Chemistry, price, and a "bait & switch" scheme: real talk tips for how to choose a wedding photographer

Photographer Mike AllebachThey ♥ OBB; we ♥ them has given us the intel on photographer pet peeves and things wedding photographers want to tell you, but can't. He's our guru and we've got more to learn.

How to choose a wedding photographer from an offbeat pro who's walked the walk
Photos by Mike Allebach Photography

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: choosing a wedding photographer is a daunting task. Type “wedding photographer” into Google and you’ll get a mere 97 million results — it can be overwhelming, to say the least. When anyone can slap a photography page on Facebook and claim to be in business, it’s even harder to find a wedding photographer you can trust.

How can you weed through the endless options and find the wedding photographer who will capture what you're about? The first step is to figure out who your top contenders are. How do you narrow down thousands of photographers to just a handful of favorites? Start by asking for referrals from your family, friends, and other wedding vendors.

If you see a photo you love around the web, check the photo credit and see if the photographer is located nearby. Search online directories for photographers who fit your needs. Once you have a manageable list, start looking through their blogs, taking notes, and sending out inquiries. The next step is to choose your photographer match…

How to choose a wedding photographer from an offbeat pro who's walked the walk

How to choose a wedding photographer

I’ve photographed hundreds of weddings over the past nine years, and I’ve picked up a few fool-proof tips along the way. Here are the six most important factors to consider when choosing a wedding photographer (and one word of warning you can’t afford to ignore!).

Match your style

Don’t hire a talented photographer and assume they’ll be able to replicate all your favorite Pinterest photos. It's important that you love their actual style. Wedding photographers often won't or can't recreate images you found online — they want to capture your wedding in their own way because that's what they do best.

Be aware: no photographer can totally change how your wedding looks. Yes, we have a few tricks for making a basic banquet hall look like a glittery wonderland, but we can’t make an indoor ceremony look like a sunny garden wedding.

Last but not least, always ask to see a complete wedding album or online gallery. Portfolios are a highlight reel, but you need to know your photographer can handle different lighting situations and tell a whole story rather than getting one lucky shot. The posing should feel natural, not stilted. Can you imagine yourself in the photos? If you can, it’s time to move to the next factor… one which is too often overlooked.

How to choose a wedding photographer from an offbeat pro who's walked the walk

Chemistry

When it comes to wedding photos, personality matters. No matter how skilled a photographer is, you need to like him or her. You'll be spending a lot of time with this person, so I can’t over-stress the importance of a good connection. Are they enthusiastic about your wedding? Do they mesh well with your energy level? The best thing to do when being the subject of a photo is to be natural. If they’re keyed up and you’re more low-key, you might not be on the same page when your wedding day rolls around.

The technical stuff

Digital photo processing is the recipe your photographer uses to edit the photos. It’s a matter of taste. Make sure you like the way the photos are processed. Are the photos mainly black and white, or are they rich in color? Were they shot on film, or processed to emulate film? Make sure you like their finished photos — and not just the potential for awesomeness — because once a photo is processed, it’s cooked and finished. Professional photographers usually won’t hand over raw files for you to edit; it would be like a chef handing you a raw steak. Processing is an integral part of creating a photograph, so be wary of any photographer who’s willing to let you do half of their work.

How to choose a wedding photographer from an offbeat pro who's walked the walk

Money, honey

You know the saying: “You get what you pay for.” Wedding photography is no exception. I’ve watched bargain photographers go out of business because they realized their low prices couldn’t sustain a business — and what happens to your photos when a photographer suddenly closes up shop? So what should you expect to pay?

To get to the bottom of the great pricing debate, I asked full-time photographers what they are actually charging. If you’re spending less than $3,000 for a full day of coverage, you likely have a hobbyist or someone who’s still new to the industry. In a metro area, you can expect to spend around $4,000 to $8,000 for eight hours of coverage, an album, and two full-time photographers. Luxury and celebrity wedding photographers typically run from $8,000 to $18,000.

When budgeting for your wedding, decide what is most important to both of you. If photography is priority number one, expect to shuffle a few other expenses around to accommodate. I’ve had clients spend 50% or more of their budget on my photography. Know what you want, and plan a budget that reflects your priorities.

Professionalism

It’s important that your photographer runs their business like… well, a business. Google their name (you’d be surprised what can come up!). Check online reviews. The occasional bad review is par for the course, but if the same issue pops up over and over, it’s a red flag.

See if they’ve been features on blogs (like here!), in magazines, on vendor websites, or in newspapers. Make sure they haven’t been featured on StopStealingPhotos.com, a website that tracks “fauxtographers” with a history of stealing images and passing them off as their own work.

If you find an amazing photographer at a quarter of the price of everyone else, there’s a good chance they fall into this category. Make sure your prospective photographer is attentive. When you send an inquiry, you should hear back quickly. Occasionally emails go to spam, so consider calling if you don’t hear back within 48 hours. Any photographer who doesn’t respond to a call and an email should be immediately removed from your search. During the whole process, trust your intuition. If something doesn’t seem right, the photographer is not a good fit. Period.

How to choose a wedding photographer from an offbeat pro who's walked the walk

Albums and other keepsakes

The days of receiving nothing but a disc of digital files are coming to an end. Couples are remembering why it’s so important to have heirlooms on display, not just in a desk drawer on a USB drive. Ask to see samples of wedding albums and other products. Make sure the photographer offers a high-quality product line to help you show off your images after the wedding.

And finally…

The big bait and switch mill

WARNING: Beware the Bait & Switch Photography Mills. Watch out for “wedding photography mills” where you talk to a salesperson, view the best sample images from their huge team of photographers, and end up stuck with whichever photographer is available on your wedding date. One easy tip-off: If their portfolio is amazing, their price is unbelievably low, and they promise to “match” you with a photographer as your date gets closer, you’re probably dealing with a mill. And this gives you no way to gauge any of the qualities we've talked about.

Don’t take the gamble. Wedding photography isn’t one size fits all. The best wedding photographer for you may not be the best wedding photographer for someone else. Be sure to trust your intuition; anything that seems to be too good to be true usually is.

Remember, after your wedding ends, you’ll have the photos, the rings, the dress, and each other. If you find the right wedding photographer, your photos will serve as a timeless reminder of the love you felt and the good times you shared on your special day.

Read more of Mike's wedding photography wisdom here:

  1. I have to disagree with a claim in this article: "If you’re spending less than $3,000 for a full day of coverage, you likely have a hobbyist or someone who’s still new to the industry. In a metro area, you can expect to spend around $4,000 to $8,000 for eight hours of coverage, an album, and two full-time photographers."

    I live in a smaller metro area, and photographers for the coverage you describe are more like $2000-$4000. Hobbyists or new photographers trying to build their portfolios are even cheaper.

    3 agree
    • Ha! I just sat down to write this same thing! I found that paragraph really insulting and very misleading. A better piece of advice is to do some research on what good photography costs in your area before you lock yourself into a certain budget.

      3 agree
    • I also agree with you, Sara. It all depends on the market. What the standard is for Albuquerque, where I live, may not be the same for Central Florida (I got married in Orlando and spent much more for my photographer there that I would have here) or NYC Metro. We also average $2,000.00 + tax starting prices here for professionals.

      Other than that, this article was pretty spot-on. We've had clients go with someone else who better fit their style, and that was perfectly okay with us. Buyer's remorse is the LAST thing we want! Every couple should read this article during their wedding preparation process if photography is a top item on their list of must-haves for their wedding.

      2 agree
    • He did say a whole day right? I assume 10 hours. Then 2 k is def on the lower end for the amount of work required.
      It's OK to make a living as a photographer.
      Never understood why people need to defend their "affordable" prices. If that's what you charge then great.

      1 agrees
    • Agreed. It all depends on your region. We had a friendor as our photographer and she gave us a mad discount but in doing other vendor research the general price range for photography in our area was about $900-$1,500.

      1 agrees
    • Agree–this average is very high for many areas. Asking people who got married recently in the same area as you will–and who got photos you like–is a much better practice than assuming some national standard.

      3 agree
    • While I don't think Mike is completely off, I agree with you that there are a few points to help clarify this. First, he mentions a FULL day of coverage. If that means 8+ hours, I would expect the cost to be higher, but not everybody needs that. I work with couples having a simple ceremony on the beach in Hawaii and they often need a maximum of a few hours which lets us offer lower prices even though I am a full time professional photographer. The other thing to consider is location. Pricing can differ dramatically based on where the wedding is taking place.

      The most important thing is that the couple loves the style of their photographer and if they find a style they love for a good deal, then good for them!

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