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Picking the Right Photographer
for your Wedding
or other Special Occasion

by Mordechai Saxon, Professional Photographer and Album Specialist
Member: Professional Photographers of America
Member: Wedding and Portrait Photographers International

Photographs are Important. That's why you're hiring a professional photographer and not doing it yourself, or asking your neighbor or brother-in-law to photograph your event. When the Wedding or Bar Mitzvah is over, you'll look at the photographs to relive one of the most important days of your lives. They serve as a sense of heritage to generations yet to be born, and provide a sense of connection with friends and family members who have moved far away, and loved ones who have passed away.

The first thing to remember when hiring a photographer is to look for quality and value and not just the cheapest price. As with most things in life, "you get what you pay for."  The cheapest price may be fine for dishwasher since it can be returned if its not what you wanted. But after the Wedding-- there's no "second chance" to redo the photographs of a lifetime, so it's important to find the right photographer who will capture your events right the first time.

A 1996 survey in Brides magazine stated that 83% of couples were dissatisfied with how their wedding photos turned out and of the service quality of the photographer. With this many unhappy couples -- it seems that poor wedding photographers are more the rule than the exception.

Common complaints among wedding couples were photos that were out of focus or blurred, poorly lit, had people with eyes closed, and that the photographer was simply "not around" to take photos at important parts of the wedding.

While you need not hire the most expensive photographer, don't just go for the  "cheapest"photographer either. Rather, ask several photographers to send you their photo packages, and then compare them side by side to see which photographers and which packages offer the most "value" for your photo dollar.

One big factor to consider is how much time or "coverage" is included in the price. Many times a fee which looks higher actually turns out to be cheaper (or a better value) in the long run, because it includes more hours of coverage -- which end up being charged as "overtime" in other packages. In order to make that calculation, you first need to spend some time figuring out how long you will need your photographer, and how long your event will actually run. That's important, because just like you don't want your photographer leaving early, you also don't want to pay for more coverage than you actually need. I will help you figure this out below.

People very seldom complain years after their wedding that their photo album is "too nice".

While it's relatively inexpensive to have extra shots taken at your wedding,
it's virtually impossible to "go back" after the wedding day is over.
So you should first figure out "what you want" before selecting any package.
Remember that Photographers are not Mind Readers

While a photographer does his best to record your event, if there are specific poses that you want photographed, or particular family members or friends you want photographed, be sure to let the photographer know this ahead of time! Preferably, you should have given your photographer a "photo list" of which poses you want taken, and which people you want photographed, before the event, so that nothing will be left out. Some photographers have a very specific list of poses that you shoot, others have a general idea that they go by, whereas some "play it by ear". If you have no idea what you want your photographer to shoot, then it really doesn't matter; your hiring someone, leave it to them. But if you have a specific idea of what you would like your wedding album to look like, which poses you want taken, and specific family members you want pictures with, then it is important that you inform your photographer of this in advance. Before you hire your photographer, make a photo list of shots you would like taken. Sometime before the event, go over this list with your photographer, and his if he has one, to be sure that both you and he have the same thing in mind. That's another good reason why you should get to know your photographer before your event.

If you want coverage before the ceremony, during the ceremony, and after the reception, be sure to schedule the photographer to be there all that time. Most people figure that they will have to be at their event much longer than the guests will. Schedule your photographer likewise.

You may also wish to schedule family portraits before your event (when people are still "fresh"), as this may be the only time that your entire family gets together, for quite some time. If you do, be sure to notify your photographer before he arrives at your wedding. He may wish to bring special backdrops or different lighting, than if he plans on only shooting candid event pictures.

You should also find out if the the photographer you are hiring will be available in case you need him to stay later than your originally expected. This is not uncommon, as events do tend to run late, and while you may have to pay the photographer extra for the additional time, it's good to know that the photographer would be available, should you need him.

Here are several questions to ask the photo studios that you contact:

To begin with, who is actually photographing your event?

In fact, is the photographer you've signed up with even the same one coming to your event?

This is an important question because many times a studio will employ part-time or freelance photographers to cover multiple weddings booked on the same day. The studio may show samples of the studio owner (main photographer), but may end up assigning a part-timer with very little experience. Or the studio owner may show you pictures that his studio produced, meaning that he has taken the best pictures from all of his photographers, but that does not mean that he or whoever he sends will be able to reproduce the same quality for you. This does not necessarily mean that the photographer they send won't be good. He or she may be an excellent photographer. There is nothing wrong with a studio having several photographers. But just to be sure you like the style of the person actually taking your pictures, it may be a good idea to ask to see samples of "your photographer's" work, besides the studio's, and certainly to discuss the event with the actual photographer who will be taking your pictures.

What type of equipment will he/she be using?

Quality photographic equipment is expensive, but together with the most important piece of equipment (the photographers eye), good equipment (cameras, film, lighting and backup equipment, just in case) does make a difference!

Cameras: Cameras can be divided up as digital or film. Most really good photographers who use film will shoot their Weddings using Medium Format cameras, instead of just 35 millimeter, at least for the "formal shots", if not for most or all of the wedding.

Why are medium format cameras so important?

Because they create negatives that are nearly 3 times larger than 35 mm cameras -- so the enlargements and prints from these cameras are nearly three times as clear and as sharp, as those from 35 mm.

Next the lenses for these cameras are manufactured to extremely high quality standards -- so the color saturation and the image resolution are much higher than typical 35 mm cameras.

Finally, only professional photo finishing labs can process this "larger format" film -- meaning that the quality of the proofs and prints is likely multiple times better than 35 mm prints from a typical 1-hour lab.

Because medium format camera systems cost several thousand dollars, some photographers try to get away with just a 35 mm for the entire wedding, hoping that no one will know the difference.

In truth, 35 mm cameras are fine for smaller shots (up to 5 x 7), which will probably comprise the majority of your candid photos, but if you are wanting larger pictures (8 x 10 or 11 x 14 or larger) for your album, or to hang on the wall, or studio quality portraits of your wedding, than the difference in quality can be quite noticeable.

What about digital?

Digital cameras definitely have their advantages. The biggest advantage with digital is the immediacy of seeing your proofs, either "on line" or via a laptop computer at your event. This is something many consumers like (in our immediate gratification generation), saving you the time that you might otherwise wait for proofs to be ready. Digital is also advantageous for the photographer who saves the hundreds of dollars it might otherwise cost to process and print your film onto prints. With digital, you just select your chosen photos from a digital album, and only those have to be printed.

However, taking a picture digitally does not in and of itself create a better picture. Nor does it create a worse looking picture. The rules of good photography apply regardless whether you use film or a digital sensor to record your image (though the metering may change slightly).

What type of Lighting does your photographer bring to the event?

The word "photography" means "drawing with light". Having good lighting is important for without good lighting -- there CAN'T BE good pictures. Because the lighting at most reception halls is too dark for good photography, the best way to insure great photography every time is by having the photographer bring in studio quality portrait lighting, instead of just relying on the camera's flash

With the newer faster professional films on the market, and the powerful flashes most photographers have attached to their cameras, umbrellas or soft boxes are rarely needed for the candid reception coverage, however umbrellas, softboxes, reflectors or some other source of secondary light is still recommended for portrait quality "traditional family poses". Reason being that that by utilizing two light sources, the photographer is able to control the "shadow detail" of the portrait, so that the subjects will look three-dimensional and lifelike. It is this "shadow detail" in fact, that differentiates a studio quality portrait from a flatly lit snapshot. Reflectors, umbrellas or softboxes also allow the photographer to "diffuse" or soften the light so the subjects look better on film.

If you event is large and indoors, in a not very bright room, you might also ask your photographer to bring additional "slave" lights to illuminate the background behind the people who he/she is photographing. That way, you lessen the chance of your pictures looking like they were photographed "in a cave", meaning that while the subject of the pictures look great (since the cameras's flash hit them perfectly) the background -- people behind the subject - are extremely dark. 

Most of the newer digital cameras are more sensitive to light than film cameras. therefore if the photographer is shooting digital, he may be able to use less external lights than if shooting with film. However the basic "rules" of photography do not change.

Another important consideration is choosing a photographer is deciding which style of photography you are looking for.

Traditional photography consists of formal or staged poses of the Wedding Couple or Bar Mitzvah Boy together with their family. Groom’s side, Bride’s side, Grandparents, Brides Maids, etc. The second style of event photography is what’s popularly known as Photo-Journalistic coverage. PJ photography intends to document your event in much the same way as a photojournalist goes about an assignment.

The PJ photographer, rather than taking portraits and staging photo’s, tries to blend in to the scenery and record events “as they happen”, in a more candid and less formal manner than with traditional photography, often without the guests even realizing that they are being photographed. Many photographers offer a combination of traditional and candid coverage. 

It is always a good idea to first decide which style of photography you are looking for, and then discuss it with your photographer, rather then just hiring someone to take your pictures “their way”, without specifying what exactly it is that you are looking for. Most people want a combination of traditional poses and PJ event coverage, however if you don't let the photographer know what you want, you run the risk of purchasing a perfectly good set of photographs, but not at all what you wanted.

What about the photo package itself?

What exactly are you getting for your money? Some photographers offer smaller proofs at a lower price, some offer to give you or sell you the negatives but leave you in charge of enlarging the prints; while other photographers offer higher priced packages which may include 8 x 10 enlargements, 11 x 14 enlargements, and fancy albums. Many photographers also offer parent albums, with additional photos for the parents, grandparents, or other relatives, at prices far below what it would cost to have the same pictures reprinted separately.

If all you want is one set of small pictures, then the less expensive “proof” package are probably ideal, but if you truly want a spectacular album with portrait quality prints and larger enlargements to hang up on your wall, then the larger packages will usually pay for themselves both in time and money, compared with doing it all yourself.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us for assistance.