Comparing apples to apples in wedding photography
If there were one thing I wished for all the couples out there looking at wedding photographers, it would be that they didn't get seduced by the idea that "eight hours, two photographers" is a smart measurement for comparing photographers. Too often, because couples don't have any experience with wedding photography (of course!) and/or because photographers don't do a good enough job of educating couples about the "intangibles" involved in any wedding photography experience, couples choose based on the "eight hours, two photographers," formula, without understanding the vast differences in quality and experience these numbers can represent.
I know that for me personally, it's a conversation I don't typically dive into with couples when they are considering me. I want my conversations to be about the couple - their desires and vision - not about what's so great about me. Generally, I idealistically hope that what distinguishes me will be obvious, and routinely forget that what seems obvious to me is not at all obvious to couples.
Part of the reason I even know about this disconnect is that I've now had a number of couples come back to me after their weddings disappointed with their experience and/or their photographs. These couples, including yet another one that reached out to me just last week, tell me they wished they had had a fuller picture of what factors to consider when choosing a wedding photographer. And those conversations make me feel remiss. I've always believed my role is to helping couples find the perfect photographer for them, whether that's me or someone else. Hearing back from disappointed couples tells me I'm not doing that job as well as I want to.
So, in the hopes of helping others out, here are some of the things I don't say in conversations with couples, but that maybe I should.
First, I think all couples should know that it's pretty easy for almost anyone to set up shop as a wedding photographer, to put together a basic portfolio, and jump right into the game. For that very reason, wedding photography is an extremely saturated industry, especially at the $5k and under level (in Northern California).
Having been at that price point myself, I can tell you that it's nearly impossible to make a living at that level (I've always appreciated the transparency of this photographer). Still, most wedding photographers start there while building their portfolios and experience. If they do a great job over time, they get more and more business, are referred more, and because of supply and demand, their prices naturally go up. Others stay in that zone for a super long time, and either eventually get better, or quit.
Being at that price point does not, by any means, signify a bad photographer. There are lots of very good photographers at that price point (I like to think I was one myself!). What it does signify is that the photographer has had fewer opportunities to have run into the myriad of challenges that an experienced photographer has already encountered and has learned to handle with ease.
Weddings are extremely challenging, unpredictable, fast-moving, and high-stakes. In the 100+ weddings I've photographed I've had: people faint and fall off stage during the wedding ceremony; a firetruck race to the wedding because the mother of the bride fell ill; timeline snafus; a bride fall backwards in her chair after having too much to drink; every kind of challenging lighting/technical situation you can imagine; meltdowns by brides, bridesmaids, mother-in-laws, vendors, etc. etc. etc.
In my earlier years, these things were stressful at best and catastrophic at worst - for the couple and/or for me. I had tons of anxiety before and during each wedding. Hence, a key differentiator that you won't see in wedding price sheets, or maybe anywhere: A great photographer can easily handle these challenges with grace, managing both the photographic element as well as the more important piece of taking great care of their couples so that they flow easily around anything unexpected and don't take on an ounce of stress. This is a priceless differentiator, in terms of your wedding day experience as well as the photographs you get from the day. While you will never see it as a line item, you should keep it in mind as you make your decision.
Another big difference that can be difficult to discern: the kind of added value a photographer is likely to provide, not just on the wedding day, but in the many months leading up to the wedding. The planning process is complex and involves many different players with different needs and desires. While newer photographers are typically thrilled if they make it through a smooth wedding day (I know I was!), I've learned over the years that being an exceptional photographer means being involved from the very beginning of the process, to be an advocate and ally that helps clients with timeline, lighting, other vendors, knowing what to expect photographically and otherwise, site visits, etc. Earlier in my career, I simply did not have enough experience to lend value on these things. Now I have a ton of experience. I use that experience every step of the way to make sure my couples have a wealth of information available to them that serves them to have the wedding, and photographs, they most want.
Being that involved is time-consuming on my end, but the rewards are worth their weight in gold. I know my clients will be at ease, trust me deeply, can look to me for anything, and will bask in that ease and confidence all day long. And, I know that ease will be reflected in the photographs.
Part of the reason I am able to spend more time with my couples is because I'm no longer in a desperate struggle to get my business off the ground. Which is the same reason that I've been able to invest in higher-quality equipment, the best second shooters, the highest quality wedding albums, etc. etc. Another thing photographers don't generally talk about (how much investment they've been able to put into their equipment and skills), but another 'invisible' differentiator.
Lastly, and perhaps one of the hardest things things to discern from anyone's price sheet, is the place from which the photographer is coming in order to provide both the experience and the photographic results. In the many years that I have been photographing weddings, what I have seen is that the best and most successful wedding photographers are true craftsmen. They are not people who like photography and want to see if they can make a living at it (which is a fine first step and can be a great option for some couples). They are people who have a steady dedication to their craft and to their couples, which is obvious over time through a stellar reputation from scores of past couples as well as people inside the industry.
So, how does this all intersect with budget? Budgets are a real thing, and present real challenges during wedding planning. I love it when couples come to me clear that wedding photography is extremely important to them and willing and able to invest their resources accordingly. In other cases, couples simply don't have the budget and/or don't have the level of priority, in which case a less expensive photographer is an appropriate choice. These outcomes are both fine.
The tricky part is when a couple tells me they really value photography, but just can't invest much in it. Many of the couples who have come back to me disappointed originally told me that they couldn't spend more than x, and came back to tell me they would have found a way to increase their photography budget had they had more information. What I've come to learn is that when a couple says we can only spend x, they have a certain idea in their mind of what they are getting for that x, which may or may not be accurate. It's become clear to me that there's a lot more to it that I think would serve people to know from the outset.
So, if you are one of the people for whom photography is a top priority, my recommendation is that you do your utmost to give yourself the gift of an exquisite photographer. It may cost you more than you had originally planned, but if it's the difference between having a phenomenal experience or one you have some regrets around, it's money extremely well spent.
I truly hope this post is helpful. Please feel free to send any questions my way.