How To Choose A Wedding Photographer

At first, choosing a wedding photographer can seem daunting and overwhelming. This article is designed to give you the information you need to confidently choose a wedding photographer who will be perfect for you. The following steps for choosing a wedding photographer are listed in order of importance, with the first being the most important consideration.

But Wait... Why Does Wedding Photography Cost So Much Anyway?

That could be an entire article all by itself, but I don't think anyone would actually read it, so I'll keep this as short as possible. :-) The shortest answer I can give you... it's hugely expensive being a wedding photographer! I remember the first time I shadowed my mentor at a simple one hour beach wedding. I was standing behind him looking at the two cameras he had hanging on his belt, along with the pouches for extra lenses, when I started mentally adding up just the cost of the equipment I could see. I was utterly shocked when I realized he literally had at least $20,000 in gear on him! When one pro camera is $4,000 - 6,000 for the body alone, and pro lenses range from $2,000 - 3,000 each... and a wedding photographer shows up with multiple cameras and lenses... and of course, that doesn't even begin to mention all the million extra bits and pieces like batteries, flashes, modifiers, light stands, gear bags, etc, etc. 

The expensive gear is bad enough, but then photographers have to factor in all the hours of editing time, travel expenses, marketing, advertising, insurance, websites, editing software subscriptions, blah, blah, blah... the list gets really long! The problem lies in the fact that clients only see the time a photographer spends at their wedding and aren't aware of all the expenses and behind the scenes work before and after that is required to deliver those stunning wedding photos. Hopefully these two short paragraphs have given you a better appreciation of the value you're getting from a professional wedding photographer.

Natural light only, mid day in the shade

Indoors, natural light from large window

What To Expect
Professional wedding photography falls into are four basic price tiers: budget, normal, upscale and luxury. Budget photographers typically run under $1,000; the normal tier ranges between $1,000 and $3,000; and the upscale tier between $3,000 and $5,000. Luxury weddings photographers start at $5,000 and push on past $10,000+ on the ultra high end of the scale. On average, a high quality all day wedding photographer will charge between $3000 - $4000.

Tight Budget?
The best way to lose a friend and get crappy photos is hire them to photograph your wedding. If they are a professional wedding photographer who does it for a living, that's different, but then they would be working during your wedding, not enjoying it with you. It takes years of experience and high quality pro gear to get pro quality photos. The internet is full of stories from brides who have had friends or family take their wedding photos - and most have regretted it. However, if your budget is very slim - as in less than $1000 for 4+ hrs of wedding coverage - you can certainly find decent photographers who will work at a budget in order to build their wedding portfolio. I remember doing my first wedding for only $200 just for the experience. While I did a "decent" job (at least I was using off camera flash), I cringe when I see those photos now. 

Step 1: How Important To You Are High Quality Wedding Photos?

The best thing you can do for yourself when planning a wedding is to sit down with your fiance' with paper & pen and rate all of the expenses in the order of their importance to you, starting with the venue. Here is a great blog post by A Practical Wedding that offers a downloadable worksheet for budgeting. Once you are clear on your priorities, it makes it easier to know how much you're willing to spend on each. Your photography budget = how important great wedding photos are to you. Obviously, like everything else in life, higher quality photographers who have the gear, skills and the experience to deliver stunning photos will cost more than a budget friendly newbie. Only you can decide how important wedding photos are to you.

Private & intimate beach ceremony, primarily natural light with a hint of flash to lighten the shadows under eyes/necks

Private & intimate beach ceremony, primarily natural light with a hint of flash to lighten the shadows under eyes/necks

Step 2: Research Photographers

This can sound obvious, but this step may seem overwhelming at first unless you realize there are now a hundred different ways to find a wedding photographer. The trick is to go with the way that feels best for you. For example, some people feel safer getting a referral from a friend, venue or a wedding planner. Some have a black belt in social media and instantly dive headfirst into Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. Others are more comfortable lying in bed late at night researching Google for photographer's websites. Go with what works for you.

Step 3: Do you like the photographer's style/work? 

So many photographers and blogs these days talk about wedding photography styles, throwing around terms like "candid, photojournalistic, fine art, fashion and traditional." It can get very confusing (even to photographers!) but the truth is you can ditch all that fancy jargon and simply look through a photographer's work and ask yourself, "Would I like my wedding photos to look like that?" If so, ask to see more of that photographer's work to see if they are consistent in that look and to get a better ideal of their "style." 

The thing is, there is no one right way - every "style" has it's pros and cons, and in fact, they all overlap quite a bit. I believe a great wedding photographer should be able to deliver a little bit of everything. A purely candid photographer will never do those exquisite environmental shots (because they are staged), and a strictly traditional photographer wants to control and stage everything - losing the spontaneity, emotion and magic in unscripted moments. Personally, I believe in mixing it up: document the wedding in a story-telling photojournalistic style, capture candids whenever possible, lightly give direction to the bride and groom during their portraits to create natural, inspired and intimate images (I mean, how many of us are natural models and can be completely unselfconscious and romantic while being photographed?), and then craft a few stunningly gorgeous environmental portraits to round it all out.

Natural light, unscripted walk in the garden...

Natural light, lightly scripted, "lift her up"

Natural light, lightly scripted, "lift her up"

Natural Light vs Flash
Some photographers market themselves as being "natural light only" photographers. And that is a perfectly fine stylistic choice that is typically bright and airy. It's very popular right now in wedding photography. The downside to that style is blown out skies and backgrounds in order to expose properly for the subject. This is a stylistic choice and it can clearly create stunningly beautiful images. However, it can also be extremely limiting when the light and conditions aren't perfect. Every photographer loves warm soft natural light - we just so seldom get it where and when we want it; for example, when the photographer has to shoot your ceremony facing into the setting sun, or on the beach at high noon or at the reception indoors long after sunset. A "strobist" photographer is accomplished with using flashes/strobes and is skilled in creating and adding light when and where he/she wants it. Again, I believe a good wedding photographer should be able to handle any situation and work with any light source - natural or flash. There is a time and place for all of it.

Posed & staged environmental bride and groom portrait, with flash

Step 4: Do you LIKE the photographer?

This step goes hand in hand with Step 5 The Interview, but I put it first so it won't be lost in the minutia of details. Your wedding photographer will be sharing a very emotional and intimate day in your life so while you don't need to be "besties," you definitely want someone you actually like, respect, and feel safe with. Ideally, your photographer will be someone with whom you feel comfortable and at ease, safe to be you. Don't underestimate the importance of liking your photographer - after all, he or she will likely be spending more time with you at your wedding than your mother! They will literally be shadowing you all day, so the more comfortable you are with him or her, the better you will look in your photos.

Behind the scenes - sunset beach wedding lit by flashes. To expose correctly for the people, a natural light only image would have left a blown out, all white sky

The only way you'll be able to find out what a photographer is like is to talk to them. Think of it as a first date - for them and for you. Meet in person if possible, if not, do a Skype session or even a phone call or two. Ask lots of questions, tell them about any concerns or fears you have. Do they listen well? Do you feel heard, are they responding to your concerns? Are they genuinely trying to get a feel for you and what you want, or do they just seem to be trying to get you to sign on the bottom line? Are they excited by your vision or the venue you're considering? Do they freely offer suggestions and tips? When they make suggestions, are they respectful and clear about why or do they just seem to lay down rules? Do they come across as confident without being arrogant? A great wedding photographer needs to be assertive enough to get into position during great moments, friendly enough to relax people, and calm enough to be a positive, soothing force.  He or she is creative, enthusiastic, a problem solver, and above all else puts you at ease. 

Sunset beach wedding, bride and groom lit softly by flashes

Step 5: The Interview

As I mentioned, steps four and five are intricately linked, but for clarity's sake we needed to break it up. Once you've looked at the portfolios of numerous photographers and created a list of 3-5 potential wedding photographers whose work you like, now it's time to contact them. Your first step is just to find out if they are available on your wedding date. If they are, arrange for a time to meet them (or Skype/call if meeting isn't possible). This meeting is where you will collect all the pertinent nitty gritty details (outlined below) and at the same time get a feel for who they are as a person and if your personalities are compatible. 

Be aware that many larger photo studios have a commissioned sales person who won't actually be your photographer. In addition, many studios have more than one photographer and unless it's specified in your contract, you may not be getting the lead photographer on your day. Since every photographer has a different style and personality, you need to make sure the one you meet and like will be the one who photographs your wedding. If you have room in your budget, consider hiring a second shooter, especially if your wedding has more than 125 guests. Some photographers automatically include a second shooter in the contract, and some don't, so be sure to ask. Obviously, two photographers will cost more, but the main benefit is you get twice as much coverage since one photographer can't be two places at once. For example, during your formal photo session, one photographer can capture the formals, while the second one is getting behind-the-scenes, candid photos of your guests mingling and watching. If you're having a larger wedding (250 guests or more), you might even consider three photographers so they can be sure to capture the event from all angles.

Bridal portrait, inner courtyard after sunset, flash used

Questions & Details to cover with each photographer:

  • Does the quote include one photographer or two?
  • Will they have an assistant and, if so, how many? 
  • Do they travel? If so, do they have travel fees?
  • Do they offer discounts for engagement or day after sessions?
  • If the wedding goes long and you want them to stay another hour or two, can they, and if so, what is the rate?
  • How soon after the wedding will the photos be ready? (Depending on how busy they are, it can take from two to six weeks to get your wedding photos. Why? Because for every hour we spend shooting, we'll spend two hours or more editing. It can take 30-40 hours to edit all the images from a single full day wedding)
  • Do they offer retouching or additional editing services if you want to fine tune a couple images, and if so, what is their rate?
  • How many photos or what products will you receive? Digital, film, prints, albums? This should be clearly spelled out.
  • If an album isn't included or not all images are included, how much extra will it cost to get them? (Since wedding photographers have wildly varying packages, this helps to be able to compare packages, say, between a photographer including an album but only 300 digital images and another offering all digital images but no album.)
  • Do you get Print Rights to the digital images or do you have to order prints thru them? (See Rights below)
  • Ask to read their contract - does it sound fair & equitable to ALL parties (it's supposed to protect you AND the photographer). If it's too lop-sided in their favor, move on. All details should be spelled out in the quote/contract

Last, ask the photographer to describe their perfect client. Not only will this give you a feel for how well they will fit with you, you'll get to know what they value and want. The one thing few clients seem to realize is that photographers want a great client just as much as you want a great photographer - and a great client is NOT necessarily the one who pays the most. A great wedding photographer will put in long hours non-stop, lie on a wet lawn, kneel in a mud puddle and generally do just about anything to get the best and greatest images of you they can. Obviously, we want to do that for clients who will sincerely value and appreciate us.

Flower girls getting ready, indoors, bounced flash

Step 6: Check The Fine Print/Rights

Almost all contracts stipulate that the photographer owns the copyrights to all photos taken at the wedding, even the ones of you. In other words, the photographer owns them and can use them as they wish (website or blog post like this, social media like Facebook/Instagram, submit for publication and even use them in ads). This means some photographers also have a policy that you can only share social media images that have been watermarked or include a credit to them. This protects their rights as an artist. In addition, some photographers insist that if you want to print the images or order an album from someone besides them, you have to buy the rights to do so. More and more photographers are now offering "Print Rights" when you receive digital images...meaning you are allowed to print anywhere you choose for any personal, non-commercial reason. Make sure you read the fine print and that their contract spells these things out clearly!

Step 7: Choose, Book & Trust

Pick the right photographer, pay your deposit, then throw out your shot list Pinterest board. The family photo list is great– shot lists, not so much. It doesn't make much sense to hire a photographer whose work you like and then ask them to shoot like someone else. Example images of poses you like is good. Showing us your Pinterest board so we can see what style and kind of images you like is good too. But giving your photographer a long list of images you want is a bad idea that's doomed to fail, if for no other reason then they'll be looking at that list all day and miss what's happening right in front of them. A creative wedding photographer already has a basic plan in her head based on what she knows about you and what's happening but she needs the freedom to respond organically to every moment. People, locations, and moments in time are all different and every moment requires a different response. It's the photographer’s job to use their creativity to capture gorgeous images of you that are unique to you in that time and place - not to try copying an image from a different place and time, shot by a another photographer. Choose a great photographer, then trust them to create images of you that other brides will be pinning to their Pinterest boards!

Me, Me, Hire MEEEEE!!

If this article was helpful and you're in the market for a wedding photographer, I'd love to be considered. I offer destination wedding photography throughout all the United States and Hawaii, for a remarkably low travel fee! In many cases, I am no more expensive than local photographers in your area. Have camera, will travel!

Like this article? Think of something I missed? Leave a comment below and I'll be sure to update this!
Bodhi

After sunset post wedding session on the beach, flash