“Oh, my (sister, cousin, uncle, etc.) is going to shoot our wedding!”

  • 21 September 2010

“And she’s pretty good with her camera! So we’re going to use that part of our budget for something else!”

Ahem. Okay, I’m not going to be snarky and ask why you aren’t going to let her deliver your baby too, since she has a scalpel, or demean her abilities. But I would like you to think about, and find out about, a few things before you make that decision final.

It happens all the time. Joan Doe (or her brother John, gender doesn’t matter but we’ll use Joan in this example)  gets a camera and decides she loves taking photos.  She gets a better camera and starts showing what she’s done to all her friends, who tell her she has a great eye. She uploads some colorful sunsets, maybe a few flowers, candid shots at family gatherings, some “artsy” black-and-white portraits; since she loves taking photos, her DSLR is always with her, and even though it’s not actually a professional level camera, it looks enough like one that most of her friends don’t know the difference.  She gets to be know as the family photographer.  And then some friend or acquaintance, having seen her photography, asks her if she’d be interested in shooting their wedding. If she’s smart or recognizes the potential issues involved, she says no, but if her ego and the couple’s finances conspire to override that, she might say yes. And then disaster strikes, usually. Sure, depending on her dedication and the standards set by the couple, it might be okay. She might actually get some great shots.  But before letting her give it a go, here are a few things you might want to consider:

1. Is everyone going to be happy if she’s missing from most of the shots? That might not be a problem if it’s a distant relative, but family photos without the bride’s brother or groom’s sister? A self-timer is a useful but limiting tool, requiring both a tripod and everyone’s full and complete cooperation – and about 50% more time allotted for taking the photos.

2. Is she going to be happy watching instead of participating? When the latest dance tune hits or the conga line starts and everyone including her boyfriend is trying to get her to put down her camera, will she be willing to stand up to them and do her job? Especially if she’s not being paid?

Okay, let’s assume those first two issues aren’t going to be a problem. No boyfriend, everyone’s used to her being more on the outside looking in, and she has no other role to perform. So let’s talk about what type of a job she can do.

1. Equipment. How much, and how much range. I know there are even professional photographers out there who talk about how they have shot entire weddings using a fixed-lens point-and-shoot camera and done just fine. Well sure, you CAN do that, if you accept the limitations of the gear and have years of experience working around them – but even then you might have missed some shots. Here’s a minimum list of the equipment she should have:

At least two DSLR camera bodies, preferably 10MP or higher. I’m not going to get into brand arguments or even note the differences between consumer and pro level gear; plenty of wedding have been shot quite well with the right amateur gear and a knowledgeable photographer.  Two bodies are required because they do fail, and if she only has one, it’s over. Three is even better, or a compatible film camera body will work. I say 10 MP because that allows for significant cropping without losing the quality required for use in albums or wall portraits.

Lenses covering the 35mm-equivalent range of 16-200mm. And overlapping, which might mean a 16-35, a 24-70, and a 70-200, plus a 20, 50, 100, and 200 fixed, or just multiple zooms. If she’s using cameras with an APS-C sensor, that means roughly 10-135mm coverage; or 8-100 if using the 4/3 system. This allows for photographing groups of people in tight quarters of getting overhead shots on the wide end while allowing for close-ups from a reasonable distance on the long end.  She can get by with the equivalent of a 28080 range (I did for years) but as I discovered once I could afford them, the extremes on both ends open up creative possibilities I just couldn’t do with the mid-range only.

Flashes, at least three (they are what malfunctions most often) shoe-mount (the pop-up one on the camera doesn’t count) with either a bracket or a diffusion system to minimize red-eye and shadow issues.

Twice as many batteries and memory cards as she expects to need. For all camera bodies and flashes, if they use different ones.

Okay, she’s properly equipped: great! Now a few more questions: How well is she able to direct and organize people in order to get them together for the formals and the events? How well does she work with distractions? Will people pay attention to her because she’s the photographer, or will they ignore her because she’s just Joan with her camera as usual? The old saying “familiarity breeds contempt” has never been more true than when a photographer tries to get her/his family to cooperate for photos. Trust me, I know whereof I speak, my family is no better nor worse than yours, and I’ve been doing this professionally for over 25 years!

Does she know the plan for the wedding, where to stand when to get the best angles, whare not to be to avoid being in the way? Only experience teaches that, though classes and seminars can help.

But let’s assume she’s completed the wedding, took every photo you wanted and did them well. Now what?

If she’s a professional photographer, she can design an album for you and order it from any one of dozens of professional album companies. If not, then your options are limited again. Perhaps she has the skills and time to devote to designing your album in Photoshop or its equivalent, but if she’s not a professional photographer with an account, the wedding album manufacturers won’t sell to her. So maybe she’ll give you a DVD with the images, maybe even her album pages designs, but your options are limited – as of my knowledge at this writing – to the consumer book publishing services, whose books are both lesser quality and much more limited in options. Your only page options are likely to be press-printed, similar to a textbook, not bad but nothing like the depth and archival quality of photographic processes on something like metallic or linen paper. Binding options are similarly limited, you’re not going to find solid wood, metal, leather, silk, or other covers. Most likely you’ll have a covered cardboard cover, or perhaps linen-like look.  Again, not necessarily bad, just not what one would call heirloom quality. If that doesn’t matter to you, then you’re set, but if it does, then I guess you’ll be giving me a call after all – just like those signs I’ve seen that say “we fix $6 haircuts,” I can try to fix $500 weddings!

P.S. One more thing to consider: Let’s suppose things don’t work out, and your sister, brother, cousin, whichever totally screws up your wedding photography. Are you – and they – prepared to deal with that tension in the family for the rest of your lives? How might that affect your relationship if your spouse’s relative ruined your wedding? Most professionals actually refuse to do weddings for their relatives because they don’t want to risk it – do you?

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