wedding photography shot list

Wedding Photography Shot List (Why you don’t need one)

I can’t be the only one with a fear of the wedding photography shot list can I? There has to be an official name for this fear, something like wedshottelphobia. Regardless of what led you here to this article, let me persuade you against the anxiety-producing and creativity-reducing piece of paper known as a shot list.

Maybe it’s not a piece of paper, maybe it’s a Excel file or an app or a Pinterest board. I don’t really care, I’m not a fan.

I do know that the shot list came about for a reason. In order to acknowledge and address that, I would like to share what is important about a shot list and then give you some alternatives that will help you accomplish the same goals while also capturing better wedding photos rain or shine.

ditch the shot list

I’ve been a professional wedding photographer for over a decade and the wedding photo shot list only ever results in keeping the wedding party waiting and negatively impacting the experience of the bride and groom while the wedding photographer stresses out trying to create a Pinterest board. I much prefer to focus on making sure my bride and groom have an incredible day with their closest family members.

And it results in better photos than some wedding photo shot list does.

Feel free to disagree. One thing I have learned over the years is that the reason there can be so many photographers is that there are a variety of clients to serve and we are not the right fit for everyone.

This information is helpful for wedding couples and photographers alike. Read the blog below or watch the YouTube video.

some important things about a wedding photography shot list

a.) familiarize yourself with weddings

what’s important

A photographer needs to be familiar with what is important on a wedding day. I think that’s probably where the shot list originated. First, the bride will get ready so you must take a picture of the final touches 1. Putting on make up 2. Doing hair 3. Zipping up the wedding dress 4. Putting on the veil 5. The bride getting ready with her friends both wide and close up. Etc, etc, etc…

Wait, but first, you must shoot the detail shots: dress, shoes, jewelry, perfume, deodorant, toothbrush, underwear. All the things. Oh no, did you forget the wedding cake? That picture was going to go down in history.

Then, you need to capture all the family members including various combinations of both sets of parents, bridesmaids, groomsmen,  the couples’ first dance, the father-daughter dance, the wedding rings, the bride walking, the groom walking, the aisle flower girl, and every single person walking down the aisle. Did we get the flower girl? Wow, I hope you have enough time for all of that!

Yes, we must know the different parts of the day so that we can be aware of what we are photographing and ceremony photos are important. For a new photographer, getting familiar with what the elements of a wedding are is important. Learning to speak the language is key before you can figure out what camera settings to use.

However, shooting by the shot list can result in a photographer saying, “Wait, can you pretend to zip up the dress again so I can get that shot” rather than taking a photo of the mom tearing up as she looks at her daughter in her wedding dress.

versus what isn’t

A shot list causes the photographer to interrupt the real and true moments for the shot list. Instead, the shot list should be used to help bring awareness to what moments to look for.

I’m not sure how many weddings you need to go to in order to learn what moments to look for and learn the language of wedding photography. It probably differs from person to person. And what is important might vary from person to person.

I suggest you figure it out and then go to that many weddings. Familiarize yourself with the elements of a wedding day so that you can be prepared. Wedding days you will discover are generally predictable and the last thing you want is for your wedding photos to be predictable.

When I send a bride her photos I want them to be custom, unique, and emotional. Not predictable. A picture of her shoes could be a picture of any bride’s shoes, a picture of her shoe peeking out under her dress as she takes a nervous step down the aisle, now that’s something she will want to remember.

I’ve never had a bride call me and ask for a picture of her place cards but I have gotten asked for pictures of grandpa that passed. You’re telling me you have pictures of every flower but none of the 94 year old grandpa?

b.) get to know your couple and their priorities

A wedding photographer needs to be aware of what the couple’s priorities are. If you are going to have a shot list, it shouldn’t be a generic one. It should be a shot list tailored to your couple.

Maybe your bride doesn’t care about her shoes one iota but the groom got his dress custom-made by his grandfather’s tailor. Maybe the centerpieces simply came with the venue but the bridesmaid dresses were handmade by the bride’s aunt. These are the types of things to put on a shot list if you’re going to have one.

I find that when you take the time to ask your couple what is important to them, it’s actually less about the stuff than it is about the people. It’s about dancing with their college friends or dad walking me down the aisle or grandma with her kids. Immediate family photos are almost always important

wedding photography shot list

don’t let the wedding shot list get in your way

It bears repeating that a wedding photography shot list can be anxiety-producing creativity-reducing piece of paper for wedding photographers. A shot list can take you out of the moment, or worse yet ruin a moment because you’re focused on getting a certain shot rather than capturing what is happening. And a shot list can actually result in you capturing the wrong things for the wrong people and spending valuable time on something that doesn’t matter.

Sure, get some great detail shots of the wedding cake to share with the wedding planner and try to listen to what the family members want. But also remember who your client is. It’s about telling the story of a married couple and the day they committed to death other.

Sometimes the shot list can get in the way of capturing when your couple exchange vows close up or fun moments between the immediate family members. Think about what photos will end up in the wedding album, all the photos you shoot aren’t as important as the ones that will remind the couple of how they felt on the wedding day.

what are weddings about?

On a personal note, I think the wedding photography shot list contributes to a culture of consumption. A wedding should be about getting married rather than all the stuff. It’s a lot of pressure for brides to think their wedding has to look like something out of a magazine when that is not what really matters.

The pretty flowers and the candles on the table are nice for setting the mood and creating ambiance but that’s not the story that we are telling. That’s just the setting and those things are just descriptive elements to enhance the feelings. The subject of the story is the couple and their friends and family.

Lastly, for a photographer to be creative it requires time and space to see the story and capture it in a meaningful way. Watching a moment unfold and being prepared to capture it in a beautiful image requires presence and clarity. That’s much different than running around taking a bunch of pictures on a pre-determined wedding day shot list.

wedding photography shot list

alternative to a wedding photography shot list

Don’t worry, I would never leave you hanging without a better alternative to the wedding photography shot list.

a. minimize and streamline your shot list

If you just can’t let go, start by creating a short shot list, a minimalist list. The shorter the shot list the better for a couple of reasons.

  1. If you have 1000 items on a shot list then that is 1000 photos you feel stressed about making sure you get which leaves you no time to respond to what is actually happening on a wedding day.
  2. I’ve found that most couples have just a few actual priorities so if I find out what they are I can focus on those and not waste time on the others. Even if you still want to shoot everything in sight, you can conserve your resources and not spend ten minutes shooting the invitations if the bride just got whatever design was the first to pop up.
  3. Now that you have freed yourself up creatively, you can focus on telling the story of the wedding day without restraints or expectations or some cookie cutter formula.

b. analyze your style and priorities

As a photographer, you need to develop a style and decide what your priorities are. Your website, portfolio, and client meetings need to reflect your style and priorities. As a bride, you need to pay attention to the style and priorities of the photographer you are selecting.

If you hate photos of couples in nature, it would be a mistake to hire Bergreen Photography. It is very clear on our website that we work with adventurous couples and we take them outside on cliffs, in the snow, exploring for landscape photos. That is obviously more important to us than shoe pictures, in fact, what’s important to us about your shoes is that you are proficient enough to walk in then so when you’re standing on a rock you don’t fall down. At the same time, if you love your shoes I will likely notice that and include them in my picture.

Attracting the right clients or picking the right photographer is about making sure that the style and priorities are a match.

c. do have some notes and a family picture list

While I never use a shot list, I do have notes and a family picture list. I make sure that I know what my couples’ priorities are and if there is anything outside of the realm of what I normally do or typically pay attention to, I have that written down in a manner that I am aware of it.

The one time that I use a shot list on the wedding day is when it makes life easier and more efficient. That time is during family pictures. Family pictures are really important to a lot of couples at a lot of weddings. However, no one really enjoys waiting around for family pictures to happen. Having a list made ahead of time and put into an efficient order allows us to be quick, and efficient, and breeze through that part of the day.

Family photos is the one time of day I refer to a list. I pre-make a list ahead of time with my couple and focus on making sure I nail those shots. I typically do group photos at the ceremony site right after the ceremony at the beginning of the cocktail hour. The ceremony site is usually beautiful and everyone is there at that time. The group photo portion of the day is not about creativity but accuracy so that’s a time to use a shot list.

d. always focus on what is important

Do some soul-searching to determine what is important on a wedding day? Is it the things that are on the shot list like reception details and the guest book? Or is it the intimate moments between the important people? I think that you’ll find that if you truly examine what is important to remember about a wedding, it’s the things that you can’t predict.

The job of a wedding photographer is to document this important day so that the couple and their families can remember how it felt and share the stories with people that weren’t there. It’s the laughter and tears that matter. It’s the stories of mishaps or heartfelt joy.


So, I encourage you to throw out the wedding photography shot list. Throw it out for the sake of your creativity and good photos. Throw it out for the sake of your couples. And throw it out for the sake of not allowing the industry to become more materialistic and more about consumption.

Shoot the favors table and the table settings if you must but don’t do it because you have to, do it if it matters. An experienced photographer captures what they know is important about the wedding experience and the ultimate shot list won’t replace the important moments that have more meaning to the most important people.

Just getting started check out more wedding photography tips for beginners, easy camera settings, marketing, and outdoor weddings. Or shooting in low light, travel photography gear, and how to price your wedding photography.

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We are Marc and Brenda Bergreen, a husband and wife photography team specializing in mountain wedding photography and other adventures. Let us help you make your wedding an adventure! It would be an honor to capture your love.

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