A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Choosing a Photographer
At the end of the night you’ll have a spouse, a dress, and enough memories to relive the night over and over again for months, and maybe even years, to come. Eventually though, unless you’re one of those people with the so-called “endless memory”, it’s going to start slipping. That’s where pictures come in. These pictures are going to be your window to always remembering that night, so you want them to be good. While your initial gut reaction might be “anyone can point and click”, your choice of photographer can make a huge difference.
As far as wedding photography goes there are really two styles: traditional/portrait and photojournalistic. Traditional style is composed mostly of posed photos and what you expect to see if you look at your parents’ or grandparents’ albums. Photojournalistic style is more candid and is what it sounds like: a collection of pictures taken throughout the day that “journal” the events. This is also called “documentary” style. Most photographers do a sort of combination between the two styles while focusing on one. Decide what style fits you and what you want to see when you look at your album years from now, and then look for photographers that fit that style. Tim and I knew we wanted more of a photojournalistic style to make us feel more like we were back in that moment, so that’s what we looked for.
If you’re anything like Tim and I, you don’t have much experience with professional photography. We had no idea what was a reasonable price to expect to pay, so our budget planning was a pure shot in the dark, but we also assumed that we had allotted plenty of our funds to be able to take care of it. Boy were we in for a surprise…turns out that while neither of us are very artistic, we at least seem to have a good eye for what is artistic, and apparently our eyes have expensive taste. Photography (at least in our area) started at around $1,200 and seemed to go up infinitely (the most expensive one we found was $18,000!). The rule of thumb for searching for anything is “don’t try it on if you can’t afford it”, because more often than not you’re going to fall in love with something beyond your reach, and then that has tainted your view on the things that are within your budget. Photography is one of the easiest places to end up going over budget because photographers have this habit of not posting their pricing information on their websites, essentially forcing you to try it on before you see how much it will cost you. Roughly half will, but the other half insist you contact them to get their rates. Why they do this I have no idea, but it adds a level of difficulty.
Most photographers will have a portfolio of some kind on their website. Look through every wedding related (ceremonies, receptions, engagement shoots, even trash-the-dress) picture you can access to get a feel for their style and perceived interest in the subject. Some photographers rely on and take a lot of “trendy” shots (I’ll talk about those in a later post), so if that’s your thing that’s something to keep an eye out for (likewise if you hate them, this may be a photographer to steer clear of). Whatever it is you’re looking for, you should see it on the website. No portfolio will be of an entire wedding and will instead represent what they feel is their “best of” shots. The question you should always have in mind is: is their best what I’m looking for? If the answer is no, it’s time to move on. If the answer is yes, it’s time to get their pricing info. A good portion of photographers now won’t list their rates on their websites, so instead you must contact them directly. You may find someone you’re interested in is out of your price range. It’s up to you to decide if you like their work enough to go over budget.
When you find someone in your price range (or close enough to it) that you’re interested in, set up a meeting. Take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with both their work and the photographer his/herself. Often a photographer will have an album or two (or in the case of one Tim and I met with, 4) from a wedding to show you, so now you can see what a full wedding looks like. Imagine this was your wedding; do the pictures tell enough of the story you want to remember? Pay attention to how the photographer makes you feel. This is someone who will be with you on one of the most important days of your life and who will be responsible for providing you with reminders of it, you want someone you feel comfortable around. You don’t have to become best buddies, but there should be a personality mesh. This is also the time to ask them more questions about their approach to the day and their overall style. Here is a list of questions I always took to each photographer meeting to get you started. Take lots of notes. When you sit down to decide on one, you’ll need to remember how the photos made you feel, how the photographer made you feel, and how well their approach fits into your overall vision, among other things.
Take your time making this choice. Any decent photographer will let you know if anyone else asks about your date, so don’t be concerned that while you’re deliberating someone will sneak behind your back and steal it from you (although if you get an email/call saying someone else asked about the date, you have 24 hours at most to decide whether or not you want to use them). Rank the photographers according to how well they fit you, and then match that against your budget. If there’s a gap, take a look at your priority list. If there are other things that are more important to you, stick to your budget and choose a photographer that fits it. If photography is one of your major concerns, it may be worth going a little beyond what you originally had planned on spending for it (of course, you need to make up the difference by cutting back in areas that are less important to you).
We eventually settled on meeting with 4 photographers. 3 of them we found on our own search and were either within our budget or at the very edges of it. The 4th one violated the “don’t try it if you can’t afford it” rule, but it wasn’t really our fault. You see, one of my friends had the nerve to get married first and to find these photographers who took fantastic pictures. What a jerk, right? She also had the audacity to ask me to be a bridesmaid, so I spent all day with these people, and they’re awesome people! Their pictures? Gorgeous! So, as a result, I was forced to include them in my search because I was already in love with them, even though saying they were above our budget was a bit of an understatement.
Of the first three we met, we threw out one of them right away. After looking through a whole wedding, we felt like his pictures didn’t flow and the story of the day was disjointed. The other two had a very nice quality about them, and the photographers themselves were easy to get along with. Of course, every meeting was shadowed with the infamous photographer from my friend’s wedding, and as much as we might have tried to fight it, we really were in love with their pictures and their personalities. Their photos had a quality in them that evoked emotion, something that didn’t happen when we looked at the others’ albums. These were strangers’ weddings, but we still felt something for them. Despite the fact that we’d get less for more money, we decided we were more concerned with that quality of the pictures than what albums came with the package. We threw our budget out the window and booked them, and despite my mini “oh my God what have we done” moment I had a few weeks after submitting the contract, I can’t imagine having done it any other way.
If you’re in the Southwest Michigan area, here are our 3 favorites we met with. Keep in mind that the pricing here is what we were quotes around midsummer of 2011, so it may have changed.
Loon Lake Photography – This is a husband and wife team out of Kalamazoo. All of their packages include both of them as shooters, an engagement photo session, online proofing, and a set of printed proofs in either a book or a box (I recommend the box!). They do minor touch ups to all of their pictures and do full retouching of 100 of the photos (plus any others you want in an album; they call this their “signature level”). They were on the higher side of our budget (packages starting at $3,500), but they offer smaller, cheaper packages for off-season (read: winter) weddings (starting at $1,700). Their packages are flexible, and they have ala carte services if you want to customize your package. By the time we had added in what we wanted out of our package, this was the most expensive option, which is why we had to throw them out. This was one of those photographers who we had to contact to get their rate information.
Genevieve McKeiver – This is who we would have chosen had we not had our vision tainted by Sarah’s photographer. She is based out of Grand Rapids (her studio is fantastic!) and doesn’t have a formal partner, but she works with several photographers in the area who share a similar style and usually has one of them accompany her for an event. She doesn’t do printed proofs, but does supply you with a disc of all of the touched up files as well as a private online gallery. Her packages include her and a second photographer for 12 hours (effectively the whole day), an engagement shoot, and a print credit (how much depends on the package), and her packages start at $2,300.
Bryan and Mae – This is our budget stretching duo. They are a (soon-to-be; congrats you two!) husband and wife team also out of Grand Rapids. They also include online proofing, and engagement session, and 10 hours of coverage (again, pretty much the whole day). Their engagement shoot is the most involved and the longest based on what the other photographers we met with said they usually do (the others said along the lines of 45 minutes to an hour; Bryan and Mae said usually 2 hours) because they want to take the opportunity to get to know you two as a couple. At $3,400 they have the highest base price (this doesn’t come with anything other than what is mentioned above), but they appear to take more time editing the photos (cleaning them up to make them beautiful, but still leaving them natural looking) so I have no problem swallowing the extra cost. We’ve added on a goof booth (I’ll talk about that in a later post) and a guest book which took the price up a little more, but I still couldn’t be happier with our decision to include them in our day.