How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – Never Shop on Price

How to choose a wedding photographer is without doubt a well worn topic within the many bridal and wedding photography magazines. There is certainly some variance when it comes to the quality of the advice offered and I believe that a common sense approach is always best. I’m not a wedding photographer, but as an established people photographer a reasonable amount of my training has covered the business of wedding photography and therefore it’s a topic worthy of discussion. There is no doubt that nowadays there are a great many people presenting themselves as wedding photographers. After all, the photography industry is not centrally regulated and pretty much anyone can set themselves up in business. So how can a prospective client sift the established pros from the fly by night wannabes? And how can clients avoid simple misunderstanding (which are almost always the cause of disputes)?

How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – the Bare Basics

  • check to see how long the photographer has been established (if their website or blog has only been up and running for a few months then that may indicate a lack of experience)
  • does the photographer possess any of the recognised industry qualifications from one of the recognised photographic institutions (such as The Societies, the British Institute of Professional Photography, the Master Photographers Association, or the Royal Photographic Society)? Whilst qualifications are not a necessity (many well known and excellent photographers have chosen not to follow the qualifications route) they will demonstrate that the photographer is committed to their personal development and will have been assessed by a panel of experts for technical competency, creativity, and final output. Organisations such as the BIPP and MPA will only accredit those photographers who have also provided working profiles, health and safety assessments, and evidence of comprehensive insurance cover
  • does the photographer’s website show images which are relevant to what you’re seeking (for example somebody who creates beautiful landscapes may know little or nothing about portraiture or wedding photography)?
  • is the photographer’s website professional, well written, and appealing?
  • if the photographer has been recommended to you by another bride then so much the better
  • it’s fine to talk to several photographers before making a decision – photographers expect that and should never pressure a customer into signing up with them there and then

Wedding photography falls into an entirely different category to most other forms of photography, including portraiture. Quite simply your wedding day is likely to be one of the most important days of your life, if not the most important. Weddings cannot be re-staged and re-shot if the photographs are below par and it’s normal for a bride to want every expensive detail of her day to be recorded to a high standard. Your wedding photography is likely to be the only enduring record of your wedding. Yet a remarkable number of prospective wedding photography clients seem concerned with simply finding the cheapest photographer. I think we can all understand the pressures the economy has placed upon us but cheap wedding photography is like any other service, you’re likely to get what you pay for. So what exactly are you paying for? Photographers have business overheads which, for a professional as opposed to an amateur, are often very much higher than you might realise. These overheads will include the purchasing and depreciation of all equipment; such as cameras, lenses, lighting, IT equipment and software (all of which are required in duplicate in the event of a failure). The photographer must also spend a great deal on marketing, and the various insurances, as well as the many years of training and personal development which will have been part of his or her journey as an established business owner. All of these are factored into the fees for each assignment. A newcomer is unlikely to bear all of these operating costs and as a result may offer their services very cheaply, and all too often the results reflect their inexperience and lack of preparation. A photographer with an established reputation and good credentials will likely be more costly than one who has little to show for their endeavours. Lastly the products offered by a good quality wedding photographer will usually be very much better than those offered by most newcomers who may not have access to professional-only laboratories and album manufacturers. So what should prospective brides consider when it comes to choosing a wedding photographer?

How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – Key Points

  • do you look at the photographer’s photographs and think “wow“? You need to love their work! Photographers are not generic, every photographer is different to the next in their style, their way of working, and ultimately the way in which they process and output their pictures. It’s no good looking at a photographer who favours very traditional imagery and expecting them to provide you with modern reportage photography. Make sure that the photographer specialises in the style of photography you’re seeking. You might want to read our article: Photographers are like Restaurants
  • does the photographer’s fee structure align with your budget? Don’t expect a £3,000 photographer to ‘price match’ the £800 photographer down the road
  • when you contact the photographer is the response professional and friendly?
  • if or when you arrange to meet the photographer do you actually like him or her? This is so very important, after all you will be working closely with your photographer for several hours at a time and so it makes sense that the two of you should get along
  • have you been shown enough examples of the photographer’s ‘s work with which to form an opinion on his or her suitability? An established wedding photographer should be able to show prospective clients examples of completed weddings – and it’s more important to see these weddings as final albums rather than galleries on a website, because ultimately the quality of his or her prints or products will be paramount
  • are the photographers products exactly what you’re looking for?
  • does the photographer listen, and answer all your questions to your satisfaction?
  • never proceed without a contract. A contract sets out what has been agreed with respect to coverage, the form of the final product, delivery timescales, cancellation policies and various additional obligations which both the photographer and the client must meet.
  • don’t forget to check that your photographer is insured. This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask and a professional will have no objection at all in showing you his or her credentials. Whilst on the subject, it is also perfectly reasonable for your photographer to ask you if you will be taking out your own wedding insurance (in fact nowadays an increasing number of photographers decline to work with couples who have not covered all eventualities)

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Now that we’ve looked at the important basics, I think it’s also worth mentioning a few things which are given far too much precedence in my opinion.

How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – the “Not so Important”

  • many brides will (wrongly) believe that a high number of images should be provided to them. A photographer who “machine guns” while they work will end up with a huge number of photographs which are very similar in nature. At the end of the day the majority of wedding customers are likely to choose anything from 50 to 150 images for the album. Therefore there is little point in the photographer reeling off 1000 photographs and showing all of those to the bride. Not only is this tiring and confusing for clients it also generates an unnecessarily high workload for the photographer. In my view it’s much better to shoot in a methodical and considered way and to provide between 250 and 350 high quality proofs to your couple
  • wedding magazines often encourage brides to ask for copies of the digital files. As a result many photographers offer a disc only package. Whilst this is what  many clients feel they want, it can prove to be unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. First of all this places the onus on the client to generate their own prints. Given that professional photographers view photographs on specially calibrated equipment and will carefully optimise each picture for size and resolution prior to print, and will use professional only laboratories, it is therefore very likely that the client will end up with poor reproduction when they take the disc to their local supermarket or kiosk. And when it comes to albums, once again the client will have to find a way to create their own with no knowledge of file preparation, profiling, or sharpening. For this reason I would strongly encourage couples to purchase one or two items alongside the disc, if budget allows, so that they have a high quality representation of their special day from the outset
  • brides often feel they should provide their photographer with a definitive shot list, often running to dozens of group photographs and individual portraits. Your photographer will have carefully considered the timeline of your wedding. In fact wedding photographers work flat-out to gain the required photographs in a minimal space of time and it can be unrealistic when clients ask for more than is generally appropriate or manageable. Indeed, it must be realised that your photographer cannot be expected to gain all of the photographs you request simply because weddings are variable events and don’t always run exactly to plan, nor are the required guests necessarily in the right place at the right time. Therefore a shot list should be seen as a guide but it is nevertheless a good idea to point out the most important people to your photographer so that they are included wherever possible

And what are absolute “no nos”?

How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – What Not to Do

  • inviting one of your amateur photographer friends or relatives to “shadow” your photographer so that they can gain images for their own self-promotion. The photographer won’t appreciate someone in his or her way, nor will they take too kindly to someone who shoots the images they have set up. Why is this? Because they have spent many years and a huge amount of money developing skills such as lighting and posing. Having someone taking a free ride will almost certainly generate ill feeling or even formal action if the friend or relative were to promote those wedding images as their own
  • do not expect a photographer to hold your wedding date open while you decide whether or not you wish to work with them. Your data is only booked once your photographer has received your retainer (remember that this retainer is non-refundable should you change your mind)
  • never ask your photographer for additional time or services and expect to receive the extra work for free. Remember that your photographer has business overheads for each and every hour that their business exists and their time costs them money (after all, you wouldn’t expect your accountant, decorator, or tailor to throw in a couple of free hours would you?). Most photographers don’t watch the clock and it would be rare for them to charge if they were to run over by half an hour or so. But beyond that, if you ask your photographer to stay longer than planned, be aware that they will levy their hourly rate to cover their attendance and the additional processing effort
  • don’t expect your photographer to provide products or album lines which are different to those in his or her existing lineup. Photographers choose their products according to their own style and according to the preferences and the budget of their target customers. For this reason asking a photographer to provide a much cheaper album than those already offered will undermine their profit and will not usually provide the most appropriate showcase for their work
  • there are also no-nos on the photographer’s side of course – no photographer should pressure a client into retaining their services, nor should any professional photographer badmouth their competition
  • wedding clients sometimes feel that they should haggle with the photographer. Whilst an inexperienced newcomer may well fall victim to pressure, an experienced photographer knows only too well how small their profit margin will be (your photographer will after all be investing anything from 40 to 70 hours of effort into your wedding when all of the preparation, meetings, photography, editing, processing, retouching, proofing, viewing, and product design is taken into account) and they are very likely to feel ruffled when a customer attempts to narrow their profits still further. Given that you will be working together in a high-pressure situation it makes sense for all parties to remain respectful and realistic

But what if you find a photographer you love only to learn that you can’t afford him or her?

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How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – When You Can’t Stretch to the One You Want

  • if the photographer you want is wildly out of your budget then unfortunately you will need to find somebody else who aligns with what you are able to spend
  • if the photographer is a little more costly than your budget, consider trimming other areas of your wedding to free up the necessary funds
  • it may be possible for the photographer to trim your package into a more affordable state, such as providing a little less coverage or a smaller album

Lastly, what if you simply don’t want to hire a pro? I can perfectly empathise with this, we’re all different and quite simply some people just don’t become particularly excited about wedding albums. Still, you will doubtless want at least some pictures of your big day and there are options to hiring a professional, although most of these options will have caveats. One of the biggest mistakes couples can make is to presume that the camera creates the photograph, and therefore a friend or relative who owns a fancy camera will be able to generate images akin to those in wedding magazines. Of course if this were the case every street in the land would be lined with successful professional photographers (when in fact such a breadth of skill is required that you will find very few established photographers in your locality) so clearly this is not a good mindset to adopt. But here are some choices:

How to Choose a Wedding Photographer – When there is no Photographer

  • your local college may be able to suggest a student who could photograph your wedding for practise. Bear in mind that a student may have relatively little technical knowledge or understanding of people photography, let alone people management and product design. Students, friends, and amateur photographers are unlikely to hold indemnity and liability insurance, so you will have no recourse if things go pear-shaped
  • ask your guests to come armed with cameras. The pictures will be random and highly variable in quality, and full of embarrassing moments 
  • you may have a friend or relative who is a keen amateur photographer. The pitfalls of hiring a student will apply, and your friendship may well end as a result. If you’re considering getting a friend or student to photograph your wedding it may be worth reading one of our prior posts: Having a Friend Photograph Your Wedding – a Cautionary Tale
  • there are cheap photographers who earn extra cash photographing weddings in their spare time. Ensure you see relevant examples and ensure that you communicate your expectations clearly as well as determining the form in which the final deliverable can be provided, such as an album, or prints
  • many existing professional photographers decide to branch into wedding photography as a means of diversifying their business and such photographers will normally offer to photograph a small number of weddings for free in order to expedite their wedding portfolio (you’ll still have to pay for your end products, obviously). This can be an excellent choice if you can find such a photographer – they will have the requisite insurances, the right equipment (and backups) and whilst they cannot guarantee the same results as an experienced wedding photographer they will nevertheless generally more than satisfy the client who might not otherwise have any photographer at all

As photographers we must understand that our clients may not have worked with or even met professional photographers before. Therefore it is our responsibility to ensure that we explain our service clearly.  It can also be very helpful to provide our customers with fact sheets or webpages setting out answers to the most frequently asked questions as well as providing a clear explanation and examples of our own personal style and philosophy. Similarly, our Contracts should be comprehensive, fair, and easy to understand. My Contract is quite detailed and acts as something of an information source as well as a legally binding statement of our respective obligations. It can be helpful to run through the Contract while the client is present, this can help to prevent confusion or a stream of questions afterwards. You may wish to point out particular clauses, such as the fact that the retainer is non-returnable if the client should change their mind, and also the schedule of costs should the client withdraw from the Contract at a later date.  And do point out that you will be dealing with the client(s) as they are named on the Contract, and not with any other third parties (including parents and relatives) – this ensures a coherent information flow where nobody is “left out of the loop”. I also reiterate to my clients that if there are any changes to their circumstances or if they wish to terminate our arrangement then they must do so in writing since we cannot prove or follow verbal instructions.

These are all areas where many untrained newcomers come unstuck. And as we know, clients who purchase photography based on price alone are running the risk of considerable disappointment. Ultimately it is the photographer’s responsibility to set out clear terms of business and to ensure that the clients’ expectations have been set appropriately. It is the responsibility of the clients to communicate their needs and wishes clearly to their photographer and to ensure that those desires align with what is being offered and sold. It is of course a two-way association where clear communication is paramount, and where mutual respect should be a given. Whilst wedding photography normally demands high fees (most notably due to the photographer’s high overheads and the considerable cost of a good quality album) that does not give the client the right to make unreasonable or untimely demands upon the photographer. Where all the points in this article have been considered there is no reason why the client/photographer relationship should not be immensely enjoyable and fruitful and where this is the case if it’s not uncommon for new friendships to be formed and new alliances to develop.

 

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  • Mag D - February 15, 2013 - 7:29 pm

    “How to Choose Wedding Photographer”….. brilliant write-up Lindsay. I can think of quite a few people I know that will benefit from your advice and utter dedication to, what is for some people, a once in a lifetime session. Thank you, really enjoyed reading through your ‘special’ notes, all gained from your years of study and experience.

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