How To Become a Standout Second Shooter

March 28, 2016

By Laura Brauer

Photo Courtesy of Yoshi Morimoto

If you’ve ever been impressed by shots of a groom suiting up for his big day or a mother of the bride dabbing a tear in the pews, there’s a good chance the work you’re admiring was captured not by the wedding photographer hired by the couple but by that person’s second shooter. While some photographers prefer to shoot solo, working with a second has become more common—and increasingly expected by clients.

Getting the Gig

Many photographers work with a regular second shooter or book one months in advance from a selective roster. Well-established shooters rarely need to look for new additions to their list, since aspiring seconds contact them. When lead photographers do need to recruit someone new, they tend to look to their professional or social network for recommendations.

To vet candidates, leads look for portfolios that demonstrate an ability to get consistently good shots in constantly changing scenarios. “I’m really looking for images that they didn’t direct,” says New York studio head Ira Lippke. “It’s actually rare to find photographers who are really good at knowing how to be in that right place at the right time, and find the composition and know how to work with light.” That’s especially true when the lights go down. “The technical piece that tends to be lacking is the ability to shoot motion and shoot in darkness,” says Brian Dorsey, another prominent New York shooter. It’s the photographers who can show strong flash-lit candid images of moving subjects that get his attention.

At least as important as technical skill are personal traits. A second’s personality should reflect the lead’s brand, whether that means being unobtrusive or more outgoing. Getting along with all kinds of people is a must. “If you take a single lousy picture, we can delete it,” explains Dorsey, “but if you say something that offends a client, there are no take-backs.”

After reviewing their work and having an initial conversation to get a feel for the candidate’s personality, many leads will offer a trial gig first. Those who get the job can look forward to being paid at least reasonably well. Fees for a full-day wedding shoot vary by geography, skill and experience, starting around $250 and topping $1,200 for the best shooters in upscale markets. Many photographers prefer to head off misunderstandings by drawing up a contract that covers fees, copyright ownership and image usage rights.

Yoshi Morimoto (on ladder), who second shoots for Dina Douglass in L.A., is shown here hard at work at a recent wedding. Photo Courtesy of Yoshi Morimoto.

The Big Day

Being a second shooter does not mean showing up second. “Probably the worst thing is being late,” says Yoshi Morimoto, who has been showing up early to second shoot for L.A. photographer Dina Douglass since 2004. Second shooters are generally expected to bring their own gear to weddings, although some leads will lend them lenses, memory cards or lighting equipment. One thing they should leave at home is their own business card. “You should never work at cross purposes to the photographer or self-promote,” says New York City lead photographer Ryan Brenizer.

The wedding day is usually the first time second shooters meet the clients, but lead photographers should brief them in advance with a schedule, details about the couple and their guests, appropriate attire (it’s not always basic black) and a rundown of any specific types of shots the lead wants them to cover. When meeting the clients, second shooters should project warmth and confidence. “You’re making sure the client has that same amount of trust in you,” says L.A.-based Callaway Gable lead associate Lauren Belknap, “so they don’t feel like if you’re doing a shot it won’t be as good.”

Photographers and their seconds usually split up to cover the bride and groom getting ready separately. For the ceremony, reception and other main events that seconds shoot in the same space as the lead, some photographers will touch base briefly about shooting positions. But seconds should be prepared to scope out the room and pick a spot that gives them a different perspective without getting in the lead’s shots. Since the lead is covering key moments, second shooters are often able to take more creative risks. “At a hotel with a wide balcony, I have the freedom to go up to the balcony, which Dina may not always have the time to do,” says Morimoto.

But second shooters should never follow their creative druthers at the expense of backing up the lead. “You need to have an eye out for what shot may be coming next—what is the lead shooter not seeing right now?” says Belknap. It’s also important for seconds to keep an eye on the lead and be ready to respond quickly to gestured instructions. “Sometimes you’ll have to shoot things that you don’t want to or think you don’t need to,” says Morimoto. “If she asks for it, just do it. Go shoot it. Because in any lead’s head, they’ll have an album in mind.”

Ira Lippke took this image while second shooting for another lead photographer in his studio, Nathan Smith. Even top-tier photographers enjoy second shooting for each other because it allows them to experiment and take creative risks while the lead is focusing on the key moments.

Since most photographers hire seconds who shoot in a similar style, micromanaging their camera settings isn’t common. And leads process the second’s RAW images along with their own to ensure a cohesive look. The exception is when flashes come out. “If I’m lighting a reception one way and they’re lighting the reception in a totally different way, then you’re going to have radically different styles of photos that don’t fit together at all,” explains Brenizer. Second shooters should match their flash settings to the lead’s before firing away. Otherwise, they should be careful not to pester the lead for guidance or fiddle with settings. “It just looks bad and doesn’t instill confidence in the bride and groom,” says Indianapolis lead photographer Violet Short. “Don’t let them see you frazzled or upset about something.”

When the big day is done, second shooters should turn image files over quickly and ask before posting shots online. And they should look over the collection of photos released to the client. “Sometimes people go to the wedding and don’t see what the finished product is like,” says New York lead photographer Charlotte Jenks Lewis, who copies her second shooter when she sends images to her clients via email. “You want to be learning how to make everything look great.”