Congratulations on your recent engagement. I'm sure if you're looking at photographers, you've started to realize planning the perfect wedding feels like a full-time job and the options can be a bit overwhelming. This little system on choosing the perfect wedding photographer for your wedding is foolproof. If you follow it exactly, you'll know exactly what you're going to get from your wedding photos. It's applicable to all budget levels, so take a minute to read it and you'll be a step ahead in at least one aspect of your planning.
This may seem obvious, but competency should be your number one criteria in choosing a wedding photographer. Everything else is secondary. They can be the nicest person in the world, but if the photos aren't very good, who cares? You're not looking for a friend, you're looking for great photos of your wedding. But gauging competency is sometimes difficult. The work we all put on our websites and in our sample albums is our best work. And, unfortunately, that can sometimes be deceiving.
Imagine if you could go to someone else's wedding, in your pajamas, and walk around and look at the work of your prospective vendors. You could see what the flowers look like after 5 hours, taste the food and cake and watch the dj or band as they engage the crowd - all without being seen. You have that option with your photographer. You just need to know how to ask.
Start your search by gathering names from friends, family and vendors and by searching websites of local wedding photographers. Spend some time on websites, read reviews and imagine yourself in the photos you see. Narrow your search to your 3-5 favorites.
Contact the photographers by email and make one simple request: If you have my date available, please show me 2-3 full weddings from the past year, preferably from the time of day of your wedding. A full wedding is the gallery they give to the clients, not just a selection of images in an album or on a website. There should be hundreds of photos in a full gallery. Why email, why not simply call them? By nature, photographers have great people skills and as a result, many photographers are great salespeople. They will want to meet you before they show you the galleries. They'll say things like, "I'm happy to show you that, no problem, but let's meet and make sure we're compatible before we get to that part." That translates into, "Come let me sell you on my services and we may never even have to get to the pesky full wedding thing." Stick to your guns. Don't skip the initial research. 2-3 full weddings will give you a great overall picture of their style, coverage and skills.
If the photographer doesn't want to show you full galleries, move on. They could very well be hiding something and who wants to take that risk? Don't fall for the privacy response (" I'm very considerate of my client's privacy, so I can't show you that.") I've seen that response given to newbies in forums to use when they don't want to have to show their full weddings. You're not asking for specific weddings, just 2-3 of the photographer's choice. If they show weddings on their website, then they should be willing to show you full weddings.
After looking through several full wedding galleries of images (don't worry, you can move quickly, what you're looking for will be apparent as you go), narrow down your list to 2 or 3 photographers. Phone or email your narrowed down prospects and set up appointments. Pay attention to how quickly they respond. Ask an additional question in a separate email and continue to monitor response time. This is not to waste their time (don't send a long list of questions), but to gauge whether they'll get back to you on a timely basis. One of the biggest complaints couples have of the vendors after their wedding is un-returned calls or emails. Don't expect minutes - good photographers are busy people - but you should hear back within the day, unless you are emailing on the weekend, when they might be shooting or taking a precious off day. If it's a weekend, a Monday morning response is more than acceptable.
At the actual meeting, you can start to differentiate by personality and compatibility. Because at this point, you should only be meeting with people who are very talented, shoot the style of photos you like and respond to you in a timely manner. Now, simply pick the person you like the best, who offers albums and packages you like and who fits within your budget.
Many photographers are better sale's people than they are shooters. Do your homework and image research, as described above, so you won't become a victim of a weak photographer's personal charms. Digital photography brought a lot of photographers into the business who were lured by the relatively large sums wedding photographers appear to make compared to other types of photography (although it costs a lot more to shoot a wedding). But the skills and equipment needed to manage a wedding photography business are very different from a standard portrait or landscape photographer. Another reason to see full weddings is to make sure you are looking at actual weddings they've shot and not just pretty pictures of models.
There are keywords to look out for when doing your research. If a photographer calls themselves a "natural light photographer" make sure you see weddings where they've shot in dark places, particularly if your wedding is at night. Weddings require photographers to be able to handle all kinds of lighting situations and really good natural light photographers have lighting equipment on hand (and the skill to use it) when the need arises. If you want group family photographs and portraits make sure a photographer who refers to themselves as a "photojournalist" knows check here how to shoot them and is willing to do so. A true "PJ" photographer shoots everything as it happens and doesn't set up any shots. If they're really good (and you'll know because you'll have seen 2-3 full wedding galleries), that's great, if they're not, you'll just get a bunch of snap shots.
Once you are at the meeting (after following the process above to determine who to meet), ask questions about what's important to you. Photographers have very different ways of working and don't assume because your friend's photographer allowed them to post their images on Facebook that all photographers will. Read the contracts they give you carefully. If you have questions, call and get the answers before you sign. It's not fair to a photographer to disagree later when all of the information was in front of you in black and white.
As I said above, this system of searching for a wedding photographer will work at every budget level. Everyone starts somewhere and if your budget won't accommodate someone with a lot of experience, you'll have all the tools to judge the people in your price range if you follow the above steps. There are bargains to be had, but you really need to pay close attention to the work they produce to make sure your bargain doesn't turn into bad wedding photos. Follow this system to the letter and you can rest assured you'll know exactly what you're getting from your wedding photographer.