Wedding photography: hired pro or guest with a camera?

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I recently read several good posts about being asked to be a wedding guest/photographer and shooting at weddings when you are not the hired photographer.

They’re things I have contemplated recently in part because (A) I have wedding work coming up and (B) because I have had several weddings to go to recently as my niece and two nephews all decided to get married within eight months of each other – Lord, help my big sister. At this point, it’s two nephews down and the niece to go in what sounds like a gorgeous wedding at a winery.

Of course, at those family affairs, I want to bring my gear and get some shots. But I also don’t want to trample the toes of the hired ‘togs anymore than I’d want someone to do that to me at a wedding I am hired to shoot.

Earlier this month, I solidified some distinctions between being a hired photographer and being a guest with a camera.

  • A wedding guest has a seat, and can shoot from there if it is OK with the bride and groom – and if he or she has a shot. A wedding photographer is moving around the venue trying to capture the key moments from the best angles and with the best lighting. (Updated: This came home to me at my niece’s wedding, because due to a little craziness – the outdoor ceremony was rained out at the last minute and we had to make a quick move inside – I did not have a good shot at the ceremony. But it would have been inappropriate for me to move around, while the hired pros had to.)
  • The guest with a camera in mainly shooting natural light or on- or close-to-the-camera flash. A wedding photographer has license to set up the best lighting they can manage to capture portraits, the ceremony, the reception, etc. – taking into account, of course, venue restrictions. And trust me, from the vantage point of my role as a church soundboard guy, I can tell you there are all sorts of ways wedding photographers light the event, from AC lights to almost all natural light.
  • The wedding photographer orchestrates the family and wedding party portraits and has the best angle and lighting for those. The guest, if it is appropriate for him or her to be there, can take a few shots during this time, but most of those pics will probably be looking off somewhere else. Asking guests in posed shots to look your way after the pro shoots is the height of obnoxiousness.
  • If you are a male wedding guest with a daughter in attendance, you put your camera down when they announce the father-daughter dance and go find your little girl – even if she’s slightly embarrassed to be seen on the dance floor with you. If you are the wedding photographer, you are trolling the dance floor to capture some those beautiful moments.
  • The wedding guest will probably focus on the people he or she knows at the wedding, while the working ‘tog has to capture the whole event.
  • The wedding photographer hopes to look at the LCD screen and honestly think, “She’s going to love this.” The guest wants to look at the screen and think, “I love this.” Of course, both shooters hope the family and others will like their pictures. But as a wedding photographer, it’s your responsibility to come up with shots the bride, her mother and everyone else will love.

The essential difference is weather you are there to do a job or celebrate an event with friends and loved ones. That said, the successful wedding photographer has to tap into that emotion too. No one wants a set of wedding pictures where everyone looks as excited as they would be to have a root canal – my apologies to dentists.

Wedding photography is a huge field because of what weddings are: critically important life events filled with pageantry, formal, choreographed moments spiked with spontaneity and raw emotion. They usually provide plenty of great shots regardless of why you brought your camera.

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