Wedding Prep Tips: What Every Wedding Photographer Needs to Know

As wedding season for wedding photographers in the Northern Hemisphere quickly approaches, one of the most common questions I receive from Improve Photography followers is how I manage to stay calm, cool, and collected leading up to and on the day of a wedding.  I'd like to say that it's because of my calm demeanor and sweet skills, but let's get serious.  It's because I plan, organize, and plan again so that the wedding day itself is a breeze (as much of a breeze as a wedding day can be, anyway!).  So, does the thought of photographing weddings make your palms sweat and your knees shake?  Do you feel lost in the chaos that is wedding photography?  If so, these wedding prep tips just may help you gain control of the process, the day, and your life as a wedding photographer.

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Get to Know Your Clients

Who are they?  What do they do?  What does their relationship mean to them?  How do they describe their relationship?  The answers to all of these questions will undoubtedly help you do your job in a more efficient and meaningful way, while at the same time allowing for a greater level of trust and comfort.

Given how difficult it is to produce a photograph of a stranger that is meaningful and truly representative of them, no wedding photographer should attempt to document such a special day without knowing the couple, their story, and their love.  In order to make the photography process easier for both you and your client, get to know each other.  Don't be strangers.  Share your lives with each other.  Heck, even become friends!

There are many different ways you can do this.  Questionnaires are an easy way to get inside info about a couple.  Once a couple completes the booking process with me, they receive a questionnaire in which I ask them to grab a glass of wine, cuddle up on the couch, and complete the questionnaire together.  The questionnaire asks about how they met, their proposal story, a one-word description of each other and their relationship, their idea of a perfect date, how they like to spend their time together, meaningful locations, as well as details about the wedding itself.  It's quite detailed and very intimate, so it allows me an inside look at the couple.

I also “friend” all of my couples on Facebook, follow them on Instagram and Snapchat, and become an active part of their life.  The key here, though, is to not just friend and forget.  Once you become social media friends, comment on their posts, share things with them, ENGAGE.  This is a great way to share your life with your couples and to get a glimpse into theirs.  Plus, let's face it, if you're anything like me, you spend hours a day on social media anyway, so you might as well make it meaningful!

Here's the kicker:  if you become like a friend to your couples, your more likely to have satisfied clients, more likely to receive referrals, and more likely to live a stress free life as a wedding photographer.

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Demand an Engagement Session

Ok, demand might be a little harsh.  But, by encouraging your couples to do an engagement session, you're allowing yourself to get to know them even more and giving yourself the opportunity to see how they act in front of your camera.

Take advantage of the time you have with the couple during their session.  Use this time to talk about them and their wedding plans.  Talk about their honeymoon plans, their families, their jobs, anything that will allow you to connect with them on a deeper level.  Also, talk about yourself.  Let them get comfortable with who you are as a person so that you're not just another wedding vendor.

Perhaps more importantly, take this time to gauge their interactions with each other and their actions in front of your camera.  Are they embarrassed to be hugging in public?  Make note of it so that you don't waste time trying to get good shots of them snuggling on a city street on their wedding day!  Do they need posing direction or are they naturally photogenic?  Also good to know so that you have a better idea of how much time you'll need to allow for photos on the wedding day.  Pay close attention to them during the engagement session so that you can adequately prepare yourself for the portrait portion of the wedding day.

The engagement session is your free trial, your chance to practice with the couple before the pressure of the wedding day is upon you.  Use this time wisely.

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Plan meetings

This is one of those “kill two birds with one stone” scenarios.

By meeting with your couples as much as possible, you're giving yourself even more opportunities to get to know them.  The more you get to know each other, the less you'll have to worry about “stranger stress” on the day of the wedding.

On the other hand, these meetings are crucial for your organization and planning.  This is where you plan out the timeline, plan out the details of the day, organize “must have shots” lists, etc.  I always have AT MINIMUM three formal meetings with clients.

The first meeting is what I call the potential client meeting, which is when we meet after they inquire to go through details about me, my collections and pricing, my contract, etc.  I give them all of the info they need to make the decision to hire me.  I also use this time to get to know them a bit – I always ask about how they met, how they got engaged, etc.  Again, use this time wisely.

The second meeting is the timeline meeting.  During this meeting, we work out the details of the timeline of their wedding day.  There's more information about this in the next section.

The third meeting is the pre-wedding consultation, which is generally the longest and most important meeting of the three.  It's essentially a Q&A session, with me asking them approximately 1 million questions about the wedding day.  I can never be too prepared!  In this meeting I:

  • confirm all locations and addresses
  • confirm the timeline
  • plan out details for the “first look”
  • ask for must have shots
  • discuss any special traditions taking place throughout the day
  • organize and plan out family groupings for the family photo portion
  • organize and plan out informal groupings for reception photos
  • discuss “exits” from the ceremony and reception (sparkler exits, bubble exits, etc.)
  • plan out the order of events for the reception
  • get contact info for all vendors
  • work out the dinner plan
  • get their wedding hashtag
  • allow them to choose their album cover

Again, this third meeting is very detailed and can easily take an hour out of your day, but I PROMISE it will make your life much easier in the long run.  You can never be over-prepared on a wedding day!

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Tackle the Timeline

As mentioned above, I always meet with couples to put their timeline together.  I know many couples have wedding coordinators who like to be in charge of this type of thing, but I convince my couples to let me handle at least the first draft of the timeline because (1) we know best how much time we need for photos and (2) I want to make sure my clients get the most out of their time with me.

Wedding coordinators are so wonderful and helpful and I encourage working with them as much as possible.  So, if you have a couple that has a coordinator that likes to put together timelines, invite the coordinator to be part of the timeline meeting.  They'll provide valuable feedback and be able to give you a clear idea of what to expect at different points throughout the day.  By working with the coordinator, you'll be able to ensure that you have enough time to do your job properly without stepping on anyone's toes.

However, if you're left putting the timeline together without the help of a coordinator, don't stress!  As long as your couple knows what time the ceremony is set to begin, you can work everything around that time.  When putting together the timeline, don't forget to include the following (all dependent on how many hours you're hired for, of course):

  • Getting ready and bridal details (I allow 1 hour for this)
  • The first look (15 minutes)
  • Bridal party photos (30-45 minutes)
  • Bridal portraits (20 minutes)
  • Groom's portraits (15 minutes)
  • Intimates (45 minutes)
  • Family formals (30 minutes)
  • Reception details (20 minutes)
  • Any required travel time
  • Pre-ceremony hiding (the time before the ceremony where the bridal party goes into hiding so as not to be seen by guests – I do this 30 minutes before the ceremony is set to begin)

As a side note, I only do the timeline up until the reception.  I generally leave the reception timeline up to the DJ or emcee because most of them prefer to do things in a certain order.  I only plan the reception timeline if the client specifically asks me to do that.

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Be Organized

Nick Page commonly refers to me as “the organized one” of the bunch, so this is probably my most useful tip for you all.  An organized business means a successful business.  It's that simple.

One of the most stressful things for many people is living and working among chaos.  By keeping an organized office and an organized business, you'll eliminate that terrible stress and be able to relax more, making your business and your life more enjoyable.  This is coming from someone who is chronically disorganized (surprise, right?!) in all areas of life except my business.  My house is a mess 90% of the time, my iPhone calendar looks like a bag of Skittles exploded on my phone, and I'm lucky to find a matching pair of socks on a regular basis, but you better believe that my business is as organized as Martha Stewart's closet.

I learned the hard way that disorganization in a business is a disaster.  My first few years in business were the most stressful period in my life (even more stressful than right now, running 3 businesses, podcasting, blogging, traveling, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life) and it was because my business was a big, fat cluster.  I had no set system of maintaining contracts and client info, my email inbox was chronically full, my website was a continual work in progress, and I was drowning.  I'll forever thank myself for making the decision to hire an assistant, who then was tasked with turning my disorganization into organization.

Krystina saved my life and my business.  She organized my office, making homes for every paper product, shipping product, photo product, etc. that had been strewn across my office floor for years.  She created spreadsheets to maintain payment records, mileage tracking, client information, and equipment inventory.  She set me up on Quickbooks Online so that I would be fully prepared for tax season (and my accountant is ever so grateful for that!).  And, finally, she set me up on 17 Hats, which has been so vital to my business.

So, let's talk a bit about 17 Hats.  This studio management system is one of many systems available today to photographers and other creatives.  Before deciding on 17 Hats, I tried a few other systems and found that they were either super difficult to set up, the opposite of user friendly, really ugly, or all of the above.  17 Hats was the first system I found that was easy to set up, easy to use (for both me and my clients), aesthetically pleasing, and not too damaging to the wallet.  Although the system is relatively new and they don't have all of the features that some other systems have (like an appointment scheduler, for instance), the company is so great about listening to their clients' concerns and suggestions and they are constantly improving and implementing new features.

I currently use 17 Hats for the following:

  • sending client contracts
  • collecting signatures on contracts and countersigning all contracts
  • sending invoices
  • collecting online payments
  • sending all questionnaires and allowing clients to complete them in the system
  • sending automatic emails to clients
  • creating the wedding timeline
  • keeping track of all wedding info
  • collecting answers to the questions asked during the pre-wedding consultation
  • scheduling and calendar maintenance
  • organizing and managing to do lists

The best thing about 17 Hats is that clients have access to their portal at any time.  They can view their contract, view their invoice and remaining balance, make payments, view their timeline, view their wedding info, and review their answers to the pre-wedding collections at any time!  This saves me from having to answer so many emails asking for a balance, requesting to make a payment, asking me to send another copy of their timeline, yada yada yada.  And, guess what, that leaves more time for me to be working on other things or enjoying my social life.  Win/win situation!

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Vet the Vendors

It's never a bad idea to familiarize yourself with those you'll be working with on a wedding day.  As stated earlier, one of the questions I ask during the pre-wedding consultation is for names and contact info for all vendors.  I do this for two reasons:  to do a bit of stalking beforehand and so that I can give credit when posting photos and blogs post-wedding.

About the stalking part: don't worry, I'm not a freak.  By stalking, I really mean I look them up, get a sense of who they are, and reach out to them to introduce myself.  If I've worked with a vendor before, I'll send them a quick note to tell them I'm looking forward to seeing them again.  I'll also make sure they are aware of any part of the timeline that may affect them and give them my contact info if they need it.

Wedding vendors can make or break the wedding day AND they can make or break your business.  Get in good with the caterers so that they feed you well, become friends with the event coordinator so that they'll refer people to you in the future, and buddy up with the DJ so that he'll turn off his rainbow colored laser lights for you during the first dance.  The more friendly and familiar you are, the better your life as a wedding photographer will be.  Plus, it's just good manners to be nice to people, duh.

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Secure an Assistant

I'd highly suggest never, ever, ever shooting a wedding alone.  Preferably, you should have a second shooter to capture even more special memories for your clients and to save the day if you fall out of a tree and break your leg or something.  But, if that's not possible, recruit someone to simply assist you for the day.  If I have a wedding without a contracted second shooter, I'll either pay for an assistant or drag my poor, kind boyfriend along with me.  Trust me when I say that your life on the day of the wedding will be SO MUCH EASIER if you have someone there to run errands, move lights, carry bags, park the car, wrangle family members, hold reflectors, etc.  Not to mention, rub your shoulders and give you hand massages when you begin to lose feeling in your fingertips from shooting for 10 hours.  (Maybe don't take advantage of that last suggestion unless you're super close with your assistant or they're a licensed massage therapist like my second shooter.  That could get weird otherwise.)

What I'm trying to say here is, whether you think you need one or not, it's better to be safe than sorry on a wedding day so go ahead and secure a second shooter or an assistant.  I'll be talking more about the ways in which you can secure an assistant on a budget in an upcoming article, so keep an eye out for that.

Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

Location Scout

Location scouting is so fun and so necessary.  It's your job as the professional photographer to provide clients with options for beautiful locations for their photographs.  So, after you know the route for the day, take some time to drive the route and find potential locations for your clients.  By doing this, you're keeping yourself and the wedding day organized and you're saving your clients from the added stress of planning their photo locations.  Another win/win!

Here are some tips for location scouting:

  • Think outside the box.  Avoid using the same locations over and over again.
  • Find locations that will compliment your clients' wedding and style.
  • Take into consideration the time of year and any events that are scheduled for the area.
  • Make backup plans in case of rain.
  • Keep in mind that the bride and bridesmaids may be wearing heels or uncomfortable shoes.
  • Think about parking.  Will there be room for a bus or limo?  Is there easy parking for you and your assistant?
  • Think about the time of day for the photos and do your scouting at that same time of day in order to understand what kind of light you'll be dealing with.
  • Consider checking out Scoutt, an online location scouting system for photographers.
Photo by Erica Kay Photography
Photo by Erica Kay Photography

The Final Countdown

It's the day before the wedding.  Now what?  Check out this post to see what I do in the 24 hours leading up to a wedding to guarantee that I'll not only survive the wedding, but that I'll actually enjoy it!

12 thoughts on “Wedding Prep Tips: What Every Wedding Photographer Needs to Know”

  1. Erica,

    This is a fantastic article!!! Thank you! Your podcast information and several years of sharing your knowledge have really opened up my world! I just shot my first wedding for complete strangers (did a couple for people that I knew before,) and I found it one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life. I would never have imagined how much I would love doing this! To be included in such a monumental day in someone’s life was just remarkable. And I would have NEVER made that jump without your expertise (and that of Nick Page.) I owe you some dark beer or wonderful wine, whenever we finally meet in person! Thank you!!!!


  2. Florentina N. de Carvalho

    Amazing tips ! Thank you so much ! I’m going to shoot my first wedding for some friends and this article helped me A LOT !!! Thank you ! Thank you ! Thank you !!!

  3. Thank you so much for all of the invaluable information. Having just recently launching myself into weddings (when I swore I would never do them) I am quickly discovering how much I enjoy them ….like a previous comment said….becoming such an intimate and everlasting part of two peoples most special and memorable day is quite the honor. Not only are we as the photographer the memory keeper, we are the calm for nerves, the coordinator for the “what’s next”, the person the bride and groom put complete trust and faith in that we know what we are doing because we’ve done this before and they haven’t (unless a second marriage!)……it’s a very complex responsibility….but oh so rewarding. I am about to do my second solo wedding and I couldn’t agree more about the assistant. I may have to have my teenage daughter come along for the next one simply for the ore-wedding photos. The couples looking for a bargain photographer don’t want the “extras” (engagement session, second shooter etc) because quite simply, they are on a tight budget….but it does make my job that much harder. Trying to get all the great shots in on a tight schedule and without the engagement session getting to know them as well…makes it more difficult. I do meet with the couple at least twice but a third would be better. (But some couples book me with just a couple months notice….i’m newer to this and more available, see! I’m definitely going to check out the 17 Hats and make note of several things you’ve mentioned. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Community over competition……never truer.

    1. YES! Community over competition ALL DAY EVERYDAY!! I hope the second wedding goes well and that you’re able to drag your daughter along. Let us know how it goes!

  4. Amazing article Erica! Looking forward to all of the articles you have lined up. Perfect time as I have my first wedding coming up this year and need all your awesome tips!

  5. Hi Erica,
    Love your articles. I have been asked to take a friend of mines wedding pictures next month. I have been taking pictures for a long time of family but not really wedding photography. So I have 1 question for you I mainly use my 50mm lens for what I do now. I also have a 24-120mm 1.4 and I was wondering what is the appropriate lens you suggest for shooting weddings? Thank you for your tips.

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