Planning a wedding in six months – Part 9 – Photography
As I wrapped up the previous post, I said the next one was optional for some people, hence why I kept it for last. In reality, photography in general is probably not optional, everyone wants some mementos. But there are FIVE big questions you will have to decide when it comes to photography.
A. Professional or not?
Picture this scenario. You’ve just spent six months planning what is likely the biggest event of your life. It probably comes third behind buying a house or buying a car in terms of the total cost, but maybe even second if you’ve never bought a NEW car. And the amount of work you put into it is way above the research you likely did on houses or cars. It’s BIG. And it all takes place in a single day. No rewind. No take-backs. No do-overs. We’re live, baby.
And when that action is happening, who is taking photos for YOU?
Because you know you want some good photos to remember the day forever, to capture some of the moments. And YOU’RE not taking the photos, you’re busy. Your closest family isn’t taking the photo either, because they’re probably in a lot of them. So who are you asking to take the photos?
Sure, you can ask an extended family member or a close friend. They may be good, they may even be talented, but they’re probably not trained to do it. They may never have even done a wedding before. Are you really asking them and trusting them to get it right the first time they try it?
I know, I know exactly what you’re thinking. Well, it’s all digital now, right? Take a pic, if it isn’t great, take it again, right? Simple. But here’s my two cents…if you think just anybody can take the photos, and you’ll be happy with them, then you have decided two things:
1) The camera must be doing all the work; and,
2) The amount of money you spend on a photographer is not related to the amount you spent on the rest of the day (i.e. you’re really treating it as a separate expense, it’s not part of the rest of your investment for the day, hence optional).
For me, it was a no-brainer. I wanted a professional photographer because I know the camera doesn’t do all the work and the photography expense was part of my investment in the day. They went hand-in-hand.
Now, if you’re not sold on going the professional route, that’s your call. I would recommend against it, but your wedding, your choices. I will give you a couple of other points to think about before you decide. First, remember too that you are putting a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of someone else to take the photos. What if the photo of great grandma Bertie doesn’t turn out that well, and that was a KEY photo for you? What if they are so excited and nervous, they mess up big time and get hardly anything? You’re probably not paying them much, if anything, so you’ll get what you pay for…but are you willing to put that weight on a friend or family member? If you remember back to when I wrote about the cakes, we wanted something simple, just a simple cake made by a friend. Didn’t care about icing, or wording, or pictures, or anything. It would just mean something because it was made by a friend (plus it would be REALLY tasty hehehe). She was worried that if it didn’t turn out, it would ruin our day, which was completely the opposite of what we wanted. Nevertheless, she went WAY above and beyond what we were asking or hoping for…but she didn’t get much chance to relax for the day. And she missed the ceremony, which I feel guilty about…so remember that you are asking them to WORK your wedding. Which might be fun for about 30 minutes, and then after that, it is just plain work.
Second, you aren’t paying someone to take photos. You’re paying someone to capture the right photos with the right exposure and lighting, and to do so while staying as unobtrusive as possible. To fade into the background if possible. Obviously, they don’t when they’re taking posed shots, but our photographer took pictures during the ceremony and I was only vaguely aware of him. Equally, there is a shot of me with my mother getting ready, and I have no real memory of the photographer being around to take it. There is an art to taking photos without being in everyone’s face while they’re doing it, and inexperienced people rarely have it.
Third, if you are thinking of going this other route, do a dry run of sorts. Get a few of your wedding party together one weekend with your family member or friend, or whoever is going to take the shots at the wedding, go to a venue on a nice day, and take about an hour’s worth of photos. These are the EASIEST photos to take as they are posed. Everyone knows to look at the camera. Everyone knows when the photo is being taken. No chance of a candid shot catching someone at a bad angle. Then look at the photos and decide — are they “good enough”? Do they have good lighting? Are they, for lack of a better benchmark, the best photos you have ever had taken of you? A good photographer will give you good shots, regardless of your clothing or setting. They’ll make it work.
What do the photographers often have to contend with? A pressure-filled situation, dealing with Bridezilla and Groomzilla and their extended family, wrangling them all together, getting them to listen, and being able to decide on the fly between three different lenses, two different settings, and choice of lighting equipment to make it all work. To get it right the first time, cuz we’re LIVE, baby!
Often, experienced photographers have already dealt with contentious family issues too. Like, for instance, the parents are divorced, dad brought some skank that he left the mom for, mom is there with her boyfriend of the week, there are extra kids involved, and someone wants “the family photo”…experienced photographers know what to ask in advance, and then mix and mingle people at the session to both ensure the bride and groom get the photos THEY want, without starting a family war. People are being rotated in and out quickly, aren’t sure which one is supposed to be “the” big photo, and thus aren’t fighting to be in it themselves while keeping someone else out. Equally, an experienced photographer knows how to deal with the slightly larger bridesmaid who doesn’t look quite as comfortable in sunshine yellow as the three size 2 bridesmaids beside her, and to help them feel both comfortable at the time and welcoming of the photos afterward. I’m a larger guy, and the thought of 1500 pictures of me is borderline dread-inducing. But it’s a wedding, everyone will be taking shots of my new wife and I’m supposed to be in most of them. Like an accessory. Know what? The posed ones that the photographer took are ones I even LIKE, and I almost never like photos of myself. For instance, I have (at least) a double chin because of my size and body shape. So head shots are not my favorite thing either. Yet, as an experienced photographer, he knew that the best look for me would be leaning forward, with my head tilted up. Guess which photo is our “wedding photo”?
Okay, that’s the end of my sales pitch for hiring an experienced professional photographer.
Now, for a second, let’s look at the business model for wedding photographers prior to about 2003. Digital wasn’t very sophisticated yet, so the truly high-end photographer was still using film. Which meant they had total and complete control over the entire process. They took the photos. They developed the negatives (or had them developed). Then, they would go through small proofs with you, and you would order your prints from them. Along with books, enlargements, etc. It was basically a complete monopoly in each situation, a monopoly of one-to-one once you chose them. Then digital came along and people started asking for copies. The digital copies. And disruption entered the photo business.
While many photographers hung on to the old business model, others broke it into discrete elements:
- Fee for working the wedding and reception (hourly or set rate for the day);
- Fee for basic development of a “core” set of prints, including some retouching;
- Fee for providing copies of some set number of e-prints, often in limited quality for format (i.e. low res for web, not good enough to blow up or do 8x10s);
- Fees for providing other levels of quality of prints; and,
- Fees for printing certain books or “photo” sets.
Basically, they created an “a la carte” menu, but if you wanted the same as traditional, you would just take a+b+e. It could add up quickly though, and it really didn’t meet my needs/desires. I was looking for other business models.
A friend of ours had found a photographer for their wedding by advertising at the local college in their photography program for someone who was looking for more experience, a set price for (a) above, and all the digital prints would go to the couple. Worked out for them, but it’s also a bit of a risk — what if the budding photographer screws up, because they’re not that experienced? Does that matter to you?
It mattered to me. I wanted more experience than that. Plus, not for nothing, every professional photographer out there will tell them (just read the blogs or discussion forums) that trading “exposure” and “practice” for their craft is really bad business for the photographer. It undervalues their output, which is what they’re selling. Some photographers are REALLY quite passionate about it, in the same way people complain about the exploitative nature of unpaid internships. Now, in my friend’s case, the photographer was paid (albeit cheaper than full-time photographer) and did a good job (one photo in particular is contest-quality, in my view), so it was win-win all around. But a bit more risk than I wanted to take. I wanted the best photos I could afford.
In our case, we reached out to three companies. One of them was very traditional. They would give us low-res photos for our website, but only a small number, and not good enough for even printing 4×6″ prints; everything else would reside with them, and if we wanted to print books or prints for anyone, we would have to go through them and pay the relatively extortionate prices that they all charge for that end of the business.
A second company was a bit more digital, and people would be able to view and order prints online, but again, we could have SOME prints electronically, but not very many. Most would reside with the company and if we wanted more prints ten years from now, we would go through them. All rights rest with them, and to ensure it, they hold all the files.
We kept poking around, and a friend of ours who had been married a couple of years before gave me the name of his guy. Bill was a retired press photographer, and while he liked working as a photographer, he had no real interest in controlling all the production factors for printing. Lucrative, but not the business model he wanted to spend time managing.
Instead, he charged us an upfront fee for the day to take all the photos, a combined rate to give us some basic retouching electronically, and about 1500 photos or so for us for the day. Full digital images, including the RAW image for about 500. He’d basically go through and weed out where he had, say, four copies of the same pose, or where one of the people was squinting or picking their nose for example. But everything else? It was all ours. He even offered to hook us up with some of the high-end printers, if we wanted to, but he noted that most people just used regular retail sites like Black’s to do their prints. No one else even came close to that kind of deal. So he was basically offering us (a) + (b) above, with complete copies of the e-versions and we could do what we liked with them.
And since I was adamant I wanted digital copies of everything so we could reprint at any time we wanted, and didn’t want to be locked into a supplier for life, it was an easy choice of the three.
I confess I had a bias against the previous model. Back when my father retired some 20 years before, my siblings and I got together and had some group photos taken. It was all film-based, we got some proofs, and we did a large blow-up of the best of the bunch. We could have ordered more stuff individually, and we all thought about it but never got around to it. Fast-forward about 10 years, and my father had passed away. I was interested in getting a set of pics made for each of us, and I tried to reach out to the photographer. Guess what? He wasn’t a photographer anymore. Sure, he had tons of boxes of photos and negatives sitting in his basement, a flooding disaster waiting to happen, and there were no backups. He wasn’t even sure how long it would take to find them. I was asking him about buying the whole set — proofs and negatives — and he didn’t really want to sell me the negatives. So, in the end, I cheated. I just scanned the proofs I had. I didn’t want big blow-ups anyway, so scanning was fine for my purposes. I’d rather have had control of the negatives for the future, but well, that wasn’t his business model. So when it came time for our wedding, I wanted full digital versions both for archival purposes AND to be able to put them on the web or print at will. Am I likely to print often? Of course not. But I paid for the photos to be taken…I wanted the flexibility to be able to control what I did with them later. I couldn’t enter them in contests or anything, or sell them, they weren’t “fully” mine, but they were fully licensed to me for our use.
Originally, when people started offering videography for weddings, it was a bit hit-and-miss in my view. At the low-end, it could look like the movie, The Blair Witch Project, with shaky handheld cameras and rapid cuts. In the middle, people would take modest quality cameras and put them on tripods with a “set” view for the ceremony, speeches, and most promisingly, the first few dances. I have a video camera, and I shot video of my brother’s wedding and it isn’t bad, but far from professional. I also used our little hand-held camera to capture my sister-in-law’s ceremony and first dance, and it is good for the ceremony (a bit basic), but looks BAD for the first dances due to low-light conditions. I used the same camera at my wife’s friend’s wedding, same time-frame as our own wedding, and I had to edit the ceremony and dance videos to even make them VISIBLE due to similarly low light. Okay as a souvenir, but not ideal. At the high-end, people were walking around with the cameras you see camera crews doing roadside interviews or weather reports with, which isn’t surprising since often they were the same cameramen using borrowed equipment from the TV station.
Fast-forward 10-15 years, and you have huge growth in video due to the high-quality you can get from cellphones now. And so videographers have had to up their game. The big trend is the use of GoPro on small stands (easy to get closer to the action) and, wait for it…drones. Of course, drones only make sense if you have a venue that includes an outside component that will benefit from a birds-eye view. You might try flying a small drone in a church during the ceremony, but it’s a recipe for disaster and distracting, plus the Minister will likely freak on you. But it can be quite impressive.
Personally, I think a lot of the smaller cameras now make the “added” value of professional videography a lot lower. It’s hard to do it unobtrusively as the big cameras come with huge lighting options, but if you can get close with a cellphone, or a stand-alone DSLR, why not? Some of the DSLRs will even shoot in HD and even 4K. Way overkill for what you need, but if all you’re doing is putting it on a tripod somewhere and letting it run for awhile, that’s not rocket science and may not be worth the larger cost to have it done professionally. Just personal preference though — it wouldn’t be worth it to me, I’m fine with the photos.
One of the benefits you frequently get with a professional photographer from the area is knowledge of all the different venues around…ones that look good in early morning or late afternoon, ones that are great in case of rain, ones that aren’t 20 couples all lined up waiting to get in for their shots that day (there’s an arboretum in Ottawa that looks like Grand Central Station on Saturday afternoons in July — there are BRIDES and GROOMS everywhere!).
We did a few impromptu shots near our wedding venue, as a block from the site was a place my wife and I considered our “corner”. When we were first dating, we both lived in the same neighbourhood. I lived on Nelson Street, she lived on Besserer. If we were going somewhere, maybe out for dinner or just over to the market or the mall, we would meet “at the corner” — i.e. Nelson at Besserer. It was about the same distance from both our places and en route to commercial areas, so it was a good place to meet. On the way home from work, we’d frequently part there too. Later at night, I’d walk her home, but if we were just commuting, it was “the corner”. So we took some pics there, nothing that really stood out, just for fun.
We then moved on to more formal pics (having done a few at the theatre already) to a site that is actually under a bridge in the downtown on a walkway. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Under a bridge?”. Partly why it is popular with certain photographers is that it isn’t super busy, and the backdrop is cool. But more importantly, it’s also covered (i.e. dry) with lots of natural light coming from the sides. I was a bit doubtful at the start, but it turned out great. Plus, we did some shots at the boat with various configurations at the bow of the boat.
D. Photo checklist
So, one of the first “planning” questions that you will get asked by the photographer is if you have your “list” of desired shots. They’ll take lots, they’ll have ideas of their own, etc., but do you have a “set” playlist so-to-speak of your greatest hits? There are obvious ones:
- Bride and groom;
- With parents, alone and together;
- With both sets of parents;
- With siblings, etc.
And so you’ll likely come up with 20 or so “must-haves”. And a good photographer will keep that list handy, ticking them off as they go, although it will be interspersed throughout the day. You may, for example, decide that you REALLY want a good shot of you dancing with your great grandfather, and that will happen near the end of the day. But you may also want some of you getting ready, and that should be on your list.
I sort of screwed up on our list. We had the standard shots that we wanted, and since we don’t have multiple sets of parents with extra spouses running around, there was no family drama to work around in that sense. So we wanted shots of us, shots of us with our families, shots of our friends (mostly candid), and shots of some of the milling around at the ceremony / reception / etc. (all candids). For formal stuff, we wanted Andrea getting ready, me getting ready (an addon), the ceremony, after shots at the theatre, shots at our corner, formal posed shots with the wedding party and parents, and some posed shots at the boat. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. We didn’t do a shot-by-shot list, and often those are discouraged anyway as they get a bit pedantic at the loss of spontaneity. The photographer worries about it, you should not be during the big day.
How did I screw up? I oversimplified something. Let me show the progression:
Pre-ceremony i.e. me getting ready:
The main ceremony:
Post-ceremony “meet the couple”:
Formal pose at the theatre:
Under the bridge:
Now, if you look at that last photo, you’ll see a small, well, imbalance I guess. Andrea and I, check. Her parents (in between us), the maid of honour in blue (her sister, plus her husband up tall and her daughter), her grandfather and my mother. Or, put differently two from “my side” of the family and six from “her side”. We didn’t try to take all my siblings for these photos, as we would catch them later at the boat.
And that’s where I made my error. I said, “Okay, check, we have Andrea’s family covered, now we need to make sure my family is covered”. Except, we didn’t have ALL of Andrea’s family covered, we only had immediate family. I had over-simplified in my head. We went off to the boat, did a bunch of photos at the front of the boat. Mostly with my family. Andrea with her new brothers-in-law, my mother with her grandchildren, different siblings and their families with and without us, all the new sisters-in-law together.
The photographer was up on the dock, looking down and snapping away:
For my family, they are some of the best photos I have ever seen of us, partly as it had been so long since we did that kind of posing with all of us. The one with my brothers? Awesome.
We were starting to run a bit low on time. All those photos and milling about were taking precious minutes. I passed by one of my new cousins, and she asked if it was time for them yet. And in my head, even that question wasn’t enough to trigger a re-consideration. I had in my head “Okay, we have all the photos of Andrea’s family plus now my family, soon it will be time to do all the friends and guests at once.” I didn’t even twig to the idea of Andrea with all her extended family. We would love to have photos of her with her cousins, great aunt and grandfather, aunts and uncles, etc. And because I had checked off the “Andrea and family” box, at least mentally, we moved on to the “friends” photo.
A better checklist would have solved that problem. And, to be honest, that’s also not on the photographer. Bill was up on the dock, we couldn’t even communicate very well, he had no idea who we were rotating in and out, he was just snapping away for us. At the end, I would have said quite confidently we had “everything”. Sigh.
Now, here’s a small question-mark. How long would you want your formal photographer to be around? Most suggest they stay until dinner and then bail. Why? Because they’re being paid by the hour (or a set rate for the day), and that day is getting pretty long for them. They were working while the bride was getting ready, as early as 11:00 for us and well nigh on to 6:00. We wanted him to keep doing candids and the first dance, which created a small wrinkle. Once he was on the boat, it wouldn’t be easy for him to just “hop off” and go home. So we arranged for the boat to dock early (after dinner, after some dancing) so he plus a few others could “escape” for the night. Then we danced some more and called it a night. While some parties routinely go until 2:00 or 3:00, ours was over in advance of midnight. I’m a bit disappointed with some of our dance photos, but it was also a difficult lighting situation and we didn’t want to lug all that extra equipment around on the boat too. Good enough, sure, but a little more difficult than it would have been if we were at a traditional venue.
Oh, and by the way? If the photographer is working through dinner, it’s kind of a good practice to feed him or her. 🙂
E. What and how are you printing?
Back in the pre-digital days, your choices for printing were rather limited. You went with a photographer and they would have a predetermined set of printing options — a big book for you, some smaller books for the parents, and options for producing individual prints for lots of people. All with extortionate mark-up rates.
Now, you have a plethora of choices. There are tons of sites out there with basic photobook options — not photo albums where you insert photos, but actually printed books based on what you upload. And almost all of them come with some pre-set wedding themes and mockups to use as well as an option to let THEM design it for about $10-$20 more. Or you can go with ones that are specially-focused on wedding photobooks. It’s all a bit DIY, and you may be better off letting someone else design it for you if you know someone good who won’t ask for your first-born child as payment. Again, there’s some choice involved.
Or you can just print a bunch of photos and stick them in photo albums.
I will also mention a few other things to consider as you’re working through your photography needs.
1. Ask those extra amateurs to take a whack of extra photos and share them with you. We had a nephew, niece and family friend all taking lots of extra shots and they gave us the e-versions. One of my favorite photos from the boat — a semi-posed shot — is actually from the friend, not the formal photographer who was shooting right next to her. His are good, but just for timing of shutter snaps, his missed part of our smile and hers was perfectly timed.
The same family friend also thinks it is a great “gift” to give to the couple — copies of the photos from the wedding, sometimes even before a professional photographer has shared any.
2. It isn’t really required anymore since so many people have smartphones, but some couples will put small special cameras (like pinhole cameras or just small digital ones) on each table and ask the guests to fill up the memory card through-out the night. My experience is that there are interesting ones where you see people interacting who only met through the wedding — like your high school best friend talking to your wife’s grandfather — but the overall “benefit” of the photos is a bit low to justify the expense.
Instead, give people a URL or have them share on FB, say ten photos they take at the wedding with their smartphone. Turn it into a small challenge. Tell them too that the bride and groom CAN’T be in any of them to make sure they get all the candid ones of the crowd.
3. Plan ahead to use your photos in multiple ways. Lots of people get their shots, share a few on FB, print a brag book for the parents and a souvenir book for themselves, and they’re done. Not me. I’ve done the books. I printed some smaller prints for souvenir frames for the wedding party and parents. I put them on my gallery website. I re-used them to produce a calendar for my wife, with all 12 months having shots from throughout the whole six months of experience planning and having the wedding. I copied them over to a digital photo frame so they can run randomly. Some people do mugs, or puzzles, or handbags, or notebooks, or fridge magnets. Maybe NONE of those things appeal to you, but I bet you can think of some other use besides just photo albums.
4. Find something creative to do for the photos when they’re being taken. There are lots of shots out there on the web where people have pretended they were running from something, and the photographer photoshopped in Godzilla. Or there’s the somewhat overused photo booth idea. If you can, find something meaningful to you. I even just loved the rocks in our formal pics as props. I’ve seen some great shots online where people took pics in classic hotel lobbies or lounge rooms with a bunch of different heights, and an old-fashioned filter added to the shots. Throw in a couple of props like gin bottles and Tommy-guns, and you have something fun and different. Don’t go crazy and try to have everyone in a giant tree, but you can do something other than the standard everyone in a row.
And that’s what we did. We organized our wedding in six months, and even though people told us we were crazy, everything we “needed” worked out. A few compromises here and there, but nothing that was a deal-breaker for us. We just had to remember that inflexibility in one area (six month window) meant we had to be flexible elsewhere (venues).