wedding photography – advice on starting as a wedding photographer

wedding photography – where to start building a portfolio

I do get some interesting emails and Facebook messages. The strange ones run the whole range from trippy & bizarre, all the way to obscure. One of my favorite weird emails was one that had the title, “Nikon D100” with the body of the email simply asking, “How do you do that?”

This morning, I saw news that Facebook is once again altering things, including the way that messages are delivered. Paid messages from strangers now seem to be on the horizon. So with that, for the first time in forever, I went through the backlog of messages in the “other” folder. And I saw this message that I show here as a screen-capture.

What bemused me was the polite and respectful tone. And yes, he did ask! Unlike others who have simply used images as they please. I’ve even had my my entire website ripped off. A very ballsy move that they denied to the end. It gets even stranger when you realize my bio is the most plagiarized part of my website! I even directly mention this in the one section. Yup, apparently you can just use my bio as a template by changing a few details. So this request now is an odd combination of sincerity and naiveté. That he even asked, is then a surprise in itself.

Obviously, the main problem here is that someone would even (naively) think it is okay to misrepresent his abilities to potential clients. If you can’t shoot in a certain way, or produce a certain quality of work already, then it is fraudulent to say you can. Your potential clients deserve better!

We can’t ignore that this kind of thinking is very prevalent in the photography industry. It is a regular thing for me to see other photographers on Facebook complain that their images and text were ripped off. It is that rife! There is the Stop Stealing Photos Tumblr blog, where photographers are constantly busted for using photos that aren’t their own. The scary thing is, that site mostly just shows theft of wedding & portrait photography! It’s an avalanche that tedious DMCA take-downs can’t effectively stem.

The culprits just don’t realize that they will be caught. One way or another. Sooner or later. And there can be significant consequences when they are busted, as just one example.

What I find most ironic with all this, is that photographers like to think of themselves as creative people. Yet, there is such a vast number of wannabe photographers who happily steal and misappropriate and plagiarize. Where’s the self-respect?

I’ve even heard of photographers using the sample albums from album companies as their own work. Yup, they’ve all been shooting the same fabulous wedding in Italy.

The disconcerting element to all of this is that two photographs from someone else, could qualify one as a wedding photographer. That, sadly, is how low the bar is!

Mulling over this request, my reaction ranged from amusement, all the way to “are you f’n kidding me?”, back to the idea that this guy, like other aspiring photographers, is struggling with ideas of how to start as a wedding photographer.


a bit about myself and how I started

My interest in photography started when I was in high school in South Africa, and it was soon an all-consuming hobby. I devoured magazines and books, and shot as much slide film as my meager budget could allow. Later on as an adult, my photography hobby picked up speed where I was doing some overflow work for other photographers and studios in Johannesburg. Mostly corporate stuff and some work in the studio. I also shot some stock photography. Very few weddings. It wasn’t a specific interest at the time.

When we emigrated to the USA in 2000, I was a stay-at-home dad for nearly 3 years while I didn’t have my work permit. When I did finally get the work permit at the end of 2002, I went to several studios in New Jersey, and one studio owner saw some potential in me. Even now, I’m not embarrassed to show my original wedding portfolio. I’ve done much better since, but my original wedding portfolio was quite decent.

I photographed weddings for various studios in northern New Jersey for four years before setting off on my own. I was averaging about 80 weddings a year during that time, whether as a second shooter or a primary. I started off, just assisting or second shooting. So in all that time I picked up a lot of experience photographing weddings.

I built my current portfolio from the one studio who didn’t mind me using the images for myself. That’s how I got my start. A slow one in comparison to many. But I do feel it was solidly built on experience.


advice on building up a wedding photography portfolio

  • If you lack experience, then arrange to photograph family and friends.
    Get your chops down. Practice, practice, practice.
    It needs a lot of time with your fingers on the camera controls.
    It’s going to take even longer to self-evaluate your work and learn.
  • Read and study.  There is an incredible amount of information on the internet on the techniques of photography. Not knowing can’t possibly be an excuse, and it certainly isn’t a point of pride that you can get by on skimpy knowledge.
  • Attend photography workshops. Attend conventions.
    Then apply what you learnt to your photography and shoot even more.
  • You can’t Fast Track your way out of being familiar with your camera and knowing what you’re doing. This particularly frustrates me when I see a certain dumbing down, where photographers are advised that they don’t even need to know the basics to start as a wedding photographer. Or even need to own their gear, and that they can rent or borrow gear. This makes no sense. You need to be familiar with your equipment.
  • While we’re on this topic of borrowing equipment. If you lend out equipment to other photographers who are using it for paid gigs, then your credit card fees are going towards sustaining someone else’s business. And that’s no way to run your own business! While I will gladly help a photographer who is in a jam, I won’t lend out gear for someone else’s paid shoot.
  • Most of all, second shoot and assist where you can. There’s no substitute for that. No “portfolio building” shoot-out will give you the experience you will get actually photographing an event.
  • Don’t even consider “learning on the job”, and taking on work you’re not ready for. Sure, we are all on that never-ending climb up to improving our work. But you should never consider that you’d “figure it out as you go along”.  A wedding (or any other event), is not the place for that.
  • If you find it tough getting to second shoot, then that means you need to hone your photography skills even more, because there is a flood of photographers who are out there chasing the same work. And that in itself should perhaps tell you that wedding photography isn’t as easy a career that it is often painted to be. Wedding photography is not an easy career to make a sustainable living, regardless of the dream sold to you by sectors of the photography industry.



That’s about all the advice I can give. There’s no “Fast Track”. Building a career in any field is best if based on experience, know-how, and solid business principles.

And yes, I’m still finding my own way in this. Although I’d like to think that maybe, maybe he was correct in at least one thing – that I’mone of the world’s best wedding photographers. There’s always something to aspire to.


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20 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Lisa Carpenter says

    This is one of THE biggest reasons I started Shoot2Shoot. Photographers MUST gain experience and like you said, that cannot be done by stealing images or just ‘winging it’. I cannot imagine sitting in front of a potential client and confidently lying about work I didn’t do. I truly hope there is a way to improve what is happening.
    Thank you for this post

  2. 2JC Crafford says

    Hi Neil. I’m also from SA, still living here. Just want to say that you have been a constant inspiration to me since i started as a wedding photographer three years ago. Thanks for all the great tips that you share so generously.

  3. 4 says

    Well said Neil. I know how hard it is just starting out, as my portfolio has grown and I have been able to prove my skills, work has started to come to me, additionally there is SO much more, like figuring out your pricing, marketing, managing a business and so on, hence another reason why 2nd shooting is so desirable. I’ve only second shot one wedding, the rest as primary, but I would love to get more second shooting jobs in addition to what I do as a primary wedding photographer. :)

  4. 5 says

    So true Neil!
    I spoke to one bride who’d been at a wedding fayre and seen two different photographers passing off the same Italian sample albums as their own work… awkward!
    There are so many “photographers” just waiting to strike at their first wedding. Trying to trick the bride into thinking they already have experience. I took out a chap as an assistant “just for the experience” 2 1/2 years ago, and within a week he’d used my clients photos to set up his blog, website & FB page and promote himself as a wedding photographer. He had virtually no experience and had never photographed a wedding before.

    I also have a friend on Flickr who got a request from a new starter to buy a full set of wedding photos on DVD so that he’d have something to show to clients!

  5. 6Amelise says

    Love your work Neil! I’m an aussie aspiring wedding photographer, first picked up a dslr in ’05 and have been working towards ‘pro’ status since ’09 and feel I will never be good enough! I shot my sister’s wedding a few years back and through all the stress and mistakes (I had assisted at weddings before then) I had the time of my life, and seeing how happy my sister was with the result was amazing. Since then I’ve continued assisting, I have learned so so much but one of these days I have to step out alone and that both thrills and terrifies me!

  6. 7Bogdan says

    Not easy building a decent portfolio. No real shortcuts either. Experience only comes with… well experience. People have no problem ripping off other people’s work, under delivering even on bargain basement packages and their really unhappy clients spread the negative vibe that brings this industry even lower if that’s possible. I believe only thru educators such as yourself will be possible to slowly turn things around, but it will take time and determination. Thank you for doing all this Neil. My respect for your body of work is boundless.

    Merry Christmas!


  7. 8 says

    Wow,amazing that someone would ask this. One would think people have more self respect and try to put together a modest portfolio of their OWN work.

  8. 9Ian says

    Very well said, Neil. The stunning thing is that it seems never to have occurred to the writer that using your photos to represent him or herself would have been wrong. When did lying become so easy as to be non-consequential? I think it is becoming (a very annoying) part of our culture that people think that things should just come easy for them; that they shouldn’t need to work or sweat (or fail) for achievement. Sad really.

    I really enjoy your blog, though I can’t imagine in a million years doing a wedding. I just like the info as it applies to better portraiture, backgrounds, composition, etc. Best wishes for the new year.

  9. 11Jamie Welsh says

    Well what can you expect from someone not even able to spell your name correctly that kind of say’s it all not sure the writer would have been able to understand a polite no way!
    Now when someone comments on one of my Nailed shots Neil will usually get the credit i learned and continue to learn on this great free resource
    continued success

  10. 12John Douglas says

    Excellent article Neil! If you are truly passionate about photography you must be willing to be patient. It is difficult to obtain a portfolio of work that you feel comfortable sharing with prospective clients. I’ve done my share of second shooting and shooting weddings gratis in exchange for rights to the photos. It does happen over time if you can be patient

    While technique, composition, and “the eye” are very components of beautiful photography, it also helps to have a good looking couple and a nice venue.

    When I was developing a portfolio, I staged a wedding. A local bridal shop may be willing to loan you a wedding gown in exchange for your photos, and you can usually find models (both male and female) that will model in exchange for your photos. While this approach will provide you with the opportunity to take some nice looking photos, there is no substitute for actual experience and the pressures of shooting a wedding.

    Thank you for all of your articles Neil.

  11. 13Mike says

    I’ve seen some new photographers use images (they shot) from workshops in their portfolio. What are everyone’s thoughts on that? While they did take the shots, the photoshoot was setup and stylized by someone else. Chances are the photographer doesn’t even have the lighting gear that was used to replicate the same look for a client. Thoughts?

  12. 14 says

    I would agree that that is misleading and unethical if pushed as their own original work.

    You see the same thing with Glamor Photography, where photographers photograph models in a studio setup and post it as their own work. The photographer himself didn’t find the model, set the lights up, pose her … or any creative part of the process other than tripping the shutter.

    That’s not photography. It’s not even “paint by numbers”. And it certainly isn’t original.

  13. 15Pete (Barnet, uk) says

    It’s not just photographs that get pinched. I have a friend who’s a freelance journalist. Over here, in the UK, he interviews famous retired tv stars and actors. He had 80% of one article he published, reproduced by a big uk newspaper, without permission and attributed to another journalist. He’s looking to take legal action next year.

    I’m afraid the internet just makes this sort of crime all to easy. But at the same time the internet is a hard place to hide in. The optimist in me says that one day this will get sorted out and we’re look back on this period the same way we look at the old wild west.

  14. 16 says

    Hi Neil,
    Wondering if you received that request on April Fool’s day.
    With the digital revolution came a slew of “photographers” with little or no experience plying their trade to the public.
    Thanks so much for providing your insight throughout the year. Look forward to more from you in 2013.
    Happy Holidays.

  15. 18 says

    It’s amazing! Why they are not working for free to make portfolio? like we did in the beginning.
    Thanks Neil for this posting because I can see this everyday! Great post!

  16. 19Nicolaie says

    The plagiarism is not only for newbies. Big shot photographers, or at least I considered them as such, plagiarize as well. I saw a workshop intro clip for Sakis Batzalis, and found it very inspiring. Then, accidentally, I saw more or less the same thing on a more famous photographer’s site, Jim Garner. I thought it was a shameless ripoff, but hey, it’s how things are done these days.

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