Here’s the post that’s been looking over my shoulder trying to get written since the day I became a wedding photographer.
It’s my confession. It’s the wedding I ruined. It’s the photos that the bride will never get. Do you want to know the worst part?
It was my sister’s wedding.
Why am I sharing this now? Because my photographer friends and I have heard it so much — where a bride says “My aunt/cousin/friend/uncle is a photographer. He/she is going to shoot the wedding.”
We keep urging you to hire a pro, and every bit of it sounds pretty self-serving, doesn’t it? It sounds like we are bitter about losing the business. Well to tell the absolute honest truth, we kind of are! But that’s not why we keep urging you to hire a pro.
Now maybe aunt/uncle/cousin/best friend is a fabulous professional wedding photographer. In that case you should offer — NO, DEMAND — to pay them. Not only are they giving you a wedding gift worth thousands of dollars, they are likely giving up the opportunity to earn thousands of dollars at the same time.
But that’s usually not who offers to shoot weddings for free. The people who offer to shoot weddings for free are those who are trying to gain experience, who are shy about asking to second shoot for other photographers, or who have new gear that they want to try out. They are the people who think shooting a wedding is easy, and anyone ought to be able to do it.
Here’s the deal: when I urge couples to hire a pro, it’s not for the couple’s sake at all. It’s for the sake of the would-be wedding photographer.
It was 1998. I had just begun my first “real” job as a photographer for the Pine Bluff Commercial. The truth is, I knew what I was doing as a photographer! Not as a wedding photographer, but I was fully qualified to work for a newspaper. I had a degree in photography from a four-year university. I could develop my own film consistently, and even do some exceptional quality black and white prints. I made fun of my fellow students who lost images! In fact, I was better qualified to shoot someone’s wedding than 99.99% of people who offer to shoot weddings for free these days.
But something went wrong. Horribly wrong.
I was shooting (very low-quality) digital for the newspaper, so I grabbed my film camera for the wedding. I got the appropriate type of film, enough to get me through the day. I tested the light and made the correct exposures. I used my flash efficiently.
I developed the film, and … nothing.
I exaggerate. There were two photos that were usable. One photo was the couple coming down the aisle — it was a little blurry, but you could tell what it was. The other was my sister and her new husband cutting the cake. That’s the one my mom has on her dresser with all the wedding photos from the other kids. Yeah, it breaks my heart every time I see it.
What did I do wrong?
I didn’t know that a professional wedding photographer MUST have more than one camera. Actually, for that matter, they must have a backup for every piece of essential gear in their bag. My camera shutter broke at the wedding, maybe even before the wedding, and thus every photo that even looked like anything was overexposed and had motion blur.
In addition, I didn’t have any kind of grasp on the kinds of photos professional wedding photographers take. If I had attempted more photos, I probably would have gotten more photos … like maybe a portrait of the couple on their happy day. That would have been nice.
In short, I came to the wedding ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Now maybe you’re saying, “That was film days. Nowadays you would see the photos on the back of the camera and know something was wrong.”
That’s right. And then what? The camera had to be sent back to Nikon before it ever worked again. I had no other camera. Not only would there have been no photos, but I would have spent the wedding day feeling rotten, knowing I was letting my sister down.
What Can Go Wrong?
A broken camera is not by any means the only thing that can go wrong with your wedding photography. Here are only a few of the things that can happen without (or sometimes even with) the safeguards professional photographers have in place:
1. They could become ill on the day of your wedding. Pros have a network of photographers they can rely on, usually who have similar rates and abilities. Who will you fall back on if your free photographer is unavailable?
2. They could break something. What if your photographer’s swinging camera takes out a priceless work of art, or does some other kind of damage? Pros have liability insurance. If your photographer doesn’t, it’s likely you will be paying the bill for the damage.
3. Data loss — in other words, they lose your photos. There are so many ways photos can be lost … from the camera’s memory card, during the download process, when a computer crashes, or even in some awful disaster like a house fire. Pros have backup systems at every step to minimize data loss.
4. How do I put this delicately … you don’t like the photos. The “disaster” here could be something as simple as the photos not looking like you expected them to. You could be disappointed simply because of quality, or because the lighting makes you look bad, or the moments captured look awkward. Will you be able to hide that disappointment from your friend or relative for the rest of your life?
See, here’s the really important part of my story: what closeness my sister and I had disappeared after that. I don’t know exactly what caused it. Maybe it was just that her new husband claimed her attention. Maybe it was living hundreds of miles away from each other. But on my part, it definitely had something to do with the awkwardness I felt from having ruined her wedding photos. I didn’t talk to her like I used to.
It was 2011 — thirteen long years — before we were even able to utter one sentence to each other about her wedding photos. By that time, I was specializing in weddings and had won my first Arkansas Wedding Photographer of the Year award. But I still felt weird bringing up my job when talking to my sister. That was difficult, because I really do love photography, and it was the main thing I couldn’t talk about with her.
One day I was talking to both sisters, and my other sister brought up my job. We finally discussed it, and were even able to laugh about it a little.
Time has, admittedly, healed the wounds — to an extent. I know she forgives me. But that was after 13 awkward years of silence on the subject. We will never get that time back.
It is really such a nice gesture for someone to offer to shoot your wedding for free. Now it’s time for you to offer a lovely, and loving gesture in return: tell them you would love for them to bring their camera, but you want them to be able to relax and enjoy themselves as a guest.
And then, find a pro.