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 start second shoot weddings with me, and I know that many other photographers also receive these requests on a regular basis.
Note: this article is intended specifically for those who are just starting out and have never second-shot at a wedding before.
Wondering what else wedding photographers actually do? If you’re an aspiring wedding photographer and want to see a typical day-in-the-life-of-a-wedding-photographer, check out my detailed article, linked below!
Table of Contents
What is second shooting?
Second-shooting at a wedding means that you work as an independent contractor 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 I was trying my starting out second shooting at weddings, hustling 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 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.
I also choose to reflect a little more personally on my own hard-won recent experience. 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 the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. Here, there are at least 4,000 professional photographers (figures from Yelp).
The average spend here for wedding photography spend is $4,000 and rising. It’s one of the most competitive areas in the US alongside New York City and Los Angeles.
Here are some of the problems that would-be wedding 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 I freakin’ love it. I’ve heard that I need to start second shooting at weddings alongside experienced pros.
I spend my time writing emails and sending them off to my favorite local wedding photographers. Not a peep back.
What’s happening here? On the surface it may seem like pretty easy. Send out some emails requesting work, get a ton of offers in.
Truth is, many photographers don’t have the time to train someone. Unless they are very new to it themselves, they want someone who can jump in and shoot as well as they can without direction. Some photographers only use their own fellow business-owning peers as second shooters.
Solution: Get more experience so that you come across like a more valuable addition to their team. You want to seem like 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’ll just have to think a little more creatively. Maybe your fave wedding photographer will not hire you with your current level of experience. Could that be 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 small budget and understand you aren’t super experienced?
Personal anecdote: I worked with lead photographers who had never shot weddings themselves before. Similarly with large nationwide firms that do virtually no vetting of their contractors. Learned so much!
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. P.S. I’m very good.
What’s happening here? Even though this seems like a very generous offer, it could also be a signal that you don’t value your own time. It signals you may not take the job too seriously.
Entering into a contract, which a lead and a second photographer 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, dressed appropriately and with a stellar attitude?
Will your work be as represented? Also you’re putting out big flashing warning signs that you are looking for training rather than work. However, you never know! Some lead photographers might see it as an opportunity to train someone into their way of doing things. Everything is an opportunity, depending on how you look at it.
Solution: Value yourself, your time and your skills. When you have something that’s valuable to the market of wedding photographers, reach out again.
Personal anecdote: This 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).
I did work for various photographers for free and even at the time I saw it as an amazing opportunity. It was always randomly through someone in my network – that personal connection helps. It takes time to gain trust in your abilities. Keep at it. There is no overnight solution.
I just wanna get wedding 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 happening here? The industry is highly saturated.
Even though a newbie photo business owner isn’t a threat to an experienced pro, there are only so many weddings. And we’re all a little wary of giving away our best trade secrets. Some clients will naturally be drawn to the cheapest price. Every time a new photographer springs up with bargain-basement rates, the cheaper the service gets overall.
That makes it just a little tiny incremental bit harder to survive as an experienced professional. But it’s the nature of business – and those that will stand the test of time know the motto ‘evolve or die’.
Solution: You must build trust over time.
Personal anecdote: When I was looking for second shooting opportunities, I never gave up. I was also honest about building my own business, knowing that this would be a no-no to some photographers.
One time I worked alongside someone for 6 months before he suggested I could shoot with him. It was also in a different country to where I eventually set up my biz. Another photographer I worked with in the studio for 10 months. Others I assisted for little pay over months or years before I was invited to second-shoot.
I tried not to think ‘what’s in this for me?’ nor did I ask them outright ‘will you give me second shooting work, and after how long?’ It came about as a result of them trusting me and observing that I was invested enough in their businesses to stick around. They noticed my professionalism, positive attitude and of course 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. Now I want to market myself to the top tier photographers in my area.
I want to learn from the best. I’ve got everything they asked for but no-one returns my calls!
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 out generally stick to the same small pool of regular go-to assistants/ second shooters / associate shooters.
It’s less of a risk for them, as they know what they’re getting – less chance 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 is to find someone that you would love to build a relationship with. Anything after that point is subject to how the relationship goes, what the needs are in their business at the current time, and a million other variable factors.
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 second shooting work. Show that you are looking to build a mutual, ongoing relationship.
You’ll get there!
How to find second shooting gigs!
Quick & easy online ideas
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 yearly subscription fee.
Honeybook Community. This is a local network board built 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.
Online communities where you need to show up
Facebook groups are great. In the Bay Area alone, there must 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.
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!
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!
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: getting started with photography
My own experience with getting started second shooting weddings began back in the UK. While I was getting my first wedding gigs second-shooting and assisting, I was also dabbling with family photography. The reality for me was pretty unusual. I was living in the UK but knew that I’d be leaving to go to the States about a year from the time I started.
With a single-minded drive to start my wedding photography business soon, I leveraged my personal circumstances. I could let potential employers know that I’d never become a competitor of theirs in our small city (Oxford). The job I found was doing studio admin for a wedding photographer and assisting a commercial photographer unpaid and regularly for 11 months.
I was allowed to bring my own camera for one wedding after a few months. It was such a momentous occasion! To be honest, it was an eye-opener. I had thought it would be easy and effortless to get the kind of shots I’d seen in the lead 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 the very first time I was invited to second-shoot at a wedding:
Making my way with the first photographer I ever worked for
I continued working with that wedding photographer for a few weddings. For the final one, I got paid £12/ hour for about 3 hours of the wedding. Again, I was elated!
Next, I moved to the US and started looking for second shooter gigs.
Moving to the US and starting again with the second shooting jobs
I got my start second shooting weddings in the US one about a month in. The pay was $25/ hour (about half the average rate at the time) and it was a 2-part wedding in San Francisco.
Though the photographer was not a full-time pro and wasn’t in business for long, I still learned a lot.
While waiting for the second shooting opportunities to take off…
I was busy building my portfolio and hustling hard. Shortly after arriving, 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.
Work was hard to come by, as couples won’t risk wasting their time with a newbie, even with little to no financial risk. When the stakes are as high as they are for a wedding day, its very tough to get those first opportunities.
How I found my next few wedding second-shooting gigs
– A referral on Facebook (a friend of mine’s friend’s wife posted looking for a second photographer)
– A family photographer and full-time health director shot her co-worker’s wedding for free, with no wedding experience. I knew her because I’d randomly emailed her weeks before, complementing her family photography.
– My husband and I shared a room with another couple on a retreat, but we didn’t 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. She introduced me to a large wedding photography firm, where I shot more weddings.
– Another Craigslist photographer looking for a photographer for a one-off gig.
– Fearless Seconds – a photographer from out of state had booked a wedding in San Francisco and needed someone at short notice.
– Saw a post online looking for someone to join their team of photographers! This was the opportunity! I met the gear requirements, filled out the application, passed my Skype interview & work review. That season I shot 15 weddings with them as second and lead photographer.
– Spent a whole day cold-calling photographers in my area, and managed to get a meeting with one. I wasn’t experienced enough for his business, which I respect. I assisted him a few times over the course of 2 years.
– My later second shooting gigs have all been because I personally knew the photographers who were offering them. I’d either 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 were just friends. : )
It isn’t all doom and gloom.
But it’s 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 was paid work, some wasn’t. But everything was useful.
The most important advice if you want to start second shooting weddings is NETWORKING.
An in-person connection is worth the same as 100 cold emails. Get out there and meet people. Offer to take someone to lunch.
You want folks to remember you when they are in a bind looking for a great second photographer. They’re going to remember you, not your website or the email you sent.
And if you make an impression on just one experienced photographer, think how many (dozens? Hundreds?) of other established pros are in their network?
I’m not a gatekeeper of this industry. I promise, I’m not.
But at the same time I want to be real, and share my lived experiences without sugar-coating. I do have a lot of people emailing me, posting on Reddit and in Facebook groups about what they want. Expecting it will be easy.
It’s not easy. It’s not linear. But it’s possible.
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!
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