Who Does a Photographer Hire to Shoot Their Wedding?

I’ve finally made my selection official – I always figured it was who I would hire – but now it’s really real, contract is being written, deposit gets put down this week, balance will be paid in March. Done, put to bed.

But wedding photography is a bit of a quagmire in the era of the ubiquitous digital camera. Every person who buys a DSLR thinks they suddenly have the ability to photograph weddings, and their ads pop up all over various websites, with low, low prices and big promises.

I do!
I do!

I want to let you in on a few secrets, and I will explain each:

a “nice camera” is not the only tool needed

you need to look at more than a few images

you should get along with your photographer

genuine wedding photography is an investment

if there’s no contract, RUN

1. The DSLR, or digital single lens reflex.

Everyone has one now, from your uncle to your cousin to your best friend’s sister to that girl you know at work. That camera does not make them a professional. A true professional is going to come armed to the teeth to shoot your wedding – even if it’s just six people standing in a park. A pro is going to be bringing two high-end, full-frame bodies, and an assortment of prime lenses.

Prime refers to a fixed aperture, not the focal length; a 50mm 1.4 lens is a prime lens, but so is a 24-70mm 2.8; no matter where you are in the focal length of the lens, you can shoot at 2.8. Many cheap lenses have a variable aperture, usually 3.5-5.6. These cheap lenses usually come with the consumer-level body, and are fine for snapshots and daily use but are not sharp enough or fast enough to be used in a professional manner. 

The two bodies ensure if one fails, the other is good to go. The two bodies enable the photographer to quickly switch between two different options of lens, without missing a beat while swapping lenses, or sacrificing quality. The two bodies also mean that the photographer is going to have a large supply of spare batteries, and a large number of memory cards.

The professional will also have two external flashes. External flashes can and do overheat, requiring you two be able to switch between them in an instant, while one is cooling down. A built in flash that comes with your camera is never, ever good enough for pro work, period. A real photographer will also never tell you they “only use natural light,” that’s code for, “I never learned to use my flash properly.” A real photographer loves and works with natural light, but understands when and how to use fill, bounce, and additional lighting from their external flash or other auxiliary lighting (such as strobes/studio lights). And ballrooms in hotels never, ever have natural light, maybe right next to a window. But you won’t be dancing in front of that window all night, I promise.

A professional, or someone who knows what they are doing, will even be sure to rent equipment as needed to cover your event. Admission: I rented about $8,500 worth of extra gear (for $700) to take with me to Mexico for a wedding to make sure I had everything I needed – sounds like a lot – but it was better than NOT having the proper tools. I could not have shot that event properly without renting additional gear. Sometimes it’s just a matter of renting something fun, like a fisheye lens for your event, sometimes it’s one of your flashes is being repaired so you snag another for the event.

A professional will make sure they have all the gear they need, and will know how to use it. A professional is not going to miss a shot because their lens wasn’t high-enough quality.

You sister’s friend’s cousin who took a photography class in high school who loves to take photos of her baby with her new DSLR she got last for Christmas? That’s sweet of her to think she should photograph your wedding for free, and her enthusiasm for photography is charming and awesome, but when it comes to photography? FREE is a very bad price. Period.

2. You should see more than a few images.

If you’re considering hiring someone, you need to ask to see a whole wedding, not just highlights. What are you looking for when you scope out a portfolio? A few things to keep in mind. Many new photographers will shoot a whole wedding, but from an “uncle Bob” perspective. They’ve simply tailed the hired photographer at an event, and you’ll know this because no one will ever be looking at the camera. The shots will all be taken from just slightly off of center.

Now, many people start as second shooters, or assistants, and use this hands-on approach to help build their portfolio. And that’s fine – as long as you know that going in, that what you’re looking at is a wedding that someone else was hired to shoot. However, if the photographer doesn’t also have a solid portrait portfolio of individuals, couples, and families they’ve shot on their own, you need be worried that won’t have the ability to pose you, move you, direct you on your wedding day. I’m betting you’re not a professional model (I know I sure as hell don’t qualify), and that you probably hate photos of yourself.

A skilled, experienced photographer is going to put you at ease, coach you through your photos gently and encouragingly, asking you to move this way or that, or adjust your arm so that you don’t look 30 pounds heavier than you are, or ask you to tilt your head or chin so you don’t look like a shapeless blob, and every time you get it right they’re going to tell you “Awesome!” or some such. You should feel like a million dollars, and when your photographer is done – without even seeing a single sneak peek you should feel confident your photos are going to be amazing.

this shot would not have been as lovely without a great relationship with the bride, and the right equipment and lighting
this shot would not have been as lovely without a great relationship with the bride, and the right equipment and lighting

Someone with a lot of second-shooter experience at big events can be wonderful – but only if they have other portrait experience to back up their wedding experience! You don’t want someone who’s never shot a wedding before, or someone who has never managed a photo shoot on their own. If they can’t wrangle a family of four, how on earth will they wrangle, pose, direct, and manage your entire extended family (who would rather be drinking) for a group photo?

Anyone can get lucky and have a few solid shots in their portfolio. You should be able to see many different weddings, examples, complete events, and you should look for consistency, you shouldn’t be bored to tears, and you should find yourself looking at each of their photos and screaming on the inside, “YES! I want these pictures to be of ME!” Imagine you’re the bride, and you’re seeing those photos of yourself. Would you want them?

3. You should love your photographer.

You should want to have drinks with them, hang out with them, be their new BFF. Okay, that might be a slight overstatement. BUT, you’re going to be spending hours and hours with this human, with your family, with your best friends, you’re going to laugh, cry, get dressed, listen to passive aggressive comments from your older sister, grandma is going to get shit canned and hit on the dj – something embarrassing is bound to happen.

Who do you want there with you? Some loser who has no experience handling crazy people, who isn’t capable of not laughing at you when you make an ugly crying face, who is going to quietly judge you as you cram into your spanx? No! You want someone who is going to keep you laughing, relaxed, feeling wonderful, who can manage crowds and tense family situations with ease. A photographer who isn’t afraid to jump in and bustle your dress when your maid of honor is MIA. You want your photographer to feel like part of your extended family, you want them to be an extension of yourself and your bridal party, as they are there for YOU on your big day.

the bride snapped this silly selfie as I worked on the back of her dress - I look deranged.
the bride snapped this silly selfie as I worked on the back of her dress - I look deranged.

If you don’t like your potential photographer as a human, you are NOT going to want them with you on your wedding day, no matter what their portfolio looks like. You don’t want an intruder, you need another friend. I promise – having a photographer you love, trust, and respect is an intangible thing, but you’ll know it when you meet them.

4. Professionals cost money.

That love, the trust, the respect, the amazing portfolios, the right equipment, the experience, the people skills, the years spent behind the lens, the hours and hours spent editing, the software, the insurance, the classes, the marketing, the professionalism comes at a price. You cannot think to yourself, “This photog wants to charge me $2500 for five hours? That’s $500 an hour!” NO IT ISN’T. It isn’t, it isn’t, it just plain isn’t. Wedding photographers do not go into business to become rich, I cannot stress this enough. There are easier, less stressful, less demanding careers that pay far more, I promise.

A wedding photographer runs a marathon on your wedding day. They are on their feet, they are on the ground, they are wrangling adults and children, they are brushing off pushy relatives who have suggestions (in such a way that the relative isn’t offended), they are making you feel wonderful, they are producing consistently high-quality photos, they are managing their time, they are mentally doing gymnastics and taking tallies of people, they are remembering names, faces, details – wedding photographers ARE POWERFUL SUPERHEROES. They are running on adrenaline, water, the occasional soda, a Snickers bar, and the few bites of food they had during dinner (because no one wants photos of themselves with food in their mouths). They will go home with aches and pains in obscure muscles you aren’t even aware of. Their brains will be on fire from the action of the day. They will have spent an entire Saturday of their lives with your freak family, drunk friends, and their work STILL isn’t done.

Factor in the mental stress and exhaustion, the physical exertion, the travel time, the taxes, the processing time, and all those things I mentioned above, and wedding professionals? They’re not rich. They’re not getting rich off of you, they’re paying their bills. If someone is charging you $500 for a wedding, it’s because everything I just wrote doesn’t apply to them. No pro-equipment, no taxes, no insurance, no business license, for that matter they shouldn’t be offering you wedding photography at all!

5. Which leads me to this, the contract.

Your $500 craigslist photographer not only isn’t going to have a contract, isn’t going to have the right equipment, isn’t going to know what they’re doing, they’re likely to flake out on you and not even show up. I am a member of several online wedding industry groups – for professionals and clients to post and share and talk. At least once a week a panicked bride will post she needs an emergency photographer, her groupon-special/craigslist-find/distant cousin photog is MIA. Their wedding is in three days, they don’t have a photographer, they only have $500, can someone please help?

Here’s why they don’t have a photographer: they didn’t hire a professional. Now, not everyone with a contract can offer all the services I’ve already talked about, there are countless boilerplate contract templates out there on the internet. Anyone can meet you at a bar with one of these in hand. But a professional is going to have a contract, every single time, period. This will spell out in specifics, explicitly, terms, dates, times, what you can expect to be delivered. It will be custom-tailored to your event, with your name, your fiance’s name, when the deposit is due, terms of the deposit and forfeiture, when the balance is due, what time the photographer is expected to show up, how late they are expected to stay, the cost of additional hours, whether or not additional photographers will be backing them up, the method of delivery of your images, the contract will be thoroughly detailed.

The contract protects you as a consumer, manages expectations, can always be referred back to, and protects the photographer. If your photographer can’t/won’t do this? Run.

I only shoot weddings for friends at this point in my life, but I still customize a contract for every wedding I shoot. It explains the money, the delivery, the times I will work. It seems crazy having a contract with friends, but I am providing a service, and it is a simple way to put in writing exactly what they will get if they hire me. If they tell me “by 9pm I want you with a beer in your hand,” that is going in the contract, that I am off the clock at 9pm. Contracts are a must!

So, who did I hire?

A wonderfully talented professional who is quite famous locally, who I have had the pleasure of working alongside in the past, who I trust, who I respect, who I have fun with. And I’m paying him – and he’s worth every cent. 50% of my wedding budget is for photography. That is no exaggeration – what would be the point of throwing money at food, the dress, the venue, the flowers, the invitations, and then have some incompetent amateur “documenting” my special day?

If I’m going to invest in a party for all my favorite people, my family, if I’m having the dress, the location, the food, the dancing… I have no qualms paying someone to document it beautifully for me, the images will be the only tangible things remaining after the wedding is over, aside from my marriage.

Who cares how much you spent on your dress, your hair, your makeup, your shoes, if the photos of you are garbage? Investing in the right photographer is simply the only sensible thing to do.