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How to find a good wedding photographer

How to tell if your prospective wedding photographer knows what they are doing

March 25th, 2017

You’ve seen their site, looked at their pictures, and liked what they are showing you well enough to talk with them in person. You meet them and they say all the right things, and you like them. But how do you know that there is actual substance behind their words and they are not just a good marketer? Can you trust that person with capturing this one, irreplaceable day?

In this post, I’d like to talk about how to gain insight on whether your photographer knows what they are doing, or whether they will leave you with sadness and sucky pictures.

This advice applies whether you are looking for a $500 photographer or a $5000 photographer. Obviously, at the lower end of the spectrum you will have to make compromises, but knowing what you are compromising on is still important.

Here’s some things I suggest.

1) Ask to see a whole wedding’s images. It’s fairly easy to gather 20 good images for a portfolio, but a wedding’s worth of images will show the product they will actually deliver to you. 

Now, they will not all be awesome. Many of the images taken will just be recording the day, not artsy, just photojournalistic. But look at those pictures. Is the candid of grandma well exposed and sharp? Are the pictures of the ceremony good? When the lights go down for dancing, are they getting good images?

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2) Ask them about their camera. Many say the equipment doesn’t matter, it’s the photographer’s skills that do. But why then do the best photographers in the world use the best equipment? Equipment does matter. I had a cheap camera back in the day that couldn’t focus at all when the lights go down, and this is a photo I took:

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Sad, isn’t it? Very cute picture, but I just couldn’t nail the focus. Compare to a much darker environment at a recent wedding where I took this with a professional level camera:

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I had no problem focusing on his eyes even though it was a dim dance floor, dimmer than it appears in this picture. The camera and lenses matter a lot. Sure, if you have someone who doesn’t know what they are doing with the expensive camera and lenses, they will still take bad pictures, but a good photographer with a good camera will take the best pictures. It just makes sense. Jeff Gordon can’t win a race In a Camry, no matter how well he drives.

A good question to ask is whether they have a “full frame” camera or not. Full frame cameras are the big, bulky type of camera used by professionals everywhere. If they say no, and try to explain why they don’t need a full frame camera, that’s a big red flag. A big part of what makes them different than other cameras is their sensor. A sensor is the part of the camera that records the image data. Your phone has a tiny sensor. A cheap camera has a smallish sensor, but a professional grade camera has a big, “full frame” sensor which is really good at taking in more information more quickly and enabling a good photo in bad conditions. That is why they are expensive. Try taking a picture in a very dark location with your phone. Really grainy and/or blurry, right? A good camera can handle that so much better. Take this picture with a cheap camera and compare the results:

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Let’s look at the photo for a moment. Even though it is dark, is the picture grainy or blurry? Not at all. In fact, you can see his eyelashes distinctly. A cheap camera might nail this focus one out of 20 times. A professional level camera will nail focus 95 times out of a 100. With all the fleeting moments of a wedding, the cheaper the camera, the greater the risk of missing the moment.

This is what a full frame camera gives you. High quality in bad conditions. Whether you are getting married in a dark church, or all the lights go down for the first dance, a good photographer with a good camera will still get excellent pictures. That’s why it’s so important. 

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3) Ask them if them if they have a backup camera. No matter how awesome the camera is, it can fail. No matter your budget, this is vital. If the photographer doesn’t have a backup camera and they get bumped and drop the camera, what then? No pictures for you. So, this one is easy. If you photographer says they don’t have or don’t need a backup camera, back away slowly. You’re dealing with a crazy person.

4) Ask them about in-camera redundancy.  Cheaper cameras have just one SD card they write to. Usually this should work fine, but think how much is riding on that one little piece of technology working flawlessly. My cameras shoot to two SD cards simultaneously. That way, if one card fails, the other one still records the image. Admittedly, lots of good professionals use cameras that only write to one card, but often they take measures such as switching out the card so that even if one get corrupted, the rest of the wedding is still intact, or backing up the card during the wedding.

5) Lighting. How does your photographer handle light in a dark reception hall? No matter how good the camera is, when the lights go off, without some kind of camera based lighting the images you get will probably suck. Grainy, blurry, weird color casts, just dreadful. Off camera flash is a key word to hear. Sure, the photographer could just pop a flash and shoot, paparazzi style, but you’ve all taken that shot. The light is flat, boring. If the photographer can trigger external lights, the quality of light is so much better.

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If they answer these questions well, then you may have yourself a good photographer, at least from a technical standpoint. If any of these stump them, or if they invent excuses, you may have cause to wonder if they are a good choice. Of course, there are no guarantees no matter what they tell you, so you will still have to go with your gut in the end. 

If you can, do an engagement session with your chosen photographer. That way, you can see how you get along with them and see what kind of product they deliver. For myself, I have it written in my contract that I will let them out of the agreement scot-free if they don’t like the images I’ve taken during the engagement session. It helps both of us. It lets them know that I am willing to show I know what I am doing, and it helps me, because if they don’t like my engagement pictures, why would they like my wedding pictures? Who wants that situation?

Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions not answered here. I may be able to help. At the very least, I can give a knowledgeable perspective. 

Dan McManus, Denver, Colorado wedding photographer. http://danmcmanusphotography.com