Picstop has made some really great points in his post, and it’s great that you took them on board, well done.
From my own experience, I never wanted to be a wedding photographer, it just wan’t something I thought i’d enjoy. Here’s a story from 6 years ago…
After word of my hobby got around my office, I inevitably received a request to shoot a wedding for a colleague. I initially turned him down, explaining that I wasn’t confident and didn’t have any experience in that area, but he managed to turn my decision around. I was pretty swift at setting my camera to RAW after that conversation.
The whole wedding and reception took place at one venue, so no stress about travelling around for the day. I turned up way earlier than anyone else so that I could shoot some images of the room and gauge the lighting beforehand. The stress hit me as soon as the first guest arrived. I didn’t know anyone there (except the groom) and any confidence that I had beforehand, totally vanished.
My first amateur mistake was realising that the battery I had in my camera hadn’t been fully charged. It ran out during the first 10 minutes of the ceremony which left me fumbling at the back of the room to replace it with my only other spare! The rest of the ceremony went smoothly and I put the other battery back on charge for later.
The next problem was my inexperience with flash photography. It was raining cats and dogs outside, so every other shot that day was taken inside a dimly lit venue. It was something I had anticipated as the worst case scenario, and it was happening! I only had my Canon 400D (Rebel?) back then, and going to 1600 ISO on that thing was asking for trouble, I had no choice though… My options were a 50mm f/1.8 or the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. Shutter speed was too slow at widest aperture so I had to crank that sensitivity for some ambient and try to use flash as a key light (on camera by the way….).
I basically spent the entire day sweating enough to fill an olympic sized swimming pool. Every time I raised the camera to my face, I completely forgot how to use it. I had no control over guests for the formals and no idea how to pose the bride and groom for their couples shots.
I left at around 10pm feeling exhausted and hoping I could salvage at least something from the day. In the end I scraped together about 100 shots of the day and delivered them a few weeks later after some intense RAW editing in the software supplied with the camera.
He was thrilled with them and had nothing but praise for me for working so hard on the day. He knew I was struggling at the time and showed support and encouragement for doing my best.
Now I knew at the time that my images were garbage, they would have been on this site if I’d ever put them online, but it taught me one very important thing. I HATED wedding photography and never wanted to do it again.
That was until I took my camera (for snap shots) to a family members wedding in Italy. I stayed well out of the way and let the hired pros do their thing. Straight away I noticed that I was getting much better shots than before, all candid. The stress wasn’t on me to perform and I could concentrate on getting my settings and composition sorted. We were in Sorrento (totally beautiful), and that day encouraged me to take as many images as I could for the rest of the trip. I walked quaint little alleys alone in the evening to find something to shoot, my hobby had never felt so fantastic.
It was a few years until I shot my next wedding for a friend (having had time to practice, and calm down from the first disaster), which was a whole camping weekend away in North Wales. This time I was ready, I knew the camera like the back of my hand, I had off camera flash knowledge and I totally nailed it. The shots aren’t award winning but some are still in my portfolio to pad it out.
The next wedding was a paid gig at a very low rate. Again it was a work colleague who asked me to shoot her sons wedding. It was a quick in and out ceremony, no longer than 2 hours at the venue (actually about 1hr 30 overall). Confidence in my skills and people handling had built considerably, again it was a good day.
Now I love shooting weddings, wish I had more booked up. The rapport you build with the bride and groom is wonderful. Making guests laugh while setting up the requested group shots is a lot of fun. You spend less time stressing and more time being creative and enjoying the moments with everyone else.
To sum up, if someone asks you to shoot their wedding for free, say yes and do it. Explain that you don’t have experience but will do your best. As long as they use you expecting nothing more than snapshots documenting the day, you can’t lose, and you may surprise them with a few gems.
As a side note – I always say that if someone wants a cheap/free photographer that’s great. Whoever is shooting is “Working”, and that job is to document the day as best as they can. Everyone else may be taking photos at key moments, but the photographer is there to capture everything the others don’t see or care about. A photographer should enjoy the day too, it makes dealing with people a lot easier, but the first priority is getting the shots, even if they aren’t that good.
I hope that little life story gives you some encouragement to go and work out a plan for yourself.