16: How to Choose the Best Wedding Photographer with Amanda Summerlin Photography

Amanda tells us everything there is to know about selecting a wedding photographer and answers all the questions you didn’t know you should be asking.

Amanda details the horrors of life without Wi-Fi.

It was so terrible that she had to read a book instead of watching Netflix and that book convinced her to quit drinking alcohol.

Cindy’s gut reaction is to suggest subbing wine for meals. #Priorities.

Ruby Rose as Batwoman vs. Ruby Rose as eye candy?

Neither of us read comic books, yet we are inexplicably attempting to discuss Batwoman and other superheroes.

Anyway, you should watch Dark Matter because we like sci-fi. You should also watch Lost Girl.

“Shut the duck the fuck up!”

…is a phrase Cindy has been waiting to drop since we instituted the pre-show banter timer.

Why are wedding photographers so fucking expensive?

They aren’t, necessarily – there’s a wide range of pricing just like everything else. And just like with everything else: the definition of “expensive” is subjective.

Based on our experience, we guess that the average cost of wedding photography is around $3,000 – $4,000. And in that range, you’ll find professionals who are doing it full time who need to be paid a fair wage for their work. For every hour of wedding photography coverage, a photographer typically spends an additional 3-4 hours doing work that you don’t see: culling, editing, maintaining equipment, administrative work like answering your emails and meeting with you, designing photo albums, backing up your precious photos in multiple places, and delivering those images to you.

When you hire someone for your wedding day, how likely is it that a photographer – or any wedding vendor – is actually only putting in a day’s work?

Amanda just laughs. “Some people do what’s called shoot and burn,” Amanda says. At the lower end of pricing, what you get is a photographer who shows up, shoots, and gives you the files. No culling, no editing, just whatever went through the shutter is what you get.

“Hey, but don’t we want all 2500 images that a photographer shoots at our wedding?”

NO. No no no no no no, you really don’t. A good photographer will only deliver the good photos – and that means sifting through to get rid of the 14 shots of your extended family where at least one person has their eyes closed, is making a weird face, or isn’t looking anywhere near the camera in order to get you that magical one where everyone looks great! (And by the way, that sometimes mean editing a couple images together in order to get everyone looking good – because it’s a gamble trying to shoot enough to get one good one.)

People hire a photographer for their eye. During the wedding, they are selecting what to shoot and how to shoot it; after the fact, they are selecting what to keep. That’s part of the skill, talent, and training you are paying them for.

Does everybody need a wedding photographer?

Need is a strong word. It’s not necessary – nothing is necessary. If your goal is to get married, the only thing you need, besides yourselves, is someone to perform the ceremony and sign the paperwork.

The question is: do you want a wedding photographer?

For most people, the answer is yes. Everyone has their own priorities, so for some couples a family member or friend with a camera is plenty; for others, an experienced professional wedding photographer is an absolute must.

How to figure out if you need a wedding photographer

First, consider your budget. Because if you can’t afford it, it’s a non-starter.

Second, what are going to do with the photos? If the answer is nothing, then you probably don’t need to blow $5k on a photographer. Some people only want to share some specific photos, so they may want a pro but not necessarily need all-day photojournalistic or art photography coverage. Or maybe you want something that’s a piece of art to hang on your wall.

And there’s a photographer for every one of those things at a wide range of price points. And you have to set your expectations based on your budget because maybe you want that art piece, but you only have a $1000 budget. So in that range, you’re not going to get the same kind of artwork that you see in high-end wedding magazines. On the flip side, if you have a big budget and you’re willing to spend $8-$10k or more – they are very specific about what they do and do not shoot.

“I’ve been doing this for 8 years, if you have to tell me to take a picture of the cake, I’m an idiot.”

Let’s talk about shot lists. There are really two kinds:

  1. The lists you find on the internet of “must-have” photos which are pretty much garbage and should be thrown directly into the fuck-it bucket. Your photographer knows to shoot pictures of all the important parts and details of your wedding.
  2. Lists of groupings of family members, groups of friends, etc. that you all want to have in formal photos together. These are totally essential and you should make this list and discuss it with your photographer. You might also want to make a very short list of any photos that you really, really want to make with your photographer.

Pinterest can be a great way to share visual inspiration with your photographer! Just bear in mind that you will not be able to replicate exactly what you see, because you are different people in different spaces with different backgrounds, lighting, etc. But what you can do is have a conversation with your photographer about what you love about the photos you’ve collected so they can then make the important parts of the photo happen for you.

The secret to making great art is putting restrictions on yourself.

A wedding is an amazing set of restrictions which can push you to be more and more creative all of the time.

What are photography styles? Do they matter?

Traditional: Let’s pose. Let’s look at the camera. Let’s take a formal style photo and that’s what we’re gonna do. Back in the day, wedding photography actually happened before the wedding at a photography studio, and the photographer never attended the wedding. Once that changed, photographers began attending but were shooting on film – which translated to the entire wedding being documented in maybe 40-50 photos.

Photojournalism or Documentary Style: This was born when photojournalists from newspapers started moonlighting and took photos the same way they would on the street: shooting exactly what’s happening without any sort of disruption to the action. A strict photojournalist is a fly on the wall – they don’t move any of your things around, they don’t artfully arrange your dress, they just shoot what is there. They take candid photos of everyone.

Fine Art: Amanda feels like this is kind of a made-up style. There are a handful of photographers who have a very distinct style. They are very specific how they shoot and what weddings they accept. For example, working only in a specific geographic location gives consistency in light and scenery. Basically, fine art can be translated to having a specific style to their work and an emphasis on still life: so artfully arranged photos of invitations, florals, fantastic details of humans (such as close ups on cufflinks or boutonnieres.)

Wedding trends change all the time and photography is no exception.

A few years back, it was all light and airy; these days, it’s pretty moody and dark.

And yeah – these trends are gonna make your wedding photos look dated. Just like every other part of your wedding. And that’s ok. Your wedding doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

How to find a photographer who enthusiastically supports LGBTQ+ couples.

Start by asking your friends and/or hire a wedding planner who can guide you. A referral from someone you trust is the best way to make sure you get a great photographer.

Then take to google (or start there, if you don’t have a referral) and use keywords: two brides, two grooms, love is love, marriage equality, etc. in order to find wedding vendors who are LGBTQ+ friendly.

Check out some of the smaller wedding websites (big ones usually aren’t great for the LGBTQ+ community): Catalyst Weddings, Equally Wed, H&H Weddings, Offbeat Bride, A Practical Wedding. Wedding Wire just came out with a strong pro-equality stance and are supposedly banning vendors who are anti-gay; but in speaking with other vendors, we’ve seen evidence that they have not taken down listings of known homophobes, so take that one with a grain of salt for now.

Beware of scam sites that steal other photographer’s work and post it as though it is their own.

So do your homework and make sure you are working with someone legit. Ask to see several full weddings. The more, the better. What you’re hoping to see is a photographer who has done a lot of work in different environments, including work in settings that are similar to what your wedding will be like. What you’ll see on their main website are their favorite weddings and their very best work, which is lovely but perhaps not relevant to you and your wedding.

Don’t ask this question because it’s the wrong one.

“How long have you been shooting weddings?”

Because the experience of someone who has shot 10 weddings per year for 5 years versus someone who has shot 25 weddings per year for 2 years is about the same.

Instead, ask: “How many weddings have you shot as the primary photographer?”

Here’s Amanda’s opinion on level of experience by number of weddings shot:

< 25 weddings: Newbie, flying by the seat of their pants (but hopefully have set themselves up by second shooting with an experienced photographer)
25-50 weddings: Starting to get their shit together
50-100 weddings: Intermediate; have done enough weddings to have seen a lot of stuff and learned how to deal with it
100+ weddings: Experienced, have pretty much seen everything

Very important: are you represented in the photographer’s portfolio?

If you’re not white, this is going to be critical. Like basically everything, cameras and editing presets and a host of other technical photography stuff are all full of white privilege. If you have dark skin, you’ll want to make sure that it’s edited appropriately. So make sure you see other people of color in their portfolio and that their skin tones look the way you want yours to.

Ok, so you found a photographer you like. Now what?

Schedule a meeting with them. You know you like their work, but do you like them? On your wedding day, your photographer (and your planner) will be all up in your business all day long. So use your meeting to interview them! Do they make you feel comfortable and safe? Like you can spend time with them? Do you feel awkward with them?

And it goes both ways: a photographer’s job is to figure out why people like you and then capture that. So… they really ought to like you two.

In short, you need enough rapport to trust each other and hang out for a while. If you can’t carry on a conversation with them for a short initial consultation, then you might not feel super comfortable with them all day long at your wedding. You also want to make sure your energy jives with them.

Read the goddamn contract. Every single word. Make sure you understand it. Ask questions if you don’t.

On copyright and photography

It’s a somewhat complicated topic and it’s worth a listen.

“What kind of gear do you use?”

This question is a waste of time. Instead, ask, “Do you have gear? And do you have backup gear?”

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