Wedding Photography: Five Tips For Second Shooters

back stage with a wedding photograher

Karl Leopold sets up a bride and groom shot as video pro Bruce Reynolds works a separate angle

One of the most common ways to build up your portfolio as a wedding photographer is to start out as a second shooter for someone else. While you won’t make a lot of money, you will learn a lot about taking wedding photos.

If you want to work as a second shooter for the primary photographer there are a few things to remember both in terms of preparation and the actual shoot. Since it’s been a while since I shot a wedding, I decided to hook up again with Karl Leopold and tag along as the second shooter at a beach wedding in Cocoa Beach.

I’m going to be honest here and admit I made some mistakes, mostly because I haven’t done it in a while and because I use my DSLR a lot for video. My mistakes will help you avoid doing the same thing.

On this shoot Karl was using a Canon 5D MK II with a Canon 580 EX ii while I was shooting a Canon 7D and an off-brand speedlite.  One of the mistakes I made early on was trying to lock my ISO at what Karl was using for consistency.  A crop sensor camera with a long lens simply can’t shoot at the same ISO as a full frame sensor, which has much better response in mixed light.  That was one of those moments you ask yourself later what you were thinking.

What To Wear

Unless otherwise specified, you’ll almost always be okay wearing black slacks and a black button-down shirt. For an outdoor or beach wedding you can usually get away with khakis and lighter colors.

We were at a beach wedding and while the guests were barefoot, I don’t recommend that when you’re working. One stray metal scrap will put you on the sidelines. Wear shoes, but not dress shoes which don’t do well in sand.

Arrive Early

arrive early

Get there early and shoot some background if you've never shot that venue before

Arrive early, particularly if you’ve never shot at that venue before. Use the time to get your angles and exposure settings.

If you’re working with a top-notch wedding planner, the venue will be ready well in advance. Introduce yourself to the venue, support staff and other vendors but don’t take them off task. Everyone there has a job to do besides you.

In the off chance the primary photographer is late, be prepared to step in and shoot some of the preliminary shots. Traffic happens, accidents happen, so even as the second shooter you have to be prepared to do the entire job. If something happens to the primary, it’s all you. Hope that never happens, but approach every job like it could.

Focus On Your Assigned Coverage Area

Mine was crowd shots, candids of the wedding party and guests, and to shoot the diagonals on the ceremony because I had a longer lens.

candid photo

My assignment was guest shots and candids of the wedding party

There’s no point in having two good photographers shooting the same shots. I did a couple times on this shoot, only so I could show you the setups and resulting shots. Otherwise, as second shooter, be out looking around for other shots. If the primary is busy with the bride and groom, grab some shots of the family and kids. Take pictures of little details that can get lost in the rush, those shots can add a lot to the memories of the day.

You’re Not The Only Person Working That Day

There are a lot of people working at weddings, including other vendors. At this wedding we had a video guy besides the wedding coordinator. Give others room to work and try not to be banging away with a flash when the video people are trying to get their set shots.

Also be aware that the video shooter will likely have a wide covering shot running somewhere, try to walk behind that camera whenever possible. Give other professionals room to work and they’ll give you room to get your shots. It will all get done.

video guy

Try to avoid firing your flash when the video people are trying to get set shots, work cooperatively with other vendors

Remember Who You Represent

Keep in mind as the second shooter you are representing the primary photographer. Your shots are going out under their name and they’re responsible for you. This is not the time for showboating or self-promotion. I always carry one or two business cards of the primary photographer and if one of the guests asks for a card, that’s the one I hand out.

If other vendors ask for your card, that’s a little different. Then it’s okay as they usually already know the primary photographer.

Who Owns The Shots?

When you’re shooting second camera normally the photos belong to the primary and go out under their name. Don’t expect any residuals on the prints or reorders. If you need the photos for your portfolio or other uses, clear that in advance with the primary. After the shoot is not the time to try and negotiate ownership and usage rights!

The idea here is not to undercut the person you’re working for. In most areas the vendors all know one another and treating someone poorly will get around in a hurry. No person is an island in a small business and you may find yourself someday needing the people you treated badly.

On the other hand, shoot well, conduct yourself like a professional and be responsible and you may find a lot of photographers appreciate what a good second shooter can bring to the table. All the while you’ll be learning from the best and building a portfolio you can be proud to show off.

comparison shot

One of the mistakes I made was framing too tight in the camera. My shot is on the left. Karl's version has room for a decorative picture frame and recognizes that prints come out darker.

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