Welcome Chapter 2 of the Comprehensive Guide to Finding Your San Antonio Wedding Photographer. At the end of this series you'll have all the information you could ever need to make sure you're hiring the right wedding photographer for you. We started this series in Chapter 1 with the different types of wedding photographers you're going to come across, and if you haven't read that blog post I highly recommend checking it out. In this chapter we'll cover what you need to look for when you're getting ready to hire the right wedding photographer for you, and I'm warning you now - this is a longggg post! While these tips are specific to my experience as a San Antonio wedding photographer, they apply to hiring wedding photographers virtually everywhere.
do your research.
Taking the time to do a little research when hiring a wedding photographer is the biggest investment in your wedding day memories that you can make.
That is what we're going to cover in this chapter - everything you need to look for when you're researching different wedding photographers. In Chapter 1 we talked a lot about the different kinds of wedding photographers, and from here on out I'll be assuming that if you're taking the time to read this then you're interested in hiring an actual professional photographer, or at least want more information on the importance of hiring a professional wedding photographer. Hiring the wrong photographer will cost you a lot more than money, it can cost you a life-time of irreplaceable memories.
Grab a cup of coffee, a list of photographers you're obsessed with, and pull up their websites. It's time to start researching.
you're looking for ...
Is there a consistent look and feel to all of their work? Can you imagine what your wedding day will look like through their eyes just by looking at their website? This is really important, because if you aren't seeing consistent work then how do you know what the images you're paying for will look like? Lighting conditions play a huge role in photography, and they constantly change through the day, they also change depending if you're indoors or outdoors. Images from an indoor wedding ceremony will look different from images of an outdoor wedding. An outdoor ceremony at noon on a sunny day photographs differently from an outdoor ceremony at sunset.
You don't need to become a photography expert or even understand the differences in lighting, all you need to do is see if the photographer can handle these different situations consistently. Are all their outdoor images similar in how they look? Are all their indoor reception images similar? What about indoor ceremony images?
images from an entire wedding day
Why does this matter? Because the lighting conditions throughout the day are so different, and light is the key ingredient in photography. Not the camera, not the lens, not the style of editing. Light is everything. Getting ready photographs indoors with great window light will photograph differently than an outdoor wedding ceremony. An indoor church ceremony has completely different light from mid-afternoon couples portraits, and a wedding reception with a DJ and party lights is different from a romantic, under the stars reception.
Yes, a photographer's work should be consistent through the entire wedding day, but each of these different lighting situations presents new challenges to a photographer. If you only see bright and airy outdoor portraits on their website but you're getting married in a church with an indoor reception, and it happens to rain on your wedding day, is that photographer going to be able to handle it? No matter if they use natural light, or mix natural light with different kinds of flash, your wedding photographer needs to know how to handle any potential lighting situation that could come up.
Good point, so what do I need to look for? You're looking for your kind of wedding, the whole day, to see how they'll handle it. To be specific, think about your wedding and look for whichever lighting situation matches your wedding venues - if you're not sure yet on your ceremony and/or reception venues then look for this entire list to be on your photographer's site. What you are looking for is how the photographs look in these different situations.
Can the photographer produce beautiful images in each of these different lighting situations? If not, can they produce beautiful images in the situation that matches what your wedding will be? Search their blog for your ceremony and reception venues as well - you might get lucky and find a perfect example of what to expect from them at your wedding!
Different Lighting Situations - The Ceremony
- Indoor church weddings
- Indoor non-church weddings
- Outdoor, 100% shaded weddings (under an awning or in a pavilion of some sort)
- Outdoor, in tree shade weddings (trees give partial shade, the sun usually gets through some of the leaves creating difficult weird shadows on everything)
- Outdoor, in direct sunlight weddings (a morning wedding with a ceremony facing west will have completely different light than an evening ceremony that faces west, and a mid-day ceremony will have still different lighting. If a photographer has a blog post from your outdoor venue check it out to see what the lighting looks like at different times of the day)
Different lighting situations - the reception
- The dance floor, detail shots, cake cutting, and general reception coverage will typically all have different kinds of lighting challenges for a photographer, your best bet is to see if they've photographed at your venue before and look at their general reception photographs. If they haven't then look at their indoor or outdoor reception photographs, depending on if your reception is inside or outside.
On a photographer's website their blog is a great place to start because typically photographers show selections from an entire wedding, or portrait shoot, on the blog. If they don't have a blog then scour through their portfolio, their Instagram or Facebook accounts. If you're still coming up blank, but you're in love with this photographer, ask to see some examples of full weddings they've done. If they have nothing to show you, this is a red flag that they can't handle the different lighting situations that occur during a wedding day.
styled shoots vs. real weddings
When you're hunting through photographer's portfolios there is something really important you need to be aware of - wedding photographers love doing stylized shoots. We shoot weddings because we're obsessed with the beauty that goes into wedding days, and sometimes we get together with other wedding vendors and create images where we can all show off our skills and talents.
Stylized shoots are gorgeous and a lot of fun, but they're missing one key ingredient - reality. If you're looking at a photographer to hire them for your wedding and all their images are from a stylized shoot, to be frank it is highly unlikely that your wedding photographs will look like what is on their website. The "couple" in stylized shoots are typically models and require little to no posing guidance from the photographer, where as most real couples need a lot of help to "naturally look good" in their portraits. If a photographer only works with models then they are going to have no clue how to make non-models, people who don't know how to pose themselves, look the same way!
Wait, what?! How do I know what is a real wedding and what isn't, and if they can create gorgeous images during a stylized shoot why can't they do it at my wedding? Great questions. Sometimes it's difficult to tell if it was a real wedding, or a stylized shoot. Typically a stylized shoot just showcases one part of a wedding day - so if you're looking at their portfolio it's going to be difficult to tell, but looking at a blog post you are either seeing images from the start of the day to the end, or you're only seeing a select few images from one part of the day. A lot of photographers want their clients to know and will say in the title or body of the blog post if the images are from a full wedding or a stylized shoot, but not all do.
There are a few reasons as to why images from a stylized shoot will be different from images from your actual wedding day. Yes, it's the same photographer, but stylized shoots are designed to be photographed more than anything. Everything that is involved from the color choice to the location to the time of day it's photographed is all to create the most flattering images possible of the details. When you're planning your wedding you likely aren't thinking about how your centerpieces will look in your venue at different times of the day, and which times your photographer will be able to photograph them (but if you ARE thinking about this please call me because you're my dream client). You aren't choosing a venue that is both beautiful to the eye and photographs beautifully (there is a difference), you're going with what you want and what looks good to you. You're including elements in your wedding day that are sentimental to you, regardless of how beautifully they photograph.
Long story short - real weddings and stylized shoots are completely different, and in order to have the most realistic expectations of your wedding photography make sure you're hiring a photographer whose real wedding images are making your heart sing.
reviews & referrals
In Chapter 1 I mentioned that one of the best ways to find the perfect wedding photographer for you is to get referrals from friends and other wedding vendors that you're already working with closely. If you have a wedding planner / coordinator, and I highly recommend you do, they will be your number one source of recommendations. They've seen how different photographers work and already know which ones you'll get along with, but they also know whose style of work you might prefer.
When you're getting referrals from friends on wedding photographers, make sure you specifically ask for the following information:
- Overall, how satisfied were the couple with the photographer's services and products?
- Communication: Did the photographer take the time to work with the couple on their timeline and shot list so they could actually get all the different photographs they wanted? Was the photographer prompt and reliable in their communication, both before and after the wedding day?
- And most importantly, what did the couple not like about the photographer?
The experience of working with a couple I "click with" is so much different than a couple that just hires me "because they need a photographer and like my website". Getting to know each of my clients is KEY to being able to capture good images of them, they have to trust me and it's so important to spend this time with them. If my client's don't trust me then they will be awkward and fake-smiley when my camera is pointed at them - aka: bad photos.
the final deliverable - digital files vs. actual products
We've touched a bit on this in a few different places, but it's time to actually discuss the final deliverable - your wedding photography. Are you receiving digital files? Are you getting a box of proof prints? Are you getting an album and wall art? How does the process even work after your wedding day, and why is this something you need to be aware of BEFORE you book a photographer?
The photography community is pretty split right now with some photographers offering no products, just digital files on a flash drive, and the others focused on their clients leaving with wall art and/or albums created of the images. It comes down to what you want for a client experience. Buying a car off Craigslist is a very different experience from buying it from a dealership. In both situations you end up with a car, however they are completely different experiences as a consumer. Same with photography - the final deliverables a photographer offers tells you a lot about what you can expect to experience as a client.
Let's start with the "USB drive of files" kind of photographer. What are the pros and cons of hiring this photographer?
- This as a great way to save some money up front if you aren't planning on creating any artwork from your images, aka you just want pictures for social media.
- If you do want to create artwork from your images, you have to do it all yourself and you won't have access to professional quality labs. AKA: You'll spend a lot of your own time getting this artwork created, and the final quality won't be very high.
- Most clients who recieve their final images on a USB never get around to doing anything with them.
- You're still paying more money towards your wedding photography - after your wedding is over! Even consumer-grade albums and prints aren't free!
So what about the other half of the photography community, the artwork focused photographers? There are pros and cons here, as well.
- You're hiring someone who has designed an entire client experience from start to finish. You will be involved in the artwork creating process, but the workload doesn't fall to you. You make the decisions and let the professionals do all the work.
- You'll be receiving high quality products. The final part of the client experience is the artwork that is created for you.
- Typically you will have access to a product price list up front, so you know before your wedding day how much you'll be spending in total from the deposit to the final album landing on your doorstep.
- Expect to pay more money up front. Professional quality products aren't cheap, and it takes time to create these products.
When it comes to my company, the products my clients get are carefully selected and designed. We sit down and discuss what they want to do with their wedding images, what their budget for products are, and we find the best way to use that budget together. Every album and book design is approved by them before it is ordered. My client's never have to spend any unnecessary time on their end trying to find a company that has high quality products, find a graphic designer to create the book layout, etc. It's all handled in-house for them. Their memories of their wedding day live inside their homes on their walls, not on a flash drive in a drawer.
Second shooters are like assistant photographers. They capture additional angles of the wedding day and their images really help balance out an album so you all the "must get" shots, but also the creative angles and the small moments that the main photographer can't capture without missing a huge important moment. Some photographers automatically have second shooters with all of their wedding packages, and with others it is an add on. The question you need to ask yourself is "do I need a second shooter at my wedding?"
In my opinion, a second shooter is 100% necessary if you have a tight timeline, are getting married in a church with a lot of photography restrictions, or if you have a lot of details. In any of these situations your wedding photography coverage will suffer greatly without a second shooter. If you're having a typical American wedding with some extra wiggle room in your timeline a second shooter is still quite helpful at covering those additional moments, like your mother crying while you say your vows. The main photographer is going to be focused on capturing you and your spouse, and won't be able to get to a second angle without risking not getting you two. A second shooter can move around in these situations and catch the emotional reactions.
So is the second shooter there for the whole wedding? Of course this depends on the photographer, but not usually. Typically the second shooter will show up prior to the ceremony and will leave towards the end of the reception, once all the official reception events are out of the way. No matter how hard your family parties, two photographers is just too many to cover the dance floor for 3 hours.
Usually the second shooter just turns their files over to the main photographer, and they have nothing else to do with your wedding photography. You likely won't meet them until your wedding day and you'll never see them again. There is a difference between an assistant and a second shooter. Some photographers bring assistants with them, and this is someone who isn't taking photos, but they're carrying gear, holding lights, helping pose, and constantly on the lookout for any wardrobe malfunctions, hair ties around wrists, out of place hair, etc.
engagement & bridal portraits
Engagement and bridal portrait sessions are a must-do if your wedding day photography is important to you, unless you and your fiance both happen to be experienced models. In that case you could skip them and it wouldn't impact your wedding day photography.
Most people use their engagement photographs for save-the-date cards, custom guestbooks for their wedding, and use the framed prints as wedding reception decor - but that isn't why I'm advocating for engagement sessions. They give both you and your fiance a 'trial run' at being in front of the camera, and gives your photographer time to figure out the best way to shoot you (which side of your faces photograph best, if softer or harder light is more flattering with your facial features, what the best method is to get natural & genuine emotions out of you two, etc). It's the absolutely best way to "test" your wedding photographer out, to make sure you work well with them.
Bridal portrait sessions can be considered a test run for your florist, hair and makeup. You'll be decked out head to toe in your wedding day attire, you'll see exactly what you will look like in your wedding day photographs, but with enough time for you to change your mind if the hair style is too distracting, or if the makeup is too dark. Besides being a test run for your glam squad, it's a great way to insure you have beautiful portraits of you in your wedding day attire without worrying about being rushed on the wedding day itself. Far too often when hair and makeup get behind its the photography time that is cut, (the one thing that will exist after the wedding day is over). A bridal portrait session insures this won't be an issue.
film photographers vs. digital photographers
Wait, people really still shoot film? Yes, people shoot film, and film is actually on the rise! There are a few film shooters who never switched to digital, but for the most part any wedding photographers that currently shoot film are likely going to be hybrid shooters, shooting some film and some digital. Let me back up a second - film. Why would anyone shoot film in the 21st century?!
I'm regularly asked "Why don't you just shoot digitally, and then edit your images to look like film? Wouldn't that be easier?" If you don't know what you're doing, yes it's easier. If you're an experienced professional, no it isn't easier. Editing, or post-production, takes time. A lot of time. Time I am spent tied to my computer, instead of being out photographing. As every business owner can tell you, time is money. Sure, I have to pay more upfront to shoot with film, but I'm paying less in the long run because I'm not paying myself to sit behind a computer and edit for 10 hours.
I've started shooting film at weddings for two reasons: the dynamic range and reduction in editing time. Without getting into the science, film and digital sensors are not the same, they are not equal. Digital sensors, as great as they are, are still very limited in how they handle extremely high-contrast lighting situations compared to film. As a photographer, I don't have control over the sun and clouds, or the time of day or location of the wedding ceremony, and I have little-to-no control over the time of day we photograph couple's portraits. More than half of the wedding ceremonies I photograph are outdoors in bright, harsh midday sunlight - every photographer's worst lighting nightmare. If I'm shooting digitally I have to change how I photograph the ceremony, and then spend more time behind the computer in order to get acceptable images. With film I don't have to change how I shoot and I'm spending less time behind the computer, it's win-win! The price I pay to buy rolls of film and have them professionally developed & scanned is worth it for the quality of image I can capture, and the reduced post-production workload.
Okay, that's cool and all, but I'm here to learn how to hire the right photographer. Let me shut up about my way of doing things and get to the bigger picture here. So film photography isn't easy, it's VERY challenging and to have a portfolio of consistently good film images says a lot about how qualified a person is as a photographer. When you're shooting film you have to know what you're doing, and while there is some stuff you can fix in post-production you're more limited. With digital photography you have the option of shooting RAW files, instead of JPEG, and they give you a lot of latitude in post-production to make adjustments - to save images if you didn't shoot things correctly. What I'm trying to say without actually saying it is that it is a lot easier for a 'faux-tographer' to come across as professional when they shoot digitally. It's virtually impossible with film, and when it comes to your wedding photography you don't want to be taking risks with who you hire.
Film does have a certain look and feel, and if it isn't your thing then don't worry! There are tons of digital-only professional photographers who will blow you away with their work, but when you're photographer hunting just keep in mind that a photographer's decision to shoot film vs digital isn't just about how the final images look.
& that's it!
Seriously that is a TON of information to take in and absorb, and if you're still reading this then you deserve a glass of wine, a beer, you name it. If you stopped reading mid-post to go get one - I completely understand. It can be very overwhelming planning a wedding, trying to hire the right vendors for a huge, special event when it's your first time ever hiring these different types of vendors. One of my biggest pet peeves is vendors who don't take the time to inform and educate their clients on what to expect and that is the whole reason behind why I'm creating this comprehensive guide. No bride or groom should have to go into hiring a wedding photographer blind.