Questions and a checklist to help you keep from making the worst mistake when picking a wedding photographer
By Russell W. Brinson III
Russell Brinson Photography
So, you’re looking for a photographer or maybe you already know one, but how do you know they have the skills to capture your amazing wedding day as you envision? Do you know what to say to them or ask so they understand exactly what you want? How do you know exactly what you are getting? If you bear with me, I’ve created this guide and check list to help you pick the best photographer for you. You’ll find a link to the checklist at the end of the article.
It’s a little lengthy and harsh at times but worth it. It’s packed full of questions you need to ask and the information you need to know to pick out the perfect professional photographer for you. I wrote this article and created the checklist because I’ve seen so many couples start out making one of the worst mistakes they can about their wedding. Most couples don’t know this, and most photographers won’t tell you. It’s lengthy, but worth it, so here’s the hard truth.
Let’s start by asking a question: “How do you picture your wedding day?” Take a minute to think about that before continuing.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days in your life. You want to look amazing, feel beautiful and enjoy all the romance, love and splendor of your special day. Are you okay with looking back on this once in a lifetime moment with pictures that look dull and boring that give you a feeling of disappointment? I’m sure you expect more. If you’re spending a fortune on your dress, venue, catering, but skimping on the photographer you are making a mistake. I know people don’t like to hear they are making a mistake, but if you have a beautiful dress, a beautiful venue and you hire a mediocre photographer then it doesn’t matter how beautiful you are, you’re going to have mediocre pictures.
Your wedding day is an event with many professionals coming together to make it happen. Your photographer should be a professional as well and you should insist on making your photographer a priority. So, tell the family member, friend or that, “friend of a friend” thank you. Respectfully tell them you know they are good, but you will pick out your own photographer as you feel it’s a very personal choice.
Before you can pick out a good professional photographer you need to know a little bit more about photography and how to pick out a professional. Most people think it’s just point and shoot. They think if you have some talent and a nice camera, “where the lens come off and changed”, that you are a professional. There are a lot of people and friends out there that think this is true. This is far from the truth. Most people are not professional photographers. Most that claim they are professionals aren’t as well. They probably think they are because they don’t know what that entails. While, some even think they can “fake it until you make it” and you won’t be none the wiser. Many of these will be family, friends or “friends of friends.” A true professional has training and years of experience.
Know some facts. Your wedding photographer is one of the most important parts of your wedding. Purchasing your photographer is an investment on how you are going to view your wedding day for years to come. You’ll never get a chance to do the day over. How can you trust that to anyone, but a professional?
I hear so often about couples that hire a photographer because they saw pictures on their website, and they looked beautiful. Don’t hire a photographer because they have a cool camera or website. Remember you are not hiring a web designer so do not go with someone just because you love their website. Many photographers pay to have someone else design their site or use a template site built for them already. They are only going to show you their best pictures and normally not pictures from throughout the wedding. Whatever you do, don’t hire them just because you like the pictures they have on Instagram or Facebook. Even “natural light” photographers can make those small pictures look good. Though, if you like their picture call and ask some questions. They may be the professional you are looking for. When looking for a professional you should always setup an appointment to learn more about them.
Below are some questions to ask your photographer and things to look for when picking out one. If they don’t know or provide these services, you should be very wary.
Remember to always check out their Google reviews. They need to be at least a 4 out of 5 stars.
1 – Ask “What kind of photographer are you and what do you specialize in, your style? Can I see some examples of what to expect?”
They should be a wedding photographer and while they may specialize in more than one area, weddings should be one of those areas. There are many kinds of photographers from landscape to fashion. Some may crossover, but you want a professional wedding photographer; someone who is confident of their skill and makes you feel comfortable. So, what type of wedding photographer do you want? Maybe natural light, photojournalist, portrait, fine art, fashion?
Be very cautious of a photographer that claims to be a “natural light” photographer. I have found more often than not, this means they do not know how to properly or comfortably use flash and strobes. These are photographers, but most aren’t professional even though they may claim to be. They are normally a friend of a friends…etc. They may have gotten lucky before and captured a wedding or two under good condition, but that doesn’t mean they can do it at yours. There are many people out there that can take great pictures on a beautifully lit sunshiny day. The problem is, what happens if that pretty day is not that pretty, it turns to night or you have your sessions inside where the lighting is poor? Most of the time the natural light photographers are going to turn their ISO up which will cause your pictures to be grainy when you make large prints of them. All the professional photographers around here will not claim to be natural light photographers but can adapt to any lighting environment that’s needed. With that said, I’m not knocking natural light photographers, everyone must start out somewhere. I’ve seen some incredible pictures from them, but they are not reliable under poor conditions and if you want large prints of your beautiful day for your wall be cautious. Throughout the U.S. there are some good professional natural light photographers. These are a very small part of the majority, and most know how to use flash and strobes as well. In general, stay away from natural light photographers for your wedding and be cautious of “friends or friends.”
Most Wedding Photographers are going to say their style is primarily journalistic and they catch all the fun candid shots and natural emotions. They say this because it’s a buzz word and a lot of couples are looking for this. Which you should. Many couples don’t know the difference in styles. Journalistic photographers are those that tell a story with their photos. This is going to be your candid, action shots and “quick spur of the moment” shots as the events of the day happen.
It’s important to have a photographer that uses a portrait style as well. Generally, when you think of a portrait photographer you think of a studio, backdrops and being posed. While sometimes this is the case, a good wedding photographer does both journalist and portrait. While they probably won’t bring a backdrop, this type of style is important when taking the posed group and family shots… Normally some of the best and creative wedding pictures are posed.
I’m sure you have seen those breathtaking pictures of the bride and groom with an amazing landscape or a picture that looks so amazingly surreal. These are your Fine Art Photographers. While this style is very popular and a few photographers create it, It’s a style exclusive to only a few photographers in our area. It combines techniques of landscape, architecture, portrait, fashion photography and skilled editing to create a piece of Fine Art that gives you a truly incredible picture capturing the bride and groom and the magnificence of their venue like no other.
Example above of Fine Art Photography: There is quite a difference from the before and after. Taking the picture, I could envision the finished product. It was a very difficult shot. I was standing on an island in the middle of a 6-lane road with cars going by and the sun shining directly into the camera from over the roof line. I was even having to use my hand to block some of the sun glare.
So, which style is best? I’d choose a photographer that can do all. While finding a good fine art photographer can be difficult. Most wedding photographers use a photo journalistic and portrait style combined. If you want that breathtaking one of a kind pictures, make sure you get a photographer that can do fine art photography as well.
So, you like their work and their style. Call and ask the photographer a few questions before setting that appointment, it might save you a trip. Here’s a few good questions to ask by phone.
I know you are probably dying to do it, but don’t ask for price first. Just know a professional photographer is generally going to start out at around $1500 to $2500 just for the basic ceremony and reception. In our area if they start off below $1500 then they are just starting out or they are not a professional. Either way they won’t have the experience to confidently photograph your wedding.
We’ll talk a little bit more about pricing in a bit.
So, you have them on the phone and want to try and figure out if they are truly a professional.
2 – Ask “How many years have you been doing photography?” A 10 plus year veteran is going to be the best bet for you. Doesn’t have to be just weddings.
3 – Ask “How many weddings have you photographed?” Good is over 20 weddings. Some will have done so many they may not even be able to tell you.
4 – Ask to see their Retail License. Ask “Do you have a Retail License?” If “NO” then move on. It doesn’t matter if you are in the city or county, you still must have a Retail License for your business to pay taxes. If they don’t, they probably aren’t paying taxes either. Any professional business will have one.
5 – This is an important one. Do they have Liability Insurance and with whom? Ask “Do you have Liability Insurance?” If Yes ask “With whom?” If the answer is “NO” then move on or RUN away. Remember if the photographer is not insured it falls back on you if something happens at your wedding. You don’t want to start your marriage off owing someone tens of thousands of dollars because your photographer broke something, or a light stand fell on someone that ended up in the hospital. You need to also find out the insurance company they have it with. If it’s a company you are unfamiliar with, research them. If you ask, the photographer should always be able to provide you with proof of insurance and the amount.
6 – Ask “Where is your business located?” If they don’t have a studio or at least a storefront, then move on. A successful professional is always going to have their own storefront where they can meet clients. It may not be a big studio if all they do is event photography, but they will have their own location. If not, this shows they are not very successful yet and may not be as good as you originally thought.
7 – Ask “Will they provide a contract?” If not then move on or as with no insurance, RUN! No professional photographer is going to agree to photograph a wedding without a contract. This protects both you and him. You should require a contract. It should be detailed as to what services they will be providing, pricing, products, packages, copyright, cancellation terms and payment. It’s there for your protection and the photographers. It should specify what you are getting for the price.
It should also detail what will happen if the photographer becomes ill, Acts of God, and loss of pictures.
8 – Okay! We’re here now and I know you are dying to do it, but before you ask, “What do you charge?” you need to have some information ready in case the photographer asks. This includes: how did you hear about them; date of your wedding; location of where you are getting ready at, the ceremony and reception locations; do you want an album; do you want prints or other products; do you want a bridal and/or engagement session; do you want video or aerial drone coverage; number of people attending; yours and the groom’s name; your wedding planner’s name and contact information. Do you even know what you want? If you don’t know all this that’s fine. We know a lot of time the photographer will be one of the first people you book.
So, as you see it’s probably just best at this point to schedule an appointment to go over price and see all the services the photographer has to offer.
When talking price, you need to compare apples to apples. Your family member, friend or “friend of a friend” that’s said they will do it for $500 can’t be compared to a professional wedding photographer starting at $2500. Also, if you ask for a quote and one professional photographer (Photographer A) tell you $1500 and another professional (Photographer B) tells you $4000 which one are you going to go with? Cheaper is seldom better. Find out what you get for that price. The one for $1500 may just be coverage for the wedding and the reception (4 hours). Where the $4000 maybe 8 hours, wedding, reception, bridal session, engagement session, prints and an album. Photographer A, who seemed cheaper at first, may charge you $5500 for an equal package as Photographer’s B. Always ask what is included in the price and what he charges if it runs overtime.
You have an appointment and so far, he seems very professional. Your meeting the photographer at his studio, what are some good things to ask now?
This is a good time to get to know the photographer and the photographer to get to know you. Prepare some questions to ask and express any concerns you might have. Remember you haven’t said yes yet. Until you sign the contract or make a payment you still can back out.
So, what are you looking for here? You want to find out the skill level and competency of the photographer.
9 – Ask “What type of camera do you have?” Then ask, “Is it’s a full frame?” The type is not as important as it being a full frame. While their backup camera maybe less than a full frame, their main camera should be a full frame. Full frame refers to the size of the camera’s sensor that captures the picture. Normally the bigger the better. If it’s not full frame, you need to question their professionalism. This is NOT a “move on” answer, but one you should keep in mind.
10 – Ask “What type of low light prime lens do you have?” “What is its aperture?” Primes are higher quality lens. Aperture is the size of the opening that allows the light to come through. This is important when the evening starts getting dark. Normally, they should say the aperture is 2.8 or less. This will help in low light situations.
11 – “What do you use for lighting when taking pictures?” In general, there is no wrong answer here unless they say they use JUST natural light or ambient light. They may even say they use a Reflector to reflect natural light. It’s still natural light. Stay away from “Natural Light Photographers.” In general, a professional will use either on camera flash, off camera flash, strobes or a combination of all of them, including natural light. A professional will never use natural and ambient light all the time.
12 – Ask “Will you have a second photographer there or an assistant?” I would highly recommend you pay for a second photographer. Though, a single photographer can cover a wedding, there is so much going on in a wedding to capture some of the details you need a second photographer. It’s always a good thing if the photographer has at least one assistant to help them out. Note: Remember to include all your photographers and their crew when getting head counts for catering. They will be there all day with you and as hungry as you.
13 – Ask “Will you be photographing any other weddings that day or weekend?” If so, this may cause him to arrive late or leave earlier if the other wedding or yours runs overtime.
14 – Ask “Can I see a completed wedding gallery of a single wedding?” Most photographers are going to show you just a couple of pictures of their best works. Seeing a complete wedding gallery will give you an idea how all the pictures look. I would expect to see several hundred pictures to thousands in a single wedding.
15 – Ask “Do you shoot in JPG or RAW?” All professional photographers are going to shoot in RAW. It allows you more flexibility when editing pictures.
16 – Ask “What format do you deliver the picture to me?” They should deliver them to you in JPG.
17 – Ask “Do you edit the pictures?” If they don’t, then there may be an inconsistency of how the pictures they show you look and what you really get. I would question their professionalism if they don’t edit pictures as all professional wedding photographers I know do.
18 – Ask “How many pictures should I expect to get back?” Small wedding would be around 500 pictures and it could go into the thousands with large wedding. Typically, you will see a 1000 to 1500 pictures.
19 – Ask “How long does it normally take to get the pictures back?” This is the edited digital pictures, not your printed pictures, albums or other products. You need the edited pictures to pick the ones you want to use with your products. I just talked to a woman that told me her aunt took her wedding pictures. It has been 8 months and she still hasn’t received them. She didn’t know how long it was going to take her to get them either. I hear stories like this all the time. Many times, they will never get their pictures back. While friends and family mean well a lot of times, they don’t have the follow through to complete the task. When that happens it’s only you that suffers.
Normally I would expect a professional to get your pictures back to you in 1 to 4 weeks. With that said there are circumstances that may cause them to be longer. Example: The photographers editing computers get struck by lightning. They will have to wait to settle with the insurance company before they can complete your editing. This may take 2 to 3 months. I speak from experience as this has happened to our company and at $7000 per CPU you can’t just go out and buy another one. So, if something does happen that takes longer, know the photographer is probably suffering as much as you are. This is a good lead-into the next question.
20 – Ask “How do you backup our wedding pictures after they are photographed?” Thankfully we didn’t backup our client’s pictures on the same network as our editing computer or they all would have been lost. A good rule is to have your pictures backed up in 3 locations. Example: Even though our camera’s 64Gb Compact Flash Cards are expensive we never delete the RAW wedding images off them until we have completed editing and have them ready to deliver to our clients. That way even if we lose everything, we have the originals to start over. Also, we have a copy of the images on our editing computer and at different intervals during editing, we save them to a separate hard drive that is unplugged from the network and power. This prevents them from being damaged by lightning or power surges. Cloud backups are good as well, but it’s difficult to use with the large files we use during editing.
21 – Ask “How do I know my pictures are safe from cyberattacks or identity theft?” You may think this is insignificant, but there were billions of people affected by data breaches and cyberattacks in 2018. We think it’s very important to have your pictures and privacy protected. Just an antivirus on your computer is not going to cut it. Therefore, we hire a cyber security company to come in and test our network against attacks and hackers. The last thing we want is someone to get a hold of your pictures or have our systems damaged from a cyberattack.
22 – Ask “Will I get a copyright release to print them however I want too?” While most professional photographers will not give up the copyright of the pictures they take, they should give you a limited release that will allow you to use the pictures on social media and get printed for personal use. If they don’t, then don’t use them and move on.
23 – Ask “Will my pictures be delivered to me on a disc, all prints, USB or online digital download?” There are 4 general Medias that photographers use to deliverer pictures to you, prints, disc, USB and digital downloads. If prints are all they will give you, then you probably want to look at getting another photographer and move on. Today is a digital world and while I agree you should have prints of all pictures you want to keep, the reality is today is a digital world and people love sharing their pictures online, through apps, emails and text. Discs are okay for very small shoots like bridal or engagements, but don’t provide enough space for the large number of pictures taken at a wedding. Discs are starting to become a dated medium as well. USB’s are about perfect. You can get large enough ones for any wedding. You should make sure it’s at least a USB 2.0 or higher. Down side to a USB is the size. They are small and it’s easy to lose so, we suggest you download a copy of all your pictures to a safe location as soon as you get them. Online digital downloads are great but downloading all the pictures from a wedding can be very difficult. Therefore, we would not suggest this unless the client is unable to pick up their USB. Online digital downloads are good for sharing and viewing your pictures. They normally are only available for a limited amount of time to download. For this reason, we suggest downloading them to a safe location right away.
Prints (paper) – Come in many sizes, 5×7, 8×10, 16×20…etc.
Disc – CD, DVD or Blue Ray
USB – Acts as a small hard drive with your pictures on them.
Online Digital Download – View them and download them online.
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When picking out a professional photographer there’s a few things you need to find out, so you can make an informed decision. While all these things do not determine if they are a professional wedding photographer, it’s a good indication. Some of these items are a must-have for your own protection.