What Do I Need To Know to Choose The Right Wedding Photographer?

So, you just got engaged! Yay and hooray (and congrats!). You’re picking venues and getting excited about all the magic in store for you, right? But if one of your big priorities is preserving the fleeting memories and magic you’ll be making, then photography is probably your next step. Maybe it feels a little overwhelming to start thinking about… after all, this is probably new territory, and you likely have a whole lot of research to do to figure out what matters to you, what your style is, and what you’re looking for in a collaboration with your photographer.

We decided to put together some tips to help you figure out what to ask, what to look for, and what to consider in order to make sure you have your best day ever with the best team ever. Here in Southern California, particularly in San Diego, Palm Springs, and LA where we most often shoot, we have found there are looooots of choices—and that can be overwhelming! So we want to give you some guidelines that will hopefully help you get started on making the best choice for you and your plans.

Now, let me be clear: we’re the first to say that we’re not the right fit for everyone. It’s not a shameful secret, it’s the honest truth. And that’s the way we like it! Anyone who promises the moon and to be anything you ask… well, they’re misleading you. Our style, values, and approach to telling your story help to align us with clients who are a great match. So that’s what I wanted to share a little bit about, to help you as you figure out what makes a photographer a good fit for you, and how to ask the right questions that will help you make a perfect choice for your big day. We’re here to help you find a local wedding photographer that will tell your story in the best way for you. So, let’s begin!

Set your priorities
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01.Set your priorities

Before you get ahead of yourselves, my dears—start here. Right here. Sit down with your partner, and ask yourself what’s most important to you about your day. What matters most about your plans, what matters least, what you’re most looking forward to, and what you couldn’t really care less about.

I’m not just talking about photography, but about the whole wedding experience. Maybe you are looking most forward to that moment you are announced as married! Maybe you’re total foodies and are most excited about putting together an amazing menu! Maybe you just can’t wait to party all night long with all your favorite people!

It’s important to note that each partner’s entitled to have different priorities, as long as you can respect each other’s top needs and integrate them at the top of your priority list. When we were planning our big day, my partner and I sat down to talk about priorities. I told him mine was probably obvious: amazing photography and having a blast with all our friends and family. He nodded, and then said, great, for him, an open bar is key to having a blast, and he also wanted to be in a full Scottish traditional kilt. Good to know, since I definitely wasn’t expecting that last one—that was a left-field moment!

Because I better understood his priorities (speaking to his culture and history) and he better-understood mine (preserving the fleeting magic of our best night ever), we were way more aligned as a couple. Once we were on the same page, then we were really ready to explore photography because we had a better sense of what we were looking for… someone who would reflect our priorities, someone in whose work who we could see a reflection of those values.

Establish how you want to feel on your big day
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02.Establish how you want to feel on your big day

In keeping with figuring out your top priorities, I think talking about your ideal emotional experience is incredibly important and too-often overlooked. How do you want your day to feel? Do you want it to be raucous and wild and jubilant and high-energy? Are you envisioning lots of tender tears and moments of meaningful connection? Are you imagining a grand and traditional experience that harkens back to your parents’ and grandparents’ celebrations? Are you prone to anxiety and just want it to be a really calm and relaxed, stress-free experience? Are you just wanting to have a chill AF union and then hit the tacos and booze? Do you just want to laugh and dance all night long?

The answer is usually some combination of all of these, but there’s generally a pretty clear frontrunner for what your ideal experience feels like. And once you figure this out, you’ll have an easier time recognizing the differences in how these kinds of experiences are captured.

As emotion-driven photographers, our approach to your day is built around telling the story of what it felt like to be there, both for you, and for your guests. So helping to support the emotional experience you want to have is super important to us!

Do an initial loose round of research
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03.Do an initial loose round of research

You might already be Googling things like “City X Wedding Photographer” and that’s a solid place to start gathering info! I think some other ways to get rolling would include scoping out relevant hashtags on instagram, or checking out relevant accounts, such as your venue, where they may share images from photographers who’ve shot there before. And of course, the always-reliable approach of asking around to friends and family about vendors they loved.

Make sure you leave the pressure OFF. This is just a start point, a way to explore the question of what do you like and what don’t you like. You don’t have to have it figured all out at this point or even start reaching out to people, it’s just a way to keep your eye on options so you better understand what speaks to your sensibilities, aesthetics, and priorities.

Now, be sure to be wary: many venues or other vendors may have a ‘preferred vendors’ list, however, what few couples realize is that some are pay-to-play. Basically, just advertisements that allow a venue to collect money for referring a given vendor. As a result, these “trusted” referrals may actually be significantly less reliable, so be careful to ask about this when being provided with a referral list. But not to worry, we gotchu: our Vendors We Love page is an exclusively unpaid list of vendors we’ve worked with several times, and can attest to the great experience they’ve offered to our clients. Not to mention their reliability, spirit of collaboration, and of course, talent. Just great folks we’d be jazzed to work with again.

Identify your preferred shooting style
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04.Identify your preferred shooting style

Do you like to be natural and candid and in-the-moment, and are looking for someone to be a relaxed guide in helping you stay immersed in your day? Do you prefer to be directed and posed to perfection, and are hoping for glamorous Hollywood-style imagery that makes your day feel like a movie? These are two wildly different approaches to how photographers may shoot your day. Neither is ‘right’, it’s just a matter of what will resonate for you. In our case, we’re very much the former.

For us, while we certainly won’t be secret-creepers hiding in the bushes (ew), we approach your day from a natural and organic place. It’s all about you focused on having a good time, and us creating beautiful images that reflect that experience without ever having to feel like you’re performing. We are very much narrative-driven storytellers, and for our kind of clients, the favorite images they’ll want on their wall or in their album will reflect the most joyful memories, their people having a blast, and all the in-between moments that are intangibly magical.

Many other photographers may create amazing images but for the latter scenario we described, it’s a lot more like being on a Hollywood set, with assistants, lighting setups, and sets. This is a more structured and controlled approach with go-to poses and plans, where the photographer is in control, like a movie director executing a carefully-planned performance. Many luxury weddings have every moment planned along these lines. Very different from our approach, but as I said—neither is right or wrong, just what’s better aligned with your priorities and values.

Shooting style should definitely include what your photographer considers important and how they approach the day from the emotional and artistic through the technical and experienced. So consider elements like:

  • Traditional and classic or modern and unusual?
  • Balance of candid documentary photojournalism to posed/styled editorial content
  • Level of artistic creativity in compositions and uniqueness
  • The way movement, dynamic action, and emotion come through
  • Ability and approach to shooting in any kind of light
  • How their photos make you feel

Above all else, remember that in all likelihood, your photographer will approach your day with a mix of styles, approaches, and priorities. In our case, we may (depending entirely on your vibe) shoot details in an editorial manner, getting ready really candidly, a ceremony with a traditional spin, classic portraiture for family groupings, and then wild dynamic creative stuff on the dance floor. Or some other combination! We bring to the table experience with many approaches, so that we can best capture your union in a way that will help tell the story as you experienced it. So when you start talking to a photographer you’re interested in, a great question to ask is ‘What will our experience be like working together?’ or ‘How do you approach shooting?’

Identify your preferred aesthetic style
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05.Identify your preferred aesthetic style

Now we’re in the meat of this thing, since how your photos look is obviously a big factor in finding the right fit. It’s time to learn to recognize the difference between styles. You don’t have to be an expert and some of us definitely don’t fit into a single simple box. But there are some identifiable directions that people lean in, and it’s good to understand the difference between them. This way you can nail down if you have preferences and you’ll be armed with the vocabulary to ask potential photographers about. Here are some common distinctions:

  • Light and airy: Very brightly-exposed, delicate quality, pastels and soft tones, feels pretty/dainty/girly/romantic. This is often referred to as ‘Fine Art’ style. Tends to be more popular with traditionalists and classic approaches, and film photographers for whom the slower medium allows them to approach with a more posey/directorial style. Let’s call this style rom-com.
  • Dark and moody: Under-exposed and often a bit desaturated, generally leans dramatic and feels more intense and cinematic, popular with the hipster crowd. Right now the strong trend is overly warm skin tones (aka everyone looks a little over-tanned/orangey). Perhaps we’ll call this style film noir.
  • Playful with soulful colors: I honestly think we fall between genres (and you can see the spectrum between the two above suggests they’re at either extreme end), so I think this would probably be the best way to describe us–we celebrate emotion, fun, and rich, delicious color from an earthy and hearty, honest, but nostalgic place. We don’t shy away from color, but we give it a loving treatment that’s just a little stylized. You might call this one quirky, and a little inspired by Wes Anderson.

One thing that may be helpful to point out is that if you feel you need to ask a photographer if they will do things in a different style for you… they may not be the right fit. If you love a certain aesthetic or approach, then you should stick with people who speak to that so nobody is compromising or working in a unfamiliar style/approach.

Have a budget and requirements talk
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06.Have a budget and requirements talk

This is definitely a talk that many avoid because it can be a little tricky to navigate, but it will help ensure you and your partner are on the same page with setting expectations. That way, you’ll be able to confidently match up with photographers that are within your price range, and save yourself the headache of confusion surrounding that question.

Of course, it’s likely to be all new territory for you! One common problem many engaged couples make is setting a random budget before actually have a sense of what things cost. There can be significant variations depending on where you live, so just to give you a sense of ranges, in Southern California, experienced, reliable, quality wedding photography pricing generally falls between $3000-6000, with ultraluxury wedding photography stretching upwards of that, and budget photography below (be wary of this territory as quality, reliability, experience, and service can really suffer at this range).

Of course, that certainly depends on what is included in a given package. So you’ll need to consider:

  • How many hours of coverage you’ll need (8-10 is average for us)
  • If a second shooter is included
  • If an engagement session is included
  • What their turnaround times are
  • What level of care and support is provided
  • What method of deliverables you want in your hands when it’s all over (such as an album, wall art, USB, etc).

A good thing to keep in mind is that many of our clients have looked back on their days and thought that certain things weren’t all that important and they’d have been fine spending less on them (ex: linens for some, appetizers for others, etc), but that photography is never one of those things. Many clients just regret not adding more coverage to their day—after all, when the confetti settles and all the food is eaten, it’s the photographs that keep those memories alive. Remember that just because one person’s package includes a million bells and whistles, they may not necessarily be offering the most quality, value, or positive experience.

Listen & learn from those you trust
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07.Listen & learn from those you trust

So, you may have already touched base for recommendations from friends and family that loved their vendors, right? We suggested that earlier, but what we left out was this: in addition to their suggestions of vendors they had a great experience with, be sure to ask them about what mattered to them most on their big days. In particular, ask them about the choices they made—what they’re glad about, what they wished they’d changed or approached differently, what was a problem in their schedule, and what they learned from the whole crazy process. Save yourselves headaches and mistakes!

Wedding planning is a lot and can sometimes feel a little like a second job, which can get a little dizzying. When in doubt (or when your friends and family’s taste levels or reliability are a little iffy), we’re also here to help. We’ve been shooting weddings for well over a decade and have learned a lot, and heard so much feedback from clients about their experiences. We are so happy to share and help advise you on what will work best for you.

Refine your list & check reviews
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08.Refine your list & check reviews

At this point, you should have a clearer sense of what you want your day and experience to feel like, what your preferred aesthetic style and shooting approach are, and what your concrete needs are, and what your shared priorities are. So let’s just pit-stop here to give yourselves a pat on the back. You done did good. You’re now ready to narrow your list thanks to these filters you’ve created on who will be a good fit for you.

One valuable point as you narrow is to check out reviews. We have been reviewed on Google, Wedding Wire, Yelp, and a few other spots, and after years of weddings, we have tons of 5-star feedback that is consistent, and speaks to what the experience is like in working together. So when scoping out reviews, searching for overall consistency is key. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you want to have complete confidence that your team has got your back, and can handle anything an unpredictible one-time-only event throws at them.

We recommend narrowing your choices to around three people that feel like the best match. You don’t want to have to chat with a million different people, but chatting with two or three can really help you get a personality feeling for each one. After all, your photographer will be with you for the vast majority of the day. So in addition to lining up in all the ways we mentioned, you just want to make sure you’ll feel great spending time with them, and that they’ll feel like part of your community on the big day.

Know what to ask in a consult
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09.Know what to ask in a consult

Setting up a meeting with a photographer whose work you love? There are a few questions we think get overlooked too often in situations where a couple was later no super happy with their photography experience.

While these questions may lean a little technical or boring, they can be a great way to help establish the kind of confidence in your team that lets you feel fully free to stay immersed in your day without the need to worry, to micromanage, or to compromise on the things that matter most to you. I know I mentioned trust once or twice or ten times already, and it’s for a good reason. You will have a better experience on your day and be happier with the results if you fully trust the people telling your story. A good photographer can make magic when everything goes right. A great photographer can make magic even when everything goes wrong.

  • Do they have backup equipment? This should be for all camera bodies, lenses, and flash gear.
  • How are they at adapting, for example to timeline changes or unexpected circumstances—weddings are unpredictable events, and don’t always go as planned.
  • Do they have experience working with diverse clients? This should include LGBTQ+ people, diverse body types, and people of all skin colors and faiths.
  • Are they equipped to handle any and all lighting situations? Indoor and outdoor ambient lighting can be extremely limited on wedding days. Sun, clouds, rain–weather can change on a dime. Capabilities with both on-camera and off-camera flash help to ensure your photographer can handle any tricky lighting, especially once the sun goes down. Ask to see examples of variety in different conditions if you don’t see it in their portfolio.
Trust your gut
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10.Trust your gut

This may seem obvious, but it’s the important final step. Once you’ve worked through all the previous steps, and you’ve narrowed things down, you should have a much stronger sense of clarity. It’ll be easier to listen to your gut and understand what’s speaking to you, what’s resonating most significantly.

You want to make sure you vibe well with your photographer, that you feel understood by them, respected, and appreciated. That you know they have your back, no matter if plans deviate and you have to adapt. That their storytelling approach and aesthetic style align well with the way you want to re-experience your memories after it’s all done. That they’re experienced, knowledgeable, equipped, capable, and talented. And that your priorities match theirs. Once you’ve had a chance to think about all of the above, the decision should be much easier!