So you’ve decided to hire a wedding photographer. You go to Google and search for “wedding photography [your city]”. You’ll get hundreds of thousands of results if not millions. This task of choosing a wedding photographer can be intimidating. So how do you choose a photographer that’s right for you? What are the most important questions to ask a wedding photographer?
This may be a typical approach: You go through the search results one by one and make a shortlist of photographers with the style you like and then start contacting them for a quote and finally compare the quotes you receive and hire the one that gives you the best offer. This seems like a reasonable approach until you receive your wedding photos and be disappointed in what you see.
Wedding photography is not like a plumbing job, where the service is clearly understood. There are so many details that can be easily overlooked and you may think you are getting a good deal but in fact, are getting ripped off or receiving photos that don’t meet your expectations. The inclusions of services can differ hugely from one wedding photographers to another.
Now, let me answer some of your most common questions and walk you through the most important questions you need to ask a wedding photographer.
1. Can I just get my friend who owns a professional camera to do it?
The quality of consumer digital cameras is always getting better and it’s becoming more and more affordable to own a professional digital camera. The camera manufacturer always tries to convince us that by owning their newest camera you will be taking amazing photos in no time. That’s only half of the truth. There are so many skills required of a photographer in order to capture beautiful pictures apart from having the capable equipment. Exposure, composition, vision, creativity, attention to detail, experience with operating the camera, just to name a few. Do you think you can be the world’s best chief just by owning a set of the world’s best cookware and having all the ingredients you can dream of? Likewise, just by owning a professional camera doesn’t make you a professional photographer.
Wedding photography is probably one of the most challenging types of photography. The photographer will probably be taking photos at unfamiliar locations, with unpredictable weather and lighting conditions, photographing details and people he/she has never seen before, starting from early in the morning when the bride is getting ready (the groom usually gets up later than the bride) until late night at the conclusion of the reception and he/she is expected to capture all the details, people, moments, emotions beautifully with a limited time schedule that can never be done again. Given all these uncertainties, the only thing that you can be certain of is that people with no prior wedding photography experience will unlikely to be able to capture everything perfectly.
You’ve probably spent lots of time planning for your wedding. Maybe you’ve chosen your wedding dress because you really like the lace of the dress. Maybe you’ve picked your cuffing for a specific reason. There are probably a lot of attention and efforts put into the details of your wedding day. All these details make your wedding unique and meaningful to you. You probably would like your photographer to capture all these. By hiring a friend, you are taking on a lot of risks for missing the details and important moments. Ask yourself these questions:
- What if my friend misses the shot of my beautiful wedding dress?
- What if my friend misses our first kiss?
- What if the photos taken at the bridal procession turns out to be blurry?
- What if my friend’s camera runs out of battery?
- What if my friend takes too many photos during the day and his/her memory card becomes full half way through the bridal procession? (I admit that this happened to me once and it’s a horrifying moment but luckily I had my backup memory cards close to me and I pulled it off. Since then I bought the largest memory card I could find and made sure I never run out of memory again!)
2. Can I base my decision on a photographer’s portfolio?
The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no, no, no”. When you are looking at the portfolio of a wedding photographer. It’s likely that you are seeing the best photos the photographer has ever taken in his/her entire life. The photos may be taken at different weddings, at different locations under different lighting conditions and they may be taken years apart. Although you may be impressed by those beautiful images in the photographer’s portfolio but keep in mind that those may not be what you are getting for your wedding photos. Just think about this: if you take your camera to someone’s wedding and you are taking photos all day long, you are most likely to have captured at least one nice shot, right? And if you collect enough number of beautiful shots like this taken on different occasions and you show them to others, people may think you are a pro! But are you? This is why it is super important to see a complete set of wedding photos taken by the photographer. Even better if you can look at more than one set of wedding photos taken by the photographer. A red flag should be raised if the photographer refuses to show you a full wedding they have photographed for whatever reason.
Remember this: you can NEVER determine the skills of a photographer without seeing a complete set of photos taken by him/her no matter how many photography awards he/she has won, how many weddings he/she has photographed, how many years he/she has been doing photography for or how expensive his/her wedding packages are. None of these is a true reflection of the quality of the set of photos you are going to get.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you to completely ignore a photographer’s portfolio. At least that is an indication of the best photos a photographer is capable of producing. If even the portfolio doesn’t look amazing you should expect worse for your wedding photos.
3. Which photographer am I getting?
Many photography studios have multiple wedding photographers. If you are hiring a wedding photographer from them, make sure you know which photographer is going to photograph your wedding and look at photos only taken by that photographer. The last thing you want is getting a photographer who didn’t take those photos in their portfolio.
4. Will I receive high-resolution digital images?
Back in the film age, photos were taken on negative films and there is only one copy of it. Photographers would not give away negative films to customers. This is for two reasons. Since the copyright remains with the photographer and the photographer would keep the films for future reproduction. If the customer decides to make prints in the future the photographer will be able to earn ongoing income from it.
Now we’re in the digital age, almost all wedding photographers use digital cameras. Digital images can easily be copied and passed on to customers. However, there are still many wedding photographers that would not give away the digital files to customers in order to own the exclusive right to print images in the future. Some photographers sell the digital files for a premium on top of their wedding packages. Some photographers only give away low-resolution images that can only be used to make small prints or share on social media. There are also photographers that will only give away digital images with their watermark on the photos.
Are you planning to print your wedding photos? Do you mind having the photographer’s watermark in your photos? Make sure you clearly understand what you are getting.
5. Do you offer social media optimised images?
While high-resolution images are probably what you are most concerned about, a set of social media optimised images will save you a huge amount of time when you decide to upload your photos on social media like Facebook or Instagram.
6. Is there a contract?
The contract should clearly spell out all the expectations for both parties and it protects both you and the photographer. If you know the photographer well and there are no trust issues, then it’s probably fine without a contract. However, if you don’t know the photographer well enough, you shouldn’t take on so much risk.
7. Do I get the copyright of the photos?
By law in Australia, if no contract is used, the wedding couple owns the copyright of the photos. However, if there is a contract to sign, the photographer would be most likely to reserve some rights to your photos. Make sure you read the contract carefully and understand what you can do with your photos. Here are the 2 most common scenarios:
You have no rights
In this case, you may not be getting any digital images or you may get only a set of low-resolution images for personal use on your computer and share on social media. The photographer reserves all the rights to the photos including printing and marketing. Some photographers may provide you with the option to purchase all the high-resolution images and rights for personal use at an extra charge.
Personal use only
You get all the high-resolution digital images and you can use them for any personal use including printing and sharing on social media. The photographer reserves the right to use the photos for marketing purposes.
8. How many photos will I receive?
Ask the photographer how many photos you should expect to receive in the end. For a full day wedding, it’s not uncommon for a photographer to take more than 1000 photos. But when it comes to delivery, there are a few possibilities:
You’ll receive every image
Some photographers deliver every single photo he/she takes on the day. The good ones and the bad ones. Photos with your eyes blinked, overexposed, blurry, bad expressions will all be delivered to you. “Why would a photographer want to do that?” you may ask. Well, it saves time. At the first glance, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. It may even be a plus if you would like to be in control of the photos you want to keep or delete. Trust me you really don’t want to do that. Culling, the process of removing bad photos and selecting the good ones, is super time consuming, especially when choosing the best one amongst a few photos that look almost identical. For example, when taking group photos, it’s often hard to guarantee no one in the group will blink. I usually take multiple constitutive shots and keep the best one with everyone’s eyes open. Try to time yourself when choosing between two almost identical photos. You’ll be surprised to see how much time it can take you to make this type of decisions. It’s almost as hard as distinguishing the faces of miss Korea candidate! And as a wedding photographer, there can be hundreds of decisions like this to be made when going through all the photos, which can be hours of work. Not only that, a complete set of wedding photos should make up a compelling story. Each photo plays a part in the storyline. Not only the bad and repeated photos waste your time to look at and affect your viewing experience but more importantly distracts the viewer from the story and diminish the impact of the story being revealed. It’s the photographer’s job and is part of the creative process to create a unique and compelling story through the photos.
You’ll receive a set number of images
This is the other end of the spectrum. Some photographers put a limit on the number of photos to be delivered in the end. The photographer may take 1000 photos on your wedding and pick out only a set number of photos to deliver to you. This doesn’t make much sense to me because the photographer has no control over how many unique and good looking photos he/she will take on your wedding. It can be more than the set number or it can be less. By setting a limit on the number of photos you’ll either receive some repeated images or miss out on some great images just because there is a limit.
You’ll receive unlimited number of images
You get the best of both worlds, the photographer will put in the work in the culling process and at the same time knowing that a great shot will not end up in the recycle bin of the photographer’s computer.
9. Do you back up your photos?
This is super, super important. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t hire a wedding photographer who doesn’t back up his/her photos! There are so many horror stories that the wedding photographer’s hard drive got corrupted or failed or stolen and all the photos were lost. What’s worse than losing all your photos? As a matter of fact, hard drives don’t last forever. It’s like a time bomb. It WILL fail one day. At any point in time, there should be at least 2 copies of your photos stored on different hard drives. So that if one hard drive fails, you have another copy from the other hard drive. But what if the photographer’s house got stolen or burnt down by fire? This is why making a third copy of your photos stored off-site is important. By the way, I hope you will back up your files.
10. How are you going to post-process my photos?
One of the biggest misconceptions about wedding photography is that people think that wedding photography is a one day job. You take the photos, burn them a disk and rake in the cash. This may be the case for those cheap “shoot and burn” photographers. For most professional wedding photographers, taking photos on the wedding day may just account for half of the work done. To me, it’s probably just a quarter. “So what do you do after the wedding?” you may ask. Back in the film age, photographers needed to develop the photos in a darkroom. Nowadays, wedding photographers are using digital cameras and photos are enhanced using the software. Some people may call it digital darkroom. It’s a process of enhancing the look and feels of the photos by altering the photos on properties like the exposure, white balance, contrast, tone curve, colour tone, etc. and this process is called post-processing. Imagine a photographer takes 1000 photos at a wedding, how much time does he/she need to just look through these photos? Not to mention the time needed to process the photos.
There are three types of post-processing a photographer can offer you:
Some photographers do minimal of post-processing (or called colour correction), where only basic adjustments to the photos will be made. The exposure and the white balance will look right, the photos will still look unprocessed.
Detailed post-processing of all the images
The photographer will be making lots of adjustments to every single photo. When you receive your photos, you should expect all the photos to look polished and consistent. One very important point I’d like to point out here. Photos will be taken at different venues with different background and different lighting conditions throughout the day. The most challenging part of post-processing is consistency. It’s easy to make one single photo look great but it’s hard to make every photo look great and have the same look and feel at the same time. For instance, the photographer may decide to process one photo with high contrast and process another photo with low contrast, one photo in sepia tone, and another in black and white. Each of the photos may look beautiful by itself, but when you put all the photos together, they may fit well. This is another reason of why you need to look at a complete set of photos taken by a photographer.
One more thing you may want to know is whether the photographer shoots with JPEG or RAW format. The RAW format is an uncompressed image format which preserves all the exposure details of a photo. The file size can be many times larger than the JPEG format but I have to make it clear here that large file size does not mean better quality. All it means is that larger file size can better afford to lose information when making adjustments to an image. For those photographers who only do minimal post-processing or no post-processing, JPEG images will be perfect or even better. But for those photographers who do detailed post-processing or retouching, the RAW format is almost a must to ensure the highest image quality being produced. If you found a photographer who tells you that he/she does detailed post-processing or retouching with JPEG, that should raise a red flag.
Retouching of selected images
There are many photographers that will make minimal adjustments to all the photos and then allow the customer to choose a small number of images for retouching. Different to post-processing, retouching normally involves very detailed adjustments to an image. For example, your pimples can be removed from your face, your arm can be made thinner, wrinkles on your dress can be ironed out. This is normally a very time-consuming process and because of that, the photographer will only retouch a selected number of photos and you can ask to retouch more photos at extra cost. The problem with this approach is that out of hundreds of wedding photos you will only get a handful of photos that look professional. And the rest will look flat and dull. Chances are the look and feel of retouched photos and the minimally processed photos are so different that they just won’t look consistent when putting together. You may decide to hang a few of those nice images on your wall, and you will probably never look at the rest of the photos again. A way around this issue is to do a little bit of retouching based on the detailed post-processing. This way you get photos that look amazing while at the same time, the look and feel are consistent throughout all your photos.
11. Do you calibrate your monitor?
OK, I admit that this is probably getting a bit too technical but this is still very important for you to keep in mind. Years ago when I just started doing post-processing for my photos, I was using a cheap laptop with a cheap screen. One day when I saw my post-processed photos from a friend’s computer I was totally horrified. The colour and contrast of my photos looked way off to what I intended them to look. Then I realised that my monitor had been “lying” to me!
Monitor calibration is done using a monitor calibration device that measures and corrects the colours displayed on the screen. Monitor calibration ensures that the colours you see on the monitor are a true representation of the actual colours of the digital images. However, even after monitor calibration, some cheap monitors may just not be capable of displaying the full spectrum of colours accurately. It’s unlikely that you have calibrated your monitor when you are looking at the photos online. You are probably not too far off if you are using a good monitor but if you are using a cheaper monitor, you may want to compare the colours displayed on a mobile device. I found iPhone and iPad to be quite accurate.
12. When will I receive the photos?
The time it takes to have all the digital images post-processed by the photographer should not be longer than 3 months. On the other hand, it shouldn’t just be a few days unless you are hiring a “shoot and burn” photographer.
13. What are your style and vision?
Each wedding photographer has his/her own style. The style of a photographer is a combination of his/her shooting style and post-processing style.
The easiest way to distinguish between different shooting styles of a photographer is by looking at how much intervention comes from the photographer.
Lots of intervention
The classic style, also called the traditional style, involves capturing a list of key shots and ensuring all the important details and moments are captured at a wedding. Sometimes the photographer may work almost like a coordinator directing people on their poses in order to make people look at their best.
A drawback to this style is that the photos look more posed and every photographer is using the same poses. It’s harder to reveal the true emotions and personalities through these posed photos.
The fashion style also called the contemporary or editorial style, focuses on creating more dramatic images with a strong visual impact like what you see in fashion magazines. This is normally done using creative angle, posing and lighting setups. One thing I have to make clear is that a wedding photographer will probably not be set up every single shot that way. Most likely this type of setup happens during a photo session between the wedding events during the day.
Similar to the classic style, lots of interventions from the photographer makes the photos look to set up and unnatural and the photos may look overprocessed with too much contrast and improbable lighting.
The photojournalistic style also called the documentary or reportage style, where the photographer works as a journalist at your wedding and capturing your day as the events unfold. The photos are candid and captured in a storytelling fashion instead of just a collection of beautiful images. Real emotions and personalities are best captured this way.
One drawback to this style is that without any directions on your poses, you may not get photos with the best look of you.
This is a pleasant mix of the classic style and the photojournalistic style. You can think of this style as the classic style without so much direction on your poses. This style puts an emphasis on the good use of background, lighting and composition. The photographer will ask you to interact with each other while capturing some candid and more natural and spontaneous shots. The emotions are real while the environment and lighting are in control. The photographer is usually challenged to be more creative using this style because the photographer needs to actively come up with new ideas instead of passively working through a shot list or capturing those in the moment shots.
The styles outlined here are just a general outline. Some photographers may use a combination of these styles throughout the wedding day. Don’t just base your decision on the style of the photographer, look at his/her work.
Apart from the style, you should learn about the vision of the photographer. A style is only a reflection of the photographer’s vision. What is he/she trying to achieve through his/her style? Is the end goal merely capturing all the important moments? Or is it to create beautiful images? Is it to tell a story? Or maybe improving your relationship? Does the photographer shoot weddings as a real passion or is he/she just merely running his/her business? The photographer’s attitude will definitely impact the quality of work he/she produce.
14. Do you offer engagement shoot?
Most likely a wedding photographer would offer engagement photo shoot. An engagement photo shoot is a photo shoot of the engaged couple before their wedding. It captures a short chapter of your lives and you can show off these photos on your wedding day. This is also a great opportunity for you to work with the photographer before your wedding so that you will be more relaxed and natural when being photographed by the photographer on your wedding and if the photos turn out to be lower than your expectations you may still have a chance to change your mind.
Here’s one tip I’d like to give you. If you’ve decided to book a trial makeup with your makeup artist, do it on the day of your engagement photo shoot so that you’ll look great in your engagement photos!
15. Why is wedding photography so expensive?
If you’ve read through everything written above you can probably answer this question yourself. According to the Bride to Be magazine, on average a wedding costs $65,482 in Australia. You’ll spend money on ceremony venue, reception venue, accommodation, flower, wedding cars, wedding dress, shoes, suit, jewellery, wedding cake, catering, decorations, wedding invitations, celebrant, band, DJ, host, makeup artist, hair stylist, videographer, photographer, etc. Everything will be consumed on this single day! The only thing left will be your memory and your photos! If you’ve already spent $60,000 to make your day memorable, you’d better make sure the photos are good enough to keep these memories alive. If you overspent a thousand dollars, you can earn it back in a week or two but if you hire a cheap photographer who messes up your wedding photos, you may regret it for the rest of your life. Cheap photographers are cheap for a reason. Hiring a cheap photographer may turn out to be an expensive lesson that you cannot afford. In my personal opinion, hiring a good professional wedding photographer is the best investment you can make for your wedding.
Marriage tip: one day, when you have a conflict with your husband or wife, bring out your wedding photos and look through them together. You’ll live happily ever after!
And lastly, my final advice
The photographer plays an important part on your wedding day and you will be spending a lot of time with him/her on the day. So make sure you hire someone that you feel totally comfortable with and you should be confident enough in his/her work. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly worrying and not look natural in the photos.
The celebration will end, the cake will be cut, the flowers will wither, the music will stop and your memory will fade but a great set of wedding photos will be cherished for a lifetime. Choosing a wedding photographer is definitely one of your most important decisions for your wedding. I hope this information equips you with the knowledge to make a more informed decision and avoid the pitfalls that can potentially leave you with regrets for the rest of your life.
If you know someone who is engaged or would benefit from any of the points I’ve covered in this article, please share this with them.