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HOW TO CHOOSE A WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER

Congratulations!
Whether you’re newly engaged and beaming, a family member or friend or another vendor, you’ll learn a lot by reading this article. I hope you find the information I’ve carefully constructed both helpful and informative.

Do you really need to fork over several thousand dollars to hire a professional photographer to shoot your wedding? The simple answer is no, you don’t. Here are some guidelines to help you make the decision.

How do you value photography in general?
Do you value fine art? Do you buy paintings or sculpture or other forms of art? If you don’t, then don’t feel pressured into paying for a talented professional photographer whose work will go into a box or a book that you won’t appreciate. If you do value and enjoy artwork and discriminate between the good and the bad, take the time to select the right photographer at a price that’s right for you.

Decide who will research the photographer. I've found that more grooms make initial contact with me than brides. I suspect it’s because photography requires as much technical research as artistic, and I’ve noticed that most men immediately feel comfortable in this role. If you’re a bride looking to share some aspects of the zillion details that go into wedding planning, consider giving this task to your fiancé! The two of you, of course, will decide together which photographer to use, but this could be one of the easiest chores to take off your plate.

Like most things in life, supply and demand drive all photography pricing, but it doesn’t mean you won’t find talent and a satisfying experience at every price point.

Allocate a percentage of the total amount you plan to spend on a wedding.
Twenty to twenty-five percent is a commonly used figure, but expect it to vary according to your own tastes and values. To put this in perspective, consider that when time’s up, the music has stopped, you've eaten the food, the flowers have wilted and you've left the location. What’s left? Memories and photographs. Be honest with yourself about your priorities!


BIG STUDIO VS. FREELANCE

Let your personality determine your choice of a big studio or a freelance artist. You'll find benefits to both.

The big studios provide structure, backup, and cost-effective fixed options. They can also feel like pushy, impersonal factories that force you to settle for what they offer rather than what you want. You may or may not meet the photographer who will shoot your wedding, but just looking at a body of work and talking to references may satisfy you. If you’re in the camp of those who highly value photos, I recommend insisting on meeting your chosen photographer to ensure you’ve got good chemistry.

Freelancers have a vested interest in your satisfaction
because their success tends to grow virally, not through advertising. They, not a booking agent, earn every dollar you pay them. Freelancers are a different breed; independent, hard working and more likely to push the envelope to meet your needs. On the other hand, what is their back-up and what is your recourse? They can and should answer these questions legitimately, so don’t forget to ask!

The ideal wedding photographer personality is friendly, decisive, solution-oriented, imaginative, energetic and engaging. Wedding photography is a demanding, people management job that takes place in a fast-paced atmosphere. The photographer (not you) is under tremendous pressure to get everything right the first (and only!) time. As you might guess, persuading people to put down a glass of wine to pose for the umpteenth group shot requires a delicate, diplomatic balance pf firmness and friendliness. Get someone who takes control without being rude and is quick on his or her feet.

Beware the double-edged swords of too much and too little experience. Watch out for shooters who lack that edge of freshness because they've "been there and done that" a million and five times. Complacency occurs in every profession, and wedding photographers can burn out at rapid rates due to the intensity and pressure. On the other hand, too little experience, while cheaper, presents different risks. What may be perfect is a wedding photographer who can still tell you how many weddings he or she has done, but who still gets a little nervous before the Big Day.

A pro should belong to one of the outstanding organizations for professional photographers. If you decide to hire a pro, ask which, if any, he or she has joined. Among the more sophisticated are APA (Advertising Photographers of America) and ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers). These two attract photographers largely serving corporate, commercial and advertising clients.

At the consumer level, you’ll find photographers who belong to PPA (Professional Photographers of America) and WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers of America). While there’s clearly a pecking order, what matters is that your photographer is actively involved, pursues education (because it never ends in any profession) and is aware of current trends.

Lastly, ask if your photographer has insurance and ask for a certificate of proof for your wedding day. Photography is a capital-intensive business with equipment that is fragile, prone to damage from the most minor of accidents and is highly attractive to thieves. Insurance isn’t cheap, but a successful photographer wouldn’t be without it.

The definition of “good” imagery varies from person to person. Period. Your wedding photos are a permanent part of your history and all that matters is that they please you. There are, however, technical considerations that you should understand. As you do research, you’ll hear about medium format versus 35 millimeter versus digital and every photographer will have an opinion about why one is better than the other. In fact, they all have strengths.

DIGITAL VS FILM
(click here for comprehensive info)

Without question, digital photography will overtake film because the equipment, already amazingly high quality, improves at a rate approaching Moore’s law. Every year the technology makes quantum leaps in imaging quality and capability as equipment prices fall.

Both Canon and Nikon have full lines of high quality, 35mm SLR camera bodies, or cameras that take the existing lines of interchangeable lenses. In the professional digital SLR line, Canon has eaten Nikon’s lunch with an astounding line of highly successful new products. Canon introduced such revolutionary tools as image-stabilized lenses and CMOS sensors, driving virtually all aggressive sports photographers to use Canon equipment.

It’s a good sign if your digital photographer uses Canon equipment! (Digital medium format isn’t practical for shooting journalism or weddings yet, but when it is, we’ll enter a whole new world of image capture. More on medium format below.)

Evaluation of a digital image doesn't end with what comes out of the camera. Yes, digital photography lowered the bar for entry-level photographers, but I’ve yet to see a single image come out of my digital cameras that didn’t benefit from adjustment in Photoshop. Some need a lot, some just a little, but it is both an art and a science to produce a high quality digital image.

The telltale signs of low quality digital images are off colors (too orange, too blue), flat light, little shadow and little highlight detail. All images enter the digital chip in color, and the conversion process from color to black and white in Photoshop is as difficult, if not more, than printing black and white photos in a darkroom. The telltale signs of bad black & white conversions are virtually the same as those in color, including color casts. However, I guarantee that you will not be able to distinguish between a well-developed digital print and a film print.

Ink jet print and papers are still relatively new despite the plethora of research and claims about ink longevity. Nobody really knows yet how current ink jet prints will hold up over time. There are exceptions, however. While I don’t recommend you put any ink jet color prints into an $800 album, I would recommend accepting black and white prints from high quality Epson printers on archival paper.

Ask for RC paper color prints if your digital wedding photographer will make your finished prints. One simple reason for insisting on traditional photo chemical paper is that the high quality album manufacturers don’t like to work with ink jet prints. This is because any glue that gets on your image in the mounting process generally takes the ink out of the paper when wiped off. That means the photographer has to reprint and mail an additional image. In the end, you end up paying for this extra time and hassle. Most pro labs accept digital files and a digital photographer who doesn’t use one is bordering on amateur.

Medium format vs. 35mm. Medium format (35mm would be “small” format), still mostly film, refers to the negative size. The larger the negative, the better the potential print quality. You’ll hear medium format sizes referred to as 645, 120, six by six, etc. Many an established studio using only medium format will try to convince you it’s the only way to go. One reason may be the image quality, but what you get just may be outweighed by what you give up (read this). Any medium format camera is harder to handle and is slower to use than a 35mm camera. Part of this stems from having fewer frames per roll of film (hence more stopping to change rolls). Another part is the camera size – most medium format cameras are larger and require tripods.


WHERE TO START LOOKING

There’s a general hierarchy of the search process that tends to yield the most satisfying and efficient results.

At risk of stating the obvious, ask your friends, colleagues and family for references. But don’t stop there.

If you don’t get solid leads from people you know, ask the other vendors you’re considering for the other parts of the wedding. Start with the wedding planner and move on to the florist, the caterer and the band. Often these vendors have kickback relationships, a perfectly acceptable business practice, but these references are just a launching point. You’ve got to do more homework.

The Internet usually proves to be the most effective tool. When you land on a photographer’s site, you should get an instant read on his or her style and capability and get an immediate, gut reaction that either appeals to you or doesn’t. If it’s good, dig through more links and resist trying to immediately go to the pricing information. A well-designed, uncluttered site with a handful of carefully selected images usually translates into a thoughtful, organized photographer who takes care and pride in his or her work. This business is all about visuals and how a photographer shows his or her work speaks volumes about how your finished product will look.

Do your homework – and always, always talk to references. Once you’ve narrowed your search to a few photographers, call them. Go through some of the questions on my interview list, and when you find someone you might want, make a decision about whether or not you want to meet. Believe it or not, I’ve booked nearly all my wedding jobs without meeting my clients face to face and had fabulous results. If, after you meet, ask for references no matter how comfortable you felt at the meeting. Use my reference resource list of questions when you approach them and get a well-rounded experience out of these former clients.

Don't even consider a photographer who doesn't use contracts because they protect you and the photographer. They eliminate squabbling and mysteriously fluctuating prices and provide a collection point for all the details. Your contract should include the nitty gritty ceremony details, the names of the wedding party members, the other vendors, the specific photography start and end times and any special services like extra lighting, travel or assistants. Additionally, the contract ideally has a list of poses you want (see my posing list) so that the photographer doesn’t inadvertently forget them.

Pay your deposit promptly once you receive a contract draft from your lucky chosen photographer. This lets your photographer know that you’re serious and it locks in your date, especially for the most popular months of June and September. An ethical photographer will return your deposit if you are unable to come to terms with the contract, and you’ll know if your photographer is ethical because you did your homework!

Conclusion
Set your priorities. Be clear about what you want. Start early. Search efficiently. Trust your eyes, then your gut. Expect to get what you pay for.

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" Not only are you a talented photographer, you are a superb businesswoman," Fran O., Weston, MA