About 5 seconds after I purchased my first professional camera, long before I hung a shingle or had any idea of what I was doing, the requests to shoot weddings came flooding in. Because let’s face it; someone’s always getting married. And your cousin’s dentist’s cleaning lady’s daughter would love a deal. And you are maybe just the photographer to give her one.

There are thousands of opinions regarding if non-wedding photographers should ever even consider taking a stab at shooting a wedding– free, favor, or otherwise. For the purpose of this article (and my sanity) we aren’t going to touch the politics of that with a 10 foot pole. Instead, we are going to assume that for whatever reason, you are shooting your first or near first wedding, like, tomorrow and you need a little reassurance that going ahead and shooting it as planned is a better idea than attempting to break your leg on purpose so you can be hospitalized and therefore legitimately unable to work. (The recovery time for this is longer than you would think. I’ve looked into it.) Here are 5 tips for the preparation of said wedding/non-purpose-leg-breaking.

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Value Yourself

Never, ever, ever shoot a wedding for free. I know it’s tempting. Maybe you’ve never shot one before and you feel awkward about charging. Or maybe it’s your brother/sister/neighbor/dry-cleaner’s wedding. Still, absolutely no.

Here’s why: these pictures, even if they aren’t of the caliber of work you hope to produce in the future, have worth. Great, amazing worth. A worth that is only increased when they aren’t just handed over for nothing in exchange. Now, in the right situation, I do a TON of work for cheap or trade and always have. But there has to be an energy exchange of some kind.

Work for trade, work for the slightest possible fee to cover your time and equipment rental or wear, but don’t work for free. Never, ever.

You don’t want to work with people who would expect you to and they don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t value their abilities. No matter how new you are to photography, you are right now reading an article on a website all about photography. That says that you have enough interest to research it, and I’m willing to bet, enough skill to pull it off.

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Prepare Yourself

I’m pretty high energy. I inhale coffee like it’s air and have to constantly remember to slow down when I talk. And walk. And drive. (Though that one probably doesn’t have much to do with caffeine.) Even so nothing lays me out like shooting a wedding. I don’t care if I have two assistants and the kindest, easiest, and most photogenic couple on the planet; it’s still exhausting.

Plan nothing the day before, and nothing the day after. The night before, sleep like it’s your job. Ice your eyeballs. If you’re into that kind of thing. You will likely be carrying twice as much equipment as normal, working five times as long, and running around like a toddler that mistook Red Bull for apple juice. No matter if you accepted actual compensation for this job or not—you owe yourself and the resulting images the best possible set-up. Day of, that set-up is comfortable shoes, a shirt that gives you renewed faith in human kind, and your lucky underwear. Or whatever. 

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Have a plan…..and Faith

Most brides have been told by wedding planners, magazines, and overzealous soon-to-be mother-in-laws that they need to provide their photographer with a “shot list”. If you can avoid this upfront, do. Instead tell them that you plan on taking all the typical and expected shots you can and if they want to provide you with a short list of requested special shots that you may not think of on your own, they are welcome to. You may not know that it’s very important to the bride that all of her uncles fifth removed on her father’s side get a picture together.

But you darn well know that she wants a shot of the kiss, a shot of the wedding party, a shot of cute flower girls doing cute flower girl things, and all the other standard shots that these lists tell brides they need to ask for. If they have a few simple unusual requests, this list goes in your pocket and is all you need. Everything else will happen as it’s supposed to, when it’s supposed to, and if you worry about it, you’ll just miss the cute flower girls doing cute flower girl things.

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Bring the Right Equipment (and it’s Not what you Think)

Pack a lunch, water, and easy to eat snacks. I’m not even kidding. I know what you are thinking right now—but they will have food there! Yes, they will. But the logistics of you and said food meeting up for a little break time rendezvous are extremely complicated. Trust me.

Also, you’ll want gum, Advil, and safety pins.

Correction: someone will want these things. It may be you. It may not be. But everyone will assume you are packing minty freshness, pain relief, and an emergency dress fix, so you may as well pleasantly surprise them.

Finally, and this may seem a bit excessive to some but I am nothing if not a bit excessive; I bring an entire change of clothes. A lesson learned after a waitress carrying a tray of full wine glasses and I collided at the very beginning of a reception. I got to spend the rest of the evening smelling like a winery and everyone else got to wonder why the photographer had already hit the free bar when they hadn’t even gotten to the front of the buffet line yet.

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Do you have an Exit Buddy?

Whether you have an assistant or not, you need a friend. A go-to. A pal. A person on the inside.  A free Girl Friday, if you will. I don’t know who that person is. Right now, you don’t know who that person is. But it will be obvious who it’s supposed to be and you will find them early on. And you will latch on to them in a way that will have you trading BFF necklace halves by the end of the night.

This person is going to explain who is who to you. Help you out when cousin Johnny is begging for your number and you still have 3 hours of dodging him while trying to remain professional.

This person knows who is giving the toast, every bridesmaid’s name, and will happily fetch you bouquets when you have everything set-up for the perfect shot but everyone forgot their bouquets in the bathroom. It’s a bridesmaid, an aunt, an unofficial wedding planner, a step-sister, or maybe just a knowledgeable family member that is only there for the free food.

And to help you, it turns out.