Here’s what I want you to know about wedding photography: It’s about 20% photography, and about 80% knowing when and where and how to interact with a wedding. This is why there are so many sad stories about couple’s losing their wedding photos to a friend or family member who, otherwise, may be quality shutter bugs. It’s a trickier scenario than one might think. From the nuances of project management, to the inter-family politics that need to be respected so as not to create a spectacle, the task of capturing a wedding day asks for a broad set of skills that can take years to acquire through trial and error.
This is also what can make it tough to assess whether the photographer you’re speaking to is the one you ultimately want to hire. The images in their portfolio can’t quite tell the whole story—as much as us photographers want them to be able to. Discovering ahead of time whether they’re likely to end up wreaking havoc on your wedding day is also unintuitive. It would best be done the way a business would interview a potential employee, which is to say, broadly and specifically, and with some healthy unexpected quirks.
From the annuls of our own experience, here are some ways the photographer can screw with a wedding day. Yes, we had to make these mistakes to see them, and learn how to prevent them. So, time to get vulnerable. Lets go:
Being slow to communicate
For a photographer, a three or four day response time to emails and phone calls might seem perfectly reasonable. That’s what I used to think. Until one day a client emailed about some decisions that they needed to make. In the 48 hours it took to respond, they had gone ahead and confirmed some plans with other vendors which conflicted with my shooting requirements. Getting those plans changed created a headache through a cascade of calls that my client had to make.
Of course, I was tempted to blame my client for making the plans without hearing back from me. But ultimately, I just needed to better understand the mindset my client was in. They were a little stressed out and just really wanted to get this thing off their plate so they could think about other items on their list. When we got on the phone to talk about it, they apologized for not waiting, though by that time I’d come to feel that I owed them an apology. I had realized I needed to change my standards for this kind of situation.
Of course, not every email or phone call is urgent and a good photographer will always get back to you. But your photographer needs to be keenly aware of when they should pause to respond right away. Pay attention to how good your photographer is with communication. If they’re slow before they even have your money, they’re probably not going to get any better once you’ve signed a contract.
In all of my career, I don’t think I’ve ever been late to arrive at a wedding. But I have, on at least two occasions, been the reason we’re walking into a reception hall full of annoyed guests, and a caterer complaining about food getting cold.
It was a little chilly, and my client had expressed to me that the formal portraits with just the couple were some of the most important to them. We had a plan for about 45 minutes of portraits after the ceremony, and then planned to walk right into the reception for a first dance and dinner. When we got out there and started shooting, though, I decided to just keep running with it. Perhaps it was an amateurish lack of confidence in what I’d gotten in the last 45 minutes, or maybe it was a little too confident in my authority over the timeline; either way, my clients were having fun in their post ceremony bliss, and knowing they would appreciate the extra portraits, I thought little of it.
When we got into the reception, we heard more than a few snarky remarks from guests, and I know my client heard them too. Bummer. Dinner ended up being cut a little short and some people were still eating during the mother/son and father/daughter dances. That was the day I realized how important a photographer’s punctuality was to the well oiled machine of a wedding day.
15 minutes can be an eternity on a wedding day, and could be the difference between getting all the photos you want, and having to skip some. Or worse, spending the whole day feeling like you’re being rushed around, or that your guests are feeling annoyed. I suggest asking any photographer your considering about their timeliness, and if you can get some references, ask those people about their punctuality, too.
Not knowing when to go with the flow and when to be assertive
When I started Petruzzo Photography, I would go with the flow. When that didn’t work 100% of the time, I decided to take charge, but ended up doing it too much, and too often. In time, I’ve discovered that it’s a mixed bag and sometimes a wedding photographer needs to go with the flow and sometimes they need to take charge. Knowing the difference is the tricky part.
At one wedding many years ago, while I was still in my “just go with the flow” phase, the bridesmaids spent too much time on relatively trivial details (e.g., the straps on the shoes that would be hidden under the dress would not lay flat), and we didn’t get any portraits with the bridesmaids. Eek. On another occasion, while going with the flow, I allowed a ceremony to begin before I was prepared for it, and ended up missing the bride’s walk up the aisle. Both of these brides were understanding, feeling they had some share in the mistake, and both received a healthy print credit to make up for the images that were missing. But I couldn’t help but see what I could have done differently to prevent that. Those were situations where I needed to be assertive and defend the thing my client had brought me in to do, from the contextual whims of the day.
Later, after I’d moved into a more take-charge attitude, I insisted that a couple follow me outside to take some photos as the sun set. We’d discussed this possibility before, and when the time came, it was just as their food was being delivered to their table. They agreed to go, but they might have been responding more to my assertiveness than to their own desire. The photos did turn out pretty good, but they never made it back to their meals. I felt bad about that, and realized I should have tempered my request to better respect their autonomy in that situation.
A photographer should be able to differentiate when to be assertive, and when to go with the flow. This, in part, comes from knowing what’s important to their client. Pay attention to how many questions a photographer asks about you and about what you want for your wedding day. They’re there to take photos, and to do so without getting in the way of other things that matter to you. I would suggest asking any photographer you interview to describe how they go about planning for the wedding day.
Making it about themselves
This one still stings a little bit. One time, a guest shouted “this isn’t about you” at me. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but it was embarrassing because they were right. I was enjoying the spotlight a little too much. Ouch.
On this wedding day, I was to capture one decent photo of all the guests. This wasn’t going to be a perfect photo, as I’d discussed with my client beforehand. It was going to be a quick-and-dirty arrangement, sprawled across the steps of the venue. I was taking my time, perhaps a little more than I should. I was cracking jokes, and the guests were laughing, and I had a captive “audience”. I’d been at it for about 10 minutes when I looked at one of the shots on the back of the camera, and suddenly decided to make some big changes to the arrangement.
“This isn’t really quite how I want it”, I said, as I began rearranging things. My audience was acquiescent for the moment. I was leaving the realm of what my client wanted, and was too fixated on what I wanted. In a poignant remark from somewhere in the back, I heard a raised voice say, “yeah well this isn’t about you!”. They were joking, and there were some laughs, but I got the point. It was a gut check. I was a little too full of myself.
As a photographer, I always want to get the most interesting photo. I want everyone arranged nicely, looking their best. It’s a point of pride for pretty much any people-photographer. But I had a higher priority that day: making sure my client’s guests were generally having a great experience. No matter how I shook it, standing around for a photographer to arrange the perfect gigantic group photo, was not part of that great experience. That’s why it was supposed to be quick-and-dirty. The point was taken, and I folded that experience into lessons learned.
It might be hard to fish out whether a photographer is likely to take too much of the spotlight on your wedding day. I would suggest asking them to describe their ideal creative process and ask them what they do if that process is disrupted.
Getting worked up about minor details
When a photographer first starts shooting weddings, everything is super important all the time and must go perfectly. The last thing a photographer (especially a new photographer) wants to do is mess up something on a day as important as this.
Well, let me describe to you what that meant for me originally. It meant exercising almost no realtime decision autonomy. It meant stopping, approaching the bride or groom, and directly seeking confirmation for virtually everything that we didn’t specifically plan for. “Do you want the flowers over here or over there for the photos?”, “Is now a good time to stop and eat?”, “Do you want photos of people at the tables?”, “Can I set up lights over there?”, “Do you want a photo with this aunt?”. The list could go on and on.
There are a gazillion things that could theoretically be planned for, but plan for too many of them and it’s an exercise in frustration or futility. Don’t plan enough and you’ll miss some important things and get some unimportant things back. On the wedding day, your photographer needs to blend, as best as they can, a solid plan to get the most important images, and the confident autonomy to seek out and create the images that might be important. An indecisive photographer constantly seeking confirmation from the client is fast-tracking the wedding into a micromanagement nightmare.
I suggest asking your prospective photographers to describe what sorts of images they create when no one is telling them what to do. Ask them to see a full wedding, and then look if you can see examples of those things in their finished work for another client.
Yes, finding the right photographer can be tough.
Your wedding photographer decision can be a difficult one. It probably should be just about the most difficult one. It’s hard to know which questions to ask, and it’s hard to know if the person you’re talking to is going to meet your expectations. There are quality photographers at every price point, in every region, but what they bring to the table might require some trade offs. I don’t suggest you hire someone on their portfolio alone, since there’s quite a lot more to the job than that.
Use these points here to think about the person you want to hire, and realize there is a lot of good, and a lot of bad a photographer can bring to the actual day of your wedding. Take your time and ask lots of questions.