Over the years, many people have asked me how to start out as a wedding photographer. Wedding photography is creative, exciting, and rewarding, but it’s also hard work that requires dedicated preparation. I made so many mistakes when I was starting out! I hope I can help you learn from my experience. Here are the steps I recommend as you start a photography business.
1. Learn the Basics of Photography
Before you involve any other people in your photography career, you must know your camera. Devote time to photography classes, books, and websites. Join online forums. Read your camera manual, as many times as needed. Learn how and when to use a flash and other lighting. Learn photo editing software, such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Make sure you understand concepts like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, depth of field, focal length, underexposure, overexposure, and the rule of thirds.
Relying on your camera’s automatic functions is not sufficient, even if you are confident in your artistic eye. The truth is that lots of people have a good eye — that’s not enough to be a professional photographer.
It is your own responsibility to learn these basics. Do not expect other photographers to teach you what you need to know. It is especially important that you do not use paying clients or real weddings as an opportunity to practice your skills. Respect weddings and clients. Learn the basics before you involve anyone else.
How I did it
I took photography classes in high school, college, and graduate school. It took me a while into my studies before I really started to grasp the different concepts and trust my manual settings. In the years since, I have become a much better photographer through practice and self-teaching. I have continued my education through photography workshops, seminars, and conventions. I read photography magazines and books. I participate regularly in online photography forums (my favorite is the Digital Wedding Forum).
2. Purchase Equipment Gradually
After you have a good foundation in the basics of photography, you will understand the benefits of different types of equipment. You do not want to invest much money into your gear until you know how to choose between all the different features available. For example, you need to understand aperture before choosing a lens.
I also recommend that you develop your own shooting style before purchasing lenses and lighting. You might discover that you love to shoot wide angle, or perhaps telephoto is more your style. If you like shooting with natural light, you’ll want a camera body with high ISO capability and lenses with large apertures. If you prefer the look of off-camera lighting, you’ll need to purchase lighting gear. Don’t spend too much until you know your own style.
Later, when you are ready to shoot weddings, you will need to have at least this bare minimum of required equipment: two camera bodies, two lenses, two flashes, CF cards, batteries, a computer system, and photo editing software. You will probably find that you need a lot more than this minimal list. Backup gear is essential.
How I did it
I kept out of debt by purchasing items only when I had the money for them. I waited to buy anything until I was certain which items I’d need to achieve my photographic vision. I continue to purchase gear gradually, updating an item only when I need it. I don’t buy the best gear — I buy the gear that best suits my artistic goals and financial plans.
3. Start a Portfolio by Photographing Your Friends
Practice on people who won’t mind that you are still learning. Take free portraits of your family, friends, and pets. Shoot in a variety of settings, including bright sun, shade, tungsten lighting, and darkness. Become competent and consistent with lighting, posing, and exposure.
You need to practice often enough that the camera settings are almost intuitive. Later when you are at weddings, if you spend time pondering your settings, you will miss important moments that you should be photographing. You should be able to adjust your camera while paying attention to the people you are photographing. This is not an easy task, but you will be doing clients a great disservice if you pay more attention to your camera than to them. Now is your time to practice.
How I did it
I took free portraits of tons of family and friends. It was excellent practice. Eventually I got work requests from people who had seen my portraits and trusted me to do the same for them. When I starting considering collecting payment, I needed to formally establish a business.
4. Establish the Formalities of Your Business
I am by no means an expert on business development, so you will want professional guidance for these very important steps. Consult your lawyer, accountant, and local government offices for help. You may want to find a volunteer at your local SCORE to help you.
– Write a business plan (Strategy Avenue offers a helpful template.)
– Choose a business name
– Apply for an employer identification number (EIN), which is your federal tax ID (through the IRS)
– Register to collect sales tax (through your state)
– Work with an accountant to establish your business as a sole proprietor, LLC, or corporation
– Open business bank account and credit card
– Work with a lawyer to write a contract (Photographer’s Toolkit is a great starting point.)
– Obtain insurance for liability and equipment (Any major insurance company can help.)
– Create a logo, website, business cards, and other aspects of brand identity
– Join the Professional Photographers of America for professional and legal support (PPA)
– File all required taxes when appropriate
How I did it
In a state of confusion. I wish I had known about SCORE when I was starting out. There is little room for error, so get help where you need it.
5. Assist Other Photographers
Now is the time to learn how to apply your photography skills to the high-pressure, rapidly changing environment of a wedding. But first you need to get to know other photographers. Network with local photographers whose work you admire. Attend networking events. Get to know them on online forums. Invite them out to lunch.
I get frequent email from novice photographers who want to work with me at weddings. I can’t risk taking an inexperienced photographer to a wedding, especially someone I don’t know. My clients’ wedding day is not the place for me to teach a class, and I must know and trust anyone that I bring into a wedding.
If you want to work with another photographer, first get to know him or her well enough to reveal that you are trustworthy, hardworking, and passionate. Don’t ask that person to be your teacher, especially not during a wedding. Your job as an assistant will be to help that photographer, not to receive help. Show a genuine desire to help that photographer do his or her job. Observe the photographer’s methods as you assist, and you will learn tons of valuable information.
How I did it
With a couple exceptions, I skipped this step and suffered as a result. I would have been so much better in my early days if I had worked for someone else first.
6. Photograph a Few Free Weddings as Primary Photographer
When you are skilled in photography, established as a business, and comfortable with the flow of weddings, you could be ready to take on your own clients. I recommend that you photograph a few free weddings as a way to build your portfolio. Once you have a strong portfolio, you can enter the market at a higher price. On the other hand, if you don’t have a strong portfolio, you’ll need to charge very low rates to get any work. If you start off at a low rate, it’s more difficult to raise your prices over time and keep a word of mouth referral base.
How I did it
I photographed a few friends’ weddings free or at cost. Even though I wasn’t getting paid, I did not consider their weddings to be my practice ground. I worked hard and gave the respect that every wedding deserves. My portfolio grew, and so did my experience as a primary photographer.
7. Determine Your Pricing
Put together a pricing structure for your services and products. Part of this process happens when you create a business plan, but now is the time for the specifics. Consider the pricing of other photographers in your region, but don’t base your pricing entirely on that. Evaluate the costs of your products, equipment, marketing, insurance, taxes, education, rent, bills, transportation, and everything else. Decide how many hours you want to work, and how much money you want to make as profit. Then decide how much you need to charge.
How I did it
With spreadsheets, calculators, receipts, speculation, goals, and patience. I revise my pricing every six months, as my costs and services change.
8. Market to Paying Clients
There are tons of strategies for marketing, and you will need to devise a plan that will reach your target clients. Determine who your target market is and how to be accessible to them. You may need to read books and take classes to learn how to create a marketing plan.
How I did it
My first clients were word-of-mouth referrals by the friends and family I had photographed. My blog was a great way to find new clients in my early days, and it continues to be my strongest marketing tool. Networking has been important, too; I’ve made friends with other photographers in my area, who now like me enough to refer brides to me on dates that they are booked. I also network with other wedding vendors, such as venues, coordinators, florists, and DJs. I have done very little paid internet advertising throughout my career, and no print advertising. I’ve read several marketing books and websites to guide me along the way.
9. Continue Learning, Adapting, and Enjoying
This industry moves quickly, and every day is a new adventure. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.