Choosing a photographer
by Nigel Cooper
Be it for your wedding, a family portrait, a fashion shoot or commercial project, choosing a professional photographer can be very difficult, especially when there are not actually that many ‘true’ professional photographers to choose from – it’s a minefield out there. The fact is, photography is an over-saturated market, but it is saturated with mediocrity (at best), not excellence! Since the advent of ‘digital photography’ it would appear that everybody is a so-called ‘professional’ photographer these days.
There’s a lot more to being a professional photographer than spending a couple of grand on a camera, a few lenses, and putting a website together to offer photography services to the world. In recent years, during the digital era of photography, a bountiful amount of folk have decided that photography – usually wedding photography – is an easy way to make money. Most of these photographers (about 98 per cent, based on my internet research and critiquing hundreds of photographer’s portfolios on their websites) have had no formal training (college or otherwise) in the art of photography and from the looks of the portfolios on offer out there on the Internet most haven’t even read a book on the subject to get the groundwork – composition, rule-of-thirds, exposure, angle, depth-of-field, to name a few – mastered.
I’m utterly shocked at the sub-standard quality of work on offer on most of the sites I stumble across. The images are, more often than not, riddled with the most fundamental and amateurish mistakes: too much head room and chopping people’s feet off at the bottom of the frame as a consequence, cutting people off at natural joints such as wrists, elbows and knees, cluttered or distracting backgrounds, objects (trees and lampposts for example) growing out of the subject’s head, backgrounds not thrown out of focus for portrait shots, poor composition, poor exposure and lighting, ignoring the rule-of-thirds, the list goes on. When I view the images on some of these photographers’ websites I always find myself doing a mental critique of their images and majority of them would go straight in my bin – correction, I would not take such poor photographs to start with.
Unfortunately, in today’s digital age, most of these so-called professional photographers that are charging for their services appear to be nothing more than ‘happy snappers’ running around shooting weddings with a ‘spray and pray’ mentality, meaning they simply fire off about a thousand shots in the hope that some of them will be ok and with a little help from Photoshop, some of them will be. As the saying goes, if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick.
When it comes to wedding photography in particular, as a bride (groom or family member), you’ve put so much time and effort into the planning of your wedding day so don’t make a ‘snap’ decision when it comes to choosing a photographer to capture and document the event. Instead, immortalise your day with a ‘true’ professional, somebody who will be careful and considered about each and every shot he/she takes giving special attention to: composition, angle, background, lighting and exposure for example. You want a photographer who will be using their camera in full manual mode, not automatic mode, which is the equivalent of playing ‘Russian roulette’ with your important wedding photographs.
Time and again when I view wedding photographers’ websites and I read the ‘About Me’ page or the ‘Choosing A Wedding Photographer’ page I often read paragraphs along the lines of, ‘I’m very experienced and I’ve been shooting weddings for over ten years now and have shot hundreds of weddings.’ This may be so, but all that means is that they have shot and produced hundreds of sub-standard wedding albums for hundreds of couples. Unfortunately, when it comes to photography you don’t necessarily get better the more you do it; no matter how many weddings you’ve shot. I continue to view ‘experienced’ wedding photographers’ work and those fundamental amateurish mistakes are as evident as ever. The fact is, if a person does not study the subject and is not taught the basic fundamental rules of good photography then they will never know what they are doing wrong and will never be able to fix it.
Many wedding photographers will offer you ‘at least’ 800 digital images included in the package price, but remember the motto, ‘quality, not quantity’. Would you rather have a thousand poor sub-standard images that would get ripped to pieces during a critique by a ‘real’ professional photographic judge, or 100 amazing images that would all look stunning in an album or framed and hung on your wall? Your wedding day is a once-in-a-lifetime event so be sure to have it captured professionally.
The same sub-standard images are evident in other areas of photography too, but it is most prevalent in wedding photography. I’ve witnessed the same amateurish mistakes with family portrait studio photographers, event photographers and corporate photographers. Again, I suspect many simply woke up one morning and decided that photography would be an easy way to help cover the bills.
Based on my Google searches and internet research I’ve found that, on average, about 9 out of 10 photographers advertising photography services for a fee – weddings, family portraits, events for example – are amateurs, with no training. Unfortunately, thanks to Instagram and Facebook – where millions of sub-standard photographs are uploaded on a daily basis – we have become conditioned with sub-standard photographs, so when a ‘mediocre’ photograph comes along everybody thinks it’s amazing. Also, most people can’t tell the difference between a good photo and bad photo until the difference (sometimes subtle) is pointed out by a trained professional. Most brides and grooms just see their ‘special’ day in the final images, with happy smiling faces and they are usually thrilled with the results. Newly weds won’t be doing a ‘critique’ on the photographs and as long as they are in focus and the exposure is correct most brides and grooms are over the moon. I, on the other hand, see sub-standard images that are often poorly composed, taken from the wrong angle with the wrong lens choice (or zoom focal length) with distracting backgrounds, where the wrong settings were used on the camera (often fully automatic where the photographer has zero control over the creative process i.e. depth-of-field), that are often poorly exposed, cropped (not sticking to the original aspect ratio and reducing the image resolution in the process) and edited in post-production incorrectly (often making the shots worse, not better, further reducing the image resolution and quality) and many other fundamental mistakes that only an amateur photographer would make.
I feel that I must share with you an anecdote about a brain surgeon who charged a patient £10,000 to drill a hole in their head to remove a tumor. After the operation the patient asked why it had cost so much. The surgeon explained that he only actually charged £10 to drill the hole, but he charged £9,900 for knowing ‘exactly’ where to drill the hole. Unfortunately, if majority of todays so-called ‘professional’ photographers advertising their services for a fee were brain surgeons, they would be drilling holes in people’s necks and shoulders, they are that far off the mark with their skill level and understanding of photographic techniques.
If you’ve already chosen a photographer I’d be more than happy to take a look at their website and do a critique and evaluation of their portfolio for you, to give you an unbiased professional opinion regarding the standard of their work before you hand over a deposit. This is not a method for me to take work away from other photographers. If they are genuinely good, I’ll say so, and if I feel their work is below standard I’ll explain why.
Below I’ve outlined some of my own tips that you should consider, and look out for, when choosing a photographer. These suggestions are aimed at those looking specifically for a wedding photographer.
Decide which style of photography you want. Some wedding photographers shoot in a ‘traditional’ style. This style of photography consists of lots of posed formal images, portraits and group shots that are all carefully coordinated by the photographer, usually with the assistance of a close member of the bride/groom’s family who can round up the relevant family members on the day. This was the only style for many years and it will be the style that your grandparents would be familiar with, though it is still prevalent today.
The next style is ‘documentary/photojournalism’. This type of photographer will simply document the day as it unfolds, treating it like any other real life newsworthy event. They generally won’t interrupt the proceedings or influence the day in any way and they try to blend into the background. They generally don’t ask people to pose and hardly any of them will coordinate any traditional-style family group shots. Photojournalist/documentary type wedding photographers have something of a ‘run and gun’ approach.
MEET THE PHOTOGRAPHER
It’s imperative that you meet your chosen photographer – preferably in person – at your earliest convenience, and before booking them and paying a deposit. It’s important that you get on with your chosen photographer and have a good rapport with them. You don’t want to spend your special day with a grumpy, or unpleasant, photographer who you feel uncomfortable smiling to the camera for. It’s vital that you feel completely comfortable and relaxed in their presence as they are going to be shadowing you for the whole day. If you like the photographer and have a good rapport with them they will bring the best out of you and your resulting wedding photos will look all the better for it. If, on the other hand, you feel uncomfortable around the photographer on the day of your wedding it will become somewhat apparent in the final images. You can usually tell within the first five minutes of meeting somebody if you feel any sort of connection or rapport.
When meeting the photographer discuss your requirements and any specific photographs that you want i.e. a shot with each of your bridesmaids, any specific group/family shots or ‘details’ such as close up shots of shoes, rings, or the bouquet for example.
Generally speaking, you get what you pay for, but this is not strictly true when it comes to wedding photographers. I’ve seen some websites where the photographer is charging between £1,500 and £2,000 for a ‘standard’ wedding, yet when I checked out their wedding portfolio images I was left flabbergasted by the mediocre images they’d produced. On the other hand, I’ve seen some photographer’s sites where they were charging less money and producing superior images.
Also, don’t be swayed by the sheer ‘volume’ of digital images being offered by the photographer. I have seen wedding photographers offering to shoot your wedding from the crack of dawn until well after the first dance and offering upwards of a thousand digital images – fully edited – for just £800. I’ve also seen the quality of images on some of these photographer’s websites and the words ‘lacklustre’ and ‘sub-standard don’t even come close to describing how bad the images are. The time it would take to edit all those images alone – even quick/basic editing – would take weeks and by the time you add the day shooting the wedding to start with, £800 wouldn’t even come close to minimum wage and it would hardly cover the photographer’s costs, you get the picture I hope.
Photographic equipment – at least high-end professional equipment – is expensive, so is the insurance and everything else that goes with being a true professional wedding photographer to allow us to get the job done professionally and to a high standard.
As a professional wedding photographer, I offer a variety of packages to suit all and I’m flexible, and fair, regarding my pricing and I’m transparent about exactly what’s included. It’s important to discuss exactly what you want, and expect, from the photographer: what you want him/her to cover, what time you want them to get there, how long you want them to stay i.e. until the first dance, or later, any particular shots that are a ‘must get’ and so on and so forth.
Check exactly what’s included in the price: time spent with you on the day, the amount of images provided and by what medium i.e. digital on a USB stick, a physical photo album, editing etc.
This is a very grey area. One could be forgiven for assuming that somebody who’s been a wedding photographer for twenty years and who’s shot over 600 weddings would be a master of their chosen field – not necessarily. In most cases it simply means that these people have had a lot of experience producing thousands of sub-standard wedding photographs. I’ve seen so-called professional wedding photographers websites, who have been at it for many years and who have shot hundreds of weddings and their images are as poor today as they ever were. The truth is, photography is an art and experience alone does not produce a great photographer and unlike a fine wine, they do not get better with age either. If you don’t have piano lessons and don’t study the theory of music it doesn’t matter how many hours you hammer away at the ivories, you’ll never become a concert pianist – you’d probably never even make it past grade 1. What I’m trying to say is, there are a lot of grade 1 level photographers out there and very few with grade 8, let alone a degree. You’d be a thousand times better off booking a 23-year-old photographer who’d just completed a 3-year degree in photography over somebody who’s been in the business for 30 years that has never read a book on photographic skills and techniques. Unfortunately, majority of so-called professional wedding photographers have had no formal training and are simply self-taught. For most, photography was simply a hobby and then they decided to make money from it and this bears out in the quality of their work, which lies somewhere between mediocre and questionable. There are true professionals out there, but there is no doubt that they are hard to find amongst all the flotsam and jetsam that dominates the world of wedding photography.
REVIEW PORTFOLIOS WITH A CRITICAL EYE
Most people don’t know the difference between a good photo and a poor photo. Even a lot of photographers can’t spot certain fundamental mistakes that would prevent a photo scoring higher during a critique by a professional photo adjudicator. Here are some things that you should be looking for to ascertain the quality of a photographer’s work.
Below I’ve outlined some basic fundamental amateurish mistakes, mistakes that I see time and again in many so-called professional wedding photographers’ portfolios on their websites: too much head room, chopping people’s feet off at the bottom of the frame, cutting people off at natural joints – at the left/right/bottom of the frame – such as wrists, elbows and knees, cluttered or distracting backgrounds, objects (trees and lampposts for example) growing out of the subject’s head, backgrounds not thrown out of focus for portrait shots, poor composition and angle, ignoring the rule-of-thirds, poor lighting, to name a few. These are all signs of a ‘spray and pray’ amateur photographer who’s probably never even read a book on photographic techniques, let alone studied it at college.
Head Room – Where’s The Airplane?
This is a common error that I see time and again, where the photographer has gone and plonked the subjects face slap bang in the centre of the frame, resulting in too much ‘head room’ (there’s no airplane up there in the sky to look at so why put all that empty space above the subject’s head?) while quite often cutting off the poor subject’s feet at the bottom of the frame in the process. This is where the photographer did not employ the ‘Rule Of Thirds’ because they have no such knowledge on the art of composition and its importance. Artists have been using the rule of thirds for centuries and for good reason, it’s pleasing to the eye, the horizontals and vertices look correct and it just works. This rule-of-thirds technique is quite simple; place an imaginary grid (some mobile phones actually have this rule of thirds grid as an on/off option in the camera’s menu) of two vertical lines and two horizontal lines – like a noughts and crosses game grid across the photograph (if doing a critique on a photograph) or in the camera’s viewfinder (if taking a photograph). In the case of a portrait or group shot, if you place the subjects eyes on the top horizontal line it will yield a pleasing result with just the right amount of headroom and, chances are, the photographer won’t chop off the subject’s feet at the bottom of the frame in the process – more on this below.
When Photographers’ Amputate Their Subjects – Ouch! Where’s My Hand?
This is another common mistake I see all the time, where the photographer has cut the subject off at a natural joint such as the wrist, elbow, knee or ankle, or worse of all, the neck. Amputating subjects like this is a sure sign of an amateur who’s had no formal training in photography and knows little about composition, especially when photographing people. When the photographer has amputated a subject at a ‘natural joint’, the final shot just looks awkward somehow. A ‘true’ professional will crop people off between the natural joints, such as half way between the elbow and shoulder, or half way between the knee and hip, which will yield a more pleasing result that will not look awkward.
Distracting Backgrounds – What’s That Growing Out Of My Head?
I see this mistake all the time, where the photographer has given no thought to clutter in the frame or distracting backgrounds. Portraits of people – be it one person, a couple, or a group shot – always look better when the background has been thrown out of focus. This is achieved by shooting at a wide aperture (f2.8 for example), but amateur photographers generally shoot in automatic mode, where the camera makes such decisions and the camera is a machine, not an artist hence it usually gets it wrong.
Quite often – especially with shots taken on bright sunny days – I see distracting backgrounds that should have been thrown out of focus by the use of a wide aperture, but the photographer was shooting with their camera set to automatic mode, so they had absolutely no control over critical things such as ‘depth of field’ (the parts of the shot that is in focus and the parts that are not). On a bright sunny day if the photographer has their camera set to ‘auto’ the camera will typically stop the lens down to a smaller aperture, f11 for example, resulting in more of the image – from foreground to background – in sharp focus, which is not what you want for a professional portrait photo.
Inexperienced, or amateur photographers, shoot in ‘auto’ mode as they have no understanding of the camera’s manual settings or the effects they have on the final image, for these guys, it’s just too scary using the camera in manual so they stick with auto instead. For me, shooting in auto is the equivalent to playing Russian roulette with the client’s photos, some will be ok, and some won’t – will it land on red, or back? Only the odds for an ‘automatic’ shooter are less than this. I find that the ratio, when shooting full auto, is around 70/30, meaning 70 per cent of the images will not be how they should be and only 30 per cent will be.
Then there are those photographers who pay little to no attention to the background. They simply concentrate on the subject and don’t notice the tree half a mile away in the background that is growing out of the brides head, or the bush in full bloom a hundred yards away in the background that is sitting nicely on top of a bridesmaid’s head, making it look like there are two bouquets in the photo, the one in her hand, that she just caught, and the one sitting on her head. Apart from trees, also check for lampposts and other unsightly vertical objects growing out of people’s heads as well as other unsightly or distracting backgrounds, especially where the photographer has not chosen the correct setting on their camera – manually – to assure that cluttered backgrounds are thrown out of focus to the point that they are unrecognisable and hence, no longer distracting. It does not take too much vision – from a true professionals point of view at least – to check the background and position themselves five or six feet to the right, or left, to achieve a more pleasing angle with a more pleasing, and less distracting, background.
You want to make sure that none of these amateurish traits are present in any of the portfolio photographs that you view and if they are, close that tab and look for another photographer.
It’s A Child – Get Down!
Oh my, do I see this one a lot. This is where the ‘adult’ photographer, who could be 5’ 10” for example, has taken a photo from their standing position of a group of 5-year-old children, who are probably only 3’ 5”. This photographer has zero understanding or ‘proportions’ and the effect that their elevated camera position will have on the children’s bodily proportions. Taking pictures from an adult eye-level in this way will result in a disproportionate child that has a large head, little legs and miniscule feet. The true professional will crouch down to a lower angle so that the camera’s lens is on a level with the child’s chest. This will result in a correctly proportionate child with the right size head and with legs and feet that are in correct proportion to the rest of the body.
I hope this article has given you some insights and will help guide you when it comes to choosing a photographer. It’s a minefield out there so research deeply and choose wisely.