9 things i've learned in 9 years of business as a wedding photographer

Nine years ago today, I photographed my very first wedding. I showed up to the church wearing heels & carrying my friend's Canon Rebel XTi camera & 50mm lens. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did my best to impress the church coordinator that I did. All I managed to do was put my foot in my mouth a few times.

No really, I did. To this day, I still think she thinks I'm a heathen.

Considering how lost & drowning I was in this thing called wedding photography, I still think that my first wedding went by fairly well. Sure, I made several technical & practical mistakes (did I mention I was wearing heels?!), & I was scared out of my mind, but I survived & learned many valuable lessons. On top of that, my clients seemed happy with what I gave them. So happy that they asked me back to the other daughter's wedding. (I made sure to wear flats to that wedding.)

Nine years & 75 weddings later, here I am. Never ever did I think this was what I would be doing with my life, but I am so happy I am. I was in grad school (two years after my first wedding) before it even dawned on me that one could make a living off of photography. I was in year four of my career before I realized it was even my career at all.

So, I have compiled a list of things that I wish I had known earlier in my career. Some of these pertain to owning your own business in general, some of them are wedding specific. Some of them are my preference only & may not be how anyone else likes to do things. Nevertheless, here we go *takes a deep breath*:

1 // draw lines when working from home & take breaks without guilt

Working from home is difficult when it comes to drawing that line between working & resting or doing personal work. I've been taking baby steps with drawing those lines & learning to be ok with those lines. For example, I try not to email clients after 6pm or on the weekends. That's a very small thing, but it drastically helps improve my concentration when I'm trying to finish editing a wedding & I'm not constantly checking back to see if a client responded to my question.

In the last two years, I've learned the hard way how my body responds to large amounts of stress. Without retelling the entire story, suffice it say that I needed to learn to be ok with taking a break. I have always been a night person, so I get a lot of my best work done late at night well after "business hours." Because I don't have to have conventional office hours, I am finally ok that. I don't feel guilty with going to the pool in the middle of the day or shopping on a Tuesday at 3pm because I know I'll be up until 1am editing photos in front of Netflix. 

2 // stay hydrated & exercise

I'm not the most active person, something else I'm really working on. It's so easy to sit in front of this screen working all day & not getting up & moving around. I had too many morning-after weddings where I felt like I got hit by a train, because my body wasn't used to moving. Yes, it still hurts, but not as much because I am exercising during the week. 

I'll also admit that I'm don't drink enough water. It's something that I have to remind myself to do, & more than once I've found myself close to dehydration or passing out during an outdoor wedding ceremony in July. 

3 // Take control (of the wedding day) if no one else can or will

This is one of the few items on this list where not everyone is going to agree with me, which is fine. I know some photographers like to purely be a fly on the wall on wedding days—they don't want any moment to be "scripted." I believe there is a balance between letting events unfold naturally & giving a few directional instructions to make sure something was captured or that it was captured in the best light. Some events are best left untouched, & others need a little bit of guidance. For example, I may ask you to pretend to put on lipstick, or pause while lacing up the dress, or angle your face to the window & adjust your posture ever so slightly for a more flattering angle. 

Considering that I am contracted to be at your wedding for a certain amount of hours, I also want to make sure we spend our time wisely. This means that sometimes I'll politely ask your bridal party to start getting dressed, or to politely remind the hair stylist that photos start in 20 minutes, or I'll politely ask guests loitering in the sanctuary to head towards the reception so we can begin family photos.

Do everything with a sincere smile & apologize for any inconvenience when necessary.

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4 // Never underestimate how long it will take to get somewhere

Anytime I'm planning a photo shoot or helping a bride come up with a wedding day timeline, I always stress the fact that driving to the reception or getting a group of girls in long dresses & high heels to walk even just one block to the church will take so much longer than Google Maps says.

For me on wedding days, I add at least 30 minutes to my driving time to any wedding. If Google Maps tells me it will take 1 hour, I expect that it will take me 1.5 hours. Twice I've gone to the wrong church, & once I thought the venue was 20 minutes closer than it was. Getting stuck behind a slow driver on a two-lane road, car accidents, road construction detours, stopping to fill up on gas, & grabbing a Subway sandwich for later can all add up.

5 // Wear proper/appropriate attire

I showed up to my very first wedding wearing high heels. Why did I think that was a good idea?! In my mind, I wanted to look professional, & I guess heels suggested professionalism. I never made that mistake again. I'm on my feet from 6-10 hours every wedding day, & am only sitting when I'm scarfing food down my face at the reception. #memoryfoamshoes

I prefer to wear pants because I'm running, bending, & squatting way too much. Unfortunately, we women are still fighting for pants pocket equality, so I like to carry a bag with plenty of extra pockets for anything I may need. Don't forget your sunscreen & bug spray for outdoor weddings.

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6 // Never rely on the wedding to feed you lunch & dinner

Yes, you may have told the bride's mother that you need one vendor meal at the reception, but the reception is hours away from now & there is no cheese & cracker platter in the bride's room. Not everyone thinks to provide finger sandwiches for the bridal party before the wedding, & I've gotten myself into a bind more than once with relying on that food. Late afternoon or evening weddings are a little bit easier to handle because I am usually not arriving to the wedding until after lunch. It's the midday weddings that can cause trouble.

If you're new to the wedding photography world, you don't realize how many calories you are burning. So, just because you ate breakfast three hours ago, you've practically been running a marathon since & you've gone through your nutrient supply. Make sure to keep power bars or a bag of nuts nearby. I like to get a foot long from Subway & save half of it for later, even if I plan on eating at the reception. My rule on wedding days is Calories don't matter, so eat up

One wedding day according to my Fitbit.

One wedding day according to my Fitbit.

7 // Stay organized

This is a super broad statement, & I could talk forever about this, but I'll try to keep this short. Come up with an organization & work-flow system that works for you & stick with it. Modify as needed.

8 // Make a will or a step by step in case of an emergency

This one was hard to do, & difficult to talk about. My husband didn't like the idea of it at first, because of the "what if" it implied. I've read too many horror stories from other photographers who found themselves in very difficult positions & had clients waiting or relying on them. It then fell to their spouses or other family members to figure out where the photographer was with each client (planning phase, halfway through editing, etc.) & follow through with their contracts.

It took me about 3 months, but I now have a very extensively detailed Google doc shared with my husband & my parents outlining every aspect of my business. Every. Single. Part. It's so detailed it's painful. I told my mom that I wrote it for her to understand, & I laughed when she got a little offended. Well, mom, do you know how to use Photoshop? Her eyes got as big as dinner plates. Oh.

Don't forget to update it when things change. Glance through it every few months. You'll be surprised how quickly it can become outdated.

9 // Each client is a learning experience

Every couple is different. Every wedding is different. Never stop looking for those lessons & applying them to the next client.