Tonight we shoot our final wedding for 2011. It has been one awesome year in our company’s history and I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic. Last January was our first featured wedding in Carolina Bride magazine and we have enjoyed 4 more published weddings since then. We shot our first wedding in New York City this summer and our first beach wedding this fall. The wedding side of our business has thrived and I am thankful to all of the couples who trusted us enough to capture one of the most important days of their lives.
That is really what is all comes down to when choosing a wedding photographer. MANY photographers create beautiful images but you must find the one who is talented and trustworthy enough to carry the title of “Wedding Photographer”. I encourage all brides and grooms to shop around and to shop WISELY before contracting any photographer. If you surf the web and Google local photographers in any area, you will be stunned by two things:
1. The sheer number of people who call themselves “professional photographers”
2. The wide range of price points those same people charge. (in the Charlotte area…the range is $300-$12,000)
Here are my best tips on weeding out photographers you can TRUST and who you should investigate further. Remember, your wedding day doesn’t have the option of a “retake” session and photography is the only keepsake from your wedding day that will last a lifetime. So, here is my list of top questions when searching for a reliable, professional photographer.
1. Look at their website carefully. Do you see the same bride and groom photographed over and over? This might be a sign that they don’t have much experience. Ask how many weddings they have photographed as the LEAD photographer? If you are willing to be a wedding that will build up a new photographer’s portfolio, you will get a low price. However, you are banking on someone with limited experience so you must consider the old phrase “you get what you pay for”. Someone with years of experience will cost a great deal more and you can rest in their expertise on your wedding day.
2. Do they own a licensed photography business? This is very important!! Many photographers start as a hobbyist and don’t consider photography their full-time job. That is fine and that is exactly where I was 4 years ago. However, I recognized that I was not prepared enough to be a LEAD photographer so I shot over 30 weddings as a second shooter to gain the necessary experience I needed. Once I had been involved in a rainy wedding, late wedding, wedding when the tent never showed up, wedding when the bride had an emotional breakdown, etc., I felt prepared enough to handle my first wedding on my own two feet. At that point, I had to become an incorporated small business. It was time to pay taxes and run a tight ship. My clients benefited from this mentality too because I stopped thinking of photography as a hobby. It became my career and I treated every client and wedding day with that same level of respect. I was working 5-6 days/week on photography instead of squeezing in shooting and editing time here and there while maintaining another job. This will factor in heavily to the post-production time following your wedding.
3. Do they have professional equipment? A Canon Rebel just won’t cut it in a dimly lit sanctuary for 300. Does this person have professional grade camera bodies and lenses? If not, do they rent them at least for the wedding day? They should have at least 2 camera bodies, 2-3 lenses, 2 external flashes, multiple memory cards, back up battery packs, reflectors, etc.
4. Do they have business insurance? If someone is running a legitimate wedding photography business, they will have insurance on their equipment. This is extremely important and should not be overlooked. What if your photographer has their equipment stolen 3 days before your wedding or drops their main camera the day before your wedding? Would they have $3000-5000 on hand to replace that necessary equipment? One who is insured would have replacement gear in hand before your wedding while someone without it, probably would not.
5. Are they a member of the PPA or local photographers’ association? Their involvement in the local professional community shows the client that staying current in the industry is a priority and having a network of resources is too. What if your photographer breaks her leg the day before your wedding? What if his child is hospitalized? If he/she is connected with other professional photographers, that individual would have a list of resources on hand to call for a replacement photographer. I cannot imagine life without my photographer friends. They are there for me in a pinch and I would do the same for them.
6. Do they use a second shooter on your wedding day? A 9 hour wedding day with 150 guests and a bridal party of 18 is a tall order for just one person. Sure, he/she be able to capture most key shots but what about all the candid moments? ….the time when grandma decided to cut a rug with a groomsmen? …when the precious ring bearer fell asleep in the front pew during the ceremony? …or when the father-of-the-bride gave his sweet daughter a gift he’d been saving for decades? A second shooter’s responsibility is to LOOK for those unscripted moments and capture them. Sometime those moments caught in between will be the ones you cherish most. (Plus, a second shooter could carry on if the lead photographer fell down a flight of stairs, etc. )
7. How quickly do they respond to your phone calls and e-mails? If several days go by and they do not respond to your questions, that is a bad sign. Again, do they work another full-time job and therefore cannot respond for weeks a time to your needs? 24-36 hours is ample time for some form of response from someone who operates a photography business. Their response time BEFORE the wedding will indicate their response time post-wedding. Remember, it will take a considerable amount of time on their end to process, edit and present your final images. I allot 20 hours to each wedding (3 full work days) in post-production so if someone has to squeeze that amount of work into just nights or occasional weekends, it could be months before you see your wedding images.
8. How much of a priority is wedding photography to you? Everyone plans a wedding on a budget. You have to make a priority list before you go shopping. Is photography #1 or #5 on your list? That will certainly influence the level of expertise you can afford on your wedding day. Many people believe great photography is the MOST important take away from their wedding day and will therefore allocate a significant portion of their budget to photography and some do not. Someone with a $50,000 budget might not value photography much and only allot for $1500 in terms of wedding photography. They are satisfied with an entry level photographer and would rather have a fantastic meat-carving station and Vera Wang gown. However, I’ve also had brides with a $15,000 budget contract a $4000 photography package because they value professional photography more than the food they would eat or the style of their table centerpieces.
9. Ask to speak to their last 3 brides. This list of references will tell the real story. These references can attest to their timeliness, professionalism, demeanor on the wedding day and quality of the final product. Anyone can look like a great photographer on a website but a truly talented and professional photographer will have glowing recommendations from past couples.
There are MANY other questions to ask, but I hope this list will help you to determine who is a professional and who is not. Again, there is no right or wrong photographer but there ARE wrong photographer/client matches. If you value professional photography and end up with an entry level, less-than-professional photographer to capture one of the most important days of your life……regret is the inevitable end product. I was that bride once. I didn’t have any idea what to ask my photographer and assumed that because she had a retail location, she would do a good job. The truth was, she had lost the passion for her craft and did not provide an outstanding finished product. She took the “highlights reel” and left all candids and artistic moments off the list. If I could go back in time, I would absolutely do things differently. I don’t want that to be your experience so do your homework and shop wisely!!!
So, here I am today. Someone who values the trust brides and grooms put into me. I have been charging batteries for 2 days. I have tested all my camera bodies, lenses, external flashes and light meter today. I have backup batteries, formatted memory cards and even flashlights in my bag. I have my second shooter lined up for tonight. I have met with tonight’s couple over breakfast and in the studio to discuss today’s events. I have memorized the names of all wedding party participants and vendors I will encounter tonight. My outfit is ready and my car has gas in it. They TRUSTED me…..I owe them that much.