If you've been a hobbyist photographer long enough, or you're a professional photographer already, sooner or later, they will come for you. You think they won't, but they will.
Who are "they"? People you know who have a good reason to use you as the photographer for their big day. I am going to state something right here at the start and as clearly as possible: you should avoid shooting friends and family weddings at all costs. Unless you actively want to start photographing weddings (and even then I'd counsel against starting with friends and family), you need to shoot it down swiftly and cleanly.
So, why am I writing this article? Well, firstly, it's surprisingly easy to get cornered. I remember veteran photographers telling me when I first started — and every forum thread titled "I've been asked to photograph X's wedding, what do I do?" — to avoid shooting weddings like the plague. Even if you want to be a wedding photographer, you'd be better off acting as a second shooter to begin. Nevertheless, I got cornered eventually. I thought I could bob and weave the approaches, but one landed eventually. For me, it was a family friend who was getting married, and it was to be a small affair. They weren't going to have a photographer at all, but asked if I would shoot it and they would pay me. Despite my protests, it was made pretty clear that it was to be me or no one, so I couldn't possibly let them down. Terrified, I accepted, and I had previously been convinced I never would accept any weddings.
In these COVID years, getting cornered is significantly easier. With heavily limited attendees, having one of your friends or family photograph your wedding is a fantastic solution, though in most countries, you can still have people working your wedding without them counting towards the numbers gathered for the day. Whatever the case, the point is this: it's easier than ever to get roped into photographing your first wedding. As much as I and others may insist you avoid it, it can still happen, and if it does, I want to offer you some advice.
1. Do an Engagement Shoot
I've just told you not to get cornered into photographing a wedding, you manage to anyway, and now, I'm telling you to double-down and do a second shoot? Yes, I am. For every wedding I've ever shot, I insist on an engagement shoot where possible. Whether you charge for this, I care not; its value is in other areas. Firstly, it's a brilliant way to get the couple comfortable with you photographing them. They can learn what to expect from you, you can experiment with poses, you can bond if you haven't already, and you can get some shots of them before the day has even begun.
In my experience, even with friends and family, one or both of the couple will not enjoy having their photograph taken, which is even more the case when it's relentlessly for hours on end. Typically, that has been the groom for me. The engagement shoot has always been a way to "unlocking" that person and putting them at ease. You simply do not have time to build rapport on the wedding day, so an engagement shoot can be of high value.
2. Visit the Venue Before the Big Day
This is crucial, trust me on that. There are a few levels to why you should do this. As someone who has never photographed a wedding before, you are likely going to feel overwhelmed on the day, so building familiarity in every area you can is important. Learn the layout of the venue, where the toilets are, where the key parts of the day will be held, and so on. Then, I would highly recommend taking photographs of different places you think will work for shots of the bride and groom. Make sure you have a rough plan for all weather too. Time can be your biggest enemy on the day, with photographers often falling by the wayside with regards to importance, particularly an inexperienced one. Have a game plan.
3. Take More Batteries and Memory Cards Than You Think You Need
This tip is self-explanatory, but you must take as many batteries and memory cards as possible. In terms of batteries, I mean both camera batteries and whatever you use in flashguns, triggers, and anything else you take that requires them. At my first wedding, I had two camera batteries and a spare set of AA batteries for my flash, and my entire setup was running on fumes by the first dance. It's a panic you just don't need on an already stressful day.
4. Do Not Drink Alcohol
This seems like an obvious and unnecessary point, but it isn't in the case of friends and family weddings. You will often know a lot of people there, and they will (hopefully) like you. If you combine that with the fun they're having, in all probability, they will try to get you involved in the festivities. Politely decline every time and remind them you are working. At the third or fourth wedding I shot (another family wedding I was cornered into after the success of the first, and another "it's you or no one" scenario) the groom was so grateful and pleased that I was their photographer, he spent all afternoon trying to drown me in tequila. I resisted until I had finished for the day and backed up the images, but it wasn't easy. Just remember, simple mistakes can be difficult to recover from at weddings.
5. Don't Take Too Many Lenses
There can be a real temptation to take every lens you own, imagining scenarios in which each will be crucial. I would strongly advise against this. Photographing a wedding is more physical than you might realize, and hauling around 15 kg of camera equipment will take a quick and painful toll. My go-to combination is to have two bodies, one on each shoulder (though this isn't necessary if you only have one camera), one body with a 24-70mm f/2.8, and the other with a 70-200mm f/2.8. They are the golden duo for weddings, but then I also pepper in my beloved 135mm f/2. You might want to take a wider lens or perhaps a different prime, but you really do not need more than two or three lenses, four at a push.
If that makes you feel desperately uneasy, you can always take more and leave them in the car or ask the venue for a secure space to store them. I have done this on a few occasions where I had some ideas for shots of the venue after dark.
6. Have the Bride and Groom Write a List of Shots They Want
You may notice a trend in this list and that is they are all, more or less, trying to take the pressure off you on the day. Your first wedding is tremendously stressful, and the only remedy is preparation. One area I would avoid trying to freestyle on the day is the sort of shots the couple wants. Ask for a list of all group shots as well as the names of key players. Get the names of people who may know most of the guests, like the best man, for instance, and then make them your go-to person for arranging the groups for shots. Trying to organize people at a wedding can swiftly feel like herding cats.
I would then recommend asking the bride or groom to put together a moodboard of bride and groom images they like. Save this board to your phone and use it as a reminder and for inspiration on the day should you find yourself stuck.
7. Take Food and Water
There were a few things I was not prepared for with my first wedding, and one of them was just how long and intense the day can be. My most stressful wedding to date had some famous and important guests, so I had to do some extra bits I wouldn't usually need to, as well as covering the whole day. I left my house at 6 am on Friday morning, and I got home at 3 am Saturday morning (where I immediately began backing up images to the cloud). While you may get a meal if you're lucky, it just will not keep you going.
I make a point of taking bottles of water, energy drinks, breakfast bars, snacks, and a sandwich. I would also recommend taking some headache tablets and something for an upset stomach in the unlikely event the worst happens.
8. Back Up the Images as Soon as Humanly Possible
I'll admit it, I am petrified of losing my images for a bride and groom. If they're friends and family, as is likely the case for you in this scenario, it's even more terrifying. My advice is to back up the images as soon as you are able, but my process is slightly more anal than that. I ask the venue for a secure room (which they almost always have), and I set up my laptop. Every time I get a few minutes to myself, I swap cards over and upload the images I've taken so far to a folder on my laptop that is automatically backing up to the cloud. Then, when I get home, I back up the entire day onto a separate external hard drive that copies straight to different cloud storage. If a disaster hits me — and it might — I want it to be like a lightning strike in rarity and to know there was nothing more I could have done.
9. Shoot Everything
Storage is cheap, so don't act like you're shooting on film. Take pictures of everything and anything; just keep on snapping. While photographs of people ought to be the focus and you should try to capture everyone in attendance where possible, ensure you photograph the details of the day too: the wedding dress, the table centers, the venue, the menus, and so on. It's better to have the daunting task of sifting through 3,000 or more images than it is to realize you didn't photograph elements of the day you wished you had.
10. Remember, You're Not a Professional Wedding Photographer
Finally, I want to remind you, you are not a professional wedding photographer. You know that, I'm sure, but if you're anything like me — the self-critical creative — you will hold yourself to an impossible standard. You will look at portfolios of the Wedding Photographers of the Year and the highest-rated wedding images on 500px. Yes, this sort of research is good for getting ideas, but you are not expected to create world-class wedding photography. Concentrate on capturing the major events of the day and do what you are good at. The couple has seen your work and know the level you're at (or they should have), and so that's all you need to do. As I saw it, my forte was intimate portraits, so I made sure that I had time to create those on the day. Whatever you're best at, carve some space for it.
My advice would be the same as it was at the start when it comes to being roped into photographing a wedding of friends or family: avoid it. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then prepare to within an inch of your life. Leave no stone unturned and make plans for all eventualities. Then, on the day, do your best to just enjoy it. That seems like an impossibly tall order before the big day, but I find that the anticipation is the worst part. Once I have taken my first few shots, I relax into the event and even sometimes enjoy it. If I were to create a government-style slogan it would be: avoid, prepare, back up.
What tips can you offer to someone who is begrudgingly photographing their first wedding? That tip cannot be to not shoot it.
Bring a second camera so you're not in hot water if something happens to yours.
This one seemed to me so obvious that I didn't realize it was not there !
Also : don't buy/rent a new gear few days before the wedding day. Use what you already know.
2a. Visit the venue at the same time of day the wedding will be taking place to make lighting visualization easier.
I took the pressure off by refusing payment. They were friends so I joked with them you get what you pay for. Happily it went exceedingly well, and I had more fun than I typically do at weddings.
Be nice to the people. Engage in short conversations so they get to know you. You'll have happier faces on your images.
Get in contact with the master of ceremony. Suggest that he introduces you briefly to the participants and tell him what you like to do and ask him for help (e.g. to tell the people to gather for a group shot).