Be a Pro: Be Prepared

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You've signed a contract and the date is set, so how does a savvy wedding photographer proceed? Photographing a wedding involves more than simply showing up on the big day with a camera, lens, flash and a set of charged batteries. 

Ask any seasoned pro and they’ll tell you the job starts well before the date on the contract. While cameras and gear are important details, the consummate wedding photographer makes a point of visiting the chapel, wedding hall or catering hall to become familiar with all the locations involved.

Do you know what your clients’ expectations are? Hopefully this will have been covered before they sign on the dotted line, but it still isn’t too late. Find out as much as you can about the couple, because your job involves more than just photographing the events that take place on the day of their nuptials. Are they having a very traditional wedding, or modern and contemporary? Are they expecting black and white, color, or both types of photographs? The couple will likely have shots in mind that they would like to have. You could even ask them what aspects of your previous work brought them to seek you out, so you know what to emphasize in the style of your shoot for them.

This can all be done over time, and is likely preferable to doing it all in one sitting. Doing all of this will make your job, and many other things, a lot easier because emotions will be high but expectations must be clear so that when something goes wrong, everyone knows how it will be taken care of. That contract you signed with them should have been clear not only about the services you would provide, but also the remedies should these, and any other plans, go awry.

This type of preparation will make a big difference in not only how well the day goes, but also the couple’s reaction to the final product—because a wedding album that has been tailored to their needs and style will be far more cherished and appreciated than disconnected shots of people and places. You and the couple can both relax a little, being confident in the plans and precautions laid out, and if something goes wrong everyone will know the backup plan and can act accordingly, rather than trying to clearly originate and enact a new plan in the midst of an emergency.

If you will be photographing at more than one location, allow time for setting up and breaking down before and after you shoot at each location—making sure you will have enough back-up manpower to get from one location to the next, and ample time to repeat the set-up and breakdown process. If time is short, build the cost of a second crew or additional lighting and camera gear into your invoice and by all means, inform your client about these costs if you’ve already discussed a set fee.

Wedding facilities come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re lucky, the hall where you’ll be working will feature decor that’s aesthetically pleasing and conducive to capturing the day's events—and a well-run wedding hall should have these elements. By taking the time to scope out unfamiliar turf, you can assess the light, anticipate potential problems and create a game plan that addresses potential bumps in the road. If the wedding is taking place at a modern catering hall, chances are the layout is photographer friendly, meaning there are open spaces with visually pleasing surroundings. Many catering facilities also feature balconies or stairways that enable dramatic bird’s-eye views of the event. These areas are also good places to set up slaved, remotely triggered overhead fill flash. Remember that, for most of the day, you'll undoubtedly be working surrounded by commotion. Plan accordingly.

“...the consummate wedding photographer makes a
point of visiting the chapel, wedding hall or catering hall
to become familiar with all the locations involved”

When planning your day, keep in mind that there may or may not be restrictions on using flash in the chapel during the wedding ceremony. If this is the case you should plan on using fast prime lenses and higher ISO ratings during the ceremony, or, to pump up the ambient light levels you can also line the perimeters of the chapel with tungsten lamps, such as this Lowel Tota-Omni Two-Light Kit that includes a carrying case. At any rate, check with whoever is in charge of the facilities before spinning your wheels for naught. Always check with the director of the facilities regarding what the electrical system can handle. In most cases you’ll get a green light, but more importantly, whoever is in charge will respect the fact that you asked first, which can pave the way when you need to ask for weightier favors later. If you do use stand-mounted tungsten lighting, make sure your stands are insured against tipping and are well anchored with weights or sand bags.

Aside from aesthetically challenged backgrounds, one should also check out the ease of access to AC outlets, if they will be necessary. Are they readily accessible in areas in which you plan on shooting? Are there enough of them? If not, how many extension cords will you need to power your gear, and how long do they need to be? And if AC power isn’t an option, do you have a battery-powered lighting system strong enough to light the entire wedding party and the bride and groom’s families? Lastly, if the wedding is taking place in an older landmark facility, can the building’s electrical system even handle the demands of multiple power packs firing simultaneously over the course of several hours?

If you do find yourself shooting in an older or historic facility, inquire about the condition of the electrical system, as many historic buildings contain equally historic electrical systems. If the facility in question is used regularly for weddings and similar gatherings, the electrical system is most likely up to par and you’re good to go. If however, the facility in question is not subjected regularly to the power loads needed to fire multiple power packs simultaneously, be sure to ask before you risk blowing any fuses.

With that in mind, do you have insurance? Many catering facilities require you to have a policy that covers any number of instances of damage and liability that, without proper coverage, could be potentially devastating to you—financially and otherwise.

If you plan on shooting in a park, do you need permits? What about power? Are there AC outlets within a reasonable distance to where you plan on taking pictures or will you need battery-powered lights? Bring long, heavy-duty extension cords and multiple-outlet gang boxes into which you can plug your power packs. When checking out locations, try to make a point of walking the site at the same time of day you plan on shooting, in order to see what the sun will be lighting up as well as where shadows fall. Don't forget to note where the sun will be setting if the wedding reception is scheduled to take place at that time of day. The warm tones of the sunset make for dramatic wedding-portrait lighting.

Many city, state, and federal parks define a "professional photographer" as somebody who uses a tripod when taking pictures. Don’t use a tripod and you are most likely good to go, but by all means make a call or two to clarify the rules pertaining to permits. Generally, if you show up in a park with a wedding party and pro photo equipment, you will be considered a professional. Make sure you have the permit if your local park laws require one.

When the day of the shoot arrives, make sure you’ve prepared absolutely every piece of gear that you are bringing by cleaning, inspecting and charging it—even if it doesn’t necessarily need it. Seeing everything laid out all at once will allow you to double-check what could be missing, and replace anything that is not in working order.

You will need more of everything than you initially think, so double and triple backup every item you can, in order to be able to perform no matter what happens to your items. Have clean and pressed clothes ready the night before, as well as snacks and water should you not get a chance to eat throughout the day. Then, get to bed early and leave even earlier than you think is necessary the next morning.

One last detail to consider at this point has to do with manpower, i.e. how many assistants and second or third shooters you will need to capture the events of the day—all of which depend on how many locations are involved, the number of concurrent events that have to be captured, as well as the number of guests attending. If the entire event, which includes the pre-ceremony prepping such as hair, makeup, final gown fitting, and any rehearsals, is taking place at a single location, you’ll still need to plan your day as meticulously as you would for a wedding occurring simultaneously at different locales, because there will be just as much going on. So, think the logistics through and plan accordingly. This way, you will show up on the day of the wedding with the right gear and totally prepared for making certain the bride's day flows smoothly, as planned, ensuring a happy event.

What sorts of experiences have you had in preparing for, and photographing, weddings? What methods do you employ for making sure that you've got everything covered for the days' events? We'd be happy to read about some of your ideas and respond to your inquiries in the Comments section below.

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Pretty good feature.

Having now retired after 35 years as a pro wedding photographer, in the UK, all I can say is..

it took about 25 of those years for me to get it right..[honest]

My sincere advice is : don't undertake the job if you've the slightest doubt about your ability, under the most stressful circumstances...coz wot it aint is money for old rope ...Pro wedding 'togs really EARN their money..

You have been warned.

So your advice is "don't accept the experience unless you're already experienced"? If it took you 25 years to get good, then did you refund the brides for those 25 years? Why did you accept jobs during the first 25 years (unless of course you were arrogant enough to not have "the slightest doubt in your abilities")?
Sounds like one of those shooters who's too afraid to let anyone else into the field out of fear that he'll be discovered as a fraud (and hypocrite). Really, if you admit that after 25 years you were no good, how much could you possibly have improved since then? That's not a steep learning curve; that's a learning wall. Sell your gear and become a writer or something. (Wait...I've seen your writing. Sorry.)

You won!, your trolls are the best in wedding photography!!!