How to (Really) Choose a (Really Good) Photographer

01 | 28 | 2009

It quite nearly goes without saying (particularly on a blog dedicated to this theme), that we all want amazing wedding photographs. And, although advice on how to hire a photographer abounds, I think the information can be overwhelming if not all together unhelpful. Commissioning a great photographer can be fun, actually, and you’ll feel better about your investment, if you take a little time to make yourself an educated consumer of wedding photography and follow some  basic steps.

Step 1: Gather Some Referrals.

Your recently married friends are an excellent source of information. But be sure to take a peek at their photographs.  There is a very broad spectrum of style and taste in wedding photography, even amongst friends.  If they rave about a photographer, but you don’t immediately connect with their wedding photographs, look elsewhere.  Your planner will certainly have suggestions.  And wedding blogs and local and regional wedding magazines are also good resources.  In blogs and magazines, look for photo credits in the “real wedding” features rather than in advertisements.  Because the content of those features is editorial, someone actually sat down and searched for photography that was good and worth publishing. Once you have a decent base of referrals, you can begin the next step. 

Step 2: Evaluate some websites.

A photographer’s website is meant to showcase his or her best work.  As an aside, I’d like to be the first to say that it’s really, really hard to keep a portfolio up to date.  Even so, if the site is shoddily put together or you find yourself questioning the photographer’s taste or other choices it’s probably best to eliminate him or her from consideration.  On the other hand, if the images thrill you—take note.

Step 3: Figure out what you like.

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(film? digital? what do you think? click to enlarge.)

This is the step that is most essentially subjective.  And so … where much of the less than helpful advice is offered.  Folks tend to make a gigantic deal over the most superficial things.  Right now, I hear a lot about film vs. digital (more on that later). A couple of years ago, it was traditional style vs. photojournalism. In reality, your choices are much broader, more personal, eclectic. Kind of like snowflakes. Or finding a friend!

So, as you browse websites, don’t get obsessed with trappings of wedding photography, like defining the photographer’s style, or finding out whether she shoots film. Rather, become conscious of what you really love.  You might surprise yourself!  You may like the idea of moody black-and-whites, but start finding photographers whose high-energy humor photographs capture your attention.  Or you might be dead set on hiring a so-called photojournalist, but find yourself really getting into some photographer’s creative posed portraits.  All that superficial stuff matters so much less than finding a photographer’s work you truly and totally love.  I mean: who cares how the photographer gets to the end product, if when you look at it, it’s something you jealously want for yourself?

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(how about these?)
Step 4: Make some queries and calls and schedule interviews.

Next, make some calls to your top choice photographers.  From a short call, you’ll already have some idea of the photographer’s personality.  And it’s better than an email query for the photographer, too.  It’s easier to get a handle on the couple’s ideas and expectations for their wedding and wedding photography when the communication is instant and actual, i.e., over the phone. You should have a good idea of your wedding photography budget as you gather package information.  Be sure to meet with photographers whose work is within your budget.

A note on budget: you get what you pay for!  If photography is truly important to you, go with the photographer of your dreams and skimp elsewhere, or book their smallest package. Figure it out.  You will never regret it!  A great photographer will make you and your wedding look amazing.  I know for a fact that I’ve had clients who spent the lion’s share of their budget on me.  It’s so, so humbling, and their faith in me made me want to work all the harder.  I’m sure you can imagine the thrill it gave me to hand them photographs that they absolutely loved.  Now, they have those photographs for the rest of their lives.

So, set up some meetings. My suggestion is to meet with no more than three photographers. If you’re tempted to set up meetings with more, you may need to get a tighter rein on what you like.

Step 5: Interview Photographers.

There are two main parts of an interview—what to look for, and what to ask.  First, look at how the photographer presents himself or herself. Are they tidily dressed and neatly kempt? (I don’t care if they have purple hair, but you don’t want to have someone immodestly dressed at your wedding. Much less the photographer. There is ever so much bending and squatting involved in photographing a wedding.) Of course, you’ll also examine how the work is presented.  Samples, though expensive, tend to get roughly handled.  But the craftsmanship should be exquisite.  To your eyes, the photographs should be technically perfect and the albums well-made.  You want to hire a photographer who pays attention to detail.

below: a handmade silk box by Cypress Albums

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Most importantly, you want the work to wow you.

And keep the conversation lively.  I get asked plenty of the standard questions, most of which are lifted directly out of advice sections of magazines.  Rote questions get pat answers.  These questions don’t necessarily tell you all you need to know and aren’t the ones I’d ask if I were hiring a creative myself. Save yourself the awkward conversation! I like questions like:

  1. What was your favorite wedding and why?  If they can’t pin down a favorite, as I know I’d be hard-pressed myself, perhaps narrow it down to the current season. My guess? They’ll describe a wedding where the couple put some effort into getting good photos. Just a guess …
  2. What are you most into photographically? You could direct this question multiple-choice style (e.g., portraits, documentary, alternative photography processes, etc.) or just see what they say.
  3. What new things have you tried in your work lately? How’s it going?  This is my favorite question.  I like to know—I have to know—creative people are into the creative process, which is most essentially a never-ending series of experiments.¹

The answers may not mean anything in and of themselves, but they may serve as a barometer for the photographer’s attitude toward her work.  You may find out something surprising or unique.  Something that might make you want to collaborate with her on your wedding photographs. Then ask yourself some questions:  Do you love the work? Would you want to spend your entire wedding day in her company? And, have you seen and loved enough of her work to convince you that she can make you the gorgeous photographs you crave?  In any case, with any luck, you’ve found someone you want to book.  Really, this is just the beginning of a successful collaboration between you and your wedding photographer, but we’ll get to that, too, in time.

photo credit: Gia Canali

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¹ A footnote: You’re hiring a “vendor,” yes, but you are also hiring an artist. Artists and creatives of all sorts thrive on trying new things because it’s the only way to get to something original, unique, innovative. I feel lucky to call some of the best artists in my field friends, and they are all this way.  Josef Isayo, for instance, tries new tools and toys (by which I mean cameras and films, software, etc.) so often I can hardly keep track of them.  I love that about him.  It’s part of what makes him good at what he does. You don’t want someone, obviously, for whom this is just a job.

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5 Notes on “How to (Really) Choose a (Really Good) Photographer

  1. Pingback: Making A Proper Wedding Photography Inquiry « Pursuing the Picture Perfect Wedding :: a blog about weddings and getting great wedding photographs by Gia Canali

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  3. Pingback: Interviewing Photographers: Why “How” Doesn’t Matter in Choosing a Wedding Photographer « Pursuing the Picture Perfect Wedding :: a blog about weddings and getting great wedding photographs by Gia Canali

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