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Choosing a Wedding Photographer: A Guide For a Couple on ANY Budget

Hey friends. Engagement season is in the air! Wedding planning is in full swing for most 2015 brides, which is exciting but also can be overwhelming. So let me just cut to the chase: A friend who lives out of state just had something really horrible happen to her. She hired someone to take her wedding photos and they were not equipped to do the job. Both their equipment and their training was lacking (to put it lightly). Legally I cannot show any examples of this “photographer’s” work, however, let me just say that the photos were not just disappointing to my friend, they were completely unacceptable and largely unsalvageable. There were moments missed and moments ruined, all for the “reasonable price” of around a thousand dollars. I am sharing this because I want to warn you that this CAN and DOES happen.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM BEING RIPPED OFF BY A FAUX-TOGRAPHER

The problem is this: unlike most other careers, there is no test photographers take to say they are legally “certified” or qualified- in either the artistic aspect or the business aspect. And there is a LOT to learn, trust me. This is a good thing in that it gives people like me-who have the drive and determination to learn how to do things correctly and professionally- a way to enter into this career and thrive (See the photo below from a wedding I shot in my first year). But it also gives undereducated “photographers” a way to operate in this industry, where they are in a position to potentially cause a lot of heartache for brides, whether maliciously through false advertising or inadvertently through not being educated or prepared to shoot weddings.

(the above photo is from a wedding I shot in my first year shooting weddings) 🙂

The good news is that there are ways to protect yourself. I have provided you with this info, so that when you look for and meet with potential photographers, you will be able to find one that you can truly trust with your memories on the most important day of your life.

I can promise that if you read this it will- at the very least- help you to avoid being taken advantage of by a “fauxtographer” or hiring someone who is not ready to be taking wedding photos who could make simple mistakes that could ruin your wedding memories.

AFFORDABILITY, PRIORITY, QUALITY: IS PHOTOGRAPHY A PRIORITY ON YOUR WEDDING DAY?

Before I even picked up a DSLR camera, I got married, so I know it can be TOTALLY OVERWHELMING to choose a photographer!

There are so many factors involved in how different photographers operate, shoot, and price their packages. Someone may be less experienced, but have a better eye. Someone may be more experienced, but less creative. Personal style is a huge factor, as well as personality. But, in the end, what is one of, it not THE main factor in choosing the vendors and details on your wedding day? MONEY.

We all know, like it or not, our lives revolve around money- we might LOVE a product or service (or photographer), but in the end, most financial decisions are about the following key factors: affordability, priority, and quality.

When making a financial decision, you probably consciously or subconsciously ask yourself these two questions:

  1. “Can I actually afford this?”
  2. “Is this purchase a priority?”

In terms of your wedding day budget, you have to decide where the photos fall in the list of important parts to a happy wedding day. For some couples, photos are not top priority, and that is ok

If photos are a priority, then you need to ask  a third question:

    3. “Is the quality of this product worth the cost?”

There are wedding photographers out there with prices ranging from hundreds to thousands. Just because someone is less expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean they are less talented, and just because someone charges $5000 doesn’t always mean they are worth it!

On the other hand, there are some “shoot and burn” photographers out there whose prices are less, but whose product is NOT quality. I totally get it, with a tight budget, you might be drawn in by the simple idea of “ALL YOUR PHOTOS ON A CD FOR $800!!” These less-than-pro photographers often make brides wonder why other photogs charge “so much”. However, in actuality, many of these “shoot and burners” are charging you MORE per hour than a professional photographer! Is a low price always a warning sign? Not necessarily. But it can be, as I will explain below.

WHY DO YOU CHARGE “SO MUCH”?

Once I began my journey into photographing weddings, and after hearing many of my photographer friends explain time and again why they charge what they do, I felt compelled to add to the discussion, from the perspective of a photographer, but also as someone who was once a bride. In order to decide how much of your budget is “reasonable” to allot for photography, it could be helpful to understand how the cost of wedding photography breaks down.

Here’s the short version…

A pro will spend time doing the following things when you book them for your wedding:

  • Meet with you (sometimes multiple times) before your event
  • Assist you with the wedding day timeline
  • Shoot, edit and deliver and engagement session
  • Connect through phone or email about important information
  • Cover the actual wedding day
  • Process and edit the photos
  • Blog and share via social media
  • Design products

Believe it or not, the majority of the time spent with your photos is the time spent working on them AFTER the event. Most photographers spend a minimum of 15 and up to 40+ hours editing 8-10 hours worth of coverage! Add in the 10 or so hours of work that is done before the wedding, and each wedding is one to two full work weeks by the hour.

So when you do the breakdown per hour, at $2000, for 60 hours worth of work, that equals approximately $33/hr. Do you pay your hairdresser $33/hour? I know I do! Do you pay others in your life who have special creative talents $33/hr? Absolutely. That cost covers the creativity you might not get elsewhere, and the style, personality and general customer experience with any given photographer. But $33/hr isn’t even what most are making.

Now let’s talk costs to the photographer that factor into the price: travel, equipment (most have approximately $10,000 minimum: camera bodies, lenses, lighting, memory cards, the list goes on…), advertising/web presence (so that all of you awesome brides can find them!)

These are just a few of the major costs. There are plenty more, but for simplicity’s sake, I stuck to the basics. (Also, for argument’s sake, I won’t include taxes etc, because we all pay them, but be aware for small businesses its about 30some%). So, just with the three costs I listed above, we are reducing the amount the pro earns per hour to approximately $20/hr. And, yes, that is BEFORE taxes.

In a nutshell, that is why the $2000-$4000 (average) you may be asked to pay seems high but is actually a very “reasonable” amount considering the extensive work and investment by most dedicated, creative and hardworking photographers!

 

BUT I CAN’T AFFORD IT.

So where does this leave a budget savvy bride who has a $5,000 or $10,000 total wedding budget?? Well, first it comes down to affordability. You won’t be able to book a photographer who charges $5K, no matter how amazing they are. But, could you afford someone who charges $2,000? Absolutely! Here’s where the “priority” part comes in. If the photos are important, you can find a way to work it into your budget.

If they aren’t your top priority, then keep looking to find someone less expensive. But don’t forego a decent photographer in the name of budget if you can help it. Those photos are one true way to capture the memories of your day, so don’t settle for less that what you want.

 

HOW TO FIND A QUALITY PHOTOGRAPHER IN YOUR BUDGET

So…. where does that leave you? How do you choose? How do you know you are getting quality and value for money? How do you find the perfect match AND stay within your budget? Ok, I know what you are thinking: easier said than done, right??

That’s where I come in! To help you with your search for a photographer, I compiled a list of a few important questions to ask a potential photographer, in order to find the one perfect for YOUR budget. Also, some tips and some warning signs to avoid overpaying a “shoot and burner” for unedited, unprofessional photos.

So below is a list of questions to ask a potential photographer to make sure they truly ARE a professional…

 

THE FIVE BASICS:

1. Do they have a quality DSLR camera? (Perhaps this sounds petty, but you could even go as far as to write down their response and google the price- if their camera is something you could afford, that is not necessarily a good sign. Can good photos be taken with an entry level DSLR, yes, but if they are charging more than, say, $500 to shoot your wedding, then they should be using a professional grade camera. Again, you don’t need to know what cameras are professional grade but suffice to say at BARE minimum, they cost over $500!)

2. Do they shoot on manual mode in RAW? (You don’t need to know what this means, only that their answer is YES! and not a blank stare hahaha!) See here for an example of why this is vital. No professional should be using the AUTO setting on the camera, your relatives and friends can do that.

Also, here is an example of some of my photos SOOC (Straight Out Of The Camera, unedited) shot with two different DSLRs, one from before I started photography professionally (or even learned how to use a camera) using a low end DSLR on “Auto” (this is the setting where the camera does the work) and one using a higher end DSLR camera, set on “manual” (where the photographer does the work). Yes they are different subjects, but you can clearly see the difference in detail, light, grain, color and overall quality!
K. Rainier Photography 2016_1482

3. Do they have backup equipment? That means: backup camera, lens, memory card, flash, BATTERIES? This is VITAL. What if their camera fails mid wedding day?? This can and does happen. (Even newbie pros who dont own back up equipment will RENT it!) Pros have backup equipemnt. PERIOD.

4. What editing software do they use? Pros almost exclusively use the following editing software: Lightroom or Photoshop. They do not use editing tools found online, through services like PicMonkey or Picasa. They ESPECIALLY don’t use free editing tools.

More importantly: do they edit photos at all?? If they do not edit/touch up photos with professional software, this is a huge issue.

In the photo below, the one on the left was edited by me in my normal style, vibrant but natural. The middle image is not edited- notice how dull the colors seem. And the image on the right is what can happen when an amateur photographer uses free software to edit. They could get it right in camera, and still ruin it with bad editing or over-editing. I actually used pro gear and pro software for that “edit”, but it mimics what a lot of undereducated photographers will do if they don’t know how to use the programs correctly.

edits Most good photographers can get great images right off the bat, but we can’t prepare for all situations and a wedding day is fast paced with many factors out of our control. So good editing can be vital to still “get the shot” after the fact! Here are some personal examples of before and afters from editing in lightroom:

Here we were on a family outing and my flash batteries died. But I was still able to salvage the shot!

Here we were in a beautiful green area but without a reflector. Notice the difference in light, color, skin tone, and detail once edited:

Here it was a dreary day but we were able to brighten up the images 🙂

And sometimes major changes need to be made to take a photo from just ok to awesome. Like here where we had only a tiny sliver of shade to work with and an active 3 year old. So after the fact, the fence needed to be taken out to drastically improve the photo.

5. Do they have a contract that has been reviewed by a lawyer and do they have insurance? What this boils down to is: Do they have a plan if they cannot be at your wedding? What happens if the photos are lost/destroyed/etc? What happens if a guest breaks their camera on the dance floor? No one wants these things to happen but you need to know that your photographer is prepared if they do, and that you have in writing how you will be compensated or refunded if the worst case scenario occurred, and that they are prepared for these scenarios as well. Again, these things can and do happen! Here are some basic things you are looking for in a contract: limit of liability, model release, times, dates, etc.

So… those five questions above cover the basics. If you can find someone who can answer them acceptably, you are good to go! This is not to say you should settle for the first photographer who can answer these questions, but just to say that if they can answer these, that is a great start. You will still have to decide if they are a good fit in style and personality.

 

A FEW MORE CONSIDERATIONS:

6. What lenses and other equipement do they have? (They should have a bare minimum of three to shoot a wedding well, IMO. You don’t need to know what the lenses are but you should either see or hear that they have a few different lenses). Other equipment that is important: an EXTERNAL flash (not the kind connected to the camera…again, don’t worry about what it is just know they should have it haha!)

7. Do they use a professional quality printing service? If they use shutterfly, snapfish, or any other service that you recognize as a photo printing service YOU use, that is not a professional grade printing service.This may seem silly, but it is not, especially with the money you are spending on the package. Here’s why.

8. Do they have a professional website and portfolio? This is not as important- meaning, someone who does not have a website might be very talented. However, pros have websites that look professional and are well-designed. If they have a website that is hosted by an outside service, like snapfish or something, that’s a giveaway that they do not have a background or experience in graphic design, which can be integral in photography.

BOTTOM LINE: 

-A pro has an expensive (or at least decent!) camera and other quality equipment
-A pro has backup equipment
-A pro edits photos (well)
-A pro has a contract
-A pro shoots in manual mode in RAW
-A pro charges what is reasonable and fair based on time, talent, experience and expenses of running a legal and legitimate business

“I KNOW THEY AREN’T A PRO, BUT I LIKE THEIR PHOTOS, AND THEY ARE IN BUDGET- WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?”

Here’s the potential problem: professional photographers are charging you for all of the things listed above. If someone is not a professional and is NOT doing all of those things, but is charging you hundreds or thousands of dollars, they are charging WAY too much. And they are usually delivering a significantly lower quality result.

As an example: If a “shoot and burn” photographer is charging you $800 dollars to shoot your 8 hour event on auto with a cheap camera, and is not editing (or is editing with some cheap online service), they are essentially charging you about $100/hr.

A professional photographer charging $2000 is charging you for 8 hours of shooting and another 15 hours (minimum!) processing and editing your photos. So, the professional photographer is actually charging you less per hour than the other person and guarantees heirloom quality results.

Also, there are SO MANY things that can and do go wrong on even the most organized wedding days. If someone is not equipped to shoot weddings, you could end up with once in a lifetime memories lost or ruined. If you really like someone’s photos but they DON’T meet all of these requirements, at the VERY minimum, please make sure they have a back up camera and a legal contract that covers you if the worst were to happen.

WEDDING DAY CATASTROPHES

Here are just a few things that could go wrong on a wedding day with a photographer who is not prepared to shoot weddings, where memories could be lost…

  • They don’t have backup equipment and their equipment fails
  • They don’t know how to work with a tight timeline and run out of time
  • They don’t have the correct equipment to shoot in a low-light situation
  • They don’t know how to “save” a photo after the fact
  • They don’t know how to shoot in a way that hides imperfections of the venue
  • They don’t know how to back up files safely and lose your photos after the fact

IS IT OK TO HIRE A STUDENT, HOBBYIST OR NON-PROFESSIONAL? 

Yes.

If you can’t afford a well-seasoned professional, go with a student photographer or someone just starting a business, but that meets all of the first 5 criteria. 

Many new but well-equipped photographers are looking to build portfolios and will cover your event for a bargain price. Quality photos aren’t always out of your price range, you just have to look a little harder to find photographers who are talented beginners with a legal business. Even a newbie should have a decent camera, contract, and know how to edit photos.

Also, I would suggest asking them if and how they edit the photos. If they don’t edit the photos, I would suggest limiting what you are willing to pay them to a fair hourly rate to cover their time taking photos at the event. If they don’t edit, that is the only time they are spending with your photos, so therefore you should only be paying them hourly for the coverage.

 

You can find good photographers in almost any price range if you look hard enough and interview them.

Good luck!!!  Peace, Love & Pretty Pictures <3

Karen

PS- If you read this and found it helpful, share with a friend who is a bride 🙂

 

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