Wedding photography as a genre makes up a large segment of the photographic industry. Individuals will often call on a photographer usually at least once in their lives and in a moment when accuracy and ability to deliver are paramount. The genre also attracts a variety of professionals, advanced amateurs and beginners as photographers feel as if they can approach different budgets for wedding photography with different skill sets. Indeed, the variation in pricing in wedding photography often is wide, everything from "trade" value to tens of thousands of dollars. This inconsistency in pricing, value, and product led me to find Bry Cox, a Utah-based professional photographer who has won more awards for his wedding photography than I knew existed. His responses are useful for those evaluating wedding photographers as well as for wedding photographers themselves.
Pictureline: Thanks for answering a few questions, Bry. What are the brides-to-be and families generally asking about when they make first contact with you? Does this change as they go through the process of engagement photos, bridal photos, and then during the day?
Bry Cox: Yes, most people start off asking about price, mainly because they don’t know what to ask. But as the process moves forward, those who are really interested in the way that I work will talk more about the things that are actually important to them like quality and style. Interestingly, many of the people who complain most about price at first become life-long clients of mine, coming in again and again throughout the years. Once they get it, they love what I do and come in for everything. They schedule shoots of their new babies, events, and other special moments, and I get to see them and their lives change over the years.
It’s especially fun to deliver wall prints to clients and see their homes already decorated throughout with canvases, collages, and portraits I’ve done for them in the past.
Pictureline: So "what should people be looking for in a wedding photographer?"
Bry Cox: I take this subject seriously because weddings matter and photography at weddings matters. There are few buying decisions in our lives that actually can cause life-long regret, and wedding photography tops that list. You may spend a lot of money buying a bad car or even a couch that isn’t comfortable, but the problem is solved once you get rid of it and replace it.
The reason people worry about their wedding photography is simple: it only happens once, it can’t be re-done, and you don’t know what you’re paying for until a month or so after the wedding. Of all the expenses of a wedding, the photography is the one thing you keep your entire life. And as people get older, their tastes change and improve, and they become more educated. If their photography is faddish or sub-par, it will only get worse as the years go by.
There are literally thousands of photographers in every state saying that they are professionals. Many of those lately are friends, neighbors and relatives needing you to hire them for friendship sake and as a favor to them to help them build their portfolio. These are not photographers with credentials other than their love of photography and the fact that they are spending what seems like a lot of money to them on equipment. Guilt of hurting a friendship or feeling the need to help build someone’s portfolio with your "one and only" special day are bad motivators. These should not be reasons you hire any photographer. There is a wide gamut of skill, education, ability, and price options, but when it really comes down to it, price and quality are related very tightly in photography.
Weddings are incredibly difficult for photographers as they provide a wide range of variables such as locations, lighting conditions, weather, body shapes, and people’s personalities. Despite all these, the photographer must create great images without excuse, and usually under incredibly tight time constraints. A wedding photographer must be skilled, knowledgeable, and versatile, and at the same time creative. But these things are hard for a client to really see when they’re shopping around.
My advice, therefore, when shopping for a wedding photographer is to not trust the initial samples a photographer shows you, and that goes double for any sample images online – there isn’t enough resolution in web images to see the flaws. You must get in and see the images first-hand in printed form as big as possible. You must meet the photographer and see how you like his/her personality. You must ask to see more samples than are shown, particularly entire weddings in album or printed form.
If they don’t have printed samples, and lots of them, spanning years and years of weddings that look wonderful, then they are too new for you to hire. They are either not making enough money yet to afford some samples and/or are too inexperienced for you to hire. You are not someone’s guinea pig for practice. You need a professional YOUR one big day!
When you look at samples, look past the flowers, the dresses, and the things in the images, and instead look at the photography, the consistency of the images. Look to see if the bride looks thin all the way through, if she always looks good, and doesn’t look fake, plastic or overly manipulated in Photoshop. Also, make sure to pay particular note to the sample album and how it is constructed and built. How many sample albums are there? Do they go back years? Are parts of the book coming apart?
Hopefully, there are plenty of albums that span years, show all sorts of locations, lighting, and options, and despite lots of use and traffic from clients, the books should be holding up beautifully. Keep in mind that most photographers will show their lucky shots taken on an easy day for lighting (usually called "natural light" images taken on a cloudy, overcast day). Those kind of lucky images require no real skill. They do nothing to show you how you will be photographed on your day in your unique lighting conditions. Ask instead to see entire weddings in broad sunlight, or in the middle of the night outside. Ask to see entire weddings all the way through, and not just the photographer’s favorite samples.
Photographers on the cheaper end of the scale rely on their equipment and the law of averages, shooting thousands of images in hopes of getting something somewhat decent and saleable. They then cover up their images with lots of software and effects. They attempt to hide the common problems of bluish-grey skin and the dark eyes caused by bad technique, with effects like yellow tones and washed out looks. To a new bride, these effects make images seem fun and "different," but to the trained eye they just look bad and trendy. In fact, they are not different at all, but very are commonplace as almost all new photographers are doing the same thing.
A more experienced (and yes more expensive) photographer will shoot fewer images, all of which will be great, and he or she will do it under any lighting condition, and this will be done with control. The images will look great and will be powerful on their own without all the trendy effects. They will be emotional, will be hip and cool, but will also have a classic and timeless appeal.
Finally, one good way to gauge photographers' level of expertise is by their credentials! Always ask about photographers' credentials and what it is that makes them "professional?" How many years have they spent learning how to photograph people? How long have they done this as a full-time career? Where did they go to school and with what degree? Is this a new career or have they dedicated a large portion of their lives and their hard-earned money to continually learn and understand their profession?
You wouldn’t let someone without a license cut your hair for your big wedding day, and you shouldn’t let a photographer potentially ruin your wedding day photographs without having at least basic certification. A bad hair cut at least grows back in a few months, but bad wedding photographs will live with you your entire life. I believe that any photographer who calls himself or herself a professional should at least prove it by having certification. On top of that, hopefully they’ve earned some national titles like "Master" and "Craftsman." These titles and ranks help a prospective client know that a photographer is consistent in his or her skill and will do a better job. Photographers with credentials can be found under the "Find a Photographer" section of PPA.com.
Pictureline: What is the basic equipment a professional wedding photographer should have in order to produce professional quality images? (Cameras, lenses, lighting) Is there any way for a potential client to ascertain the preparedness of the wedding photographer in terms of equipment without asking for an equipment list?
Bry Cox: A professional needs a lot of everything. Most wedding photographers sadly only have one camera and one flash, and even one small computer to do all their work. Many even borrow or rent their one camera when they need it. Do not hire this person! A real professional who takes their profession seriously should have adequate gear, and lots of it. That means professional-grade gear and multiples of everything. They should have plenty of cameras, lenses, and lighting equipment big and small.
You really can’t ask for an equipment list because most people wouldn’t even know what to compare it against, but you should ask if your photographer has plenty of backup equipment. That means no less than three cameras per photographer, plus lots of lighting and other gear. You need a professional who knows what they are doing and has the equipment to accomplish anything that may happen on your day.
In addition, ask if your photographer has indemnity insurance. That is there to cover you and them for the expenses needed to re-shoot in the horrible case where there are lost images due to equipment failure or error. With redundant equipment, you shouldn’t need this, but you should always hire a photographer who has it and takes your day that seriously.
Pictureline: The photographer should, of course, work for his or her client to maximum satisfaction, but are there times when clients overstep their boundaries and ask for unreasonable things?
Bry Cox: Clients should feel free to ask me for anything. I don’t see any request as being taboo or as overstepping their bounds. However, I know that I’m not the perfect fit for everyone, and I’m not trying to be. I have my set of boundaries. I know how I work and what I’m willing and not willing to do, and that does not change. People can ask for anything they want, but it does not mean that I will do it. It does mean that we will have a discussion as to why I do what I do. Sometimes clients see it my way, and sometimes they don’t. Again, I’m not out to get every single job out there. There are plenty of other options for the client if they don’t see me as a good fit.
Some requests are just fine, and perhaps I do those things all the time and don’t advertise them. Others I won’t do under any circumstance (like work on Sunday for instance). And other requests really just need some explaining for the client to understand how I work. As an example, perhaps someone asks me to photograph their baby, and they bring me a photo and want me to copy it, doing the same thing but with their baby. Though I have the ability to technically copy any image, I don’t do that. So this is best solved with a discussion as to what they like about the image, and how my style is much different. When they realize that I’ll create something unique and fun that others will want to copy, they’re okay to move forward.