Choosing a wedding photographer

There is plenty of advice on the internet on how to find a wedding photographer. And you know, most of it is actually pretty good (yes, even the stuff on HitchedThe Knot or Confetti. I assure you that is not a thing). But recently in the comments of some of our sponsored posts, it’s become clear that a lot of the advice out there is geared toward people who already have a handle on photography, people who can look at a photo and say, “Yup, that’s a great image.” But there isn’t really loads of information out there for people who are at a photographic square one.

Most of the time when I meet with potential clients, they say the same thing. They don’t want their parents’ wedding photos. They want natural, unposed documentation of their wedding from someone who isn’t going to interrupt the natural flow of the day. The good news is, many (and I’d argue most) wedding photographers have already moved towards this kind of wedding photography. With the exception of a few photographers who have built a reputation on the fact that they will pose and move you during the events of the day to create perfect images (and please do ask photographers about this. There is nothing worse than being poked and prodded and posed all day if what you really wanted was someone to hang back and blend in with the scenery), a good majority of photographers are going to capture your wedding as it happens. But if most wedding photographers are approaching their work from a similar logistical standpoint, well, the end results couldn’t be more different. So how do you know what makes a good photo? What should you be looking for when you look at a photographer’s portfolio?

I think it all comes down to storytelling. Each photographer has a personal take on the best way to tell a story through photos. The way a photographer perceives storytelling is going to inform what they take photos of, how they take them, where they are when the important events happen, and everything else in between. And there are a few variables that photographers manipulate that will make all the difference from one portfolio to the next:

Lighting: If you talk to any photographer, they’ll tell you that lighting is 90% of what makes a photo good or bad. One of the best ways to understand lighting is to hold up your hand and face your palm toward a window. Then start rotating your hand back and forth and look at the different ways shadows are cast on your hand as you move it around. If you face your hand directly at the window, the light falls very evenly and cleanly, but if you start moving your hand at a ninety degree angle away from the window, it creates shadows that make your hand look moody and dramatic. This is what photographers do all day. We analyze light. So as you’re looking through photographers’ portfolios, you’ll start to notice that we all play with light differently. Some photographers prefer really bright photos that make the world look light and airy, while others use light to create mood and emotion. For example, take the photos below. They are of the same bride, taken moments apart, but the light is totally different, and therefore the photos are totally different.

As you start looking through photographers’ portfolios, pay attention to the lighting quality in the pictures. Are they dark and moody? Bright and romantic? Each photographer has a certain style, and there will most likely be one that you mesh with better than others. You may also notice while you’re looking through portfolios that some photographers refer to themselves “natural light photographers” which just means that they only use whatever light is available, rather than using a flash or other lighting setups. If you are getting married somewhere dark without a lot of windows, you will want to make sure that the photographer knows how to create light when it isn’t there. Every lighting situation is different for photographers, so make sure you’re looking at photos that have similar characteristics to your venue. An outdoor wedding in the middle of the day with bright sun requires a very different skill than a New Year’s Eve reception in a dark church. (Also, a hot tip: ask to see some reception shots, since many of us don’t include those in our portfolios. Because if you are having an art gallery reception with no light, you want to make sure we can handle it. If all the reception photos are a little blurry and have been converted to black and white, then low-light situations are probably not that photographer’s forte. If you see lots of backlighting and what appears to be bursts of light behind the dancing, it means that that photographer has the ability to create standalone lighting in situations where the light is nonexistent.)

Composition: After lighting, the next thing you want to look at in someone’s portfolio is composition. This basically means, how did they set up the photo? Even when photographers are capturing moments as they happen, we’re still looking for interesting ways to tell the story. Take the below photo, for example. It uses the backs of the the bride and her father’s heads to frame the groom’s face as she walks down the aisle. By doing this, not only do your eyes know exactly where to go the moment you look at the photo, but you also get the added storytelling of seeing the groom’s face from the bride’s perspective.

As you look through portfolios, ask yourself: Are all the photos taken from the same perspective and angle? How does the photographer make things more interesting? Are there moments like this picture below, where they get down underneath the action? Anything that makes you feel like you are in the moment is good composition.

Tools: Most wedding photography advice will tell you to ask your photographer what kind of camera he or she uses. Unless you are a camera buff, this is usually a wasted question (most of the time I don’t even know what the best camera on the market is). But as you look through portfolios, you’ll notice that certain photographers have different tools that they use to tell a story in their own voice.

A lot of photographers like the warmth of film. Film has a texture and a quality that just can’t be reproduced in digital format (no matter how hard we try). Also, if someone says they use film, it means they were probably trained in a darkroom and have an understanding of cameras that goes beyond digital, so not only will your photos look different, but the experience of being shot on film will be different than working with a strictly digital shooter.

Other photographers like the quirkiness of toy cameras that make cool square photos like this one.

As you’re looking through portfolios, keep an eye out for what identifies the photographer’s portfolio as distinctly their own. It might be that they take super crisp images with really high quality lenses. Or maybe they use their grandfather’s camera to take old school black and whites. A photographers’ favorite tool will tell you a lot about the way they see the world (and while you can get an idea of this from their portfolio, don’t be afraid to ask them about it. I could geek out forever over my plungercam. And any photographer who uses film could spend hours telling you why).

At the end of the day, it all comes down to storytelling. Sure, according to Wikipedia or any online photography forum, there is a right and a wrong way to take a photo. But when it comes to wedding photography, what you’re really looking for is a storytelling technique that matches your idea of how your wedding will be. For example, I was recently photographing a wedding with my assistant and I took a photo of the couple dancing that I really loved. She laughed and shrugged and said to me, “You are such a romantic.”

So ask yourself, does the photo you’re looking at have a sense of humor? Is it romantic? Is there a softness to it? Does it look crisp like a magazine image? The story a photographer tells is going to be your story through their eyes, so you want to make sure that they match up.

The conclusion: if all of this seems like too much information to digest, then keep it simple and look for two criteria: Do you like the photos and do they make you feel happy?Not a very visual person? Then it’s fine to ignore the first question and move onto the second: Do you like the photographer and do they make you feel happy? More important than lighting, composition, or any fancy technology, those are the power rules to live by.

But! That’s not all! We know you have a whole variety of questions, we’re going to be talking about photographic styles and what “Reportage”  or Photojournalism is anyway.

So we’ve covered the basics of portfolio gazing: lighting, composition, storytelling. In short, we covered what to look for when you reach a wedding photographer’s website. But sometimes portfolio gazing can be the easy part. If you’re like me, the hardest part of finding a wedding photographer is figuring out what you want to begin with.

I spend a lot of time working at, looking at, and thinking about weddings and marriage. But since I experience weddings in this triangular kind of way, I simultaneously care about and know a lot about wedding photography, while also understanding that it’s just a small piece of the puzzle to getting married.

I also have a healthy understanding of the shortcomings of my particular industry. I don’t think that you need photography for your wedding (professional or otherwise), or that a certain kind of photography is better than another. But I do think that if you do care about photography and want professional photos as part of your wedding, the wedding photography industry can make it difficult to find someone you gel with. Sometimes photographers will use the same words to describe different styles of photography, while others will have similar styles and call themselves something totally different (we use the word “modern” like  the word “vintage”).

So I thought that for Part Two of How To Choose a Wedding Photographer, it might be helpful to talk about the different styles of wedding photography, what keywords you can use to find and/or identify certain kinds of photographers, and what might be some of the benefits and drawbacks of each kind of photography. I’ve used work that I think exemplify each style (though keep in mind the photographer’s overall portfolio might not be in that style, or in one style exclusively). Simply put, these are things I wish I’d known when I was planning my own wedding.

Photojournalism: Just about any photographer who shoots candid moments unobtrusively will at one point or another call themselves a photojournalist. (Guilty as charged, myself.) But photojournalism is one of those words that’s been thrown around so much it’s lost a bit of its meaning. In short true wedding photojournalism evolved as a style when photojournalists (photographers working on assignment for news outlets) weren’t making enough money in the field, or didn’t want to work in the field any longer, and took up wedding photography professionally. Naturally, they were shooting from a completely different perspective than the traditional wedding photographers that preceded them (who focused more on perfectly lit posed portraits) and the result was a kind of wedding coverage that looked like it could have been shot on assignment for The Times.

The Benefits: A photographer who approaches your wedding as a photojournalist will give you pure documentary coverage of your wedding. If you aren’t the kind of person who likes posing, this is your jam. Since the focus is on documentary, a wedding photojournalist will spend most of their time hanging back and capturing the action as it happens.

The Drawbacks: While most wedding photojournalists will do portraits, a true photojournalist will place minimal emphasis on posed portraits, arranged details, or other staged elements of the wedding. So if you’re looking for extensive or creative portraits, someone who identifies as a pure photojournalist may not be the best fit.

Fine Art: Fine art wedding photography, to me, is s hard to define, but I know it when I see it. But that doesn’t really help you does it? Fine art wedding photography is another one of those terms that, like photojournalism, gets thrown around a lot in the wedding industry. Much of the time, it’s a way for photographers to tell you that they want to make photos that push beyond documentary and into art. But I think fine art wedding photography is more about the photographer than the photograph itself. Many fine art wedding photographers have a background in either art or photography, with a majority having some classical training or experience in a darkroom. And while formal training certainly isn’t a prerequisite for fine art wedding photography, it definitely shows in the end result. The best signifier of fine art wedding photography, in my opinion, is that it can be both a wedding photo and a standalone piece of art (the kind that makes you briefly consider whether or not it would be weird to hang someone else’s wedding photo in your house).

The Benefits: Fine art wedding photography is beautiful to look at and chances are, if you choose a fine art wedding photographer, your photos will not look like anyone else’s. Also, many (though definitely not all) fine art wedding photographers shoot with film, which has a different look and feel than digital.

The Drawbacks: Fine art wedding photographers shoot documentary style, but they are often looking for a different way to tell a story (such as shooting you getting ready through a window) so if the occasional abstract or creative composition isn’t your style, fine art photography might not be either.

Epic Wedding Photography: Okay, so I might have made this term up. But I definitely didn’t invent the style. Epic wedding photography is exactly what it sounds like. Epic. Wedding. Photographs. The hallmarks of this style are usually dramatic backdrops with impeccable lighting, and images that have a level of intensity not usually seen in other wedding photography styles. Epic wedding photography is just as much about the location as it is the couple, so epic wedding photographers are usually well skilled in lighting techniques that make the most out of these locations. The end product is dramatic and editorial.

The Benefits: If you are getting married in a location that features dramatic landscapes, or intense architecture, epic wedding photographers are usually very skilled at producing editorial images that capture the essence of these locations.

The Drawbacks: In order to get such technically perfect images, there is a certain level of setup involved in epic wedding photography. And while I don’t think we’re talking hours here, if you aren’t someone who enjoys getting your photo taken, then you may end up feeling like you’re over the epic photo before it even starts.

Modern Traditional Photography: Fine, I might have made this term up too. I actually think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find true traditional photographers these days (except maybe in smaller towns where the industry hasn’t caught up to the trends yet). However, I do think that there is a new style of photography emerging that’s somewhere between traditional and twenty-first century. The emphasis in this style of photography is on the portraits. That said, these photographers also pay close attentions to the details of the day, often photographing with the intent of putting together a printed album afterwards. The best part of modern traditional photography is that you get the classic style of traditional photos (read: nothing crazy or too artistic) without the intrusive posing of old school traditional photography.

The Benefits: These photos are the most likely to look like your parents photos, just updated. If you like classic, clean imagery, these photographers are going to be the ones to deliver it to you. Also, if you have spent a lot of effort on the details of your wedding, modern traditional photographers put an emphasis on capturing them and making those details part of your wedding’s visual story.

The Drawbacks: One of the great aspects of modern traditional photography is that it promises consistency, but sometimes consistency can mean that your portraits will look very similar to other clients (though that’s certainly not always the case). This can either be a benefit or a drawback, depending on what you’re looking for in your wedding photography.

Now, if this post does nothing except make you worried that one of these styles won’t be right for you, don’t worry. Most photographers are a hybrid of one or two or three and some don’t even fit these categories at all. Predominantly, I think the majority of wedding photographers (at least the ones you’ll see on this site) approach the day as photojournalists, but really throw their personal style into the portraits. So an epic photographer is not going to stop you on the dance floor and position you better for the lighting. And a fine art wedding photographer isn’t going to deny you family portraits because they aren’t interesting enough. But when things slow down and it’s just you and your partner and the photographer, that’s where you’ll see their point of view the most.

And, of course, at the end of the day, if you’re hiring a professional photographer,  Do you like the photos and do they make you happy? Do you like the photographer and do they make you happy? Done and done. You can forget about the rest. (Pro tip: The first rule is actually optional if you want photography, but aren’t a super visual person.) But hopefully, at the very least, this information will help a little bit as you attempt to slay the almighty Google beast and find a photographer who is a good fit for you.

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