5 Tips For Evaluating A Wedding Photographer's Portfolio
How To Choose A Wedding Photographer
By Jeffrey House Photography
How to choose a wedding photographer?
Who doesn't love some great tips when making a difficult decision? I offer a lot of free and useful articles on my website to help you with practically every aspect of your wedding planning. This includes ideas for choosing the right wedding photographer for your wedding - questions you should ask, understanding what's truly important when it comes to choosing a photographer, etc. However, in this article, we are going to focus our attention on one specific, but vitally important, detail. You rarely see anyone talking about this tip.
How to evaluate a wedding photographer's portfolio.
So much of the advice found online places way too much emphasis on the wrong details or the details that have little significance. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think articles providing "tips" and "advice" should actually provide you with beneficial, and practical information. Learning how to evaluate a wedding photographer's portfolio is going to give you direction and purpose - simplifying the entire process!
5 tips for evaluating a wedding photographer's portfolio
You're ready to begin your search for the perfect wedding photographer. You pull up Google and start your search. As the results coming pouring in, you begin to check out some websites. You naturally go to their portfolio pages to view samples of their work.
What are you looking for? What questions are you asking yourself? What questions SHOULD you be asking yourself?
1. This Is Not The Time To Judge
Many couples make the same mistake when viewing a photographer's portfolio. They focus their attention on the wrong details! Let me explain. As you look through the photos, you may not like the wedding dress the bride is wearing or you may not like the color of their flowers. Because you don't like these details, it's easy to view the photo in a bad light. Because your attention is focused on these irrelevant details, it's very easy to overlook the actual beauty behind the photograph.
Remember, when viewing a portfolio, it doesn't matter if you don't like their attire, how they personally look, etc. It's about the quality of the image created by the photographer - their use of light, color, composition, etc. The photographer isn't showing you exactly what your wedding is going to look like - they are showing you the types of images you can expect from your celebration.
2. Creative Or Cliché
As you look through each photographer's portfolio, take note on the creativeness of their imagery. Do you consider their photos creative? Or do they seem to be the same cliché photos you see everywhere else?
Before jumping to conclusions, there is one thing to keep in mind. Good photographers genuinely understand your wedding is not about them. Good photographers are always looking to create unique photos for every couple, while doing their best to avoid those cliché looking images. However, quite often, couples request these types of images and it's the photographer's job to deliver it for them.
If their entire portfolio - or at least the majority of it - appears cliché, there's a good chance it could be due to a lack of creativity on the photographer's part. You'll want a photographer that is constantly pushing themselves to do better. Someone that doesn't believe in complacency.
3. Trust Your Eyes, Not Your Ears
If you follow my blog, it's very likely you're well aware of how I feel when it comes to "photography style." If you Google "questions to ask a wedding photographer," I guarantee every website will tell you:
"You must ask potential photographers what their photography style is."
Let's be very clear.
Photography style is very important. Needing to know how a photographer defines their photography style is not! Let's take a look at 3 reasons why I say this:
1. NO BENEFIT TO YOU
If I say to you, "I'm a lifestyle photographer with a blend of classic and artistic styles," do you have any idea what your photographs will actually look like? Absolutely not!!
2. PHOTOGRAPHY STYLE LACKS CONSISTENCY
If you were to Google "wedding photography styles," what do you find? I'll save you a little time - you'll find a ton of different websites identifying and defining the various styles. You hopefully would immediately notice one glaring problem. The information on every website is different. Different how? One website speaks about 9 styles, the next one has 12 styles, and so on down the line. With every website stressing the importance of this question, shouldn't there be some sore of consistency?
3. PHOTOGRAPHY STYLE LACKS EVEN MORE CONSISTENCY
If you asked 5 photographers - all with the exact same photography style - to take a photo of the exact same scene, what would you expect? You probably would expect 5 photos that were at least somewhat similar, right? In reality, you would get 5 photos that look completely different.
A photographer's core style comes from who they are - their life experiences and how they view the world. Because we all have different experiences and upbringings, we all see things differently. This again speaks to the lack of consistency with photography style.
So, how should you determine if you like a photographer's style?
HOW TO ANALYZE A PHOTOGRAPHER'S STYLE?
Entire books have been written about composition, but for our purposes, we are going to keep it to some key points. When it comes to composition, look at the photos and ask yourself the following questions:
What is the subject of the photos?
Every photograph has a subject. It be can a person or people, an object, etc. If you find it difficult to identify the subject of photographer's photo, that is, generally speaking, not good. Good photographers know their subject and they capture the photo in such a way to draw your attention to it. Without a clear subject, photos tend to have a unpleasant feeling to them - even if you're not sure why it feels that way.
Take the image below as an example. This photo was captured with the rings on a round table that had a glass top. In the center of the table, was a beautiful large flower arrangement. I could have capture this image of the rings and included the flowers, but it would have completely changed the subject and feel of the image. Instead, I changed my shooting angle and isolated the rings to eliminate all other distractions. We now have a very clear subject.
Have you every noticed how someone without formal photography training tends to take a picture? Usually, the subject is perfectly centered in the in the photo and there is a lot of "dead" space directly above the subject. Again, even though you may not realize it, the picture will feel awkward because the composition is unbalanced.
Take a look at the image below courtesy of Google images. This is a very common amateur photo. The man in the photo is essentially placed in the center of the image and he has a ton of space directly above his head. The background is cluttered, messy, distracting, and does nothing to enhance the photo.
Now, take a look at this photo from one of my engagement sessions. You will notice the couple has been shifted slightly to the left side of the frame and there is limited space above their heads. I wanted enough space above their heads to include the beauty of the sky, but it doesn't make the photo feel awkward or unbalanced.
Let's take a look at one more example. You might look at this image and say, "the couple is perfectly centered in the picture, I thought you should avoid this?" Generally speaking, you would be right; however, in this photo I am using the gate to "frame" the couple. It creates symmetry and the photo is well balanced.
Shallow Depth Of Field Or "Bokeh"
These are photography terms that essentially refer to the background of a photo and how "in" or "out" of focus it is. This is a professional technique used to isolate your subject and draw the viewers eye to a specific part of the image.
Take a look at the image below. The focus or subject of the photograph is the wedding rings. They are clearly in focus. The bride's broach bouquet is in the background and it's purposely out of focus. The bouquet adds depth and texture to the photo. It's serves to enhance the image by supporting the main subject - the rings.
In this next photo, I've simplified the background by taking this image above the bride. There was a building in the background and I didn't want it in the photo; therefore, I took a higher shooting angle to eliminate it. I used a "shallow depth-of-field" to keep the bride in sharp focus, but the grass is soft and blurry.
This is really where professional photographers separate themselves from amateurs. An amateur photographer would have capture this photo with the grass "in-focus." By blurring the grass, the bride now "pops" off the background and the photo has depth. You will also notice that I filled the entire frame with the bride and didn't leave space above her head. This makes the photo more compelling and intimate.
Beautiful photography is all about the use of lighting. Not the quantity of lighting, but the quality.
When it comes to lighting, you will likely come across photographers that market themselves as "natural light" and "available light" photographers. Both of these photographers will do their very best to convince you that flash photography is evil and their technique is somehow far superior. To better understand, let's look closer.
Natural Light Photographer: a natural light photographer does not use any kind of artificial lighting source (flash, strobes, lamps, etc.). They only use the natural light found in the environment.
Available Light Photographer: Available light photographers do not use external flashes either; however, they will use the light produced by the sun, lamps, wall fixtures, etc.
Most wedding photographers are going to use natural light when the situation allows. Natural light, when used properly, is a beautiful lighting source. However, circumstances often arise that require the use of artificial light source; such as a flash. Natural light doesn't always provide acceptable light - but weddings move too rapidly to wait for the conditions to change or improve.
Natural light, even when the quality of the light is decent, can cause the image to look "flat." When images appear flat, the subject tends to blend into the background of the image. When this happens, the photo lacks depth. By adding a touch of flash to the image, it allows you to subtly separate your subject from the background resulting in an photo that is much more dynamic and interesting.
When it comes to available light photographers, like I said earlier, they too don't use external flash sources. They will tell you it's for artistic reasons, but the truth is, they don't know how to use flash. Using flash effectively is an art and it's obvious when a photographer doesn't know how to use flash. The subject(s) will have a bright white lighting them up with dark flash shadows in the background. Flash, in the hands of a professional, will be very subtle and flattering.
Take this image for example courtesy of GCF Learn Free. The light on the subject is white, cold, and you can see the harsh shadows on the background. Many people, when they hear the word flash, imagine a photo like this one. But this isn't good flash photography.
Now, let's take a look at this image. Flash or now flash?
I used flash to capture this image! But her face isn't brighter than the rest of the scene and there aren't any flash shadows being projected on the background. If you look at the bride's eyes, you can see the reflection of the flash in her eyes. We want these!! They are referred to as "catch lights" and they add life to the eyes!
Take a look at the image below. I was on vacation in Tampa, FL taking some sunset photos when this couple came out on the docks. They had just gotten married and wanted a sunset photo, but they had an inexperienced family member photographing their wedding, and she didn't know how to take the photo with the sun in the background.
This is a natural light photograph and there was one problem. I didn't have a flash with me and it would have made this image 10 times better. Ideally, you would want to make a proper exposure for the sky in the background so you retain all of the beautiful clouds and detail. However, when you do that, your subject/foreground will be very dark because they will be underexposed. Having a flash would have allowed me to perfectly exposed the sky and then add a touch of light to the couple so they were slightly lit and "popped." I had to capture this image loosing some detail in the sky so I could keep the couple brighter. Here's the resulting image. The image is okay and the couple loved it, but it's flat. If it wasn't for the sun creating a highlight on the back of the bride's hair, it would look extremely flat!
What about the next image? Flash or no flash?
I absolutely used flash in this image! As you can tell from all of the leaves on the ground, and all of the trees and brush surrounding the couple, this was a pretty dark scene. If I didn't use flash in this photo, it would have looked flat as hell and the image would have lacked depth. By adding just a touch of flash, the couple is now well separated from the background and final image is much more interesting.
As you browse through a photographer's portfolio, notice their use of color. Do the color look realistic or do they look like something from a sci-fi movie? Are their colors muted (vintage style) or are they more vibrant?
Unless they are using ridiculous color effects, color comes down to your personal preference. You will likely find yourself gravitating towards a specific look.
The image below is more of a vintage effect with soft and muted tones.
While this next image of the same couple uses realistic vibrant colors to reproduce the scene as it would be experienced by the human eye.
4. SUBJECT APPEARANCE
The final "believe your eyes and not your ears" detail is subject appearance.
A photographer's personality and their ability to truly connect with you is the most important detail when choosing a photographer!
Look at their photographs. How do the people in the photos appear? Do they look natural and relaxed? Or do they look anxious and nervous? Are the poses natural or so awkward your actually embarrassed for them? If the photographer fails to connect with the couple, it's generally very evident in the photos. If your photographer irritates you or rubs you the wrong way, it's going to cause you to be withdrawn. I assure you - if you feel this way - your photos will show your displeasure.
A great wedding photographer is going to make you feel comfortable in front of the camera and they aren't going to place you in forced poses. They are going to gently guide you into flattering poses.
4. The Portfolio Star
If I was personally hiring a wedding photographer, I would ask them to show me actual images they delivered to their clients.
Surprisingly, many wedding photographers don't believe in editing/post-production. For one reason or another, they don't like it or aren't good at it. Those that do the bare minimum when it comes to editing, will try to sell you on how perfect their images are in camera. In other words, they will tell you that they take more time to capture the image correctly; therefore, it eliminates their need to edit.
Regardless of how perfectly you capture in image in camera, it will always require post-production to bring it to the next level.
A shockingly large number of photographers give their clients images that have basic corrections. These corrections can be applied to hundreds of images in a matter of seconds. This is NOT editing. But, the images you see in their portfolio were meticulously edited to ensure every detail is perfect!
Personally, I've never understood this approach or philosophy. Every image you see on my website is the same image I delivered my clients.
My portfolio is designed to show you my creativity and the quality of the exact images you're going to receive from your wedding. If I were to deliver you photos that were different from my portfolio, that's just bad business. I wouldn't want to work with someone who is purposely deceiving me, especially before I've even met them.
5. Stylized Vs. Real Wedding Portfolios
One of the biggest trends in wedding photography is "stylized wedding sessions." A group of photographers pay a $150-$300 to photograph fake wedding details and models posing as the "happy couple." They use these photos in their portfolio and call themselves "professional photographers."
Photographing models and fake wedding details/scenes does NOT make you a wedding photographer!
Photographing a real wedding is completely different. It's extremely demanding and stressful. For example, real weddings run on very strict timelines and as a wedding photographer, you're expected to create memories that will last a lifetime - regardless of the situation.
Stylized wedding sessions don't even come close to replicating the same pressures you experience on a wedding day. If a photographer wants to participate in these sessions to gain experience, that's fantastic. Selling yourself as a professional photographer using fake photos captured in a controlled environment is simply unethical.
portfolios are just a starting point
I've given you a lot of practical tips for evaluating a photographer's portfolio. They should help simplify the process of choosing the right photographer for your wedding. But, bear in mind, their portfolio is just a starting point. Not only do you need to like their work, but you need to love their personality. A photographer's best work is produced when they form great relationships with their clients.