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.