March 21st, 2007


How to pick a wedding photographer, pt. 2: Scrutiny

A Classic Dip

In my last post, I outlined a few basic principles of thinking about how to find a wedding photographer. In the end, it boils down to finding the person who will give you the kinds of results you want, even in less-than-optimal (or disasterous) situations. How can you tell if a photographer can actually do that?

I'm going to look at some common tools for analysis and comparison of wedding photographers, and give you my sense of how useful they really are, and in what ways.

Portfolio photos / Web site: Only as a negative selector.

By this, I mean the common display on a wedding photographer's Web site or portfolio book of "Here are some good wedding photos that I've taken." Consider this to be like a resume -- it should get you in the door, but not have much effect on getting you the job. Art directors can find someone with a book they really like and hire them to shoot a non-essential assignment; you don't have that luxury. A steadily working wedding photographer can easily take 25,000 shots a year -- even if they limit their portfolios to the past year, a collection of 10 images really says "Here is what the best 0.004 percent of your photos will look like." That's not really reassuring -- but if you don't like the photos, you know not to hire them. Instead, ask for this:

Extensive, systematic collection: Excellent.

Specifically, ask to see a large group of photos arranged by wedding -- something close to the number of photos you'd want in an album (let's say more than 50). The best would be to see exactly what one or more select couples got. If the photographer just designs albums, ask to see that. If he also presents a Web site of proofs, that should be part of the sample as well. Ideally, a photographer will have gotten permission from a couple or two to do this -- since you wouldn't want him showing all your wedding proofs to other couples without your say-so.

Some photographers present this sort of structure on their Web sites -- especially photographers with well-maintained blogs. I would feel very confident about hiring Charlotte Geary, for example. Why? Because of her blog. I've seen hundreds of her photos from a wide array of weddings, as well as a number of different album designs. There's no room for smoke-and-mirrors; I know what she can do. I try to carry this through in my Web presence -- my name site is little more than a resume, but for those interested in finding out more about my work, it connects to literally thousands of photos. I have nothing to hide.

Word-of-mouth: Great. Trust but verify.

There's a reason wedding photographers get such a large share of their business through word-of-mouth. Remember that wedding photography is about a lot more than just pictures. They have to be consultants, designers, and quite often ringmasters, keeping a circus well-organized. You have to be comfortable with them. The best way to tell if a photographer is any good in the field is to ask someone you trust who's hired them. Perhaps you even saw them in action yourself at a friend's wedding. But, when asking your friend, go beyond "he was great!" Remember, they've only hired one -- they might not have perspective. Look at the photos. Ask what sorts of images they were interested in, and think independently about whether you want the same thing. Ask whether there were any moments of particular stress during the wedding, and how the photographer handled it. Was he respectful? Did the rest of the wedding party feel comfortable?Were there technical challenges, such as a poorly-lit chapel with no flash allowed, and how did he handle it?

Interview: Great, if you ask the right questions.

By the time you select which photographers you want to interview, you should have a really good sense of what you want. You've looked through a number of photographers' sites, getting a sense of which sort of photos appeal to you. You should have a budget range (more on that later). You should know the venue and rough size of the wedding, which may affect you need for a second photographer (and, hence, your budget). You should know what you want the wedding to feel like, and how the pictures should reflect that? Is it a black-tie ball or a barbecue? Do you want loose prints or an album, and if so do you like the more modern, coffee-table-book style or the old, stately designs? The more you know in advance, the less you can be swayed by a sales pitch from the most practiced negotiator, who may well not be the best photographer for your needs. Can't find enough photographers to get a good selection? Remember, the Internet is your friends -- a lot of wedding photographers are willing to travel, and often the budget of a nearby photographer, travel-included, will be around the price range of the hometown studios who have largely thrived through pre-Internet monopoly.

Pay attention to attitude as well as their answers. Is it about you, or them? Are they willing to give evidence for their assertions? For example, a very common question among couples is whether the photographer can handle low-light settings. Now, few photographers are going to say "No. I shoot with Ektachrome 64 and prefer my couples to be standing under direct sunlight only." But they should be willing to show work that specifically addresses the couple's questions. For example, to address this question I don't only show some of my low-light wedding work, but some images from my documentary work where a room was lit by only two candles.

Ask to see a sample contract. Read it and, if you have any specific issues with it, bring it up early. Wedding photographers are people more than coporations -- some things they can compromise on (and some things they just can't, but it's best to know that early).

Next: How does this all fit into a budget?