March 20th, 2007


How to Pick the Best Wedding Photographer for Your Budget, Part 1

Full album sample here.

There are two phrases that are heartbreaking for a wedding photographer to hear:

"Wedding photographers are hacks!"

"I wish you had shot my wedding; my pictures were awful!"

While one is an insult and the other a compliment, they stem from the same experiences -- either these people haven't seen the wedding photographers who match their tastes, or they found them too late. Let's face it -- any industry has its fair share of bad apples, and wedding photographers are no exception. I've heard the horror stories. Beyond that, people often have more specific tastes in images than even they realize, and without a careful selection process it's easy to pick a photographer who would be great for someone else, but not for them. I know a bride who went with a wedding photographer who had 30 years of experience and was horrified at the results -- not because they were bad, per se, but because they reflected the style of 30 years ago.

I have a unique and intimate view on the process of selecting a photographer. I am a wedding photographer who hears the questions excited couples have, and I'm newly engaged myself. I also steady work as an editorial photographer, hired by professional art directors, and I manage publications myself, hiring photographers for specific tasks.

It didn't take me long to realize the unique idiosyncrasy of the wedding market: newly engaged couples generally have no experience hiring a professional photographer. Art directors, on the other hand, hire photographers for a living. They've probably made mistakes in their hiring before, but it wasn't the end of the world and they were able to learn from them. The bride-and-groom-to-be, though, only have one chance (we hope). Now, weddings aren't magazines, but I think we can learn from experience, and come up with some guidelines.

GIVE YOURSELF TIME: None of these tips will help you if you feel you have to go with the first person you find. Start looking for a photographer as soon as you know where the location is, and don't feel under undue pressure to book right away. If a photographer pressures you to make a booking before you're sure, it's probably best to look elsewhere.

RELY ON LUCK AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE: This is a seeming paradox, because luck is profoundly important in photography. Much of photojournalism, for example, is having the nerve to get to the place where you're likely to be lucky, and then having the training to capitalize on that luck. But you can't really plan for luck -- and in a situation where you only get one shot, you never want to rely on it. Sure, you could get Uncle Johnny -- who takes great landscapes and wonderful pictures of his kids -- to shoot your wedding, and if you're very lucky, it will come out just right. You could also plan to finance your wedding by playing the lottery. The real value of a good, experienced wedding photographer is that they've seen everything go wrong before, and they know what to do when it happens. The light is awful? They've got tricks up their sleeve. The groom is terrified of cameras? They know how to put people at ease. Their camera explodes? They've got another one. At the very least, never, ever hire a wedding photographer who doesn't have a full set of back-up equipment. Murphy's Law loves weddings. I've had my autofocus motor die moments before The Kiss -- but I had another camera hanging around my neck, and I got it. I've had batteries die, lenses break in half, flashes refuse to fire, you name it, but I'm always prepared for bad luck. That is the bare minimum. A second photographer reduces need for luck even more. More importantly, though, you need to develop a good system to determine whether a photographer can perform when the chips are down -- which we will discuss later.

DETERMINE EXACTLY WHAT STYLE YOU NEED: "Wedding photography" is a profession, not a genre -- there are all types. As such, while there are certainly bad photographers, there is no perfect one -- only the one that's right for you. I have been to Chinese weddings where the photography process goes something like this: Well before the ceremony, the couple gets together in full dress in a studio for a variety of professional, posed shots with props and make-up and stylized backgrounds that make them look like they're putting out a Top 40 Pop CD. At the ceremony, the photographer takes a long, long series of posed shots of different family members together, and then goes home. There's nothing wrong with that, but if a couple came to me and wanted that, I would send them to another photographer. While I could do that, since it's not the way I work, their money would be more efficiently spent on someone who specializes in that sort of photography. Magazines don't describe photoshoots as "we want a picture of a celebrity." They think about the sorts of images they want; what they want to convey, what their priorities are. The bride and the groom should talk about exactly what they want. Do they want an album that tells a narrative through photojournalism? Do they want beautiful, artistic formal shots? Do they want to make sure all the important guests get pictures of themselves? Then they should talk to their parents and ask the same things -- especially if the parents are paying. While the couple should be the arbiters, it's good to know whether your photographer choice will cause unnecessary outrage.

WORK WITH SOMEONE YOU LIKE: Editorial photographers -- except at the very top -- can't afford to be jerks. They have to establish relationships with people who will want to hire them again and again. It's important for wedding photographers, too -- since word-of-mouth referrals are the best advertisement, but sometimes a photographer won't be a good personal match for a couple, no matter how good his images are. Don't hire that guy. If you aren't totally comfortable with the person behind the camera, that's going to show up in the pictures.

PHOTOGRAPHY, PHOTOGRAPHY, PHOTOGRAPHY: It's about the photos. Packages can be negotiated. Albums can be bought or upgraded years after the wedding, if need be. Slide shows can be modified, Web sites can be designed, this is all a bit malleable. Photos aren't. If the photos taken during the wedding weren't great, they never will be. Possibly the worst way to look at a wedding photographer is to just look at your price range and pick the "best package." 300 prints of photos you don't like will feel more like a curse.

Next: Scrutiny. How can you really tell if this photographer will be any good?