Should you let your friend shoot your wedding for free?

This whole post is dripping with hypocrisy, terrible, awful hypocrisy.

Because the truth is I started out as a new photographer shooting friends weddings for free. I started out as a guy who loved photography, hustling and undercutting established photographers by shooting for next to nothing to try and build that portfolio you need to get going, desperate for work, any work. So I’m going to be upfront, I’m an awful hypocrite, there I said it. Because the fact is, there’s no college course, there’s no school for wedding photographers that can teach you what it really feels like to have this huge responsibility resting on your shoulders. You can spend hours on Google and YouTube but there’s nowhere you can really learn how to be a wedding photographer without jumping in the deep end! No armbands, sink or swim. But here’s my question, is your wedding day going to be someone’s training ground?

I get it, I do. Money's money, and having that friend who’s really getting in to photography offering to shoot your wedding for free, or the photographer who’s quoting you half price of all the others, man that’s tempting right? But here’s 6 questions you need to get the answers to before you make that call. If you can answer yes to these then man go for it, save that dough and treat yourself!!

Bride and Groom paddlin in sea at Whitstable


Let me say this, wedding photography can be scary as hell! I remember my first wedding. I was shooting for free, it was for a friend and I needed to build my portfolio (see I told you I was a hypocrite!) and the morning of that wedding I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous my entire life. I include my own wedding day in that, the birth of my 3 children, yep, I was that nervous! I mean, physically shaking, sick to my stomach, pale as a sheet oh my god I don’t want to do this, daydreaming about running away and living in the woods, NERVOUS!  Now I got through it, hey the couple were even happy with their photos and we’re still friends so that’s good! And even though I look back and cringe a bit now when I look at them, the photos , yeah they came out ok. But I realise now, 11 years on, that I knew nothing Jon Snow! I knew nothing! It can be difficult to see the difference in value between one photographer and the other guy but I promise you, experience, it's priceless.

Bride and groom sharing first kiss after their wedding ceremony


Have they ever had to deal with the slightly uncooperative vicar who deep down doesn’t think there should be a photographer at a wedding ceremony? How will they deal with that situation when he orders them to stand at the back of the church and not move from that spot the whole ceremony? Will they stay professional, friendly, respectful? Will they understand that they have to be flexible and adaptable and that the LAST thing you want on your wedding day is some kind of drama between your vicar and your photographer? Hey, one vicar before the start of the ceremony looked me dead in the eye (I swear he didn’t blink) and told me he’d kicked last week’s photographer out of the church mid-way through the ceremony for ignoring his instructions! I nodded, smiled, told him he had nothing to worry about and got on with the job. Emotional families, shifting timelines, rain, sleet, hail, organising groups of rowdy wedding guests and getting them to smile! That’s just a few of the hundreds of different situations your wedding photographer has to be able to deal with, not only deal with but deal with like a professional. So how are their people skills. One thing you can be sure of is that a professional who’s been in business for a number of years, has dealt with all of these scenarios countless times.


Back to our friend the vicar who’s told your friend they’re to stand at the back of the church, 40,50 feet back from the action and not move. Has your friend got a long enough lens to cover that kind of situation? Or are they rocking the kit lens that came with their camera? I hope not because otherwise the pictures of your wedding ceremony are going to end up a bit "distant" . Think a couple of miniature Lego figures stood in the far distance. The first dance, easy right? Just fire away! Looks great and the DJ's got these super groovy lasers and lights and a smoke machine! But man this reception rooms dark. “Why won't my camera focus, bloody smoky dark lasery room ruining my shots. The first dance is finishing oh my god, Aahhh!”  But it's cool because I'm sure that your friend knows how to use off camera flash to rim light you and help focus, and I bet they know how to bounce flash and drag the shutter to get really interesting dynamic dance photos. And while we’re at it, have they got back up equipment, I mean back up’s of E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Back up camera’s, back up wide lenses, back up long lenses, memory cards, camera batteries, flashes, flash batteries, light stands……., because if the answer is not an emphatic yes to that question then stop right now and think really hard about your next step.

Bride and Groom having first wedding dance at The East Quay Wedding Venue


Have they been to enough weddings as a guest to know when the first kiss is about to happen, a moment that lasts literally a second! Will they be ready and in position for the shot? Have they learned that it's a good idea to shut the aperture down a bit in the seconds beforehand to increase the depth of field just to make sure you get that once in a lifetime moment actually, ya know, in focus. Will they have remembered before the ceremony to check their memory card isn't about to run out or their battery isn't about to die (they have got spare batteries and memory cards right?, we checked that earlier yeah?) or will they find out at the exact moment they hear the words "you may kiss the bride" their stomach literally turning over as they realise they've missed the shot! “Ummm can you just do that whole first kiss thing again please??”  Will they know that just after your dad/mum finishes their speech there’s a really good chance you are going to share this super amazing hug full of emotion and meaning? you probably don’t even know that yourself right? but I promise you it happens nearly every time and every experienced wedding photographer will be looking for it, waiting for it.

Bride hugging her dad


“It’s ok coz these modern cameras pretty much shoot themselves anyway! Put it on Auto mode and off you go!” But I hope your photographer knows how to use AI Servo auto focus (YAWN!) because if they don't, or that first SLR camera that they've bought doesn't have that feature then you probably want to forget about having a picture of you in focus as you walk down the aisle or a confetti shot. But hey who cares about that moment anyway right, it's not like they're once in a lifetime or anything, we'll just try again later. And yeah you can put a camera in Auto and let the clever electrics decide what exposure to set, but creativity isn’t born of electric and wires. Controlling the exposure, controlling the light, controlling your point of focus, that’s what photography is actually about. Creating shadow, creating drama, seeing a moment, a camera can’t make those decisions for you. Years of turning the dials on the camera means an experienced wedding photographer doesn’t even really think about it, they just do it, instinctively, you know like when you’re driving and you’re just sub consciously doing it. It means your photographer can concentrate on the moments in front of them, on interacting with you, making you feel comfortable, not on learning how the camera works.

Bride silhouette wedding portrait


I recently received an enquiry. A really nice couple, I’d shot a couple of their friends weddings in the past and they’d recommended me. After the initial bit where we email and talk about what they’re looking for I got an email back saying they were going with a different photographer who’d made them an offer they couldn't refuse (y'know cheap, not a Don Corleone type Godfather offer) Ok, no worries, I wish you the best of luck with the day, that’s part of the business. Fast forward a couple of months later and an email appears in my inbox, the offer that had been too good to refuse had fallen through, the couple left completely in the lurch, the photographer had double booked their date. I receive emails like this all too often. Established wedding photographers are running businesses, they’re not playing at being a photographer or trying their hand at it because it seems like an easy ride (trust me it’s really not). Of all the wedding photographers I know, their business is their baby, their absolute pride and joy. Blood, sweat, tears, absolute sacrifice have been poured in to it. Customer service, professionalism, expertise, pride in their craft and their business, it’s those qualities that have meant they’ve survived in this hugely competitive field for so long. It’s those qualities you’re paying for.

East Anglian Railway Museum wedding photography

I’m lucky enough to attract people to my work who see the value in wedding photography, that understand that it's an investment that will only grow in value as time goes by. If you’re at the beginning of this process of planning your wedding then I get how daunting the cost of everything can seem. I don’t under estimate the temptation of choosing the photographer who’s quoting half the price of the others, offering the earth for next to nothing, or the friend who takes nice photos and is looking to give it a go, but you deserve to understand the reality, it’s our responsibility to help you understand that. There's a reason why one of the biggest regrets people have about their wedding planning is not hiring the right photographer, just google it, because when all is said and done you get one shot at this, no do overs, no retakes.

Member of Wedding Photojournalist Association and Looks Like Film