Oh, you know the questionnaire. The one all the wedding websites and planner/organizer books tell you that you absolutely MUST ask all the photographers. Most of the questions actually are important ones (and some are downright silly, but I include them as they’re on wedding planning websites), but I’ve never seen these sites provide a good explanation of WHY to ask the questions or WHAT to look for in the answers. Without knowing that, it’s harder for you to interpret the answers and decide which photographers are a good fit for you. Regardless of the answer to any given question, perhaps the most important factors to look at is the photographer’s reputation with past clients, how well their artistic vision matches your tastes, and how comfortable you are with them. Also, photographers are competing for your business, and they must demonstrate to you what makes them different from competitors. A true professional will treat their competition respectfully while pointing out their own positive differentiators. Any photographer who denigrates other photographers just to get a booking should be throwing an immediate red flag regarding their professionalism.
The purpose of this page is not just give you my answers (which will appear at the bottom), but much more importantly to help you understand how to use the answers you receive from photographers in aiding you in making your choices.
QUESTIONS TO GAUGE TECHNICAL COMPETENCE
The following questions are generally designed to give you an estimate of a photographer’s technical abilities. The measures are looking at experience and commitment. Look for a good overall balance – “average” the answers. For instance, I’ve managed a person who had been doing their job functions for well over 10 years, but never grew their knowledge. They did not have 10 years of experience; they had one year of experience 10 times in a row. Another of my employees with only a few years experience could run circles around the first person. The same applies to photographers as data warehouse architects; judge on accomplishments, education and years of experience but also judge based if you like the images the photographer creates. In the end it’s the images and not the college transcripts and certifications that wind up in your album.
- How many years of experience do you have as a photographer? (Did the photographer just get their first entry level or pro-sumer camera and is now calling themself a pro? Do they leave all camera settings on automatic so the camera does the guessing, or do they know and manipulate their camera settings instinctively? You want to be sure that you’re choosing someone who has real training and experience as a professional photographer.)
- Do you have a photographic studio? Do you do location photography?(Studios cost a lot of overhead – how much does the photographer have invested in photography? Also, what is your style? Studio owners may tend to want to do studio work to have greater control over lighting – and to get some return on their investment. Many great pro wedding photographers have no studio or have home-based studios, as weddings are always location work and wedding specialists have less to no need of a studio. Large studios can indicate a larger portion of business coming from portrait/commercial photography as compared to weddings. There’s not a right or wrong answer here, but the answer can help you understand the photographers creative bent.)
- Are you skilled in diffused lighting and soft focus? Do you have the ability to take photographs in an outdoor setting? (…and similar questions. These are well intended but very poorly worded questions. Ask instead “When did you first really see light?” A strange question on it’s surface. A pro will have an answer that actually helps you understand what the heck you just asked; an amateur will not understand the question. This is the ability of the photographer to discern quality of light and thus create more pleasing images which portray the three dimensionality of the subject in a two dimensional medium. Regarding soft focus, that’s a 1980s filtering technique to soften features. Nowdays it’s done in Photoshop.
- Can you retouch images? (Most photographers do this themselves or have an in-house employee who does it, while some out-source it. Either way is fine. The bad answer is “No”, the worse answer is “Huh?”. A better question is “Who does your retouching and what methods and tools do they use?“. Assuming they do their own retouching in-house, look for the answers Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, or Apple Aperture, the Big Three in pro level digital photo management and manipulation tools. If they mention low-end freebies like Picasa or Picnik, it’s a clear indicator they have not invested in some of the most basic necessities of their business – a definite red flag.)
- Do you have any college degrees or professional certifications in photography? (This is very similar to the “How many years experience” question. This is another question seeking to separate true professionals from amateurs; it does highlight professionals, but does not necessarily identify amateurs. Many great photographers who’s work I deeply respect have neither college nor certification. However, college degrees majoring in photography [rare] or PPA – Professional Photographers of America certifications [more common] certainly demonstrate a deep professional commitment to excellence and either one speaks very well for the individual’s professional commitment.)
QUESTIONS TO GAUGE TECHNICAL & ARTISTIC CURRENCY
These questions are designed to get a feel for how much the photographer keeps on top of technological trends. Someone who is “behind the times” when it comes to technology may be “behind the times” when it comes to current artistic trends as well. There is nothing wrong with the traditional look, and many brides still want that style. In practical terms, most couples are most satisfied with a modern presentation (modern albums, video, etc.) of a combination of photographic styles applied appropriately to any given situation.
- Do you use film cameras, digital cameras or both? (There is nothing wrong with film, and many commercial photographers working with 4×5 view cameras are still highly dependent on film cameras. However, most wedding photographers have switched over to digital SLR style cameras better suited to the wedding environment. For practical purposes and assuming late model equipment, you will see no discernible difference between film and digital images. If a wedding photographer still does not use digital, it may be an indication they are looking at getting out of the business in the next year or two and don’t want to invest in upgrades. Film shooters also tend to take fewer photographs since processing a film image costs more than digital image processing. Digital capture thus fosters higher image count, thus more images for you to choose from. The downside of digital is that it can lead to a less disciplined approach to image capture,)
- Do you shoot in the photojournalistic style? (The “photojournalistic” style is very much in vogue these days. There’s actually nothing new with it – back in the 80s we called the same images “candids”. I have heard some purists in this style say they will never shoot anything but these unposed images. This means no family group photos, no bridals, etc. You definitely want photojournalistic candids in your album, especially of the bride dressing and of the reception, but understand that photojounalistic purists will limit themselves – and you – to only this style. That’s perfectly OK as long as you’re sure that’s what you really want. This is completely a matter of personal taste.)
QUESTIONS TO GAUGE WEDDING EXPERIENCE
These questions seek to gain insight into the level of wedding experience a photographer has. While a skilled professional photographer with no wedding experience will provide better images than Uncle Bob and his new $500 Canon, the best results are most likely to come from an educated professional photographer who specializes in weddings.
- Approximately how many weddings have you photographed? (This is a very important question. A fantastic commercial photographer could have been in the industry for 20 years and never photographed a single wedding. Do they know photography? Absolutely. Do they know how to deal with a overly-concerned mother-in-law having a minor panic attack? Do they instinctivly move with the flow of the evernts that occur the hour before the wedding? There’s a lot more involved in wedding photography than photography. I can’t give you an exact number, but look for a photographer to have a minimum of 20 weddings under their belt. In my opinion, 20-25 weddings is normally enough to cull out those photographers who deal poorly with the pressure and stress of photographing weddings. It’s also enough to teach anyone who’s observant to get a good feel for the flow. Of course, seasoned pros who have been in it for decades will have already lost count before the bride was ever born.)
- What percentage of your business is dedicated to weddings? (This is important only if the percentage is very small. Most wedding photographers have some portion of their business devoted to portraiture. This is fine, as the same skills apply to bridal and engagement photographs. Also understand that weddings on average are booked almost a year in advance, while portrait sessions are booked a week or two in advance. Most photographers who claim on Facebook they have nearly every weekend booked with exotic destination weddings are dishonest; most photographers need both weddings and portrait sessions to make ends meet. You should consider the photographer’s portraiture style – the same style will come across into your bridal and engagement images. If you like the casual and natural look of lifestyle portraiture, a photographer who does studio portraiture may not bring that casual feel to your wedding photographs; the reverse is also true – let it hinge on your personal tastes. Photographers with tiny percentages of weddings and who are not portrait photographers might still do a great job, but understand it’s not their specialty.)
QUESTIONS TO GAUGE PROFESSIONALISM
These questions are not about technical competence, keeping technically current, or having experience in wedding photography, but instead seek to give an indication of the photographers professionalism as a businessperson. Think of a photographer as an artist you are commissioning to create works of art for you. How do you expect the artist to behave and interact with you, your family and your guests?
- What professional photographic organizations are you a member of? (While college degrees and certifications discussed earlier are not necessary, you should definitely look for a photographer who is an active member of a professional photographers organization. The main organizations in the USA to look for is the national PPA [Professional Photographers of America] and its regional and state affiliates as well as the WPPI. The noteworthy association for purist wedding photojournalists is the WPJA – note that the WPJA only allows purist photojournalists to join.)
- What do you wear when photographing a wedding? (Business casual slacks or nice blue jeans are fine for location engagement/bridal portrait settings, but you should expect male photographers to wear a professional business suit and a woman to be similarly formally attired during your wedding ceremony. At the reception, removing a coat is generally acceptable; the photographer is working hard. In outdoor wedding/reception settings, especially when it’s warm or humid, it is acceptable for a photographer to wear cooler clothing, but they should always be dressed appropriately and professionally.)
- Are you the person who will photograph my wedding? (Larger studios may have multiple photographers who are well-capable of photographing your wedding. You can usually specify which photographer you want – make sure you look at the work of the photographer who will be photographing your wedding. Also, most wedding photography contracts place some level of responsibility on the photographer/studio to provide an alternate photographer in the event the primary photographer is ill or otherwise becomes unavailable.)
- Will you bring an assistant with you to my wedding? (Assistants are huge helps to photographers, and play many important roles including being a “second shooter”. While this is not a requirement, it should certainly be viewed as an extra value.)
- Will you bring backup equipment with you to my wedding? (No wedding photographer should step foot into a wedding without at least two camera bodies, multiple lenses, and other redundant equipment. Their assistants will typically use the backup equipment to photograph with. The goal is to be able to continue photographing even in the event of failure of a key piece of equipment.)
- What type of equipment do you use? (Can you – the bride or groom – tell the difference between a Nikon D300 and a Canon EOS 40D? 10.2 megawhatzits? PC or MAC? Pros and cons of CMOS vs CCD sensors? This is intended to determine if the camera and computing environment is a true professional system or a pro-sumer “amateur with money” system. The problem is only a professional photographer can interpret the answer – and many pros would disagree over some equipment. More important than the camera body is the lenses – one great question to ask is “How much did your most expensive lens cost?” If you get an answer of over $700 or so, you have a good indication the photographer has good professional glass.)
- Do you visit the ceremony/reception sites prior to the wedding? (Some photographers will visit the event location before the event, others will arrive early to scout it out; part of it depends on proximity. Of course, the photographer will typically bring all the equipment they need to insure they are prepared for anything, which is a core competency of wedding photographers.)
- Do you have liability insurance? (This is an important question. Although it is rare in the extreme when such insurance would ever be needed, being insured is something you should always look for. The PPA mandates that members who specialize in wedding and/or portrait photography carry liability insurance and automatically include liability insurance premiums as part of their professional association dues.)
QUESTIONS TO GAUGE COST AND VALUE
These questions are intended to insure you understand exactly what you will be getting and how much you will be paying for it.
- Do you post your contract and prices online? (Most photographers do not post their prices online. Photographers prefer to discuss pricing in consultations after the client first has a chance to view examples of the products. This helps ease the confusion and sticker shock – if you see what a 30×40 canvas wrapped giclée image looks like up close, the price tag makes a lot more sense. Generally, you get what you pay for. Note that some photographers charge less for packages to get you in the door, and change more for additional products in order to make a profit, while others charge more up front and give you lower prices for additional products since they’ve already made their profit. Both ways are valid, and many shades of gray exist. Understand that photographers must make a profit or they will go out of business; photographers are small businessmen and women who need to eat and pay their mortgage too! )
- What is your payment policy? (The industry standard is 50% of the package price at booking the photographer, and 50% due a week or so before or on the day of the event. Different photographers have different policies and contracts. Make sure you have the photographer explain the contract to you, line by line, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!)
- What is your cancellation policy? (Most photographers will treat the first 50% of the payment as a retainer fee. By booking a photographer, you contractually require the photographer to turn down other business they could have otherwise booked; you retain their services for that date. If you cancel, it is often very difficult for the photographer to recoup that loss of income, thus they keep the retainer fee if you cancel. Photographers are not out to rip you off – they just need to keep their business running. They will normally refund the money if they are able to get another booking, even if it’s for less money.)
- Do you offer a money-back guarantee? (Most professionals do offer a money-back guarantee. You will typically need to have a contractually valid reason for this. For instance, if the photographer guarantees they will take photographs of your wedding but are late and miss the wedding, you obviously have a contractual basis for a full refund, including retainer fees. If they meet all their obligations but you decide you don’t like their style or the overall look of their images, they are not obliged to give you any refund.)
- Do you offer printed proofs? Do I get to keep them? (In film days, small prints were made and put into proof books from which brides placed their orders. Some photographers still offer this and tend to have higher priced packages to help offset this additional processing cost, while avoiding the costs of upgrading to digital. With the advent of digital, many photographers have switched to providing online proofs. This has the advantage of allowing family and friends to view and purchase whatever they want whenever they want from their own homes. Most physical proof books are expected to be turned back in but are available for purchase at additional cost.)
- How many proofs will you provide? (This looks at how many total images the photographer will provide for a given package. Because of the subjective nature of aesthetics, this does not guarantee you – or your mother-in-law – will “like” all the images. There will typically be a second smaller number of prints which may or may not be included with any given package.)
- How long does it take to receive the products in my package? (Depending on the number of images and the number of portrait sessions the photographer has the weeks following your wedding, the time before you receive proofs may take a week or three depending on the photographer. If you really want to get your proofs as soon as possible after returning from your honeymoon week, discuss this with your photographer.)
- What are the costs of additional a la carte products? (Most photographers are happy to sell you additional products, and after your wedding you may see additional products you want. Make sure and ask for the prices of a la carte items so that you can plan accordingly.)
Answers for Schneider Photography
- How many years of experience do you have as a photographer? I spent about 7 years at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) majoring in photography (both undergraduate and graduate work) during which time I often worked as a photographer. When I left college with my bachelors degree, I worked in the photography industry for about 4-5 years before returning to SHSU for my post-graduate work. After my post-graduate work, I worked an additional 3 years before transitioning into the IT field. I still did photography off and on, but not as an ongoing business. During that time photography transitioned from film to digital; I put off investing in equipment and instead saved up enough funds to allow me to start my own photography business without bank loans. Two years ago when in my opinion digital quality finally rivaled film and prices dropped to acceptable levels, I began the process of opening Schneider Weddings.
- Do you have a storefront photographic studio or do all location work? I do not rent or own a studio at this time as I have no need for one. I find my clients prefer more casual portraiture and are most pleased with my casual life-style location portraiture. Keeping my expenses down allows me to keep my prices low. I do have exceptional studio-quality lighting which I bring on location when needed.
- When did you first really see light quality? Wow, what a wonderfully insightful question! I first “saw light” at about age 19 in a portraiture class at SHSU. The class was intended to give the students this exact epiphany. The terms umbra and penumbra normally refer to shadow (eclipse) areas in astronomy, but in photography are applied to light sources as well. Understanding the nature of this conical area of gradated light intensity coming from a studio light’s parabolic reflector allows photographers to position the subject or light source to best represent the three dimensional sculpting of shape and form and texture within a two dimensional medium. This applies as well to many other forms of light modification techniques in both studio and location settings. Likewise, broad vs. short lighting, the various facial lighting patterns (Paramount, Rembrandt, etc.), lighting ratio preferences and other considerations can be applied equally to studio as well as location sessions using only ambient light.
- Who does your retouching and what tools do they use? I do my own retouching and photographic manipulation, although I will consider outsourcing such work if I feel a specialized retouching artist can do a better job than I can. My workflow mainly relies on Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop as well as numerous plug-ins. In addition, I have a number of other professional imaging software packages you’ve never heard of which I use on a more specialized basis.
- Do you have any college degrees or professional certifications in photography? I spent 5 years on my undergraduate studies at SHSU (Sam Houston State University), majoring in photography and minoring in physics (light & optics), philosophy (aesthetics) and English (literature). I later returned to SHSU for 2 years for my post-graduate studies, majoring in photography and minoring in business administration. I am currently working towards earning my CPP (Certified Professional Photographer) designation from the Professional Photographers of America.
- Do you use film cameras, digital cameras or both? Like most wedding photographers, I use all digital equipment.
- Do you shoot in the photojournalistic style? “Artistic style” needs some explaining. “Do you do photojournalistic?” is like asking a chef “do you do chicken?” Yes, the vast majority of my wedding images are in the photojournalistic (undirected storytelling) style, but I am not a “purist photojournalilst” and I don’t limit myself to a single technique. I am equally capable at techniques such as classical, life-style, directed and fine art. This breadth and versatility of techniques allows me to adapt to any given situation. I will actively direct an engagement session, use classical group posing techniques on your wedding formals, and heavily favor a photojournalistic approach during the wedding itself. To the extent possible I befriend my clients so they feel safe and comfortable with me, opening up and showing their emotions for each other while I capture that moment.
- Approximately how many weddings have you photographed? Currently, the total is probably around 50 or so. I lost count. I’ve done a lot of other things in the field of photography, but have settled on weddings as I love the story telling and capturing of emotions the most. Most of my wedding work was performed for other studios; as I don’t own the copyrights to those images I can’t display them on my website. I’ve started my own photography business and am enjoying the freedom that gives me to apply my own style and personality to the images I create to tell the story of your wedding day.
- What percentage of your business is dedicated to weddings? As you can tell from the business name of “Schneider Weddings”, my main focus is on weddings and related (engagement/bridal) work. If you count the percentage as number of portrait settings vs. weddings in the recent past, it would be a higher concentration on portraiture. If you counted for the same time period by gross billing or net profit, it would be weddings. If you counted by time spent behind a camera or computer, it would be weddings.
- What professional photographic organizations are you a member of? The PPA (Professional Photographers of America), SWPPA (South West Professional Photographers Association) and the TPPA (Texas Professional Photographers Association).
- What do you wear when photographing a wedding? At the wedding I wear a business suit, as will any male assistants. Female assistants will typically wear a black gown or other appropriate subdued formal attire. Dress for other events is dictated by the event, appropriate for the location and discussed with the client beforehand. For location settings such as engagements and bridals, I typically dress casually.
- Are you the person who will photograph my wedding? Yes, unless otherwise specified in the contract. I may have other photographers and/or assistants with me.
- Will you bring an assistant with you to my wedding? I always bring one or two assistants with me under normal circumstances.
- Will you bring backup equipment with you to my wedding? Yes, I bring two camera systems that two photographers can use to every wedding.
- What type of equipment do you use? How much did your most expensive lens cost? I use all Nikon camera equipment, including all Nikkor lenses. The exception is my LensBaby “art-lens” ssytem. My most expensive lens is my 85mm f1.4 lens, which ran about $1,300.
- Do you visit the ceremony/reception sites prior to the wedding? Whenever it’s practical, I always try to scout any churches I have not been to before hand. I also show up early and take test photos as well as images which introduce the story of your wedding.
- Do you have liability insurance? Yes, liability insurance is part of my annual PPA membership dues.
- Do you post your contract and prices online? Yes. If you look at the top of the page, click on the “Prices, etc.” link to get the drop-down menu. The menu will contain links to a blank contract as well as all pricing info.
- What is your payment policy? I ask for a 50% retainer fee at the time of signing the contract, and the remainder due 30 days prior to the wedding. Please refer to the contract for full details.
- What is your cancellation policy? Cancellations are addressed on an individual basis. Please refer to the contract for full details.
- Do you offer a money-back guarantee? Absolutely, but I’ve never had anyone remotely consider asking for it. My main goal is to serve you with “5 star” ratings – I want you to rave about my work and my service, and part of that is providing you the peace of mind that I fully stand behind up my work. Please refer to the contract for full details.
- Do you offer printed proofs? Do I get to keep them? Schneider Weddings provides online proofing for your and your guest’s convenience. Printed proof books as well as mini-albums for parents can be purchased at an additional price. I encourage online proofing for three main reasons; it makes your proofs more readily available to your guests, it reduces your costs by reducing my costs, and it is much more environmentally friendly. Also, if you wait for your wedding album to be designed, you can use that same design to make smaller albums for your parents.
- How many proofs will you provide? The number of proofs depends on the package and as agreed to in the contract. Please review the list of wedding packages for full details.
- How long does it take to receive the products in my package? Times may vary depending on numerous factors, but I strive to have all proofs uploaded as quickly as possible after your wedding date. I understand that the newlyweds as well as their friends and families are eager to see the images! Please refer to the contract for full details.