Friday, November 26, 2010

Selecting your professional photographer - an alternative to that survey that looks so good.

Before you send that survey ...

A number of the wedding websites have surveys on them designed to help brides select their photographer. Seems like a good idea in theory. But before you cut and paste that survey glance through this... It may make you think twice.

Having looked through one of these so you can make sure you ask questions relevant to you and make sure there are no surprises isn’t a bad idea. But sending a long survey to a photographer you are seriously considering may be the best way to make sure they aren’t interested in you.

Questions about photographic style (and definitions of style).

Frankly the best way to understand a photographer’s style is to view their work. Almost all photographers today will work mostly in a style closely tied to photojournalism. They’re going to work in the background, try to be unnoticed and catch the moments that matter. It is nearly impossible to put anything else related to style into words. Their images and their style is unique to them (if they’re any good), but any words they’d use to try to explain what that is will more than likely confuse or diminish the power of the imagery.

Go and look at their work. Are there images of people and venues that look like you and yours and do you like them? Then you know their style works for you.

Questions about how many, or "all" of the images.

Most professionals will shoot somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 images during your event (some shoot many more). You will have no idea that most are taken.

I know this sounds like crazy talk but I promise that you don’t actually want ALL of the images your photographer will shoot. No matter how great they are some will be too light or too dark, some will be out of focus. Some will include things you don’t want to see. (your cousin’s hand up your mother’s dress?) One of the things you are paying your professional photographer for is to send you a collection of images that tells your story without burying you with so many that you can’t figure out which ones you want.

The number of images they take and deliver has little to do with whether or not they are good photographers.

Questions about pricing (why does a pro cost so much?)

I know. Your uncle and your friend take great pictures. Why not have them there instead of a pro? They have a big black camera. Won’t the pictures be just as good?

Truthfully, some may. However, a professional photographer understands the best use of light, situation and equipment. They aren’t there for the party. They’re working. Most of them will have photographed events in your venues. There are few problems they haven’t already had to solve for someone else. When you hire a pro you aren’t paying just for the time they’re there. You’re paying for all of that training and experience.

You’re also paying for all of the editing time. As a rule of thumb, it takes about three times as long to edit an event as it takes to capture it. That is a process of first culling out the images that you don’t want to see and then going through the remainder on an image by image basis to make them look their best. That may be done with professional image organization and enhancement tools like Lightroom or Aperture and it will also likely include some use of additional tools like Photoshop. Professional photographers will see and solve a multitude of ills before you ever see the pictures.

All of this is going to be included in what the photographer is charging for time.

Now - why the prints cost so much.

You aren’t paying a professional photographer to capture just any day. You’re paying a pro to capture a day that matters. It is amusing, and sometimes deeply frustrating, to pros that their clients seem so interested in taking these images to the local drug store to have the 14 year old kid print them out.

When you buy a professional photographic print you’re actually paying for two things. One, the use of the image. When you hire a professional event photographer to shoot your wedding you are paying for their time. The images they capture belong to them. When you want to use one of those images, either in print or online, you must license that image. Many photographers will include these licenses with their packages. That’s fine. It is their prerogative to do so. However, the higher end photographers will not do this. Their images are their art. They want to make sure that when they are used they are used in the best possible way. So they maintain control over the image and the way it is displayed. This is part of the cost of a print when you buy the print from a pro.

The other portion of the cost is the print itself. Professional photographers use professional labs. You actually have to qualify to be a customer in one of these places. They don’t serve consumers. Why? Because a professional understands that green is not green and black is not black. They’ve taken time and money to make sure that the screen they are editing on is calibrated to the printers in their chosen lab. Ever get a print back and look at it and wonder why the green dresses are teal? Or why what looks so bright on your Mac looks so dark on paper? This doesn’t happen in professional situations. The colors you chose for your day will be the colors you see. The photographer and the lab technicians spend a lot of time and energy making sure that this is the case.

Further, the materials used are a step above those found in the online sites or other sources. Archival quality papers ensure the colors are as vibrant on these images 50 years from now as they are today (and many labs provide lifetime guarantees).

Ok - So why are albums so expensive?

Any professional photographer has access to lots of different companies that can create books and albums for you. These are expensive for two reasons. One, they are a collection of the photographer’s images. (see above). Two, depending on the process and style (and this is particularly true for Albums) there is a lot involved in producing them.

Albums are actually still handcrafted. An album is a combination of archival quality photographic prints, a cover (usually leather, but sometimes metal, or other materials), and substrate (the material the prints are adhered - or glued - to). Someone actually has to go through and glue the prints to the substrate and then the prints and substrate are bound together to create the album. All of this then needs to cure - or dry - to prevent it from warping. There is very little automation in the album creation process. They are expensive to produce and are therefore expensive to purchase.

Digital, Film or both?

I have to admit that I almost laughed when I saw this on a survey. These days almost any professional photographer will predominantly shoot in digital. With this said, there are photographers who’ve made a niche of shooting some work in film. These photographers may employ older 35mm or square format cameras (such as Hasselblads) to capture some of their images. They may also use toy or plastic cameras, such as Holgas. In any case, know that their choice to shoot in film is a choice they’re making because they like that look for whatever it is they happen to be shooting at that moment.

When you are speaking to a photographer, asking them if they ever shoot in film may yield an interesting discussion. Whether or not they do will tell you nothing about the quality or level of experience of your photographer, but it is something all photographers think about and either do or don’t do for interesting reasons. With all of this said, if you are looking for someone to shoot in film these days, expect to pay a healthy premium.

Negotiating pricing and packages.. Some do’s and dont’s.

It is natural to want to negotiate pricing and a package that makes sense for you, and frankly almost any photographer is more than willing to do this with you. They want you to get exactly what you want at a price that makes sense as much as you do. The best way, by far, for you to do this is to simply call them, request a meeting, etc. But only do this if what you want to pay is within reason when compared to their published pricing.

The photographer’s packages are based on the amount of time they know they’ll spend on your day. Better photographers are in demand and they will command higher prices. Ultimately their business is entirely based on them and their skill, so once they’re hired for the day, that commodity is gone. There isn’t another. For this reason if a photographer has a published shoot fee, or booking fee, of $5000 (which is not at all unusual) you can expect that once you’ve negotiated, that’s about what you will pay.

Going to someone who has a fee of $2500 and telling them that someone else will do your event for $500 will almost always ensure that they will not call you back. If you want to pay $500, find someone who sells for around that price and negotiate with them. (But first, make sure you LOVE their work).

A photographer can generally substitute a book or some prints, or provide a slightly modified version of their coverage. As an example, if your event is on a Thursday night and it is only going to be three hours, they may give you a break on the coverage. However, if your event is a Saturday night and it’s only three hours the same will not likely hold true (because someone else will have wanted them for that whole day).


Most photographers will give you a full refund if they have to cancel for any reason. Additionally, most will also refer you to another photographer who they know can provide a very similar style and package to their own. (They are perhaps unique in their willingness to work and refer to each other).

However, if you cancel - and cancellations happen for all kinds of reasons - know that you will likely have to pay some amount, and perhaps all of the initial amount, for their time. The reason is that once they’ve committed to you they have taken themselves off of the market on that day. Most good photographers are busy, so this means they will likely have turned down events that they would have taken had they not already committed to yours.

Some photographers will offer you alternate uses for the time you pay for such as portrait sessions, etc. and these can be a lot of fun. (Doing a fun portrait session with your friends and family if the wedding is called off for instance). But they are usually under no obligation to do so.

Make sure you read carefully through the cancellation clauses in their contracts so you have a full understanding of your rights and theirs.

Selecting your photographer.

Ultimately selecting your photographer comes down to three things. Decide which order you want to put them in and then use these rather than a complicated survey and you’ll likely end up with someone who enhances your experience, both while it’s happening and in your memories.

  1. Photographic style. No two photographers are going to be the same. Make sure you look at many and take some time over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee to really immerse yourself in their imagery. Are the people you see real? (Watch out for models). Do they look like you and your friends and family? Does the venue look like yours? Do you love what you see? This will matter a lot more than the way they may describe their style. You want to love what you see when your day is long past. (for me, this is the most important thing).
  2. Personality. Once you find a photographer who’s style you love, spend some time getting to know them. Almost all photographers have a blog. Read what’s there. Many include personal tidbits with the rest. Here’s the thing. This person is going to be with you for your whole day - and these days aren’t always easy! Are you going to want this person with you while you’re getting dressed? Are you going to want them there when you’re stressed and losing it? Is their face the one that’s going to make you smile when you’re tired and getting cranky? You can learn a lot of that online, but when you think they are, meet with them and spend some time. This is nearly as important as style.
  3. Price. As previously mentioned. If a photographer’s packages start at $3,000 they’re not going to work with you for $1,000. Asking them is a waste of their time and yours. Ultimately this comes down to how important great photography is to you. For me, it was very important, and 20 years later I am so glad that we had such a solid photographer as we still cherish our album and the images of that day around our home. For you, the cake may be more important. Just remember this; the only thing you will have in 20 years is your pictures. Everything else will be gone. That may be worth a little extra sacrifice, so when you see them you’ll smile and remember the day and if you’re lucky, the cool person behind the camera who shared it with you.

Hope that helps.


Gwendolyn Tundermann said...

Excellent post!

Adam N said...

Fantastic post! Can I have permission to post parts of this on my blog (with a link to you, of course!)?

Jim Collins said...

Of course ... That's what I wrote it for!

Loren Scott said...

Awesome post, Jim. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Smiley Eyes Photography said...

This is why I love you Jim Collins.

Alice Falzone [] said...

Thank You, Jim, for this post! I'll share it too!

Lauren Rutten said...

good stuff Jim...thanks...just tweeted this.

photography of robert dodge said...

Great article. I might add something like this to the section about costs:

You also are paying for the photographer's talent and their cost of doing business. If you needed surgery you would want and expect to pay for a skilled surgeon who had attended excellent schools and had lots of experience. And you would also be paying for their office, staff, malpractice insurance and others costs. It is the same with a photographer. You are not only paying for their time but also their talent and cost of doing business.

kate said...

Thanks Jim for taking the time out of your busy day to write such a great blog post. Debating emailing the client who sent me the survey your blog post. :O) too caty?

Kate Gardiner

mike steelman said...

Thanks Jim for taking the time for this post. You rock. I assume from the above comments that we can post on our blogs and link, correct? Thanks again.

I also want to say thanks for all you're doing with Pictage...

Jim Collins said...

Mike, You bet. Repurpose however you see fit. Happy I could do something worthwhile. (for both of your comments).


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