On September 17, 2016, I had the opportunity to be Erica Coffman’s second shooter for a wedding with her company Erica Kay Photography. While I am primarily a family portrait photographer, I jumped at the chance to spend the day learning from and photographing with Erica. What follows is a list of 16 tips, in no particular order, I learned from our day together.
1. Detail Shots
When photographing the details of the wedding, especially the wedding rings, Erica advised me to always look for a source of light to blur in the background. By putting a string of candles or a series of distant light bulbs behind a detail shot, you can add interest and depth in the form of bokeh. For the ring shots that day, to add even more interest, Erica not only had bokeh in the background, but she also used a candle in the foreground to create another layer of bokeh. Just remember, the distance between your subject and the light source as well as your aperture setting determine the quality and size of your bokeh.
2. Shadows on Faces
As you check the first few photos you take with off-camera flashes, during the reception especially, watch out for shadows on people’s faces. The tiny screen on the back of your camera can be deceptive: what may look like a dramatic, well-lit photo may actually be a throw-away if your subject’s face is obscured by a shadow. I found this to be especially true during dancing. Examine your photos quickly and see if your light setup or your position in the room continues to put shadows on people’s faces. If so, change something–change your position, change your lights, or both.
3. Small Bungee Cords
If you’re like me, you’re still beginning to build your stock of lighting equipment. I have two inexpensive light stands, which don’t stay standing with even the slightest bump or jostle. To keep my inexpensive light stands upright, Erica recommended a set of small bungee cords. You can use them to secure light stands to something else, like the pole from a speaker or a support from the venue’s tent.
4. No Candids While Eating and Drinking
As a wedding novice, I wondered if Erica and I would be wandering around during the cocktail and dinner hours, snapping photos of groups of people. Erica advised that she does not take candid photos of people talking or eating because those photos generally don’t look great. Someone is either blinking or has a mouth full of food or it just takes too much luck to get a good photo. Unless the bride specifically requests that someone or some moment be photographed during cocktail and dinner hour, the advice is to not worry about candids and instead either follow the bride or prepare for the next important moment.
5. Prepare Ahead and Bring Snacks
Erica writes in this article to prepare the night before and bring snacks to the wedding. I followed her advice and could not have been more grateful for doing so. Preparing the night before allows you to relax the day of the wedding knowing that you don’t need to scramble to charge batteries, clean lenses, or pack your gear. Having snacks–I brought trail mix and a Zone bar–allowed me to get a quick burst of energy without leaving Erica’s side. Depending on the day’s schedule, you might go many hours before sitting down for dinner. You’ll need food and water to stay sharp, so don’t forget your snacks.
6. The 70-200mm f/2.8
I do not have a robust wedding photography gear kit yet. As such, I do not own a version of a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. However, prior to linking up with Erica, I knew that the 70-200mm lens was a must-have for wedding photography. I rented the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 for the day, and it was totally worth it. The autofocus is lightning fast. The focal range of the lens allows you to be out of the way when necessary. The image quality is outstanding. I had the 70-200mm on my camera for six of the eight hours of that day’s wedding. I really noticed the difference in quality when at the reception I switched to my Canon 50mm f/1.8. I immediately noticed the trouble the 50mm had focusing, especially in low light. Though I needed the 50mm to shoot wider as the dance floor filled, I missed the quality and speed of the 70-200mm.
7. Off-Camera Flash
Off-camera flash skill is required for wedding photography, especially for the reception. Even if you have fast lenses (those with apertures in the f/1.x range), I imagine that most weddings will have a time where you need to create your own light. If you’re hesitant to learn flash photography, stop waiting and jump in with these two articles: click here and here.
As a second shooter, don’t forget to put your flashes on a different channel than the primary photographer’s; otherwise, you’ll trigger your flashes and the primary photographer’s, giving you light from directions and with intensities that you probably don’t want. In fact, since I figure most photographers never change their flashes from the default of channel one, I keep my flashes set to a channel other than “1” just so I don’t have to think about it ever again.
When reviewing my photos from the wedding, I realized that I should have had a flash on the other side of the room during the reception. I only had two flashes off-camera, one on either side of the deejay booth, which meant that any shot from directly in front of the deejay was either side- or back-lit. Some of my photos were good, but some really could have used a third light on the other side of the room, aiming towards the deejay. To read more about how I improved my reception lighting thanks to my experience with Erica, click here.
8. Stay Aware of Your Surroundings
As a second shooter, you need to be careful to not get caught up in the moment. I imagine many of us could easily get absorbed in the emotion of witnessing such a special day. If you don’t stay aware of your job as a photographer and of your surroundings, you might find yourself in the shot of the primary photographer. And as a second shooter, you want to be ready to help whenever needed, so always keep an eye on the primary photographer. I found this especially true when I was holding light stands. I had to constantly remind myself not to watch the beautiful ceremony, but to watch the primary shooter in case she needed me to adjust my positioning or the positioning of the light.
9. Always Anticipate
Anticipate how you can help. I went into the day understanding that it wasn’t about my photography. It was about helping Erica–the primary (and hired!) photographer–get the job done. To be a helper, that might mean snapping photos. Being a helper might mean carrying gear or helping to switch lenses. Helping might mean holding an umbrella over Erica so that she stays dry during a downpour as she takes group photos of the wedding party. (Yes, that happened, but oh well! She got the photos she needed, which is all that matters.) Don’t wait to be asked for help. Anticipate the primary photographer’s needs and be ready to do something at a moment’s notice.
Balance the need to look professional with the need to be comfortable for a long workday. At the wedding with Erica, I should have dressed more casually. Sure, I looked nice in a dress shirt and slacks, but I ended up being too hot and sweaty by the end. Plus, the fabric I wore took a while to dry during the intermittent rain showers. Check the weather, know the venue, be aware of the couple’s desired dress code, and find the balance between comfort and style. While I didn’t let my wardrobe interfere with my job, there were a few moments where I thought, “I should’ve worn something different!”
Since much of the photography stress falls on the primary photographer, try to keep things light during that stress. If you can find the right place for a little joke or a laugh, make the effort to keep things positive and fun. Don’t be nonchalant or uncaring about the stress, but find a way to keep things calmer and fun. Group formals, especially with older relatives or in poor weather, can be moments of particular stress. Stay focused, stay tuned-in to everyone’s mood, and do your best not to add to the stress.
12. Long Weddings are Awesome
When I first accepted the job with Erica, I thought, “Eight hours–that’s a long time to be photographing.” I realized that a long wedding is actually pretty nice compared to a quick one- or two-hour, in-and-out wedding. With a full wedding, you get a little down time during shifts in the itinerary. There’s time to breathe. You aren’t clicking your shutter for eight straight hours. Yes, there are moments of feverish activity, but there are also moments of calm and rest. Those calm moments do come, so cherish them.
13. The Itinerary is a Guide
I am a scheduler by nature. I have a detailed calendar. I like checklists. I like for things to go as planned. I also know that even the most meticulously planned wedding itinerary might be thrown away. The schedule, the must-have photos, these might be easily tossed aside by random delays and poor weather. Don’t fret. Keep talking with the bride, compare the schedule and reality with her, and be able to go with the flow. Something always goes slightly wrong at a wedding. A good wedding photographer can roll with the punches.
A good second shooter should work hard to balance giving suggestions with staying in the background. While working with Erica, I helped to work out problems and suggested a few poses, but I didn’t give too much input when it came to creating photos. It’s the primary photographer’s show, not yours. That means putting your ego and your normal style aside and becoming a version of the primary photographer. If the primary photographer is energetic and chatty, you can do the same. But if the primary photographer is quiet and methodical, you need to match that energy even if you are usually a much different photographer. Remember, the bride is expecting the wedding photography experience of the primary shooter, not the second shooter.
Ride to the wedding with the primary shooter. Erica and I did the hour-long drive to the venue together. The ride was a great time to get to know each other and discuss expectations for the day. Without the time to get warmed up and comfortable with each other, the first hour or so of the wedding would have been spent beginning the day’s relationship. Instead, we hit the ground running when we arrived. On the way home, we got to reflect on the day’s photography, discussing what went well and what could be improved. By the end of eight hours, I had so many thoughts and questions. Maybe Erica would have enjoyed a quieter ride home, but I couldn’t help but squeeze out as much of her knowledge as I could!
16. One Final Thought
If the bride hugs you at the end of the day, you’ve done a good job. After eight hours, the bride has probably experienced a series of highs and lows. As you end your day, the bride is thinking about her future, her honeymoon, her family and friends, and who knows what else. If she takes the time to give you a big hug and share her thanks, then you’ve done your job as a second shooter.
To listen to an audio podcast about my experience second shooting with Erica Coffman, click here.
For a more in-depth article about how I used what I learned with Erica Coffman at a recent wedding, click here.
For more information about second shooting at weddings, click to Aaron Grubb’s article titled “Second Shooting Weddings: 11 Things You Should Know.”
For more great information about photographing weddings, click on these articles by Erica Coffman: