I’ve prepared this practical guide for people starting out with wedding photography and looking to start second shooting at weddings. I get a lot of inquiries from people hoping to second shoot with me, and I know that many other photographers also receive these requests on a regular basis. Note: this is not going to be useful to experienced second shooters, it’s just for those who have maybe never shot at a wedding before but want to dip their toes into the wedding pool.
What is second shooting?
Second shooting means that you work as an independent contract for the lead shooter’s business. You are acting as a representative of the lead’s brand to capture more angles and cover more of the wedding than just one person can.
I remember not so long ago when I was trying my hardest to get every second shooting job I could. Why? In order of importance, to 1) to build a portfolio, 2) gain experience with weddings and 3) earn money while my own business was still getting off the ground after moving to the US.
There are so many articles on this subject already out there, so to avoid repeating the same sentiments, I’ve stuck to practical help and reflecting a little more personally on my own hard-won recent experience. No point putting out bland, impersonal information. I’ve been where you are, and I’m willing to open up about how it’s been for me!
Note: I’ve only ever worked as a wedding photographer in my own right in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. So my advice is going to be informed by my unique experience. Maybe where you live it’s not as cut-throat, but just as background, it’s estimated there are at least 4,000 professional photographers (figures from Yelp), and the average wedding photography spend is a smidge under $4,000 and rising. So yup, it’s one of the most competitive areas in the country alongside New York City and Los Angeles.
Here are some of the problems that would-be second shooters face, an explanation as to what’s going on, and then my solution.
Send out a few emails: get work, right?
Problem: I’ve decided I want to ‘get into weddings’. I shot a friend’s wedding and got the bug. I’ve heard that I need to find opportunities to shoot alongside experienced pros.
I spend my time writing emails and sending them off to my favorite local wedding photographers. Not a peep back. ‘Is my email working?’ I wonder.
What’s happening here? On the surface it may seem like there ain’t nothin’ to it. Send out some emails requesting work, get a ton of offers in.
Truth is, photographers don’t have the time to train someone. Unless they are very new themselves, or shooting very budget weddings, they want someone who can jump in and shoot just as well as they can without direction. Some photographers only use peers as second shooters.
Solution: Get more experience so that you come across like a more valuable addition to their team, someone they already know, like and trust. It’s the perpetual problem of ‘no-one will hire me because I don’t have experience, yet I can’t get experience because no-one will hire me!’
You just have to think a little more creatively. Maybe your top fave wedding photographer will not hire you with your current level of experience, but what about making that a goal for 1 or 2 years’ time?
In the meantime, hit up those budget photo companies, you know the ones. There are a number of large photo companies that will pay little but hire almost anyone. What about using Craigslist or Facebook to get some of your own gigs, working with couples that have a very small budget?
But I’ll even work for free! What photographer wouldn’t want to save themselves $$$’s per wedding?
Problem: I’ve made it clear that I’m a newbie seeking experience and I will work FOR FREE for as long as they want. P.S. I’m very good.
What’s happening here? Even though this seems like a very generous and humble offer, it could also be a signal that you don’t value your own time, or may not take the job too seriously.
Entering into a contract, which a lead and a second do, means valuable consideration is exchanged. If the lead photographer is not paying you, how can they be sure you’ll be there on the wedding day? Will you be professional? Will your work be as represented?
Also you’re putting out big flashing warning signals that you are looking for training, which as mentioned above is not something that photographers have time for. (Although, you never know! Some might see it as an opportunity to train into their way of doing things.)
Solution: Value yourself, your time and your skills. When you have something that’s of value in the market, reach out again.
I know that might sound harsh, but that was literally me a few years ago, unable to comprehend why my cheap rates were not appealing to other photographers (or clients for that matter). It takes time to gain trust in your abilities. Keep at it. There is no overnight solution.
I just wanna get experience, get paid and then strike out on my own!
Problem: No-one is willing to give me a chance. All I want to do is shoot for them, and then start up my own business! What’s wrong with that?
What’s happening here? This industry like so many others is highly saturated. Even though a newbie photo business owner shouldn’t be a threat to an experienced pro, there are only so many weddings.
Some clients will naturally be drawn to the cheapest price, and for each new tog that springs up with bargain basement rates, the cheaper the service gets, making it just a little bit harder to survive as an experienced professional. It’s the nature of business. It understandably makes some experienced pros less inclined to lift the curtain and show a future competitor all their secrets.
Solution: You build trust over time. When I was looking for second shooting opportunities, I had an experience where I worked with someone for 6 months before I could shoot with them; another photographer I worked with in the studio for 10 months; others I assisted for little pay before I was invited to second shoot.
I didn’t think ‘what’s in this for me?’ nor did I ask them ‘will you give me second shooting work, and after how long?’ It came about as a result of them trusting me, observing that I wanted to stick around, noticing my professionalism, positive attitude and seeing that my work was up to snuff.
OK I’ve done all the things and I’m *really* ready! But wait, it’s not as easy as you said!!
Problem: So I’ve paid my dues and have built up a solid portfolio and experience level I’m proud of. Now I want to try marketing myself to the top tier photographers in my area. I want to learn from the best. I’ve got everything they asked of me a year or two ago, but no-one returns my calls / emails/ DMs!
What’s happening here? Catching a photographer at the exact time when they’re looking for a new contractor is not necessarily going to be easy. The stars have to align.
Experienced photographers who have work to give are generally going to stick to the same small pool of regular go-to assistants/ second shooters / associate shooters. They know what they’re getting and that mitigates the risk of something going wrong.
Solution: Once again it takes years to build those relationships – I’m not even exaggerating. The best chance of getting in with a photographer (for anything more than a one-off gig because all their regular shooters are busy), is to find someone that you would love to build a relationship with and has an opening for regular work.
Your real-life creative community is the best place for this. Get your name out there. It’s amazing how the grapevine works in the wedding photography community. Make it known that you’re looking for regular, ongoing second shooting work and looking to build a mutual relationship.
How to find second shooting gigs!
Craigslist creative gigs section. You can find anything on Craigslist. I met my husband there. I also found many slightly desperate photographers scrambling to find a pair of hands with a camera or two to second shoot a wedding at short notice. While I never got any repeat work through those connections, it was a great place to start when I knew nobody.
Google is your friend. There are so many different websites that spring up with the aim of connecting seconds with leads. I don’t specifically endorse any, but an example is Fearless Seconds. Many will alert you when new relevant postings are up so you can be the first to impress. Some charge a small yearly subscription fee.
Facebook groups are great. In my area (Bay Area) alone, there must easily be half a dozen active groups that can help you find work. Just type in ‘your area second photographers’ (or just ‘wedding photographers’ or just ‘photographers’). You can also join specific ‘your city wedding referrals’ active groups.
Honeybook Community. This is a local network board build with the idea of connecting creatives for anything from styled shoots to wedding referrals to bartering trades to paid gigs. I tend to find that the types of professionals that post there to be experienced, offering high quality opportunities.
Rising Tide Society: Linked to Honeybook and owned (?) by them is this community group that has an in-person meeting every second Tuesday of the month at thousands of chapters all over the US. It’s attended mainly by wedding photographers and is THE place to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in your town!
Instagram & Facebook posts: If you already follow your fave photographers, a great way of hearing about opportunities is just to keep up with their posts on social. If they have an opening, they’ll often put out a post with details on the role and how to apply. Ask industry friends to tag you so you don’t miss out!
Referrals! This is the key that unlocks a lot of doors. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful persuaders. You get your name out there, and someone you know refers you to another photographer that they know. That recommendation from a trusted mutual party is worth so much.
Sharing my experiences
My own experience was doing studio admin for a photographer back in the UK and assisting another, mostly unpaid, regularly for 11 months.
I was allowed to bring my own camera for one wedding after a few months, to get experience with the flow of the wedding day. I was ecstatic!
It was a real eye-opener. To be honest, I had thought it would be easy and effortless to get the same kind of shots I’d seen in the photographer’s portfolio.
I had my little Sony Mirrorless, shot in jpg, took probably 200 images, and they were all terrible. Here’s the best of a bad bunch from my first ever second shooting wedding:
I continued working with that photographer for a few weddings and for the last one I got paid £12/ hour for a small portion of the wedding. Again, I was elated!
Next, I moved to the US and started looking for second shooter gigs.
I got my first one about a month in. I was paid $25/ hour (about half the average rate) and it was a 2-part wedding in San Francisco. The photographer was not a full-time pro and wasn’t clued up about weddings. She wasn’t in business for long, so no more opportunities for work or networking.
I was busy building my portfolio and hustling hard. I started photographing couples on my own. I found my first couple because I’d put in my Meetup profile that I was offering $40 engagement shoots. Also: Thumbtack (ugh).
Work was hard to come by, as most couples no matter how chill don’t want to waste their time by chancing it with a newbie, even with little to no financial risk.
I found my next few second shooting gigs through:
– A referral on Facebook (a musician friend of mine’s friend’s wife posted looking for a second photographer, and my friend alerted me)
– A family photographer and full-time public health director happened to be shooting a co-worker’s wedding. It was her first time shooting a wedding and she wasn’t being paid. I had known of her because I had sent her a message previously, complimenting her candid family photography.
– A fortuitous connection where my husband and I happened to share a room with another couple on a big retreat, but we didn’t really chat much. She then recognized my voice when I walked into a Rising Tide meeting. She was a commercial filmmaker and happened to be shooting a friend’s wedding.
– Craigslist photographer looking for a second shooter for her friend’s wedding, then brought me in to a large nationwide wedding photography firm, where I shot a another wedding with her.
– Another Craigslist photographer looking for a second photographer for a one-off gig.
– Fearless Seconds – a photographer from out of state had booked a wedding in San Francisco and needed to find someone fast.
– Saw a post online from a small local firm that was looking for someone to join their team! This was the opportunity I was waiting for. I met the gear requirements, filled out the application thoughtfully, passed my Skype interview & portfolio request, and shot 15 weddings with them as second and lead in one season. (Sadly, I’m not permitted to post any online now I’ve left the team. Win some, lose some 🤷♀️).
– Spent a whole day cold-calling photographers in my area, and managed to get a meeting with one. They didn’t think I was experienced enough for their brand, which I respect. I assisted them a few times over the course of 2 years and learned a ton.
– My later second shooting gigs have all been because I know the photographers who were offering them. Like, I’ve assisted them (one for almost a year at least once a week), or I’ve been referred by that person to others in their network. Others, I’ve had an ongoing 2-year acquaintanceship through regularly meeting, and they trust me to represent their brand.
It isn’t all doom and gloom.
But it’s hard, hard work. For me it was all of THREE solid, full-time years of not only second shooting but taking every wedding photography gig I could. Some work was paid, some wasn’t. But everything was useful, and so, so worth it.
The most important advice is NETWORKING. An in-person connection is worth the same as 100 cold emails. Get out there and meet people. You want folks to remember you when they are in a bind looking for a great second photographer.
And if you make an impression on just one experienced photographer, think how many (dozens? Hundreds?) of other established pros are in their network of Facebook friends & real-life peers?
I’ll also be bringing out a ‘How to be a better second shooter’ guide soon for once you’ve got the jobs you want to book!
Zoe Larkin is a San Francisco-based wedding photographer & fine art graduate originally from London. She specializes in photographing intimate weddings for joyful, free-thinking couples all over California. Zoe creates raw, personal images that evoke a range of emotions, combining documentary photography with a stylized edge. Her work has been published on Offbeat Bride, Equally Wed, Catalyst Wed Co, Love Inc Mag among others. She adores simplicity, kindness & Earl Grey. Zoe is an equality-minded vendor that celebrates diversity in all its forms. Read more about Zoe here.