Choosing the Perfect Wedding Photographer: Advice from a wedding planner and recent bride

EganFam2014-0110 My post this week was inspired by Photography by Nikki Cole's new website, which features a photo of Anthony and me on the front page! It's a beautiful image from our "first look" on our wedding day. Looking at that photo, and clicking through her gorgeous new site made me realize how grateful I am to have chosen such a fantastic photographer for my own wedding. Having seen and heard many horror stories working in this industry, I got to thinking--what if I hadn't been so lucky? I thought I'd share some of the best advice I have for the brides and grooms out there losing sleep over how to search for, choose and afford their dream photographer.

1. Prioritize your Budget (and research locally!). 

This is some general wedding budget advice that you've probably heard before, but it's very important when looking into wedding photography. How important is this? should be a question you ask yourself about all of the major big-ticket items in your wedding budget. Although everyone in the wedding industry wants you to think otherwise, you don't have to do anything. The choices you make are yours to make--don't let venue managers, invitation designers and catering companies pigeon-hole you into a bill that includes things you don't care about. Prioritize based on what is most important to you, and also to those paying for your wedding.

Once you've prioritized your "must-haves" and your "kinda-must-haves", you need to figure out how much everything on your list costs to effectively write a budget. There are lots of online budgeting tools out there, but I've found them to be generally inaccurate since the cost of a wedding completely differs from state to state, region to region. A wedding photography package in Boston can be as much as twice the cost of a comparable size and quality package in Ohio. You can't make decisions about your spending up front without making some calls and doing some research on local photographers.

2. Be smart about packages and payment plans.

Most photographers set up packages that include a limited number of hours, one or two photographers, digital copies of your photos, web hosting for a given amount of time, printed photos and/or albums for your families, and some throw in "free" engagement sessions. Some photographers aren't quick to offer a la carte packages, so it seems like this is the only way they price their services. And an engagement session is never truly free--it's almost always built into the pricing somewhere! If a standard package includes anything you don't want, most honest photographers will negotiate a package that is tailored just for you so you don't pay for what you don't need.

Every photographer will have a payment plan involving a deposit and then one or multiple payments before your big day. While I don't recommend trying to negotiate the final price (read #3 below), I do recommend being honest with your photographer if their payment plan isn't ideal for your financial situation. Many, many of these men and women own their own businesses and have some wiggle room if you want to stretch your total bill out into smaller payments or work with you as you juggle payments due from other vendors. If they want your business, they will work with you--just get everything in writing. If they refuse to budge on payment terms, maybe they're not the right photographer for you.

3. Don't hire your friend's cousin to save money.

So by now you've done your research and come to the conclusion that good wedding photography isn't cheap. So is there another option? Once, I heard of a bride who "had a friend whose cousin said he'd do it for $150" and she was blown away by his professionalism and his work. She was his jumping off point, and two years later he was doing weddings for $4K and is an award winning wedding photographer. Ok, I've actually NEVER hear of that happening. But to answer the question... Yes, there is another option: Bad wedding photography. In the form of unreliable communication, unprofessional demeanor, untimely delivery, underwhelming results. Yes, there are very talented photographers out there who are itching to get into the business, and there are plenty of brides willing to risk it to give them a shot and save some money. But being a good wedding photographer is different from just being a good photographer--there are tight schedules, traditions, nuances and bitchy bridesmaids to deal with that only experience will get you through. If you're feeling inclined to give a newbie a chance, I recommend only using him/her as a secondary shooter. Hire (and pay) a professional for the bulk of your images. Then you can offer for your friend's cousin to come for free and give her a meal in exchange for the images. It's a fair trade for that photographer to build her portfolio and for you to get free images.

The long and the short of it is that good photography is expensive. You're not hiring someone to come take pics on their iPhone and email them to you Monday morning. The skill, experience, practice and equipment required to create these beautiful, lasting images come at a cost, and that cost is worth it. You truly get what you pay for in this segment of the industry. Don't cut corners.

4. Find a portfolio you absolutely LOVE.

Photographers are constantly refining their websites and online galleries to reflect their most recent and favorite work. They curate their collection carefully so it shows not just the range of their work, but also their overall style. If you love one particular image from a photographer, but the overall collection doesn't evoke the style of story-telling you'd like, it's probably not the right fit. You can ask a photographer for specific shots, but it's their instinct and eye for capturing the unexpected moments of your day that will likely lead to your favorite images. If you find a photographer whose portfolio you love, chances are you'll love the work they do for you.

So with so many photographers and styles out there, how do you know what you like and want? Start by envisioning what you will do with your collection. Do you plan to hang them on your walls? Put them in a physical album? Will they live on for eternity only in the digital world? (Stop right here if this is the case, and hire your friend's cousin. This is lame.)

Once you have an idea of why you want these photos, think about how you want them to look and what story you want them to tell. Is your Pinterest full of cute bridal party poses you want to duplicate? Are you obsessed with the faded vintage trend ? Do you want a journalistic-style collection that tells the story of your day? The best photographer for you is the one that shares your style and specializes in producing the collection you're looking for. Figuring out the tone and style you want first will help you sort through the hundreds of portfolios out there to hone in on your ideal photographer. From there, it's a matter of availability, personality and cost.

5. Make sure you like your photographer as a person.

Availability, personality and cost? I cannot stress this enough, since I know many people don't take these words to heart. Your photographer will be by your side all day long on one of the most important days of your life. You don't want to sacrifice the enjoyment of your day for some great photos. Read reviews, meet in person, and hire her for an engagement shoot before you sign on the dotted line. I have met some nasty, crazy (read: egocentric) photographers out there that create beautiful work but add stress and headaches to the big day. This is the last thing you want. You want someone who will keep you genuinely smiling and feeling wonderful, who will stay on schedule and get all the shots you asked for, along with the best ones you didn't expect. Sound too good to be true? It's not, but you do have to do your research and possibly talk to a lot of people!

6. Don't wait until you've chosen a wedding date to start looking for your photographer.

The wedding industry is a fast-moving machine and like real estate, sometimes you have to commit fast or you lose your vendor to another couple. If you wait until you have your venue and date to start looking at bands, photographers, and caterers, you'll be dead-set on the date and may be stuck with no availability for your other favorite vendors. The venue is by far your biggest decision, but the other big-ticket pieces are equally important. Start poking around online and send in some inquiries regarding price, packages and even availability before your date is set in stone. If you have already narrowed down your favorite photographers that fit into your budget, the process is much smoother and faster (and you're more likely to get who you want!) once the date is set. Also, if your venue has two dates available and your dream photographer is only available for one of them, it can help with date choice!