As a busy wedding photographer in Nottingham, I often get email's from people who want learn to be a wedding photographer. They usually ask if they can be my second photographer for free. In exchange for being able to use the images as part of their portfolio. Plus of course the chance to learn from someone with experience such as myself.
I totally understand that everyone must start somewhere and whilst there are really no shortage of wedding photographers, I can and do spend a lot of my time mentoring and helping others in the industry. In the same way that many have helped me.
But a common question I hear is "How can I get experience as a second shooter if no-one is willing to give me a chance?" And in my opinion, that is the wrong question to ask.
So if you're looking for your first break then read on as it may give you an important insight about how the other side of the table looks. What experienced wedding photographers are thinking and looking for when we read these requests.
With this information, I hope it will help you get your first break.
Now I'll admit I rarely reply to the overwhelming majority of emails asking to be a second wedding photographer because of one simple reason. Let me explain why.
Typically I will get an email which says something like this:
"Hi Martin, my name is xxx. I live in Nottingham and I'd like to be a wedding photographer like yourself. I was wondering if I could second shoot for you for free so I can build up my portfolio.
Now at first glance you may be forgiven in wondering what the problem is. It's polite. The sender is local and offering their services for free!
Let me explain a little bit about how I choose someone when I need a helping hand and you may start to understand my thought process.
- Are they good? I want to deliver the best possible wedding photograph's to my customers. So my biggest priority is to find someone who is GOOD. I don't know this person who is blind emailing me. It's a risk for me which I'd rather not take. Especially not when I have an established circle of trusted photographers whom I have worked with before.
- Will they get in the way? This is related to experience. Will they know where to stand, what to shoot and more importantly, where NOT to stand. The last thing I want is a newbie to be stood in the way of me getting the perfect photograph.
- What is their motive? There's almost a simplicity in hiring a busy, experienced wedding photographer as a second shooter. Their motivation is of course money. They do a professional job, I pay them. The end. However, with the hypothetical person above, their motivation is to fill their own portfolio. In short to create stunning photos for themselves, not me.
Now you may be thinking that surely it's one in the same thing but let me tell you it's not. I've lost track of the amount of times my 'trainee' was too busy shooting and not concentrating on the task at hand. The classic example is instead of holding my flash aimed at the couple. They're too busy shooting for themselves and don't notice they've missed with the flash. Or taking my couple away for photographs without clearing it with me first. Botching it and leaving me with the dilemma of do I deliver these photos or do I hope the couple don't notice they had some photos taken but they're not in the final set?
- Self Promotion. Now I admit I've yet to experience this but I have heard stories from others who have been bitten this way. There is a cardinal rule when being a second photographer which should NEVER be broken. Ever. If anyone asks for your company name, you give them the primary's name, never your own. I've heard of people handing out their own business cards before. Friend requesting the couple on social media later and tagging them on photos is also a no-no. As a second, you represent the primary's business and should never ever try to promote yourself.
There is literally no quicker way to ensure you get yourself blacklisted as a reliable second photographer than handing out your own business details. Word travels around social media like lightning. Don't do it, no matter how keen you are to get some business.
Coming back to the point, my fear is that if I don't know this person. I cannot trust that they won't try to do this.
So as you can hopefully begin to see. Inviting a newbie I've never worked with before introduces risk. A risk which I'd rather not take since photographers are typically a risk averse bunch. Yes, I may save a few quid by hiring someone inexperienced. It's not a huge priority though compared to the other factors I must consider.
Second Photographer Versus Assistant
I often advise those starting out that if they are serious about learning then it's better to start as an assistant rather than a second photographer. The reason being that as an assistant you will be able to spend more time with the main. You can shadow them more. Watch how they work, see how they handle guests. As the paid second shooter, there will be times where you will need to do something else. For example, I may ask you to photograph candids whilst I do portraits with the bride & groom. Or shoot the details whilst I'm shooting bridal preparations.
I'm not just saying this to try and source some free labour. Assistant roles aren't always unpaid. You can get paid assistants roles but you may have a bit more success if you are willing to do the first time at least for free.
I've offered my services as an assistant a few times and helped for other wedding photographers. I drove there, held their bags. Helped corral guests, held flashes, fluffed the dress. All for free. Yes. Free. Just so I could see how they worked during the day, pick up some tips and compare it to my own approach.
If this becomes a regular thing then you can have an open discussion about being the second photographer at some point. Clearly there needs to be a win-win for both of you or the primary is just taking advantage as time goes on. I'm not advocated working for free long term.
How to get a Break
If you've read the above then you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a vicious circle then. How do you get experience if no-one will give you a chance?
There are two ways I would recommend:
Social Media & Forums
In the age of social media, I'd recommend joining some wedding photography groups. Get to know people, join in. Ask questions. Start learning from the experienced professionals. You'll soon find that there's no elitist culture designed to keep people out. Just small business owners all trying to provide the best service they can to their customers.
The old adage "People buy from people" is very apt here. Once you are a more familiar name then people will be more likely to trust you and give you a chance than a cold approach.
So let's say you are trying to network with others but it's not working. So you want to try and send out email's to photographer's in the hope that someone will reply.
Be mindful in your email about what they will want. Free second shooting isn't that attractive if the person is a total unknown and possible future competition.
See the next part about throwing your net a bit further out. So I'm far more likely to consider someone outside of the area than someone else who wants to be a wedding photographer for example.
Lastly be polite. Always. That's just plain common sense really.
Look Further Afield
Look outside your local area. A photographer further away may be more inclined to offer you an opportunity since you won't be their direct competition. To the experienced photographer, they risk having you marketing yourself with photographs from the same wedding in a few months time in the same area. That doesn't sound like a great business idea really does it? This is potentially confusing to prospective customers who may see both of your work. Except you will likely to be cheaper to reflect your 'new' status.
The fact you are willing to travel also shows you are serious.
If you are serious about being a wedding photographer then to a certain extent, travelling will be the nature of the beast. I personally consider any venue within 1 - 1.5 hours drive to be 'local' and only charge travel fees for weddings taking place further than that.
If the idea of travelling an hour for a great learning opportunity isn't for you then in all honesty I'd ask you to look long & hard at what you are expecting from the industry.
I hope this article gives you a good insight on what professional wedding photographer's are thinking. That we're not operating some elitist cartel trying to keep fresh blood out. It's really more about risk mitigation for us. Wedding photography is an incredibly competitive market. Especially as modern digital camera technology is lowering the barriers to entry at a frightening pace. However it is still an incredibly rewarding career which I am so lucky to be able to do.
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