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How to choose a wedding photographer. A rough guide to helping you through the maze!

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Choosing a wedding photographer

This is perhaps more difficult than you might think, particularly if you are not used to looking at wedding photography… which few people are!  I’m writing this because I see photographers on Facebook every day who are trying to trick brides into believing that they are professional wedding photographers.  I can tell by their prices and their work that they are not, but what can I do to protect consumers?  As in most areas, education is the key to avoiding being duped.  Read on for a photographer’s inside view of the wedding photography industry and discover how you can safely choose a professional wedding photographer.

Before we get onto choosing a photographer, let’s think about risk.  There are certain suppliers that, should things go wrong, won’t really have an impact on your wedding.  For example, one of my brides last year employed the services of a local dressmaker to design and make her wedding dress.  As the months went by, the dream dress still didn’t fit correctly.  The Sunday before the wedding, the bride had her final fitting and the dress was not right, so another final fitting was booked for the Thursday.  That day, the bride left the dressmakers distraught as it still didn’t fit.  She drove to a local wedding dress shop and bought a lovely silk dress off the peg that she wore on the Saturday.  Of course, this whole episode was very stressful and she had to pay twice for her dress, but her wedding day itself was not spoiled.

This is a common story among brides who buy cheap imported dresses online as well. Putting the risk into perspective, buying a cheap copy wedding dress may be stressful and costly, but it should not actually ruin your big day. 

If we apply the same reasoning to the flowers the situation becomes more serious…you wouldn’t discover a problem with the florist until the morning of the wedding.  Same goes for the wedding cake maker.

What about the photographer?  In their case, you might not discover a problem until weeks or possibly months after the wedding.  One of my clients has a friend who paid £500 in advance for her photography. The photographer showed up and shot the wedding… then a few days later he explained that due to some kind of “technical problem” the photos were not available.  The final outcome was that the couple were not given any of their wedding photos.

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Should I search via an online wedding directory?

Yes and No – there isn’t a simple answer to this.  Most directories just include whoever will pay them.  No photographer can afford to be in every single directory, there are so many of them.  For successful, long established, wedding photographers the majority of bookings come via personal referral (friends of previous brides) so they don’t need to advertise…so it’s reasonable to assume they will be less likely to pay for lots of different listings.  So in the paid directories you will frequently find photographers who are not getting much business via referral, perhaps because they have started their business recently.  This afternoon, I was approached by yet another online wedding directory, so I had a look at their website.  There is a charge for obtaining a listing with them, but I couldn’t find what that fee was.  So, I went to the listing for wedding photographers and searched for two of Britain’s best known, award winning photographers (Jeff Ascough and Crash Taylor).  Neither of them were paying to advertise on this particular register… so any bride searching there could be doing herself out of the best wedding photographers rather than actually finding them!

Generally, I would say it’s best to avoid any directory that makes the photographers pay for a listing as this will seriously restrict the recommendations that directory gives you.  However, it’s usually not made obvious to you, as a consumer, that all the suppliers have paid to be listed!

 

So where can you find the directories that don’t charge?

The ones I know of are

Hitched - this is a paid directory but suppliers are generally of good standing

Wedding Monkey - paid directory

The wedding search – run by a professional wedding photographer.  This site is unique in that it searches by availability as well as distance from your venue.

Wedding spot – An online database that takes both free and paid listings.

Free Index – no guarantee of quality at all, but it’s free so most photographers register.  Note that the number of references on Free Index does not relate to the number of satisfied clients as some photographers chase Free Index references and others don’t.

 

Should I play safe and go with one of my venue’s “recommended photographers”?

Sorry, that’s not as simple as you’d think either!  Some venues play this in a completely fair manner, and recommend to you photographers who their other clients have been happy with, live locally and work at the venue regularly.  No money changes hands either way.  Sadly, many professional photographers believe that these fair and honest agreements between hotels and their recommended photographers may be in the minority. 

A more likely arrangement is that the photographer and hotel have a rather more “special” relationship that includes money changing hands.  In some cases, the photographer is asked to pay a yearly fee in order to be recommended.  In other cases, the photographer pays a fee to the hotel when they are booked to work there.  I had a phone call from "a local hotel" a while back.  They offered me the opportunity to be their recommended wedding photographer.  I would be put forward to all couples, have a space in their brochure and attend their wedding fayre - for just £100 A MONTH!  I refused the offer on the grounds that they had not checked my portfolio and were not making the proper checks into a photographer.  All they cared about was finding a photographer who would pay them £100 a month. 

I did a wedding fayre at a hotel that was organised by a reputable bridal fayre company.  Four photographers were allowed to purchase stands at £100 each – the catch, at this particular venue, was that they forced the bridal fayre company to offer two of the four places to the hotel’s recommended photographers.  Work from the two recommended photographers is permanently displayed in the hotel reception.  One company’s work is of good quality, but the other company’s sample frame showed numerous photos with technical errors like flash shadows, poor exposure and incorrect white balance.  It makes me wonder why that company was chosen to be officially recommended by that venue… I guess I’ll never know for sure.

A photographer friend in another area mentioned an incident with a different hotel.  The photographer had been fairly recommended without money changing hands for some time.  When a new wedding/conference manager took over at that hotel, she called the photographer in to see her.  The photographer asked, at the end of the meeting, if she would still be recommended by that venue and the manager replied that she would look through her work and decide whether she liked it.  Now, shouldn’t the couples marrying at that venue be concerned that someone with no experience in photography is determining who that hotel will recommend as photographer?

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What are the tell tale signs of low quality wedding photography?

  • Harsh flash shadows – This is a sign of poor flash technique.  Using flash properly is relatively simple compared to other aspects of wedding photography!
  • Poor exposure – look at the skin tones – are they reddish/ orange, sort of unnatural? Hold your own hand up to the screen and compare the skin tones.
  • Burnt out white areas – look at the white dress – can you see detail and fabric or is it just a glaring mass of brilliant white?
  • Lack of detail - look at the subjects faces - can you see their eyes properly and other details you would expect or is it all a bit of a mush?
  • Grainy appearance – this usually indicates over-correction of an exposure error or a poor quality camera
  • The couple appear as silhouettes when back lit.  This can be an artistic interpretation, so one or two backlit photos are fine.  The ones that you need to look out for are photographs taken during the cake cutting or ceremony that have a window or light source behind the couple. If there are various backlit photographs where the couple look very dark then this indicates the photographer does not have the necessary skill to deal with back lighting.
  • Large depth of field (when not needed) - indicates cheap, lower quality lenses
  • Incorrect white balance – dress looks yellow and skin tones seem red/orange – look at the Facebook album as thumbnails and see if the dress changes colour from one photo to the next.  The wedding dress should be about the same colour inside the ceremony as it is on the outdoor photos.
  • Red dots - find the darkest areas in the photo and look for tiny red dots.  These are digital sensor noise and indicate that the photograph has not been processed using professional software. They also reveal a lack of quality control and attention to detail on the part of the photographer.  If you are saving money by booking a "shoot & burn" wedding photographer (eg someone who does a DVD the next day) then it's fair to expect some degree of red noise as the nature of the cheapest wedding photography is that you save money because the photographer does not process the photos digitally.
  • Free website - if the photographer has not paid for a domain name and you can see their website is hosted by Wix, Moonfruit or a host of other free suppliers then you might want to consider whether they make enough money from photography to be considered a professional wedding photographer.  Also, as wedding photography requires an investment of several thousand pounds in equipment then why would a professional wedding photographer NOT pay the tiny sum required for a domain name?

 

A professional photographer has the relevant professional indemnity and public liability insurance. 

You should check your photographer carries the required insurance because a venue can prevent them working there without it.  A few weeks ago, I was asked to shoot a corporate conference at a well known wedding & conference venue.  The night before the event was due to start the venue bookings manager called to ask for my insurance certificate.  I emailed a copy through to her…but if I hadn’t had one I would not have been allowed to work there as a photographer, even though the company that hired me had already paid my invoice!  Photographers require a certain type of insurance, not just the kind that pays if their equipment is damaged. 

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A professional photographer has two professional grade camera bodies, spare lenses and flashes.

Whilst professional grade equipment is very expensive, it can still break down.  A well meaning amateur photographer, or someone posing as a professional, may have only one camera body and if this fails will be unable to continue photographing your wedding.  Equipment failure is very common. I had a camera break down completely right at the start of an 18thbirthday party coverage last year.  Fortunately, my second camera was around my neck so I just continued shooting with that.   I had to use the second camera all evening – that’s why a professional photographer has two professional camera bodies, not one good one and a rubbish one “just in case”. 

Flash failure is also common.  I spoke recently to an amateur wedding photographer who had taken her first paid wedding booking.  Her camera failed at the start of the wedding before the bride even arrived at the church.  The photographer described how she burst into tears as the bride walked towards her, knowing that she could not take any photos. She had no back up camera so she had to drive to her friend’s house to borrow one.  Her car got a flat tyre on the way back to the church and she missed the entire wedding ceremony.  (Honestly, you couldn’t make this up!)  As a “goodwill gesture” she offered to cover the evening reception, which she had not originally been hired for.  She took her only flash to the reception and it broke down at the start, so she couldn’t take any more photos there either as it was a very dark venue.  Of course, this was a very stressful experience for the photographer, but far more serious for the bride and groom.

 

Another amateur photographer who I met online, was puzzled about what back up equipment a professional would normally have.  She had taken her camera (a fairly good one) to her friend’s wedding and hoped to get a few nice shots.  However, she got none as, during the ceremony, the “professional photographers” camera broke down and he borrowed her camera for the rest of the day because he didn’t have a back up camera of his own!

 

A professional photographer is able to show you samples of their previous work.

I know a man who is trying to pass himself off as a professional wedding photographer, yet he’s never photographed a wedding.  You can avoid hiring him by asking to see previous full weddings, rather than a few photos here and there.  A tell tale sign of photos taken whilst as a guest at a wedding is that the eyes of the people are looking towards someone else…the hired photographer!  Amateur photographers frequently use photos that they took as guests at weddings in their portfolios because they have no professional work to show.

I saw another young lady online who had a lovely looking website and was advertising herself to clients as a professional wedding photographer.  Yet, in a private forum, I discovered that she had never photographed a wedding at all.  The lovely photos on her website had been taken under instruction when she attended a 2 day wedding photography course… the brides on her website were all models.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with photographers getting together for training or social time and shooting models… we like taking photos, it’s what we do!  However, it’s a matter of honesty as to whether those photos are then used to imply that someone who has never photographed a wedding is a wedding photographer.

* A simple safety precaution is to request three client gallery "log in" passwords from the photographer.  These should be for full wedding galleries hosted in the photographers website.  This simple request can help you screen what quality of images are usually given to a client and whether the photographer has ever been hired to photograph weddings before. If you can't access three full weddings then my advice is that you do not proceed with a booking.  Do not accept client confidentiality as a reason for failing to show you full weddings.

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A professional photographer will have a written contract for you to sign and will ask you to pay a deposit.

This is a very important point.  When both sides sign a contract and exchange a non-refundable deposit the photographer is obliged to shoot your wedding and you are obliged to pay them.  During 2011, three couples contacted me to enquire about emergency wedding photography because they had been let down by their pre-booked photographer.  All these three couples had two things in common: no contract had been signed and no deposit paid.

One bride contacted me 4 days before her wedding as her photographer had tried to add £100 travel expenses when she refused to pre-order a wedding album.  The bride told the photographer “no deal” and was referred to me by her friend.  She paid me her deposit on the Thursday and signed my contract, on Friday I attended the wedding rehearsal and on Saturday I shot the wedding.

Another couple had been let down at a week’s notice, but on closer inspection their budget had only been £150, so they had not booked a professional photographer but had been unaware of this.

The most disturbing case was that of a bride who called me at 10.30am on the morning of her wedding after searching on Google.  Her wedding photographer had simply not turned up for the “getting ready” photos.  That was the only warning they had that there was a problem.  I was already booked to attend another wedding so was unable to help her.  She did not find a professional photographer in time.

 

A professional photographer makes their living from photography and charges professional rates.

Why is this relevant?  Let’s think about earnings in relation to what you may be asked to pay for a professional wedding photography service.  Let’s say that, to earn a modest, average income, the photographer needs to earn £23,000 a year.  Most weddings happen at weekends, and as a photographer who talks to lots of other photographers I know that a full time photographer usually shoots 25-50 weddings a year.  50 is very high, so for the purposes of my reasoning here, let’s go for 40 (though the top photographers usually shoot no more than 30).  £23,000 divided by 40 is £575 and that’s gross salary per wedding before tax is paid, equipment bought, insurance, petrol etc.  This evening, I saw an advert on Facebook for full day wedding coverage, 2 photographers + album + extras for £375.  It’s easy to calculate that the two photographers cannot be experienced professional wedding photographers as that level of income over the year would not be enough to pay a mortgage, pay tax and have a decent standard of living – let alone pay for the expensive equipment that professional photographers would usually use.  So who would be shooting your wedding if you booked them?

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When should you hire an amateur photographer to cover your wedding?

I’ll be straight with you – not everyone can afford a professional wedding photographer.  If you genuinely only have £200 then there’s nothing wrong with letting a friend shoot your wedding.  But you have to accept that the photos you will get will not be of the same quality as if you had spent £750+.  You may be surprised to discover that I did this myself!  When I got married, I’d just finished college and my husband had years to go (studying architecture) so our total wedding budget was only £600 in 1990.  I have every sympathy for brides who can’t afford a professional wedding photographer as I was one myself.  Our friends did the best they could and we appreciate the photos they gave us as gifts.  My concern is that brides who can afford professional photography are being tricked into booking amateur photographers.  This article is designed to help those who WANT a pro to actually GET a pro. 

 

You can read more about this subject here:

http://artvisagepeterprior.blogspot.com/2011/12/sussex-wedding-photography-booking.html

 

A quick guide to what you should be looking for:

In ceremony coverage - harder for the photographer to get right than when outside.  Always ask to see ceremony coverage, preferably two or three full weddings if possible.  If you are given a reason why gallery access is not possible then walk away.  We do sometimes have clients who wish for their weddings to be kept private and respect that.  However, a genuine wedding photographer will always be able to allow you access to a selection of client galleries so that you can check the quality of their work.

People in background - genuine wedding, not a bridal shoot.  I have seen a number of "wedding photographer" websites that are entirely made up of "portfolio shoot" material.  There should normally be a mixture of shots on the photographers website from real weddings with guests seen in them.  It is easy to fake a portfolio by attending training days and portfolio shoots, that's why you should always ask to see real wedding coverage.

 

Read more wedding advice articles here.

Article By Paula Brown of Ollievision

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