It’s not every wedding where the bride happens to know a bit about photography, but that’s my scenario. I’m getting re-married later this year, and a) I don’t want to/can’t shoot my own event  and b) I want my darkroom buddy Becca to celebrate with us…not work, so I hired a professional to capture our Big Day.

Here are some (perhaps slightly irreverant)  pointers for brides.

1. So, You’re Getting Married!
You’re not alone! Most of us want to get married on a Saturday, and there are only 50 or so of them a year – and not all of them are created equal. Some dates (Saturdays or not) are more popular than others. Remember the craze over easy-to-remember-anniversary dates like 07/07/07 and 08/08/08 and 09/09/09? What about regional differences? Where I live in Virginia, most weddings – especially outdoor receptions – are held in the spring or fall so the bridal party, guests and cake won’t melt in the heat and humidity.

I thought I got a good jump on things by making inquiries eleven months in advance, only to learn that my first choice was already booked.

My point: you and dozens of other brides and grooms in your area may all be honing in on the same date. There are only so many photographers that will fit your style and budget, so my advice is for you to start looking early.

2. Identify Candidates
There are a zillion ways to find photographers:

  • recommendations (my first candidate photographed a friend’s sister’s wedding, and I loved what she did. But, some other couple snatched her up first)
  • Yellow Pages: you’ll find local photographers’ ads with web sites you can review at your leisure
  • search engines or Internet Yellow Pages, like www.superpages.com. Simply type in what you’re looking for and where you need it (example: wedding photographer, Timbuktu…or wherever your event is going to be), and results with hyperlinks to web sites magically appear
  • social networking sites, like Facebook. There are plenty of pages you can be “fans” of…or, at least, you can look at to see how their work stacks up
  • newspapers: your Sunday paper (uh, that is if your town still has one!) should have a section with wedding announcements and the like. Look at the bridal portaits and note the photo credits. There may be a list of providers in your area, which is how I stumbled upon my photographer
  • bridal magazines: your region probably has one. Take a look at the display ads.
  • bridal shows: in our area, the bridal show is put on by the publisher of the local bridal magazine. I’m actually going to one tomorrow to interview some invitation vendors. Benefit of walking a bridal show? You can see examples of photographers’ work, and you can also see if there’s any kind of personality connection.

3. Look at Portfolios
Once you begin looking at porfolios – either in person or online – start tuning into what “speaks” to you.

  • are you looking for someone to shoot in a photojournalistic/candid style, or are you hoping to come away with a collection of formal, posed portraits?
  • do you want your photos to be color or black and white or a combination?
  • do you want detail shots? (think: the buttons up the back of your gown, or a close-up of the wedding bands or cake topper). Are you seeing anything like this?
  • basic stuff: are the pictures in focus? is the composition of the photos good, or are there distracting elements in the background, like air conditioners or telephone poles seemingly coming out of the tops of people’s heads (I’ve seen examples like that in showbooks!)

You’ll know from looking at multiple sites and albums what look works for you and what doesn’t.

I also recommend looking at online and “real life” versions of their work. Images may look different in albums than they do on a web site, plus you want to see the quality of the print and the paper that was used – especially if you’re looking at black and white images. Many photographers shoot only digital images now, and while technology has come a long way, if your candidate has not kept up with the times and the latest equipment, their digital black & white prints will look “flat” compared to a black & white print made from film.

If you don’t like the “look” of a photographer’s portfolio, they’re not qualified to move onto the package pricing level with you. Move on!

4. Do You Envision Spending HOURS with This Person?
After you narrow down the “look,” the next step is to see if you’re compatible with the person behind the lens.

Now, you’re not going to be spending the rest of your life with this person, but you will have the photos for that duration. Long after the cake is gone and the guests have sobered up, the images survive as a testament to how much fun you had. And your Big Day is a Big, Long, Emotional, Exhausting Day. You need to have someone who is capturing the joyfulness of the event and details of your wedding story without being overbearing, domineering and irritating (sorry! having a flashback to my first wedding’s photographer).

I didn’t want someone who was running a wedding photography “mill” with formulaic shots. For me, it was important to find someone who was passionate about photography who “sees” things the way I would photograph something.

I invited my ultimate hire to meet me on site of the wedding and reception so I could introduce her to my vision of how the day would be staged. We both “clicked” on how the day could flow as we bounced different ideas off each other.

5. Price: What You’re Getting…and Who You’re Getting for the $$
Now, prices are all over the board. You could spend $1,000…or you could spend $5,000 and have Your Special Day covered. What accounts for the differences?

  • Experience and equipment and entourage, for starters. It’s unreasonable for someone fresh out of university to expect to command the same rate as someone who has 20 years of experience under their tripod. Find out how long they’ve been doing this sort of work. See if you can find out a little bit about the equipment that they’re using and the type of lighting situations they’re experienced with. Yes, you can probably get a “deal” from someone who is trying to build a business, but that same person may not have the talent to work with difficult lighting or composition situations (example: are you getting married in a cavernous, dark cathedral? Someone with a point-and-shoot digital camera may not be able to capture the nuances you’re envisioning). As for the entourage: is your event intimate enough to be covered by one photographer? Or, do you need multiple cameras clicking at your 300+ guests?
  • Are you getting THE photographer – or an assistant? My second-time-around wedding is going to be what I call a “micro wedding.” One photographer said that he would send an assistant to cover my event instead of shooting it himself.  Again: with limited Saturdays, why should he cover me personally when he can send a helper and then go off and make another $5,ooo for himself at a bigger wedding? He’s running a for-profit business, and my needs didn’t qualify for his personal attention. I don’t fault him for it. I’m just glad he was upfront about it. You need to get clarification on exactly who will be at your wedding: the master, or the apprentice? 
  • Location of event. Are you and your photographer in the same area? If not: expect to have to pay for travel time and (perhaps) hotel accommodations for the photographer and (if applicable) his or her assistants.
  • Duration of event. Bridal portrait/engagement photo/rehearsal dinner coverage aside: the bulk of your coverage will be on your wedding day. Most likely, you don’t want your photographer waltzing in as your guests are being seated. You probably want some pre-ceremony shots (e.g. bride getting ready; anxious groom goofing around with groomsmen), so you may need your photographer to be on hand one or two hours prior to the ceremony. You want reception coverage, but you may not want the photographer to be around long enough for your college buddies to start doing things that are potentially harmful to their future professional and/or political careers. Think about how many hours you want – and can afford.
  • “Deliverables.” Ahhhh…this for me was HUGE. There are differences between Bridal Expectations/Needs for a First Wedding vs. a Second (or Third) Wedding. Even as a first-time bride, I skipped a lot of the “traditional” things, such as the pre-wedding bridal portrait. I went heavy instead on the album, down to the monogrammed leather cover. As a second-time-arounder, I knew I wanted even less. I was very clear with potential candidates that I was not in my 20s and doing this for the first time. I had no need for the engagement photo, the bridal portrait, parents’ albums, grandparents’ albums…even a physical album for us (this after my fianceé admitted that he only ever looked at the album from his first wedding only ONCE…and as mine collects dust in a closet.) I told them I wanted “day-of” coverage, and I only wanted a disk of high-resolution images so I could print out (at my leisure) what I wanted. I was surprised at how much push-back I got from some photographers, which made me think perhaps they treated potential clients as “one-size-fits-all.” One went so far as to not listen to my wishes that she kept pushing better and better “deals”…throwing in rehearsal dinner coverage and playing a slide-show during the reception…all for about $3,000 more than I wanted to spend. Deal? NO DEAL. What I liked about the woman I hired is that she really LISTENED and she “got it.”
  • Post-production. Yeah, your reception is only five hours long, but post-production will easily take two to four times as long. Post-production is when the photographer reviews all of the images, chucks the bad ones (hey, even the best of us shoot non-flattering frames and there’s no point in retouching images of your Uncle Lenny with a mouthful of shrimp cocktail), and enhance the “keepers.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’re not going to get Saturday’s wedding pictures back by Monday…or Tuesday…or even Wednesday. Craftsmanship and artistry take time, and time is money – and you’re going to get exactly what you pay for.

Hopefully, these tips will help you check “hire a photographer” off your extensive wedding punch list.  Next installment on this topic: how to work with your wedding photographer.