Some wedding photojournalists work with second shooters or assistants and, under the right circumstances, having that extra photographer on the job can add another dimension to the visual record of the day, as well as backup and logistical support.
Yet the second shooter experience may not always be a pleasant one, as it can introduce sticky and sometimes adverse issues related to qualifications, reliability, distractions, and image rights.
Here’s a look at second shooter advantages, challenges and best practices, aided by input from a few of the WPJA’s accomplished members.
A capable second shooter coupled with a skilled primary wedding photogapher can provide added insightful perspectives to the wedding story. For example, the processional can be covered from both the front and from the back, with one photographer shooting the groom awaiting the bride, while the other is in the back with the bride and her father. Two competent photographers working together can ensure maximum coverage throughout the day—one capturing main-event images, while the other takes what San Diego, CA, USA-based WPJA photographer Aaron Willcox calls “the in-between shots.”
“As a second shooter, my goal was to complement the coverage of the primary shooter, and this is how I build my expectations for my second camera,” Willcox notes. “What I tell them is, if I have a telephoto on, I want them to put a wide angle on. If I’ve got wide angle, I want them to do the opposite. If I’m shooting in one direction, I want them to be the eyes in the back of my head.”
WPJA member Amy Raab, who typically works in the region encompassing Washington, D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia, USA, nearly always works with another photographer. “In the cake cut I have to be in the best location,” she states. “In the toast, I have to focus on the bride and groom, and in both cases the second shooter can kind of pan the room for the reaction shots or zoom in for details; trying a telephoto if I am shooting wide. They get the really unpredictable shots and have time to follow the little kids around the room. It’s actually the second shooter who has the freedom to pursue spontaneous events that are happening.”
Willcox explains, “I tell my second shooters that they’re even more of a photojournalist than I am, because when I have to go get those formals and am in portrait mode, I expect them to get those fun shots that I can’t really get. The subjects put their guard down when I put in a new battery or card, and there’s that in-between moment when I expect their camera to be up.” He adds that he’s been thinking about having his second shooter do those formal portraits so that he can really key in on his wedding photojournalism.
“Everyone’s got their own interpretation of the scene,” says WPJA member Ralph Wilson, who works out of Williamsport, PA, USA with his partner Stephanie Carey (also a WPJA member) half of the time, and with a contracted second shooter on another quarter of his jobs. “A second shooter may see something that I’ve completely missed. The second shooter is helping you get the group together, but at the same time they’re looking around for interesting shots of family members around the edges.”
“The weddings around Washington, D.C. can entail some very complicated logistics— driving around the area from monuments, to the hotel, to big reception sites where we need dollies to schlep our equipment,” Raab notes. “With a high-end wedding, that could be overwhelming. I can’t be two places at once, and it’s nice to know that the second shooter is out there getting the cocktail hour or whatever.”
“Peace of mind is a real positive,” agrees Willcox. “When I tell people I’m a wedding photographer, some ask me how I can handle that pressure. In this business you can’t mess up: no dead batteries, no defective cards. [With a second shooter] you can go in relaxed thinking ‘even if I make a couple of small mistakes here I’m going to still have a fabulous product.’”
With every advantage there’s a risk, and working with second shooters is no exception. In fact, the advantages of working with a second shooter come with additional responsibilities, hassles and even potentially serious legal issues. Here are some facts to consider:
Both shooters can end up in images when two photographers are cross-firing. Wilson notes that if you don’t work regularly with second shooters, then it’s easier for that person to turn up in the pictures. “A certain amount of coaching is required before shooting a wedding with a new photographer, and common mistakes are discussed. We [then] generally critique the wedding day after the fact,” he says. “Issues like angles and watching out for each other are addressed and usually solved.”
Second shooters normally introduce extra liability and post-production work, while their dependability and skill poses an added risk to the entire venture. Plus, directing a second shooter can end up as an unwanted distraction for the main photographer.
“Having somebody help me shoot that can match my style is really tricky,” Willcox says, noting that maintaining a consistent product with a second shooter can be difficult.
Two photographers who may not work together regularly may feel the pressure to exchange friendly words with their colleague-for-a-day. This can be awkward because they are both in a zone to make pictures, and know that is what they are being paid to do. The focus should be creating great image, not networking and making small talk.
Another drawback is the potential for extra work and responsibility. Willcox believes that just the idea of using a second shooter can add a layer of complication to the business at every level, from increased coordination, emails, feedback and CD burning, to more complicated work flow and taxes. “The additional work for me is significant,” he says. “Everything’s on me when I shoot with a hired second photographer,” Wilson notes. “I do all of the editing myself, so come Monday morning, I’m handling all of those extra thousands of photos.”
Perceived value is also at risk. “How can I go out there and charge a $2,500 shooting fee for my skills and time then turn around and state that I have a competent second shooter who does fabulous work for only another $200?” Willcox asks. ”Yes, I do most of my work before and after the wedding day, but my client is really paying for me as an artist and this is the value I want to preserve.”
Working with second shooters could also involve issues of competitiveness, since they are professional photographers in their own right who sometimes have their own wedding photography businesses or are trying to start them. Raab, who works in a large market, says that it’s less of an issue for her, because there’s plenty of work to go around. But that’s not always the case.
“We don’t want to train the competition,” states Wilson, who is based in a more rural area. “The other photographers we work with all have good day jobs, and they have no interest in starting a competitive wedding photography business. They’re happy where they are.”
He also notes that in a small area like his, the couple coming to his shop may have already met with another wedding photographer, and then decided that they didn’t want to use them, “so they’re not going to want them showing up as a second photographer at their wedding.”
It is precisely because of these “gotchas” that some wedding photojournalists prefer working alone, successfully shooting hundreds of weddings with all of the responsibilities and none of the drawbacks that second shooters can create. News photojournalists typically cover thousands of assignments alone, and some might ask themselves why a wedding should be any different.
There could be situations such as the one that transpired in the Boston area recently. In that incident, a wedding photographer totally disappeared, leaving her clients without their pictures. An attorney for one of the clients began to pursue the second shooter for photos, who felt it necessary to hire his own attorney after the client mentioned possible liability. He ended up drafting an agreement with the client that released him of any and all liability in exchange for providing her with a disk of images (after waiting an appropriate time for the primary photographer to respond). He now plans on having a specific second shooter release of liability agreement drafted up for any future assisting gigs.
Almost inevitably, working with second shooters who have their own wedding photography businesses can raise usage issues. Misunderstandings as well as pure ambition can cause problems for both photographers.
Unless one is working with a business partner, second shooter arrangements are nearly always work-for-hire, with all of the photos belonging to the primary photographer. Still, the second shooter took the pictures, so what kind of promotional use is acceptable?
Different people have different comfort zones. To avoid any misunderstanding or conflict, the written contract should spell out the rules for photo use.
“When I first started doing this, I wasn’t very specific about use of the photos,” Raab says. “I’ve seen photographers who started as my assistant, then start their own businesses and put images on their Web site that they shot at one of my weddings. It’s happened two or three times without any credit or permission.” She now allows second shooters to add photos to their Web site or portfolio as long as they credit it as “Photo by …for Amy Raab Photography.”
Willcox actually had a serious issue when he was working as a second shooter under a verbal agreement—one that could have broken the professional relationship with his primary photographer had their friendship and respect not been solid. They had agreed that he wouldn’t use any bridal shots on his Web page, but at one point she decided that she did not want him using any shots at all on his site. Wilcox reminded her of their verbal agreement, under which they had already shot several weddings.
Fortunately the two worked out their differences, and Willcox now recommends that everyone put their agreement down on paper. “It doesn’t represent mistrust,” he explains, “but just means that the terms are really clear.”
In conclusion, working with a second shooter can be very beneficial, but it is not something to be taken lightly. It’s a matter of personal work style, management ability…and faith. However, there’s no doubt that the risks and rewards work well for many wedding photojournalists who enter the second shooter game with eyes wide open. For them, just knowing they have a comrade—someone to help share the load—makes it all worthwhile.
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association