The scary new wedding photography trend: 10 tips to avoid getting burned

Guest post by Mike Allebach
(Photo by Mike Allebach)
(Photo by Mike Allebach)

Imagine getting your wedding photos back and having them… well… suck. Blurry shots, bad lighting, cheesy poses. What happened to the gorgeous shots you saw in your photographer's portfolio?

Welcome to the scary new trend in wedding photography: Fraudtography.

Here's how it works: a brand-spanking-new photographer wants to shoot weddings, but it's kind of hard to book a wedding if you don't have any wedding photos in your portfolio. So they “borrow” a few fabulous images from established photographers and pass them off as their own.

It's illegal, but that's the photographer's problem. Your problem is that you see a portfolio filled with dazzling images, but you actually get an inexperienced photographer who's cutting his teeth on your wedding day.

Just last month, Offbeat Bride reader Marian Schembari wrote:

I had been speaking with a few wedding photographers… one in particular caught my eye. He had a ton of positive reviews and great examples on his website. He was also the least expensive by a lot. This worried me since I've always been taught “if it's too good to be true, it probably is.” So my friend and I asked [to see a full wedding]. The photographer got back to me right away with TONS of examples… photos significantly better than what he had on his website.

But my friend and I have sensitive bullshit radars. I immediately did a reverse Google image search on the photos he had sent me. Lo and behold, they were all over other people's websites. They were taken from photographers from France and India and Miami. Some had even won awards, and he'd just stolen them. Thankfully I lucked out.

That brought back bad memories for me. In 2008, a Russian photographer copied my website, added a few images from Moscow for that “personal touch,” and used my logo and images to promote his company. When I contacted him, he blamed his web designer.

Photographer Corey Ann, who launched the Photo Stealers website — StopStealingPhotos.com — to combat this trend, told me, “My best guess would be 5% of all photographers are using stolen images of some kind for advertisements.” Yikes. That's no Minor Threat.

So here are 10 ways to figure out if your photographer is the real deal, or if they're faking it:

Check out the photo element data: That's Mike Allebach's photo on another photographer's website!
Check out the photo element data: That's Mike Allebach's photo on another photographer's website!

1. Look for consistency

The best photographers have distinctive personal styles. If one wedding has a vintage wash, one has a deep matte edit, and one is clean and vibrant — and they're all equally amazing — there's a chance you may be looking at photos from three different photographers.

2. Meet the photographer in person

Trust your gut when meeting with a photographer. If something seems off, it's a sign that you aren't a good match. If they don't have sample albums to show you, take that as a red flag — it could mean they don't have access to the high-res image files.

3. Ask for references or reviews

If you don't see many reviews online, ask for references. If they have lots of raving fans, it's a good sign.

4. Check their social media

If the style and the quality of the photos on their Facebook page seem much better — or much worse — than what you've seen on their website, that's a bad sign.

5. Look for the wedding party

Bridal parties and guests usually make their way into at least a few photos in a photographer's portfolio. If you don't see anyone except a bride and groom, there's a chance your photographer's wedding “experience” only comes from workshops, styled shoots, and hired models — totally legit, but not the same as shooting a wedding in real-time.

6. Ask to see an entire event

When you see a whole event, you'll get an idea of the type of photos you can expect on your wedding day. Online wedding portfolios are wonderful, but they're a highlight reel of every wedding the photographer ever photographed. Ask to see a few full weddings, and you'll get a better idea of their abilities.

7. Consult with a wedding planner

Wedding planners have heard plenty of feedback from past clients and can recommend photographers who play nicely with others. [They can also save you money. -Eds]

8. Pay attention to geographical clues

I always would cringe when The Office would show driving scenes that were obviously shot in Southern California, not Scranton, PA. Unless the photographer is a destination wedding photographer, their photos should match the local scenery. A gorgeous mountain wedding in Idaho? Yes. A gorgeous mountain wedding in Florida? Not so much. Feel free to ask the story behind photos that don't match your local area.

9. Google the photographer's name

If your photographer has been caught stealing before, there's a chance that someone like Photo Stealers wrote about it.

10. Use a reverse image search tool

If you're still unsure about a photographer, run a few of their photos through Google Reverse Image search or Tineye.com, and it'll list any URLs where the photo has been used. (Photographers use this, too, to catch people who have stolen our photos!)

Bottom line: Trust your gut

If it seems too good to be true, don't be afraid to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Check out these other tips for choosing an amazing photographer:

Have you had experience with a fraudtographer — or any other shady vendors? What tipped you off? Let us know in the comments!

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This post features vendors from our curated Offbeat Bride Wedding Vendor Directory. They're awesome and we love them.

Comments on The scary new wedding photography trend: 10 tips to avoid getting burned

  1. Beyond meeting the photographer – see if you can get in an engagement shoot. Many photographers offer them as a part of their package. Gives you a chance to get comfortable with the photographer and check out their style.

    • My best friend’s hubby is a photographer on the side,. (Some of his prints have won awards. And the honeymoon pictures of Yosemite– As soon as they got back, he edited their honeymoon pictures and did a slideshow for immediate family and close friends. You could SEE and distinguish a tiny speck on the mountain as a mountain climber! The mountain in question takes 2 or 3 days to climb. It is incredible!)
      As an incentive, if he’s hired to photograph your wedding, the engagement photos are free! His pictures are so excellent, I wish he would photograph my wedding, but I want him IN the pictures, too. Rock and a hard place, my friend. xp

  2. Yes to most of this. However, I would *not* consider the lack of a sample album at a meeting with the photographer a red flag.

    • Sadly, one shooter in my area had managed to steal an entire (low-res) wedding from someone’s site in Georgia (I think). So even having an entire wedding that can be shown on an iPad isn’t foolproof. MULTIPLE entire weddings would be the thing to look for if there are no sample albums.

  3. Well, this is bad news.
    To those photos just starting out and thinking of doing this until they get a portfolio, consider doing some charity work first, that’s a good way to build a portfolio without making enemies.
    My first year out, I realized I needed a portfolio, so I took out ads in online classifieds offering to do weddings at cost (that is, gas, and materials consumed for album, etc. Came out to about 200 bucks). When I met with potential clients I was completely honest with them about my experience and goals.
    There are some people with tight budgets that can really benefit from this, and the fact is if you wow them, they will be more than happy to write testimonials, plus you get a portfolio that really showcases what you can do.

    • We took a “risk” and hired an old high school friend that did photography mostly for fun but wanted to expand her business. She had lots of second shooter experience, but hadn’t been much of a primary.

      It was WAY cheaper than any other option and turned out better than I could have hoped.

      Point is, it’s not always a big risk to hire a less-experienced photographer. You help them get more experience and, in turn, you get a darn good deal on photography.

      • Key element is that they are honest about the experience level. We had pretty new photographers and we knew that out the gate, but they also didn’t lie about anything (experience, their work, etc)

      • I don’t think it is bad to hire less experienced photographers IF they are honest about their level of experience. When I shot my first wedding I went to the couple that sought me out and said “Hey, I have never done this, I NEED you to know what you’re getting here, please understand this.” And they both understood and still went with me because they couldn’t afford someone with more experience. The point here is that people just have to understand what they are getting. If you’re a beginner and you’re stealing photos from a photog that has been in the business for 30 years to market yourself… not okay. Not okay for the photog youre stealing from, not okay for your potential clients. Just be okay with being honest and you’ll find a way to get your foot in the door.

        • EXACTLY. We had no problems with the fact that photographers just starting out need experience. We had been led to believe at least one, if not both, of our photographers had more experience than they did. Problem is, we had hired who we thought were more-experienced people because we knew we were going to be working with both a time crunch due to an afternoon wedding and a disabled bride who required things to move swiftly in order to preserve my limited energy (and let’s be honest: patience too). We connected with these photographers really well, and I think we would have hired them anyway. But I’m not sure either one of them was as experienced as we’d have liked, and that caused a lot of missed opportunities for both speed & creativity. We could have re-arranged things & done more personal research with enough notice that it was required.

    • Thank you! The very first thought I had was, ‘but how do good ones do it?’ Of course, it’s been a very hot, dopey day where I am and what you wrote makes perfect sense.

      • That’s the problem with any job – everyone wants experience before they will give you a job but you can’t get experience till someone gives you a job! So it’s not a dopey question! I did a promotion; my first year going it alone and I offered all my services for free, portraits, weddings (budget packages though) etc. I built up a fair portfolio. This article makes my blood run cold slightly! It’s fraudulent and the photographers concerned (the fraudsters) could actually be sued by the photographers that actually own the pictures!! Do they not realise that?! One photographer gets a whiff that you are using their pictures, BAM you are out of business and nobody will ever trust you again and they will probably sue you to the point where you have to close whatever fledgling business you have! Don’t do it!!

  4. Unfortunately this is also a trend among Florists and Cake people. Theft of other photos uploaded onto a site etc. It’s illegal Intellectual Property theft to the original sources, and seriously dishonest to clients.
    A version of this happened to us a few years ago by a fresh out of fashion school girl who literally copy pasted the entire Seams Couture website on to her own page and added her photos. If she’s 25 years old how on earth did she get 25 years EXPERIENCE so quickly??? Right.
    Mike is right, meet your Vendors in person and ask questions.

    • I have encountered this when I was looking for a baker. I checked out the website of the first place my family recommended, and I noticed that the photos were either professional quality or really poor. A quick reverse image search proved that all of the professional quality photos were from external sites, and that the baker had even taken camera photos of images on her computer. The photo she was using as a logo wasn’t hers, and she had even left the watermarks from other bakeries on some of the photos in her gallery!
      As an artist, it makes me furious that this woman would have such disrespect for another person’s intellectual property. I didn’t care how good her cupcakes might have tasted, I was sure to hire someone else.

  5. This happens in the cake business all the time too. Inexperienced bakers steal photos of great cakes and pass them off to clients as their own. If the client doesn’t do the same type of homework mentioned in this article, they just might end up with blurry pictures of a horrible cake too!

  6. Sadly a problem accross many industries. I am a creator of alternative bouquets and have lost count of the amount of times this has happened. I watermark my photos but still they do it.

    I have heard so many excuses from people as to why they do it, I don’t believe any of them. My *insert family member here* just died, my web designer did it, I didn’t know it was wrong, you didn’t have the inage watermarked so it’s ok (my old images are not, but it’s still illegal lol)

    It’s a frustrating waste of a business owners time to police it and leaves consumers at risk of being ripped of. Makes people wary of buying remotely, which affects business.

    Nicole Answer

    • Agreed that this is across all industries. As a publisher, if I spent my time sending take-down notices to people who have reproduced our content elsewhere on the web, I wouldn’t have time to produce any new content.

      Basically: if you put content on the internet, it’s difficult to control how people use it. Make plans accordingly. 🙂

    • This post has some good advice!

      I agree that this is a problem for many industries. Just paying attention to some of the vendor discussions that have cropped up over the years on the forums I belong to (I’m a stationer)… sometimes another stationer will copy a design, and sometimes it’s even actually taking the photograph of an invitation from another stationer’s website to use on their own website. For some reason, this happens a lot with etsy, probably because of all the newbies there. Aside from the major copyright issue, not all printing equipment is the same, and not everyone is as good as assembling things like layered invitations.

      I’ve read that even several officiants have had the wording & images from their websites copied by newbie/dubious officiants.

  7. That’s really too bad that people feel like they have to do this. Before I took photography in college, I had a tonne of friends ask me to shoot their weddings, but I turned them all down because wedding photos are a big deal and I didn’t want to mess it up and ruin their photos of their big day. However, once I had graduated from my photography college course and was ready to start shooting weddings, I realized that I had no wedding portfolio, so what I did was I asked some of my friends to dress up in wedding dresses so that I could practice taking photos and to show some sort of portfolio to people. Soon some of my closest friends were getting married, so I offered to be their wedding photographer as their wedding present. They just had to pay for the film, processing and any out of pocket for me. I soon had a wedding portfolio and then I went from there. There is no need to steal from other people’s hard work in order to get into the business. It just takes your own hard work to get you there.

    • A couple friends getting into photography & catering searched around to other newbie wedding industry people and put on a series of staged weddings. They went so far as to work with real timing, to try to get some experience with the stress & the deadlines & variables they could run into–making a real cake, not doing cardboard with icing, a costume change, did a couple with photos pre-ceremony and a couple with all photos post-ceremony, some with locations changes & some which went directly into the reception. The newbie caterer used the events as client tasting opportunities, as well. I think it was a great way to gain a more complete kind of experience, and aside from the actual cost of food (which since they ended up eating the food, they all kind of chipped in to cover) because the venues were either free or willing to donate use of the space they were able to do it with a very low budget. Side benefit, when they had clients asking for recommendations or references, they all had at least one vendor of each kind they could suggest whom they’d worked with. Yay networking!

  8. good to know! …im about to hire a photographer and this stopped me in my tracks….I want great pcitures that can be featured online …I’ll keep up the search ….

  9. Almost happened to me. Last year at a bridal show, this photographer tried to give us a good deal. I wasn’t a fan of his work but my frugal fiancé saw the price tag. To convince him, we looked through his website and reverse google the pics. BOOM! FAKE!

    In the end, we went for quality yet within our budget. She’s well known in our area and books more than a year in advance. The advice I can give to brides out there: quality over quantity. It’s better to have less hours with quality pictures than an all-in-one package with shitty pics.

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