When you set out as wedding photographer there is no shortage of information available to you to help you start up your new business, however I have learnt some tough and unexpected lessons along the way that were not covered in any book or blog. Outlined below are the 6 most surprising lessons I have learnt in my time as a professional. Some are counterintuitive, some plainly contradict other information you may have read elsewhere but all of them have proved invaluable to me.
1. Equipment Matters. A lot.
You will read in a lot of places that it is the photographer not the camera that counts. That is just not true. I am in no way saying that your skill as a photographer isn't the major factor in producing exceptional images but it is the professional quality gear that gives you the freedom and range to shine.
Pro Bodies - When it comes to weddings most features of the pro bodies are a little redundant, the chances are you won't need your 3D focus tracking or to blaze away at 8fps. Where they do excel is in their low light capabilities. To be able to push the camera up to an ISO of 3200, 5600 or beyond gives you the confidence and flexibility to deal with just about any light that weddings can throw at you. When you get the winter wedding in the murky church with a Vicar who won't let you use flash you will thank me.
Pro Glass - Until you have used the pro end glass you won't understand the huge leap forward in image quality from the standard kit lens. Fast, pin sharp, rapid focusing, creamy bokeh and a build quality you can bounce rocks off the pro level glass is leagues ahead of its "kit lens" counterpart, but then again for the price tag it better had be. I would recommend the 24-70 f2.8 as a must, followed by either a 85mm f1.4 or the 70-200 f2.8. The difference will be immediate and astonishing.
2. You Are A Business Person First, Photographer Second.
There is no shortage of gifted photographers, however the reason the majority don't make it professionally is that they fail to treat it as a business. It sounds callous but there is very little room as a professional photographer for artistic ego and, as Chuck Close put it, "inspiration is for amateurs". You can't turn up on someone's wedding day and complain that your eye isn't in. You have to turn up and be brilliant. Consistently. A lot of new starters also underestimate how much leg work is involved at the beginning of setting up as a professional photographer . In my first year I spent far more time marketing, replying to emails and phone calls, building websites and meeting potential clients than I ever did taking photos. Weeks could easily pass between picking up my camera. Likewise you have to be fastidious about paperwork, contracts and note taking as well as presenting a professional image at all times. There is also the small and unpleasant matter of tax. Make sure you track all income and expenditure accurately from the start as well as declaring yourself as in business to the relevant authorities, if not you could find yourself with a very large and unexpected bill a few years down the line.
3. To Have Fun, Communicate, and Engage is the Most Important Compositional Technique.
If photography is light then wedding photography is light and people. Every photo you take has an emotional, personal resonance with the bride and groom and you have to keep this in mind as you tell the story of the day. However, where some wedding photographers seem to let themselves down is in how they interact with the bride, groom and their guests. I am sure you have heard the story of the "nightmare" photographer who was arrogant, rude and pushy and who spoilt the wedding day (I know I certainly have, more than once which is rather worrying). To capture the best in people they have to be relaxed and comfortable in your presence so you need to keep a smile on your face and keep upbeat irrespective of how things are going or how stressful the day has been. The moment you become stressed it will immediately reflect in the body language of your subjects and the images will suffer.
4. Seek Unbiased, Harsh Feedback.
There are a lot of things that can hinder your improvement as a photographer but a lack of solid, constructive critical feedback will stop your progress stone dead. What makes things worse is that getting genuine knowledgeable feedback can be very tough. With all due respect your family and friends unless they have a background in photography they will be unable to provide you with the necessary input to push you forward. So, where to look online? I would avoid Flickr as it tends to descend into what I would politely call a "circle jerk" with people afraid to criticize as they don't want to be criticized themselves. To start with Reddit's r/photocritique has some excellent contributors (also check out the superb r/photography for general camera chat as well) but you can't beat joining a real world accredited organisation. As a UK based photographer I am a member of The Guild of Photographers who offer mentoring schemes by experience photographers which has proved invaluable to me. The final point is here is to swallow your pride when accepting the feedback. It can be tough to open your work out to criticism and quite easy to get defensive about negative comments but the trick is to take a step back personally and learn from any suggestions put forward.
5. Always Be On The Lookout For Inspiration.
A lot of photographers seem to miss this important step but there is nothing wrong at all in looking around at other photographers work as it can to be absolutely invaluable as a source of inspiration and style. Take a moment to really deconstruct the image, ask yourself what was the photographer trying to achieve? Technically, how was the shot set up? How could you recreate it? To collect all the interesting pages together I have set up several boards on Pinterest each with its own theme (portrait lighting, posing techniques, detail shots, etc) and I make sure I spend at least a few hours a week scouring Facebook, Twitter and other photographer's Blogs for ideas. Also, don't be afraid to message and interact with other photographers. On the whole they are very happy to discuss their work and techniques and will usually provide a few tips here and there. I know this may seem a little dishonest but as Steven Fry put it: "An original idea. That can't be too hard. The library must be full of them."
Also if you are looking for a great book "The Art of Photography" by Bruce Barnbaum is an excellent place to start.
6. Cool your guns, Tex! Don't Just Hose The Day.
I don't know if it is nerves or a lack of confidence but there is a real temptation to just 'spray 'n' pray' weddings when you first start out. Trust me when I say this is a habit you need to get out of as early as possible. I used to take anything from 1500 to 1900 RAW images per wedding which would take hours and hours to sort out and edit. Not only that, you end up hammering the actuation count on your camera as well as creating terabytes of data to backup. To really separate yourself from the pack look to take a maximum of 900 images on a full day's coverage. It will force you to stop and think about each image which will increase the overall quality of your work and cut out hours of work at the back end. It will feel a little strange at first but it is an absolute win/win for you.
So what tips would you recommend? Feel like I have missed anything? Then please leave me a comment below!
Photography by Adrian Spencer of Will Hey Wedding Photography, a professional wedding photographer based in the High Peak near Buxton and Stockport and covering Derbyshire, Cheshire, Manchester and Sheffield.