The best wedding photography tips for capturing the big day

9 can't-miss wedding photography tips for capturing the big day

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Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

Thinking about putting your camera chops toward wedding photography? A wedding day is one of the most stressful and demanding events to shoot, but as challenging as it can be, it is also incredibly rewarding.

Whether you’ve already shot a wedding (or three, or 33) and are looking to improve your work, or are debating dipping your toes in the water, we’re here to help you take your work to a whole new level with wedding photography tips for newbies and pros, alike.

Understand the business side of things

If you’re looking to do more than a one-time gig as a favor for a friend, one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a photographer is to go into wedding photography without a solid business plan. First and foremost, no matter how close you are to the bride and groom, have a contract ready to sign. One of the most simple solutions is to use a service like Agree.com, which is an online platform designed specifically to handle the contracts and release forms photographers use. You can use the basic boilerplates for simplicity or customize the various stipulations within the contract to fit your needs.

Having a signed contract ensures you and the couple are protected in the event something doesn’t go as planned. It doesn’t take much Googling to see numerous examples of photographers and couples clashing in court because of a miscommunication that wasn’t backed up in writing.

Payment is another thing to keep in mind. It’s easy enough if your fee is going to be paid via cash or check, but make sure to have clear guidelines in your contract about when final payment must received and what your cancellation policy is. If you’re going to be paid online or via credit/debit card, make sure you have the appropriate accounts set up through your payment provider. Keep in mind, you’ll also want to set aside some of your income when tax time comes around, as you’ll likely have to pay income tax plus self-employment tax, depending on the state you’re in.

wedding photography tips
Gannon Burgett
Gannon Burgett

Know every piece of your gear

There’s no such thing as knowing too much about your equipment. It isn’t so much about having the right equipment as it is knowing how to use what you have. The better you understand the features and limitations of your gear, the easier your shoot will be. Know which lenses you’ll need in which situations, how long your battery will last (and how many spares you’ll need), and how many photos you can fit on a memory card.

To get a quick rundown on the basics of photography, our comprehensive Photography 101 guide breaks down the basics of getting the best exposure. Once you understand the underlying fundamentals, get to the point where you can change your camera settings on the fly without moving your eye from the viewfinder. Learn how to shoot in challenging lighting (because wedding venues are full of them) and how to use a flash and actually like the results. Practice, practice, practice until it’s second nature.

Some cameras nowadays offer silent shooting modes, employing an electronic shutter instead of a mechanical one. If your camera has this, you may want to use it during the ceremony (keep in mind, a DSLR with an electronic shutter won’t be able to use its optical viewfinder in this mode — many DSLRs offer a quiet mode that still uses the mechanical shutter, but makes less noise, which might be a preferred option).

While on the topic of gear, make sure you have backups. There’s nothing worse than ruining someone’s special day because a camera went down and you didn’t have a backup. If needed, you can also rent a backup camera or lens.

Do your research (for locations and with the couple)

One of the best things you can do to improve your overall experience of shooting a wedding is to do your research, and do it well. From the moment the clients reach out to you, start taking notes on everything.

Take note of the couple’s personalities and be sure to write down any venues and details they mention. After you’ve met with them, use your notes to look up the venues and vendors to learn as much as you can about the environment you’ll be shooting in. Is it mainly indoors? Is there anywhere outside you can take cover if it rains? Where should you place your subject during the golden hour? Google is your friend, but if it’s possible, go so far as to visit the locations and scout out the details.

The more you are prepared, the easier it will be to overcome adversity when it strikes — because it always does when shooting weddings. (If you want a peek behind the scenes, take a look at how a wedding is shot from the photographer’s point of view.)

wedding photography tips
Gannon Burgett
Gannon Burgett

Create a shot list and know it by heart

No matter what your style of wedding photography is, the rule of thumb is that you will always have a set collection of shots that clients want: shots of the rings, a photo of the bride’s bouquet, a shot of the families, a shot with the respective wedding parties, and so on.

To ensure you don’t miss any shots, the best thing you can do is to create a shot list and memorize it. If you don’t know where to even begin, don’t worry. A quick Google search will yield you hundreds of lists created by other photographers that you can tweak to fit your needs/desires. One of the most comprehensive shot lists is one shared on Martha Stewart’s Wedding website.

If you don’t think you can remember them all, or want a backup just in case, it’s a good practice to go ahead and print off a copy of the list to take with you to the wedding. Keep it in your bag (or save it on your phone).

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Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

Shoot engagement photos first

Engagement photos aren’t exactly a necessity — but for new photographers, the experience (and images to add to your portfolio) is often well worth the time. (It’s also a great opportunity for couples to get photos for save-the-date cards and other pre-wedding uses.) If you’ve never shot a formal portrait of a couple, add engagement photos to the to-do list before shooting the wedding.

By working with the couple ahead of time, you’ll be more comfortable when it comes time for formals on the wedding day. Engagement photos allow you to practice your posing and lighting in advance. After shooting the engagements, you’ll also know more about the couple, their style, and how best to pose them or to get a genuine smile. In fact, that’s why some wedding photographers choose to include engagement photos in their packages by default.

Ask to be a second shooter

Shooting a wedding is a big undertaking, and if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of shooting one yourself, reach out to another photographer and ask if you can join them as a second shooter. Even if you do feel comfortable but you don’t have wedding-specific experience, this is a good idea. Many wedding photographers love to have another photographer, and many regularly pay for a second or an assistant.

Testing the waters as a second shooter is a great way to get an idea of how the day will play out when you’re the one calling the shots. Doing this a few times should ensure you’re more familiar with the overall flow of things. You will learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know.

Shoot a pretend wedding

A great alternative to being a second shooter is to create your own, fake wedding — called a stylized shoot. Whether it’s at a location of your choosing, or the actual venue of an upcoming wedding, get a pair of friends and ask if they wouldn’t mind modeling for the day in exchange for a meal or gift.

Pose the pair as you would a married couple and go around to locations similar to those you’d be shooting in. Not only will this help you better understand your equipment and how you can make the most of it during a wedding, it’ll also force you to get comfortable with the idea of directing the couple — a vital skill you’ll need at an actual wedding day.

Better yet, bring along a few props so you can replicate the ring and detail shots. If you go above and beyond during this “fake wedding,” you might even be able to use these photos in your portfolio. It’s a win-win. If you do use stylized shots in your portfolio, keep it ethical and label the shots as such — don’t lie and pretend they were from a real wedding.

wedding photography tips
Gannon Burgett
Gannon Burgett

Shoot in RAW

Wedding shoots don’t often require a fast turn-around time. In fact, it’s not abnormal for clients to wait four-to-six weeks for their final images to be delivered to them. Since time usually isn’t of the essence, it’s in your best interest to take your time with post-production and ensure the photographs look exactly as you want.

The best way to ensure you have the best files to work with in post is to shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG.

The advantage of shooting RAW is that the resulting files capture far more data than JPEGs and give you much more leniency when editing.

Not all weddings take place in ideal environments. The ability to change white balance and adjust exposure in post without losing detail is critical. This ins’t something you can do when shooting JPEGs. Sure, the RAW file size will be about four times larger than a JPEG, but storage is so cheap nowadays that it’s worth it to just buy another memory card.

Be confident, but not arrogant

Presentation is everything. From the moment you meet the clients for the first time, be it in person or via Skype, present yourself in a professional manner and be confident in your abilities. This might come more naturally for some than others, but besides your portfolio, your personality is what will separate you apart from other photographers.

Know what it is you offer, be unwavering in your pricing, and know that you’re worth what you’re charging. You’re being held responsible for capturing the most important day in a couple’s life — they want someone who doesn’t question their own abilities. This doesn’t mean fake it until you make it — be honest about your limitations, as well. If a couple asks for something you don’t have experience with, tell them it’s not your usual style, but that you’re willing to work with them to get it right (if you are).

That said, don’t come across as arrogant. No one likes a know-it-all or show-off. Be prepared and professional, but hold yourself short of bragging and putting down other photographers. Back up your confidence with genuine knowledge, experience, and a rich portfolio of creative work.

Bonus tip: Have fun, relax

Above all, have fun when shooting. Photographing weddings can be stressful, so soak up every ounce of fun you can. Laugh with the bridal party, make sure to sneak in a quick dinner during the reception (it’s a good idea to clarify this with the clients ahead of time), and don’t be afraid to be a part of the fun. In fact, some of your best shots will likely come from getting in the middle of it all.