When you're a photographer in the smallest state in the country, it's hard not to run into others in your field on a fairly regular basis.
Do it long enough and you're going to meet pretty much everyone who makes their living with a camera, whether they've been in the game for three decades or they're just starting out.
It never fails that at least once every few months I run into someone just getting into the business and they always ask me what it was like to shoot my first wedding.
And I always tell them the same thing: It was one of the scariest and most difficult things I've ever done.
So much so that I left the venue swearing I would never shoot another wedding for the rest of my life. And I would've gotten away with it too if it wasn't for that meddling couple.
For my first real blog on this site, I’ve decided to recount the story of my first wedding. It is my hope that, if you are reading this, you take away what it was like for me to jump into a situation I was completely unprepared for and enjoy my humorous recounting of one of the scariest days of my professional life.
If you’re a seasoned wedding professional, feel free to let me know what you’re first assignment was like. If you’re just starting out in this business and you’re as scared as I was, well, here’s my proof to you that, yes, it does get better.
Details: The Wedding of Kelly & Jeremy
Location: Hardwick Winery and Vineyard, 3305 Greenwich Road,
Hardwick, MA, 01037.
Date: August 28, 2010.
The preparation ... or lack thereof
Nothing can prepare you for that first wedding shoot. Regardless of how big or small the ceremony is, there's an inherent pressure to perform when you're shooting a wedding – after all, you only get one chance to do this right.
So what made my first wedding such a difficult task? For one thing, I had no idea what I was doing.
As I prepared for Kelly and Jeremy's big day back in August of 2010, I thought I could approach it like a sports event: get in, capture everything and get out.
Boy, was I wrong.
First off, if you've never shot a wedding before, you don't know what that pressure is going to be like as you drive to the venue for the first time. For me on this particularly warm summer day, the drive was almost two hours from my house so I had a LONG time to think about all the things that could go wrong.
I tried to prepare for every moment before hand and brought all the supplies I thought I could possibly need (camera, back-up camera, batteries for both, tons of memory cards, a laptop to download photos on and create four backups of everything on site, etc).
What I didn't know was that I was colossally over-thinking everything.
All I needed to do was take a second, breathe, and focus on the next shot. It was a lesson that has served me well every moment since then.
You know how they say every bride and groom gets nervous before their big day? Well, it's true. There's always a moment, sometimes it's small and sometimes it's a full-blown panic attack, where the couple-to-be lose their cool prior to heading down the aisle.It happened to me when I got married.
It has happened to every bride I've ever photographed.
Oh, and it happened to me BIG TIME right before I shot my first wedding.
Sitting in my car about a half-hour before I was expected to arrive at the location, I noticed no one else had shown up.
Naturally, I assumed the worst and figured I had to have arrived at the wrong location. Thankfully, that wasn't the case but the extra time by myself allowed me to contemplate everything that could go wrong.
I thought about missing those key moments, the ones you can't replace, and wondered how I would approach the exchanging of the rings, the first kiss, the first dance, etc. You name it and it went through my head.
Not helping the matter was that the couple I was shooting were the nicest and most laidback people I'd ever met.
Yes, that's not a typo. Though I have grown to love laidback couples as I have advanced as a photographer, on this day I could have really used a bridezilla bossing me around and telling me exactly what to do.
As the bride arrived and took her place in the bridal suite, I encountered the first of many awkward pre-wedding moments.
Here I sat, camera in hand, ready to document everything that was happening ... and nothing was happening.
See the bride was so relaxed that, apart from a minor freak-out with her bridesmaids and a need for three bottles of water to combat the heat and/or anxiety of the day, she had gotten dressed quickly, put her makeup on quickly and was just sitting on a chair waiting for the time to arrive where she could walk down the aisle.
I learned an important lesson that day: sometimes the lack of a moment really is the moment. For this bride, getting married to the love of her life was a foregone conclusion and the only thing to worry about was how awesome the party would be later.
And, more to the point, sometimes it’s the little details in a person that really show you their true personality.
Up too close and personal: A guide to shooting a wedding ceremony
The most important lesson I learned on this day, however, was that as a wedding photographer, you're No. 1 job is to let the story unfold naturally in front of you.
I wish I had known that as I stood three feet away from the bride and groom during their most important moments at this, my first attempt to shoot such an important ceremony.
Now, granted, I got all of the most important shots I needed to and, to this day, both Kelly and Jeremy swear they didn't even notice I was there but every single time I think about this wedding, I cringe when I think about how close I was to this couple.
It’s one thing to get so lost in your surroundings that you don’t notice you’re standing in front of a guest or blocking someone’s view. It’s another thing to practically be on top of the bride and groom.
And for this wedding, I stood, at most, four feet away from them in even the most intimate of moments.
Part of it wasn’t my fault. This was my first wedding after all and I was borrowing my sister-in-law’s Nikon D90 camera and a small lens but, looking back on it, I should have been more respectful of the moment unfolding in front of my lens.
This was the first lesson I learned when I reflected on my experience of shooting this wedding.
Since then, I make it a point to stand in one of three places during a ceremony (depending on the venue, of course). I either stand behind the entire ceremony and guests and shoot with a long-range lens to get everything I need or I pick a couple of spots on either side of the couple that I can easily access at least 50-100 feet away from the main attraction.
And that’s another important lesson. Sometimes, you have to learn to let the scene breathe in front of you.
I didn’t know it on this day and, truth be told, it took me some time to let this sink in but the best wedding photographers are rarely seen. They stand out of the way and let their cameras do the work.
Let the party begin
Now that I’ve taken care of covering my regrets from shooting my first wedding ceremony, let me talk a little bit about what I loved from this beautiful day.
In addition to a glowing bride who remains one of the nicest people I have ever met, this wedding will always stand out to me because of the incredible guests and an amazing reception I won’t soon forget.
It was at this wedding that I learned you can’t judge a party by the way the people invited look during the ceremony. On first glance, the group of invitees seemed like any other large group of people. They were calm, they were cool and they were respectful.
But I knew from the moment the first drink was ordered at the bar that, deep down, this was a group full of fun-loving people ready to get down and party.
In fact, they didn’t really seem like a party-going bunch.
At least, until the music started.
Once the reception began, my first-time, happy-go-lucky wedding ceremony turned into a country music-filled throw down.
But the most amazing thing? They were literally people of all ages participating.
There were young kids who ran around the entire night … and rather than being an obstruction, they blended right in. There were young adults acting as young adults are prone to do and, to my surprise, even the older folks got in on the action.
Then there was the father of the bride.
Prior to the wedding, the father of the bride seemed like every other father you’ve ever seen. He was smiling and happy and you could tell how proud he was of his daughter on her big day just by the look on his face. He looked as serious as you would imagine a man to look on this important day.
A couple of adult drinks and a pair of sunglasses later, however, and he became the life of the party.
I have never seen a dad before or since then that was so youthful and full of energy. To say he was a huge hit on the dance floor would be an understatement and I was so surprised by this turn of events that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing and having a great time working. It literally stripped away any anxiety I had left.
Add in a number of your standard wedding go-to group dance numbers and a lot of laughs and it’s no wonder everyone left this wedding saying their feet hurt from dancing so much.
It’s a memory I’ll cherish for a lifetime and one that, honestly, might have changed my career forever.
The biggest lesson of all
Now, as I sit here typing this post, it’s been almost four years since I shot Kelly and Jeremy’s wedding and it still remains a treasured memory for me. One I will likely never forget.
In that nine or 10-hour period, I was thrown feet first into the fire and though I felt I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, the pictures came out well enough for me to warrant this review from the bride:
“When we received our photos back from Paul, we were in awe,” Kelly wrote a few months later. “Not a single moment was missed, and all our memories were captured right there in front of us to cherish forever. We were impressed by how many there were, things that we did not even see, he caught on camera! Everyone in both of our families thought Paul was amazing, and intuitive to the best shots!”
More important than how I felt I performed on this day was how the bride and groom I worked for felt about my work and to get such glowing praise—as well as be asked to shoot their family portraits a couple of months later—was the ultimate compliment.
Since that time, Kelly and I have talked a lot about this day and how we were both lucky to be working with each other.
I’ll close this long-winded blog post with a little bit more of Kelly’s review of my work because I feel it was the ultimate compliment and a key reason why I continue to shoot weddings to this day.
“We would recommend Paul to everyone planning a wedding or any special event,” she wrote. “He not only impressed us, but was accommodating to every request, including advice to help us get the perfect shots! Our wedding photos are incredible, and continue to bring tears to our eyes remembering that special day. We continue to request Paul for all of our professional portrait needs.
“Paul will be sure that not a moment of your day is missed. He is determined to give you an array of portraits to have, both posed and candid. Our wedding day was amazing, and thanks to Paul, we can see and remember it every day as if it were yesterday.”
Had I not received such positive praise and feedback, I might not have ever shot another wedding in my life.
To say this bride changed my career forever is a gigantic understatement.