DJ’s. The wedding photographer is the only person who comes into contact with EVERYONE involved in the wedding, and stays with them ALL DAY LONG. You have to enjoy interacting with people.

5. Own the right equipment (or rent it). 

There are a lot of ways to put together a wedding gear bag, depending on your style and needs, however in general the minimum gear requirements are as follows:

Main Camera Body – Most importantly this camera should be capable in low-light situations, for that reason most professional wedding photographers will choose an option with a full frame sensor such as the 5DMkIII or D800.

Back-Up Body – No. You can’t skip this. Rent if you have to, but you MUST have a back-up camera. This camera will most likely not get as much use as it’s primary purpose for many pros is simply to be there in the event of an emergency (main camera fails). Many photographers opt to keep their older camera for this purpose when they upgrade to a new model,  however it still needs to be capable of doing the job and an entry level model is not recommended.

Lenses – Whether you prefer zoom or prime lenses, you need to have your bases covered in terms of focal length. The 24-70 and 70-200 lenses are infamous among wedding photographers because of their versatility and range. Depending on your style you may prefer to go with a combination of primes, but make sure you have the basics: something wide, something long, something in the middle, and something for macros.

Light – Speedlites, and the knowledge to use them, are must-haves on wedding days unless all you’re doing is outdoor weddings (and even then there will be situations where you need artificial light, trust me). A speedlite with a fully articulating head is ideal, as are modifiers for it. You also should have a large reflector in your bag, particularly if you’re doing lots of natural light portraiture.

Batteries, Cards, Etc – Quality memory cards & extra batteries (both for your flashes and cameras!) are essential to getting the job done, and yet are often an afterthought. Purchasing the cheapest memory card may seem like a great money-saver, but remember that the cost of the card is usually associated with the read/write speed, which means if you’re shooting a series of the couple running back down the aisle together you want a card that can keep up with it. As for batteries, anything reliable will work, but make sure you test them regularly because they do eventually wear out.

External Hard Drives/Back-Ups – The way your stomach falls out between your knees when you suffer a hard drive crash and lose a client’s images is incredibly unpleasant. The panic that sets in when you try to figure out what is/isn’t backed up is almost suffocating. When you’ve put so much work into photographing someone’s wedding, don’t fall flat when it comes to keeping those memories safe. You need at least two on-site back-ups (usually hard drives), and one off-site back-up (hard drive stored at another location, cloud storage, off-site server, dropbox, ANYTHING). Although the cost of external drives can be daunting for someone just starting, the cost of not having adequate back-ups is significantly higher.