I have a ton of fun playing wedding photographer…

Photographing real people in real-life situations is one of my specialties, so I’m often asked to document weddings and other celebrations.  To date, I’ve had the privilege of documenting these special days for beautiful couples in 17 US states, four other countries plus the District of Columbia. (Check out this map or watch them all here.) This is the work that helps support some of my other artistic and community pursuits.

Since I get a lot of questions about this, I’ve laid out some thoughts below on the wedding photography biz in general and my approach to it. Feel free to share this info with anyone that is trying to navigate the adventure of planning a wedding…

…but wedding photography is a strange business.

For many folks, weddings are their first experience hiring photographers, and there’s a lot of weird societal pressure to spend too much money on these events in general.

Weddings are big business and there’s a lot of hype, so let’s start off being clear: No, you don’t need to hire a photographer, and no, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on these things. If you’re going to invest in this, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons…

Why you don’t actually need a professional…

Seriously, you probably don’t need a professional photographer. Nor do you necessarily “need” a wedding – the most important thing is that you’ve found your life partner. Next most important thing is that you have your circle of family and friends supporting you in your everyday life, not just on the one day of this ritual. The photographs are only important because of the people in them!

There’s a weird idea that the wedding is supposed to be “the best day of your life” – and that sounds like crap to me. I hope that it’s the best day of your life so far, and that every day afterwards keeps getting better!  If any one day was important, it’s probably the day that you met that partner of yours, right? So you’re already set. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

Now, if you decide to have a wedding, it will be documented. You have no choice about that, unless you hire security to prevent all of your guests from taking pictures…  Digital cameras are now as ubiquitous as cell phones, and everyone is a photographer of some sort. So you’ll have an abundance of photographs, no matter what.

Alternatives to hiring a photographer…

Since everyone there will be snapping pictures, one easy thing to do is set up a download station with a laptop and a multi-format card reader.. you can have everyone download their pictures as they shoot them.

Another alternative is to set up a Flickr-pool or use any other photo sharing site… Just ask all of your guests to upload to the same site, or use the same tags, or compile all of the links so that you can share them with your friends and family.

And, while film is becoming more and more rare, you can still do the whole “disposable camera on each table” thing… Or, you could buy a cheap digital point and shoot for each table – once you’ve downloaded all of the files, you can donate the cameras to a local school or community arts center (now that you can get great little cameras for $100, a pile of cameras can still be cheaper than hiring a pro…)

One simple, cheap and effective DIY technique is to rig a simple backdrop for people to take snapshots in front of. This can be as simple as a sheet pinned to a wall, and can make snapshots a lot nicer by getting rid of a lot of the cluttered background elements that end up detracting from most snapshots. I’ve seen people set up an iPad on a stand running a photo booth app, and that’s pretty great. Of course, it’s a completely different animal than my style of photo booth, but it works great.

 

Why you might want to invest in pictures…

Hiring a professional gives you some certainty that you’ll have some quality images to help you re-live this day that will no doubt fly by in a blur. It also relieves your guests of the obligation to document, allowing them to relax and fully enjoy the day, confident that someone else has got it covered. (On a few occasions, guests have told me that they are putting their cameras away after having seen me starting to chase after my subjects…)

Photographs are also the one major expense at a wedding that are a long-term investment. No matter how tasty the fancy catered food is, we know what it’s going to turn into after the digestive process runs its course. But long after the flowers have wilted, the photos will continue to provide value.

If you’re hiring someone that shoots like I do, then it’s particularly a worthwhile investment if you really care about the people that you are inviting. I try to make a point of getting a good portrait of every single person there… if they’re good friends, then the images will mean a great deal to you long after the wedding is over, and their very existence will be a great gift to those friends. (On many occasions, people have told me that a random snapshot of mine is the best picture that’s ever been taken of someone who doesn’t consider themselves particularly photogenic. Of course, Everyone is Photogenic!) But, if the majority of your guests are people that you don’t care about that much (family obligations, people that you’ve never met…) then why bother?

What to consider when hiring a photographer…

There’s two basic criteria that are important when hiring a photographer: Make sure that you like their work, and make sure that you like them. Pretty straightforward, right?

Of course, you want to make sure that you are clear on the details of your agreement and know what you’re expecting to pay and what you’re expecting to receive. But before you figure that out, make sure that you’ve gotten a good vibe from them personally, and that you’ve seen enough of their work to get a good sense of how they’re going to shoot and what they’re going to deliver. Ideally, you would have already been at an event that they photographed and seen the results, but alternately, look for good referrals from people that you trust. Once you’ve got a sense of how they photograph, you can take a look at how they handle the rest of the business.

You obviously don’t want a photographer who’s going to somehow screw up your celebration. Ideally, they’re going to either be invisible, or make it even better. But even if they’re great the day of, it would be sad to then find yourself disappointed in the images. Is the photographer so meek that they’re going to hang back and not get in close for the good angles? Or so overzealous that they’re going to be getting in the way? Will they be overbearing in trying to stage moments and turn the wedding into a photo shoot, rather than the making the photos about the wedding? A relatively inexperienced photographer might bring a fresh eye and a lot of enthusiasm, but they might also be easily flustered by hiccups, or fail to bring backup equipment… (This last one is important, as I had a camera die while photographing this wedding. Nobody noticed…)

When investing in a photographer, it’s obviously helpful to know that their portfolio accurately represents their work. Nevermind the whole genre of photographers that actually fills their websites with images stolen from other photographers’ websites (For real, this happens. See StopStealingPhotos.com for examples…) The trick is that anyone that’s photographed twenty events can put together a decent twenty-picture portfolio, even if they only got a single good image from each event. But presumably you’re looking for more than just one good shot from your event.

One thing that you can do is pick an image that you like from the photographer’s portfolio, and ask them to show you all of the images that they delivered from that event. This takes a good bit more time, as you might find yourself delving through hundreds of images (or in my case, thousands) but this will give you a good sense as to how they actually approach situations and deliver in a real world scenario. Looking at a complete take or two will give you a sense of how consistently reliable they are.

Posed portraits vs. documentary style…

It’s worth noting that there are two good ways to photograph: Either you plan and control everything, or you anticipate and respond, controlling nothing.

The average person’s point and shoot snapshot generally tries to control one to three variables, whereas it takes at least twenty to make a compelling photograph. That’s a lot to keep track of, so you either need to build your pictures from the ground up like a studio photographer (this requires taking your time) or react on-the-fly like a photojournalist (this requires thinking really fast). Either one is valid, but make sure you know which approach your photographer generally takes! Many photographers have the technical knowledge to do both, but in practice, it’s very challenging to switch gears between these two modes of operation.

If you want some more controlled shots, but you don’t want to have them take over your celebration, there are two things that you can consider. One is setting up a little photo studio in a corner of the space, like a photo booth. If a photographer plans for this in advance, they can more easily switch back and forth between studio and documentary modes. Another thing is to do some of the controlled shots on a completely different day. When I shot this wedding, they had already done a series of bride and groom portraits with another photographer the day before I got there. Or at this wedding there are a few more “sentimental” posed shots that I took because they also had a videographer who directed a few of those moments… so really while they look a bit more posed, I was staying in documentary mode and capturing the situations that the videographer had set up.

If you want more formal posed portraits of groupings of family members, this can be accommodated by either approach, but they’re worth planning for. It’s helpful to have already figured out which combinations you want to capture, and have a list ready. It’s also helpful to have someone in charge of wrangling all of these people together, ideally someone who knows all of their names and can manage the groups. (Of course, you can always deviate from the plan on the fly, but it’s a good starting point. At one event that I photographed, there’d been a whole planned list of shots, and then they decided to skip the whole thing in favor of enjoying the day. That’s totally fine to do!)

Ideally, you click through these super quickly so that you can continue on with the actual celebration…

Should there be additional shooters?

Many photographers or photography businesses offer “second shooters” as an added value for more expensive packages. Be careful with this, as it is not necessarily a benefit, and sometimes can be a hindrance. The answer to this question is a big “it depends…”

It’s true that a photographer can’t be in two places at once (although we sometimes pretend to by using remote cameras, or running back and forth between two spaces where different things are happening) – so having two or more photographers will allow for more overall presence of photographers. But that doesn’t guarantee you more / better pictures. It just guarantees you more photographers.

Some photographers work great together as a team (I know several husband/wife pairs that photograph weddings together) and may a bonus presence to the event. On the other hand, having a whole team of paparazzi at your event might make it feel a little bit less personal, especially if they’re not used to working together. In general, one great photographer is going to be a better value than five mediocre ones.

In the end, it’s the quantity and quality of images delivered that you’re paying for, not the number of photographers. So if someone offers you a second photographer for an additional fee, ask to see a sample of images delivered from one wedding shot by just the one photographer, and another set from an event shot by the pair, and you can then decide if what the extra shooter delivers is worth it.

Digital images, copyright and reproductions…

At one of the first weddings that I photographed professionally, I shot 44 rolls of film. They are still safely archived away in binders on my shelf. These days, everything is digital, and I find myself administering a million-picture digital archive and being an archivist is almost a whole job in and of itself. The documentation of your celebration will all be intangible ones and zeroes in the digital realm, so you’ll want to be sure that those images are safe in the photographer’s workflow from the very beginning. And no matter how many backups they have, you shouldn’t count on them: make multiple backup copies of everything that you get from them. And anything else that is important to you. Seriously, have you backed up your data lately?

Also, it’s worth being clear on what rights to the images are included in your agreement. Photography falls into the strange intangible realm of intellectual property, and unless you’re an IP lawyer, it can get a bit confusing. Having a print of a picture doesn’t mean that you own the image, and having a digital file doesn’t automatically mean that you can give it to a magazine for publication, use it for an ad campaign in China, or even just make prints for your friends…  all of this is subject to copyright, which basically says that the image’s creator gets to dictate how their work is reproduced. Some photographers will grant you a broad license to reproduce the images, whereas others will want to be more in control of how their work is distributed. Generally, a photographer handing you a disk of high res images will need to charge more up-front to sustain their business than one expecting to be able to derive more revenue from future print sales. Either way, this is just one of those things where you want to make sure to be clear about the agreement with the photographer.

How much time is involved?

What is a good picture worth? Does the viewer really care how long it took to make it?

One thing that is challenging for many people is photography’s strange relationship to time. We’re used to thinking of paying people for their work by the hour, and that works fine for PR-style photography. (Wideangle flash-lit snapshots of  groups of people posing for the camera.) Anyone can do this with a camera set to auto-everything. But if you want your photographer to be an artist rather than just a technician, more creative input is required, and that’s where the concept of hourly rates is problematic in our field.

As a photographer, the better you get, the more variables you are able to juggle simultaneously in your head. The act of intense observation, that is the hard work of photography. But how hard you work has nothing to do with how long you work… it all happens in a split second. Here’s how it’s tricky: Imagine that you need a portrait taken… let’s say that you’re willing to pay $100 for it, and the photographer takes about an hour of your time to get you that perfect shot. Now imagine a photographer who’s better at what they do… and they get you that exact same perfect shot but only take half an hour of your time. Is the very same picture now only worth $50? And what if the photographer could get you that same perfect shot in a split second, carving it out of the chaotic world without even wasting a moment of your time… is the very same image now worth pennies? Or should it cost more because the photographer is better at their job and has taken less of your time?

The notion of hourly rates for photographers isn’t just bad for photographers, but also bad for clients. If you’re paying someone an hourly rate, then they have very little incentive to go above and beyond expectations and generate really special images. Instead, they might be likely to do the minimum amount of work necessary to justify the rate.  If they work harder and generate more and greater images, they’re actually devaluing their work by diminishing the amount that they’re getting paid for each of those images. That’s why advertising and editorial photographers never charge by the hour, but rather by the image.

That being said, many wedding and event photographers still reference time in their contracts, either with hourly rates, or limited coverage, so it’s worth paying attention to because some of the most priceless moments happen either during the early preparations or at the very last moments of the evening… so make sure you know how much time your photographer is committing to you, as it’s great to have someone there for the whole thing to catch it all. Just remember, in the end you’re not paying for the photographer’s time, but rather for the quantity and quality of images that they’re generating for you.

How does pricing work?

Some photographers operate on a single flat fee model, generally charging more up front. Others charge on an up-sell model with a lower starting fee, but higher charges for every print, album or disk afterwards. Either model can work fine, but you should be clear about it what charges might be, because it would be frustrating to find that you’re not getting what you thought you’d paid for, or that your final bill ends up being triple what you’d expected.

A word of warning: professional photography is expensive.

While photography has become virtually free and instant for the average snapshot shooter, it remains an overhead-intensive field for people who do it for a living. Photographers live in this crazy world where a little glass filter can cost $50… and when you attach it to a $2200 telephoto zoom on a $5k camera, you can start seeing how this can get pricey. And you want the photographer to have backups, right?

Beyond the hardware, it’s worth remembering that shoot time is just a fraction of the time involved in running a photography business. When a photographer quotes you a rate, that’s not actually what they’re getting paid for a day of taking pictures. That rates is the fee that their business needs to charge in order to cover all of those costs and pay the photographer a wage for all of the work involved on the back end. But in the end, all of that is for the photographer to worry about – what you’re paying for is the pictures.

Really, you’re commissioning a lot of new artwork, and that’s what can cost a lot. If you hire a band for the wedding, and they play tunes that they already know, that’s kind of like asking a photographer to come and give a slide talk. Imagine instead asking the band to interview all of the guests and write all new songs about their lives… that’s the kind of creative energy that a photographer puts into taking pictures…

To put photography rates in perspective, visit the local photo studio in a nearby mall and see what photography costs there. When I last checked, $20 worth of photography paid for four frames shot in a pretty bland, controlled studio environment, and included one 8×10 print. Any extra frames or extra prints cost more. So if you want at least that level of photography for a hundred guests, that can already be $2k! If you’re looking for images that are creative, unique, and created unobtrusively on-the-fly and, don’t be too surprised if your photography budget might exceed your catering budget. (And this makes sense, since all that food just turns to poop, right?)

Rates will vary quite a great deal, and there are too many factors involved for it to be easy to directly compare photographers. Remember to make sure that you see some examples of what all they delivered to real life clients so that you know what their prices might actually get you. You’ve got to look at the big picture of their personality, their technical skills, and what they’re offering you in their assorted packages and what not, and get a gut feeling of whether it’s the right investment and rewards for you.

Destination weddings?

I like to travel, and have photographing weddings all over (check out this map), and one friend when asking for advice in hiring a photographer asked:

“You think any photographer would be willing to travel down to Panama for our reception there if we paid for airfare and accommodations?  Or should we also pay the regular (plus more?) rate?” –Sara

This is a complicated question, because the answer is “yes” to both. In some situations, an excuse to travel can be an exciting opportunity, enough so that a photographer might discount their regular rate, especially if they’re younger, less experienced or haven’t had many opportunities to travel. But there are also challenges to working while on the road, and many photographers will charge extra fees for travel days, knowing that time away from home is time that takes away from other clients or responsibilities.

It’s great to be able to combine a destination shoot with personal travel time, but if a photographer is doing a shoot on the road, they’ve got a few extra things to worry about: during any time before the event, they’re going to be really concerned about keeping all of their equipment safe, and then after the shoot they’ll be concerned with keeping all of the data safe, not to mention that traveling with a full load of photo gear is a challenge on its own…

So the answer is always “it depends”, and in some cases it can work out nicely for both the client and photographer… especially if the photographer has a vested interest in that particular destination. If the photographer doesn’t have a special reason for wanting to go to your destination, it may likely be a better deal for them to take a similar job at home and then just pay their way to whatever vacation destination they want to visit… and remember, the world is full of talented photographers, so you can probably find a good local one wherever your event is happening, and the internet makes it easy to at least video conference in to get a feel for if they’re the right person for you.

While I’m based in Philadelphia, I’ve photographed weddings as far afield as California, Oregon, Montana and Rhode Island, and internationally in England, France, Germany and Nicaragua. So if you think that my approach would be a good match for your celebration, I’d be happy to talk to you about it wherever it might be.

My approach…

I’m not so much a traditional “wedding photographer” but maybe more of a “people you love” photographer.  You definitely shouldn’t hire me if you’re just falling into the hype about the wedding being the “best day of your life”… but if it’s an occasion to bring together people that mean a lot to you, and you’d like to take advantage of that to get great images of them, then I might be a good match.

This is some of the most intense and demanding work that I do, and I love it. It is technically, creatively, physically and emotionally challenging, not to mention a super fun adrenaline rush. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been at an event that I’ve photographed, but this post from Lee & Amy’s secret surprise wedding and the samples and testimonials below might give you a sense of how I go about approaching photographing celebrations.

I’m definitely not the kind of photographer that nobody even knows is there, but I also make a point of never being in the way or a hassle. Shooting events like this for me means moving and thinking insanely fast. After all, if you see a shot, then you’ve already missed it. And once you bring a hundred beautiful people into the same space, there’s always going to be a great shot to be taken somewhere, and weddings give me free rein to try and get every single one that I can. If you’re not going to direct people, or ask them to hold still in that nice patch of light, then you need to be ready and in the right spot before the moment even happens, and react to their every little movement.

I photograph weddings much in the same way that I photograph dance. Guests always seem to reference a few themes after they’ve seen me in action for a while, comparing me to Spider-Man, Batman, a paparazzo or a war photographer. Kneepads and my emergency-rappel-belt are some of my most important equipment in capturing these special moments with spontaneous energy. If anything, I somewhat become an added element of entertainment, with one guest laughing at the end of the day “Even if none of the pictures come out, it was totally worth it!” – which of course, is not the point… the pictures had better come out! My goal isn’t to put on a show, but because photographing becomes its own strange dance, people tend to appreciate the lengths that I go to to get my shots, and the attention that I pay to each and every one of them.

Of course, there are moments that call for a more subdued tone, and I’m hyper-sensitive to that. During the actual ceremony part, I often have to move very slowly or not at all, staying well out of the way… sometimes I might miss a great shot because my on-the-fly judgement was that it would be inappropriate to get to the right vantage point at that moment… but I’ll get plenty of other great shots so I’m never worried about it.

Since this kind of photography is quite physical, people often think that this is actually the hard work of it. But the real hard work is simply in the act of intense observation. I try to connect with each of your guests, let myself see them the way that their friends and family see them, so that I can get images that capture a sense of that spirit. There’s a pretty tremendous creative and emotional investment, such that I end up remembering many (if not most) of the people that I’ve photographed for the rest of my life.

There isn’t a whole lot of information that I need to have in advance as this documentary type approach is really about being spontaneous. Of course, it’s always helpful to know what you have planned, but all of the best shots always get figured out on-the-fly. I always like getting there early, sometimes to get a sense of the space, but mostly to get a feel for the people, and start to establish the relationships that will lead to good images. It’s much easier to first establish a rapport with a few people, who will then help me make the rest of the guests at ease, than coming into a situation where a crowd is already assembled. I also stay till the very end, to catch whatever special unexpected moments might come up. I block off the entire day for you, plus some prep time the day before, and recovery time the next day. (Some folks who are doing more events will book other ones immediately before or after yours – this is fine, but make sure you know how it might impact the job that they do for you!)

When I photograph events like this I show up looking rather like a stagehand, wearing simple black clothes. If I wore a suit, the pictures wouldn’t be as good, as I need to be able to move, climb and crawl as needed. At this wedding, one guest thought that I was the assistant and that another guest was the hired photographer… he even made a funny comment about my being a bit underdressed – but right after that I had to jump over a hedge and kneel in the mud to get a shot and he understood…

Since I’m not exactly running a traditional wedding studio, I don’t have a lot of “packages” and what not. Many photographers offer this as value-added services, but the bulk of the value that I offer is in the shooting: all of my energies go into creating the photographs on the special day. My number one priority everyone’s experience, and close second is generating a pile of great images to record the day. After that, there’s plenty of time to figure out what to do with them. Most of my clients are comfortable working with the images themselves, but if you want help putting together an album or some such, I can put you in touch with a few great book artists like Elysa Voshell or Bridget Morris.

I generally generate a few thousand images (two to five), and only weed out around 15% before making them available. (I’m very conservative about editing, and won’t delete a shot that might have the slightest interest to you… but if I shoot five frames in low light to get a sharp one, I might get rid of one or two of the shakiest ones.) – My online archive site has online print ordering as a convenience for your family and friends, but you’re not obliged to use it; I can also deliver DVDs of high res images for you to make your own prints from.

As to my rates, they aren’t quite as steep as some can be, but I’m probably as expensive as the average wedding photographers in the Philly area if not more. Rates vary a bit with logistics (starting around $3k and generally in the $4-7k range), and might fall into the “not cheap, but worth it” category. Timing is a factor for me, as much of my other work is planned on different schedules, so if you want me to lock down a date two years in advance, that will come at a bit of a premium. Optimum notice for me is three months to a year or so, so if I can be of use to you, get in touch and we can discuss…

Testimonials

“Thank you sooo much for the beautiful pictures. You did a wonderful job of capturing so many great moments. Everybody had fun getting to know you while getting photographed by you. We are truly luck to have you as a friend and wonderful photographer.”—Trevor Grandle

“holy f-in s! these pictures are amazing! we had been busy all day loading out of the bride and dealing with kristen’s stolen purse….and then we sat down with mikey and my parents and watched the quicktime at regular speed and then frame by frame. you were absolutely correct, all the stupid junk faded away and everyone got really excited about the wedding again. and we laughed and cried and shouted out loud at the screen the whole time. i am constantly astounded (yet somehow never suprised) at how true to the moment your photo work can be. i cannot thank you enough for your enthusiasm and professionalism. and on top of that, how fun it is just to have you around, whether there is a camera involved or not. we are truly fortunate to have you amongst us” —Krisada Surichamorn

“Ditto to everything Kris wrote. I absolutely love the pictures, and I feel so fortunate that you were our photographer for this event. I also really appreciate that you stuck it out to the bitter end with us. We are truly fortunate indeed!”—Kristen Phillips

“People were so moved by the birthday images… thank you soooo much.” —Bill Golderer / Broad Street Ministry

“As one single human being at an event, I can only take in so much at any given moment. To see events captured through your lens means I can additionally live through what you saw, and what the individuals you photographed were experiencing, giving me a far richer memory of the event.” —Robin Barnes

“Man this is awesome! Everyone looks so happy, excited, and entertained!” —Laris Kreslins / Lime Projects

“You aren’t a standard wedding photographer. You don’t say “now let’s go stand by this gorgeous fountain with big swans in the background”. You shoot things the way you are drawn to them. Even your pictures of lawyers, which should be boring and stodgy, aren’t. I think that is why you have been hired back. You make people look human. They want that.” —Meagan Hume

“I am a random woman, among 500 people you encountered last night, but I thought I’d offer a quick word of thanks. Andy Newgren and I were talking about the Broad Street Ministry birthday bash today and without a doubt, one of the most lovely aspects of the evening was the photobooth. Not only is it a pretty incredible equalizer, in a sense, to see so many beautiful faces against a shared red backdrop, but additionally you gave the gift of your presence. You have a way, albeit subtly in a 2 minute interaction, to make people feel camera-worthy. It is a gift to be seen and you gave that gift to hundreds of people last night. Thanks for that.” —Carmen Goetschius, Minister of Evangelism and Discipleship, Arch Street Presbyterian Church

“We want to thank you enourmously for coming to our wedding in Thurmont and sharing your talents. We continue to get rave reviews from everyone who sees the pics. More importantly, we appreciated your spirit and enthusiasm for the day.” —Jenny Freeman

“The photos are absolutely beautiful. What a talented artist you are! (not to mention, you’re adorable.) Thank you so much for preserving forever the memories of Kent and Casey’s big day. I’m certain that, one day, you’ll be very famous. We will say we knew you when…” —the groom’s mother

“A quick click-through to your website reminded me in a second why we are excited to have you photograph at our wedding — the humanity, clarity, and warmth comes through — somehow, I can’t explain why — but I love it.” —Dan Scholnick

“SO great. You did a wonderful job. Thank you, thank you, that you!” —Molly Fuhr

“That’s the most fantastical thing I’ve ever seen! I agree…SPECTACULAR!” —Amy Pasquale

“Dear JJ ~ Having you capture the memories and joy of our wedding was profoundly wonderful — it meant more to me than I’ll ever be able to express. Thank you for sharing in such an important part of our lives, and for your friendship!” —Robin Barnes

“Everyone thought you were insane and brilliant! Thanks for being such a memorable part of our wedding!” —Jennifer Freeman