Start Your Photography Career as a Second Shooter

Photography: Elmada

It doesn’t matter how great your photography teacher or how respected your course, it’s only when you reach the church and spend time with the bride that you realize exactly what’s involved in completing a successful wedding shoot. It’s only then that you understand what to bring, who to photograph, how to manage the guests and what it means to make a living out of events. One way to pick up that essential experience is to follow around a professional photographer before you start trying to land clients of your own.

For a new photographer, the benefits of being a second shooter are clear enough. You get to attend weddings, become used to the way the shoots work, learn from an established professional, gain an understanding of professional photography and build a portfolio with real wedding shots. You can also get paid. The rates vary, and for shoots that involve shadowing rather than shooting (and especially the first few times with a new photographer), can be nothing. But for photographers coming to the end of what is in effect a kind of internship, it’s not unusual to earn as much as $500 for a day’s work taking pictures and learning the business without the responsibilities that come with being the main supplier.

The Five Jobs of a Second Shooter

For the professional too, having help close to hand can be invaluable. Dani Leigh has been shooting professionally for three years. She worked as a second shooter while she was building her portfolio and still deciding whether photography was a career she wanted to follow. After a year shooting alone, she invited a college friend to come with her on a job and has used assistants ever since, even inviting students to join her on packages that don’t include additional staff.

“Now, I could not imagine not having a second shooter,” she says.

Dani’s demands of her second shooters tend to take five different forms. The first few times an assistant comes out with her, she expects them to shadow her closely. They can take as many pictures as they want, but she wants them to stay at her side. Once she’s comfortable with them, and once they’re comfortable working with her, she’ll send them to photograph the groom and the groomsmen while she focuses on the bride. During the ceremony itself, the second shooter should be at a location opposite the spots that Dani has chosen in order to maximize the angles. And the second shooter also needs to help during the formals, organizing the guests so that they’re ready for the photo and allowing Dani to move quickly on to the bride and groom.

Finally, during the reception, the second shooter can relax and create the images he or she wants.

“Their job is to shoot to their heart’s content,” says Dani, “and get me Cokes.”

Dani uses two second shooters on a regular basis. Lauren Cunningham is a college friend and a marine biologist with a keen interest in photography. After working with Dani for two years, she’s now setting up her own photography company. Steve Bloom is an old school friend who had majored in photography and was looking to break into the wedding business.

Not all enthusiasts and photography graduates though are lucky enough to have studied with someone who went on to set up their own studio, and finding second shooter positions might not be simple. Flickr has a group on which professional photographers advertise positions and keen learners describe their availability. But the group isn’t location-centered and isn’t always a good place to look. Other options can include job sites, but Dani recommends steering clear of wanted ads placed on Craigslist. Reputable photographers, she says, do not post positions on the classified site.

Get Your Own Site

A better option, she argues, is to research a photographer you’re interested in learning from, and send them a personalized email explaining why you’d like to work with them. You should also meet with them in person — and perhaps offer a bribe.

“While a lot can be explained through email, a face to face email is very important. As busy professionals, if we are taking time out of our day, be willing to give us something in return, like free coffee.”

More importantly, you should have a professional website and not just a Flickr stream or a Facebook page. When it costs as little as $15 a month to set up and maintain a photography site, being willing to make that investment says much about a photographer’s commitment to the profession.

Getting the most out of the experience though, requires not just a commitment but an open mind, a willingness to learn, and the kind of likable personality that helps the couple, the guests and the boss all feel relaxed around you. An ability to read the photographer’s mind and bring them the extra equipment they need before they even knew they needed it would be useful too, as are  patience and perseverance.

“Don’t give up after the first time,” recommends Dani. “Do keep in mind that things go wrong [and] if your lead photographer is having a bad day or is unhappy with the images she is getting from the shoot, it could affect the second shooters. Don’t let a single experience form your judgment – try again.”

That might be the best advice of all. Becoming a professional photographer isn’t an overnight switch. It’s a process that runs through skill acquisition, curiosity, doubt and a host of questions about how the work is done and whether it should be done by you. None of those questions can be answered without actually picking up a camera, meeting paying clients and photographing them in action. Doing that alongside an established photographer is a great way to pick up the knowledge before you start looking for clients willing to let you pick up their cash.

7 comments for this post.

  1. David Wegwart Said:

    Well written. I get so many calls from would be wedding photographers and most are hoping to be "there" three weeks after their first wedding shoot.

    As this article says, spend the time. There really is no other way to succeed than getting experience. Second shooters often become primary photographers after a few seasons. I currently have a second who has been with me for 5 years and he could easily do his own now, from a photographic point of view. However, he still lacks the confidence to "pose under pressure". That is often the failing for many new photographers.

  2. Britanie Said:

    This is exactly what I have been doing. I have been second shooting for a well established photographer for about a year now and I really enjoy it. I don't know if I am quite ready to shoot a wedding on my own yet but she often sends me off to take pictures of the groomsmen and the groom on my own. 🙂

  3. Ann Said:

    Thanks for writing this. I shot my first wedding by myself with little to no experience shooting weddings and it was HARD! I did it for free, so I told the bride & groom they got what they paid for (LOL). They were very happy with the results, but I will not be the main/only shooter for a wedding until I have a LOT more experience. I wish I would have had more experience under a pro photographer before I agreed to shoot, but that's hindsight for you.

    Being a second shooter is definitely the best way.

  4. Sam E. Said:

    Nice article. My assistant/second shooter has been with me for four years now, since he graduated from high school. I DEPEND on him now and we're working on training his replacement so he can transition to doing weddings on his own when he graduates from college.
    As a professional photographer, I still seek out the opportunity to second-shoot with photographers I like. It gives me the chance to try new techniques out, look for different opportunities and perspectives, and be more creative than I like to chance at weddings when I'm the primary shooter.
    By the way, this article was sent to me by one of my regular assistants 🙂

  5. Rachel O Said:

    This is exactly what I've been looking to do. I feel like I could learn a ton just by working with someone for awhile. I have contacted other pros but feel like a lot of them are threatened by me wanting to learn from them. Maybe it is because I have a website and am already one level of "professional" (even if they are a step or two above me). Or maybe it is just that they don't need the help or don't have the money to pay someone else to help. Whatever the reason, I've found it hard to find someone to second shoot with!

  6. Donothan Gamble Said:

    This is a very good technique. Like with anything you want to learn sometimes you have to be an observer before you can complete the task. There is nothing like hands on.

  7. Mat R Said:

    This is great advice! As Donothan G said, there is nothing like hands on. Getting the experience working with a professional gives you so much more knowledge on how to do things that you can really look to master your skills.

    As some of you stated that having a second also gives you a sense of enjoyment in being able to do more at events. Being able to try new ideas, or even collaborate on ways to get that great photo that your clients will cherish forever.

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