How to Hire a Wedding Photographer

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Last October I was faced with one of my toughest challenges as a consumer – I was getting married and I needed to hire the photographer.  My now wife knew this would be an impossible task and was not going to touch it with a 10 foot pole – no, this one was mine.  Here’s how I went about hiring my photographer, the steps I took, and what I feel is important to know when hiring your own wedding (or any event) photographer.

The Process of Hiring a Photographer

Wedding PhotographersFigure out what you want in a Photographer - My process started with a long period of procrastination.  Periodically I would scan local photographer’s websites, but was often underwhelmed by the stock poses and overwhelmed by the “packages.”  Not that it put my wife’s mind at ease, but all this waiting and perusing allowed me to get clear on what I wanted in a wedding photographer.

To me, wedding photography is all about image quality, style and story-telling.  Our venue was not the traditional pew lined isle of a church, but rather a pecan grove in central Phoenix.  Liz and I both love the outdoors, so it just made sense to make that a part of the ceremony.  We also didn’t have the traditional events such as dancing, garter toss, etc, but did incorporate a string quartette and many other small details.  This set up a great environment to mingle and enjoy the warm October evening, but it also introduced other options and complexities for whomever I hired as a photographer.  I wanted to make sure our photographer would be able to handle the unpredictability of weather, site changes, lighting, and whatever else happens on the day of the wedding.  In a word, flexible.       

Prioritize your list – I determined that our wedding photography needed to be all about image quality, style, flexibility and story-telling.   It’s important to point out that everyone’s list will look a little different.  I have photographed last minute weddings where photographer availability topped the list.  Maybe style or budget tops yours, but no matter the list, you need to be clear on what you want.  This will make a huge difference when negotiating your deal with a photographer.  Figure out what item in your list you can’t live without.  Move that one to the top and continue down your list for the second most important item.  It may help to jot down some notes next to each point that describes what each looks like.  Here is what my list ended up being:

 

wedding photographerStyle – Photographer has a natural style that compliments my overall goals for the event. 

Flexibility – Photographer is willing to adapt their plans, behaviors, equipment, and style to meet the goals of the event.

Image Quality – Photographer has sufficient equipment and experience to obtain quality images.  (be sure to define “quality image” if you are not clear on what that means.)

Story Telling – Photographer’s natural style (see above) and journalistic approach is sufficient to capture all the critical moments from ceremony to toast.

After building my list, I procrastinated some more allowing myself time to change my mind and alter my list before I started shopping. If you have the luxury of time, I highly recommend walking away from your list for at least a week to make sure you are clear on what you want.

 

 

Pairing Your goals with a Photographer

Style of Photography - I started with style because that seems to be the most important to me.  I surfed endless websites and saved links to photographers who had an image style that I liked.  I’m not really into the whole staged photography thing; I would rather my photographer capture the events and emotion as they unfold.  Don’t get me wrong, I wanted some group shots as well, but the need for group shots was a secondary driver for me. 

Eventually, I narrowed the list down to about 6 wedding photographers which had style and storytelling nailed in my opinion.  This is one area where people differ widely, so figure out what you like and don’t let people talk you out of that. 

The hard part for me was to identify who would be flexible and produce quality images.  Let’s break this down a little further.  

Hiring Flexible Photographers – To me flexibility meant that the photographer would not try and shoe-horn us into a pre-conceived package.  The notion that photographers sell event photography by the hour or number of shots is insane to me.  Can you imagine your photographer hitting the four hour mark and leaving before the cake cutting, toast, etc.?   It also drives me nuts that many photographers hold your images hostage.  They charge to shoot the image, then turn around and charge an exorbitant amount if you decide to use the image.  This is hotly debated within the photography community and there are good augments on both sides of the fence.  I just happen to fall on the side that dislikes this practice. 

Good photographers talk to you about your event and craft a package based on your needs and wants.    I however, was trying to hire a photographer in the purest sense.  I didn’t want wedding albums, prints, PhotoShop work, etc., I wanted a photographer who was willing to hang their credentials on their abilities with a camera.  Pure in-camera art – plain and simple. 



Hiring a Photographer for Image Quality - Image quality means different things to different people.  Believe it or not, some people still want film to be shot at their wedding.  I insisted on digital because of the flexibility that it provides, but it also introduces a lot of grey area into the image quality debate. 

Since I know camera gear, I specifically requested details about the kind of equipment each photographer used.  This can tell you a lot about a photographer and what they are willing to invest into capturing perfect images of your event.  It seems like everyone I know now has a digital SLR camera and a Flickr account, but that doesn’t mean they are qualified to photograph your big day.

I have found that a key discriminator between accomplished photographers and those less so is their ability to light a scene.  Ask your potential photographers to explain how they plan to supplement natural light.  You aren’t looking for a step by step on EV compensation, but simply a sense that they know more about lighting than how to slide a flash into the shoe of the camera and turn everything to auto.  If group shots are important to you, have them address how they will accommodate these particularly challenging staged shots.  Do they use studio strobes to get even lighting?  How do they address glare on glasses? 

The bottom line is the photographer should be able to talk simply about how they will prepare for the different lighting scenarios, the quality of their camera gear, backup gear, etc.  If they get defensive, you may want to keep looking. 

Making Contact with Potential Photographers –  Like I said earlier, I picked about six photographers to contact, each with a style that I liked (remember, style was on top of my list.) I emailed each one with the following message:

Hello,

 I recently stumbled across your website in my search for a wedding photographer and wondered if you could provide me additional details on your offerings.  Let me start by saying that I also am a photographer which is both a blessing and curse in this process.  The blessing is that I know exactly what I want, and that’s the curse as well.  I understand that my requirements may not fit into your business model and if that’s the case, just say so.  If you’re interested, here are the details of the event and what I’m looking for :

The wedding date is October 28th, 2007 at the Farm at South Mountain (Phoenix.)  Liz and I will be getting ready on site 1-2 hours prior to the event.   We will have 80 – 100 attendees and the ceremony will start at 4:30.  As you may have guessed from our venue, our setting will be an outdoor event with a garden theme.  The ceremony will be no longer that 30 minutes and the reception will end between 8 and 10.

We would like the traditional groups shots, ceremony, bride and groom prep, cake cutting, etc., but the rest we are looking for a creative photographer with a great eye to frame up the event in the way they see fit.  We will most likely carve out some time immediately following the ceremony for the family to do group shots; have a set time for cake, and then the rest would be photo journalistic.

 Here’s the hard part – the technical requirements:  

Cameras – I don’t care if you shoot Canon or Nikon digital; it just needs to be one of them.  That is unless you are shooting Hassy. If so, you’re my hero.   I only get excited about 4×5 and larger film now, but if that’s what you shoot and you are good enough to shoot weddings, you too are my hero.  I’m looking for something in the neighborhood of 10 plus mega pixels and I would like all the images to be shot in RAW (yes, I know how much room those take up on a compact flash card – I’m sorry.)  Glass needs to be sharp and should be clean – no feathers or foreign objects in the lens or on the sensor;-)  I know as a photographer you understand, so I won’t belabor the point. 

Lighting – Strangely, I’m less picky about lighting.  You just need to have enough of it to successfully light groups of up to 20 at dusk and capture candids later in the evening. 

Video – Uh, no. 

Editing and prints – none.  That’s right, I don’t want any editing or prints, just the RAW files.  My goal is to finds someone who is willing to charge a fair price for the event and not rely on the extras after the fact.  I realize that you may not make a practice of relinquishing the “negatives,” but I’m hoping to hire a talented photographer for the part of this I simply cannot do – capture the imagery of the event.  Besides, if you’re anything like me, the process of shooting the wedding is far more fun that the Photoshop workflow after the fact.  This is your chance to do the fun part, and then walk away with a check and free cake.  What else could be better?

All joking aside, I realize that what I’m looking to accomplish is out of the norm, but I hope that you would consider the opportunity and let me know one way or the other if you are interested in discussing the matter more.  If you can give me a ballpark price range and a quick thought or two on how you approach your wedding photography, it would go a long way.  

Thanks,

Scott Blackburn

My results were as follows: 

Photographer 1 – Booked on that day. 

Photographer 2 – This photographer had a novel approach.  I received a lecture of how I should “understand as a photographer that comparing work is not really like comparing apples to apples because each artists’ work is unique.” 6 Hours coverage $1295 + raw files $600 = $1895 or 7 Hours Coverage $1395 + raw files $600 = $1995.  Flexible?  I’m not guessing so.

Photographer 3 – Good detail of equipment and description of approach to photographing an event.  Unfortunately, the coverage fee was more than I could swallow.  How would you like to earn 4 grand per day ($500 per hour) just to show up and work?  Here is part of the response on the fees.  ”I have a standard price for my coverage and then usually a-la-carte everything else which sounds like it will fit you perfectly!  You will see that I included a PDF with my pricing for you. But to save you a few minutes I would tell you that my coverage fee is $4000 for 8 -10 hours. I charge $800 for the digital negatives unless you purchase an album in which case I cut that price in half.”

Probably very talented, but gave me the feeling that I was ordering off the rack instead of getting a custom suit (but paying custom suit prices.) 

Photographer 4 - Only shoots film.  This was a disappointment because I really liked her style.  Was very polite and offered to scan the negatives, but I had too many plans for the RAW digital files.

Photographer 5No Response – Actually, I was surprised this was the only one.

Photographer 6 – This photographer probably did the best job answering all my questions.  In fact, she fired back a list at me and really gave me a sense that my wedding mattered and was not just another payday or cookie cutter shoot.  We talked about lighting, laughed over sensor dust and eventually discussed price, but of all the photographers that responded, we liked Cindy the most.  She was professional and malleable and made sure that here offerings fit our needs.  In the end, we agreed on a fair price that was better than the other photographers and included an engagement session.  If you are in the Phoenix, AZ area and would like her contact information, shoot me an email and I’ll pass it your way.    

 

Conclusion

Hiring a photographer is never easy, especially if you are a photographer yourself.  I think the key to success is to get clear on what you want and then set out to find it.  Ask lots of questions and see who wants to work with you.  Look for the signs of an amateur photographer and steer clear.  Ultimately, my approach was a bit unconventional but produced good results.  Why not try a similar approach for your wedding or other big event.  Who knows, you may just hire a great photographer.   


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