Wedding Details: Picture Perfect

The right photographer makes all the difference. Learn how to distinguish the details of what you want, what you don't want, and who can give it to you.

We’ve all done it in the past—opened the back of our camera to find film already loaded, developed out-of-focus vacation prints, and cropped the heads off family and friends.

But when it’s time to be the camera’s subject on the Big Day, you can’t afford similar photography mistakes.

So before searching for the vendor who will document your day like no other, first consider how important photography is for your wedding. “You may think that the cake’s more important, or that the band’s more important,” says Phil Kramer, president of Phil Kramer Photographers in Philadelphia. “But hopefully you’ll find photography important, since that’s all you have after the day’s over.” The next step is to find the right professional.

Create a Budget
When it comes to wedding photography, the old adage that you get what you pay for does apply, says Tracy Wood, photographer and co-owner of Tony and Tracy Wood Photography in Ardmore. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay top dollar. Base your total budget on everything you have spent and can foresee spending on the wedding—flowers, transportation, reception site, food, music, honeymoon. “Allot 15 percent of your total budget to photography,” says Kramer. “If photography is very important to you, go more.”

Book the reception hall, the church or synagogue, then the photographer—and the sooner the better, especially during the high season of June through November. “Couples should hire their photographer at least a year and a half in advance,” says Wood, to have a good chance of getting who you want.

Traditional vs. Candid
Formal portraits and traditional reception photos are common—the cutting of the cake, the toast, the bouquet toss—but the candid, or photojournalistic, style has become popular over the past few years. “A photojournalistic photographer will tell a story of the day as the action unfolds, like when the couple is laughing or crying,” says Kramer. “The formal photographer will be more of a director.”

Can’t decide between the two? Most reputable photographers should be able to shoot both, including a formal portrait session by a candid photographer. “If you would like some formals, we can do a sit-down shoot with family and friends,” says Kramer. “But there’s a time and place to direct.”

It’s important to not stop the flow of a wedding for portraits, says Wood, so some photographers offer a split portrait session with the wedding party before the ceremony if the couple doesn’t want to see one another, and with the bride and groom afterward so less time will be taken from their cocktail hour. Or formals can be scheduled with the couple before the ceremony at a location of their choice, when makeup’s fresh and hair’s not mussed.

The Elimination Round
Many photographers have websites where you can preview their work online. Even the design of the website will tell you something, says Kramer. Notice if the sites have testimonials or referrals from past customers.

Yet as helpful as the Internet is, be aware. There are weekend warriors out there, and a lot of them are on the Internet. “Wedding photography is just a sideline for them,” says Wood. Double-check with the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.-com or professional organizations such as the American Society of Media Photographers at www.asmp.-org for complaints.

The best way to find a photographer is still a good old-fashioned referral. Everyone knows each other, so “the most reliable source for finding a photographer is almost always the place that you’re having your wedding,” says David Campli, owner of Campli Photography in Malvern.

When calling photographers, notice how enthusiastic they are and whether they want to meet with you. “Beware that all studios won’t tell you their prices over the phone,” says Cliff Mautner, owner of Cliff Mautner Photography in Philadelphia. Meet with at least three or four to make your decision, and see how much they’re really listening and taking notes.

Don’t concern yourself over film versus digital equipment—in the hands of a professional, you shouldn’t tell a difference. “All post-production will be turned into digital files anyway,” says Campli, “You shouldn’t be able to see an obvious difference, or there’s something not quite right there.” The quality lies in the hands of the artisan, agrees Mautner, not the medium.

The same applies for color versus black-and-white. It’s an aesthetic decision, but most photographers’ rule of thumb is that if it’s an outdoor wedding, more color is shot, and if indoors in a grand ballroom, more black-and-white.

More important, consider whether the photographer works solo or with an assistant. “I always bring an assistant with me,” says Kramer. “We’re both on the same tune, but shooting different things. We can think in terms of an album, shooting left page and right page of the ceremony.” Also, extra lighting would be difficult to maneuver without the extra help. If the assistant also is a second shooter, it could be reflected in a higher price.

On the Dotted Line
Before signing the contract, ask to see another couple’s album or a set of proofs from an actual wedding so you can see what yours might look like, says Campli.

Read the contract and make sure it is clear and understandable. If it’s not, ask to have the document reworded in a way that is.

Most contracts have a timeline throughout, with how many hours are included and what is included, and discussion about ownership of the images. There also should be space for any special requests made by the couple, including key moments you want captured throughout the ceremony or reception.

It is a good idea to find out the photographer’s policy on overtime. “We plan on staying later if you want the band to play an extra hour,” says Kramer. Everything informally discussed with the photographer should be formally added to the contract for your protection, as well as to refresh the photographer’s memory when it is reviewed closer to the wedding date. Also be sure to discuss what would happen in the event that the photographer’s sick, and any family-specific issues in order to avoid an awkward situation. “Don’t make the photographer wing it,” says Campli.

When you finalize how you’d like your images presented—choices range from websites to DVDs to customized invitation stamps or thank-you cards—make sure that it’s all written into the contract, including how many images you’ll receive and how soon to expect them. “We have a basic package that the couple can add a number of things on to build their own,” says Wood. “We also do an à la carte option with just our time and expenses covered, and the couple can add what’s important to them afterward.” The time frame varies, but it shouldn’t take longer than a month to receive your proofs, which can come in a spiral-bound book or as a digital file.

Lights, Camera, Action
Once you have made your decision, trust that you’ll be taken care of. “Let your inhibitions go,” says Mautner. “Show the photographer a side to you that only comes with trusting that person.” But do “create a schedule so everyone knows what’s happening and is on the same page,” says Kramer. Most photographers like to meet a week to a month before the wedding to answer last-minute questions and go over potential changes—your intimate gathering has grown to a large soirée perhaps, or there’s the possibility of bad weather. When the Big Day finally arrives, your job is to ignore the photographer, says Mautner. Expect your photographer to start shooting the moment you begin to put on those final touches, and continue until the last guests have straggled away and the band is packing up.

And by the time you return from your honeymoon, your photographer will already have posted their favorite photos of your wedding on a customized website for you to view, and for family and friends to order reprints directly online, says Wood. Post-production varies from photographer to photographer, but this convenient option has become the trend of choice for most.

So enjoy your special moment, relax and allow the memories to unfold—someone will be right there to capture them.