Some time back a friend of mine asked me for some advice on what to look out for to choosing their wedding photographer since I will be invited and won’t be able to shoot for them so I thought perhaps the point of view from a wedding photographer which I shared with my friend could be useful for you as well. He was hoping to get a good photographer at most in the $2,000 plus range for a 10 hours wedding day coverage.
Q: How to see if a photographer’s work is good or bad?
Many photographers would agree “There’s bad photographers and there’s good photographers whose style I don’t relate to”
To the trained eye, it’s not hard to spot poor works eg bad composition, incompetent use of speedlight in low light conditions (over exposed subjects, harsh and ghastly shadows) though over the years with the vast improvement in digital camera’s capabilities, even photographers who are not experienced with speedlight can rely on higher end cameras’ ability to push their ISO to get away with low light environment most of the time but there’s merit in good control of flash to complement ambient light - provides a nice subtle fill light to complement faces and a kicker to the eyes (like a sparkle in the eyes). The key to good use of flash is the ability to use it as though it has not been used.
wedding photography styles
To the trained eye, there’s also photographers whose works are good but their photography style is not what we like and relate to. Style can range from how a photographer shoots in terms of approach, framing, color etc. Some photographers are better at posed shoots where they have more time to pose their couples and choose the framing etc like a Prewedding shoot whereas some photographers are better at Actual Day where they have the intuition, experience, fast hands and eye to be at the right place and right time to capture the moments from different points of view. Of course you will have a smaller subset of good photographers who’s simply great with both Prewedding and Actual Day but the key is to see a photographer’s prewedding works for prewedding and actual day for actual day and not choose a photographer for Actual Day because you like his Prewedding works and vice versa.
Another key but not so obvious trait especially for Actual Day is how a photographer presents your actual day story to you. It’s kind of common for them to just give the couples the photos in a more or less chronological order as not every photographer is strong in storytelling to sort and arrange the photos in more cinematic story telling flow plus it’s much more additional work to do so. The reason I say this is a not so obvious trait to tell is because many photographers do not really post a comprehensive gallery for their actual day but just a few good shots to impress their audience.
To the general couples who are not that familiar with the technicals of photography, the easiest approach is to look at the works of different wedding photographers and see whose works you visually like and FEEL for the most in terms of how they capture a wedding, their styles and colours, and look at actual day works for actual day and also ask to see a more comprehensive set for the wedding if the photographer only posts a few shots for the wedding.
Look at real couple shoots
If you ever watch a Dior or any other couture fashion show, do you think the same piece of couture would look great on everyone else? Shows/advertisements are meant to inspire, invoke a sense of feeling in you as a consumer to feel for the brand and eventually buy their products. If you ever attended a bridal show, many vendors displayed their best portfolios to sell their packages but does it occur to you the shoots displayed by some vendors are all/mainly of engaged models/talents and not real couples?
Apart from their photogenic looks, models are trained to know their bodies and many a times able to self-direct to strike poses that could sometimes feel unnatural and weird but turns out great on the pictures but shooting real couples especially if they are not usually that comfortable in front of the camera requires a photographer with the right people skillset to have the couples feel really safe and relax, trust the photographer and eventually forget the photographer’s presence, enjoying themselves in their own world (I get that many times when couples are looking through their photos and exclaiming they don’t remember doing THAT! haha)
So before you get too overwhelmed by the perfect photo of the most photogenic looking “couple” shot against the most beautiful backdrop, ask to see more real couple shoots before you happily pay the deposit and the possibility of getting disappointed a year later with the outcome of your photos.
Another thing is that for companies (more so for all under one roof bridal), you never really know which photographer in the company shot the works you seen and if THE photographer who shot the work you seen will be the one shooting for you or if they are still even with the company at all. Companies usually work with a mix of either in-house full time photographer or a pool of freelancers and turnover is part and parcel.
Seeing only a few BEST shots of a wedding does not paint the complete picture
It’s not hard for photographers to show just a few BEST shots for one wedding on their website but wedding day is usually a full day event with lots of activities happening, details, moments candid and precious to be captured so I would suggest to have the photographer show you a more comprehensive series of the whole wedding as a well captured wedding will have a good story flow and beautiful moments from the morning makeup all the way to you sending off your guests. From there you can better access how well the photographer documented your whole wedding, the details and moments captured and if the photographer just present the final photos to the clients chronologically or if the photographer has a strong feel for storyboarding and take the effort to arrange the images to present your wedding in the best story flow.
have the photographer show you a more comprehensive series of the whole wedding as a well captured wedding will have a good story flow and beautiful moments from the morning makeup all the way to you sending off your guests
Is it important for the photographer to have shot at my wedding venue before?
Once in a blue moon I get this question from couples asking me if I had shot at their venue before. I understand the intention behind their question that they probably see it as an assurance and feel more comfortable for the photographer to have shot at their location before but I leave you to consider this perspective:
“A good photographer is able to capture the wedding well whether or not he/she has shot there before and besides the fact that most wedding itineraries and hotel ballrooms/venues are you would say somewhat similar.
Visual curiosity is a trait I would say is very important for a photographer - to have the curiosity to explore and take photos of a place like it’s your first. Naturally this curiosity is always the strongest at the first and I’m sure you can easily relate to your experience of visiting a country for the first time and compare that to the 3rd time you have been there going through the same itinerary - You get my point. So I feel it’s not exactly that relevant and if anything I take it as a bonus if my photographer is good and he/she has not shot at my venue before.”
Q: The price range across the market is huge, is the more expensive photographer better?
Since photography is a service, you are right about the huge price range across the market. The market range for a wedding day coverage of 10 hours can start from 1000 plus up to 4000 plus.
I believe this applies to other products and services as well. Marketing which in today’s context is quite literally interchangeable with social media (hence the terms social proof and social currency) plays a significant part to how much a photographer is able to charge for his/her services.
It’s a natural phenomena. If you are a photographer who’s great at marketing, spends a lot of effort over the years to build up your social media presence, your enquiries are growing and you start rejecting clients on dates you are already booked. There’s 3 things you can do:
1) Be content with the current state and continue to reject other couples when date clashes
2) Increase fees so you can filter out the clients who’s willing to pay more (earn more work less, yeah!!!)
3) Why waste potential leads generated from the years of painstakingly built reputation and social currency? Become a company and bring in associate photographers under your brand name so there will still be earnings from the bookings made for your associate photographers
Value is a personal choice base on perception
2) and 3) are more likely save the rare 1) who either shoots for passion (though if it’s 100% purely for passion, they probably would just do destination or prewedding only compared to wedding day photography) or a photographer with the freedom of other sources of income and seeks the balance of not over-shooting, so as not to lose the passion and creativity overtime and become a cookie-cutter photographer to ensure the monthly booking target is achieved.
It does take a lot of consistent hard work over time to build up the brand so though photographers with a strong social media presence tend to cost higher up the scale, if you are not that budget conscious and you don’t want to waste your time searching and digging for your Most Value for Money photographer, it shouldn’t go wrong choosing the photographer with strong social presence and more importantly whose works you really like and relate to but if you do want to make your dollar work harder for you, compare a higher cost photographer eg S$4000/day to another one you like but with lower rates eg S$2000 plus /day and see whose works is better and if the former justifies the $2000 cost difference or the S$2000 saved could be used for your honeymoon (Yay!) or your home reno fund.
Be cautious too if the rate sounds too good to be true
As photographers, sometimes you might have friends comment “wah not bad eh, 10 hours shoot pays $XXX” but this perception is based on the assumption total man-hours involved is 10 hours nett. Apart from the 10 hours of actual shoot, there’s hours from the prep, the travelling to and fro above the 10 hours and most importantly the many days of man-hours for post production which includes going through easily more > 1000 photos for a 10 hours shoot, sorting and selection of photos, edit the photos and arranging final story flow so the professional photographer fee of $XXX goes not only to the 10 hours of shoot but to what’s listed above as well - many days of man-hours and professional efforts in order to present the final photos to the couple.
So given all the effort and time involved, if a photographer promotes a package cost that sounds too good to be true, there could be a few possibilities:
1) A photographer who is just starting out and is shooting to grow his portfolio so he can start to increase his fees as his portfolio grows.
2) Photographers who can’t compete on the merits of their work so they go on a low price high volume discount store business model.
3) A serious hobbyist who shoots not to make a living but solely for passion and enjoyment.
1) and 2) are more common. For 1) if you are willing to take the risk and if you are very lucky to meet the next superstar at the start of his photography journey then you potentially bagged yourself the best deal. Some people are just better at something than others even if they are still new but especially for actual day wedding, experience does play an important part as a new photographer is not that familiar with the shoot flow of actual day wedding yet and he has not experienced enough situations that might pop up in a wedding day. I say this from my personal experience thinking back about my own journey when I first started out more than 10 years ago and how my own experience and work has grown so much over the years and professional photographers would agree too.
2) is what I would say a somewhat risky category. Generally we become photographers because we really love photography so photographers in this category could either:
a) become a photographer because of the initial passion for photography though loving something doesn’t necessarily mean the person will naturally be good at it hence some even after doing it for quite some time still don’t get better at their work and they get stuck competing on price and not quality.
b) Some people sees photography as a pretty good side-income compared to other jobs and hence dive into it thinking they can charge lower since they have a full-time job without knowing fully the actual work and man-hours involved in a wedding shoot. Furthermore not being able to fully immerse as a photographer but having to juggle shooting a full day wedding on weekend on top of his day job and doing the post production after work hours wouldn’t provide a conducive environment to nurture and produce good work for his/her couple.
As I shared above about the total effort and days involved for a wedding shoot, if a photographer especially a) shoots for a living and yet his sustenance comes from having to do what he used to love at high volume with low rewards, it doesn’t take long for the photographer to become jaded and become a dispassionate cookie-cutter churner. You probably have heard of cases of disappointment over the poor quality of some wedding shoots and I have heard the worst case of a photographer missing the wedding day.
3) is unlikely as most professional photographers and camera salesman would know many serious hobbyists are well to do individuals and would never want to do actual day wedding as it’s too tiring. They prefer their walk-about in their top end camera gears and photography and gear chatter over coffee. Besides being able to take some nice street portraits, birds or landscape shots doesn’t provide the necessary experience to handle a full day wedding shoot where moments are happening fast and concurrent at different zones as well.
So my suggestion for best value would be to strike a balance between works and costs. Expensive doesn’t mean the best and cheap doesn’t mean a great deal. Compare works to see if eg the S$4000 + /day photographer really justifies the difference compared to your eg S$2000 + /day photographer and also be cautious when the costs sounds too low to be true (the hidden risk elements as mentioned above and maybe there’s hidden costs from the packages not mentioned).
The more expensive photographer doesn’t always necessarily means the better, neither is the cheapest the best deal (in fact more often it’s not)
How to compare? Look at the photo, not the “products”
As with many other professions eg if you are already a popular and well known lawyer, you will have big clients engaging you to represent them for their case so the snowball effect will kick in to bring you clients with bigger case and budget. Same for wedding where if you are already a popular photographer with strong social media presence, you will tend to have couples with bigger budget engage you for their weddings.
So what’s this got to do with helping me make a better comparison?
If a photographer is shooting a big budget wedding at a 6 star hotel or luxury venue with elaborate setups decorated by a team of wedding planners and stylists, exotic fresh flowers flown in from Europe, couple decked in branded signature gowns and suits, guests flying in from around the world dressed for the oscars, you would call this a high value production in film making so for the wedding photographer, he/she is already drown in a landscape of aesthetically high value materials to capture so naturally there should be more photos and the resultant photos will be of higher production value. Drawing a somewhat parallel to the companies using models/talents “couple”, a shoot of a higher budget wedding naturally leads to the perception of “higher quality” output at face value.
The takeaway here is to look beyond the face value of a photo but at the essence of how the photographer documents a wedding, captures the precious moments and memories and how the photographer presents the whole wedding in the final output, and not be distracted by the production value of the photos via it’s material embellishments - Don’t let the objects make the photo.
As a wedding photographer myself, I didn’t look for someone popular when I needed a photographer for my own wedding, in fact I was looking for someone within my budget who delivers good work but lower on the social profile chart as I know what to look out for in a photographer (what I have shared so far). This is one way to help you find good photographers who charge at or below market rate (a bargain) for the quality of work they produce.
Besides, as a photographer, so far I have not heard any guests go “Wow, you are having @XXX shoot your wedding” in the context of admiration a signature red-bottoms Louboutin heels, or the figure-flattering sexy signature silhouette a Galia Lahav dress might bring.
Meet your potential photographer
If after your search you come down to eg 2 photographers you like, check the reviews given by their couples on what they say about them if available (checking on Facebook page is a good way to verify if the reviews are authentic reviews given by real couples), thereafter I strongly recommend you to meet the shortlisted photographers in person to see whether both of you like him/her and understand the photographer’s work and approach better as it's important couple and photographer are comfortable with each other with good rapport so your photographer can capture the best images for one of the most important celebrations in your life.
If you learn something different here compared to the usual tips, share it with your friends who just got engaged and are looking for their wedding photographer and if there’s any other questions I can help, just drop me a note here.
I wish all of you a wonderful wedding celebration and a lifetime of marriage ahead! =)
- Kevin, your photographer friend, Dapper Pictures