Over the weekend I received an email from an aspiring wedding photographer. I get dozens of emails like this a year asking business questions, questions about gear, and asking about internship possibilities. Maybe it was the lazy day I was having or the fact that it's January and things have slowed down after 8 months of solid crazy, but I wrote her a book. January is a very weird month for wedding photographers. It can be a very introspective time as we look back at the previous year and make plans for the upcoming season.
After writing what turned out to be an essay I thought, 'I should share this.' Well, yesterday my friend Jennifer Rotz of Rotz Photography posted that she received a similar email and shared her response. After reading it, I was inspired to share my own reply. The following was part of the message I received and then my response:
Can I ask what's in your camera bag? I am a canon lady, have a few lovely prime lens that are my babies and am looking into expanding my flash and lens family, but not quite sure which route to go (upgrading to which flash, softbox v. umbrella, 24-70mm v. 70-200mm [yikes], full-frame camera [this is the pity of myself - I still use a crop camera], etc.). I currently have a canon rebel t1i, canon 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8 with a speedlite 430 exii.
Where do you usually purchase your camera equipment from? I swear that my household alone keeps amazon afloat in this economy. I have heard from some photographers that they purchase their equipment from ebay - very risky. One other tidbit, I just shot my first wedding over New Years, have booked a wedding for June, and am seconding shooting in a few in the next couple months - hoping to gain some wedding experience and build my portfolio. Do you have any general advice to handout? I am quite new to this, but am excited to be able to start this journey and learn from others!
Welcome to the industry! First off, I shoot with Nikon, so I'm honestly not much help when it comes to the Canon world. However, to give you the short answer, you are about to spend a TON of money. Over the course of 7 or so years I have spent 10s of thousands of dollars on photographic equipment. The current camera bag I bring to weddings is insured for (a lot of money). Here is what I bring:
Camera: Nikon D4
Backup camera: D700 (A back up is essential. I have had cameras break on me at weddings. If I didn't have a back up at those weddings I would probably be out of business and had been sued.)
Nikon 14-24 2.8
Nikon 24-70 2.8
Nikon 70-200 vr 2.8 (VR is Nikon's IS to Canon)
Nikon 50 1.4
Nikon 85 1.4
Nikon 105 Macro 2.8
3 Radio Popper Radio's (1 transceiver 2 receivers)
2 light stands
3 battery packs
1 translucent umbrella
2 batteries for the D4 (These batteries hold a crazy long charge.)
3 batteries for the D700
7 or 8 32 gig compact flash cards
2 32 gig XQD cards (Only works in the D4, but is used to automatically backup my compact flash cards in that camera. There is nothing worse than a card becoming corrupt before you get home. And yes, that has happened to me, twice. Once was before I could back up, the other after.) *Not all cameras have duel card slots, so I recommend investing in ones that do. (*Added this from my original email to clarify for beginners who are reading this post.)
RapidStrap (This thing will save your back.)
As far as lenses, for weddings you need a 24-70 and 70-200. Everything else is just for fun. (*Really should have said "are creative tools, but not a solid necessity". Those tools will help separate you from the crowd, though and are more than just for fun.) The 24-70 will allow you to get wide angles to help tell the story of the day and capture the atmosphere. The 70-200 will help when you are in the ceremony and you can't get close. It's also an awesome portrait lens. Prime lenses are great and sharper than zooms, but in weddings you need speed and convenience, which is what these lenses offer. You will also want lenses with the lowest f-stop possible. Weddings are all about low light, and lower f-stops will allow you to shoot in lower light without slowing the shutter too much and without sacrificing quality by having the ISO to high.
Speaking of low light and ISO, this is the number one reason full frame cameras are best for weddings. Full frame cameras have larger sensors with plays very well with high ISOs. I shoot at 1600 and 3200 all the time with very little grain.
This all said, it will take you years to build up your gear. You certainly do not want to take out a huge loan to purchase everything. When I started out I did buy a lot of things off of e-bay, but that is risky. I found some pretty good buys, though. I have also bought a lot of things from guys going out of business. Those types of sales are only spread through photographers, so defiantly get to know people. I now buy my equipment from either B&H Photo or Adorama. I also use Amazon for things like shoot through umbrellas, brackets, etc. My Nikon gear comes directly from an authorized Nikon retailer, though. Bottom line, business isn't cheap… That is something to seriously consider when starting any business. Most photography businesses do not last more than 5 years because it's too expensive, the market is extremely competitive, and you will burn out if you are not careful.
My advice is to get a few books and read a ton. Also learn color, photoshop, your camera inside out, and how to shoot manual, if you don't already. Auto settings are pointless in real life situations and when you upgrade to a pro camera, they don't exist. You should only ever use manual, shutter priority, and aperture priority modes. Also learn to use the proper metering mode in your camera. Photography is about light, and the meter measures the correct amount of light, but some modes are better for certain situations than others.
Another bit of advice is to not listen to the supposed 'rockstar' photographers. Most of them have no idea how the real word works and are there to make money off of the new guys. lol! I learned this after a few years in business myself. Most of their advice is nothing more than a motivational speech to make people excited, but their workshops and books have no lasting impact.
Lastly, second shoot a lot. Get a solid contract in place for your own business, because people will take advantage and will sue. Have solid business policies in place. Figure out your pricing and charge for your time. (I charged $2000 for my first pro wedding and never looked back. I did charge less for small weddings, though.) Respect your own time. I can guarantee you than no one else will, and if you have kids, or plan to, you will find out just how precious time really is. You can always make money, you can't get time back. Network with others. Respect others in business. Run your business with integrity and honesty. Once you build that reputation and gain respect do everything to keep it even if it means losing money. Your conscience and reputation is worth it.
I hope this didn't come off too cold or discouraging. That wasn't my intent. When people ask me these questions I want to be honest with them so that in a year or two they are not deep in debt and losing a business because people said how great and easy it is. It's not easy. It's very hard work, with very long hours. I normally start at 9 am and finish around 10 pm. At the peak of wedding season (in the summer and fall) I do this 7 days a week, which is insanity. And I'm not doing this alone either. My wife does our color editing, and I have a designer to take care of our albums. I don't know how I would do this on my own. However, it is great. I am doing what I love, and what I'm gifted at doing. I am making people happy with something I created. I have been home with my kids for the past 5 years doing this full time, and my daughter, who is 5, does not know what it's like to have her daddy gone all day, except on weekends. My wife and I have been able to keep our kids home and raise them together at every step. That alone makes it worth it. In fact I hear them now in the other room playing together. Not too many jobs have that perk.
I've always said photography is not my passion. My passion is people and family. My passion is creating something that people will run into a burning home to save. It's treating others with respect, kindness, and honesty. And it is calming a bride who is about to freak out because her make up artist is running late, it's raining, or her mother is driving her crazy. This job is not about snapping images, it's about creating images, and the foundation of those images is trust built upon respect. Respect of the client and the seriousness of their wedding day. Do that and create images that people love, and you will succeed.
All the best,
I hope this post encourages some and is a reality check for others. This is a very rewarding career. I love every bit of it and it has allowed me experience things I never would have otherwise. However, it is stressful, extremely competitive, and physically and emotionally draining. I wouldn't change a thing.