A step-by-step beginner’s guide to photographing your first wedding

written by:
Sharyn Hodges


A step-by-step beginner’s guide to photographing your first wedding

14So imagine this: you are a photographer and have taken a few family shoots and maybe some portraits of your friends and now you are wondering, “What would it be like to shoot a wedding?”

To be honest, I wasn’t ready for my first wedding! But I have learnt so much since I took the leap; not only about photography, but about myself, too. I am super excited to share this “Photographing your first wedding” blog post based on my experiences, especially when it comes to the things I wish people told me in advance to do (and not to do!), behind the scenes advice, the fun stuff and definitely also the stressful stuff, as well asa general overview of the preparation before the wedding and of the whole day from start to end.

Now, let’s get this straight: I am not trying to scare you away from photographing a wedding, as it’s one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever encounter, but weddings are a serious matter…there are NO second chances, no retakes. Moments that you miss are lost forever, you can’t place an order for perfect weather and have to make do with what is dished out on the day, whether it’s cloud, rain or thunder. Capturing that “magic moment” rests solely on your tired, aching shoulders and you need to make that shot happen, no matter what. It’s an important day for a whole bunchof people – not just the bride and groom – but also their parents, their extended family that travelled from far to share this day and their friends who will want to remember this day in its full glory, so you pretty much have to get it right.

That is why you need to think long and hard about this before you say “I do” to the bridal pair. However, if you are prepared, organized and you know your stuff, there is no better feeling when you get an overexcited WhatsAppmessage from the bride to exclaim (using a long string of adjectives) how your photographs transported them back to their special day and how they relived every moment with every photo, thanks to your meticulous planning.

Oh, and before we start, don’t EVER do this for free. Getting paid (even if you do it at a fraction of the price) will motivate you to rent gear (if needed), drive to the locations and sit down to edithundreds of photos. Believe me, any amount of bucks will make it worth your while.

Here we go

Generally, weddings are booked six months to a year in advance. The first “step” when I get an enquiry, is to make sure the client is familiar with my wedding portfolio, so that they fully understand what type of photographs they could expect from me at the end of the day. Most importantly, they have to be comfortable and well acquainted with my editing style. This is almost like a taste bud test, either you like it or don’t. Once we’re all on the same page, I keep in regular contactwith the couple and, if possible, have a pre-wedding meeting, go through the timeline of the day, ask the couple for a list detailingeach sub-set of the guests with who they would like photos. Be sure to agree on alist of “poses” well before the wedding so that you understand each other’s expectations, and discuss any limitations there might be in recreating certain poses and images they might have seen on social media. I always try and get to the venue before the actual day. I also try and go at the time of day that the ceremony is due to take place, so that I know exactly how the lighting will be at that time of day at the chosen venue. I spend a good amount of time walkingaround just taking it all in, closing my eyes and imagining where people will be sitting and “looking” for potential photo opportunities.

The day before the wedding

There is a quite along preparatory checklist that you need to work through the day before the wedding to make sure everything goes to plan and is as stress-free for everyone as possible – you don’t want to ever stress the bride (or the bride’s mother, for that matter!).

Here are a few of my checklist to-do’s:

1# Message the bride early in the day and tell her how excited you are to be photographing her special day. She needs all the compliments and confidence boosts she can get; this is a nerve racking and emotional day for her!

2# Get all yourequipment together. Chargeall the necessary batteries (camera, flash and/or drone).

3# Clean all yourlenses and format the memory cards properly.

4# Print the schedule and refresh your memory with the timings of each event during the day – you should know the schedule back to front and off by heart! I have never attended a wedding where it has gone exactly to the schedule(DON’T STRESS!). Be calm. Generally, the schedule changes because of the weather and things are never on time.

5# If it’s a new location, double-check your GPS to make sure you’re not late (it just doesn’t set you up for a good day). I try and get a take-away coffee or water-bottle and arrive 30 minutes early, walk around the venue just to refresh my mind and ease into the day.

Wedding day – morning

So your day has finally arrived and you have probably not slept that well and you are super excited, nervous and maybe even experiencing a bit of self doubt. This is human nature, if you weren’t feelings these, then I would be worried! I still get all of those feelings. Every. Single. Time.

Start your day by having a huge breakfast –  I get seriously “hangry” if I don’t eat and I suffer from the grumps, too. Always pack water and snacks. My snacks include a nut mixture, Endearmints, jelly sweets and a fruit (generally a green apple). These should be easily available to you and preferably something you can eat without using your hands too much!

Final checklist:

1# Gear is all packed (double check you have packed your batteries).

2# Snacks are packed. And water.

3# Printed schedule in your back pocket.

4# Make you are dressed professionally. This is a wedding,not a beach outing. Having said that, be comfortable in your chosen attireas some weddings last 12 hours. No jeans, slip slops, or t-shirts with prints. You are representing yourself and in turn, your brand.

5# Make sure your cell phone is charged and you have a charger or power bank with you.

Reception venue

Photographing the reception venue is rather important, albeit very tricky, because the bride and groom actually never get to see the decorated reception venue with all the bells and whistles before the guests descend on it and pull it all apart. They rely on you to get the detail shots of the table décor and flower arrangements. Depending on the schedule, try and get to the reception venue between photographing the bride and groom (as they usually get ready at the venue), or liaise withthe wedding coordinator to find out when the venue will be fully decoratedand ready for you to spend 15-20 minutes getting décor shots. Remember to include the finest details, from the cake, table settings, name place cards and any other unique features the bridal couple decided to integrate.

Bride & Bridesmaids’ coverage (1 – 1.5 hours)

So, depending on your schedule, I usually start photographingthe bride and bridesmaids, as they take a bit longer to get ready and if I am shooting alone within the schedule,Iwill fit the groom and groomsmen in between the bride getting ready. This takes a bit of practice to master, and you have to be strict about your schedule!

The second I walk in the door, I introduce myself (sunglasses off) to everyone with a big, welcoming smile, making sure the bride is happy and start to create a relaxing rapport with everyone that is important on the day, including the bridesmaids and most likely also the Mum and maybe Grandma. Remember, if people are relaxed and comfortable around you, you are well on your way to winning the day and taking pictures will be much easier!

Like I mentioned before, there might be specific photos that the bridal couple would like. Generally, I do have specific, “standard” photographs I know will be taken, and they are always a winner. I have developed this list over time and it covers all aspects of the wedding day. Other than the tried and tested “pose”list, it really is just “winging” it. I can’t force a bride to hug her bridesmaid; those are magic moments that you need to make sure you are around for. Eyes wide open!

Checklist for bridal photos:

1# Bridesmaidsgetting the bride ready (this could be pulling up a garter, tying up the button on the dress, helping with a necklace etc.).

2# Bride getting hair and make-up done.

3# Wedding essential details: the engagement ring, the bouquet, shoes, perfume, earrings, necklace etc.

4# Bride portraits (generally look for a bedroom window, sitting alone in her own world)

5# Bride and bridesmaid combos, including individual shots of each. Make this fun!

6# A cheers shot with champagne.

7# If Mum and Grandma are around, cover those too, depending on what you discussed with the bride.

8# Any other shots she might have discussed and requested from you.

Groom and groomsmen coverage (30 – 45 minutes)

Once again, enter the room with a smile on your face and introduce yourself. I like to start with the detail shots first; this gives me a chance to have a look around and absorb the vibes.  I look for an area that is well lit and has a plain, but textured, background. Remember, the “feel” of the groom shots are different from the bride shots.

To make things fun and comfortable, again my list of must-do photographs:

1# Details, which would include rings, cufflinks, tie, shoes, socks, bride’s present (if there is), cologne, watch etc.

2# “Getting-ready” photos, the boys helping each other with ties, suspenders etc.

3# Getting combos of groom and groomsmen together and individually.

4# Groom portraits.

5# The same as the girls, a cheers photograph but with whiskey, a beer or maybe even a cigar

6# If there are family members around include them, too.

7# Boys will be boys and they can be really fun to photograph “trying to be cool”.

8# The boys walking together, or as I call it “A Band of Brothers Shot”.

The ceremony

This is the part of the day that stressesme out and relaxes me in the same time. I can’t control what happens at the ceremony. I go around capturing what I can and try to do this to the best of my ability.  If you are photographing in a church, this can be technically challenging as churches are very dark. If you photographing outside, this too can be a challenge, as the forest could be dark or the beach blown out. These are things you need to be prepared for.

“Must have” shots for the ceremony:

1# There is no more spectacular momentthan the first glimpse of the bride and capturingthe groom’s reaction when he sees his wife-to-be for the first time.

2# A shot of the flowergirl/pageboy and bridesmaids/groomsmen.

3# The “giving away”of the bride to the groom.

4# Wide angle shot from the back when they are standing together.

5# A shot of each of the couple saying their vows.

6# Exchanging of the rings.

7# Sometimes the bridal pair opts for a special ritual, for example lighting candles or the pouring of sand.

8# Look around in the crowd for someone shedding a tear, I love those!

9# Of course, the FIRST KISS!

10# Signing the register.

11# And my personal favourite: the walking out of the church / ceremony venue. I walk backwards (and I hope I don’t trip over!) capturing the shots of the bride and groom walking through the crowd. Hopefully you will get a few confetti shots and loads of happy, smiley faces!

Congratulations, family, friends and group photos

If the weather is good, we should now all be outside (of the church or outside the reception venue) and people are starting to bee-line towards the groom and bride to share hugs, kisses, tears and congratulations.

It’s rather chaotic at this stage, but I try and capture the following shots:

Congratulations shots:

1# Close ups of the bride and groom getting congratulated by their parents, in-laws and siblings.

2# A general atmosphere shot (usually wide angle).

3# Try and get couples and groups together for a few shots. I try and capture every single person at the wedding. It is hard, especially if the wedding party is over 100 people, but I do try.

The group shots:

Getting everyone together and being the “centre of attention” is rather a daunting task, I don’t like the spotlight, I like to be seen, not heard. But wedding photography is all about getting out of your comfort zone, and sometimes that means being someone you’re not. Eyes on the prize!

If you can get to an elevated position (get a small pack-up ladder if you can) that is even better; trying to photograph 50 – 300 people will not work if you are all the same ground level. I like to crack to a few jokes, like saying “Guys from this position I won’t get double chins, bonus, so let’s see some smiles!”

So before the photo, I make sure everyone is seen and will happily move someone who is deliberately trying to hide away. I usually take three or four shots. Then I’ll ask everyone to throw their hands up in the air and let the bride and groom kiss.

Family & friends shots

So this part of the day can become a bit frustrating for the bride and groom and patience can run out very quickly. Directly after the group shot, shout (or ask the MC to shout), “Family photographs will happen next, if you’re family please, remain!” The list of family shots should have been discussed with your bride and groom before the wedding. It’susually their parents and siblings, and then the different “sides” of the family, including aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents.

There are times when the bride and groom will want friend shots, too. Again this should have been discussed before the wedding to make sure you can accommodate them.

Look around for a suitable background; some greenery would look absolutely awesome, but an interestingly textured wall or building could work, too.Position your bride &groom with their backs towards the location. Try and get everyone in the shade as this avoids unnecessary shadows on people’s faces. If this isn’t possible, then try and get people with their back towards the sun, this will prevent squinting, but this could also provide sun flares, so just check your settings and take a test shot to see if all is in order. Always take a test shot!

I generally take four or five photos; you never know whose eyes could be closed!

Bridal shoot

This is probably my favourite part of the day. All the stress and tension that the bride and groom felt has left the building and everyone is just happy. Let the celebrations begin!

These are also probably the MOST important photos. These are the photos that they would print and hang on their walls (so there is a bit of pressure to get these just right!).

1# Photo check list:

2# Bride & bridesmaids (include the “new” ring, bouquet, shoes etc.).

3# Groom & bridesmaids.

4# Bride & groomsmen (make them hold the bouquet, they get shy!).

5# Groom & groomsmen (again include shoes, socks, ring etc.).

6# Group shot of the entire bridal party.

7# Individual bride & bridesmaid and then individual groomsmen.

8# Individual groom & groomsmen followed by bridesmaids.

Once I get those done,it’s all about the bride and groom!

This is the time that I am a happy snapper and try and get as many as possible photos of the coupleworthy for their wall.I try and shoot at least three or four different locations (within in walking / short driving distance, remember; time is not your friend!).I am hopeless at explaining poses / compositions, so I always have my cell phone ready with a gallery of pose ideas or suggested bridal shots that I can refer to when words fail me to explain what I see in my mind’s eye.I generally like to have fun, so I make this shoot a bit of fun too, try a jumping photo, smoke bombs, sparklers etc. Just make sure that it is reflective of your couple and their interests as these photos are about capturing the essence of these two newlyweds.

Try not to repeat the same shots over and over.  I let the couple talk to themselves and I move about 5 – 10 meters away. They have so much to talk about and they have had people all around them all day. Give them 10 minutes to themselves. This is when the magic happens.

Remember to get detailshots of the rings together and don’t forget the couple’s car – sometimes you get some really vintage cars or a horse drawn carriage, which makes for amazing bridal shots.


This is like the writing the final chapter of a fairytale. You are nearly done with your work. I go into the reception with the same mentalityas the ceremony. Everything just sort of happens and it’s really out of my control, but I need to keep my eyes open for those little moments that happens when nobody sees them.

The first dance is usually the last photos I would take of the wedding day, but keep your eyes open for these during the reception:

1# The bridal couple being announced and entering the venue for the first time.

2# Again, trying to capture every single guest.

3# Shots of the bridal couple at their table.

4# When the starters come out, I don’t photograph. People don’t like to be photographed when eating and let’s be honest, it doesn’t make the best photos. Hashtag awkward…

5# A few photos of each speech. Try different angles so that they don’t all look the same.

6# Then it’s cutting the cake, the bouquet and garter throwing, followed by the first dance.

7# Always, and I mean always, ask your bridal couple if there is anything else they would like photographed before yousay goodbye. Wish them all the best and that they must have a lovely honeymoon.

So what now?

Needless to say, your day doesn’t end there and you don’t get to ride off into the sunset (or moonlight!) just yet! So I am one those paranoid people when it comes to my photographs.  Before I go to bed, I copythe photos from my memory cards and paste them on my computer and external hard drive, in case something happens to one of them. Back up, back up, back up!

Now I can finally relax!

Now that was quite a mouthful, but I hope that you are able to use some of my tips and photo suggestions. After all has been said and done, do you still think you are ready for your first wedding?

Equipment used to shoot the wedding

Camera bodies:  Nikon D750 and a D750 backup

Lenses:  Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 (pretty much used for the entire event) also had my Nikon 60 mm f/2.8 my Nikon 14 – 28mm f/2.8

Flash:  Nikon SB900

Light modifiers like umbrellas or reflectors – Reflector

Tripod:  Had one, but I only use this for Reception Venue shots

Other:  umbrella (you never know), snacks and water, sunscreen, warm jacket and clean socks


Sharyn Hodges

South African

Sharyn Hodges likes to describe herself as “just lucky”. Home is Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, a sleepy little sea-side village where the sun rises and sets in colours one can only imagine.

She is inspired daily by nature’s ever changing canvas of textures, colours and patterns.

Her work varies from weddings and events to nature and landscapes, but her heart lies buried in the vast expanses of Plett’s beaches and the sheer splendour of the surrounding Garden Route and South Africa.

Photography is in her veins; her mission is to capture those fleeting seconds of beauty which characterises this fragile adventure we call life.

Her travel companion, Nikon D750.

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