How to Pick a Wedding Photographer (part 1)
I was asked these questions for an article, and thought I’d also post my answers on my blog as well.
“What Should People Be Looking for in a Wedding Photographer?”
I take this subject seriously because weddings matter and photography at weddings matter. There are few buying decisions in our lives that actually can cause life-long regret, and wedding photography tops that list. You may spend a lot of money buying a bad car or even a couch that isn’t comfortable, but the problem is solved once you get rid of it and replace it.
But when it comes to wedding photographs, they can only be done once. People who have made a poor decision in this area will lament even 50 years after their wedding and will still hold regret. I’ve found that if one bride doesn’t hire me, it’s usually her regret afterwards that gets her friends to hire me. If a mother of a bride comes in with decades of regret from her own wedding, that feeling is usually enough for her daughter to spend the extra money to hire me.
The reason people worry about their wedding photography is simple, it only happens once, it can’t be re-done, and you don’t know what you’re paying for until a month or so after the wedding.
Of all the expenses of a wedding, the photography is the one thing you keep your entire life. And as people get older, their tastes change and improve and they become more educated. If their photography is faddish or sub-par, it will only get worse as the years go by and your tastes improve.
There are literally thousands of photographers in every state saying that they are professionals. Many of those lately are your friends, neighbors and relatives needing you to hire them for friendship sake and as a favor to them to help them build their portfolio. These are not photographers with credentials other than their love of photography and the fact that they are spending what seems like a lot of money to them on equipment.
Guilt of hurting a friendship or feeling the need to help build someone’s portfolio with your one and only special day are bad motivators. These should not be reasons you hire any photographer. There is a wide gamut of skill, education, abilities, and price options, but when it really comes down to it, price and quality are related very tightly in photography.
Weddings are incredibly difficult for photographers as they provide a wide range of variables, locations, lighting conditions, weather, body shapes, and people’s personalities. Despite all these, the photographer must create great images without excuse, and usually under incredibly tight time constraints.
A wedding photographer must be skilled, knowledgeable, and versatile, and at the same time creative. But these things are hard for a client to really see when they’re shopping around.
So my advice when shopping for a wedding photographer is to not trust the initial samples a photographer shows you, and that goes double for any sample images online – there isn’t enough resolution in web images to see the flaws.
You must get in and see the images first-hand in printed form as big as possible. You must meet the photographer and see how you like his/her personality. You must ask to see more samples than are shown, particularly entire weddings in album or printed form.
If they don’t have printed samples, and lots of them, spanning years and years of weddings that look wonderful, then they are too new for you to hire. They are either not making enough money yet to afford some samples and/or are too inexperienced for you to hire. You are not someone’s guinea pig for practice. You need a professional YOUR one big day!
When you look at samples, look past the flowers, the dresses, and the things in the images, and instead look at the photography, the consistency of the images. Look to see if the bride looks thin all the way through, if she always looks good, and doesn’t look fake, plastic or “photoshop-ed.”
Also make sure to pay particular note to the sample album and how it is constructed and built. How many sample albums are there? Do they go back years? Are parts of the book coming apart?
Hopefully there are plenty of albums that span years, show all sorts of locations, lighting, and options, and despite lots of use and traffic from clients, the books should be holding up beautifully.
Keep in mind that most photographers will show their lucky shots taken on an easy day for lighting (usually called “natural light” images taken on a cloudy, overcast day). Those kind of lucky images require no real skill. They do nothing to show YOU how you will be photographed on your day in your unique lighting conditions.
So ask instead to see entire weddings in broad sunlight, or in the middle of the night outside. Ask to see entire weddings all the way through, and not just the photographer’s favorite samples.
Photographers on the cheaper end of the scale rely on their equipment and the law of averages, shooting thousands of images in hopes of getting something somewhat decent and saleable. They then cover up their images with lots of software and effects. They attempt to hide the common problems of bluish-grey skin and the dark eyes caused by bad technique, with effects like yellow tones and washed out looks.
To a new bride, these effects make images seem fun and “different,” but to the trained eye they just look bad and trendy. In fact they are not different at all, but very commonplace as almost all new photographers are doing the same thing.
A more experienced (and yes more expensive) photographer will shoot fewer images, all of which will be great, and he/she will do it under any lighting condition, and this will be done with control. The images will look great and will be powerful on their own without all the trendy effects. They will be emotional, will be hip and cool, but will also have a classic and timeless appeal.
Finally, one good way to gauge a photographer’s level of expertise is their credentials! Always ask about a photographer’s credentials and what it is that makes them “professional?”
How many years have they spent learning how to photograph people? How long have they done this as full time career? Where did they go to school and with what degree? Is this a new career or have they dedicated a large portion of their lives and their hard-earned money to continually learn and understand their profession?
You wouldn’t let someone without a license cut your hair for your big wedding day, and you shouldn’t let a photographer potentially ruin your wedding day photographs without having at least basic Certification. A bad hair cut at least grows back in a few months, but bad wedding photographs will live with you your entire life.
I believe that any photographer who calls himself or herself a professional should at least prove it by having Certification. On top of that, hopefully they’ve earned some national titles like Master and Craftsman. These titles and ranks help a prospective client know that a photographer is consistent in their skill and will do a better job. Photographers with credentials can be found under the “Find a Photographer” section of PPA.com.
You’re based out of Utah but you seem to travel all over shooting weddings. What do you think is the most important thing couples should look for in a wedding photographer …Value? Talent? Consistency? Quality? Why?
Yes, all of those. Price is always an early question, as everyone wants to save money on a wedding. But price is never the final deciding factor. Most people understand that nicer products and services must cost more, but still most people have some type of budget constraints. Yet almost everyone would still rather cut in some areas in order to have better images that they can enjoy the rest of their lives.
A photography business is not a cheap business to run when you want to produce great images. Every step of every process is expensive when done right. Some things we spend money on in life are mass-produced. Great photography is instead custom made each time for just one client.
A lot goes into each job in terms of expertise, constant training, equipment, computers/software, insurance, overhead, and the supplies that go into the final products. There are cheap ways of cutting back on all of these, but it always shows in the final images and album.
And yes, talent and consistency do play a huge factor. No ones wants to worry about how their wedding images will turn out and no one knows until after the event is all over with, how the images really did turn out. Knowing they have someone who consistently is proven to do a great job gives them peace of mind, and that makes the extra expense of travel totally worth it to them.
What are the brides-to-be and families generally asking about when they make first contact with you? Does this change as they go through the process of engagement photos, bridal photos and then during the day?
Yes, most people start off asking about price, mainly because they don’t know what to ask. But as the process moves forward, those who are really interested in the way that I work, will talk more about the things that are actually important to them like quality and style.
Interestingly, many of the people that complain most about price at first become life-long clients of mine, coming in again and again throughout the years. Once they get it, they love what I do and come in for everything. They schedule shoots of their new babies, events and other special moments, and I get to see them and their lives change over the years.
It’s especially fun to deliver wall prints to clients and see their homes already decorated throughout with canvases, collages and portraits I’ve done for them in the past.
I’ve seen research on how brides usually make decisions on a wedding photographer. After cost, how do brides evaluate your work?
Price may be the reason a bride doesn’t hire a particular photographer, but price is never the reason a bride does hire a photographer. Price may be the first thing people ask about, but both photographers and brides both say that quality and a photographer’s personality were more important than price in the decision making process.