This is the second article in a series of photography-related posts, whether you’re looking to hire a photographer or to be a photographer. Click here to read the first article in the series, Why is Photography So Expensive?
This post is about how to find not just the best photographer, but how to find the right photographer for you. It’s geared toward weddings, but will also be helpful if you happen to be searching for someone to document your growing family. Here are a few tips on how to find a photographer, how to choose from the too-many options, red flags to look out for, questions to ask, and -as a follow-up post soon- how to make the most of your investment once you’ve found it.
Where to Start: What’s Your Style?
Very generally, the way photographers describe their work falls into two categories: classic/traditional and documentary/photojournalistic/lifestyle. What style fits your needs best? The difference is just like it sounds:
1) Classic/Traditional – A focus on controlled environments, artificial or engineered lighting and directed poses. These photographers often own portrait studios with backdrops and studio lights. Classic-style photographers often follow a “film photography” business model: a small “sitting fee” plus a high backend cost of individual prints or print packages
2) Documentary/Photojournalistic/Lifestyle – A focus on candid shots and natural lighting (or artificial lighting designed to look natural). A good photographer in this area will be an expert at capturing moments and emotions between people and producing images that provoke emotion in the viewer. This style of photographer often follows the “digital photography” business model: a full up-front fee that includes a disc with printing rights or print credits to use on a proprietary website
In my opinion, the best photographer can weave both shooting styles in and out of their images as needed.
Personal Recommendations and Online Reviews.
Once you know what style you prefer, ask for recommendations from friends who have hired a photographer within the last year or two, read online reviews and take a good look at the photographer’s most recent work. Do all the photographer’s photos include the same few people? This may be an indication of inexperience. Is there a balance of posed vs. genuinely candid photos? Artsy vs. classic? Highly-edited and airbrushed? Your photos are going to look like what you’ve seen on the photographer’s site. If you don’t like what you see there, you probably won’t be thrilled with your own photos.
Ask to look through at least two full galleries from recent weddings (or family sessions) the photographer has done. Pay attention to the photos that are most difficult to capture (What do the dark reception hall photos look like? How about outdoor weddings at night?) When you find a photographer that meets all your desires and expectations, expect to pay for the quality of their work and experience. In photography, just as in every other area of weddings and life, you get what you pay for.
Your Rights/Their Rights.
Sign a contract (and read it). This is important. If your photographer doesn’t require you to sign a contract, there’s a good chance he or she is not a professional and you’ll have a hard time finding an attorney who will return your call if the photographer cashes your check and subsequently drops off the face of the planet. Contracts are wonderful. They protect you and your photographer and they set and manage expectations between both parties so that everybody is on the same page and so there are no surprises. Professional contracts should address, at the very least:
-the agreed-upon price and payment schedule for services
-the number of hours the photographer will be at your wedding
-the method of delivery of the photos (do you get an online gallery? proof book? a disc? prints? an album?) and how long you can expect to wait for said photos
-the photographer’s plan if he/she has an emergency and cannot attend your wedding
*Ask if the photographer has liability insurance. If you’re getting married at a historical site or museum and your photographer knocks over a priceless sculpture, who is going to pay the bill?
The Things. The lots and lots of extra Things.
If you’ve been engaged for longer than one second, you’ve probably already received a horking mountain of unsolicited advice about what kind of wedding you should have. From what time of year to have it, to the location, to the precise shade of frosted baby roses on your wedding cake, you are likely all stocked up in the ideas department. So I’m not going to sit here and tell you you simply can’t get by without a $600 wedding album, that your lungs will collapse if you don’t get a disc of high-resolution photos or that by not hiring a photographer for a full day, your marriage and all hope for future happiness is doomed. Frankly, the wedding planning websites that tell you such things – even if indirectly – are not thinking about your best interest, they’re thinking about getting more site visits and ad dollars from their advertisers. Don’t let anyone whose name isn’t on the credit card tell you you HAVE to have something for your wedding. If you’re here and you’ve read this far (bless you), you care about photography. Great. Spend money on that. If you’re a huge scrapbooker, then by all means, go with a photographer who offers a disc of photos. But if you’re not, don’t. Spend your budget on what you and your fiancé really want and forget the rest.
It’s near the end of the list, but it is every bit as important as the others. In fact, it can mean the difference between an enjoyable wedding day and a stressful one. Think about it… you are going to spend chunks of your wedding day with this person, often a complete stranger – this day that has been carefully reserved for your future spouse, beloved family and closest friends. You have to take direction from this person, trust him or her to interact with your more sensitive family members and tell you when you need a makeup touchup. You have to allow them to get physically closer to you than you might normally allow a stranger to be. The best thing you can do to be sure you can allow this person into your inner circle is to meet him or her in advance. If you’re in the same city as your photographer, there’s no good reason to not meet in person. If you’re not in the same city, set up a Skype or phone date. You want someone who will be kind and patient with your grandma who needs to have every direction repeated four times but firm with Uncle Bob who keeps stepping in front of the camera during the first dance to try to get his own shot. You want someone who can loudly direct large groups of people without getting grumpy or rude or flustered. You aren’t going to find out these things by looking at a person’s website. When you meet a photographer, listen to the way they talk about their former clients, their competition and their work in general. Is it mostly negative, condescending, arrogant, cavalier, sarcastic? If that’s how they talk when they’re relaxed, how will they handle the intense pressure on your wedding day?
Questions I Wish More People Would Ask.
As the final point in this article, I’ve compiled a list of questions I wish more brides and grooms would ask me before they sign their contract. When I meet with a prospective client and he or she has a list of questions written out for me, I’m thrilled. I love getting on the same page and managing expectations as early as possible (i.e. before the contract gets signed). In my experience, the question-askers end up being the most satisfied customers. If the wrong answer could be a dealbreaker, be sure to ask before you sign.
“Here’s what we’re thinking: (fill in the blank with details about what they want their wedding photos to look like) Can you do that?”
“Are you the one who will actually be shooting our wedding?”
“Do you have backup equipment?”
“Do you have liability insurance?”
“What is your policy on switching wedding dates or locations and/or canceling?”
“How many photos do we get?”
“What can we do with the photos? What can we not do?”
“If we don’t/can’t/won’t use the free engagement session, can we just tack on an hour to our wedding day coverage?”
“My uncle loooooooooves taking pictures and will have both of his DSLRs (with 800mm lens and external flashes) at the wedding. Will that bother you?”
“We’re thinking about hiring some film school students to videotape the ceremony and reception. What do you think?”
So, now you have some great tools to help you go out and find the best photographer for you. In my next post, I will detail how to get the very best from your photographer and your photography investment from start to finish. (Some of them may surprise you!)