How to prepare yourself for shooting a wedding

wedding photo of a bride preparing for her wedding

One of the most popular articles on my old blog was a post I wrote on how I prepare for shooting a wedding. The piece was written several years ago and is no longer available, but it still gets mentioned in various forums which are popular with new photographers. With this year’s wedding season underway, I felt it was a good time to write a new version of the post, updated for today’s photographer, and based on my thirty years of experience.

The first thing to remember when photographing a wedding is that Murphy’s Law can take over at any given moment. Our genre of photography doesn’t afford us the opportunity to reshoot, and there are no second chances. To deal with any problems that may arise on the day, we have to be prepared for everything.

For myself and Sarah, the preparation process begins when we are first contacted by a potential client. Before we can make any decision about taking a booking we need to know the time of the ceremony and the location of the wedding. Yes, this sounds really obvious, but we still get a number of enquiries which don’t have a confirmed date or venue. We also know several photographers who, in their excitement to book a wedding, caused lots of problems for themselves because they didn’t check on where the wedding was taking place before booking the date.

If you are keen on working overseas, just check that you don’t need a visa or work permit before entering the country. A couple of years ago we were asked by a Movie Producer to shoot a wedding in San Francisco. It sounded amazing and we really wanted to go there, but it takes at least three months to apply and receive a work permit for America. Sadly, the bride (totally unaware of the situation) made her enquiry with us just six weeks before the wedding day and so we had to decline the wedding. Yeah, I know, there are lots of photographers who have shot weddings overseas without any paperwork and have gotten away with it, but I also know of photographers who have been put on a plane and returned home just after entering immigration. We simply won’t take the risk. It’s unprofessional. But that’s just us.

The preparation process continues when we chat with the client 2-3 weeks before the wedding day. This is when we get down to the nitty-gritty of timings, locations, photographs, and the logistics of getting around on the day. We triple check everything. If we can’t see the locations before the day, we research them thoroughly online. Tools such as Google Street View have become invaluable to us for getting an idea of locations, parking, and routes. All correspondence with the client is copied to our phones. Relevant phone numbers are added to our contacts list and routes are programmed into the CoPilot app for iPhone.

Before we start photographing on the wedding day, we like to travel the route between the locations to make sure that there aren’t any unforeseen problems. Unfortunately, we learned this the hard way many years ago in London when a burst water main shut down several streets on our route to the church from the bride’s home. At some traffic lights, I ended up jumping out of my car and into a taxi which had pulled alongside us. I got to the church in the nick of time but it was a wake-up call. The other lesson I learned that day was that Taxis are the best way of getting from A-B in major cities. We no longer drive in London.

wedding photo of a bride preparing for her wedding

Camera gear and the smart wedding photographer

I cannot stress this enough. It doesn’t matter what make of camera you use to photograph a wedding, but you must always have a backup. You are simply not acting professionally if you don’t. I’ve personally shot over 1500 weddings in my career and can count on one hand the number of equipment problems that I’ve had at a wedding, but I will never go to someone’s wedding without backup gear. No camera system is 100% reliable.

With both myself and Sarah photographing the wedding, we have some redundancy built into the coverage, but there are a lot of times when we aren’t shooting the same things. To ensure we don’t experience any problems, we both carry two camera bodies. These are identical and configured in exactly the same way. Each body holds a different lens. This is how we like to work. Some photographers may prefer to work with just one body and one lens. There isn’t any right or wrong way, but if a bride is walking down the aisle with her dad and your camera stops working, can you continue shooting with another body instantly? If not, then maybe relook at your strategy. If your camera only has one card slot, then you should be shooting with two cameras as a matter of course.

When it comes to SD cards, it is worth investing in high quality, high capacity cards. We have always used Sandisk. Cheaper cards can be quite fragile. We always use cards with more capacity than we need for one wedding so that they stay in the camera for the whole day. This lessens the chances of something happening to the card.

For us, two camera bodies with our two favourite lenses is a natural way of shooting, but we also carry a third lens with us which can cover our main lenses if we have a problem. Working this way adds variety into our work, is easy to manage and offers built-in redundancy without the unnecessary expense of duplicating lenses.

When buying lenses for the first time, a lot of people believe that a combination of lenses where each focal length is roughly doubled (24-50-100mm) is a good place to start, but if the 50mm goes down, then shooting a wedding with a 24mm and 100mm is going to require some experience. It’s often better to start with a classic 28-35-50mm combination and then swap out lenses as you get more experienced. If you like to shoot with a zoom lens and want to add a smaller prime as a backup and to give you some options in low light, then you can do a quick custom filter search in the thumbnail view of Lightroom’s Library module. This will show what your favourite focal length is within the zoom range. If your favourite focal length sits between 40-60mm then a standard 50mm would make a great second lens.

A few years ago we would religiously get our camera gear serviced at the start of each wedding season but with today’s pro-level systems this is probably not necessary unless you are a really heavy shooter. Every two years works for us. Most cameras allow you to make fine AF adjustments within the body, so the days of sending all of your lenses and bodies into a service centre to be recalibrated are, thankfully, a thing of the past. Ten minutes with a tripod and LensAlign takes care of most of our needs. Before every wedding, each set of gear camera goes through the same procedure. The clocks are set. The sensors are cleaned. The lens bayonet is cleaned as are the viewfinders. The straps are checked for wear and tear. Each lens is cleaned. Batteries are charged. Cards are formatted. The camera bags are cleaned out and checked for damage. Everything is packed and ready to go.

With events where we have our own car, we take another bag with two more camera bodies and lenses, batteries, battery charger, memory cards, and cleaning cloths. It’s probably not necessary but old habits die hard.

So what’s typically in our wedding day bags?

Two camera bodies
Three lenses
Three spare batteries
Memory cards
USB battery for iPhone
Cleaning cloth
Credit card
Business cards
Spare glasses
Energy bars
Water bottle
Motion sickness tablets
Paracetamol tablets
Victorinox Swiss Army Knife
Insurance documents

To conclude. We owe it to ourselves and our clients to be prepared for any eventuality at a wedding. If you are shooting a wedding for the first time, don’t get yourself out of your depth. Take some time to work out what you are going to do and how to do it and have a fallback position ready should you need it. Above all, don’t panic. If you have prepared yourself properly, you should be able to concentrate on getting great pictures.

If you have found this article useful, then please check out the upcoming masterclass that I’m presenting with my good friend, David Pullum. It will probably be the only workshop you will ever need. Details are here.