picking the right photographer

So you’ve done the research, you’ve decided you want to invest in professional photography, you’ve picked out a few photographers you’d like to call. But what the heck are you supposed to ask them? You don’t know anything about photography, haven’t the faintest idea what an “educated” consumer is supposed to know in order to make the “right” choice. You’re afraid of making a fool of yourself if you do try and ask a few good questions. Read on. This post is for you.

It’s easy to get bogged down in making the “right” choice. It’s your wedding (or bar mitzvah or family reunion) and you want the photography to be perfect. But the hard part has been done. You’ve narrowed it down to a few artists whose work you like and prices you can afford. From here on out it’s really a matter of finding the person you feel most comfortable with. After all, they are going to be spending some potentially very intimate time with you, especially if it’s your wedding. You need to feel ok knowing they might see you during a very vulnerable moment, camera in hand, and trust that they’ll make an appropriate choice at the time.

When I was photographing a wedding in Key West a few years ago, the bride threw a temper tantrum while she was getting ready. My choice at the time was to fade into the woodwork, wait until she’d finished, and then continue my work in a calm and non-judgemental way. Understand, she’d already signed my contract. So she’d granted me the right to document the day and allowed me to use any of the images I took that day for any purpose. I was under no legal obligation not to photograph her in what was probably one of her more embarrassing moments, and could’ve published them if I’d wanted to. Of course I did not. Not a single frame was exposed of her misbehavior. The only people on this planet who witnessed it were her bridesmaids, her mother, her brother and me. Nobody will ever see it. Ever. You really have to trust that the person you’ve hired is going to make good judgements and be sensitive to whatever situation presents itself.

marathon key, florida, maternity, portrait, nathaniel johnston, photographer, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what kind of camera they use for your wedding photography or family pictures. Sure, a $15,000 Hasselblad (a medium or large format camera) is awesome, as are the amazing new Nikon D800 and Canon 5D Mark III. They really help artists in the creative process. But you’ve already established you like their work, so it shouldn’t much matter if they use a Hasselblad or a $600 Nikon D3200. It’s the artist you’re paying for, not the tools they use. So ask if you’re curious, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. The same thing applies for the lights or studio equipment they use.

What may end up being relevant is their approach to capturing and processing their images. If they don’t shoot film, ask them whether or not they shoot in the raw image file format. Raw files are minimally processed in the camera and are the highest quality. Someone who has their camera set to shoot jpeg files is being sloppy in my opinion. Yes, as I said earlier, you like their stuff, so what should it matter if they choose to shoot jpeg or raw? It might not. But raw files have a greater bit depth and dynamic range which enables more precise control during post production. Should something go wrong during the shoot, whether it’s harsh lighting outside during the wedding ceremony that tricks the cameras light meter into making a bad exposure or operator error, the raw files will make it easier for your photographer to recover what could be a good photo. So the implication is that they are experienced enough to have figured out it’s in their best interest to shoot in raw.

If they shoot film, ask where they get their film processed and who does their prints. If they say Walmart, I’d look for another photographer. Not to disparage Walmart or anybody who shops there, but Walmart’s not known for their quality film processing and printing. If the photographer says he or she does their own processing in their own darkroom, you’ve most likely scored a real photographer who is keenly interested in the post production process. I haven’t shot film or been in a darkroom in years (my darkroom is now the computer), so my opinion here may be dated. But in my experience, the darkroom is where artists hang out. I’ll include here photographers who consider their computer to be their darkroom so I don’t write myself into a corner here.

Speaking of post production, ask them what software they use to process their photos. The industry standard image editing applications are Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture or a combination of the three. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t at least do a little image correction in post production. I use Lightroom and Photoshop. If they do no post work, I would find it suspicious and might pick one of the other photographers on the list. Again, if their stuff is good, then their stuff is good. They might be just what you want. But their lack of a post production process implies otherwise.

Maternity Photo, New York, Massachusetts, Manhattan playground, Central Park, NJohnston Photography, Nathaniel Johnston, www.njohnstonphotography.com

What may be important to you is proximity. How far will you have to drive to get to their studio? Or will they come to you? That may be an important consideration if you’re 8 months pregnant and driving out for maternity portraits. If you do want them to come your way, ask them if you have to pay for their travel because you’ll have to factor that into your budget as well. Also, if they have to come to you they’ll probably bring an assistant. Are you paying extra for that? I’m willing to drive quite a way before I think about charging my clients for my travels. But it depends on the job. If it’s a $400 portrait session I won’t drive much more than an hour before I start charging extra for my expenses. But if they’ve hired me to shoot their wedding for $4000 I’m willing to travel quite a bit farther. It really depends on the situation.

Last year one of my brides was very clear she didn’t want any photos of her on the internet, especially on social media places like Facebook. She was shy and didn’t even use social media. My contract says I can put them anywhere I like. After a little negotiation, we came to an agreement that was acceptable to us both. I could use any photos I liked, but only after she approved them, and only on my blog and my website. After the wedding, I sent her a list of about 20 photos I hoped to have the option to use. She approved all but one of them and we were both happy.

Maternity Photo, New York, Massachusetts, Manhattan playground, Central Park, NJohnston Photography, Nathaniel Johnston, www.njohnstonphotography.com

This leads me, lastly, to flexibility. A photographer I know would never have agreed to my shy bride’s requests. Indeed, when I mentioned to him I was thinking about rewriting my contract for her, he told me to just move on and let her “bother” someone else. In his world, you either want him to shoot your wedding or you do not. If you do, then you do it his way. That’s fine and is obviously an approach that works for him. His business is good and his clients seem happy.

I feel otherwise. Being hired to photograph you in an intimate part of your life is an honor. I honestly don’t take it lightly. You’ve thought long and hard about it, possibly spent tens of thousands of dollars, and are planning on inviting only the people that mean something to you. Aside from having children, getting married is one of the single most profound, life altering events you will likely experience. It’s deeply personal. Wedding vows are sacred and not for the whole world to hear. It’s also a day that, beautiful as it is, can be difficult and exhausting. So of course I want you to feel like I’m on your side. There are enough things for you to worry about. Your photographer should not be one of them.

By remaining flexible, I am demonstrating to you my willingness to help your day be what you want it to be. I am showing you that I respect you and am not just here to take your money. This is not to say I will bend to every last demand. If I feel somebody is being unreasonable I will certainly hold my ground. As an artist it is important to me that I be able to display my artwork. As a business person, a husband and a father it is important that I be compensated for my work. But if I am inflexible, I feel it sets the wrong tone for the entire experience. My shy bride’s wedding turned out to be one of the better weddings I’ve shot. She and her husband were lovely, and I was able to get some outstanding photos for my portfolio. She got the photographer she wanted and felt respected. Everybody won.

So the right photographer for you is not just someone whose work you like and can afford. Ideally, but not necessarily, they should have good technical knowledge to deal with unforeseen events that crop up during the shoot, and they should have good equipment to back it up. But most importantly, you should feel comfortable with them as a person because you will be sharing part of your life with them for a day, an afternoon or an evening.

If you found this article informative, you might be interested reading one of these related articles:

Why pay for a photographer?
What is wedding photography?

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