There’s a lot of advice out there about choosing vendors. And in my opinion, much of it creates extra work for folks getting married that’s really unnecessary. For instance, some websites (I’m looking at you, The Knot) have enormous lists of questions to ask photographers: What gear do you use? What do you wear to the weddings? Do you require a meal? The truth is, the answers to most of these questions are totally irrelevant to the point of the inquisition: is this the right photographer for you? So I’ve put together this guide to help couples figure out if their photographer is the right one for them. I’m assuming here that we’re getting down to photographers in your budget.
As far as I’m concerned, there are really only three major things couples need to consider when choosing a wedding photographer:
Do you like him/her? When she cracks jokes, do they make you laugh or make you cringe? So she talks all about the “romance” of your “special day” – does that make you swoon or barf? Personality matters because you will be with your photographer all day at your wedding. If he is obnoxious on his website (or in a client meeting), it’s really going to bother you on the wedding day. If you get the impression she is going to be rude to your family, that’s a bad sign. It’s not worth having someone your friends liked or whose images you like if you think he is going to be an asshole on your wedding day.
Do you like her photos? Do you want your wedding photos to look like the ones in his portfolio/blog? I don’t think most couples need to take it any further than this. They should consider images from the photographer taken under similar lighting conditions – outdoor ceremonies, for example, or hotel ballroom receptions. Some photographers are better than others at capturing certain parts of the day. But in general, it’s plenty enough to like the photos and want photos like that. It’s also fine to evaluate photographers on the worst images you see. Remember that we are choosing our very favorite images for portfolio and blog post. If some of those are no good, there’s a good chance you’re going to get a lot of crap in your final images (see questions below).
So the two above I consider sort of gut-level instinct things. Are you moved by her images? Does he make you laugh? The third is a bit more difficult to parse out and I believe should entail a conversation with your photographer.
All photographers see, but each photographer has different things that they are looking for. This is approach. Some photographers do a lot of posing and directing, bring a ton of lighting gear and generally impose themselves on your day. Each one of your images is going to be stunningly beautiful… and you will know you are being photographed every second of your wedding. Some photographers bring almost no gear, barely talk to anyone and shoot everything from afar. Some photographers move quickly, aiming to capture as much of the party as possible, others request hours to get artistic bride and groom portraits. It’s important for every couple to consider what they want their photographer to go after – each is going to have a slightly different approach. You want to make sure your photographer values the same things you value.
You also want to choose a photographer who has a defined approach and isn’t just agreeing with whatever you say. To be really good at one or the other way to photograph a wedding, a photographer has to be experienced with that style. We can’t do editorial (fashion-type images) for one couple and super-gritty street-type images for another couple. That would result in mediocre images for everyone. Photographers perfect their craft through repetition – and if a photographer is offering any kind of style, any kind of approach (or using wording to that effect on their website), it probably means he doesn’t have a speciality at all.
Questions couples don’t ask their potential photographers, but should
– Can I see two full weddings? (Either albums or online galleries). Portfolios are a photographer’s favorite 50 or so images they’ve ever taken. A blog post are their 30-40 favorite images from that wedding. You want to know what the whole thing looked like. You’ll need a good 80-100 images for a wedding album. And many photographers don’t show family photos in their blog posts, though they are some of the most important images from a wedding day. I wouldn’t recommend asking for this from every photographer you consider – but once you nail it down to your top 1 to 4, ask to see full weddings and look at some images at random – you want to see a high overall level of quality.
Pay particular attention to dimly-lit receptions. Professional wedding photographers light receptions in a way to both retain the ambiance of the room (for instance, not overpowering colored uplighting in a hotel ballroom) and maintain consistent exposures on the subjects’ faces (the people dancing in the front of the frame are bright). If they’re doing this well, the lighting will also be flattering to the dancers – you shouldn’t see great big greasy bright spots on faces. This is also a style thing – some photographers blast the dancers right in the face, giving it a “tunnel” effect, others “drag the shutter” to create light streaks. These are stylistic choices.
– Do you have liability insurance? Some venues require this. And it’s probably not something you will ever have an issue with, but it’s a good question to ask as it differentiates fly-by-night unprofessional folks from people with clearly established businesses.
– What if you can’t be there for the wedding? All photographers should have a non-performance clause in their contract – what happens if they are unable to show on the wedding day, because of debilitating illness, Act of God or the like (and go ahead and ask what those criteria would be for your photographer). Accidents happen and your wedding photographer should have a clearly articulated plan for dealing with emergencies.
– How do you back up images after the wedding? Your wedding photographer should likewise have a very good answer to this question. If they don’t talk about redundancy and offsite backups, your wedding images could go down the tubes because of hard-drive crashes, fires, etc. Again, it’s almost certainly not going to be an issue for you, but we should be planning for the worst-case scenario.
– Voice your concerns. What are you worried about on your wedding day? Give your photographer a chance to address your concerns – even if you’re a little embarrassed about them. Maybe you gained a little weight recently and you’re worried about looking heavy in the photos. Maybe your mom is super-domineering and you’re concerned she’ll try to run the whole show. Maybe you’re worried your photographer will make everyone uncomfortable on the dance floor and they will be self-conscious and not have a good time. Don’t be afraid to talk to your photographer about these issues – better they address them before you book.
What about budget photographers?
Not everyone can afford a professional wedding photographer and that’s alright. I didn’t hire one – I couldn’t (and my wedding photos are pretty mediocre). Obviously, there are significant advantages to having a professional at your wedding, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have nice wedding photos.
Let me break it on down for you: if someone in the DC area is charging less than $2,500, they are probably in their first two years of business. Why? Because that rate is not sustainable for a business. Professional, full-time wedding photographers need to charge quite a bit more than that to support themselves in this region. There’s nothing wrong with wedding photography as a side job, but there is a difference in the product and service you’ll receive. One of the major advantages to hiring a professional is experience. All kinds of stuff happens at weddings and your photographer should be able to handle just about anything thrown his way. The longer they’ve been at it – the more lighting conditions they’ve worked under, the more five-minutes-before-the-entrance bridal portraits they’ve had to excel at, the more broken gear and rained-on equipment and etc. etc., the better they are going to perform on your wedding. You won’t find a photographer who has been doing this for 10 years charging anywhere near $2,500 – they bring so much more to the table than the first-year-in guy.
But all that aside, some folks just can’t afford a professional. And if photography is really important to you and you are in this boat, the one thing* you can do is look for the rising star. Because most of us start out our businesses charging much less than we intend to charge when we gain experience and perfect our lighting, our approach, etc. But sometimes photographers get very good at their craft before they feel confident enough to charge for it. And that is the key to finding a budget photographer. You don’t want someone with more than two years of experience because if they are not charging enough after that time, it means they can’t. The photographer three years in who is sitting at $2,000 for wedding coverage is obviously doing something wrong:
Experienced, technically competent, cheap – pick two.
Well my friends, that about wraps it up for this one. I’d love to hear comments from people shopping for a wedding photographer or other folks who agree or disagree with me. Looking forward to the conversation!
[*Okay, I thought of another thing and I’m really pretty ridiculous for not thinking of it before. But there are two things one can do in this situation – look for the rising star or hire a professional for just a few hours. I do lots of hourly weddings. My hourly clients get professional ceremony, family and formal portraits and sometimes the beginning of the reception. I don’t perform at a lower level than at full weddings (obviously) and my clients are paying well below my full day rate. The catch is I don’t book hourly weddings until two months before the date. As a business, I can’t afford to promise a Saturday to a two-hour booking until close to the date. However, I think the last-minute approach is well suited to bargain hunters. It will be somewhat stressful for folks not able to book their photographer with the rest of their planning (and I don’t recommend it for anyone getting married in May, June, September or October), but it’s an excellent option for those willing to be flexible and try their luck. I love working with my hourly, courthouse and elopement clients and I know I’m giving them as much value as my full wedding clients.]