How to choose a wedding photographer



By Danny Steyn – November 1998 (updated June 2013)

Weddings, like similar once-in-a-lifetime situations, require an intuitive sensitivity for the situation, and outstanding photographic technical competency. There are no second chances. Brides and Grooms entrust the professional wedding photographer with this, the most precious time of their lives, and in so doing create a strong partnership, if only for a fleeting moment.

It never ceases to amaze me that in the search for a professional wedding photographer, often decisions are made on the basis of price. If there is one thing I can advise you on, price should be the least determining factor.

What you should be looking for in a professional wedding photographer is the ability to capture this one moment for ever, in a way that you will enjoy viewing those images for the rest of your life. For no matter how small or large your wedding might be, you will remember absolutely nothing of your wedding, it will be a haze in your memory and the only reminder of your wedding will be the beautiful images captured by your invaluable professional wedding photographer. You will treasure these wedding photos for years. You will use these images to recall those moments that you cannot remember. You will look at these wedding photos with your grandchildren and you will reminisce about that wonderful day in your life.

Being given this moment, we as professional wedding photographers earn the trust of complete strangers, and in the process enter into very personal relationships with our clients. This relationship between wedding photographer and client might only last several hours, but the results of the relationship will last forever, in your wedding albums, in framed prints that hang from your walls, stand proudly framed on your dresser, desktops and in your parent’s homes.

So how do you, the bride and groom, go shopping for a professional wedding photographer? What follows below are several pointers to guide you in your search for a professional wedding photographer. They have been formulated from my 20 plus years as a very successful wedding photographer, gaining most of my clients from word-of-mouth referrals.

1. Why hire a Professional Wedding Photographer?

If you are on a budget, you might be tempted to get a friend to photograph your wedding. He might even be a skilled amateur photographer. But this is one area where you do not want to try to save money. You do not get any second chances to retake the image. If you miss the moment, it is gone forever. A professional wedding photographer makes all the difference. The wedding photographer will be the one person who has a lasting effect on the memory of your wedding. A professional wedding photographer is reliable, prompt and will deliver on time. Having photographed numerous weddings, an experienced professional wedding photographer will be in his element at your wedding, not nervous and under pressure like an amateur. A professional wedding photographer is completely at ease with his camera, going from dark church interiors into bright sunny exteriors. He always adjusts his camera manually, never shoots on Auto or Program. He adjusts the white balance based on the changes in available light. Professional wedding photographers are experienced in working efficiently with the limited time available, and are comfortable directing the family groups during the formal group photography. When you consider the entire wedding, the cost of professional wedding photography is fairly small. Do not skimp. It will come back to haunt you.

2. How do I find my Professional Wedding Photographer?

A recommendation is the best way to gain confidence in a professional wedding photographer. In the absence of a recommendation you will have to go looking. The fact that you are reading this article online indicates that you will most probably search for your professional wedding photographer on the internet. This is a good way to reach a large number of wedding photographers, and also to reach professional wedding photographers outside your immediate geographic area.

A good professional wedding photographer will travel frequently to exotic wedding destinations for his clients. You can look for a local professional wedding photographer, or for a wedding photographer who will travel to your locale. For couples getting married in the Caribbean Islands, it is often advisable to hire a South Florida based wedding photographer as opposed to an island-based photographer. This way you have the opportunity to meet with the photographer prior to the wedding, and you will have easier access to the wedding photographer after the wedding. It will also offer you more recourse in the event of dissatisfaction.

3. How do I narrow down the Professional Wedding Photographer Short List?

Examine the wedding photographer’s online portfolios. Look for a style of wedding photography that suits your own particular style. Are you looking for traditional classic wedding photography, or do you want a more casual candid approach? Have you considered the photojournalistic style of wedding photography? A good professional wedding photographer is capable of offering all styles, but might specialize in one style. Look at what styles he offers in his wedding portfolios.

4. When do I speak with my Professional Wedding Photographer?

You do need to speak to your potential wedding photographer very early on in your planning process. Good professional wedding photographers are often booked up months and even years in advance. You need to secure your photographer as soon as possible. The way you are received on the phone should give you some indication of how you will be able to connect with the photographer in person. Having a close professional working relationship is a vital requirement. Be sure that your wedding photographer is approachable, calm, collected, listens to you and actually pays attention to your requests and questions.

Establish whether your potential wedding photographers are available on your wedding date. Find out whether the primary wedding photographer will be doing your photography. It is important to note that the large wedding studios employ many second and even third tier photographers, one of whom may be assigned to your wedding.

If you are not going to get the services of the primary wedding photographer, establish who will be the actual photographer assigned to your wedding, and make sure that you see portfolios shot by the photographer that will be assigned to your wedding. Does the 2nd tier photographer have the technical expertise, the artistic expertise? Does the photographer have an eye for the memorable image?

5. Why should I meet with my Professional Wedding Photographer?

Once you have identified a short list of wedding photographers, make your first choice and arrange a meeting with the wedding photographer. This meeting will tell you a lot about the photographer, whether it be the primary wedding photographer, or the assigned wedding photographer. Both Bride and Groom, if possible, should attend this meeting. You will quickly tell if you are going to get along, whether you and your wedding photographer are on the same page. Are you comfortable with the photographer, does he make you feel at ease? Does he really listen to what you have to say? What style of photography does the wedding photographer prefer to shoot? What style does he think would suit you? Does he offer references with telephone numbers for you to call and see how they enjoyed the experience? And when you leave, did you feel as though you had met someone who could become your friend?

If you have a positive face-to-face experience with the professional wedding photographer, and the technical and artistic expertise exceeds your expectations, this is the time to discuss all aspects of the wedding photography. Ask the difficult questions. Don’t hold back.

6. How much does a professional wedding photographer cost?

Prices can range from as low as $1,500 to well over $10,000. If you are offered a wedding package under $1,000, you are probably dealing with an inexperienced wedding photographer and you could be at risk of inferior photography. Better wedding photographers will charge upwards of $2,500. Most couples underestimate the cost of good wedding photography. Your total amount you spend on your professional wedding photography will probably be at least 20% of your total wedding budget. But it will be the only part of your wedding budget that will endure long after your wedding is over.

7. How much time does a professional wedding photographer need in order to give me what I need?

The time the photographer spends photographing your wedding is dependent on the events you want covered. The options are endless, they are entirely up to you, and include

  • Rehearsal dinners and services
  • Bride’s preparation
  • Formal bride and bridesmaid photography prior to the wedding
  • Formal bride and groom photography prior to the wedding
  • Wedding ceremony
  • Leaving the church (ceremony)
  • Formal group photography
  • Reception photography, including speeches, first dance, bouquet toss, garter toss, cake cutting and departure of the bride and groom
8. How many wedding photographs should I get?

This is the least important question, as you are always looking for quality over quantity. As long as you have stunning images that cover all aspects of your wedding you will be happy. Wedding photographers shoot lots of images and remove all unflattering photos from those provided to you. A minimum of 120 - 150 photos is typical, allowing you to select the best ones for your album and enlargements.

9. Who keeps the wedding photography original digital files?

Most professional wedding photographers retain the original files, and have the clients order reprints and enlargements as necessary. They make a portion of their income based on the reprint and enlargement orders. They will keep your wedding images on file for at least two years allowing you the opportunity to order reprints up to two years after the wedding. Other photographers hand over the digital files to the client. They usually charge more for this approach as they forgo the future reprint income. Decide which option is best for you and tell your wedding photographer.

10. What about wedding photography packages?

Professional wedding photographers often price their wedding photography in terms of packages that include enlargements and albums. This is often a sensible approach for the client as the photographer has the artistic eye to arrange the photos and enlargements in the album in an artistic and sensible display, often at a fraction of the cost that you would be able to do yourself. The cost of the wedding photography package you choose will depend on several factors:

  • Time allocated to wedding photography
  • Number of photos (proofs)
  • Number of enlargements
  • Albums, type of albums and parents albums. There are many different types and styles of wedding photo albums from the inexpensive to the very pricey. The more expensive albums will endure better and give you a lifetime of happy viewing. Ask to see samples.
11. What about black and white wedding photography?

Clients often like the timeless feel and beauty of black and white images. All professional wedding photographers shoot digitally these days. Black and white prints are easily made from the original digital files.

12. What lighting will the professional photographer use and will it ruin the service?

Outdoor photographs are usually made with ambient daylight and the use of reflectors to minimize harsh shadows. Fill-in flash is also used outdoors to remove shadows. Photography indoors normally requires the use of artificial lighting, normally flash. These days’ on-camera flash units are suitable for most applications, but in the more expensive weddings, professional wedding photographers will use high powered flash bounced off tripod-mounted umbrellas, often using radio controlled triggers. Photography in the church is a delicate matter, and often flash is avoided if there is enough ambient light. Certain churches restrict the use of flash.

Choose the time of day with your photography in mind. Choosing your wedding late in the afternoon could mean that you will have no light for natural ambient light photographs. Ensure that you leave allow enough time for the daylight photography.

13. What camera equipment will the professional wedding photographer use?

In the last ten years, all professional wedding photographers have completely migrated to digital photography, but there is a huge difference between a $10,000 professional camera, a $1,000 “prosumer” camera and a $500 amateur camera. On the surface they all look the same, but trust me they are not the same under the hood. A professional camera’s sensor will have a much higher tonal range, much better image processing algorithm and the final product for the wedding couple will something of utter beauty, whereas the cheaper camera sensors will immediately look inferior.

Professional wedding photographers also always have spare cameras, lenses and flash, just in case of failure. When an amateurs camera fails, the entire wedding photography fails.

14. What style of wedding photography should I choose?

There are several styles of wedding photography, whether it be classic/traditional, informal/candid or photojournalistic. The photojournalistic style lends itself to telling the story as it unfolds. The classic traditional style captures the romance, affection and mood of the event and is still the most popular choice. Non-conventional clients often go for a more casual approach to their wedding photography. This is typically carried through to their entire wedding, shirts and slacks as opposed to Tuxedos, barefoot in the beach sand as opposed to patent leather shoes.

The really good professional wedding photographer should be equally comfortable photographing all wedding styles. It is up to you to decide what you want, and discuss your preferences with your wedding photographer.

15. Why do some professional wedding photographers insist on an assistant?

Wedding photography has to be accomplished in a very short space of time and often involves moving lots of equipment, organizing many groups of people, memory card changes, lens and filter changes. This is often too much for one person yet there are professional wedding photographers who photograph weddings solo. Having an assistant helps the professional wedding photographer concentrate on the images, not on the unnecessary details. The bride should appoint at least one person as the wedding photographer’s liaison, and who can help with organizing the groups for the wedding party group photography.

16. Why do professional wedding photographers insist on a schedule of events?

A lot of photography has to be accomplished in a short time and often critical moments are over in a matter of seconds and the unprepared wedding photographer might miss the moment altogether. A well-detailed script will give the wedding photographer a timetable that prepares him for the proceedings.

17. Should we do the formal photography before or after the ceremony?

If formal photographs are important to you, you can set-aside time prior to the ceremony so that the wedding photographer can take his time in getting posed formal photographs out of the way. If you rely on formal photographs being taken between the ceremony and the reception, this means that the wedding photographer has limited time to get all the formal photography completed. This often takes longer than expected and this is normally responsible for the guests waiting forever for the bride and groom to arrive at the reception. Often this creates pressure on the bride and groom to hurry their formal photography, often yielding less than optimum images.

18. Why do professional wedding photographers restrict other photographer’s activities?

There can only be one director of proceedings and having several photographers all vying for the attention of the subjects is a recipe for disaster. Flashes from other photographer’s cameras can trigger the professional wedding photographer’s slaves, ruining his shots. Most professionals will allow others to jump in and get their photos and then ask to shoot uninterrupted.

19. Who owns copyright to the wedding photos?

The professional wedding photographer is the creator of the images and therefore is the owner of the copyright. Even if the photographer hands over the digital files, the copyrights still vests with the photographer. Ensure that you have the photographer’s permission before making reprints, or submitting your photos to a magazine or newspaper. You may not sell any images without the photographer’s written permission.

20. Do I need to sign a wedding photography contract?

All professional wedding photographers will require you to sign a wedding photography contract that specifies the terms and conditions of the agreement between you and the photographer. Make sure that you read and understand the contract. It will describe everything from payment policies to cancellation policies.

22. What are normal payment terms for wedding photography?

All professional wedding photographers require a deposit to secure the wedding date. This is typically 50% of the wedding photography fee, and the balance is usually payable on the day of the wedding.

Now that you have had your most important wedding photography questions answered, you should be in a position to choose your professional wedding photographer. Choose with care and good luck. And for a no obligation quote, call me to find out about our affordable wedding packages.

Danny Steyn

First written 12 November 1998, and updated in June 2013 to deal with the new digital reality