How To Be A Great Second Shooter | Emily McGonigle Photography

This past weekend while I was second shooting a wedding, the lead photographer pulled out a studio strobe and put it on a stand. I immediately grabbed the power cable for the light and started to wire it up while she fished for some other pieces of equipment out of her bag. When she saw what I was doing, she said, “Oh wow, you’re so awesome!”

Naturally I said, “Well, thank you!”, but I have to admit I was a little bit confused as to what was so awesome about me taking the initiative to plug in a light. Then suddenly I remembered multiple recent experiences where I did something that was a part of my job, that caused the lead photographer to be surprised and impressed with what I was doing. But all I had done was my job. Isn’t that what they hired me for?

After speaking with several lead photographers, it occurred to me that there are apparently a lot of second shooters out there that don’t really know what it means to be a second shooter. So I decided to write this article to clear some things up, and hopefully help make you all grow to be great second shooters that people will want to work with again and again.

Now, I acknowledge that there are articles about this floating around online already, but most of the ones I found were from the point of view of the lead photographer.

I am not a lead wedding photographer. I am strictly a second shooter. So this isn’t going to be a list of what I do and don’t want you to do when you’re second shooting a wedding with *me*. It’s a list of what I do and don’t do as a second shooter *period*.

So let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

Second shooting for   Matthew Simmons  , I captured this angle of Brittany and Phil's first look.

Second shooting for Matthew Simmons, I captured this angle of Brittany and Phil's first look.


What Does It Mean To Be A Second Shooter?

A lead wedding photographer can’t be in two places at once, yet often times events happening during a wedding day overlap, especially prior to the ceremony. When you are hired as a second shooter, you are being hired to be an extension of the lead photographer. You are there to help the lead photographer be two places at once. For example, when the couple is getting ready for the wedding, the lead will often times go with the bride and her bridesmaids, while sending you to go be with the groom and his groomsmen.

You’re also there to be a second set of eyes or a second perspective for the lead photographer. Getting different angles of the first dance can help enhance the story-telling of that moment. But more on this later…

One thing that I’ve noticed that not all second shooters understand is that you are *also* there to be an assistant, especially if there isn’t a third person on the shoot to assume that role. If the lead had a lot of equipment to carry, help them carry it. If there are lights that need to be put on stands, help them set up lights. Don’t wait to be asked to do these things, just do them. Your willingness to take initiative will be noticed, and it will get you more work.

[Photos taken from a different perspective than the lead photographer]

What Being A Second Shooter Doesn't Mean

When you are second shooting, you are not your own photographer. Once again, you are an extension of the lead photographer. You work for them. You are part of their brand for the day.

For starters, the lead’s shots are more important than yours. Don’t get in their way just to “get the shot”. I don’t care how great it would look in your portfolio, even if you’re there to gain experience and build a portfolio, that always comes second to actually supporting the lead’s needs. There will be plenty of other portfolio building opportunities.

Since you are an extension of the lead photographer’s brand, definitely don’t talk to the client about your own photography business. Clients ask me all the time how long I’ve been shooting, and what types of things I shoot (if weddings are the only thing, for example). I will always tell them my experience, but I never, ever, ever hand them a card, show them my website, or mention specifics. I keep my answers vague and if they inquire about a particular service, I always point them back in the direction of the lead photographer’s business. Remember, they are not your client. They are the lead photographer’s client.

And because they are not your client, you should also never seek them out on social media. Your interaction with the client should end at the end of the night when you leave the wedding. On a few occasions I have had clients seek me out and add me on Facebook. At those times, I immediately contact the lead photographer to inform them that I have been contacted, and ask them what they would like me to do. Even if the lead tells you it’s okay to accept the client’s friend request, if you are ever inquired about anything photographic, you should direct them back to their wedding photographer.

Along that same vein, even if the lead photographer allows you to keep your images (and not all of them will - You are a work-for-hire contractor as a second shooter), never post them online before the lead photographer gets a chance to do so and finish with their client. Each photographer will have a different idea of what they will allow you to do with your photos, but a safe rule of thumb to go by is to never use them in your main portfolio. Use them to blog (again, only after the lead photographer has posted them and is finished with their client), but always specify that you were the second shooter at the wedding, and be sure to mention who the lead photographer was. 

[Examples of detail shots]

What You Can Do To Be A Great Second Shooter

There are second shooters, there are good second shooters, and then there are GREAT second shooters. What are some things you can do to put you in that last category? WELL, let me give you a few tips:

-Details, details, details! - When you’re sent to hang out with the groom and his groomsmen during the wedding prep photos, a lot of times the guys are already dressed. There’s not a whole lot of fanfare that goes into dudes getting ready for a wedding, but there sure are a lot of little details you can stage. Have the groom take his jacket off and photograph him putting it back on. Have him unbutton the cuff of his sleeve and make him re-button it. Get photos of someone putting his boutonniere on. Little things like that can make all the difference. Get good at being a fly on the wall in the room as the boys are conversing and get photos of them laughing together.

Along those same lines, when you’re in the ceremony or reception hall, take photos of everything you see. Having more details of the wedding than needed is way better than not having enough details of the wedding. Often times the lead photographer will have a lot on their mind and may miss little details while they’re busy capturing other moments from the day. Be their hero and get that photo of the flower arrangement that they might not have been aware of, that was made in honor of the bride’s late grandmother. Shoot everything.

-Be proactive - Don’t wait for the lead to tell you to do something; they already have a lot of their minds. If there is something you could be doing… do it. Help them grab and setup gear, watch for hair ties on wrists, items in pockets, unbuttoned buttons, uneven bouquets, etc. Be your lead’s second pair of eyes. If you find yourself standing around waiting for the lead to finish up group photos, ask them if they’d like you to head to the reception hall to grab details before the guests get seated. They will love you for thinking ahead.

[Examples of "getting ready" shots with the groom and groomsmen]

-Be aware of your surroundings - Be aware of where the lead photographer is, and make sure to avoid being in their shots. During the ceremony or speeches, be conscious of the guests. You are there to get great photos, but you also need to be considerate of the client’s guests. Make sure you don’t linger too long in front of anyone trying to enjoy the ceremony or a speech at the reception.

-Shoot a different focal length than the lead - Communicate with the lead photographer. Are they shooting the first dance with a 70-200? Then you should shoot with your 24-70. Are they getting wider shots of the ceremony? Then get tight shots of the bride and grooms expressions. This adds to the variety the lead photographer has to offer the clients.

-Be someone the lead photographer can rely on - I was second shooting a wedding once with Matthew Simmons ( - Check it out. He’s fabulous), and the time came for the formal dances. When we started, Matthew was there… and about halfway through the parent dances, I couldn’t spot him anywhere. I was confused, but I kept shooting anyway. When he came back, I asked him where he had gone, and he said, “Oh, I went down to the field to scout out a spot for couple’s photos later. I wasn’t worried. I knew you’d get what I needed.” I work with Matthew on almost all of his weddings, so we’re very familiar with how each other works. He knew he could trust me to take care of the events happening, while he took the time to plan ahead for something else. Whether you’re working with someone for the 20th time, or for the first time, be someone they can rely on.

-Be fun to hang out with - There’s not really a way for me to describe what this looks like, but people are way more likely to hire you back if you’re enjoyable to be around. Be appropriate (remember, you’re a reflection of the lead’s business), but be fun. :)

Those are just some general tips of things you can do to be a great second shooter. Share your thoughts in the comments and let me know if there’s anything you’d add to this list! :)

Check out Matthew Simmons wedding work:

Check out Krystal Mann's wedding work:


If you are a wedding photographer interested in hiring Emily McGonigle as a second shooter, contact her at for references and a link to her second shooting portfolio.