How To Avoid Being Catfished By Your Wedding Photographer
What makes for a great photographer?
There will always be wedding horror stories, unfortunately. With a relatively low barrier to entry and the potential to earn a living, there is always that risk that the vendor you hired may be in over their head. For that reason, as the customer, it is important that you thoroughly vet and understand the service and product that your vendor is committing to when hiring a wedding photographer (or other wedding vendor). Recently, I have seen multiple accounts from various TikTok'ers detailing how they were "catfished" or grossly misled by their photographer, whom may have falsely advertised their end product and delivered a disappointing gallery for one or several reasons.
It is extremely disheartening to hear stories like these because 1) those are someone's once-in-a-lifetime memories that are ultimately suffering the consequence and 2) these stories give wedding photographers and other wedding vendors a bad rap and make wedding planning more stressful than it already is.
When I first speak with my wedding clients there are several discussion topics I like to address. Beyond the logistics of the wedding day, desired photographs, my approach to wedding photography, and answering any questions they may have, I always like to talk about what makes for a great wedding photographer. If you're a client of mine reading this, then I am sure you recall this conversation. I'll always say "it's not that hard to take a good photograph." That being said, of course, I do think I take a good photograph -- otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. What's equally important is that you're hiring a professional -- someone that will prepare adequately, show up early, have all necessary equipment and backups for every piece of equipment. Someone who will take care of your files, who will deliver on all of their contracted promises, be in the right places at the right times and ultimately, someone who cares about your wedding day and your happiness deeply.
In an effort to help any brides or grooms that may be in the hunt for a wedding photographer, but are afraid they might become one of these horror stories, I will offer some of my advice below.
Do your research
This probably goes without saying, but in the very beginning of your wedding photographer hunt, you have some homework to do. Use Google, social media and best of all, referrals from satisfied customers to help guide your decision making when selecting a photographer. Your friend or family members experience is worth a lot more than some strangers on the Internet. Be mindful of "top 10 photographers", "best of the area", and other lists because those are oftentimes paid placements. There is nothing wrong with speaking to more than one photographer either, but bear in mind that the lowest cost isn't always going to be your best option, so think of this as more than a pricing exercise when going in.
Once you have narrowed down your selection, reach out to your photographer candidates. Be mindful of how quickly and how they respond. You want to feel a friendly connection with this person because you will spend more time with your photographer than likely anyone else at your wedding. Have a call with them and ask them questions that are important to you like "how many photos will I receive?" How do they protect their clients files? How long have they been photographing weddings? Ask them if they would be willing to share a recent wedding gallery with you and be wary if they say "no." I might catch some flack on that one, but what are you hiding if you aren't willing to share what an actual delivered gallery looks like? Ask for references if you have any further doubts. You're spending thousands of dollars -- there isn't any shame in knowing exactly what you're paying for.
Read the contract
When your prospective photographer sends you a contract (I wouldn't work with one who didn't provide one), read it. The contract should outline both yours and the photographer's responsibilities, including what the expected deliverables are. The contract should also feature provisions for deposits, fees, cancellations, substitute or associate photographers, copyright, and so on. Make sure you understand WHO will be photographing your wedding -- is it the person you are speaking with or one of their associates? Have you seen a wedding shot by the associate photographer? My advice is to avoid working with a photographer whom you have not had a personal meeting with and have not seen their work. It's too often that I hear about unhappy brides who were assigned an associate photographer who wasn't as good as the business owner. I'm not recommending to stay away from photography companies that work with associate shooters, but it is worth having a conversation about. Clarify any concerns or questions that you have about this contract before you sign it.
It's important to recognize that what you may see on a photographer's portfolio or social media platform is the curated, best-of-the-best that they are sharing to draw the most attention and generate the most business. There is nothing wrong with this and it is simply a good business practice. If I posted mostly photos of cupcakes, I wouldn't book as many weddings. I might get more work with the local bakery though. With this being said, you should have an expectation that your final delivered gallery does resemble that photographer's portfolio to a degree, but don't expect hundreds of "portfolio-worthy" images. Their editing style should be consistent, or at minimum, similar to what is picture on their online portfolio. I.e. you should not hire a "dark and moody" style photographer and receive a gallery that is "light and airy." Now that being said, it is common practice for a photographer's style or artistic preferences to shift slightly over time. It is for that reason that I recommend that you ask about seeing some recent images or galleries. Or simply bring this up during your initial phone call. I will typically offer access to a gallery or two up front because in my experience, there is no better way to set expectations for what your client will receive.
Do you get what you pay for with wedding photography?
Loosely, I would say "yes." If you hire a new photographer who is charging <$1,000 to shoot your 8-hour wedding, you need to have reasonable expectations about what the end product might look like, because you're likely hiring a beginner. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are paying five figures for your photographer, you should have the reasonable expectation that you are receiving some of your area's absolutely finest work. In the case of the latter, it becomes abundantly important that you know exactly what you will be receiving as an end product via the points made above. The danger of the wedding photography industry is that the barrier to entry is fairly low. You can set up an LLC (or not), spend a few hundred dollars on camera equipment, launch a Facebook page and call yourself "the region's premiere wedding photographer." Note: you do not want to hire that photographer. Use the resources available to you to make sure you know exactly what you are getting.
One note on pricing: When deciding what your budget for a photographer is, consider what part of your wedding budget will be most important to you in 10, 20, 30 years after your wedding. Chances are, your photos (and dress, maybe) are the one thing that you will hold onto forever and potentially pass down to future generations. It is worth budgeting appropriately to pay a photographer who will deliver on their contractual obligations, at minimum.
Does equipment matter?
Yes, I think so. There are some exceptions to that statement, but generally, yes. It's not the camera, it's the photographer, etc. We have mostly addressed the responsibilities of the customer in this blog post, but it is of my opinion that in order for someone to responsibly photograph weddings, they must possess professional camera equipment, lenses, lighting gear and backups for all of that gear. Can you take a great photograph on an entry-level camera? Absolutely. Should your wedding photographer use one? No!
If I were hiring a photographer for my wedding, I would not hire one who did not shoot on a camera body with dual card slots (memory cards can suffer file corruptions and images can be lost), have backup cameras and lenses should any equipment fail and one that has adequate lighting to properly photograph a dark reception hall. There are differing trains of thought on what constitutes adequate lighting, but for me, that means they are comfortable navigating all lighting scenarios, including those that would require off-camera flash. I really appreciate when my clients ask me about my lighting practices because the way your photographer handles light can really make or break your wedding photos.
A professional-grade camera is built to handle more challenging lighting and focusing scenarios, inclement weather, occasional bumps/drops and can fire shots off more rapidly with less rendering time than an entry-level camera would and are generally just more reliable. You wouldn't hire a carpenter who didn't own the proper tools, so don't hire a photographer who hasn't made that investment. Don't be ashamed to ask about camera equipment or your photographer's approach to lighting a dark dancefloor. It isn't necessary to know what brand/model they're using, but at a high-level, knowing they have the proper gear for the day should provide you with some peace of mind.
I hold the belief that when you hire good vendors, you won't even notice when things go wrong. And things do go wrong at most weddings. I am not knocking on the new wedding photographer -- everyone starts somewhere. I don't share many images from my earliest weddings, because I am a lot better now than I was back then. If your budget doesn't allow for thousands of dollars to be spent on photography, then don't stress if you need to hire the beginner -- just do your due diligence to understand what your end product will look like and what your photographer is contractually obligated to provide. You may get lucky and receive a very high-end product from a photographer who is just starting out and testing the market. Like I said before, it isn't that hard to take a good photograph. If you "click" with your photographer and are open and honest with each other about what your expectations are, you will be happy 10 times out of 10.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have about hiring a wedding photographer, even if it's not me you're interested in hiring!